Patricia Smith Churchland Reference

Patricia Smith Churchland

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: By building a bridge between philosophy and neuroscience, Churchland demonstrated that empirical study of the brain is crucial to the philosophy of mind.

Early Life

From a very young age, Patricia Smith Churchland was interested in how things work. As she speculated in an interview published in Speaking Minds: Interviews with Twenty Eminent Cognitive Scientists (1995):

Maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm, and as a kid I had to solve, as a matter of daily life, a lot of practical problems. If an irrigation pump did not work or a cow was having trouble calving, we had to figure out how the thing worked and do what we could to fix it.

In this way, Churchland’s childhood provided her with a mechanistic understanding of the world that has significantly influenced her approach to philosophy, particularly to the philosophy of mind. Much in the way that she once attempted to understand the workings of irrigation pumps, she has throughout her philosophical career attempted to understand the workings of the human brain or, as she usually puts it, the “mind-brain.”

Churchland received a bachelor’s degree from the University of British Columbia in 1965 and then entered graduate school in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. Her time at Pittsburgh was important to her philosophical development for several reasons, not the least of which was that her schooling there planted the seeds of skepticism about what is often called “ordinary language philosophy.” Owing primarily to the works of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the British philosopher J. L. Austin, ordinary language philosophy was the dominant school of Anglo-American philosophical thought in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Reacting against early twentieth century philosophers such as Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, who claimed that philosophy required a technical language of its own, ordinary language philosophers argued that philosophical problems could best be solved by attending to the ordinary meanings of words, that is, by doing conceptual analysis. While working toward her M.A. degree at Pittsburgh, Churchland developed a growing uneasiness about the tenability of conceptual analysis as a philosophical method. In particular, she became frustrated with philosophers’ attempts to develop a theory of the mind by way of a priori reflection on ordinary mental concepts. Even within the strongly Wittgensteinian climate of Oxford University, where she studied from 1966 to 1969, Churchland’s disdain for a priori philosophy, and what she saw as its antiscientific narrowness, grew.

This disdain was shared by her husband, Paul M. Churchland; together, they began to explore the view that the way to make progress in philosophy of mind was to look to science, and in particular, to the neurosciences. Though many philosophers at that time were arguing that empirical science had little to offer a philosophical study of the mind, the Churchlands began to steer a different course, becoming more and more convinced that the key to understanding cognition lay in understanding the processes of the brain. This conviction would remain at the center of Patricia Churchland’s work throughout her philosophical career.

Life’s Work

Churchland began her academic career as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba, Canada, in 1969. During her early years at Manitoba, she and her husband had two children, Mark in 1972 and Anne in 1974. She also published her first article, “Logical Form and Ontological Decision,” which appeared in Journal of Philosophy in 1974. It was soon followed by several other well-received articles in professional journals, and her substantial publication record no doubt paved the way to her promotion to the rank of associate professor in 1977.

Throughout this time, however, Churchland’s frustration with a priori philosophy continued to grow, and by the mid-1970’s she was seriously disenchanted with the current state of the discipline. One of the sources of her frustration was functionalism, a theory that was then beginning to dominate philosophy of mind. Functionalism views the mind as an information-processing system based on a computational analogy. Roughly, functionalists compare the relationship between mind and brain to the relationship between program and computer. In keeping with this comparison, functionalists believe that understanding the brain, seen simply as a piece of “hardware,” is largely irrelevant to understanding the program, human cognition, that it runs. This assumption, though widely shared, struck Churchland as misguided. She firmly suspected that there was much to be learned about human cognitive processes by understanding the brain, the center of such processes. Deciding to explore this suspicion for herself, she turned to science and began a systematic, empirical study of the brain.


(The entire section is 2043 words.)