This is the author’s version of a work that was

accepted for publication in Epistemologia.
Changes resulting from the publishing process
such as peer review editing, corrections, structural
formatting, and other quality control mechanisms,
may not be reflected in this document.
Marco Mazzone

Abstract: In the present paper I analyse the modularity thesis and, more specifically, the thesis of domain-specificity
of processing. I argue that this thesis is not trivial only under the assumption of a variety of processes which differ
from each other at the implementation level; otherwise, the variety of cognitive processes can only be explained as
emergent on the basic mechanism of associative activation in that it operates on domain-specific representations,
which is something that no one would deny. But that assumption is untenable: there are no other processes than
associative activation (and inhibition) at the implementation level. Any claim to the contrary is the result of a
conceptual confusion between two senses of “associative”: a behavioural one, relative to which there are cognitive
processes that exceed the ability to code elementary spatio-temporal contingencies, and one that lies instead at the
implementation level. Since the assumption of a plurality of processes at the implementation level is untenable, the
only viable interpretation of modularism (as far as domain-specificity is concerned) is a trivial one. By this I do not
mean that the thesis is devoid of any content. However, its content is scarcely debatable, and far less thrilling than the
debate has suggested so far.

Keywords: modularity; association; domain-specificity; memory; conscious attention
Banalizzare la modularità: un resoconto rappresentazionale-associativo della cognizione: Nel presente articolo
intendo analizzare la tesi della modularità, e più specificamente la questione della specificità per dominio del
processing. Sostengo che questa tesi non è banale solo sotto l’assunzione di una pluralità di processi che differiscono
gli uni dagli altri al livello dell’implementazione: altrimenti la varietà dei processi può essere spiegata come
emergente su un meccanismo di attivazione associativa che opera su rappresentazioni specifiche per dominio, una
concezione della modularità che nessuno rifiuterebbe. Ma quell’assunzione va respinta: al livello
dell’implementazione non ci sono altri processi che l’attivazione (e l’inibizione) associativa. La tesi contraria è il
risultato di una confusione concettuale tra due accezioni di “associativo”: una comportamentale, secondo la quale vi
sono processi cognitivi che eccedono la semplice codifica di contingenze spazio-temporali, ed una che invece si pone
al livello dell’implementazione. Se la tesi di una pluralità di processi al livello dell’implementazione non è
sostenibile, rimane spazio solo per una interpretazione banale della modularità (almeno per quanto concerne la
specificità per dominio). Con questo non intendo che la tesi sia priva di contenuto. Essa è però ben poco discutibile, e
meno eccitante di quanto sia apparso finora.

Parole chiave: modularità; associazione; specificità per dominio; memoria; attenzione cosciente

1. Introduction
In cognitive sciences, modularity has been – and is still – an influential model of explanation. One
especially important feature of modules is taken to be domain-specificity, which M. Coltheart (1999 p. 118)
has even claimed to be the only “necessary condition for the applicability of the term 'modular'”. Coltheart is
also responsible for the distinction between a knowledge module, that is, a body of knowledge that is
independent of other bodies of knowledge, and a processing module, which is instead defined as a mental
information-processing system. His thesis about domain-specificity as a necessary condition for modularity
is intended to apply to processing (not knowledge) modules. In this perspective, the modularist's

University of Catania, DISUM (Dipartimento Scienze Umanistiche), Piazza Dante 32, 95124 Catania; I
have to thank the anonymous referees for their very useful comments on an earlier draft.


