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J Anim Sci. 1998 Jan;76(1):42-7.

Assessing animal cognition: ethological and philosophical perspectives.

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Department of Philosophy, Texas A&M University, College Station 77843-4237, USA.


Developments in the scientific and philosophical study of animal cognition and mentality are of great importance to animal scientists who face continued public scrutiny of the treatment of animals in research and agriculture. Because beliefs about animal minds, animal cognition, and animal consciousness underlie many people's views about the ethical treatment of nonhuman animals, it has become increasingly difficult for animal scientists to avoid these issues. Animal scientists may learn from ethologists who study animal cognition and mentality from an evolutionary and comparative perspective and who are at the forefront of the development of naturalistic and laboratory techniques of observation and experimentation that are capable of revealing the cognitive and mental properties of nonhuman animals. Despite growing acceptance of the ethological study of animal cognition, there are critics who dispute the scientific validity of the field, especially when the topic is animal consciousness. Here, a proper understanding of developments in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science can help to place cognitive studies on a firm methodological and philosophical foundation. Ultimately, this is an interdisciplinary task, involving scientists and philosophers. Animal scientists are well-positioned to contribute to the study of animal cognition because they typically have access to a large pool of potential research subjects whose habitats are more controlled than in most field studies while being more natural than most laboratory psychology experiments. Despite some formidable questions remaining for analysis, the prospects for progress in assessing animal cognition are bright.

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