version 2015-01-10


brain and neuron COGS Q540 Philosophical Foundations of Cognitive Science

Spring 2015 Schedule and Syllabus
Meeting time: MW 2:30-3:45; Location: Geology (GY) 447


(Prof.) Colin Allen <>
Offices: Goodbody Hall 113 and Eigenmann 802
Office hours: Wed 1:30, and by appointment

Course Description

The cognitive sciences began with great enthusiasm for the prospects of a successful multi-disciplinary attack on the mind. This enthusiasm was fueled by the faith that computational ideas could put flesh on abstract notions of mental representation, providing the means to make good physical sense of questions about the nature of mental information processing. The challenges of understanding how minds work have turned out to be much greater than many of the early enthusiasts predicted — in fact they have turned out to be so great that many (especially here at IU) have argued that we need new paradigms to replace the standard computationalist-representationalist assumptions of traditional cognitive science. This course aims to provide an understanding of the philosophical issues underlying this discussion and to apply this understanding to a specific cutting edge topic. For Spring 2015 that issue will be the question of whether a scientific/naturalistic theory of meaning is at all possible.


  1. Readings provided electronically; see schedule below
  2. Required book: J.A. Fodor & Z.W. Pylyshyn Minds without Meanings. MIT Press, 2015. [IU Library access (may require being on campus or use of VPN)] [Amazon link]
  3. Optional/recommended text book: Andy Clark Mindware 2nd Edition, OUP.
    Relevant chapters to assigned readings are listed as Clark # on the schedule below.
    [Amazon link]

Course Objectives

By the end of this course you should have broad knowledge of the history, philosophy, and major concepts and programmatic trends in the philosophy of cognitive science, along with an appreciation for the philosophical issues that motivated the emergence of cognitive science and underlie the controversies within it. By the end of the course you should have the ability to read works written for professional academic cognitive scientists and philosophers of cognitive science, and to summarize them accurately both orally and in writing using your own words. You should also be able to relate foundational issues in cognitive science to your own research interests.

Grading Basis

Grades will be based holistically on overall performance in the following six categories:

  1. Reaction pieces 1-9 due most Wednesdays, beginning January 14 [max. 400 words]*
  2. Reaction piece 10 in form of book review [max. 1000 words]* of Fodor & Pylyshyn book, due April 15.
  3. Paper proposals considered Mar 11-25** [2 pages]
  4. Draft of paper due any time before Apr 22 [approx 10 pages]
  5. Final paper due May 04 [approx 15 pages]
  6. Classroom participation*** and oral presentation****

* Weekly reaction pieces due before midnight on due dates (see calendar below). Electronic delivery preferred (all common formats can be handled), but paper delivery in class on Wednesday also acceptable. For Reactions 1-9, identify which items you have read from the reading list for that week, and write a short (250-400 word) reaction to at least one of them. This should not be a summary or restatement of the reading. Rather, write an argumentative response to something you read. State what you liked or disliked most about the idea(s) and why, with special attention to the strength of the arguments that were presented. For Reaction10, identify a journal in philosophy, cognitive science, or your primary field that does book reviews and write a short (1000-1200 word) review of Kristin Andrews' book in the style of that journal, highlighting the aspects of the book most relevant to researchers in that area.

** Three approaches to writing a paper for this class:

  1. Write a standard piece of critical philosophy — i.e., describe an argument from an assigned reading for the course, and criticize it by pointing out where it depends on assumptions that one shouldn’t believe, or fails to live up to a standard of logical reasoning.
  2. Write survey of positions concerning one of the foundational issues we have encountered in the course… for example, concerning all the ideas about what concepts are or are not, cover the arguments that have been give pro and con and assess their relative strengths and weaknesses, even if you don’t yourself come down on any particular side.
  3. Describe a way that a foundational issue that we have covered in the course affects theorizing, or could provide ideas for experimental design or model construction, in some area of cognitive science that interests you, especially one that is close to your own research.

*** This is a discussion-oriented class. If you do not speak up regularly during class discussions, you may also be gauged by an oral exam to be scheduled at the instructor's discretion during finals week.

**** (This will happen only if discussion is not flowing in class.) Students should expect to give a classroom presentation on a particular aspect of an assigned reading at some point in the semester. The presentation should be organized for delivery in 15 minutes maximum, and like the reaction pieces should not be a linear summary of the reading, but in which you should identify and evaluate an argument contained in the piece.

Schedule of Readings and Presentations

Articles for the first part of the semester are available to you via the links below for your personal use under fair use doctrine. Items preceded with bullets "•" are required readings; items preceded with daggers "†" are suggested optional readings. FP?: indicates chapters from the book by Fodor and Pylyshyn. This schedule may be altered in response to events in class.


Statement for Students with Disabilities
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability requiring an accommodation, please contact IU Disability Services for Students.

Statement about Academic Misconduct
University rules concerning academic misconduct will be rigorously enforced in this class. See IU Code of Ethics, Part II for details. As a student at IU, you are expected to adhere to the standards and policies detailed in the Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct. When you submit a paper with your name on it in this course, you are signifying that the work contained therein is all yours, unless otherwise cited or referenced. Any ideas or materials taken from another source for either written or oral use must be fully acknowledged. If you are unsure about the expectations for completing an assignment or taking a test or exam, be sure to seek clarification beforehand. All suspected violations of the Code will be handled according to University policies. Sanctions for academic misconduct may include a failing grade on the assignment, reduction in your final grade, a failing grade in the course, among other possibilities, and must include a report to the Dean of Students.

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