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Ever since the 1960s, an important body of thought has developed in reaction to the presumed behaviorism according to which intellectual activity is beyond the grasp of any form of scientific investigation. Cognitivism has marked a return to a scientific approach to mental activity that has materialized in the development of the cognitive sciences.

The term refers to those sciences that study systems for representing understanding and the processing of information. Included in the term are certain areas of speculative research (philosophy of mind), artificial intelligence, semantic, syntactic, and lexical models (linguistics), the study of human activities (psychology), and the neuronal basis of those activities (neuroscience). These disciplines do not fall entirely within the field of cognitive science (social psychology or the neurobiology of development, for example).

Cognitivism originally developed as an interdisciplinary activity. The work of Jean Piaget on genetic epistemology and the work of Edward Toman on cognitive mapping opened the way in psychology long before Miller, Galanter, and Pribram's seminal work, Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960). The term "artificial intelligence" was coined during a seminar by Herbert Simon.

The application of the methods of cognitive science to the field of psychopathology is more recent (M. C. Hardy-Baylé, 1996) and is based on work in the philosophy of mind and a renewed interest in phenomenology as well as on expert systems in artificial intelligence (models of paranoid thought, Parry), and especially experimental research (anomalies in the processing of information during schizophrenic states or a slowing down of the decision-making process during depressive states).

The development of cognitivism did not fail to arouse suspicion and opposition on the part of psychoanalysts. Some of their reservations were based on a confusion with so-called cognitive therapies, which in reality have to do with the content of representations (judgment errors) and not the underlying mechanisms. They are based on the use of suggestion, which falls within the domain of behavioral therapy, which in turn draws on behaviorism. More serious reservations involve the fact that cognitivism, which is primarily concerned with understanding, has often neglected the role of affects and has not sufficiently taken into consideration the question of motivation or the role of the body.

For their part cognitive science specialists have contested the scientific value of psychoanalytic theories and, until recently, have had little interest in the area of pathology.

In fact it is easy to show that Sigmund Freud's early work clearly makes use of a cognitive approach (H. K. Pribram, M. Gill, 1968 ), as does chapter seven of the Interpretation of Dreams and a number of later texts. Gradually the emphasis on a dynamic and economic approach shifted the investigation to why rather than how. David Rapaport and, later, Georges Klein resumed the study of thought mechanisms to compare them with experimental results. Their premature deaths and the still strong influence of behaviorism on the psychology of the time explain the delay before psychoanalysts actually got around to confronting these issues directly (P. Holzman, G. Aronson, 1992, D. Widlöcher, 1993).

This confrontation appears to have shocked psychoanalysts, to the extent that they were accustomed to question these disciplines in isolation (psychology, linguistics, logic modeling) and not within an interdisciplinary framework. If psychoanalysis is to assume its place within this framework, the terms of its inclusion must be specified. It would be necessary to acknowledge that psychoanalysis is a unique form of communication and not a science. The knowledge gained from it concerns complex objects that other approaches must first break down into more simple objects.

Such an exchange can benefit the cognitive sciences by exposing them to an area of mental life that has not been explored by them. Psychoanalysis can benefit by escaping the intellectual isolation of their field. It is less obvious how psychoanalytic treatment, as the investigation of the unconscious, can benefit from a more analytic knowledge of the complex objects it engages.


See also: Amnesia; Archetype (analytical psychology); Body; Non-verbal communication; Psychic causality; Psychogenesis/organogenesis. Bibliography

   * Hardy-Baylé, Marie-Christine. (1996). Troubles de l'information et troubles mentaux. In Daniel Widlöcher (Ed.). Traité de psychopathologie (pp. 463-496). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
   * Holzman, Philip, and Aronson, Gerald, (1992). Psychoanalysis and its neighboring sciences: Paradigms and opportunities, Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association, 40 (1), 63-88.
   * Miller, George A., Galanter, E., and Karl H. Pribram. (1960). Plans and the structure of behavior, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
   * Pribram, Karl H., Gill, Merton M. (1976). Freud's "Project" reassessed. London: Hutchinson.
   * Widlöcher, Daniel. (1993a). Intentionnalité et psychopathologie, Revue internationale de psychopathologie, 10,193-224.
   * ——. (1993b). L'analyse cognitive du silence en psychanalyse. Quand les mots viennentà manquer, Revue internationale de psychopathologie, 12, 509-528.