commitment to the existence of a variety of modules amounts to saying that there is a variety of different
specialized processes. For instance, as far as syntax is concerned, Coltheart (1999, p. 118) claims that the
kind of domain-specificity he is interested in is not relative to syntactic knowledge but to the “syntactic
processing module”, although this module can be expected to “have, as part of its internal structure, a body
of knowledge about syntax”.
My purpose in the present paper is to analyse this claim that there is a variety of processing modules
characterized by domain-specificity (in short, the thesis of domain-specific processing). Specifically, I intend
to argue that this thesis is either trivial or untenable, depending on how one interprets it.1
It is trivial if one fails to take seriously the distinction between knowledge and processing modules. The
processing of different bodies of knowledge as such can be – and normally is – relatively autonomous. Two
distinct sets of input-output transformations might be modularized in this sense (i.e., be autonomously
processed) even if they are both implemented by the very same basic process. But everyone is a modularist
in this very minimal sense. Thus, the thesis of domain-specific processing is not trivial only if, given two
distinct modules, the set of their respective input-output transformation rules is not just the application of a
common basic process to two different bodies of knowledge. In other words, the thesis is not trivial only if
there is a variety of processes which differ from each other intrinsically, that is, not just for the bodies of
knowledge involved in their functioning.
However, I argue that, under this interpretation, the thesis of domain-specific processing is untenable. The
argument for this is twofold. In the first place, associative processing is spread all over the brain and it is the
brain's basic mode of functioning. One might then expect that more complex processes emerge on this mode
of functioning, and this is in fact what some important recent models of cognition suggest. In the second
place, there are reasons to think that encoded representations provide by themselves the domain-specific
rules by which different sorts of inputs are processed. Interestingly, this has been claimed also with regard to
the domain of syntax (among others), especially by R. Jackendoff (2002; 2007). If Jackendoff's claim is
right, pace Coltheart, the existence of a body of knowledge about syntax is enough to explain modularized
syntactic processing. There is no need to posit domain-specific processing in the strong sense that
intrinsically different processes for syntax and other domains are required.
In practice, I will first (in section 2) consider the claim that any cognitive process is associative, after all.
Here it is important to distinguish between two senses of “associative”, at the behavioural level and at the
implementation level. In section 3, I will argue that two complementary errors can follow from not keeping
that distinction in mind: first, eliminativism towards cognitive (versus associative) processes at the
behavioural level; second, postulation of mechanisms not reducible to associative activation (and inhibition)
at the implementation level. In section 4, I will address the claim that representations contain in themselves
domain-specific processing rules, so that domain-specificity emerges on the common mechanism of neural
activation thanks to the encoding of different bodies of knowledge. On the basis of these considerations, I
will then turn to modularism in section 5, arguing that the notion of “module” may appear debatable (as far
as domain-specificity is concerned) only under the assumption of a variety of processes which differ from
each other at the implementation level.

2. Associative versus cognitive processes?
In order to analyse associative processing, an important terminological clarification must be made.
Psychologists call “associative” a specific kind of learning mechanism, and its counterpart for the recovery
of information, as distinct from other mechanisms of knowledge acquisition and exploitation which are
usually referred to as “cognitive” or “inferential” and are usually presumed to be accompanied by conscious
attention (see Shanks 2010 for a review). However, from a neurocomputational perspective the term
“associative” can be used to refer to the basic brain mechanism by which any psychological process has to be
implemented. On the one hand, flows of activation propagate through neurons and neuronal assemblies in a
way that depends on the strength of their previous associative connections. On the other hand, the strength of
these connections depends in turn on the previous flows of activation, in accordance with the Hebbian
principle “what fires together wires together”. In short, the whole brain is a Hebbian machine for the


Since there are ways of characterizing modularity other than domain-specificity, and since Coltheart’s claim that domainspecificity is the only necessary condition of modularity is far from universally accepted, my discussion of domain-specificity cannot
be fully generalized to modularity as such. The conclusions that I draw affect modularity as far as domain-specificity is concerned.


