The Cognitive Revolution (Myths, Part 2)

Christian JarrettPreviously on AHP: Chris Green critiqued an essay by Christian Jarrett (pictured right), published as a journalistic feature in the latest issue of The Psychologist, 21(9). In this essay, Jarrett outlines — and purports to debunk — several myths in the history of psychology.

Among the examinations of apocrypha surrounding Kitty Genovese and Little Albert is a question regarding the very existence of a Cognitive Revolution in psychology. Green, in response, argues that this makes a different kind of claim than do Jarrett’s other efforts:

There is all manner of debate over what the precise character of the cognitive revolution was. Some have even argued that the continuities with behaviorism are so great that it cannot be considered to be a scientific “revolution” at all. But this kind of historiographic debate is not at all the same project as excavating indisputable facts that have become distorted over the decades with retelling. It is simply the case that many of the details of the story commonly told about the Kitty Genovese case are not true. It is simply the case that Little Albert was conditioned to be afraid of a rat rather than a rabbit. This is not the case with debate over the cognitive revolution, which is a very complicated social and scientific movement that took place over a period of decades (Green, 2008, at AHP here).

Green then goes a step further in his criticism. And herein lies the lesson:

What we have here, I fear, is a case of revisionist history attempting to deflect criticism by masquerading as a case of factual “debunking” (Green, 2008, contd).

The significance of this sentence is to be found in the distinction between the good kind of “revision through reexamination” (debunking) and the bad kind of “revision through oversimplification, denial, or distortion” (negationist revisionism). This distinction is sufficiently important that we will examine it in greater detail below.

Caveat: What follows is my opinion, not an attempt to explain “what Green really meant.” (Criticism is welcome; please feel free to leave comments below.)

The difference between “debunking” and “negationist revisionism” was recently made clear by Richard Evans as part of his expert witness testimony in the well-known UK historian-libel trial of 2000 (Irving v. Lipstadt). Although the specific details of this case are irrelevant for our purposes, Evans ultimately supported Deborah Lipstadt‘s characterization of David Irving as a historical revisionist. The definition he provides for the proper activities of “an historian,” which Irving’s revisionism was found by the court to have breached, takes the form of a list of things professionals do not do:

…historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account and if necessary amend their own case accordingly. They do not present as genuine documents which they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious but implausible and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments if this is the case, or indeed abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources which in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite. They do not eagerly seek out the highest possible figures in a series of statistics, independently of their reliability or otherwise, simply because they want for whatever reason to maximise the figure in question, but rather, they assess all the available figures as impartially as possible in order to arrive at a number that will withstand the critical scrutiny of others. They do not knowingly mistranslate sources in foreign languages in order to make them more serviceable to themselves. They do not wilfully invent words, phrases, quotations, incidents and events for which there is no historical evidence in order to make their arguments more plausible (Evans, 2000, para 6.20).

Despite the differences in the contents of their claims (which are irrelevant here), Evans’ list makes it clear that the methods supporting Jarrett’s attempted debunking are equally exposed to criticism as those behind Irving’s revisionism. Indeed, in the face of such a list of potential complaints, it is simply the case that Jarrett did not provide the depth of detail that would be necessary to defend against the myriad accusations that could be made in response to his work. In other words, the evidence Jarrett presented was insufficient to “justify” his conclusion that there was no such thing as a Cognitive Revolution.

The problem of justification is formally one of epistemology (the study of knowledge in general), rather than of history (the study of knowledge in particular). However, since Jarrett asks that we believe his “claim to truth,” it does indeed have relevance to this issue.

Briefly: if a claim is justified, then there is demonstrable evidence that supports it and that could be examined by a disinterested third party. As Evans’ testimony makes clear, the historian’s duty is therefore to provide this evidence (without bias) in support of revisionist claims. And it is only through this process that “negationist revisionism” then becomes “debunking.”

On this basis, it seems to me that a concern that an historian’s goal may be “revisionist” in a bad way — rather than “debunking” in a good way (as Jarrett claims in this case) — implies that the historian is perceived to have…

  1. failed to provide sufficient evidence in support of his claim, and/or
  2. failed to explain the evidence that contradicts his claim.

Given the format of Jarrett’s particular paper (and its length), this is perhaps to be expected. It was clearly not intended to make an argument-ending case.

Conveniently, however, there is recent scholarship that could be recruited to such a task. (Some of these readings are provided below, although Margaret Boden’s 2-volume history of “cognitive science” merits special notice [discussed at AHP here].) Of particular interest, given the recent date of its publication, is the March 2008 special issue of Theory, Culture & Society, 25(2). This is devoted to an examination of the Cognitive Revolution’s underlying philosophical outlook—“cognitivism.” For those interested in examining the history of any of the various changes underlying the larger Revolution, but who also don’t wish to travel the same paths as previous historians, this would seem to provide an ideal launching platform.

