Cognition as a Natural Kind

Dr. Carlos Zednik

Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg
Summer 2020
Coronavirus Special Edition

TL;DR: This is a seminar class about natural kinds in cognitive science. Participants are required to read, discuss, and write philosophical texts, and to contribute to a class wiki to explore the role of natural kinds in psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence.


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 ask and possibly answer 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 some human observer. With respect to cognitive science, one might ask whether various kinds of cognition--from memory and decision-making to psychiatric disorder and intelligence--can be viewed as natural kinds. Moreover, one might ask whether natural kindhood can be viewed as a normative constraint on scientific research: should psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and AI researchers pursue the discovery of natural kinds, or do other ways of taxomomizing mental phenomena serve equally well? This seminar course 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 psychiatric classification, animal cognition, cognitive extension, and artificial intelligence.

The LSF page for this course is here.

There is also a Moodle page for this course here.

Online Meetings

Until further notice, all seminar meetings will be held online on Wednesdays from 11:15 until approximately 12:15. While some of these meetings (especially in the first half of the semester) will be whole-class discussions, other meetings (especially in the second half of the semester) will involve breaking down into focus groups. Login information for these meetings was sent by email to registered seminar participants on April 20th, 2020.

Participation in the online meetings is considered mandatory and active engagement is expected. However, the present situation calls for flexibility on all sides. So, if you cannot participate in the online meetings because of health, caretaking, bandwidth or other justifiable reasons, please send me an email.


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 a short philosophical essay (50%, assessed individually) and a class wiki (50%, assessed per focus group).

The class wiki is a group assignment. The wiki can be found on the course Moodle page, and should eventually summarize philosophical discussions of natural kindhood as they apply to cognitive science within four specific focus areas: psychiatric classification (PC), animal cognition (AC), cognitive extension (CE), and artificial intelligence (AI). For each focus area, the wiki should consider the role that natural kind terms might eventually play in resolving a relevant scientific debate. Thus, it might: discuss the role that a putative "mark of the cognitive" plays in debates about cognitive extension; determine the grounds on which similarity between human, non-human animal, and/or artificial intelligence is assessed; and investigate the role of natural kinds in distinguishing between "normal" and "abnormal" cognition in pyschiatric contexts. The wiki should also link to relevant readings in each focus area, and if necessary, summarize the views discussed therein.

Every seminar participant can contribute to any part of the wiki, but will only receive a grade for a single focus area. Contributions might include the production of new content or structure, the editing of existing content or structure, the raising and answering of questions, as well as the identification and summarizing of relevant references. Notably, contributions to the wiki will be assessed collectively, with all group members of a focus group receiving the same grade. For this reason, collaboration within focus groups is expected and strongly encouraged, and will be facilitated through regular breakout sessions that replace the whole-class meetings. Note that although wiki contributions are assessed collectively, Moodle also tracks individual contributions.

Some additional thoughts and recommendations for preparing the wiki pages within the four focus groups are compiled here.

Philosophical essays are individual assignments. Because philosophical essays are arguments, they should clearly and concisely state a claim and give compelling reasons to think that the claim is true. Essay questions will be announced in advance, and every seminar participant should choose a question pertaining to a focus area distinct from the one that they are considering in their focus group. Essays can be written in either English or German, must be at least 1000 words (4CP) or 500 words (2CP) in length, and should be submitted as a PDF attachment to carlos [dot] zednik [at] ovgu [dot] de by 23:59 on the due date. Essays should state the author's name, matriculation number, course of study, wiki focus group, and expected number of CP.

Essays should answer exactly one of the following questions:


Part 1: Philosophical Foundations (Readings linked below)
22.04.2020What are Natural Kinds?
Watch the YouTube video on natural kinds uploaded by
29.04.2020Metaphysical Questions
Brzovic, Z., "Natural Kinds" (Introduction, Section 1 & Section 3), The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Bird, A. & Tobin, E., "Natural Kinds" (Introduction & Section 1), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
06.05.2020Scientific Relevance
Brzovic, Z., "Natural Kinds" (Section 2), The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Bird, A. & Tobin, E., "Natural Kinds" (Section 2), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Part 2: Natural Kinds in Cognitive Science (Readings uploaded to Moodle)
13.05.2020Buckner, C. (2013). "A Property-Cluster Theory of Cognition". Philosophical Psychology 28(3), 307-336.
20.05.2020Craver, C. (2009). "Mechanisms and natural kinds". Philosophical Psychology 22(5), 575-594.
27.05.2020Allen, C. (2017). "On (not) defining cognition". Synthese 194, 4233-4249.
Part 3: Specific Debates (Sign up for a focus group via Moodle!)
03.06.2020AC: Andrews, K. (2014). "Getting to Know Other Minds". In K. Andrews, The Animal Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animal Cognition (pp. 4-22). London: Routledge.
CE: Adams, F., & Aizawa, K. (2001). "The bounds of cognition". Philosophical Psychology 14(1): 43-64.
PC: Kendler, K.S., Zachar, P. & Craver, C. (2011). "What kinds of things are psychiatric disorders?" Psychological Medicine 41: 1143-1150.
AI: Cevora, G. (2019). "The relationship between Biological and Artificial Intelligence". Towards Data Science.
10.06.2020AC: Premack, D. (2007). "Human and animal cognition: Continuity and discontinuity". Proceedings of the National Academy of Natural Sciences 104(35): 13861-13867.
CE: Clark, A. (2010). "Coupling, Constitution, and the Cognitive Kind: A Reply to Adams and Aizawa". In R. Menary (ed.), The Extended Mind (pp. 81-100). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
PC: Tsou, J.Y. (2016). "Natural kinds, psychiatric classification and the history of the DSM". History of Psychiatry 27(4): 406-424.
AI: Kriegeskorte, N. (2015). "Deep Neural Networks: A New Framework for Modeling Biological Vision and Brain Information Processing". Annual Review of Vision Science 1: 417-446.
17.06.2020AC: Meketa, I. (2014). "A critique of the principle of cognitive simplicity in comparative cognition". Biology & Philosophy 29.5: 731-745.
CE: Walter, S. & Kästner, L. (2012). "The where and what of cognition: The untenability of cognitive agnosticism and the limits of the Motley Crew Argument". Cognitive Systems Research13: 12-23.
PC: Haslam, N. (2014). "Natural Kinds in Psychiatry: Conceptually Implausible, Empirically Questionable, and Stigmatizing". In H. Kincaid & J. Sullivan (eds.), Classifying Psychopathology: Mental Kinds and Natural Kinds (pp. 11-28). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
AI: Saxe, A., Nelli, S. & Summerfield, C. (2020). "If deep learning is the answer, then what is the question?" arXiv: 2004.07580.
24.06.2020AC: Buckner, C. (2013). "Morgan's Canon, meet Hume's Dictum: Avoiding anthropofabulation in cross-species comparisons". Biology and Philosophy 28: 853-871.
CE: Rupert, R. (2013). "Memory, Natural Kinds, and Cognitive Extension; or, Martians Don't Remember, and Cognitive Science Is Not about Cognition". Review of Philosophy and Psychology.
PC: Hartner, D. & Theurer, K. (2018). "Why Psychiatry Should Not Seek Mechanisms of Disorder". Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology.
AI: Marcus, G. (2018). ":Deep Learning: A Critical Appraisal". arXiv: 1801.00631
01.07.2020AC: Carruthers, P. (2013). "Animal Minds are Real, (Distinctively) Human Minds are Not". American Philosophical Quarterly 50(3).
CE: 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.
PC: Held, B. (2017). "The Distinction Between Psychological Kinds and Natural Kinds Revisited: Can Updated Natural-Kind Theory Help Clinical Psychological Science and Beyond Meet Psychology's Philosophical Challenges?". Review of General Psychology 21(1): 82-94.
AI: Zednik, C. (manuscript). "From Machine Learning to Machine Intelligence".
AI: Lake, B. et al. (2016). "Building Machines that Learn and Think like People". Behavioral and Brain Sciences
08.07.2020No reading. This meeting will be dedicated to discussing the preliminary "results" of each focus group. After briefly splitting into groups to coordinate each group's contribution, we will reconvene as a whole class and groups will take turns addressing questions such as the following:
  • What is the guiding question or debate for this focus group?
  • How could debates about natural kindhood help answer this question or resolve this debate?
  • Which conception of natural kindhood (if any) is most relevant or promising in this context?
  • Which level of abstraction (e.g. for describing mechanisms) or degree of granularity (e.g. for subdividing cognitive capacities) is most appropriate within this context?
01.08.2020Wiki completion deadline
01.09.2020Essays due