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Zenon W. Pylyshyn

Zenon W. Pylyshyn is Board of Governors Professor of Cognitive Science at Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science. He is the author of Seeing and Visualizing: It's Not what You Think (2003) and Computation and Cognition: Toward a Foundation for Cognitive Science (1984), both published by The MIT Press, as well as over a hundred scientific papers on perception, attention, and the computational theory of mind.

Titles by This Author

An Essay on the Content of Concepts

In cognitive science, conceptual content is frequently understood as the “meaning” of a mental representation. This position raises largely empirical questions about what concepts are, what form they take in mental processes, and how they connect to the world they are about. In Minds without Meaning, Jerry Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn review some of the proposals put forward to answer these questions and find that none of them is remotely defensible.

Fodor and Pylyshyn determine that all of these proposals share a commitment to a two-factor theory of conceptual content, which holds that the content of a concept consists of its sense together with its reference. Fodor and Pylyshyn argue instead that there is no conclusive case against the possibility of a theory of concepts that takes reference as their sole semantic property. Such a theory, if correct, would provide for the naturalistic account of content that cognitive science lacks—and badly needs. Fodor and Pylyshyn offer a sketch of how this theory might be developed into an account of perceptual reference that is broadly compatible with empirical findings and with the view that the mental processes effecting perceptual reference are largely preconceptual, modular, and encapsulated.

How the Mind Connects with the World

InThings and Places, Zenon Pylyshyn argues that the process of incrementally constructing perceptual representations, solving the binding problem (determining which properties go together), and, more generally, grounding perceptual representations in experience arise from the nonconceptual capacity to pick out and keep track of a small number of sensory individuals. He proposes a mechanism in early vision that allows us to select a limited number of sensory objects, to reidentify each of them under certain conditions as the same individual seen before, and to keep track of their enduring individuality despite radical changes in their properties—all without the machinery of concepts, identity, and tenses. This mechanism, which he calls FINSTs (for "Fingers of Instantiation"), is responsible for our capacity to individuate and track several independently moving sensory objects—an ability that we exercise every waking minute, and one that can be understood as fundamental to the way we see and understand the world and to our sense of space.

Pylyshyn examines certain empirical phenomena of early vision in light of the FINST mechanism, including tracking and attentional selection. He argues provocatively that the initial selection of perceptual individuals is our primary nonconceptual contact with the perceptual world (a contact that does not depend on prior encoding of any properties of the thing selected) and then draws upon a wide range of empirical data to support a radical externalist theory of spatial representation that grows out of his indexing theory.

It's Not What You Think

In Seeing and Visualizing, Zenon Pylyshyn argues that seeing is different from thinking and that to see is not, as it may seem intuitively, to create an inner replica of the world. Pylyshyn examines how we see and how we visualize and why the scientific account does not align with the way these processes seem to us "from the inside." In doing so, he addresses issues in vision science, cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, and cognitive neuroscience.

First, Pylyshyn argues that there is a core stage of vision independent from the influence of our prior beliefs and examines how vision can be intelligent and yet essentially knowledge-free. He then proposes that a mechanism within the vision module, called a visual index (or FINST), provides a direct preconceptual connection between parts of visual representations and things in the world, and he presents various experiments that illustrate the operation of this mechanism. He argues that such a deictic reference mechanism is needed to account for many properties of vision, including how mental images attain their apparent spatial character without themselves being laid out in space in our brains.

The final section of the book examines the "picture theory" of mental imagery, including recent neuroscience evidence, and asks whether any current evidence speaks to the issue of the format of mental images. This analysis of mental imagery brings together many of the themes raised throughout the book and provides a framework for considering such issues as the distinction between the form and the content of representations, the role of vision in thought, and the relation between behavioral, neuroscientific, and phenomenological evidence regarding mental representations.

Toward a Foundation for Cognitive Science

The question, "What is Cognitive Science?" is often asked but seldom answered to anyone's satisfaction. Until now, most of the answers have come from the new breed of philosophers of mind. This book, however, is written by a distinguished psychologist and computer scientist who is well-known for his work on the conceptual foundations of cognitive science, and especially for his research on mental imagery, representation, and perception.

In Computation and Cognition, Pylyshyn argues that computation must not be viewed as just a convenient metaphor for mental activity, but as a literal empirical hypothesis. Such a view must face a number of serious challenges. For example, it must address the question of "strong equivalents" of processes, and must empirically distinguish between phenomena which reveal what knowledge the organism has, phenomena which reveal properties of the biologically determined "functional architecture" of the mind. The principles and ideas Pylyshyn develops are applied to a number of contentious areas of cognitive science, including theories of vision and mental imagery. In illuminating such timely theoretical problems, he draws on insights from psychology, theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence, and psychology of mind.

A Bradford Book