extraction of environmental, behavioural and cognitive regularities by means of the construction and
exploitation of associative connections.2
From this perspective, even “cognitive” constructs such as attention and awareness have ultimately to be
explained in terms of the basic mechanism of associative activation. As a matter of fact, in his review of the
debate between association-based and cognitive theories of learning, D.R. Shanks (2010) observes that that
very distinction tends nowadays to be blurred in more than one way. To start with: “associative theory has,
over the decades, often succeeded in explaining phenomena initially thought to be beyond its bounds, and
there are solid reasons to believe that the same may apply to some of the findings described here” (Shanks
2010: 285). This line of argument, however, is far from conclusive, since the growing success of a model of
explanation is no guarantee that nothing will be finally shown to exceed its explanatory power. As a matter
of fact, many have recently argued that the potential of associative accounts in explaining learning has been
underestimated (McClelland 2006; Schmajuk and Larrauri 2007; Rakison and Lupyan 2008; Kaufman et al.
2009; Heyes 2012; Scarf et al. 2012), although – some of them cautiously point out – some cases might be
eventually shown to require a different, more cognitive, explanation.
However, a more conclusive line of reasoning can be pursued, based on the above distinction between
behavioural manifestations and implementation of processes. Modern associative theories strongly
acknowledge the role of attentional controlled processing in most (and possibly all) cases of learning – in
practice, they acknowledge that cognitive (versus associative) processes do exist and are in fact ubiquitous –
but they find reasons to think that attentional processing emerges itself “from the operations and interactions
of very elementary processing units” (Shanks 2010, p. 275), that is, from basic associative mechanisms.
A way to account for this emergence of controlled processing is in terms of the neurobiological model
proposed by S. Dehaene and collaborators as a development of B. Baars' “global workspace theory” of
consciousness (Baars 1988). In particular, Dehaene et al. (2006) propose that the basic dynamic of neuronal
activation may present itself in four different patterns: weak and rapidly decaying activation in posterior
sensory-motor areas; intense activation in posterior areas involving loops which are yet confined to sensorymotor processes; weak activation in posterior areas but modulated by top-down attention which presupposes
strong frontal activation; long-distance loops between strongly activated sensory-motor representations and
higher association cortices. The last pattern is the one responsible for conscious and controlled processing
proper. As it may be seen, the dynamic of activation is taken to vary along two dimensions: locus of
activation (local vs. global, anterior vs. posterior); strength of activation (weak and rapidly decaying
activation, that is, simple spreading activation vs. strong activation due to self-sustaining loops). Variation in
associative interactions along those dimensions is considered sufficient to account for the whole range of
mental processes.
Based on both neuroscientific considerations of this sort and computational considerations about
connectionist modelling, T.V. Maia and A. Cleeremans (2005, p. 401) have proposed that executive
functions – attention, working memory, cognitive control and consciousness – “are not distinct functions
implemented by separate brain systems”. On the contrary, they can be explained in terms of a single
mechanism of global competition between representations in the presence of top-down biases from prefrontal
cortex (PFC). For instance, a “stimulus enters consciousness if its representation is part of the winning
coalition” in a bottom-up competition for activation (Maia and Cleeremans 2005, p. 401) and this may be
modulated by top-down biases from PFC – that is, by what is already in consciousness. These top-down
biases are what we call “attention”, so that attention and consciousness are just different facets of the same
neuronal dynamic.
Such a view is also largely indebted to E.K. Miller and J.D. Cohen's (2001) influential model of executive
functions. According to this model, “one of the most fundamental aspects of cognitive control and goaldirected behaviour [is] the ability to select a weaker, task-relevant response (or source of information) in the
face of competition from an otherwise stronger, but task-irrelevant one” (Miller and Cohen 2001, p. 170).
Generally speaking, processing in the brain is competitive. When activation spreads thanks to excitatory
connections, coalitions of activated representations compete with each other, both at the local and the global
level in Dehaene et al.'s (2006) model. More precisely, different neuronal coalitions can either increase each
other's activation or, in case they are linked by inhibitory connections, lower it. Inhibition, as well as
activation, can take place at different scales, spanning from most local (lateral inhibition within cortical
maps) to most global (active inhibition involving PFC and conscious awareness) (for a review, see Aron
2007). Miller and Cohen's suggestion is that the PFC contains patterns of activity which map onto

For a survey of this view of the brain as a Hebbian machine, see Fuster (2003), Pulvermüller, Garagnani and Wennekers (2014).
Plebe and Mazzone (submitted) provides ample evidence that, if the Hebbian principle is a simplification of the actual neural
dynamic, such a simplification is well grounded in current neuroscientific knowledge.


