Do Non-Linguistic Creatures have a Fodorian (Logic-Like/Language-Like) Language

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Do Non-Linguistic Creatures have a Fodorian (Logic-Like/Language-Like) Language

Susan E. Carey, Harvard University

Friday, April 28, 2017
Moore B03
Intended Audience(s): Public
Categories: Clubs & Organizations, Conferences, Lectures & Seminars, Workshops & Training

The adult human conceptual repertoire is a unique phenomenon earth. Human adults build hierarchical representations on the fly, distinguishing “Molecules are made of tiny atoms” (True) from “Atoms are made of tiny molecules” (False).  It is unknown whether non-linguistic creatures are capable of representing structured propositions in terms of hierarchical structures formulated over abstract variables, assigning truth values to those propositions, or are capable of abstract relational thought. How abstract knowledge and abstract combinatorial thought is acquired, over both evolutionary and ontogenetic time scales, is one of the outstanding scientific mysteries in the cognitive sciences, and has been debated in the philosophical literature at least since Descartes.  Many philosophers, from Descartes through Davidson, have argued that abstract combinatorial thought is absent in creatures who lack natural language; others, such as Fodor argues that such must be widely available to non-linguistic creatures, including human babies and animals at least throughout the vertebrates.  A priori arguments will not get us far in settling this issue, which requires both theoretical analysis and empirical work.  Theoretically, those who think there is a joint in nature between the kinds of representations that underlie perception and action, on the one hand, and abstract combinatorial thought, on the other, owe us an analysis of the essential differences between the representations and computations involved in each.  Emperically, then, we must develop methods that could yield data that bear on the question of whether non-human animals or human infants have representations/computations on the abstract combinatorial thought side of the putative joint in nature.  I will illustrate progress on both the theoretical and empirical fronts through two case studies:  logical connectives and abstract relations.

Susan Carey received her BA from Radcliffe College and her PhD in Experimental Psychology from Harvard University, studying with George Miller, Jerome Bruner and Roger Brown.  She taught at MIT (Psychology Department, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences) from 1973-1996, at NYU (Psychology Department) from 1996 - 2001, and has been at Harvard (Psychology Department) since 2001, where she cofounded the Laboratory for Developmental Studies with Elizabeth Spelke.  She was awarded the 1998 Nicod Prize, was named the William James Fellow of APS in 2002, was awarded the David Rumerhart Prize in 2009, and APA Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award in in 2009, and an APA Mentor Award in 2013.  She is a member of the Society for Experimental Psychology, the American Association of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.

Reception to follow

For more information, contact:
Carol Bean-Carmody

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