History of Cognition

History of Cognition

“Cognition” is a term for a wide swath of mental functions that relate to knowledge and information processing.

Learning Objectives

Name major figures in the history of cognition

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cognition is the set of all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge, including attention, memory, judgment, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, and a host of other vital processes.
  • Aristotle, Descartes, and Wundt are among the earliest philosophers who dealt specifically with the act of cognition.
  • Cognitive processes can be analyzed through the lenses of many different fields, including linguistics, anesthesia, neuroscience, education, philosophy, biology, computer science, and psychology.

Key Terms

  • cognition: The set of all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge.
  • cognitive science: An interdisciplinary field that analyses mental functions and processes.

Cogito Ergo Sum

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase I think , therefore I am, or perhaps even the Latin version: Cogito ergo sum. This simple expression is one of enormous philosophical importance, because it is about the act of thinking. Thought has been of fascination to humans for many centuries, with questions like What is thinking? and How do people think? and Why do people think? troubling and intriguing many philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and others.

The word “cognition” is the closest scientific synonym for thinking. It comes from the same root as the Latin word cogito, which is one of the forms of the verb “to know.” Cognition is the set of all mental abilities and processes related to knowledge, including attention, memory, judgment, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, and a host of other vital processes.

Human cognition takes place at both conscious and unconscious levels. It can be concrete or abstract. It is intuitive, meaning that nobody has to learn or be taught how to think. It just happens as part of being human. Cognitive processes use existing knowledge but are capable of generating new knowledge through logic and inference.

History of Cognition

People have been studying knowledge in various ways for centuries. Some of the most important figures in the study of cognition are:

Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

The study of human cognition began over two thousand years ago. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was interested in many fields, including the inner workings of the mind and how they affect the human experience. He also placed great importance on ensuring that his studies and ideas were based on empirical evidence (scientific information that is gathered through observation and careful experimentation).

Descartes (1596–1650) 

René Descartes was a seventeenth-century philosopher who coined the famous phrase I think, therefore I am (albeit in French). The simple meaning of this phrase is that the act of thinking proves that a thinker exists. Descartes came up with this idea when trying to prove whether anyone could truly know anything despite the fact that our senses sometimes deceive us. As he explains, “We cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.”

Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920)

Wilhelm Wundt is considered one of the founding figures of modern psychology; in fact, he was the first person to call himself a psychologist. Wundt believed that scientific psychology should focus on introspection, or analysis of the contents of one’s own mind and experience. Though today Wundt’s methods are recognized as being subjective and unreliable, he is one of the important figures in the study of cognition because of his examination of human thought processes.

Cognition, Psychology, and Cognitive Science

The term “cognition” covers a wide swath of processes, everything from memory to attention. These processes can be analyzed through the lenses of many different fields: linguistics, anesthesia, neuroscience, education, philosophy, biology, computer science, and of course, psychology, to name a few. Because of the number of disciplines that study cognition to some degree, the term can have different meanings in different contexts. For example, in psychology, “cognition” usually refers to processing of neural information; in social psychology the term “social cognition” refers to attitudes and group attributes.

These numerous approaches to the analysis of cognition are synthesized in the relatively new field of cognitive science, the interdisciplinary study of mental processes and functions.