configurations of representations in more posterior cortical areas. When such a pattern within the PFC is
activated, this increases the activation of the posterior configuration it is connected to and allows that
configuration to overcome task-irrelevant competing ones. In short, conscious control of behaviour is
nothing but a special case of the normal associative mechanism by which representations affect each other's
activation. Specifically, in conscious control the activation spreads from a self-sustaining loop in the PFC to
more posterior areas through long-distance connections – with self-sustaining loops being in turn nothing but
specific patterns of associative activation.
In sum, associative processing in the strict sense and conscious, cognitive processing can be argued to be
just different (though interacting) patterns of the same neuronal dynamic of associative activation and
competition. This is strictly related to the issue of the balance between processes and representations: it is
because representations contain in themselves the rules by which domain-specific processing is governed
that we do not need to posit a variety of cognitive processes. I will address this view of representations in
section 4. But before that, let us put our previous conclusions in a larger perspective.

3. Implementation or deflationism?
I have been arguing that prototypical cognitive processes can be implemented by neural mechanisms of
activation and competition. Does this make those processes any less cognitive? This is not what I claim. As
C. Buckner (2011) correctly says, one should carefully distinguish between arguing for a deflationary
account of cognitive processes, according to which these processes are not actually cognitive after all, and
aiming instead to provide a description of how the processes at issue are implemented at the neural level.
Buckner (2011) invokes a distinction between two senses of “associative” that is very close to the one
defended here and observes that the “implementation” (vs. “deflationist”) view of cognitive processes
presupposes such a distinction: one wants to be able to say that processes that are legitimately considered
non-associative (that is, cognitive) at the level of behavioural descriptions are nonetheless associative at the
implementation level. On the other hand, Buckner suggests that the “deflationist” view of cognitive
processes depends on a conceptual confusion and an equivocation fallacy. While what is shown is merely
that the process at issue is associative in the implementation sense, the conclusion is drawn that this process
is not cognitive at the level of the behavioural description.
However, I want to note that the same confusion may also affect in a complementary way the defenders
of cognitive processes. In order to defend the claim that cognitive processes are not reducible to associative
ones (at the behavioural level), they may also feel committed to denying that cognitive processes are
performed by associative processes at the implementation level. Those complementary errors are the root of
many misunderstandings in the debate on connectionist/symbolic views of cognition. More precisely, both
the claim that symbolic processing cannot be implemented by connectionist networks and the claim that
there are no such things as symbolic processes are far too extreme and presuppose the same confusion of
levels: as a matter of fact, there are both symbolic and non-symbolic processes at a behavioural level, and
both of them have to be implemented by connectionist networks, insofar as this is the only computing
machinery we are endowed with, after all.
What is the interest of the above considerations for our issue of modularity? The present point is that in
analysing cognition we should not confound differences at the behavioural level with differences in the
underlying machinery: different behavioural manifestations can emerge on (different modes of functioning
of) the same machinery. At the appropriate level of description, the very same underlying mechanism can be
expected to account for wholly different processes. This claim might appear obvious and has in fact become
common ground in the debate on connectionism (e.g., Smolensky 1988; Marcus 1998). Nevertheless, the
confusion tends to surface again elsewhere, as in the debate on associative processes and, I argue, in the
debate on modularism as well. In practice, the entire issue of domain-specificity depends on the usually
implicit assumption that, if inputs from different cognitive domains are processed autonomously (differences
at the behavioural level), then there must exist processes that are specific to those domains at the
implementation level. While this thesis is untenable for the reasons described so far, abandoning it makes
domain-specificity trivial: for a process to be domain-specific in this weaker sense, it suffices that there are
domain-specific representations manipulated by the very same underlying process, as in the view I will
sketch in the next section.3

Let me be entirely explicit on this: I do not mean that it is trivial to discover whether the process X and the process Y (for
example, face- and object-recognition) are processed autonomously. If this is so, it remains a genuine empirical discovery even if it


In other words, I have focussed until now on the claim that the basic neurocomputational mechanism
underlying cognition is better thought of as unitary – based on associative activation – than as a variety of
distinct processes, specifically with regard to the distinction between associative and cognitive processes at
the behavioural level. I intend to focus now on the claim that this mechanism suffices to account for domainspecific processing at the behavioural level, so that the thesis of domain-specificity is trivialised.

