John Bolender


John Bolender

  • Visiting Fellow, Department of Philosophy, Western University

Department of Philosophy

Western University

Stevenson Hall 2150G

London, Ontario, Canada N6A 5B8

Tel: (519) 661-2111 x87747

Fax: (519) 661-3922

Research Area:
  • Cognition

John Bolender is a philosopher primarily interested in cognition.  He has inquired into how the computational core of language may crucially enter into uniquely human cognitive capacities, such as the ability to think beyond the observable.  He has also theorized about the nature of interpersonal cognition, arguing that self-organizing patterns of brain activity enter into how we think about social relations on the most basic level.  Self-organization is an important principle of inorganic nature (snowflakes, hurricanes, spiral galaxies), suggesting a link between cognition and the rest of nature in a very inclusive sense.


Early in 1996, I deposited my dissertation in Philosophy at Columbia University on a familiar topic in the philosophy of mind: mind-body reduction and the physical multiple realization of the mental.  My worry then, which I recall discussing with other recent PhDs, was that we were not actually discovering much about the mind in philosophy of mind.  I felt the need to correct this, but was not immediately sure how to do so.  After some forays into idealism and consciousness (roughly following Bertrand Russell’s lead in Analysis of Matter), I turned to cognitive science, initially Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky.  In 1999, I read a brief passage in Chomsky in which he suggested that moral knowledge is largely innate (in his interview “Language and the Theory of Justice”).  I was very excited, and tried to combine this view with Fodor’s work on mental architecture in Modularity of Mind.  As a result, in “A Two-Tiered Cognitive Architecture for Moral Reasoning,” published in 2001, I theorized an automatic and largely innate system of moral intuitions interfacing with a more conscious system of general intelligence to arrive at principled moral judgments.  (During the time I was first formulating these ideas, it was completely unknown to me that John Mikhail and Jonathan Haidt were developing roughly similar views.)  I soon discovered Alan Page Fiske’s book Structures of Social Life, and learned from it that moral judgment is probably only one small part of a largely innate interpersonal competence.  So my interest eventually expanded to include social-relational cognition generally.  Nonetheless, my first attempts to come to terms with Fiske remained focused on moral judgment: “The Genealogy of the Moral Modules,” and “Two Accounts of Moral Diversity” published in 2003 and 2004.

Having taught Introduction to Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University, and similar courses at Bilkent and Middle East Technical Universities (joining the latter in September 2001), I came to read a hefty amount of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who inspired me to explore anthropology more generally.  While reading evolutionary anthropology, I was intrigued by the uniquely human ability to think about properties and objects that are not even observable.  It occurred to me that Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions and his notion of knowledge by description might help explain this capacity; if humans alone can have thoughts featuring bound variables, this could explain why only humans can define unobservables in terms of observables.  It would explain why religion, history, and science, among other things, are unique to humans.  On Chomsky’s trace theory, the “transformations” in transformational grammar are necessary for producing operator-variable constructions.  So perhaps bound variables are unique to human cognition because transformations are unique to human cognition.  This could be the case even if recursion is not unique to humans.  Such speculations resulted in the papers “Paleolithic Cognition by Description” and “Human Uniqueness, Cognition by Description, and Procedural Memory,” published in 2007 and 2008 respectively.  (The second was co-authored with two very promising graduate students.)

At roughly this time – perhaps in 2006 – I was reading Stephen Jay Gould’s discussion of D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form.  Gould noted how Thompson believed that the bodily structure of one fish species was a deformation of that of another fish species, due to dynamic effects.  While reading this, it occurred to me that one Fiskian social-relational model might be a deformation of another model, also due to dynamic effects.  All elementary models would be deformations of a single primitive form of neural activity.  This was a nebulous idea at the time, although it eventually led to my view that the four elementary relational models are all due to the activity of a single neural network, the Social Pattern Generator.  Shifting from one model to another results either from spontaneous symmetry breaking or symmetry restoration in this pattern generator, a phenomenon which should be amenable to computer modeling.  I wrote up this idea in the article “Hints of Beauty in Social Cognition” which was published in 2008.  (A later paper on the same topic was published with an earlier date.)  I later wrote up the idea as a book: The Self-Organizing Social Mind, published in 2010.  Although first inspired by Thompson, I believe the basic idea is also very “minimalist,” in Chomsky’s sense.  One minimizes cognitive architecture by having all elementary models result from a single network rather than having each model require its own special network.  Fiske later told me that fMRI studies, conducted by Marco Iacoboni and colleagues, are consistent with the hypothesis, since the same brain areas are active in cognition involving more than one model.

