In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cognitive Ability

  • Introduction
  • General Entries and Textbooks
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Philosophy of Perception
  • Philosophy of Education
  • Metaphilosophy

Philosophy Cognitive Ability
Evan Butts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0247


Cognitive abilities are treated largely as a special class of abilities in general. Thus, any overall account of ability and the possession thereof will apply equally well to cognitive abilities. Hence, cognitive abilities are abilities to take in, collate, process, and deploy information. To speaking of human perceptual and reasoning capabilities as “cognitive abilities” is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, under various guises, the topic has been discussed throughout the history of philosophy. In contemporary literature, much of the theorizing about the general nature and function of these capacities occurs within the domain of the natural sciences. Debate within philosophy about cognitive abilities is not monolithic. Instead, the notion crops up independently in various subdisciplines, fulfilling distinct theoretical roles in each. In addition to humans, questions also arise as to whether animals and machines are, or can become, sufficiently sophisticated to have genuinely cognitive abilities.

Historical Perspectives

Within the history of philosophy, until the mid-20th century, discussion of cognitive abilities took place under the heading of “intellectual” capacities and powers. With this in mind, we can include various works on human psychology throughout history. Aristotle 1986 (cited under Ancient) represents one of the most developed views in Western antiquity, while Vasubandu 1991 (cited under Ancient) gives us a sample of thought on similar topics from ancient, non-Western perspectives. For the Medieval period attention is drawn to the works of Aquinas via McDermott 1993 and Pourjavady and Schmidtke 2006, a biography of Ibn Kammuna, a Jewish contemporary of Aquinas. The Modern period holds much familiar work on human intellect, especially among British empiricists, including Locke 1975. Reid 2002 provides a contrast to such empiricism with the author’s common-sense school of thought. With older works, even written in English, secondary literature is recommended (Dreyfus 1997 and Nussbaum and Rorty 1992, cited under Ancient; Gallie 1989 and Lowe 1995, cited under Modern).

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