4. Representations instead of processes
An interesting illustration of how specificity of representations can be substituted for specificity of
processes is provided by Jackendoff (2007) with respect to syntax. Generative Grammar has conceived of
words and syntactic rules as radically different from each other. In particular, words are thought of as inert
representations which need to be passively manipulated by syntactic rules, conceived instead as operations.
Now, in a general attempt to reconcile Generative Grammar with psycholinguistic evidence, Jackendoff has
proposed that syntactic rules are instead “pieces of structure stored in long-term memory” (Jackendoff 2007,
p. 11) and that they are as such of the same nature as words, though at a different level of abstraction.
Syntactic rules and words are then supposed to be manipulated by a single process of unification, which is
deemed not to be language-specific. In Jackendoff and Pinker's (2005, p. 222) words, “unification may be a
fundamental operation throughout perception and cognition: if so, the language-specific part of grammar
would reside in the nature of the stored representations (their constants and variables) rather than in the
operation that combines them”. In a sense, then, the distinction between processes and inert representations
is still there: the unification process is held responsible for the fact that representations are combined
together. But, first, syntactic representations are not inert in another sense: they provide the information
according to which syntactic units are to be combined by a “dumb” unification process. And, second, the
unification process is far from being specific for language. Specificity of processing is ensured instead by the
kind of representations involved; specifically, syntactic processing consists in combining lower-level
elements of that domain in accordance with what is prescribed by higher-level representations of the same
One key assumption of Jackendoff’s model is that by substituting specificity of representations for
specificity of processes one does not lose information. In fact, syntactic representations are assumed to have
by and large the same logical structure that Generative Grammar has attributed to syntactic rules. This might
appear controversial when representations are explicitly thought of as associative, since there is a widespread
opinion that associative relationships are not complex enough to account for rule-based input-output
transformations. There are two sources for this opinion. The first is the confusion described in section 3. That
is, from the observation that associative processes at the behavioural level can only detect and code very
simple spatio-temporal co-occurrences, the conclusion is drawn that this limitation is intrinsic to the
mechanism of activation (and deactivation) of nodes in associative networks. The second source is a
fallacious identification between associationism and behaviourism (see Smith 2000): given the antirepresentationalist approach of behaviourism, this identification suggests that associative processes can
detect simple covariations in the environment without coding any information about their domain-specific
relationships, not even spatio-temporal ones. If this were the case, it is hard to see how associations might
provide the abstract rules by which information is manipulated and transformed, in syntax as well as in other
However, this opinion is probably wrong. This is suggested not only by our previous considerations about
the confusion between the behavioural and the implementation sense of “associative”, but also by the ample
evidence that complex patterns can be abstracted from experience and then provide the domain-specific
structure which is apt to drive processing in their domains.
An interesting illustration can be found in evidence about extreme plasticity such as that provided by M.
Sur and collaborators (Sur, Angelucci and Sharma 1999; Sur and Leamey 2001; von Melchner, Pallas and
Sur 2000). They conducted anatomical experiments in ferrets, rerouting the normal connections from the eye
to the primary visual area, so that they reached instead the auditory cortex. As a result, the auditory cortex
was enabled to make visual distinctions. This suggests that both primary visual and auditory areas are apt to
associatively extract patterns of regularities from their input, whatever it is, and then the encoded patterns
provide the rules by which subsequent visual or auditory distinctions are made.
turned out that this depends on domain-specific representations being manipulated by the same underlying process (see below,
section 5). My point is rather that, if we want to describe these abilities as “modular” even in such a case, we have a sense of
“modular” that everyone would be willing to accept.


