Philosophy of Cognitive Science

Below are readings and essay questions for eight tutorials in Philosophy of Cognitive Science. Many of the readings are available online, and all are easily obtained from the college or other libraries in Oxford, but if you are struggling to get hold of anything, email me, as I have PDF copies of nearly everything.


Before writing your essay, you should read all of the Core Reading for the topic unless otherwise indicated. Your essay and tutorial is only a first step towards an understanding of a topic, however. For finals, you will need to be able to answer any question that is set on around five topics, and you should use the Further Reading suggestions, in conjunction with the Faculty Reading list, in vacations to work on the topics that most interest you.

Plan your essay out before you do any reading. That might seem back to front: you haven’t done any reading, so how can you plan out what you’ve got to say? But as soon as you know what the essay question is, you can form some idea of the questions you need to be thinking about, and these will structure both your essay, at least in a preliminary way, and your reading. You can, and most likely will, revise your essay plan as you do the reading.

In addition to an essay, you should also be compiling notes, stating the main positions or puzzles relating to the week’s topic, with bullet points summarising their pros and cons. You should revise and supplement these notes after the tutorial and as you read and attend lectures on the subject over the rest of your time in Oxford. They are much more important than your essay. Your essay is a snapshot of your understanding of the topic at a particular time, taken from the particular angle determined by the essay question. In your exams, your answers will be snapshots of a much deeper understanding taken from a different angle - they will be answers to different questions! Your notes should be improving with your understanding.


The first four tutorials are intended to introduce students to the classical computational theory of mind, taking a very brisk historical route to it via Chomsky’s pioneering work in linguistics and Marr’s in vision science, before looking at one of its main rivals, connectionism, and some possible limitations of the view in weeks five and six. Topics for the remaining two tutorials will be decided in consultation with students. Options here include, but are not limited to, those specified in the Further Topics. Have a look at past papers and the Faculty Reading list to see what interests you.


  1. The Personal/Subpersonal Distinction
  2. Tacit Knowledge
  3. Explanation in Cognitive Science
  4. The Language of Thought Hypothesis
  5. Connectionism
  6. Modularity
  7. TBA
  8. TBA



There is no set textbook, but the following are all useful introductory texts:

José Luis Bermúdez (2007) Philosophy of Psychology: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge).
Tim Crane (2016) The Mechanical Mind, 3rd edition (Routledge).
Andy Clark (2001) Mindware (OUP).

You should also read Martin Davies (2009) ‘Cognitive Science’, in Frank Jackson and Michael Smith, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy (OUP). An expanded version is available on WebLearn.

The following anthologies will also prove useful:

José Luis Bermúdez, ed. (2006) Philosophy of Psychology: Contemporary Readings (Routledge). Referred to below as [B].
Robert Cummins and Denise Cummins, eds. (2000) Minds, Brains, and Computers (Blackwell). Referred to below as [C].
John Haugeland (1990) Mind Design II (MIT Press). Referred to below as [H].




Explain and assess the claim that an explanation of a person’s behaviour and capacities can be subpersonal. What is the relation between such an explanation and our ordinary, personal explanations of such behaviour and capacities?

José Luis Bermúdez (2007) Philosophy of Psychology: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge), Chs. 2 and 3.

Daniel Dennett (1969) Content and Consciousness (Routledge), §11 ‘Personal and Sub-Personal Levels of Explanation’. Reprinted in [B].
William Lycan (1987) Consciousness (MIT Press), Ch. 4 ‘The Continuity of Levels of Nature’. Reprinted in W. Lycan and J. Prinz, eds. (2008) Mind and Cognition, 3rd ed. (Blackwell); it’s also in earlier editions.
Jennifer Hornsby (2000) ‘Personal and Sub-Personal: A Defence of Dennett’s Early Distinction’ in Philosophical Explorations 3(1), pp. 6-24.
Zoe Drayson (2012) ‘The Uses and Abuses of the Personal/Subpersonal Distinction’ in Philosophical Perspectives 26(1), pp. 1-18.

