Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 527–550 | Cite as

A contextualist approach to functional localization in the brain

  • Daniel C. BurnstonEmail author


Functional localization has historically been one of the primary goals of neuroscience. There is still debate, however, about whether it is possible, and if so what kind of theories succeed at localization. I argue for a contextualist approach to localization. Most theorists assume that widespread contextual variability in function is fundamentally incompatible with functional decomposition in the brain, because contextualist accounts will fail to be generalizable and projectable. I argue that this assumption is misplaced. A properly articulated contextualism can ground successful theories of localization even without positing completely generalizable accounts. Via a case study from perceptual neuroscience, I suggest that there is strong evidence for contextual variation in the function of perceptual brain areas. I then outline a version of contextualism that is empirically adequate with respect to this data, and claim that it can still distinguish brain areas from each other according to their functional properties. Finally, I claim that the view does not fail the norms for good theory in the way that anticontextualists suppose. It is true that, on a contextualist view, we will not have theories that are completely generalizable and predictive. We can, however, have successful partial generalizations that structure ongoing investigation and lead to novel functional insight, and this success is sufficient to ground the project of functional localization.


Absolutism Contextualism Explanation Functional localization Perceptual neuroscience 



I would like to thank William Bechtel, Jonathan Cohen, Rick Grush, Thomas Albright, and John Serences for invaluable advice during the development of this project. Thanks also to Ann-Sophie Barwich, Olivier Morin, Isabella Sarto-Jackson, and Ben Sheredos for extremely helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. This material was presented to colloquia audiences at Tulane University and Indiana University, Bloomington, and I am grateful to both for helpful discussion.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentTulane UniversityNew OrleansUSA

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