Gilbert Harman, at Princeton University, expressed an interest in my work on human uniqueness and knowledge by description, so I asked him if I could be a visiting fellow in Philosophy there.  The answer was yes, and so during the 2010-11 academic year at Princeton, I assembled a few hundred pages of notes for a book on this topic.  I am currently a visiting fellow at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at Western University which awards a modest living allowance.  While here, I am turning the notes into a book manuscript.  But the work on Fiske’s relational models theory is far from finished.  Finding a computer model of the Social Pattern Generator and mapping the faculty of interpersonal cognition more generally remain outstanding objectives.


Doctoral Thesis:

Explaining Psychology: Psychophysical Reductionism, Explanation, and the Unity of Science. Columbia University, Department of Philosophy. Advisor: Akeel Bilgrami.  Date of deposit: 14 February 1996.


Digital Social Mind. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2011.

The Self-Organizing Social Mind. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2010.


Universal Grammar as more than a programmatic label. Lingua 2010; 120: 2661-2663.

The plight of Iraq’s Mandaeans and Honderich’s Principle of Humanity. Politics 2009, 29(2): 93-99. Co-author: Suhaib Nashi.

Hints of beauty in social cognition: Broken symmetries in mental dynamics. New Ideas in Psychology 2008, 26: 1-22.

Human uniqueness, cognition by description, and procedural memory, Biolinguistics 2008, 2: 129-151.  Co-authors: Burak Erdeniz and Cemil Kerimoğlu.

How film can play a cognitive role in philosophy. Septet 2008, 1(1).

Prehistoric cognition by description: A Rusellian approach to the Upper Paleolithic. Biology and Philosophy 2007, 22: 383-399.

Self-organization in the development of social cognition: Symmetry breaking and the relational-models framework. Psychologia 2007, 5: 255-272.

Nomic universals and particular causal relations: Which are basic and which are derived?. Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of Israel 2006, 34: 405-410.

Two accounts of moral diversity: The cognitive science of pluralism and absolutism. Yeditepe’de Felsefe 2004, 3: 52-110. []

The genealogy of the moral modules. Minds and Machines 2003, 13: 233-255.

A two-tiered cognitive architecture for moral reasoning. Biology and Philosophy 2001, 16: 339-356.

An argument for idealism. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2001, 8: 37-61.

Real algorithms: A defense of cognitivism. Philosophical Inquiry 1998, 20: 41-58.

Factual phenomenalism: A supervenience theory. Sorites: An Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy 1998, 9: 15-30

Is multiple realizability compatible with antireductionism?. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 1995, 33: 129-142.

Book Chapters:

Expanded personal networks as a cognitive stimulus: An application to the Paleolithic. In Hanna L. Schneider and Lilli M. Huber (eds.) Social Networks: Development, Evaluation and Influence. Hauppauge, New York: Nova Science, 2008: 39-56.

A farewell to isms. In Sven Walter (ed.) Physicalism and Mental Causation: The Metaphysics of Mind and Action. Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic, 2003: 109-132.

Invited Talks and Conference Presentations:

Cognition by description as a possible offshoot of language. 10 September 2011. ‎44th Annual Meeting of the Societas Linguistica Europaea: Biolinguistics workshop. Rioja Forum; Logrono, Spain.

Language, thought, and human uniqueness. 19 January 2011. Talk hosted by the Program of Linguistics, Princeton University.