Critical Concepts in the History of Cognitive Science

Course Description: 

This is not  a professional history of cognitive science class. It does not teach professional skills of research on primary resources, or conceptual analysis. Its main aim is to show how some of the crucial issues and concepts of cognitive science  showed up in modern European intellectual history, and how these concepts and their accompanying debates shape present day cognitive science. After a brief exposé of the overall history of CogSci by the instructor 5 crucial notions shall be discussed, always with a classical paper and present day approach. Each of these shall have two weeks, and two papers.

The class is an intensive reading seminar. The required and offered readings for every week  are read by everyone. On the previous week, the instructor gives some advanced organizers for the reading. The discussion is started by a short cursory summary by the instructor followed  by a detailed analysis and commentary, in the form of guided group discussion.

Preliminary  agenda 

A: The Intro Part

  1. The three time birth of CogSci: classical epistemology, late 19th Century German thought, and mid 20th century machine based rebirth of cognitivism. Birth of Cognitive Science in late 19th Century.  German experimental  psychology  of cognition. The rivals to the experimental approach.  Frege, Brentano and Husserl. Propositional theory and the idea of intentionality. Debates on the nature of thought: the Würzburg initiative and Selz. Geistwissenschaftliches and phenomenological critic of naturalistic CogSci: Dilthey and Bergson.
  2. The rebirth of cognitivism from the 1960s.  The role of  cybernetic and information theory. Formation of subject cognitive approaches: CogPsy, linguistics,  anthropology, philosophy. The controversial role of the ‘thinking machine’. The generalization move: representational theory of mind and CogSci ‘proper’. The carrier of  uninterpreted CogSci. Some great tensions. Chomsky vs. Skinner, Chomsky vs Piaget,  Fodor vs Newell.   The birth of  interpreted CogSci. Proximal, distal, developmental, and social embedding of cognition. The rebirth of intentionality and explanatory models.



B:  The critical discussion part


  1. The nature/nurture issue. Classic.  The arguments in the debate between Descartes and Locke.

The nature/nurture issue: Where do we stand now?   Universal and individual issues. What  can be innate? Innatism and modern genomics/neuroscience.

  1. Mental development.  Classical theories: Baldwin, Stern, Piaget, Wallon, Vygotsky, Werner.

The new developmentalism from the 1960s. Smart babies and parametrization.    

  1. Modular versus unified cognition. The classical modular vision: the phrenologists.   

Modular versus unified cognition today.  First issue: modules or Universal Cognition. Second issue: is the entire mind modular? The debate between Fodor and the radical modularists.

  1. The representation debates: Classic. The imageless thought controversy.  Titchener vs Külpe.

 The representation debates: Modern.  Propositional representation and the issue of images. Phylyshyn vs Kosslyn. Shepard and his second order isomorphism.

  1. Intentionality and action  organization. Brentano  and the types of intentionality. “Descriptive’ and  “genetic’ psychology.  The reemergence of intentionality. Theoretical: Dennett. Empirical. ToM and relevance in a historical perspective.    
  2. Consciousness and the mind: Classic. Unconscious thought in 19th Century. Physiology, precognition, children and animals.  The role of Freud.  Qualitatively different unconscious processes.
  3.  Consciousness and the mind: Presently. Three stages of New look. New Look and the dynamic determinants of perception. The ‘cognitive unconscious’ issue.
  4. The social nature of the mind: Classic.  Social contract theories and the individuality issue. The forces moving humans and the sympathy issue in classic utilitarian thought (Adam Smith). Classical social theory: Durkheim, the French sociologists and Weber.
  5.  The social nature of the mind: Modern. N. Humphrey on the social shaping in evolution. Cooperative  and competitive theories of the social mind. ToM in a historical perspective. The social brain idea. Brain size and specific operations under social control.    
  6.  Evolution of the mind. Classical issues: comparative, epistemological and developmental. The disappearence of Darwin. New psycho Darwinism. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Controversies over evolution.  

Brain  and mind. Classical theories. The new neurosciences and the brain/mind issues. 

Learning Outcomes: 



for grade



  • participation in reading discussion
  • review paper of a topic agreed upon with the instructor or book review by March 26th