Cognition as a Natural Kind

Dr. Carlos Zednik

Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg
Summer 2020
Wednesday 11am-1pm, G22A-209


Many scientific disciplines investigate particular kinds of phenomena. So too cognitive science, which investigates cognitive phenomena. But, how exactly are cognitive phenomena individuated? What distinguishes cognitive phenomena from non-cognitive phenomena, and what distinguishes one cognitive phenomenon from another? Are (particular) cognitive phenomena (particular) patterns of behavior, (particular) computational processes, or (particular) neural mechanisms? Is there a fact of the matter as to which cognitive phenomena are real and which ones are not, or are mental taxonomies merely in the eye of the beholder? A philosophical concept that can be used to address these questions is the concept of a natural kind. Natural kinds are groups or classes of things, properties, or phenomena that exist in nature, as opposed to merely existing in the eye of a human observer. With respect to cognitive science, one might ask whether various kinds of cognition--from memory and decision-making to psychiatric disorders and intelligence--can be viewed as natural kinds. Moreover, one might ask whether natural kindhood is a normative constraint on scientific research: should psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and AI researchers pursue the discovery of natural kinds, or do other ways of grouping phenomena serve equally well? This seminar will introduce the concept of a natural kind and some of the philosophical controversies that surround it, and apply this concept to scientific debates about, for example, the purpose of psychiatric classification, the nature of animal cognition, the possibility of cognitive extension, and the existence of a genuine kind of artificial intelligence.

The LSF page for this course is here.


This seminar course counts toward the BA-PNK-Modules PK (4CP) or WT (2CP). It also fulfills the "Philosophy of Science" requirement for the MSc. Integrative Neuroscience.

CP are awarded on the basis of two written essays of 1000 words (4CP) or 500 words (2CP) each. Essay topics will be announced in advance; essay due dates as indicated below.

Philosophical essays are written arguments. Accordingly, they must clearly state a claim and give compelling reasons to think that the claim is true. Essays should be submitted by email to carlos [dot] zednik [at] ovgu [dot] de by 23:59 on the due date. They should be formatted as a PDF and should include the author's name, mat-no, course of study, and expected number of CP.

Will this class be held online?

If so, there are some additional requirements to compensate for lost in-class participation. Prior to three separate class meetings, participants must prepare and submit a 250-word brief reflection on the assigned reading. This should concisely (e.g. in three sentences) summarize the principal thesis of the paper. Then, it should identify concepts or arguments that require additional clarification. Finally, if you want, you can use this opportunity to articulate objections to the argument, to explore ramifications of the thesis, or to ask any other relevant questions.

Brief reflections are mandatory, but will not be graded.


Part 1: Philosophical Foundations
22.04.2020What are Natural Kinds?
Watch the YouTube video on natural kinds uploaded by
Ellis, B. (2008). "Essentialism and Natural Kinds". In S. Psillos & M. Curd (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science (pp. 139-148). London: Routledge.
Dupre, J. (1981). Natural Kinds and Biological Taxa. The Philosophical Review 90(1): 66-90.
13.05.2020Homeostatic Property Clusters
Boyd, R. (1999). "Homeostasis, Species, and Higher Taxa". In R. Wilson (ed.), Species: New Interdisciplinary Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Part 2: Cognitive Science Application Areas
20.05.2020Comparative psychology
27.05.2020Psychiatric classification
Tsou, J.Y. (2016). Natural kinds, psychiatric classification and the history of the DSM. History of Psychiatry 27(4): 406-424.
03.06.2020Neural mechanisms
Sullivan, J. (2018). "Neuroscientific kinds through the lens of scientific practice". In C. Kendig (ed.), Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice (pp. 47-56). London: Routledge.
10.06.2020Cognitive extension
Wheeler, M. (2018). "A tale of two dilemmas: Cognitive kinds and the extended mind". In C. Kendig (ed.), Natural Kinds and Classification in Scientific Practice (pp. 175-185). London: Routledge.
17.06.2020Artificial intelligence
24.06.2020Individual differences
Part 3: Perspectives
01.07.2020Functional kinds
08.07.2020Human kinds


Two reputable online resources are the Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) articles on "Natural Kinds".