Individualism is a view about how psychological states are taxonomized that has been claimed to constrain the cognitive sciences, a claim that remains controversial. Individualists view the distinction between the psychological states of individuals and the physical and social environments of those individuals as providing a natural basis for demarcating properly scientific, psychological kinds. Psychology in particular and the cognitive sciences more generally are to be concerned with natural kinds whose instances end at the boundary of the individual. Thus, although individualism is sometimes glossed as the view that psychological states are "in the head," it is a more specific and stronger view than suggested by such a characterization. Individualism is sometimes (e.g., van Gulick 1989) called "internalism," and its denial "externalism." Its acceptance or rejection has implications for accounts of MENTAL REPRESENTATION, MENTAL CAUSATION, and SELF-KNOWLEDGE.

The dominant research traditions in cognitive science have been at least implicitly individualistic. Relatively explicit statements of a commitment to an individualistic view of aspects of cognitive science include Chomsky's (1986, 1995) deployment of the distinction between two conceptions of language (the "I"-language and the "E"-language, for "internal" and "external," respectively), Jackendoff's (1991) related, general distinction between "psychological" and "philosophical" conceptions of the mind, and Cosmides and Tooby's (1994) emphasis on the constructive nature of our internal, evolutionary-specialized cognitive modules.

Individualism is controversial for at least three reasons. First, individualism appears incompatible with FOLK PSYCHOLOGY and, more controversially, with a commitment to INTENTIONALITY more generally. Much contemporary cognitive science incorporates and builds on the basic concepts of the folk (e.g., belief, memory, perception) and at least appears to rely on the notion of mental content. Second, despite the considerable intuitive appeal of individualism, arguments for it have been less than decisive. Third, the relationship between individualism and cognitive science has been seen to be more complicated than initially thought, in part because of varying views of how to understand explanatory practice in the cognitive sciences.

One formulation of individualism, expressed in Putnam (1975), but also found in the work of Carnap and early twentieth century German thinkers, is methodological solipsism. Following Putnam, Fodor views methodological solipsism as the doctrine that psychology ought to concern itself only with narrow psychological states, where these are states that do not presuppose "the existence of any individual other than the subject to whom that state is ascribed" (Fodor 1980: 244). An alternative formulation of individualism offered by Stich (1978), the principle of autonomy, says that "the states and processes that ought to be of concern to the psychologist are those that supervene on the current, internal, physical state of the organism" (Stich 1983: 164-165; see SUPERVENIENCE). Common to both expressions is the idea that an individual's psychological states should be bracketed off from the mere, beyond-the-head environments that individuals find themselves in.

Fodor and Stich used their respective principles to argue for substantive conclusions about the scope and methodology of psychology and the cognitive sciences. Fodor contrasted a solipsistic psychology with what he called a naturalistic psychology, arguing that the latter (among which he included JAMES JEROME GIBSON's approach to perception, learning theory, and the naturalism of WILLIAM JAMES) was unlikely to prove a reliable research strategy in psychology. Stich argued for a syntactic or computational theory of mind that made no essential use of the notion of intentionality or mental content. Although these arguments themselves have not won widespread acceptance, many philosophers interested in the cognitive sciences are attracted to individualism because of a perceived connection to FUNCTIONALISM in the philosophy of mind, the idea being that the functional or causal roles of psychological states are individualistic.

A point initially made in different ways by both Putnam and Stich -- that our folk psychology violates individualism -- was developed by Tyler Burge (1979) as part of a wide-ranging attack on individualism. Putnam had argued that "'meanings' just ain't in the head" by developing a causal theory of reference for natural kind terms, introducing TWIN EARTH thought experiments into the philosophy of mind. Stich identified intuitive cases (including two of Putnam's) in which our folk psychological ascriptions conflicted with the principle of autonomy. Burge introduced individualism as a term for an overall conception of the mind, extended the Twin Earth argument from language to thought, and showed that the conflict between individualism and folk psychology did not turn on a perhaps controversial claim about the semantics of natural kind terms. Together with Burge's (1986) argument that DAVID MARR's celebrated computational theory of vision was not individualistic, Burge's early arguments have posed the deepest and most troubling challenges to individualism (cf. Fodor 1987: chap. 2; 1994).

Individualism is motivated by several clusters of powerful intuitions. A "Cartesian" cluster that goes most naturally with the methodological solipsism formulation of individualism revolves around the idea that an organism's mental states could be just as they are even were its environment radically different. Perhaps the most extreme case is that of a brain-in-a-vat: were you a brain-in-a-vat, not an embodied person actively interacting with the world, you could have just the same psychological states that you have now, provided that you were supplied with just the right stimulation and feedback from the "vat" that replaces the world you are actually in. A second, "physicalist" cluster that complements the principle of autonomy formulation appeals to the idea that physically identical individuals must have the same psychological states -- again, no matter how different their environments.

So much for the intuitions; what about the arguments? Empirical and methodological (rather than a priori) arguments for or against individualism are perhaps of most interest to cognitive scientists (Wilson 1995: chaps. 2-5). Because of the centrality of computation to cognitive science, the most powerful empirical arguments appeal to the computational nature of cognition. At times, such arguments have involved detailed examination of particular theories or research programs, most notably Marr's theory of vision (Egan 1992; Segal 1989; Shapiro 1997), the discussion of which forms somewhat of an industry within philosophical psychology. A different sort of challenge to the inference from computationalism to individualism is posed by Wilson's (1994) wide computationalism, a view according to which some of our cognitive, computational systems literally extend into the world (and so cannot be individualistic).