As far as language is concerned, more than a decade of evidence shows that both infants and adults are
much more skilled at detecting statistical regularities within complex stimuli – and specifically,
auditory/linguistic stimuli – than was previously suspected (Baldwin and Baird 2001, p. 174; for a recent
review see also Butterfill and Apperly 2013).
Finally, there is neuroscientific evidence that complex and general behavioural rules can be represented
by learned associations in the PFC (Miller and Cohen 2001, pp. 176-8) and there is also computational
evidence of such an experience-driven self organization of abstract rule-like representations in the PFC
supporting flexible cognitive control (Rougier et al. 2005). Such findings are consistent with Miller and
Cohen's (2001) model of executive functions described above, and provide support for the “representational”
approach to the PFC, according to which this area permanently stores abstract goal-directed schemas of
behaviour (Miller et al. 2002; Wood and Grafman 2003; Huey et al. 2006).
What is the lesson to be learned from these and similar considerations?4 The point is that domainspecificity of processing can presumably be explained in terms of general-domain processes driven by
domain-specific bodies of knowledge. In perception, as well as in language and action processing, there is
large evidence that we extract patterns of regular covariations from the environment, and that these domainspecific patterns provide the rules by which further inputs from those domains are processed. This is possible
because representations contain in themselves the instructions by which associative processing has to
That representations and processes are just two sides of a coin is one of the main insights of J. Fuster's
(2001; 2003) model of the PFC and the brain in general. In his words, although memory representations may
be described as a static map, it is in fact “a changing and dynamic map, because the cortical networks of
perceptual and executive memory constitute the anatomical substrate for all cognitive functions (e.g.,
perception, attention, reasoning, language)” (Fuster 2001, p. 322). Even executive functions are explainable
in terms of the sustained activation of executive memories, that is, memories concerning abstract plans of
action in the PFC. In the same line, on the basis of a review of evidence on cognitive control in primate, and
particularly human, behaviour, S.M. Courtney (2004, p. 513) has claimed: “The results reviewed here
suggest that attention and cognitive control are emergent properties of information representation in WM
[working memory]. In this view, processes are transformations of information from one representation to
another. Thus, processes may exist only as interactions between brain regions that store different kinds of
In these quotations from Fuster (2001) and Courtney (2004), what I want to emphasize is their claim that
all the processes they identify at the behavioural level (perception, reasoning, language, attention, working
memory, cognitive control) emerge on an underlying mechanism based on the organization of associative
memory. On the one hand, domain-specific processes such as perception and language can be accounted for
in terms of domain-specific representations that guide associative mechanisms so as to perform the
appropriate transformations of information. On the other hand, domain-general processes such as working
memory, (conscious) attention and cognitive control emerge on a specific dynamic of associative activation.
In practice, activation of nodes in associative networks can not only be local and rapidly decaying, it can also
be sustained by largely distributed loops in the cortex. In both cases, however, what is at issue is the
activation of representations within the associative memory, and it is this memory that prescribes how the
information is manipulated and transformed in any specific domain.
In sum, although processes and representations are distinct and although one is allowed to speak of
domain-specific processes such as language and perception (or, for that matter, face and object recognition)
at the behavioural level, my general point is that those processes are domain-specific as a result of the
representations involved, while they are based on a basic domain-general associative mechanism.5

5. Modularity revisited
Let us now turn to the consequences of our previous considerations for the issue of modularity. My claim
is that, if the variety of cognitive processes can be implemented by general-domain processes of associative

Admittedly, the data I make an appeal to, as well as their interpretation, are not entirely uncontroversial. For one example,
Laurence and Margolis (2015) propose an argument to the effect that the evidence provided by Sur and colleagues is a case of
severely “constrained” plasticity, actually compatible with concept nativism. Plebe and Mazzone (submitted), however, argue that
current neuroscientific knowledge leaves little grounds for arguments of that sort.
In Mazzone (2015) I show in greater detail how processing in a variety of domains can be described in terms of a common
bottom-up/top-down dynamic of associative activation.


