A critique of the “cognitive functions”
Authored by Veralyn Sage Aldritch


This may just be the most difficult thing I'll have written to date, and it may very well be the most difficult thing I will ever write. Regardless of whether or not I will eventually come to write something else that would prove to be incredibly mentally taxing, like a novel or a Masters dissertation, my position as I am now, an unfocused, undisciplined, bouncy, distractible, and scatterbrained teenager highly dependent on instant gratification, solidifies the sheer difficulty of the undertaking ahead. I haven't written a word yet, but this brief foreword has already come out to be one-hundred words thus far.

Having indulged in the world of typology for the past three or so years and having been blessed with a brain that would finally understand in a way worthy of presentation, I feel responsible in sharing what I have discovered with you today. It is, in fact, responsibility that causes me to write this now, but I will be motivated by both my interest in the topic and anticipation of the final product; that interest in this topic may be derived in great part from the many wonderful and intelligent people I have met, whom I fear have been led astray by "one particular" "theory" in the Myers-Briggs world. A better characterization of what this is would be a set of disparate theories that had never been given the opportunity to amalgamate into a single, coherent theory that could be—in some sense—universalized so that typings would actually mean something.

The necessity of a critique of such an odd idea is in so many ways such a fascinating thing, because you really wouldn't expect people—and smart people, for that matter—to be roped in by the cognitive functions, and you wouldn't think that such a thing would replace genuine Myers-Briggs theory (often even being referred to as true Myers-Briggs theory or Jungian theory) but the mishmash known as the cognitive functions get away with it so often because people don't do their research and take them for their word.

Follow my wording very carefully when I say this: because I do not have a background in neuroscience or neuropsychology, I will focus on deconstructing the cognitive functions instead of providing a viable alternative to them that is based in genuine neuroscience or neuropsychology. In other words, I will not pretend to know that I know anything about the true inner workings of the brain and will instead, when prompted, lead (or question, rather) with an assumption in mind that cognition is unlimited and can be honed in any way possible. We will call this the primary assumption for short.

You may be tempted to think that because I will situationally lead with this assumption, no criticism I make of the cognitive functions will be valid. I, however, intend to provide an incentive for why making this assumption is important and, within a window of reasonability, intend to evidence this assumption. Please note that while I will lead with this assumption, it is not absolutely necessary for you to accept the premise and I will try my best to avoid arriving at hard conclusions justified solely by the primary assumption; I will deconstruct the cognitive functions and show you exactly why there is no cause, by law of logical reasoning, to believe in the many, many assumptions that must be assumed before using—forget believing in—the cognitive functions.

But in the meantime, why is it reasonable to assume our primary assumption? We find it easier to understand differences. This is because imposing limits on personality that have not been proven to a reasonable degree allows room for the denial of real, existing aspects of personality that may not be accounted for by the assumptions, and the erasure of an incontrovertibly false, limiting assumption is not guaranteed in a scenario where this assumption is pitted against a reasonable truth. Contrast this with our primary assumption: because we would be assuming that personality is unlimited, proof of its limits would contradict the assumption, meaning that we would be denying the absence of ability, not the presence of ability, which allows for continual testing of the proof rather than the outright dismissal of the proof (as given by our previous scenario).

I previously stated that this would be an extremely difficult piece to write with regards to its length, but it becomes incredibly daunting when then considering the subject matter: the "cognitive functions." And why, you may ask, is that so difficult to write about? That would be because the so-called cognitive functions—again, like I have mentioned before—though referred to as a single theory that exists on the Internet does not truly exist as a single theory on the Internet, which leads into two major problems are fully or in part influenced by this dilemma:

Because the cognitive functions are not centralized, there is no way to reference a universalized (by some arbitrary standard) interpretation of the cognitive functions that can be agreed upon by a governing standard created by a specific body or a multitude of bodies. Contrast this to the Myers-Briggs theory, which is tested for through Forms M and Q today, which a multitude of studies have been based upon and are referenced in an MBTI Manual.

Discussions involving typings that utilize the cognitive functions often lead to inconclusion as a result of there being no true common ground for what defines the functions and how they can be used to type people. This is not to say that there doesn't exist a sizable window of typings that would be acceptable in any given centralized typology system (assuming that the person themselves are not misrepresented by they who are typing them), but this window is far too large* in the cognitive functions' scenario for there to be a viable system to work with. In other words, when people discuss typings of other people, they don't really agree on what defines type to begin with.

Quick notice: the viability of the cognitive functions as a typology system is questioned here on the basis of their external coherence, but I have so much more to say about internal coherence—it will be covered as we continue along.

