Cognitieve Systemen (Cognitive Systems)

A course taught by Francis Heylighen


The course is listed as optional for the Masters program in Philosophy and Ethics-Logic and Philosophy of Science, where it counts for 6 study points. However, given the interdisciplinary nature of the subject, students from other departments and faculties are very welcome. It is normally taught on Tuesday afternoons (2-4 pm) in the 2nd semester. The course is normally taught in Dutch, but it can also be studied fully from the lecture notes, which are available only in English.



The students make themselves familiar with the basic concepts of cognitive science from a systems-theoretic perspective. They learn to apply these concepts to get a better insight into knowledge, intelligence, consciousness, and related mental phenomena.


Previous knowledge

No specific previous knowledge is required, although experience with psychology, artificial intelligence or philosophy of science, as well as complex systems (as taught by me in the course "Complexiteit en Evolutie ") are useful.



The course gives an integrated treatment of the main concepts and models from cognitive science, which includes among other things psychology, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of science. First, a critical, historical review is given of the main assumptions of existing approaches, which include epistemology, cognitive psychology, problem solving, symbolic AI, neural networks, situated and embodied cognition, and constructivism.


Then, the problem of knowledge and intelligence is approached systematically from a cybernetic perspective: cognition is what allows an autonomous agent to efficiently pursue its goals within a complex and variable environment, by anticipating events and solving the potential problems that occur. This requires the development of a dynamic, recurrent network of associations or rules that link together concepts. This network is typically distributed across several parts of the brain, body, sensory organs, external objects, and possibly even other agents. Information is processed through the propagation of activation across this network. From this perspective, a number of specific phenomena and problems are examined, including instinctive responses, learning, perception, thought, consciousness, IQ, collective intelligence, extended mind, and subjective experience.


Lecture Notes

The students have access to complete lecture notes  (approx. 120 pages) in English, in the form of a downloadable PDF file. These include illustrations, table of contents, alphabetical index and a bibliography for further study.



Oral examination, approx. 20 minutes per student, examining the comprehension of basic concepts rather than detailed factual knowledge. The students get many short questions covering the various parts of the course rather than few questions that require a long and detailed answer. The candidates therefore have no time to prepare the questions. Moreover, the students are expected to briefly present a paper they have written on a self-chosen subject, after which their deeper understanding of this subject is tested.