Speaker and Spotlight Series Abstracts

The Acquisition of Negation

Dr. Christopher Rahlwes

Nov 30, 2023

The traditional picture of negation acquisition posits three negations and stages: refusal, non-existence, and a truth-functional negation. Such an account is mistaken in assuming that natural language possesses or that human adults (overall) use a truth-functional negation. I abandon such assumptions as they originate from ideal forms of language and not natural language. From this, I adopt a Neo-Aristotelian/Neo-Pāṇinian frame to provide an alternative account of negation acquisition. I suggest that there are four negations and stages of acquisition: rejection, difference, absence, and denial. While my focus is on the acquisition of negation in children, I shine a light on which negations are shared with others in the animal kingdom. In so doing, I raise the question not of whether animals have a truth-functional negation but, instead, if animals can express absence and denial. 

Relating Child Language Development to Neurodevelopment

Professor William Snyder

Nov 9, 2023

Children’s comprehension of English passives using subject-experiencer verbs, which describe mental states, is delayed with respect to actional passives. We claim that comprehension of subject-experiencer passives relies on the maturation of semantic coercion needed to reconstrue the internal argument of a subject-experiencer verb into an external argument suitable for passivization. In a functional MRI study of adult sentence processing, we found that subject-experiencer passives were associated with increased activation in left medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC, Figure 1), a region whose maturational trajectory is prolonged compared to core language regions. This result aligns with Pylkkänen’s (2008) proposal of syntax-conceptual interface regions outside the core language areas, as well as neuroanatomical correlates of theory of mind (ToM) development. We suggest that these convergent findings implicate the mPFC as a region that supports conceptualization of mental states as possible ‘possessions’, constraining the parallel maturation of ToM and the syntax-conceptual interface.

Autism Illuminates Language: Acquisition, Development, Use

Professor Letty Naigles

Sept 15, 2023

Children on the autism spectrum engage in social interactions with lower frequency and in different patterns compared with children who are developing typically. This variation in social engagement has afforded many explorations of the significance of social interaction as a mechanism in language acquisition, development, and use. The Longitudinal Study of Early Language is a 20+- years-long multi-domain exploration of the language of children on the autism spectrum, including their comprehension via Intermodal Preferential Looking, their production via naturalistic interactions, and their performance in numerous psycholinguistic and clinical assessments. In this talk, I will highlight how comprehension findings demonstrating early acquisition of grammatical constructions, combined with wide heterogeneity in language production by these same children, indicate how social engagement plays a targeted rather than universal role in early language. Moreover, investigations of lexical semantics reveal challenges but also promote reconsideration of the definitions of social strengths and weaknesses in both autistic and non-autistic individuals.

Varieties of Agency

Professor Jen Hornsby

Apr 21, 2023

I’ll be concerned with two question in my talk. One is whether non-human animals can properly be said to act intentionally, the other whether non-animal things of any sort are intentional agents. My answer to the first question is a definite Yes. To the other question, I‘ll respond by suggesting that nothing definitive can be said.

I’ll approach the question about the agency of mere animals by saying what I take to be wrong about the account of human agency found in Davidson (which in his own view excludes the
possibility of non-human animal agency) and what I take to be right about the account found in Anscombe (which endorses the actuality of non-human animal agency). And I’ll defend Anscombe against the charge of unwarranted anthropomorphism.

I’ll suggest that insofar as Anscombe can be defended, one must rely upon more than the claim that often enough we can simply see an animal doing something apparently purposively. This opens up the possibility that plants (and some might say robots) might act in some same sense as that in which animals act albeit that we can seldom see anything they are doing as directed towards an end.

Ideophones and Expressivism

Hady Ba

Mar 30, 2023

First defined by (Doke, 1935: 118) as “A vivid representation of an idea in sound. A word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, smell, action, state or intensity”, ideophones are now more accurately defined after (Dingemanse, 2011, 2019) as “marked words that depict sensory imagery and belong to an open lexical class”. Not all languages possess ideophones and given the specificity of this category, ideophones clearly violate Saussure’s thesis of the arbitrariness of the sign and are very difficult to define or to translate. At the same time, they are immediately recognized and understood by fluent speaker of the language. In this talk I will first use examples from Wolof, a language in the Senegambian sub-section of the Niger-Congo language family, to illustrate what ideophones are then will use the neo-expressivist framework to analyze the semantics of ideophones. I’ll argue that such an analysis is a promising path not only to give a semantics for ideophones but also in order to understand the origin of language.