Stich (1978) draws attention to another useful distinction in thinking about cognitive science, discussed by Drayson, between beliefs and what he calls subdoxastic states. For Dennett’s later views, discussed by Hornsby, see, in the first instance, his (1981). Davies (2000) is another discussion of the personal/subpersonal distinction, and Bennett and Hacker (2003) a recent example of the objection to which Dennett was responding in the first place.

Stephen Stich (1978) ‘Beliefs and Subdoxastic States’ in Philosophy of Science 45(4), pp. 499–518. Reprinted in [B].
Daniel Dennett (1981) ‘True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why It Works’ in his (1987) The Intentional Stance (MIT Press). Reprinted in [H].
Martin Davies (2000) ‘Persons and their Underpinnings’ in Philosophical Explorations, 3(1), pp. 43–62.
Michael Bennett and Peter Hacker (2003) Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Blackwell), Ch. 3.

Is it — always, sometimes or never — legitimate to explain personal-level phenomena in subpersonal terms?

How should the distinction between the personal and sub-personal be understood? Once it is understood, does it turn out to be important?



What evidence, if any, could be adduced to show that speakers have tacit knowledge of the grammatical rules of their language, rather than merely behave in conformity with those rules?

Martin Davies (2015) ‘Knowledge (Explicit, Implicit and Tacit): Philosophical Aspects’ in J. D. Wright, ed. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 13 (Elsevier), pp. 74-89.

Noam Chomsky (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (MIT Press), Ch. 1.
W. V. O. Quine (1970) ‘Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ in Synthese 21(3/4), pp. 386–398.
Gareth Evans (1981) ‘Semantic Theory and Tacit Knowledge’ in S. Holtzman and C. Leich, eds. Wittgenstein: To Follow a Rule (Blackwell). Reprinted in Evans (1985) Collected Papers (OUP) and in [B].
Noam Chomsky (1986) Knowledge of Language (Praeger), see esp. pp. 243-63.

George (1986) is a short, useful clarification of what’s at stake between Quine and Chomsky. Davies (1987) defends and elaborates Evans’ attempt to meet Quine’s challenge. George (1989) is an edited volume. The contributions from George, Peacocke, and Davies are all relevant. Collins (2007) argues that linguistic competence should not be understood in terms of knowledge, tacit or otherwise, at all.

Alexander George (1986) ‘Whence and Whither the Debate Between Quine and Chomsky?’ in The Journal of Philosophy 83(9), pp. 489–499.
Martin Davies (1987) ‘Tacit Knowledge and Semantic Theory: Can a Five Per Cent Difference Matter?’ in Mind 96(384), pp. 441–462.
Alexander George, ed. (1989) Reflections on Chomsky (Blackwell).
John Collins (2007) ‘Linguistic Competence without Knowledge of Language’ in Philosophy Compass 2(6), pp. 880–895.

‘A subject’s behaviour cannot be guided by a rule, unless the subject can articulate the rule.’ Is this a problem for Chomsky’s notion of tacit knowledge?

Is there any evidence to indicate that ordinary subjects have tacit knowledge of the grammatical rules of their language rather than merely behaving in conformity to those rules?



What are Marr’s three levels of explanation and how do they relate to Cummins’ various notions of functional analysis, componential analysis, instantiation, and so on? In what sense(s), if any, is explanation in cognitive science independent of neuroscientific explanation?

Kim Sterelny (1990) The Representational Theory of Mind (Blackwell), Ch. 3.

David Marr (1982) Vision (W. H. Freeman and Co.), Ch. 1. ‘The Philosophy and the Approach’. Reprinted in [B] and [C].
Patricia S. Churchland and Terry J. Sejnowski (1990) ‘Neural Representation and Neural Computation’ in Philosophical Perspectives 4, pp. 343-82, esp. pp. 367-70. Reprinted in [B].
Robert Cummins (2000) ‘“How Does It Work?” versus “What Are the Laws?”: Two Conceptions of Psychological Explanation’ in F. C. Keil and R. A. Wilson, eds. Explanation and Cognition (MIT Press). Reprinted in Cummins (2010) The World in the Head (OUP) and [B].
Gualtiero Piccinini and Carl Craver (2011) ‘Integrating Psychology and Neuroscience: Functional Analyses as Mechanism Sketches’ in Synthese, 183(3), pp. 283–311.

