Foundations Of Cognitive Science

The Formalist's Motto

The formalist's motto (Haugeland, 1985) is a general principle that guides classical cognitive scientists who adopt the physical symbol system hypothesis. The motto is: “If you take care of the syntax, then the semantics will take care of itself” (Haugeland, 1985, p. 106). Because the operations of a physical symbol system are formal, and because its symbols designate content, and because formal symbol manipulations preserve meaning, the formalist's motto defines the belief that classical cognitive science can focus on the formal or syntactic properties of symbol systems, and not worry about semantic interpretations!


  1. Haugeland, J. (1985). Artificial Intelligence: The Very Idea. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(Added September 2010)