Radicalizing Practical Representations

Professor Alison Springle

Feb 10, 2023

Philosophers and cognitive scientists have posited practical mental representations (henceforth, “practical representations”) to account for a variety of cognitive phenomena. But what exactly are practical representations? “Conservative views” claim that they are types of propositional representations while more popular “modest views” claim that they are non-propositional, though not radically non-propositional, representations. I argue that conservative views incur a heavy explanatory loss and that, perhaps surprisingly, modest views don’t fare much better. The latter also inherit an explanatory burden that conservative views and radically non-propositional views of practical representation could avoid. As for “radical views” of practical representation, few philosophers have been so daring. Fortunately, courage is among Millikan’s many virtues: her theory of pushmi-pullyu representations (PPRs) is a rare radical-leaning view of practical representations. However, I argue that Millikan’s articulation of the theory remains, in crucial respects, modest, and that, in the present context, such modesty is not a virtue. Quite the contrary, it undermines PPRs’ theoretical virtues. To rescue these virtues, I lean in to the rebellious character of Millikan’s theory by developing PPRs in a more radically non-propositional direction a la my (Millikan-inspired) theory of de agendo representations. I conclude that radical views of practical representation constitute a coherent and potentially powerful alternative to propositional and modestly non-propositional views. Surely the proper response to such promising theories is to valiantly pursue them.

Pragmatism and the Attitudes

Julian Schloeder

Jan 26, 2023

If “Lying is wrong” derives its meaning from the expression of disapproval, what do “I fear lying is wrong” or “Paul hopes that lying is wrong” mean? This is the *many attitudes problem* for expressivism. We have to distinguish three questions: what is it (metaphysically, materially) to believe/fear/hope/etc; what is the meaning of attitude ascriptions like “Paul believes/fear/hopes…”; and what is the meaning of expressions of attitudes. I will approach these questions from the perspective of a pragmatist, asking what attitude expressions and ascriptions are FOR and from there derive an answer to the metaphysical or material question. The answer begins with the claim that we express or ascribe attitudes to make ourselves and others predictable. Broadly this has also been claimed by Fodor, but I argue that this will not require us to adopt a Fodorian “thickly” realist ontology of the attitudes. The pragmatist requirements on what the attitudes are, are compatible with a kind of minimalism about the attitudes, as well as various versions of realism. I argue that a Dennettian interpretivism is a particularly natural fit. This talk includes joint work with Luca Incurvati (Amsterdam).

Conventional Reanalysis and Semantic Creativity

Professor Kate Stanton

Nov 11, 2022

Reanalysis is a mechanism of local meaning revision thought to be entirely pragmatic. When the conventional interpretation of a word or phrase is contextually inappropriate to convey speaker meaning then context cues, inference, and heuristics can be used to make adjustments. Thus we understand, for example, that a `DRINK drink' is alcoholic --- reanalysing the first duplicate to exclude non-prototypical instances (Horn, 2018). But must reanalysis be an entirely pragmatic affair?  In this talk I claim that semantics can play a part too. I outline what I call an `ecological niche' for the formation of a kind of linguistic convention that directs the path of reanalysis. I define `conventional reanalysis strategies' and offer evidence of their existence from expressive small clauses and non-verbal signals. I conclude that conventional reanalysis strategies constitute a novel form of layering in semantics and that understanding this form of layering may broaden our picture of the role of semantics in linguistic creativity. 

How interacting minds make language: The creative forces behind homesign, sign languages, and all human communication

Professor Marie Coppola

Nov 9, 2022

We can learn much about human nature by studying language as it is being created, especially in contexts where deaf people grow up without access to a signing community, and with limited access to a spoken language. I will argue that language acquisition and social interaction drive language creation within individuals (homesigners) and across a linguistic community (in Nicaragua). I will describe how local gestures are transformed into homesign and into elements of Lengua de Señas Nicaragüense (LSN, also known as Nicaraguan Sign Language). Crucially, I’ll discuss the roles played by homesigners, their communication partners, social contact among deaf peers, and the interaction between older and younger signers. Together, their individual social and communicative acts converged to create a language shared by 1,500 community members.

From homesigners, we have also learned that some language structures support cognitive development, especially for understanding numbers and what other people are thinking. These findings help expand current theories in language and cognitive sciences. However, they also highlight the most critical global issue facing deaf people: the staggeringly high percentage of deaf people who experience language deprivation due to inadequate access to language and education. Deaf Nicaraguans collaborate with us to document their language and learn about its history, and are essential to the advocacy work of the non-profit organization Signs and Smiles.

