Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Where Did the Word Cognitive Come from Anyway?

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Where Did the Word Cognitive Come from Anyway?

Article excerpt


Cognitivism is the ascendant movement in psychology these days. It reaches from cognitive psychology into social psychology, personality, psychotherapy, development, and beyond. Few psychologists know the philosophical history of the term, "cognitive", and often use it as though it were completely synonymous with "psychological" or "mental." In this paper, I trace the origins of the term "cognitive" in the ethical theories of the early 20th century, and through the logical positivistic philosophy of science of this century's middle part. In both of these settings, "cognitive" referred not primarily to the psychological, but rather, to the truth - evaluable (i.e., those propositions about which one can say that they are either true or false). I argue that, strictly speaking, cognitivism differs from traditional mentalism in being the study of only those aspects of the mental that can be subjected to truth conditional analysis (or sufficiently similar "conditions of satisfaction"). This excludes traditionally troublesome aspects of the mental such as consciousness, qualia, and (the subjective aspects of) emotion. Although cognitive science has since grown to include the study of some of these phenomena, it is important to recognize that one of the original aims of the cognitivist movement was to re - introduce belief and desire into psychology, while still protecting it from the kinds of criticism that behaviourists had used to bring down full - blown mentalism at the beginning of the century.


Cognitivsm is big. So big that it seems to be turning up in almost every corner of psychology these days. In addition to "standard" (viz., human adult experimental) cognitive psychology, there is cognitive development, cognitive therapy, cognitive neuropsychology, social cognition, animal cognition, and so forth. What is more, there is cognitive science, which merges cognitive psychology with aspects of philosophy, artificial intelligence, linguistics, neuroscience, and cognitive anthropology to form a discipline (or interdiscipline, or multidiscipline) that has enjoyed tremendous growth in the universities of North America over the last decade. Where once the prefix "behavioural" ranged over everything from language to emotion, "cognitive" theories now seem to prevail.

But where did this term, "cognitive", come from? There are many different versions of the tale, but among the most popular is that which claims that psychologists like Jerome Bruner, George Miller, and Ulrich Neisser transformed a psychology dominated by behaviourism by returning to a place of honor a set of traditional psychological topics once virtually banned outright by behaviourists during the time of their ascendancy. What justified this re - introduction (apart from the fact that such terms had been the traditional bread and butter of psychological thought before Watson had appeared on the scene) was the development of a new and rigorous way of studying them and their functions: the "information processing" approach.(f.1)

Some believe that the impetus for this change was original to psychology, and from there spread to philosophy, linguistics, etc. (e.g., Craik, 1991). Elsewhere (Green, 1994), I have argued that this view is historically incorrect; that cognition was a going concern in philosophy, artificial intelligence, and linguistics long before it caught on in experimental psychology. Even so, this does not explain how the term "cognitive" came to be used to cover pretty well what was once known as "mental," methodological quibbles aside. Obviously, "cognitive" is a cognate of Descartes' "cogito". In fact, some of those who opposed the so - called cognitive revolution (e.g., Skinner, 1989) argued that it is little more than an anachronistic resurgence of Cartesian dualism. On closer examination, however, such a view seems to be more tendentious, and less complete, than even the suspiciously Carlylian(f. …

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