Phenomenology in cognitive science and artificial intelligence

In H. Dreyfus & M. Wrathall (eds.), A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism (2006)
Fifty years before the present volume appeared, artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive science (Cogsci) emerged from a couple of small-scale academic encounters on the East Coast of the United States. Wedded together like Siamese twins, these nascent research programs appeared to rest on some general assumptions regarding the human mind, and closely connected methodological principles, which set them at such a distance from phenomenology that no contact between the two approaches seemed conceivable. Soon however contact was made, in the form of a head-on critique of the AI/Cogsci project mostly inspired by arguments from phenomenology. For a while, it seemed like nothing would come of it: AI/Cogsci bloomed while the small troop of critical phenomenologists kept objecting. Then AI and Cogsci went their separate ways. AI underwent a deep transformation and all but surrendered to the phenomenological critique. Cogsci meanwhile pursued the initial program with a far richer collection of problems, concepts and methods, and was for a long time quite unconcerned by suggestions and objections from phenomenology. The last decade and half has seen a remarkable reversal: on the one hand, a few cognitive scientists have been actively pursuing the goal of reconciliating Cogsci, whether empirically or foundationally, with some of the insights procured by phenomenology; on the other, many cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind who think of themselves as, respectively, mainstream and analytic, and have no or little acquaintance with, and often little sympathy for, phenomenology, have been actively pursuing research programs geared toward some of the key issues identified by phenomenological critics of early AI/Cogsci. It might seem then as if those critics were now vindicated. But while these new directions are undoubtedly promising, it is not yet clear that phenomenology and Cogsci can be truly reconciled. Some suspect that Cogsci must distort beyond recognition those phenomenological themes it means to weave into its fabric, while phenomenology may be losing touch with its roots by tuning onto the logic of Cogsci which is, after all, an empirical science. To the present writer, it is far too early for anything like a verdict, as the task of clarifying the issues and gaining a much deeper understanding of the issues on both sides has barely begun. But whatever emerges from this exploration will probably have deep consequences for both Cogsci and philosophy..
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