In the work of Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek’s engagements with life-scientific treatments of human mindedness should be understood, straightforwardly enough, as fundamentally motivated by his materialist commitments. Žižekian materialism can fairly be portrayed as involving a reactivation of the German idealist ambitions of the youthful Tübingen trio of Schelling, Hölderlin and Hegel. Th is late-eighteenth-century philosophical agenda, carried forward by Schelling and Hegel over the course of their subsequent intellectual itineraries, aimed at a difficult systematic synthesis of the apparent opposites of natural substance à la Spinoza and the transcendental subject à la Kant and Fichte (an agenda sometimes subsumed under the banner of a “Spinozism of freedom”). Needless to say, in the more than two hundred years between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, countless philosophical, scientific, political, religious and other changes directly relevant to “The Earliest System-Programme of German Idealism” (a succinct 1796 manifesto authored by either Hölderlin or Hegel) have amassed. While carefully taking these historical changes into consideration, Žižek nevertheless seeks likewise to develop a robust account of autonomous subjectivity as immanent-yet-irreducible to asubjective being as conceived of within the constraints of a strictly materialist ontology. Of course, as is common knowledge, he favours Lacanian psychoanalytic theory as an indispensable post-Hegelian resource for this effort to revivify the legacy of German idealism.

However, the role of Marxism in relation to Žižek’s redeployment of the German idealists (Hegel especially) warrants a few remarks. Like Marx and Engels as well as the Lenin of the Philosophical Notebooks before him, Žižek labours to retrieve from Hegelian philosophy, viewed as the apex of German idealism, its specifically materialist concepts and moments. That is to say, Žižek’s Hegel already espouses versions of historical and dialectical materialisms (albeit avant la lettre). The Marxist tradition also is highly relevant apropos the topic of the empirical life sciences in relation to theoretical materialism. Although Žižek himself does not spend much time highlighting this, a good number of Marxists, starting with Marx and Engels themselves (who were galvanized by the 1859 publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species), grappled with the implications of biology and its branches for historical/dialectical materialism. Key examples of this include three books by Engels (Dialectics of Nature, 1883, Anti-Dühring, 1887, and Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, 1888), Dietzgen’s The Nature of Human Brain-Work (1869), Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) and Bukharin’s Philosophical Arabesques (1937). Brusquely dismissed by the young Lukács and subsequently eclipsed from consideration in most Western Marxist circles, these pioneering efforts to interface historical/dialectical materialism with the natural sciences find echoes in Žižek’s explorations of contemporary cognitive science and neurobiology (as well as echoes in the works of Stephen Jay Gould, to whom Žižek periodically appeals, and the Richards Levins and Lewontin).

The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters contains arguably Žižek’s first sustained examination of a natural science in its third and final chapter, “Quantum Physics with Lacan” (this is appropriate for a book on Schelling, whose science-inspired Naturphilosophie is one of the main orientations represented within German idealism). Quite recently, in the fourteenth and final chapter of Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Žižek revisits the terrain of quantum physics (incidentally, this hulking tome also contains an “Interlude” formulating an incisive critique of cognitivist Douglas Hofstadter’s 2007 book I Am a Strange Loop). However, in so far as Žižek is interested in forging a neither reductive nor eliminative materialist theory of minded subjects, the physics of the extremely small is far from enough for his purposes. A turn to the biology of the mid-sized organisms that are human beings is necessary.

One of Žižek’s earliest ventures onto the territories covered by cognitive science is his 1998 essay “The Cartesian Subject versus the Cartesian Theater” (in Cogito and the Unconscious, a multi-contributor volume he edited). Therein, he employs American Analytic philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett (specifically, Dennett’s 1991 book Consciousness Explained, with its quasi-Humean, neuro-science-inspired assault on standard notions of self-hood or personal identity) as a foil enabling him to clarify further his rendition of subjectivity as a cogito-like void of kinetic negativity – more precisely, Lacan’s barred subject ($) and the Freudian–Lacanian death-drive as re-read through the lenses furnished by Kant and the post-Kantian idealists. Situating Dennett within a larger contemporary constellation of all those declaring the modern subject dead or deconstructed in different ways – anti-Cartesianism makes for very strange bedfellows, bringing together a wide variety of otherwise unrelated or even antagonistic orientations (as observed through a paraphrasing of the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto at the start of 1999’s The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology) – Žižek strives to extract from Dennett’s stance resources for his own position as well as to pinpoint what a cognitive and evolutionist approach of this sort fails to appreciate in German idealist and Lacanian models of subjectivity, themselves interpreted as elaborations and extensions of the Cartesian model.

