The Cognitive Dimension

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Book Chapter

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Cognition, and mental processes, played an important role in early social theory, especially in the thought of Comte and Spencer, but a gradually reduced role in the “classics,” and a minimal role in what became the “Standard Social Science Model.” This is now changing, so this history has become quite relevant. Comte is known for his interest in phrenology, but this interest took the form of a critique of phrenology as well as of the faculty psychology of the time. This critique pointed toward a modern view of cognition. Herbert Spencer, whose reputation in cognitive science is deservedly high, provided a fully developed account of basic cognition that pointed to key issues of societal explanation that preserved individualism, supporting a view of society as a spontaneous order, and also qualified his view of the social organism. Despite his great influence, this development was largely cut off when social scientists absorbed and transformed neo-Kantianism and combined it with Völkerpsychologie into a model of culture that transferred cognitive issues to the collective level. The later social psychological use of “attitude” as a surrogate for cognitive processes also blocked a cognitively based account of society, as proposed by sociologists like Charles Ellwood.

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The Cognitive Dimension, in S. Abrutyn & O. Lizardo (Eds.), Handbook of Classical Sociological Theory, Springer Publishing, p. 693-725