Words: Pragmatic Innovations and Linguistic Constraints

Professor Robyn Carston

Oct 28, 2022

“It is possible that natural language has only syntax and pragmatics; on this view, natural language consists of internalist computations and performance systems that access them along with much other information and belief, carrying out their instructions in particular ways to enable us to talk and communicate, among other things.” (Chomsky 1995: 26-27).

Taking this view of language as my point of departure, I bring current work in generative grammar on the structure (the syntax) of words together with ideas in relevance-theoretic lexical pragmatics to explain how word meanings arise and evolve. My focus is on ‘complex’ words, such as ‘reactionary’ with its non-compositional (atomic) meaning BACKWARD-LOOKING and ‘naturalize’ with its non-compositional (atomic) meaning BECOME CITIZEN OF A COUNTRY, and so-called ‘conversions’, e.g. the verb ‘to grandstand’ derived from the noun ‘grandstand’, the verb ‘to houdini’ derived from the proper name ‘Houdini’, and the noun ‘an embed’ from the verb ‘embed’. The issue these words raise for a syntactic account of word structure is why and how they come to have non-compositional meanings when phrasal structures are typically compositional (e.g. ‘the girl who saw the teacher’, ‘eat breakfast at noon’). I maintain that the relevance-based account of lexical pragmatics, according to which word meanings are being flexibly adjusted in communicative contexts all the time, by inferential processes that either narrow/broaden existing meanings or create new meanings via metonymic lexical innovation, can explain the emergence of these non-compositional meanings for complex words.

Pre-Reflective Self-Consciousness and Origins of Agency

Michael Hegarty

Sept 28, 2022

I argue that a minimal, non-conceptual, non-representational form of self-consciousness/self-aware is necessary for action that is the result of inferential reasoning. By interpreting experimental results suggesting that some animals engage in instrumental reasoning and consequence action, I claim that it is possible that such animals are agents and hence minimally self-conscious/self-aware. 

Expressivism doesn’t exclude descriptivism: The meaning of slurs and other affectively loaded words

Dr. Constant Bonard

Mar 14, 2022

In the philosophical and linguistic literature on the meaning of slurs, there is an antagonism between descriptivist and affect-expressivist positions. I argue that these views should not be strongly opposed, based on a common claim in affective sciences: that emotions and other affective states involve a cognitive component – the appraisal process. This and other insights from emotion and communication research lead me to defend a kind of affect-expressivism that doesn’t exclude descriptivism. In a nutshell, the idea is that the typical use of a slur is a cue (often a signal) that is expressive of a negative affective disposition towards a target group, such as xenophobia or homophobia. It is expressive in virtue of its (often conventionalized) association with a group of speakers who have this sentiment. The sentiment involves a cognitive component – the appraisal process – that evaluates slur targets as possessing negative characteristics (wrongly, of course). This analysis preserves intuitions from both descriptivism and expressivism while avoiding typical objections against expressivism. I then suggest how it could extend to other affectively loaded terms, such as laudatives (e.g. hero, angel, saint, stud).

Emotion Recognition: Studies of Spontaneous Nonverbal Expressions

Professor Disa Sauter

Dec 3, 2021

Nonverbal communication through emotional facial and vocal expressions is central to our social relationships. To date, the vast majority of empirical research on the nonverbal communication of emotion has relied on posed, stylised expressions, an approach that has come under considerable criticism. In this talk, I will discuss research examining similarities and differences between posed and spontaneous expressions of emotion, particularly in terms of the perceptions of others' emotional expressions. From this work, I will conclude that there is substantial overlap between perceptions of posed and spontaneous expressions of emotions, but that there are major advantages to using spontaneous expressions in the study of emotional communication.

Sarcastic Air Quotes are Expressive Privatives

Professor Kate Stanton

Mar 31, 2022

Air quotation can be sarcastic, euphemistic, ironic, emphatic and sometimes even quotative. This paper explores one semantic function of air quotation that marks property deficiency. I argue that Deficiency-marking air quotation signals that the argument of the air quoted predicate is not a real member of its usual extension, and that it also contributes expressive meaning: speaker amusement at the use of that predicate. Deficiency-marking air quotation, I claim, thus functions as a mixed expressive adjective and adds to a growing body of evidence that gestural elements can contribute meanings as nuanced as word forms. I suggest that this analysis may also yield helpful insight into the more complex discourse-level phenomena of sarcasm and euphemism.

Emotions and Reference in Animal Vocal Communication

Professor Marta Manser

Mar 25, 2022

Since the description of the vervet monkey alarm calls the discussion has been on whether animal calls are purely the expression of an animal's emotions or whether they have a semantic content and refer to external stimuli. I will discuss the evidence for both arguments within the recent studies in various animal study systems and discuss the implications for the understanding of the evolution of human language.