As he similarly underscores in his contributions to the 2000 book Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (co-authored with Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau), Žižek in 1998 claims that dissolutions of a stable self or “me” into a plurality of disparate bits and pieces, whether as Dennett’s “multiple drafts” depiction of consciousness or any other number of other fragmentations of the “I” as classically conceived, ironically bring the cogito-like modern subject into even sharper relief, rather than, as this subject’s critics intend, invalidate it. Th is claim about the self-subverting irony of these sorts of critiques is underpinned by Žižek’s thesis according to which Cartesian-style subjectivity is nothing other than the hollowed-out virtual space of an insubstantial, anonymous, faceless emptiness – not to be confused with the substantial, fleshed-out contents of familiar selfhood or recognizable personal identity – serving as a condition of possibility for the manifest comings and goings of the fragments of the disunifi ed “postmodern” person. Kant’s and Hegel’s dismantlings of the substance metaphysics of early-modern “rational psychology” and Lacan’s distinction between the ego (moi) and the subject (sujet) are pivotal precursors and points of reference for this Žižekian line of argumentation.

In the 2004 books Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences and Conversations with Žižek (with Glyn Daly) Žižek deepens his engagements with cognitive science and neurobiology. Through references to life-scientifi c thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Lynn Margulis, Humberto Maturana, Stephen Pinker and Francisco Varela, he outlines a number of speculative trajectories stemming from his approach to things biological via the triad of German idealism, Marxism and psychoanalysis: the emergence of the cogito-like subject from the substances and processes described by biology and evolutionary theory; the implications for images and ideas of nature of this precise sort of Hegelian-dialectical emergentism; the immanent genesis of dis/mal-adapted humanity out of evolutionary pressures; the compatibility of German idealist, Marxist and psychoanalytic perspectives on language with meme theory; and the agreements and disagreements between a Lacanian theory of the libidinal economy and more naturalist renditions of the motivational forces and factors moving humanity. These musings set the stage for Žižek’s most significant treatment of biological topics in his 2006 book The Parallax View.

Therein, Žižek wrestles directly with the neurosciences through readings of Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux in particular, in addition to addressing once again a number of Analytic philosophers, cognitive scientists and evolutionary theorists addressed by him in previous texts (some of whom are mentioned above). Damasio’s and LeDoux’s research in “affective neuroscience” is critically evaluated on the basis of Lacan’s metapsychology of affect. But the figure of contemporary philosopher Catherine Malabou, a former student of Derrida and author of a Žižek-beloved study of Hegel (The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, 2004), is by far the most important new reference along these lines featuring in The Parallax View. In What Should We Do with Our Brain? (2008) and other texts, Malabou utilizes the empirical fact of neuroplasticity to initiate a comprehensive philosophical reassessment of biological analyses of humans in the vein of dialectical materialism. Although Žižek, in the fourth chapter of 2010’s Living in the End Times, subsequently voices reservations about Malabou’s more recent book The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (2012) – he faults her for misunderstanding the cogito as a pure void surviving even the most psychically devastating traumas impacting the self as well as for failing to grasp the true nature of Lacanian jouissance proper – her Hegel-inspired and science-informed materialist recastings of subjectivity remain extremely close to Žižek’s heart.

What Žižek and Malabou share in common is a determination fully to take into consideration the undeniable relevance of the natural sciences for a materialist theory of the subject without, for all that, giving up on the irreducibly nonnatural dimensions of subjectivity as uncovered within the past two centuries of European philosophy as well as Freudian psychoanalysis. This requires a series of very delicate balancing acts. But a categorically anti-naturalist materialism is no materialism whatsoever. 


  1. 54-7, 59-60 Conversations

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