The present century has seen renewed interest in characterizing cognition, the object of inquiry of the cognitive sciences. In this paper, I describe the problem of cognition—the absence of a positive characterization of cognition despite a felt need for one. It is widely recognized that the problem is motivated by decades of controversy among cognitive scientists over foundational questions, such as whether non-neural parts of the body or environment can realize cognitive processes, or whether plants and microbes have cognitive processes. The dominant strategy for addressing the problem of cognition is to seek a dichotomous criterion that vindicates some set of controversial claims. However, I argue that the problem of cognition is also motivated by ongoing conceptual development in cognitive science, and I describe four benefits that a characterization of cognition could confer. Given these benefits, I recommend an alternative criterion of success, ecumenical extensional adequacy, on which the aim is to describe the variation in expert judgments rather than to correct this variation by taking sides in sectarian disputes. I argue that if we had an ecumenical solution to the problem of cognition, we would have achieved much of what we should want from a “mark of the cognitive”.
KeywordsCognition Mark of the cognitive Cognitive science Embodied cognition Extended cognition Conceptual analysis
I am grateful for generous feedback on these ideas from many people, including Joseph McCaffrey, Robert Brandom, Edouard Machery, Mark Sprevak, Zoe Drayson, William Bechtel, three anonymous reviewers, and colleagues at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Glasgow. An earlier version of this paper appears as Chapter 2 of my PhD dissertation, “Cognition in Practice: Conceptual Development and Disagreement in Cognitive Science” (2016, University of Pittsburgh). I received financial support from University of Pittsburgh Department of Philosophy, the University of Pittsburgh Office of the Provost, and the Wesley C. Salmon Fund.
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