What is Cognitive Progress?

With the support of a CRASSH Early Career Fellowship, I propose to commence and make substantial progress on a book-length monograph that examines the notion of cognitive or epistemic progress. I will set out and explore in detail what I take to be the standard, and largely presumed, model of cognitive progress within philosophy, and argue that this model is mistaken. I will also develop and defend an alternative model that better accords with what we know about the nature of mental representation. The critique of the standard model, and the new model I develop, will be at once intrinsically interesting and bear significantly on central issues in epistemology and the philosophy of mind.

The core question is how to understand what it is for a person to improve her overall cognitive relationship with the world. To put the point crudely, but vividly: it seems that I know more now than when I was 10 years old, but it is unclear what this consists in. Similarly, it seems obviously true that I know more now about Cambridge than I did two years ago, but it is far from clear what this involves. A natural thought is that in both instances, knowing more, or being less ignorant, is a matter of having more true beliefs, or knowing more facts. On this kind of approach, the quantitative aspect involved (knowing _more_, or being _less_ ignorant) is understood by appeal to the cardinal numbers, and cognitive progress is essentially accumulative or aggregative: each true belief is a piece of knowledge, and to acquire more knowledge is to accumulate a greater number of true beliefs. This view has never been explicitly defended in philosophy, but is nonetheless close to orthodoxy. My research project will set out this view in detail and explore whether it is ultimately plausible: I will argue that it faces intractable problems.


Dr Nick Treanor (Philosophy, Churchill College) is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Michaelmas 2010.


Tel: +44 1223 766886