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Cognition and Reality: Principles And Implications Of Cognitive

reviewed by Brenda Munsey-Maple - 1980

coverTitle: Cognition and Reality: Principles And Implications Of Cognitive
Author(s): Ulric Neisser
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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Neisser's 1967 book, Cognitive Psychology, is a classic in the field. Its emphasis on the information-processing paradigm helped make it the dominant program in recent cognitive research. In his new book, Cognition and Reality, Neisser repudiates the information-processing paradigm he had helped to establish and attempts to define a new program for studying cognition. He now believes that experiments based on information-processing assumptions have had little relevance for understanding the complex cognitive tasks psychology is really interested in. The wide employment of such assumptions is said to have caused researchers to ignore ecologically important variables in favor of less valid but more easily managed ones. Most recent research, writes Neisser, makes use of "stimulus material that is abstract, discontinuous, and only marginally real," while neglecting "the spacial, temporal, and intermodel continuities of real objects and events." In Cognition and Reality, Neisser tries to redirect cognitive research by developing a cognitive paradigm consistent with studying the temporally extended, purposeful tasks actually encountered in the everyday world of human affairs.

Although the book considers other aspects of cognition such as memory, attention, language, and introspection, much of Neisser's analysis is specifically concerned with perception. The impetus for Neisser's theoretical proposals is J. J. Gibson's influential critique of the information-processing model of perception. According to the information-processing model, perception is explained on the basis of theories about mental processes thought to convert ''discrete and meaningless sensory inputs" into conscious percepts. For psychologists committed to this computer paradigm, theorizing was restricted to mental mechanisms, while sensory inputs were treated as noncognitive "givens" whose transformation in perception could be adequately explained without theorizing about the stimulus. In rejecting this theoretical approach, Gibson advocated an opposite thesis, namely, that a satisfactory account of perception could be given on the basis of theories about the stimulus conditions; additional hypotheses about the mental processing of stimuli are unnecessary. Information from the environment is "picked up," not "processed," by organisms.

Agreeing with Gibson, Neisser now claims that a systematic analysis of stimulus conditions, on the order of Gibson's "information pick-up" theory, is necessary for a satisfactory psychological account of perception. However, he denies Gibson's claim that such an analysis is sufficient. The importance of Gibson's theory, writes Neisser, "is to suggest that students of perception should develop new and richer descriptions of the stimulus information, rather than ever-subtler hypotheses about mental operations" (p. 19). Neither information-processing theory nor Gibson's information pick-up alternative is acceptable to Neisser. Each produces a distorted view of perception by focusing the theoretical task on a single aspect of what he takes to be a continuous cyclic activity. Rather than restrict theorizing to processes either "inside" the organism or "outside" in the organism's stimulus situation, Neisser's goal is to develop an interactive approach to explaining perception.

Neisser regards his theoretical proposals as an attempt to integrate Gibson's ecological analysis with mental processing theory. The proposed synthesis is built around Neisser's notion of "perceptual cycle." "Perceiving is a kind of doing . . . guided by expectancies that in turn are altered by consequences" (p. 53). These "expectancies" are cognitive schemata inherent in perception. They are "that portion of the entire perceptual cycle which is internal to the perceiver, modifiable by experience, and somehow specific to what is being perceived" (p. 54). Individuals "pick up" information for which they have schemata, but do not have to then "process" it.

The context within which Neisser's proposals are developed and defended is the recent debate in cognitive psychology over information-processing theory and the rival information pick-up view. Although Cognition and Reality presents a compelling case for Neisser's "interactional" alternative in terms of the specific issues in this Gibson-inspired debate, it does not adequately develop the theory's presuppositions on such central metatheo-retical issues as the nature of knowledge and inquiry. Presumably, Neisser's psychological paradigm has specific epistemological entailments, yet these are never explicitly stated and defended. The book analyzes cognition as "the activity of knowing; the acquisition, organization, and use of knowledge" (p. 1) but it does not provide an analysis of knowing, or knowledge. Because Neisser fails to provide this level of analysis, much of his account is needlessly vague. A specific analysis of knowledge, inquiry, and meaning is needed if cognitive psychology is to appreciate the specifics of a program as different from the established paradigm as is Neisser's proposal. Assuming that the epistemological implications of his approach are significantly different from those of the rival information-processing theory, his use of expressions such as "information about the world," "cognitive schema," or "higher mental operations" is problematic without further clarification.

Neisser does give some attention to the metatheoretical context of his proposals but it is not enough to clarify their bearing on related issues in contemporary philosophical debate. Although he does not say so, Neisser's criticism of research based on information-processing theory has a recognizable pragmatic tone, as does the alternative paradigm he develops in Cognition and Reality. Assuming I am correct in this appraisal, the metatheoretical context of Neisser's proposals is the recent pragmatic movement in philosophy of science. This movement successfully challenged the metaphysical/epistemological presuppositions of internal-processing theories and provided an alternative pragmatic analysis of science, knowledge, and meaning. These alternative formulations would provide a friendly basis for clarifying the remaining logical details of Neisser's approach.

Turning to a final matter, Neisser's proposed revisions of cognitive psychology raise some interesting questions about its established boundary with radical behaviorism. Neisser's revisions of classical cognitive theory are in certain respects comparable to Skinner's revisions of classical behaviorism. Skinner's new approach repudiated the "passive" starting point of the classical "stimulus-response" paradigm, replacing it with the "active" starting point of his three-term "behavior-reinforcement-behavior" formulation. In a similar vein, Neisser repudiates the passive starting point of information-processing theory. According to Neisser, perception does not have a passive, noncognitive phase, followed by cognitive processing; cognitive schemata are inherent in the beginning of perception. Thus, the data of perceptual theory are not meaningless sensory inputs, but rather inherently meaningful, perceptual acts. Whatever their other differences, both Skinner and Neisser begin inquiry with an organism's act, and attempt to explain future activity on the basis of its interaction with environmental contingencies.

Cognition and Reality provides a coherent, naturalistic alternative for cognitive psychology that, despite a need for further clarification, is essentially sound. Educational theorists sympathetic to John Dewey's analysis of mind will be especially receptive to Neisser's attempt to establish an interactional basis for the scientific study of cognition.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 81 Number 3, 1980, p. 403-406
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1055, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 11:36:59 PM

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About the Author
  • Brenda Munsey-Maple
    University of Alabama, Birmingham
    Brenda Munsey-Mapel is associate professor in educational foundations, University of Alabama, Birmingham. Besides philosophy of psychology, her major interests are educational policy analysis and moral/social education. She recently edited Moral Development,Moral Education and Kohlberg: Basic Issues in Philosphy, Psychology, Religion and Education.
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