Those rejecting individualism on empirical or methodological grounds have appealed to the situated or embedded nature of cognition, seeking more generally to articulate the crucial role that an organism's environment plays in its cognitive processing. For example, McClamrock (1995: chap. 6) points to the role of improvisation in planning, and Wilson (1999) points to the ways in which informational load is shifted from organism to environment in metarepresentation. But despite the suggestiveness of such appeals, the arguments here remain relatively undeveloped; further attention to the relationships between culture, external symbols, and cognition (Donald 1991; Hutchins 1995) is needed.

Further issues: First, faced with the prima facie conflict between individualism and representational theories of the mind, including folk psychology, individualists have often invoked a distinction between wide content and NARROW CONTENT and argued that cognitive science should use only the latter. The adequacy of competing accounts of narrow content, and even whether there is a notion of content that meets the constraint of individualism, are matters of continuing debate.

Second, little of the debate over individualism in cognitive science has reflected the increasing prominence of neuroscientific perspectives on cognition. Although one might assume that the various neurosciences must be individualistic, this issue remains largely unexplored.

Finally, largely unasked questions about the relationship between individualism in psychology and other "individualistic" views -- for example, in evolutionary biology (Williams 1966; cf. Wilson and Sober 1994) and in the social sciences (e.g., Elster 1986) -- beckon discussion as the boundaries and focus of traditional cognitive science are challenged. Answering such questions will require discussion of the place of the cognitive sciences among the sciences more generally, and of general issues in the philosophy of science.

See also

-- Robert A. Wilson


Burge, T. (1979). Individualism and the mental. In P. French, T. Uehling Jr., and H. Wettstein, Eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 4 (Metaphysics). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Burge, T. (1986). Individualism and Psychology. Philosophical Review 95:3-45.

Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of Language. New York: Praeger.

Chomsky, N. (1995). Language and nature. Mind 104:1-61.

Cosmides, L., and J. Tooby. (1994). Foreword to S. Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Egan, F. (1992). Individualism, computation, and perceptual content. Mind 101:443-459.

Elster, J. (1986). An Introduction to Karl Marx. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fodor, J. A. (1980). Methodological solipsism considered as a research strategy in cognitive psychology. Reprinted in his Representations. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1981.

Fodor, J. A. (1987). Psychosemantics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fodor, J. A. (1994). The Elm and the Expert. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jackendoff, R. (1991). The problem of reality. Reprinted in his Languages of the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

McClamrock, R. (1995). Existential Cognition: Computational Minds in the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Putnam, H. (1975). The meaning of "meaning." Reprinted in his Mind, Language, and Reality. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Segal, G. (1989). Seeing what is not there. Philosophical Review 98:189-214.

Shapiro, L. (1997). A clearer vision. Philosophy of Science 64:131-153.

Stich, S. (1978). Autonomous psychology and the belief-desire thesis. Monist 61:573-591.

Stich, S. (1983). From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

van Gulick, R. (1989). Metaphysical arguments for internalism and why they don't work. In S. Silvers, Ed., Rerepresentation. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Williams, G. (1966). Adaptation and Natural Selection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wilson, D. S., and E. Sober. (1994). Re-introducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 17:585-608.

Wilson, R. A. (1994). Wide computationalism. Mind 103:351-372.

Wilson, R. A. (1995). Cartesian psychology and physical minds: individualism and the sciences of the mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, R. A. (1999). The mind beyond itself. In D. Sperber, Ed., Metarepresentation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Further Readings

Adams, F., D. Drebushenko, G. Fuller, and R. Stecker. (1990). Narrow content: Fodor's folly. Mind and Language 5:213-229

Block, N. (1986). Advertisement for a semantics for psychology. In P. French, T. Uehling, Jr., and H. Wettsten, Eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 10: Philosophy of Mind. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Burge, T. (1988). Individualism and self-knowledge. Journal of Philosophy 85:649-663.

Burge, T. (1989). Individuation and causation in psychology. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 70:303-322.

Crane, T. (1991). All the difference in the world. Philosophical Quarterly 41:1-25.

Davies, M. (1991). Individualism and perceptual content. Mind 100:461-484.

Devitt, M. (1990). A narrow representational theory of mind. In W. Lycan, Ed., Mind and Cognition: A Reader. New York: Blackwell.

Fodor, J. A. (1982). Cognitive science and the Twin Earth problem. Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 23:98-118.

Houghton, D. (1997). Mental content and external representation. Philosophical Quarterly 47:159-177

Jacob, P. (1997). What Minds Can Do: Intentionality in a Non-Intentional World. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kitcher, Pat. (1985). Narrow taxonomy and wide functionalism. Philosophy of Science 52:78-97.

Lewis, D. L. (1994). Reduction of mind. In S. Guttenplan, Ed., Companion to the Philosophy of Mind. New York: Blackwell.

Marr, D. (1982). Vision: A Computational Approach. San Francisco: Freeman.

McGinn, C. (1989). Mental Content. New York: Blackwell.

Millikan, R. G. (1993). White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Patterson, S. (1991). Individualism and semantic development. Philosophy of Science 58:15-35.

Pylyshyn, Z. (1984). Computation and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Segal, G. (1991). Defense of a reasonable individualism. Mind 100:485-494.

Stalnaker, R. C. (1989). On what's in the head. In J. Tomberlin, Ed., Philosophical Perspectives 3. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

Walsh, D. (1998). Wide content individualism. Mind 107:625-651

White, S. (1991). The Unity of the Self. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Woodfield, A., Ed. (1982). Thought and Object: Essays on Intentionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press .