activation operating on domain-specific representations, then there is only room for a rather trivial
conception of modularity. This section is devoted to clarifying such a claim.
A first thing to emphasize is that my proposal, though based on Coltheart (1999), takes his view a bit
further than he meant and draws partly different conclusions. Coltheart argues for domain-specificity as the
only necessary condition for modularity, and traces the distinction between “knowledge” and “processing”
modules, in order to defend the existence of domain-specific processing modules. In a sense, I do not argue
against this claim. My argument aims instead to show how the claim must be interpreted. Specifically, it is
clearly untenable if taken in the sense that there are a variety of different domain-specific processes at the
implementation level. This is untenable because, as far as neural implementation is concerned, there is no
other process than associative activation (and inhibition). Thus, Coltheart’s claim can only be interpreted
coherently as referring to the behavioural level: there are domain-specific processes to the extent that there
are processes “not responding to inputs except those of a particular class” (this is in fact his definition of
domain-specificity, Coltheart 1999, p. 119). This description is wholly compatible with the view that what is
domain-specific in such processes, at the implementation level, is a body of knowledge. But under this
interpretation, the existence of domain-specific processing modules is trivial in the sense that no one denies
To see this, it is interesting to consider one of the cases discussed by Coltheart. Suppose we found a
double dissociation between face-recognition and object-recognition (i.e., patients with impaired facerecognition but intact object-recognition and patients with intact face-recognition and impaired objectrecognition). One could plausibly infer from these data that the face-recognition system is not identical to the
object-recognition system (at least one of their subsystems is not shared by the other system), which is a
substantial (non trivial) claim about the cognitive architecture of visual recognition (at least two distinct
modules). Now if it were shown that the face-recognition and object-recognition processes are implemented
by the same kind of associative neural mechanism, would that make this modularity claim any less
substantial? I fully agree that the claim about domain-specificity in that case would be substantial. First, it is
not trivial to establish whether there is double dissociation between face- and object-recognition. Second, if
this were the case, one could actually infer something from it, markedly that there are two processes “not
responding to inputs except those of a particular class” and, presumably, also that those processes have
specific localisations in the brain. However, my point is that there would be little reason to resist both to the
premise (the double dissociation) and to the subsequent inference (to domain-specificity of face- and objectrecognition) even in case you are not especially sympathetic with modularism, unless the further assumption
is made that each module requires a distinct domain-specific process at the implementation level. The
prototypical case of this assumption is Generative Grammar’s claim that domain-specific processes for
language do exist, a claim to which Jackendoff opposes his domain-general process of unification. Without
this assumption, domain-specificity is naturally accounted for by the simple existence of bodies of
knowledge. This possibility trivialises domain-specificity because no one denies that there may be coherent
bodies of knowledge represented in the brain which respond exclusively to inputs pertaining to their own
In sum, I do not claim either that domain-specificity is not a substantial thesis or that the notion of a
domain-specific module is not coherent under any interpretation. I rather claim that there is a coherent
interpretation, which, however, is not particularly debatable. Philosophers, as well as psychologists and
neuroscientists, are sometimes fond of highly debatable notions. But the notion of modularity as domainspecificity is a bad candidate for such a role, insofar as the interpretation under which the notion lends itself
to argument implies untenable claims about neural implementation.

Aron A.R. (2007). The neural basis of inhibition in cognitive control, The Neuroscientist, 13(3): 214-228.
Baars B.J. (1988). A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.
Baldwin D.A. and Baird J.A. (2001). Discerning intentions in dynamic human action, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5: 171-178.
Buckner C. (2011). Two approaches to the distinction between cognition and ‘mere association’, International Journal of
Comparative Psychology, 24(4): 314-348.
Butterfill S.A. and Apperly I.A. (2013). How to construct a minimal theory of mind, Mind and Language, 28(5): 606-37.
Coltheart M. (1999). Modularity and cognition, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3: 115-120.
Courtney S.M. (2004). Attention and cognitive control as emergent properties of information representation in working memory,
Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 4: 501-516.
Dehaene S., Changeux J.P., Naccache L., Sackur, J. and Sergent C. (2006). Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: a
testable taxonomy, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(5): 204-211.


