Cognitivism (psychology)

In psychology cognitivism is a theoretical approach to understanding the mind, which argues that mental function can be understood by quantitative, positivist and scientific methods, and that such functions can be described as information processing models.

Table of contents
1 Theoretical Approach
2 Criticisms of Psychological Cognitivism
3 See also
4 Further Reading

Theoretical Approach

Cognitivism has two major components. The first is a positivist approach and the belief that psychology can be (in principle) fully explained by the use of experiment, measurement and the scientific method. This is also largely a reductionist goal, with the belief that individual components of mental function can be identified and meaningfully understood. The second is the understanding of mental function in terms of information processing or mathematical models.

Cognitivism has become the dominant force in post-1960s psychology, replacing behaviorism as the most popular paradigm for understanding mental function.

It is important to understand that cognitive psychology has not disproved the methods of behaviorism (in fact conditioning theories are still widely applied) but only that it has replaced it as the guiding theory by which all mental function can supposedly be understood.

This was due to the increasing awareness towards the end of the 1950s of the shortcoming of behaviorist models. Not least of which was Chomsky's demonstration that language could not be acquired purely through conditioning, and must be at least partly explained by the existence of internal mental states.

Criticisms of Psychological Cognitivism

The major criticisms of this approach have come from two main areas, the first from phenomenology and the second from algorithmic information theory.

Phenomenologist philosophers have criticised the positivist approach of cognitivism for reducing individual meaning to what they perceived as measurements stripped of all significance. They argue that by representing experiences and mental functions as measurements, cognitivism is ignoring the meaning of that experience or process for the individual concerned. They believe that it is the personal meaning of experience gained from the phenomenon as it presents to a person (what Heidegger called being in the world) which is the fundamental aspect of our psychology that needs to be understood. They feel that cognitivism throws the baby out with the bathwater by using positivist methods on something which is inherently irreducible to components parts.

The idea that mental functions can be described as information processing models has been criticised by the likes of philosopher John Searle and mathematician Roger Penrose. Taking findings from algorithmic information theory they have argued that mental function can never be fully described by information processing theories because computation has some inherent shortcomings which may not capture the breadth of mental processes which exist in biological creatures. They particularly point to Gödel's incompleteness theorem (which states that there are mathematical truths which can never be proven in a sufficiently strong mathematical system; any sufficiently strong system of axioms will also be incomplete) and Turing's halting problem (which states that there are some things which are inherently non-computable) as evidence for their position.

See also

Further Reading

  • Costall, A. and Still, A. (eds) (1987) Cognitive psychology in question. Brighton: Harvester Press Ltd. ISBN 0710810571



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