Classical and Connectionist theories of cognitive architecture seek to explain systematicity (i.e., the property of human cognition whereby cognitive capacity comes in groups of related behaviours) as a consequence of syntactically and functionally compositional representations, respectively. However, both theories depend on ad hoc assumptions to exclude specific instances of these forms of compositionality (e.g. grammars, networks) that do not account for systematicity. By analogy with the Ptolemaic (i.e. geocentric) theory of planetary motion, although either theory can be made to be consistent with the data, both nonetheless fail to fully explain it. Category theory, a branch of mathematics, provides an alternative explanation based on the formal concept of adjunction, which relates a pair of structure-preserving maps, called functors. A functor generalizes the notion of a map between representational states to include a map between state transformations (or processes). In a formal sense, systematicity is a necessary consequence of a higher-order theory of cognitive architecture, in contrast to the first-order theories derived from Classicism or Connectionism. Category theory offers a re-conceptualization for cognitive science, analogous to the one that Copernicus provided for astronomy, where representational states are no longer the center of the cognitive universe—replaced by the relationships between the maps that transform them.
A complete theory of cognitive architecture (i.e., the basic processes and modes of composition that together constitute cognitive behaviour) must explain the systematicity property—why our cognitive capacities are organized into particular groups of capacities, rather than some other, arbitrary collection. The classical account supposes: (1) syntactically compositional representations; and (2) processes that are sensitive to—compatible with—their structure. Classical compositionality, however, does not explain why these two components must be compatible; they are only compatible by the ad hoc assumption (convention) of employing the same mode of (concatenative) compositionality (e.g., prefix/postfix, where a relation symbol is always prepended/appended to the symbols for the related entities). Architectures employing mixed modes do not support systematicity. Recently, we proposed an alternative explanation without ad hoc assumptions, using category theory. Here, we extend our explanation to domains that are quasi-systematic (e.g., aspects of most languages), where the domain includes some but not all possible combinations of constituents. The central category-theoretic construct is an adjunction involving pullbacks, where the primary focus is on the relationship between processes modelled as functors, rather than the representations. A functor is a structure-preserving map (or construction, for our purposes). An adjunction guarantees that the only pairings of functors are the systematic ones. Thus, (quasi-)systematicity is a necessary consequence of a categorial cognitive architecture whose basic processes are functors that participate in adjunctions.
“Copernican revolution” may be a bit strong but these are interesting articles.
I am more sympathetic to the discussion of the short-falls of first-order theories than I am to their replacement with other theories. Although theories can make for entertaining reading.