Verbal Signaling

Professor Mitch Green

Mar 10, 2022

Much philosophy of language depends on the assumption that paradigm cases of language are underlain by so-called speaker meaning, itself constituted by complex communicative intentions of a kind made famous in the work of Grice, and later articulated by Bach & Harnish and modified by Sperber and Wilson. These theories do not require that complex communicative intentions be consciously entertained in every instance of language use, but such intentions must be psychologically real. This commitment raises the question whether complex communicative intentions need to be present in all communicatively significant uses of language. Building on Green’s earlier construction of the notion of organic meaning, we argue here for a negative answer by, first, elucidating a notion, verbal signaling, which requires neither reflexive nor overt intentions to convey information. Second, we consider three linguistic phenomena: conversational implicature (specifically certain types of quantity implicatures), explicit performatives (specifically those self-ascribing illocutionary force), and coherence phenomena, and argue that each type of case may be adequately represented as an instance of verbal signaling rather than as a case of speaker meaning. The payoff is a more parsimonious take on the psychological mechanisms needed to account for certain important areas of language use.

The Speech-to-Song Illusion: Acoustic Foundations and Individual Differences

Professor Aniruddh D. Patel

Feb 11, 2022

Music often has salient acoustic differences from spoken and environmental sounds, especially with respect to patterns of pitch and timing. Research has shown humans can discriminate spoken and musical sounds within a fraction of second, and neuroimaging research has found distinct neural populations that respond to speech and music. These findings support the notion that music is a kind of sound, with distinct acoustic features and modes of neural processing. In this presentation I explore a phenomenon which challenges this view, and which suggests that music is a kind of perceptual experience, not a kind of sound. In the “speech to song illusion” certain spoken phrases, when played repeatedly, begin to vividly sound like song. Crucially, not all phrases transform in this way, and there are substantial individual differences in how strongly people experience the illusion. I will present research addressing why certain phrases transform more than others and why some listeners hear the illusion more strongly than others. While we have made some progress in answering these questions, much about this illusion remains mysterious, raising questions about why certain sounds are experienced as music.

Unifying the Bifurcation: A Lesson from Constructivism about Emotion

Mengyu Hu

Nov 15, 2021

If emotions are conceptual constructs, would it undermine the ethical expressivist thesis that ethical statements express (rather than describe) non-cognitive states? If constructivism about emotion is true, to what extent would it affect the expressivist project? In my paper, I will take as an example one of the most prominent constructivist theories advanced by L. F. Barrett, clarify what this theory is, and explore what insights an expressivist can draw from it. Most expressivist theories are based on a bifurcation assumption -- there are two fundamentally distinct mental states, cognitive (descriptive belief states) and non-cognitive (emotion, desire, commitment, etc.). I argue that Constructivism doesn't undermine this basic dichotomy, though the proposed constructive mechanisms may lead us to see the bifurcation from a new perspective.

Emotionshaping: A Situated Perspective on Emotionreading

Professor Trip Glazer

Oct 22, 2021

Can we read emotions in faces? Numerous studies suggest that we can, yet skeptics contend that these studies employ methods that unwittingly assist subjects in the task of matching faces with emotions. For instance, many studies present subjects with posed facial expressions, which may be more exaggerated than spontaneous expressions. And many studies provide subjects with a list of emotion words to choose from, which forces subjects to interpret faces in specific emotion terms. The skeptics contend that emotionreading may be an experimental artifact. I argue that the skeptics’ challenge rests on a false assumption: that once subjects leave the lab, they no longer receive help in matching faces with emotions. I argue that people normally help each other to read emotions in faces in the wild, just as experimenters help subjects to read emotions in faces in the lab. For instance, people unconsciously amplify their spontaneous expressions in the presence of others, thereby making them easier to read. And people teach children to interpret faces in the same specific emotion terms found in the experimenters’ word lists. I argue that we can read emotions in faces in light of—not in spite of—a little help from our friends. Emotionreading is a cognitive process normally performed with help, not without it.

The role of situation in understanding abstract concepts

Charles Davis

Oct 11, 2021

How do we understand the meaning of concepts like coffee or idea? A recent account of concept knowledge, which aims to explain how we apprehend abstract concepts like idea in real-world experience, emphasizes that the situated experience of concepts involves tracking information about the elements that comprise concepts and how those elements relate to each other across space and time. Abstract concepts are less situationally systematic—different objects and relations tend to constitute the concept across situations. In this talk, I will explore the results of several experiments testing predictions that emerge from this account. The work described suggests that concepts are more than the sum of their properties: how the elements that comprise concepts relate across space and time is an important consideration in theories of concept knowledge, and a critical component of what it means for a concept to be abstract.

