What is cognition? Again

A while back I posted a list of quotations attempting to define cognition.  In discussing and searching for these, I came to the conclusion that definitions of these kinds of global, general, concepts are only useful as department labels. They allow people to work out, vaguely, to whom they could talk to learn about a topic that interests them.  Concepts like “cognition” should be defined with that goal in mind, in a way that causes as least confusion as possible.  For instance it seems likely that separating cognition and emotion, or cognition and perception, or equating cognition with conscious deliberative thought, are all bad ideas.

Adams (2010) likes definitions.  He suggests that philosophers ask cognitive scientists:

of the processes which are cognitive, what (exactly) makes them cognitive? This is the question that will really irritate, and, I’ve discovered, really interest them. It will interest them because it is a central question to the entire discipline of the cognitive sciences, and it will irritate them because it is a question that virtually no one is asking.  [emphasis original]

He gives some examples of processes which are clearly to him not cognitive, e.g., processes that regulate blood sugar levels, thermo-regulatory processes such as capillary constriction and dilation.

He also provides a list of necessary conditions for a process to be cognitive:

  1. Cognitive processes involve states that are semantically evaluable.
  2. The contents carried by cognitive systems do not depend for their content on other minds.
  3. Cognitive contents can be false or even empty, and hence are detached from the actual environmental causes.
  4. Cognitive systems and processes cause and explain in virtue of their representational content.

This all left me rather cold.  I don’t understand what this list helps to explain.  I’m not sure it’s even wrong.

Why not, for instance, allow cognitive processes regulate blood sugar levels?  If, at an abstract level of analysis, this turns out to be useful, for instance if performing a task which may be analysed in a cognitive fashion seems to influence blood sugar levels, then why not make it a cognitive process?

The word “cognitive” seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth so maybe we should stop talking about “cognitive processes” altogether.  As I wrote in a previous post:

It used to be considered bad form to refer to something as a neural process unless it referred to synapses, but is this still the case? There are various levels of “neural” from absence of neural due to lesions and BOLD activation patterns, down to vesicle kissing and gene expression. Maybe behavioral neuroscience is allowed up another level to more abstract representations currently called “mental” or “cognitive”, and the mental can be returned to refer to the what-it-feels-like.  Similarly maybe psychologists are behavioral neuroscientists focusing on an abstract level of explanation.

That probably wouldn’t help either.  If only we could find a pill to take which makes us less anxious about the meaning of individual words and phrases.


Adams, F. (2010). Why we still need a mark of the cognitive. Cognitive Systems Research, 11, 324-331

One thought on “What is cognition? Again”

  1. I wrote about various definitions of cognition in
    Moors, A. (2007). Can cognitive methods be used to study the unique aspect of emotion: An appraisal theorist’s answer. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 1238-1269.
    Maybe you find something that can help you.
    If you have other sources that could extend my overview, I would be happy to learn about them.

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