Making sense of domain specificity

Cognition 240 (C):105583 (2023)
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The notion of domain specificity plays a central role in some of the most important debates in cognitive science. Yet, despite the widespread reliance on domain specificity in recent theorizing in cognitive science, this notion remains elusive. Critics have claimed that the notion of domain specificity can't bear the theoretical weight that has been put on it and that it should be abandoned. Even its most steadfast proponents have highlighted puzzles and tensions that arise once one tries to go beyond an initial intuitive sketch of what domain specificity involves. In this paper, we address these concerns head on by developing an account of what it means for a cognitive mechanism to be domain specific that overcomes the obstacles that have made domain specificity seem so problematic. We then apply this understanding of domain specificity to one of the key debates that it has figured prominently in—the rationalism-empiricism debate concerning the origins of cognitive traits—and introduce several related theoretical notions that work alongside domain specificity in helping to clarify what makes a view more (or less) rationalist. This example illustrates how the notion of domain specificity can, and should, continue to play a central role in ongoing debates in cognitive science.

Author Profiles

Eric Margolis
University of British Columbia
Stephen Laurence
University of Sheffield


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