The Unity of Consciousness and the First-Person Perspective

Jenelle Salisbury

Sept 20, 2021

There are many ways in which phenomenal consciousness as experienced from the inside seems to be unified. Perhaps the most fundamental of these seems implied by the phraseology of that sentence - that is, the idea that there is a singularinside - a unique “inner perspective” from which things feel like something for you in particular. In my dissertation work, I aim to explore the idea of a unified, inner “subjective perspective” (and its relationship to sensory integration in the brain) using test cases. The two test cases I explore involve the “split-brain” studies and the “craniopagus” case. In the former case, direct sensory integration within a single human organism’s brain is disrupted. In the latter case, direct sensory integration between two human organisms’ brains is made possible. In this talk, I aim to summarize these two “test cases” and think about how they hang together in the aims of my project as a whole.

Theory of Mind and the Evolution of Cognition

Emeritus Professor Peter Gärdenfors

Apr 23, 2021

Theory of mind is not a unitary phenomenon. In the first part of the talk I break it down into the roles of reading the emotions, the attention, the desires, the intentions and the beliefs of others. I present some evidence about experimental studies concerning these components in children and in non-human animals. In the second part I apply this analysis to the evolution of cognition. First, I talk about how various components of theory of mind can be used to understand the evolution of causal cognition. Second, I briefly mention the role of theory of mind in the evolution of teaching. Third, I show how the components can be applied when analyzing the evolution of communication.

Neo-Expressivism and the Matching Principle

Ben Winokur

Apr 1, 2021

When an agent first-personally self-ascribes—avows—a mental state, it is appropriate to presume the avowal’s truth. One way of explaining such “first-person authority” is in terms of what avowals express and are taken to express. According to neo-expressivism, the relevant expressed feature is the very mental state self-ascribed (Bar-On 2000, 2004). Thus, avowals are first-person authoritative because they are actions that (are taken to) express the very mental states that they semantically represent. Put differently, avowals are first-person authoritative insofar as they (are taken to) match in the mental states they express and their semantic contents. Matthew Parrott (2015) has argued that this ‘matching principle’ is vulnerable to several objections. I respond to these objections on behalf of neo-expressivism. My conclusion is that neo-expressivism is not objectionable in virtue of embracing this matching principle.

Disavowals: A Challenge for Expressivism?

Nadja-Mira Yolcu

Mar 11, 2021

According to psychological expressivism, avowals – present tense self-ascriptions of mental states (e.g. “I hope that the sun is shining”) – are typically expressive of the first-order mental state named. In seriously and competently uttering a propositional avowal of the form “I ψ [psi]* that p”, a speaker expresses the first-order mental state ψ [psi] that p instead of reporting on her mental state (as descriptivism would claim). Self-ascriptions of mental states can be negated. Disavowals, such as “I don’t believe that it is raining” and “I am not afraid”, can be issued just as spontaneously as avowals and are often even used in combination with avowals as in “I don’t want chocolate. I want cotton candy.” Nevertheless, disavowals are rarely discussed and if they are, they are posed as a challenge to the expressivist thesis. Here I will make the case for extending expressivism to disavowals. I propose that (at least some) disavowals are instances of expressive denegation: In uttering a disavowal, a speaker expresses, in some sense, the absence of the mental state named. I end by exploring some consequences of expressivism for disavowals.

Investigating the Interplay between Morphosyntax and Memory for Events: The Case of Past Participles

Yanina Prystauka

Feb 25, 2021

The representational product of sentence comprehension is the result of the interplay between episodic and semantic memory and our knowledge of the grammatical devices of our language which guide how we retrieve information from these systems. Past participles, being a part of speech derived from verbs but used in a prenominal position (e.g. words like dried) create an interesting test case to examine the effect of morphosyntax on sentence-level meaning representation: on the one hand, they share eventive attributes with state change verbs and, on the other hand, they serve a modifying function, similarly to adjectives. The present work investigated the representational content of prenominal past participles. We considered two hypotheses. The eventive reading hypothesis predicts that participles activate both the resulting and the initial states entailed by the root verb they are derived from. The stative reading hypothesis predicts activation of only the linguistically denoted state. What distinguishes between these two accounts is activation of the initial state, which we took as a marker of eventivity. Two behavioral sentence-picture verification tasks examined the meaning of participles by testing how internal state representations instantiated during reading map onto the external ones presented at the sentence offset. Additionally, an fMRI sentence-comprehension task examined the meaning of participles during the course of language comprehension, where state representations are evoked by the unfolding language. Across two behavioral experiments, we demonstrated reduced accessibility of the initial state following participles and ruled out the interpretation that the initial state is fully blocked. The fMRI experiment further refined this interpretation by suggesting that there is interference between two incompatible state representations and active suppression of the situationally-irrelevant initial state. All three experiments also replicated the finding that both the initial and end states are accessible after state change verbs. We conclude with a discussion of the role of morphosyntax in controlling the interplay between episodic and semantic memory. 