Bibliography: “The Cognitive Revolution”

  • Christen, M. (2008). Varieties of Publication Patterns in Neuroscience at the Cognitive Turn. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(2), 207-225. The quantification of publication activity and impact has become a key element in the evaluation of scientific excellence. However, it is unclear to what extent this grasps the diversity of research communication that accompanies the transition of scientific fields. This contribution investigates number, categorization, and impact of publications (i.e., publication patterns) of six scientists active at the cognitive turn, which promoted the information processing perspective on neuronal processes in different communities: Horace Barlow, Theodore Bullock, Ralph Gerard, Donald MacKay, Warren McCulloch, and Werner Reichardt. The large variety of publication patterns revealed indicates the limits of standardized evaluation procedures based on publication activity.
  • Cohen-Cole, J. (2005). The reflexivity of cognitive science: the scientist as model of human nature. History of the Human Sciences, 18(4), 107-139. This article examines how experimental psychology experienced a revolution as cognitive science replaced behaviorism in the mid-20th century. This transition in the scientific account of human nature involved making normal what had once been normative: borrowing ideas of democratic thinking from political culture and conceptions of good thinking from philosophy of science to describe humans as active, creatively thinking beings, rather than as organisms that simply respond to environmental conditions. Reflexive social and intellectual practices were central to this process as cognitive scientists used anti-positivist philosophy of science simultaneously to justify their own work as valid and also as a model of human thinking. In the process, the normative philosophy of science or ‘good academic thinking’ that cognitive scientists used to reshape the discipline of psychology and characterize themselves became, at the same time, the descriptive model of human nature.
  • Greenwood, J. D. (1999). Understanding the “cognitive revolution” in psychology. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 35(1), 1-22. In this paper it is argued that the cognitive revolution in psychology is not best represented either as a Kuhnian paradigm shift, or as a movement from an instrumentalist to a realist conception of psychological theory, or as a continuous evolution out of more liberalized forms of behaviorism, or as a return to the form of structuralist psychology practiced by Wundt and Titchener. It is suggested that the move from behaviorism to cognitivism is best represented in terms of the replacement of (operationally defined) intervening variables by genuine hypothetical constructs possessing cognitive surplus meaning, and that the cognitive revolution of the 1950s continued a cognitive tradition that can be traced back to the 1920s.
  • Machery, E. (2007). 100 years of psychology of concepts: the theoretical notion of concept and its operationalization. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C, 38(1), 63-84. The operationalization of scientific notions is instrumental in enabling experimental evidence to bear on scientific propositions. Conceptual change should thus translate into operationalization change. This article describes some important experimental works in the psychology of concepts since the beginning of the twentieth century. It is argued that since the early days of this field, psychologists’ theoretical understanding of concepts has been modified several times. However, in all cases but one, these theoretical changes did not translate into changes in the operationalization of the notion of concept learning.
  • Mandler, G. (2002). Origins of the cognitive (r)evolution. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 38(4), 339-353. The well documented cognitive “revolution” was, to a large extent, an evolving return to attitudes and trends that were present prior to the advent of behaviorism and that were alive and well outside of the United States, where behaviorism had not developed any coherent support. The behaviorism of the 1920 to 1950 period was replaced because it was unable to address central issues in human psychology, a failure that was inherent in part in J. B. Watson’s founding manifesto with its insistence on the seamless continuity of human and nonhuman animal behavior. The “revolution” was often slow and piecemeal, as illustrated by four conferences held between 1955 and 1966 in the field of memory. With the realization that different approaches and concepts were needed to address a psychology of the human, developments in German, British, and Francophone psychology provided some of the fuel of the “revolution.”

See also at AHP: Does History require a variety of Contextualism?, History and Theory of “Revisionism”


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

One thought on “The Cognitive Revolution (Myths, Part 2)

  1. This is a very interesting post.

    I note that there are a few similarities between the false claims made about the cognitive revolution and the false claims made about Little Albert.

    For instance, it is often said, at least among psychologists and philosophers of psychology, that the cognitive revolution made it respectable to refer to psychological states in psychological explanation. Now, this claim is clearly false. Even if one considers only American psychology (thus, bracketing Piaget and other European psychologists) and if one overlooks clinical psychology, psychological states are parts and parcel of many influential behaviorist theories (see, e.g., Hull’s drives and, naturally, Tolman’s maps). Furthermore, in the early 1940s, there was a rather well-known debate about the proper interpretation of intervening variables, such as personality traits (see, e.g., the well-known MacCorquodale & Meehl (1948)).

    Now, of course, this is not to say that the very idea that there was a cognitive revolution is a myth.

    Edouard Machery

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