Minds and Machines

, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 347–381

Symbols and Computation A Critique of the Computational Theory of Mind

  • Steven Horst

DOI: 10.1023/A:1008351818306

Cite this article as:
Horst, S. Minds and Machines (1999) 9: 347. doi:10.1023/A:1008351818306


Over the past several decades, the philosophical community has witnessed the emergence of an important new paradigm for understanding the mind.1 The paradigm is that of machine computation, and its influence has been felt not only in philosophy, but also in all of the empirical disciplines devoted to the study of cognition. Of the several strategies for applying the resources provided by computer and cognitive science to the philosophy of mind, the one that has gained the most attention from philosophers has been the ‘Computational Theory of Mind’ (CTM). CTM was first articulated by Hilary Putnam (1960, 1961), but finds perhaps its most consistent and enduring advocate in Jerry Fodor (1975, 1980, 1981, 1987, 1990, 1994). It is this theory, and not any broader interpretations of what it would be for the mind to be a computer, that I wish to address in this paper. What I shall argue here is that the notion of ‘symbolic representation’ employed by CTM is fundamentally unsuited to providing an explanation of the intentionality of mental states (a major goal of CTM), and that this result undercuts a second major goal of CTM, sometimes refered to as the ‘vindication of intentional psychology.’ This line of argument is related to the discussions of ‘derived intentionality’ by Searle (1980, 1983, 1984) and Sayre (1986, 1987). But whereas those discussions seem to be concerned with the causal dependence of familiar sorts of symbolic representation upon meaning-bestowing acts, my claim is rather that there is not one but several notions of ‘meaning’ to be had, and that the notions that are applicable to symbols are conceptually dependent upon the notion that is applicable to mental states in the fashion that Aristotle refered to as paronymy. That is, an analysis of the notions of ‘meaning’ applicable to symbols reveals that they contain presuppositions about meaningful mental states, much as Aristotle's analysis of the sense of ‘healthy’ that is applied to foods reveals that it means ‘conducive to having a healthy body,’ and hence any attempt to explain ‘mental semantics’ in terms of the semantics of symbols is doomed to circularity and regress. I shall argue, however, that this does not have the consequence that computationalism is bankrupt as a paradigm for cognitive science, as it is possible to reconstruct CTM in a fashion that avoids these difficulties and makes it a viable research framework for psychology, albeit at the cost of losing its claims to explain intentionality and to vindicate intentional psychology. I have argued elsewhere (Horst, 1996) that local special sciences such as psychology do not require vindication in the form of demonstrating their reducibility to more fundamental theories, and hence failure to make good on these philosophical promises need not compromise the broad range of work in empirical cognitive science motivated by the computer paradigm in ways that do not depend on these problematic treatments of symbols.

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven Horst
    • 1
  1. 1.Wesleyan UniversityUSA

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