A third quirk that may not be so significantly related to the fact that the cognitive functions are not a single, coherent theory is that the cognitive functions are essentially made to be unfalsifiable with how holes are almost always, always, always somehow justified by theorists with their own theory, and very often through reshaping their idea of what their ideas (regarding the cognitive functions) actually are in order to account for the main assumption we proposed earlier, otherwise they risk sounding like they are in fact limiting the domain of personality. I would say that, in some sense, this is a very benign use of function theory and is merely led by a poor set of assumptions.

On the other hand, there are people who do not fall under this category, instead creating arbitrary limits on personality without any semblance of justifiable reasoning. This a far less benign use of the cognitive functions, often leading into things like exploitation, reinforcing inferiority, and encouraging social selection based on type.

Having now given you a general idea of what exactly we'll be dealing with, I hope that you do understand, in some respect, why it is so difficult to address "cognitive functions" as a whole and attempt to refute it. To put it into perspective: I would be met with people saying that I haven't done my research, or I've been reading bad definitions of the cognitive functions, or that I don't understand the theory well enough, and these are all based on real experiences I have had with the online typology community.

It really wasn't easy coming up with a clear-cut plan on how to deal with pressing down on the functions, but I think I have one now that may just work. Instead of directly trying to rebut claims hidden within frameworks or interpretations of the cognitive functions, I will present my own case for what the cognitive functions really are and find sources that argue against it; I will then respond to those arguments and finally lead into my conclusions.

But let's now briefly go over exactly what I'm not going to be doing. Very often you'll see this argument represented as a battle between empiricism and theory, where I would be redirected to Big 5 if I were looking to discredit the cognitive functions on the basis that it simply isn't empirical. This is not, however, my primary concern, and empiricism is not quite what I desire from the cognitive functions. It is instead its viability, or its success in working as a system used to type people. Viability is an arbitrary metric, of course, but I will let you gauge for yourself how viable the cognitive functions are as a system after I present why I believe it isn't a viable system.

In all honesty, there is an extremely simple way to dismantle the validity of a personalized framework that one would present as the cognitive functions: a formal, logical debate. In fact, it would be extremely easy to use hard logic as a way of pinning such ideas to a pedantic standard and hence disqualifying them in presentation. However, I firmly believe that simply breaking down an idea with logic isn't ample enough in fundamentally showing why the idea does not hold merit as you and I would see it; I see a difference in picking apart an argument by means of logic and picking apart an idea by means of logic, and the latter does little to none in truly convincing people of the flaws embedded in an idea. From a theoretical perspective, ideas all seem to be on equal footing, but we make judgments based on facts and how well our ideas support facts; I don't necessarily believe in the importance of hard facts here, but I do prize judgment. How could I judge an idea without facts? My answer is exposure to a better idea, an idea that we're holding up with our primary assumption. Maybe you would disregard the facts we have about our world, and maybe you would disregard the logic behind the refutations anyone would have against your cognitive function framework, but I insist that you weigh the ideas I will propose carefully with those of your own and decide for yourself what underlying message you feel suits reality best.

I think, then, that this may be enough of an introduction. You may realize it by now: I'm not very informed. I don't have much experience with formal logic. I haven't quite figured out how to articulate my ideas. Maybe you're a philosopher who knows how to say these things better than I can. Maybe you're a logician who has a better grasp on organizing my ideas better. Maybe you're a neuroscientist who can push away my own assumptions and replace them with tried and tested facts. But! Despite everything holding me back, I might just be able to convince you that all of this is a big, big mess that you shouldn't be able to make sense out of.


The cognitive functions are a collectioncounter-1 of disparate theories of personality that appear to be one single theory with negligible differencesagreement-1 between the various interpretations spread around by typologists. Because of this variance, discourse over cognitive function types often leads to speaking-a-different-language type arguing, where either the difference in language goes unrealized, or one party insists that another party has it all wrong. In reality, neither of them have it wrongcounter-2—there's nothingcounter-3 to say which interpretation is more wrong or right.

But that isn't too obvious! As you would expect, a culture develops. It would be a lie to call the cognitive functions completely chaotic and nonresolute—how would people make heads and tails out of cognitive function theory in the first place, then? It's just the right amount of chaos: typologists engage with cognitive functions because they connect to the essences that are vaguely talked about, but they diverge when these extremely broad essences are explained in specific terms. Interestingly, the grounds on which people are able to sew their ideas of the cognitive functions together are those which are very widely criticized by the deeper typologists.

With that, I refer to the notion of "stereotyping."