Fuster J. (2001). The prefrontal cortex-An update: time is of the essence, Neuron, 2: 319-333.
Fuster J. (2003). Cortex and mind. Unifying cognition, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Heyes C. (2012). Simple minds: a qualified defence of associative learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 367:
Huey E. D., Krueger F. and Grafman J. (2006). Representations in the human prefrontal cortex, Current Directions in Psychological
Science, 15: 167-171.
Jackendoff R. (2002). Foundations of language. Brain, meaning, grammar, evolution, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Jackendoff R. (2007). A parallel architecture perspective on language processing, Brain Research, 1146: 2-22.
Jackendoff R. and Pinker S. (2005). The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language (Reply to Fitch,
Hauser, & Chomsky), Cognition, 97: 211-225.
Kaufman S. B., DeYoung C. G., Gray J. R., Brown J. and Mackintosh N. (2009). Associative learning predicts intelligence above
and beyond working memory and processing speed, Intelligence, 37: 374-382.
Laurence S. and Margolis E. (2015). Concept nativism and neural plasticity. In Laurence S. and Margolis E. (eds.), The conceptual
mind: New directions in the study of concepts, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 117-148.
Maia T.V. and Cleeremans A. (2005). Consciousness: converging insights from connectionist modeling and neuroscience, Trends in
Cognitive Sciences, 9: 397-404.
Marcus G.F. (1998). Rethinking eliminative connectionism, Cognitive Psychology, 37: 243-282.
Mazzone M. (2015). Constructing the context through goals and schemata: top-down processes in comprehension and beyond”,
Frontiers in Psychology, 6(651): 1-13.
McClelland J.L. (2006). How far can you go with Hebbian learning, and when does it lead you astray?. In Munakata Y. and Johnson
M.H. (eds.), Processes of Change in Brain and Cognitive Development: Attention and Performance XXI, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, pp. 33-69.
Miller E. K. and Cohen J. D. (2001). An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function, Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24: 67-202.
Miller E. K., Freedman D. J. and Wallis J. D. (2002). The prefrontal cortex: categories, concepts and cognition, Philosophical
Transactions: Biological Sciences, 357: 1123-1136.
Plebe A. and Mazzone M. (submitted). Neural plasticity and concepts ontogeny.
Pulvermüller F., Garagnani M. and Wennekers T. (2014). Thinking in circuits: toward neurobiological explanation in cognitive
neuroscience. Biological Cybernetics, 108: 573-593.
Rakison D.H. and Lupyan G. (2008). Developing object concepts in infancy: An associative learning perspective. SRCD
Rougier N., Noelle D., Braver T. et al. (2005). Prefrontal cortex and flexible cognitive control: rules without symbols, Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences USA, 102: 7338-7343.
Schmajuk N. and Larrauri J. (2008). Associative models can describe both causal learning and conditioning. Behavioural Processes,
77: 443-45.
Scarf D., Imuta K., Colombo M. and Hayne H. (2012). Social evaluation or simple association? Simple associations may explain
moral reasoning in infants, PLoS One, 7(8): e42698.
Shanks D. R. (2010). Learning: From association to cognition, Annual Review of Psychology, 61: 273-301.
Smith L.B. (2000). Avoiding Associations when its Behaviorism you Really Hate. In Golinkoff R.M. and Hirsh-Pasek K. (eds.),
Becoming a word learner, A debate on lexical acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 169-174.
Smolensky P. (1988). On the proper treatment of connectionism, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 11: 1-74.
Sur M., Angelucci A. and Sharma J. (1999). Rewiring cortex: The role of patterned activity in development and plasticity of
neocortical circuits, Journal of Neurobiology, 41: 33-43.
Sur M. and Leamey C.A. (2001). Development and plasticity of cortical areas and networks, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2(4):
von Melchner L., Pallas S.L. and Sur M. (2000). Visual behaviour mediated by retinal projections directed to the auditory pathway,
Nature, 404(6780): 871-876.
Wood J. N. and Grafman J. (2003). Human prefrontal cortex: processing and representational perspectives, Nature Reviews
Neuroscience, 4: 139-147.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful