version 2018-08-25


Image of brain and neuron HPS 2505 Philosophical Foundations of Cognitive Science

Fall 2018 Schedule and Syllabus
Meeting time: M 3:00-5:30; CL 1008-B


(Prof.) Colin Allen <>
Office: CL 1109H
Office hours: Tues 4-5 and Thurs 1:15-2:15

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 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 Fall 2018 that issue will be the different conceptions of information as they are deployed in cognitive science and philosophy of cognitive science.


  1. Readings provided electronically; see schedule below
  2. Required book: Karen Neander A Mark of the Mental: In Defense of Informational Teleosemantics [Amazon link]
  3. Optional/recommended text book: Andy Clark Mindware 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press.
    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 read and interpret the foundational arguments made by 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.

General Outline of the Course

"Boot camp phase" — During the first 8 weeks we will read a number of classic articles and general background pieces to gain a common basis for discussing the philosophical issues arising in cognintive science. Some of you will have read some of these before, perhaps even multiple times, and you may even think you know exactly what the say, but in my lectures & the class discussions I hope to put them in a new context, and besides, the classics always bear re-reading. Weeks 7 and 8 are focused on the special topic of information that will carry through to the second phase of the course. There's a lot of reading to cover, and we won't get to discuss it all in class, but that's why we also have frequent, short writing assignments during this period so that you can carry on the dialogu with me beyond the classroom, and we can start to converge on what I do and don't like to see in your written work.

"Calm after the storm phase". In weeks 7 and 8 we will read Karen Neander's new book, especially with an eye to how she handles the concept of information. The reading and assignment deadline pace slows down during this phase, but you will also be developing a longer and more independent piece of work for the final paper.

Grading Basis

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

  1. Reaction pieces 1-6 due multiple Tuesdays, beginning Sept 4 [max. 500 words]*
  2. Reaction piece 7 in form of book review [max. 1000 words]* of Neander's bookk, due November 13.
  3. Paper proposals considered Nov 6-15** [2 pages]
  4. Draft of paper due any time before Nov 27 [approx 10 pages]
  5. Peer review feedback on Dec 3 [in class]
  6. Final paper due Dec 10 [15-20 pages]
  7. Classroom participation***

* 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 preceding Monday is also acceptable. For Reactions 1-6, identify which two or three items you have read most carefully from the reading list for that week, and write a short (300-500 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 Reaction 7, write a short (1000-1200 word) "synthetic review" of Neander's book. By "synthetic review" I mean that you should not provide a chapter-by-chapter summary, but should instead focus on what you take to be the main contributions of the book, give a clear description of that contribution as if for a reader who has not read the book, and critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of that contribution.

** 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, although you will soon discover that if you push the right buttons it can be hard to get me to stop talking. However, I reserve the right to schedule individual presentations to the class if the discussion is not flowing well in class (it usually does!). Also, if you do not speak up regularly during class discussions, I may required you to take an oral exam to be scheduled at the my discretion during finals week so that I can assess your level of understanding.

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. N#: indicates chapters from the book by Neander. This schedule may be altered in response to events in class. Weeks with readings still tba (or tbl: to be linked) will be filled in 2 weeks in advance.


DateTopicReading AssignmentsWriting Assignments, etc.
Week 1, Mon 08/27Cognitive Prehistory • Descartes selections from Discourse on Method
• Hume Enquiry section 2 and section 3
• Tolman (1948) html pdf
• Chomsky (1959/1967) html pdf
• Skinner (1977) jstor
First Reaction piece due next week
Week 2, Labor DayNo Meeting!^^^ Write about previous week's readingsReaction 1 due Tue 09/04
Week 3, Mon 09/10Symbols & Concepts • "Turing Machine" article at Wikipedia or SEP
• SEP "Computational Theory of Mind" html
• Newell & Simon (1975) pdf
• Schank & Abelson (1977) pdf
† [Clark 1,2]
† [Schank & Abelson (1995) pdf]
Reaction 2 due Tue 09/11
Week 4, Mon 09/17Turing Tests and the State of Functionalism • Turing (1950) html pdf
• Searle (1980) preprint pdf
• Fodor (1974) pdf
• Putnam (1967) (pdf)
• Block and Fodor (1972) [pdf][jstor]
• Block (1996) pdf
† [Clark 3]
† Churchland (2005) preprint pdf
Reaction 3 due Tue 09/18
Week 5, Mon 09/24Beyond CTM and RTM • Dennett (1981) pdf
• Medler (1998) pdf
• Ramsey et al. (1991) jstor pdf
• Buckner (in prep.) pdf
† [Clark 4]
† McDermott (2015) pdf
† Schmidhuber (2016) Scholarpedia article on deep learning
† [SEP "Connectionism" html]
† Churchland (2005) preprint pdf
Reaction 4 due Tue 09/25
Week 6, Mon 10/01Dynamic & Embodied • Brooks (1991) pdf
• Clark (1998) pdf
• Barsalou, Smith & Breazeal (2007) pdf
• Van Gelder (1995) pdf
• Beer (2000) pdf
• Silberstein & Chemero (2008) pdf
† [Clark 5-7]
no reaction piece due
Week 7, Mon 10/08 Shannon Information • Ramscar (ms.) pdf
• Allen (2013) pdf
• Isaac (2018) pdf
† Shannon (1948) pdf
† Shannon (1956) pdf
† Dretske (1983) pdf
Reaction 5 due Tue 10/09
Week 8, TUESDAY 10/16Shannon and Beyond • Thornton (2017) pdf
• Vigo (2011) pdf
† Murdock, Allen, DeDeo (2017) pdf
† Murdock, Allen, DeDeo (2018) online
† Floridi (2017) SEP
no reaction piece due
Week 9, Mon 10/22Neandering begins N1,2 Reaction 6 due Tue 10/23
Week 10, Mon 10/29Visitor: Prof. Ronaldo Vigo Review Vigo 2011
† Watch Dec 2017 presentation YouTube
no reaction piece due
Week 11, Mon 11/05Neandering part 2 N3,4 Paper proposals accepted from 11/06
Week 12, Mon 11/12Neandering part 3 N5,6 Paper proposals accepted through 11/15
Week 13, Mon 11/19Neandering part 4 N7,8 Book review due Tue 11/20
Week 14, Mon 11/26Neandering ends N9 Paper draft due Tue 11/27
Week 15, Mon 12/03 Peer paper workshop Comments on two peer drafts in class
Finals Week No meeting Final paper due Mon 12/10

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 visit Pitt Student Affairs Disability Resources and Services for further information.

Statement about Academic Misconduct
University and Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences rules concerning academic misconduct will be rigorously enforced in this class. As a student at Pitt, you are expected to adhere to the standards and policies detailed in the School's Academic Integrity Code. 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 School and 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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