The rise and fall of computational functionalism

Oron Shagrir*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Hilary Putnam is the father of computational functionalism, a doctrine he developed in a series of papers beginning with “Minds and Machines” (1960) and culminating in “The Nature of Mental States” (1967b). Enormously influential ever since, it became the received view of the nature of mental states. In recent years, however, there has been growing dissatisfaction with computational functionalism. Putnam himself, having advanced powerful arguments against the very doctrine he had previously championed, is largely responsible for its demise. Today, he has little patience for either computational functionalism or its underlying philosophical agenda. Echoing despair of naturalism, he dismisses computational functionalism as a utopian enterprise. My aim in this essay is to present both Putnam's arguments for computational functionalism and his later critique of the position. In section 2, I examine the rise of computational functionalism. In section 3, I offer an account of its demise, arguing that it can be attributed to recognition of the gap between the computational-functional aspects of mentality and its intentional character. This recognition can be traced to two of Putnam's results: the familiar Twin-Earth argument, and the less familiar theorem that every ordinary physical system implements every finite automaton. I close with implications for cognitive science. Computational functionalism is the view that mental states and events - pains, beliefs, desires, thoughts and so forth - are computational states of the brain, and so are defined in terms of “computational parameters plus relations to biologically characterized inputs and outputs” (1988:7).

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationHilary Putnam
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages31
ISBN (Electronic)9780511614187
ISBN (Print)0521012546, 9780521813112
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2005

Publication series

NameContemporary philosophy in focus

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2005 and Cambridge University Press, 2010.


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