The Communicative Foundations of Propositional Attitude Psychology

Professor Richard Moore

Jan 28, 2021

According to a widely held dogma, a developed propositional attitude psychology is a prerequisite of attributing communicative intent, and so a developmental prerequisite of natural language acquisition. This view is difficult to reconcile with developmental evidence, which shows not only that children do not develop propositional attitudes until they are four years old (e.g. Rakoczy 2017), but also that this development is parasitic upon natural language acquisition (de Villiers & de Villers 2000; Lohmann & Tomasello 2003; Low 2010), and that it recruits brain regions that do not exist in infancy (Grosse-Wiesmann et al. 2017). Against the received view, and building on my work on minimally Gricean communication (Moore 2017a), I sketch a developmental trajectory to show how propositional attitude psychology could be both invented and learned through communicative interaction. I finish by considering the conditions in which cultural tools for mental state representation might first have been developed in human history; and the extent to which our early human ancestors might have lacked propositional attitudes. The goal of the paper will not be to show that strong nativism about human mindreading must be false, but that there is no reason to take it for granted in considering the origins of the modern human mind.

Minimal Theory of Mind – A Millikanian Approach

Nimra Asif

Dec 3, 2020

Minimal theory of mind (ToM) is presented in the theory of mind literature as a middle ground between full-blown ToM and behavior-reading. Minimal ToM seems to be a useful construct for studying and understanding the minds of nonhuman animals and infants. However, providing an account of minimal ToM on which minimal mindreading is less cognitively demanding than full-blown mindreading yet more than just a behavior-reading process is a challenge. In this talk, I will consider the possibility of using Ruth Millikan’s theory of mental representation as a framework within which to provide an account of minimal ToM. First, I will present a recent account of minimal ToM that uses Millikan’s theory to establish minimal ToM as a middle ground between full-blown mindreading and behavior-reading. Then I will critically evaluate this account and argue that it fails to make minimal mindreading less cognitively demanding than full-blown mind-reading in any significant way. Finally, I will present an alternative Millikanian account of minimal ToM on which minimal mindreading is not too cognitively demanding, and offer it as a promising account worthy of further consideration. 

This might not be an expressivist position

Eno Agolli

Oct 15, 2020

There are several ways in which one can be an expressivist about epistemic modality. A rough and general way of characterizing them is to say that modalized sentences express, in some sense, an attitude of the speaker toward the prejacent of the modal. This core idea can be implemented in several ways, the common core of which is that epistemic modals do not have any (significant) effect on the conversational common ground. These ways are typically tested against a number of data points. In this presentation, I will present a few more data points which show that epistemic modals do have a more far-reaching pragmatic effect than originally recognized. This might constitute evidence to move further away, if not break, from expressivist paradigms. 

Proper Function and Ethical Judgment: Towards a Biosemantic Account of Ethical Thought and Discourse

Drew Johnson

Sept 24, 2020

What, if anything, do ethical judgments represent? What role do ethical judgments and ethical claims play in the lives of social creatures like us? This paper employs Ruth Millikan's biosemantic theory to explore answers to these questions through investigating the proper function of ethical judgments and claims. According to the account I propose, ethical judgments and claims are a species of "Pushmi-Pullyu Representation" (Millikan 1995), having at once directive and descriptive directions of fit with the world. In particular, I argue that ethical claims and judgments simultaneously describe some morally salient features of a situation, and direct fitting action in response to those features, in service of a particular kind of distal social coordination function. This proposal has implications for several core topics in metaethics, including the cognitivism/non-cognitivism debate, motivational internalism, and the origins of moral cognition. 

Explaining Imagination: A Reductive Account

Professor Peter Langland-Hassan

Apr 09, 2019

It is a truth universally acknowledged that imagination is a primitive mental state type, irreducible to other mental state types. This is, at least, “one of four basic claims about imagination that enjoy near universal agreement” (Kind, 2016). I will challenge this orthodox view, arguing that imagination can in fact be reduced to, and explained in terms of, one’s being other kinds of familiar folk psychological mental states. The full case for this account is developed in a book I am now completing. Today I simply aim to clear space for the approach by undermining the most commonly voiced—and seemingly most decisive—reasons for thinking that imagination is irreducible to other mental state types.

The Queer ‘Because’ for Expressivists

Professor James Dreier

Feb 28, 2019

John Mackie famously wrote:
Another way of bringing out this queerness is to ask, about anything that is supposed to have some objective moral quality, how this is linked with its natural features. What is the connection between the natural fact that an action is a piece of deliberate cruelty—say, causing pain just for fun—and the moral fact that it is wrong? … The wrongness must somehow be ‘consequential’ or ‘supervenient’; it is wrong because it is a piece of deliberate cruelty. But just what in the world is signified by this ‘because’? 

Mackie's challenge is, of course, always taken to be a challenge for Nonnaturalist Moral Realism. For Expressivists, the question of what in the world is signified by the queer 'because' is misguided. But, it is surprisingly difficult to say, in Expressivist terms, what that queer 'because' does mean.

Rational Inference in Nonhuman Animals (Including Those without Cortex)

Professor Cameron Buckner 

Feb 15, 2019

A surge of empirical research demonstrating flexible cognition in animals and young infants has raised interest in the possibility of rational decision-making in the absence of language. A venerable position, which I here call “Classical Inferentialism”, holds that nonlinguistic agents are incapable of rational inferences. In the first half of this talk, I argue against this position, defending a model of nonlinguistic inferences that shows how nonlinguistic agents could be practically rational. This model vindicates the Lockean idea that we can intuitively grasp rational connections between thoughts by developing the Davidsonian idea that practical inferences are at bottom categorization judgments. From this perspective, we can see how similarity-based categorization processes widely studied in human and animal psychology might count as practically rational. The solution involves a novel hybrid of internalism and externalism: intuitive inferences are psychologically rational (in the explanatory sense) given the intensional sensitivity of the similarity assessment to the internal structure of the agent’s reasons for acting, but epistemically rational (in the justificatory sense) given an ecological fit between the features matched by that assessment and the structure of the agent’s environment. A key insight is that many animals are sensitive to the strength of their intuitive hunches, and can exert executive control to inhibit responding to some options in favor of others that are more appropriate to their goals.

The second half of the talk explores the neural mechanisms that could implement these forms of sophisticated similarity-assessment and control, and how far they might be scaled up even without language. In mammals, it is argued that the neocortex possesses powerful mechanisms for learning even very highly abstract similarities common amongst members of a category, which grounds the ability of animals to display “insightful” causal or social inferences which appear independent of any specific stimulus associations.  The nature of this abstraction ability will be explained by reference to deep learning neural network models, whose architectures have been explicitly designed to model these forms of cortical processing.  A potential complication is that some of the most cognitively flexible animals are birds, which lack a neocortex entirely.  The talk will end with a discussion of the relevant differences between the neuroanatomy of mammals and birds, appealing to the latest findings in avian neuroscience to speculate how their brains might have arrived at a very spatial organization that achieves functionally similar processing under very different biophysical constraints--providing an interesting case study for traditional philosophical concerns about multiple realizability.

Are Concepts Always Before Language?

Professor Jill de Villiers

Dec 7, 2018

I have been pursuing ideas about how language helps us think, a position compatible with Chomsky’s position that the major function of language in the species is a cognitive one. Although it is fairly obvious that language helps us scaffold long chains of reasoning – and writing does this even more – is there something more fundamental that language gives us? Is it just words, and therefore symbols, that do this, or does syntax have a role to play? I briefly review evidence from child development that the acquisition of language –any language- may change the way children think, considering work in domains of sortals, number, space, and causation. On the basis of my own empirical work with infants and children, and with adults in situations that interfere with their use of the language faculty, I suggest that syntax may provide us with fundamental new ways of encoding events, and therefore new kinds of concepts.

Motor Planning in Primates: Insights for Language Evolution?

Professor Daniel Weiss

Nov 6, 2018

One of the primary differences between language production and nonhuman primate vocal production is that language conveys meaning through the hierarchical structuring of elements. A longstanding question concerns the evolutionary origin of the constraints on language sequencing, in particular because nonhuman primate vocal repertoires are largely fixed. In this talk, I present research from our lab and others that investigates sequential motor planning abilities in several primate species, including humans, in effort to explore whether this domain holds promise for understanding the origins of constraints on language production.

