Herbert Simon letter and note 1992:

Wason Speaking at Plymoth

(click for full letter with notes)


Early in 1992, I gave a talk in the Psychology Department of Carnegie Mellon
University. During this visit I had dinner with a few faculty members, including
Herbert Simon (recipient of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics). I had first met
Herb in 1976 when I was about to get my PhD, and interviewed (unsuccessfully) for
a faculty position at CMU. During the dinner in 1992 I recall that Herb regaled us
with stories about the 1960 election in which Kennedy defeated Nixon (with help
from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, suspected of having tampered with the vote to
deliver the state of Illinois for the Democrat). I don't remember much discussion of
scientific matters.

A few months earlier a chapter of mine had been published, "Symbolic
connectionism: Toward third-generation theories of expertise" (in A. Ericsson & J.
Smith, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1991). Simon had been a pioneer in
developing theories of human problem solving, both in what I called the first
generation (general heuristics that can be applied to a broad range of novel-lean
problems), and the second (knowledge-rich procedures specialized for particular
domains, implemented as expert systems in AI and production systems in cognitive
science). I believe I coined the term "symbolic connectionism" for my chapter,
referring to the general idea of integrating symbolic representations with neural
networks (a line of thinking triggered in part by a one-session seminar on
"Productions Systems and Parallel Distributed Processing" held at CMU in 1985; see
entry in Archives). In my chapter I argued that the first two generations of theories
of expertise had not been altogether successful in accounting for human problem
solving, and that it might be worth exploring new approaches.
Shortly after my visit to Pittsburgh, I received a friendly letter from Herb,
accompanied by a 3-page rebuttal of pretty much every point I had raised in my
chapter. I recall I was caught between feeling flattered to receive such personal
attention from the great man, and feeling dismayed to be the focus of his unsparing
critique. I don't remember what I wrote back in reply, but am quite sure I kept it
brief and humble. Re-reading Simon's correspondence now, it seems like an
example of (one side) of a genuine intellectual argument—an expression of
considered disagreement that never gets personal. And of course, a rare example
(from early in the email era) of what an old-school physical letter looked like.

—Keith Holyoak (4/30/2018)





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