Mental mechanisms and psychological construction

In Lisa Feldman Barrett & James Russell (eds.), The Psychological Construction of Emotion. Guilford Press. pp. 21-44 (2014)
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Psychological construction represents an important new approach to psychological phenomena, one that has the promise to help us reconceptualize the mind both as a behavioral and as a biological system. It has so far been developed in the greatest detail for emotion, but it has important implications for how researchers approach other mental phenomena such as reasoning, memory, and language use. Its key contention is that phenomena that are characterized in (folk) psychological vocabulary are not themselves basic features of the mind, but are constructed from more basic psychological operations. The framework of mechanistic explanation, currently under development in philosophy of science, can provide a useful perspective on the psychological construction approach. A central insight of the mechanistic account of explanation is that biological and psychological phenomena result from mechanisms in which component parts and operations do not individually exhibit the phenomena of interest but function together in an orchestrated and sometimes in a complex dynamical manner to generate it. While at times acknowledging the compatibility of the mechanist approach with constructionist approach (Lindquist, Wager, Kober, Bliss-Moreau, & Barrett, 2012), proponents of the constructionist approach have at other times pitched their approach as anti-mechanist. For example, Barrett (2009) claims that the psychological constructionist approach rejects machines as the primary metaphor for understanding the mind, instead favoring a recipe metaphor; constructionism also purportedly rejects the “mechanistic” picture of causation, which it portrays as linear or sequential in nature (see also Barrett, Wilson-Mendenhall, & Barsalou, in press). While some mechanistic accounts do fit this description, we will see that the mechanisms generating phenomena can be complex and dynamic, producing phenomena far less stereotypic and more adaptive than people often associate with machines. Our goal, however, is not just to render constructionism and mechanism compatible. Philosophers of science have been examining the nature of mechanistic explanation in biology with the goal of gaining new insights into the operation of science. We will identify some of the places where the mechanistic account can shed new light on the constructionist project.

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Mitchell Herschbach
California State University, Northridge


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