Peacocke (1986) argues for the need for a fourth level of explanation, intermediate between Marr’s computational and algorithmic levels. Feest (2003) discusses the relation between multiple realizability and the autonomy of psychological explanation. Bechtel and Wright (2009) consider the extent to which the mechanistic perspective provides a unified account of psychological explanation. Weiskopf (2011) defends the view that psychological explanation need not be mechanistic.

Christopher Peacocke (1986) ‘Explanation in Computational Psychology: Language, Perception and Level 1.5’ in Mind & Language, 1(2), pp. 101–123.
Uljana Feest (2003) ‘Functional Analysis and the Autonomy of Psychology’ in Philosophy of Science 70(5), pp. 937–948.
William Bechtel and Cory D. Wright (2009) ‘What Is Psychological Explanation?’ in J. Symons and P. Calvo, eds. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Psychology (Routledge).
Daniel Weiskopf (2011) ‘Models and Mechanisms in Psychological Explanation’ in Synthese 183(3), pp. 313–338.

Is it helpful to distinguish different levels of explanation that are used in psychology and neuroscience?

How is the cognitive psychological level of description and explanation related to the personal level of everyday psychological understanding, on the one hand, and to the level of neurobiology, on the other?



What is the Language of Thought Hypothesis (LOTH)? How, if at all, does it differ from the Representational Theory of Mind (RTM) and the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM)? What are the best arguments for and against the LOTH? Are any of these arguments compelling?

Murat Aydede (1998/2010) ‘The Language of Thought Hypothesis’ in E. Zalta, ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Jerry Fodor (1975) The Language of Thought (Crowell), Ch. 1. Reprinted as ‘The Language of Thought: First Approximations’ in [B].
Daniel Dennett (1978) ‘A Cure for the Common Code’ in his Brainstorms (MIT Press).
Simon Blackburn (1984) Spreading the Word (OUP), Ch. 2, esp. §3.
Jerry Fodor (1987) Psychosemantics (MIT Press), Ch. 1 and Appendix.

Block (1995) is an introductory piece, bringing together a number of the themes that we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks. §3 discusses the LOTH. Rey (1997) is aimed at upper undergraduates, and discusses a range of arguments for and against the CTM and LOTH. Laurence and Margolis (1997) address the objection that the LOTH involves a vicious regress. Matthews (2007) argues against the RTM/CTM more generally, which he calls the Received View.

Ned Block (1995) ‘The Mind as the Software of the Brain’ in Daniel N. Osherson and Edward E. Smith, eds. An Invitation to Cognitive Science: Thinking, 2nd ed., Vol. 3, Thinking (MIT Press). Available online:
Georges Rey (1997) Contemporary Philosophy of Mind (Blackwell), Ch. 8 and 10.
Stephen Laurence and Eric Margolis (1997) ‘Regress Arguments Against the Language of Thought’ in Analysis 57(1), pp. 60–66.
Robert Matthews (2007) The Measure of Mind (OUP), Ch. 2 and 3.

Are the reasons for thinking that it is legitimate to appeal to internal representations in psychology identical to the reasons for believing that there is a language of thought?

What is the language of thought hypothesis committed to, over and above realism about propositional attitude states? What grounds, if any, are there for this further commitment?



‘Connectionist models of cognitive processes are either unable to account for the systematicity of cognitive processes or are merely implementations of classical architectures. Either way, it follows that the mind cannot be a connectionist network.’ Explain and assess this objection.

Cynthia Macdonald (1995) ‘Introduction: Classicism vs Connectionism’ in Cynthia Macdonald and Graham Macdonald, eds. Connectionism: Debates on Psychological Explanation (Blackwell), Part I.

