The history and controversies associated with the term “cognition” and taking a critical look at this term is both important to practicing researchers and to students entering the field of behavioral analysis. The term “cognition” is widely used but seldom defined. When it is defined, definitions vary widely. A brief survey of psychology textbooks, for example, identified 15 different definitions. Some of these definitions focused only on human behavior and others include both human and animal behavior. The term cognition is also making its way into the study of invertebrate behavior. We now read that snails, for example, possess “mini-cognitions” and honey bees and fruit flies can serve as a cognitive model for the study of human behavior.

The history of the term cognition is also unclear and in need of analysis. In an American Psychological Association interview conducted with Ulric Neisser in 1983, it was suggested that he coined the term “Cognitive Psychology.” This is not true. In 1939, Thomas Moore, a Benedictine Monk and Professor of Psychology at Catholic University published a textbook titled Cognitive Psychology which predates Neisser’s 1967 text by 28 years. Moreover, the “cognitive behaviorism” of neo-behaviorists is seldom discussed in contemporary histories of cognitive psychology as are the contributions of Greek philosophy with the possible exception of the “big three” of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

In addition to an analysis of definitional issues and historical issues, one has to tackle a wide range of theoretical problems associated with the term including the lack of a coherent theory that is to say “cognition is anything I want it to be”, lack of motivational constructs, and no discussion of the work of neo-behaviorists such as Hull, Spence, Tolman, Amsel, and Logan.

A prevailing concept of cognition in psychology is inspired by the computer metaphor. Its focus on mental states that are generated and altered by information input, processing, storage and transmission invites a disregard for the cultural dimension of cognition, based on three implicit assumptions that cognition is internal, processing can be distinguished from content, and processing is independent of cultural background. Arguably, culture affects cognitive processes in various ways, drawing on instances from numerical cognition, ethno-biological reasoning, and theory of mind. Given the pervasive cultural modulation of cognition on all of Marr’s levels of description and cognition is indeed fundamentally cultural, and that consideration of its cultural dimension is essential for a comprehensive understanding.


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