On (not) defining cognition

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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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Correspondence to Colin Allen.

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Allen, C. On (not) defining cognition. Synthese 194, 4233–4249 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1454-4

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Keywords

  • Cognition
  • Definition
  • Animals
  • Extended mind
  • Group cognition
  • Pluralism