Paul Churchland (1990) ‘Cognitive Activity in Artificial Neural Networks’ in D. N. Osherson & E. E. Smith, eds. Thinking: An Invitation to Cognitive Science, Vol. 3 (MIT Press), pp. 199–227.
Jerry Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn (1988) ‘Connectionism and Cognitive Architecture’ in Cognition 28(1/2), pp. 3–71. Reprinted in [H].
Robert Matthews (1997) ‘Can Connectionists Explain Systematicity?’ in Mind \& Language 12(2), pp. 154–177.
Brian McLaughlin (2009) ‘Systematicity Redux’ in Synthese, 170(2), pp. 251–274.

Part I of Cynthia Macdonald and Graham Macdonald, eds. Connectionism: Debates on Psychological Explanation (Blackwell) contains Fodor and Pylyshyn (1988) and other important contributions to the systematicity debate. Part II contains classic papers addressing the question whether connectionism undermines folk psychology, another issue to explore if you want to pursue connectionism in more depth, making it a particularly useful collection for this week’s topic.

Calvo and Symons (2014) is a recent edited volume devoted to the systematicity challenge. See in particular the essays in Part I. Churchland (1998) concerns a different issue, defending an account of content in connectionist networks based on similarities and differences between activation patterns. Fodor and Lepore (1999) is a reply. Garson (1997/2015) is an introductory survey of these and other issues raised by connectionism.

Paco Calvo and John Symons, eds. (2014) The Architecture of Cognition: Rethinking Fodor and Pylyshyn’s Systematicity Challenge (MIT Press).
Paul M. Churchland (1998) ‘Conceptual Similarity across Sensory and Neural Diversity: The Fodor/Lepore Challenge Answered’ in The Journal of Philosophy 95(1), pp. 5–32.
Jerry Fodor and Ernie Lepore (1999) ‘All at Sea in Semantic Space: Churchland on Meaning Similarity’ in The Journal of Philosophy 96(8), pp. 381–403.
James Garson (1997/2015) ‘Connectionism’ in E. Zalta, ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Do connectionist models of psychological processes derive any advantage over their classical competitors from the fact that they do not need to posit explicitly represented rules?

Do connectionist models have any advantage over the so-called classical view of the mind?



According to Fodor, while input systems are modular, central systems are not. What are the implications of these claims for cognitive science, and how does Fodor argue for them? Are his arguments compelling?

Phillip Robbins (2009) ‘Modularity of Mind’ in E. Zalta, ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Jerry Fodor (1985) ‘Précis of Modularity of Mind’ in Behavioural and Brain Sciences 8(1), pp. 1-5. Reprinted in his (1990) A Theory of Content (MIT Press) and in [B] and [C]. See also Glymour’s and Rey’s commentaries.
Jerry Fodor (2000) The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way (MIT Press), Ch. 2 and 3.
Jesse Prinz (2006) ‘Is the Mind Really Modular?’ in R. Stainton, ed. Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science (Blackwell).
Kirk Ludwig and Susan Schneider (2008) ‘Fodor’s Challenge to the Classical Computational Theory of Mind’ in Mind & Language 23(1), pp. 123–143.

The whole of Fodor (1983) is essential reading for this topic if you are pursuing it in any depth. Samuels (2012) is an excellent survey piece on arguments for and against massive modularity (a possible further topic). Fuller and Samuels (2014) is focused on Fodor’s claim that scientific inference is holistic. Jenkin and Siegel (2015) is a short survey of work on an issue relevant to Fodor’s claim that input systems are modular, whether perception is cognitively penetrable.

Jerry Fodor (1983) Modularity of Mind (MIT Press).
Richard Samuels (2012) ‘Massive Modularity’ in E. Margolis, R. Samuels, and S. P. Stich, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Cognitive Science (OUP)
Tim Fuller and Richard Samuels (2014) ‘Scientific Inference and Ordinary Cognition: Fodor on Holism and Cognitive Architecture’ in Mind & Language 29(2), pp. 201–237.
Zoe Jenkin and Susanna Siegel (2015) ‘Cognitive Penetrability: Modularity, Epistemology, and Ethics’ in Review of Philosophy and Psychology 6(4), pp. 531–545.

According to Fodor, what follows from the claim that processing by central systems is non-modular? Is he right?

