Phenomenological Foundations of
Cognition, Language & Computation

Stanford University, Autumn 2011

Course Staff

Class meets Thursdays, 1:15-4:05, 380-381U.

Course Objectives

The goal of this course is to introduce you to a mode of thinking that is different from (and complementary to) the "rationalistic" tradition that underlies most of modern academia. I am calling this mode the "phenomenological orientation" because it draws heavily from the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. But the course is not a scholarly study of that tradition. Rather, it draws from the literature in phenomenology and a variety of related areas to evoke new ways of approaching understanding, which you can apply in the areas of life and study that you care about.

As we will discuss in the course, this is not something for which we can give a crisp definition. Over the course of a series of readings and discussions, and developing a paper on a topic of your choice, you will develop your own approach within the overall background of a phenomenological orientation. As a starting point for getting a picture of the contrasting orientations, consider the following (admittedly fuzzy) word contrasts. Many of the terms have meanings within the discourse of the course that may not initially clear, and will be the basis of class discussion.

Rational Decision MakingThrownness
RepresentationStructural Coupling
CategoryLinguistic Distinction
GoalsDomains of Concern

The area pointed to by these terms will be explored and unfolded over the course of discussions based on the readings. The main text is Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores. Other readings will serve as background to that work (going more deeply into the sources it presents) and as contrasts or extensions to its approach.

Readings will be assigned for each meeting, and the class time will be a combination of presentation and discussion. You will choose a topic for a term paper, and submit a draft for reading by the teaching staff and another student, then do a revision based on those comments for the final paper. We will also have some informal evening discussion sessions with some of the key thinkers in the area, including Hubert Dreyfus and Fernando Flores.

The course does not require a technical background in computing. There are no formal prerequisites, but we assume that students have a general familiarity with the basic ideas of computation and with simple concepts in formal logic. Previous background in philosophy will be useful but not necessary.

Course Requirements

Paired discussion leading

Sometime during the course you will work in a pair with another student to examine and discuss one of the sets of readings, prepare questions and thoughts about them, and help lead class discussion. You should plan to read further reading, as well as the main readings that everyone in class will read. As part of this assignment you will also add material (questions for the discussion and further thoughts on the readings) to the course forum (in Coursework).

Weekly Online Posts and Discussion

You are required to post at least twice to the forum each week -- once before class and once after, as described below.

Before class

Post to the forum by 6pm Weds:

  • Pick one of the readings for the day.
  • Write about a page on:
    • a point you would like to see better explicated
    • an implication you draw from the reading
    • a critical response to the reading
    • some other response
  • Please write thoughtfully. Write something worth your classmates' time to read.
  • You might split this writing across the two topics for the class meeting.

After class

You can comment on a point raised in class, add a reference to related material you know about, draw connections to past or future class topics, etc. This doesn't have to be anything big. Fodder for your comment will include:

  • Required and additional readings for the week
  • In-class presentation and discussion
  • Your and other students' before-class postings
  • Additional material added to the wiki by that week's pairs.

In addition to these assigned entries, students are encouraged to add material to the forum as they read and think about the issues. We'll talk more about this in class and welcome your ideas on how to make best use of it.

Term Paper

This will be your major project for the class. In this paper you will have a chance to examine a particular application of the ideas of the course and to assess it in theoretical and practical terms. A draft/spec of the paper will be due before the final due date and will be critiqued both by the teaching staff and by another student in the course. See details and schedule.


Your performance in this course will be graded according to the following criteria:

  • Forum Participation (including pairs)- 30%
  • Term Paper Draft and comment on other person's draft - 30%
  • Term Paper Final Version- 30%
  • In-Class Participation - 10%

The course can be taken for a grade or pass/no-credit, for either three or four units.

Please Note: Since much of your grade and a significant portion of your educational experience depend on active class participation, take risks, speak up, and join in the fun.

Required Texts

  • Winograd, Terry and Fernando Flores. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publication Corp., 1986. Paperback issued by Addison-Wesley, 1987.

Additional readings will be made available online