, Volume 194, Issue 11, pp 4233–4249 | Cite as

On (not) defining cognition

  • Colin Allen
S.I. : Cognition


Should cognitive scientists be any more embarrassed about their lack of a discipline-fixing definition of cognition than biologists are about their inability to define “life”? My answer is “no”. Philosophers seeking a unique “mark of the cognitive” or less onerous but nevertheless categorical characterizations of cognition are working at a level of analysis upon which hangs nothing that either cognitive scientists or philosophers of cognitive science should care about. In contrast, I advocate a pluralistic stance towards uses of the term ‘cognition’ that eschews the urge to treat cognition as a metaphysically well-defined “natural” kind.


Cognition Definition Animals Extended mind Group cognition Pluralism 



I am grateful for invitation to present these ideas and discussion that ensued from members of the audience at the conference “What is Cognition?” organized by Cameron Buckner, Ellen Fridland, Albert Newen, and Michael Pauen at the Ruhr University, Bochum, in 2013. I am also very grateful for the patience of the editors of this special issue, which I have tested to the extreme. I have also benefited greatly from the very patient and constructive criticisms of reviewers for this journal, including the most patient of all, reviewer number 3. Earlier drafts also benefitted from comments by students and colleagues at Indiana University. Any further deficits in this paper serve as evidence of my own failure to possess any mark of cognition.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyXi’an Jiatong UniversityXi’anChina
  2. 2.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  3. 3.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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