Which of the marks of Fodorian modularity are most important for understanding the difference between input systems and central systems? Do these marks underwrite a clear distinction between perception and thought?




Are monothematic delusions, such as the delusions of sufferers of Capgras syndrome, beliefs? If not, what are they?

Lisa Bortoletti (2009/2013) ‘Delusions’ in E. Zalta, ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Gregory Currie (2000) ‘Imagination, Delusion and Hallucinations’ in Mind & Language 15(1), pp. 168–183.
Tim Bayne and Elisabeth Pacherie (2005) ‘In Defence of the Doxastic Conception of Delusions’ in Mind & Language 20(2), pp. 163–188.
Andy Egan (2009) ‘Imagination, Delusion, and Self-Deception’ in T. Bayne & J. Fernández, eds. Delusion and Self-Deception (Psychology Press).
John Campbell (2009) ‘What Does Rationality Have to Do with Psychological Causation? Propositional Attitudes as Mechanisms and as Control Variables’ in M. Broome and L. Bortolotti, eds. Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience (OUP).

Bortoletti (2012) defends the doxastic view (i.e. that delusions are beliefs). Matthews (2013) argues against it. See the Faculty reading list for suggestions on the issue of how delusions develop and persist, including debates over so-called two factor theories.

Lisa Bortolotti (2012) ‘Précis of Delusions and Other Irrational Beliefs’ in Neuroethics, 5(1), 1–4. See also the essays by Schwitzgebel and Tumulty, and Bortolotti’s response, in the same issue.
Robert Matthews (2013) ‘Belief and Belief’s Penumbra’ in N. Nottelmann, ed. New Essays on Belief: Constitution, Content, and Structure (Palgrave Macmillan). Draft available online. Also see the contributions from Schwitzgebel and Bayne and Hattiangadi to the same volume.

Critically discuss the following claim: ‘What we normally describe as the delusional belief that P ought sometimes to be described as the delusional belief that I believe that P.’ (CURRIE)

Are there good reasons for thinking that delusions are so irrational that they could not be a type of belief? If they are not beliefs, what are they?



What, if anything, can neuroscience contribute to debates between consequentialists and deontologists?

*Adina Roskies (2002) ‘Neuroethics for the New Millenium’ in Neuron 35(1), pp. 21–23.
*Neil Levy (2011) ‘Neuroethics: A New Way of Doing Ethics’ in AJOB Neuroscience 2(2), pp. 3–9.

Joshua Greene, R. B. Sommerville, L. E. Nystrom, J. M. Darley, and J. D. Cohen (2001) ‘An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment’ in Science 293(5537), pp. 2105–2108.
Selim Berker (2009) ‘The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs 37(4), pp. 293–329.
Guy Kahane and Nicholas Shackel (2010) ‘Methodological Issues in the Neuroscience of Moral Judgement’ in Mind & Language 25(5), pp. 561-582.
Joshua Greene (2014) ‘Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics’ in Ethics 124(4), pp. 695–726.

(This might seem like a lot of reading, but the Roskies, Levy, and Greene et al. are all quite short — a total of fourteen pages between them.)

For discussion of the implications of “acquired sociopathy” for motivational internalism, the meta-ethical view that moral judgements are intrinsically motivating, see Nichols (2002), Roskies (2003) and Maibom (2005). Sinnott-Armstrong (2008) contains specially commissioned essays and responses on the implications of neuroscience for morality. See especially the essays by Greene, Kiehl, and Joyce.

Shaun Nichols (2002) ‘How Psychopaths Threaten Moral Rationalism: Is it Irrational to Be Amoral?’ in The Monist 85(2), pp. 285–303.
Adina Roskies (2003) ‘Are Ethical Judgments Intrinsically Motivational? Lessons From “Acquired Sociopathy”’ in Philosophical Psychology 16(1), pp. 51–66.
Heidi Maibom (2005) ‘Moral Unreason: The Case of Psychopathy’ in Mind & Language 20(2), pp. 237–257.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ed. (2008) Moral Psychology, Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality (MIT Press).

Is there good reason to think that we have more than one cognitive system for making moral judgments? What would this show about morality?