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LIU XIAOLI: The philosophy of cognitive science needs to tap resources from Chinese culture

| 2017-07-20
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence, embracing philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics and anthropology. The philosophy of cognitive science covers all philosophical topics pertaining to the scientific study of cognition, like the moral issues involved in experiments of cognitive science.

In the 1990s, Chinese scholars began to research the philosophy of cognitive science. Currently, domestic research mainly focuses on the philosophy of mind, the philosophical interpretation of fundamental theories in cognitive science, the scientific and philosophical studies of consciousness, the exploration of the perception-action-consciousness model and its cognitive architecture, empirical philosophy, and research on social cultural cognition. To date, a number of Chinese scholars have stood out conspicuously in some areas, and some research results have been global influential. However, compared with the world’s frontier research, domestic research has distinct disadvantages.

First, in general, Chinese scholars are still introducing and following the international trends in the research area and mainly concentrate on the translation of foreign works, without systematic studies of the discipline. In some key areas, they still cannot proactively ask questions and propose research topics. For example, they do little research on attention, conception, memory, consciousness, understanding, speech, motion control and emotion from the perspective of philosophy of cognitive science. They also lack studies on how neurosciences are connected with issues related to will, consciousness, morals and aesthetics. 

Second, the research methods need improvement. International high-level papers in the area cite a large quantity of the latest scientific results or some even are completed through collaboration with scientists in the laboratory. But most papers by Chinese scholars lay emphasis on conceptual analysis and philosophical argumentation, and few of them involve empirical methods and evidence. Some frontier research topics in cognitive science, like mirror neurons and dual process theories of mind, pose challenges to traditional philosophical discussion on self, reason, body, action and moral. Coping with these challenges requires new research models and progress in the philosophy of cognitive science.

 Third, institutional establishment is not adequate. In China, there is not a research body specifically dedicated to the interdisciplinary studies of cognitive science, and the problems also exist in the fields of philosophy of cognitive science.

On the one hand, there is a lack of high-level research personnel who have received philosophical training and at the same time are capable of doing scientific research. On the other hand, improvements should be made in college curriculum arrangement as well as setting up talent training programs and platforms for talent exchanges in this regard. Although some colleges established institutes or laboratories in departments of philosophy, their researchers usually have a background of only one discipline, therefore cannot make great achievements. 

We can learn from Harvard University in this respect. In 1993, the university introduced the Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative to encourage an interdisciplinary community of more than 100 experts from across the university in areas like philosophy, psychology, linguistics, history of science, computer science, evolutionary biology, neurobiology and anthropology. It also included subjects of the interdisciplinary study in the curriculum of undergraduates and also formulated research projects for graduates.

To develop the philosophy of cognitive science in the Chinese context, we should make full use of the country’s vast cultural resources. The difference of Eastern and Western cultures offers multiple perspectives for study in the area. To dig into the Chinese theoretical resources on cognition and build a system of philosophy of cognitive science with Chinese characteristics is both Chinese scholars’ advantage and their responsibility. Transforming frontier issues in cognitive science into philosophical issues in Chinese civilization can enable Chinese scholars to produce innovative results and offer Chinese vision to the research area.


Liu Xiaoli is from the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China.