Statistical Learning of Multiple Inputs: The Role of Context and the Impact of Bilingualism

Professor Daniel Weiss

Nov 5, 2018

Infant and adult learners possess a remarkable ability to track distributional regularities available in sensory input. Proficiency with statistical learning is important for the early stages of language acquisition and also correlates with second language learning outcomes in adults. However, much of the research in this field has implicitly assumed that the task of the learner is to acquire a single, uniform pattern. Given that real world learning affords far more variability, this simplifying assumption may obscure a significant problem confronting learners: determining how many underlying structures are generating the input. We have found that learners can track statistics in a contextually sensitive manner, and that their bias toward stationarity (i.e., expecting a single underlying structure) can be overcome. Nevertheless, there are both costs and benefits associated with being an efficient learner. In the second part of the talk, I will discuss the growing literature on bilingualism and statistical learning, arguing that experience with multiple languages may shape expectations, but does not alter core learning abilities.

Escape from Fraughtness: How Signaling Emerges as an Aspect of Coordination in a Cooperative Game among Humans

Professor Whit Tabor

Oct 12, 2018

How do societal communication systems (like human languages) first get started? An interesting approach to this question, called experimental semiotics, involves running experiments in which groups of people are asked to engage in a cooperative task, and then seeing what kind of communication systems emerge. Most experiments in this domain set up a referential situation (e.g., try to get your partner to point to an object shown just to you from among a larger array that she can see) using a predefined communication channel (e.g., playing tunes on a pennywhistle). We note that this type of set-up presupposes that the idea of communication is already understood by community members and that they identify it as a goal. In the present work, we push on the question, “How might such social-cognitive conditions get established in the first place?” We describe an experiment with multiple participants engaging in a coordination task where, initially, participants are simply acting not talking. Because they can observe each other’s actions, they are immediately communicating in a very simple sense. Later, a particularly challenging situation (called fraughtness) arises. Under this condition, we find evidence that a slightly more complex type of action/communication emerges. This turns out to resemble a kind of communication that honeybees do when swarming. We argue that this is the kind of case we should focus on if the goal is to understand the origins of language.

The Evolution of Non-Natural Meaning

Professor Josh Armstrong

May 4, 2018

 In this talk, I present an evolutionary challenge to a widely accepted cognitivist account of communication growing out of the work of H.P. Grice. This evolutionary challenge, as I shall develop it, turns on both comparative data on animal communication systems and on the kinds of selective pressures that would drive a population of agents to be capable of what Grice calls SPEAKER MEANING.  In the first half of the talk, I argue that this challenge is serious—affecting Grice’s original 1957 position, as well as subsequent refinements on Grice’s ideas such as the Relevance Theoretic framework of Deidre Wilson and Dan Sperber as well as the pragmatic framework of Robert Stalnaker. In the second half of the talk, I argue that the challenge is nonetheless surmountable. In particular, I develop a perspective on communication that centers on a primitive socio-cognitive relation that I call REPRESENTATIONAL COORDINATION. I argue that this socio-cognitive relation is well suited to understand the origins of communication in a psychologically distinctive sense, and I explore the ways in which the mechanisms supporting this relation have proliferated and changed over time.

Chrysippus’ Dog Reconsidered: On the Detection of Logical Reasoning in Nonhuman Animals

Jacob Beck

Mar 2, 2018

The ability to reason logically is often taken to be a sign of language-like or conceptual thought. One way to investigate whether animals are conceptual thinkers, or have a language of thought, is thus to investigate their ability to reason logically. The Greek Stoic philosopher Chrysipuss reported anecdotal evidence that dogs reason by way of the disjunctive syllogism. More recently, animal researchers have provided supporting evidence from controlled studies. But philosophers such as José Luis Bermúdez and Michael Rescorla have appealed to forms of “proto-logical” reasoning to ground alternative explanations of this evidence. These forms of proto-logical reasoning are so powerful that they generate a challenge: How, if at all, can genuine logical reasoning be detected and distinguished from its proto-logical rivals? My talk will offer some suggestions. 

Norms and Normality

Joshua Knobe

Jan 26, 2018

Researchers often distinguish between two kinds of norms. On one hand, there are purely statistical norms (which specify what most frequently happens). On the other, there are prescriptive norms (which specify what ought to happen). In this talk, I discuss a series of new studies we have conducted on people’s ordinary way of thinking about norms. These studies provide evidence that people actually integrate these two kinds of norms into a single undifferentiated notion of the “normal.” Subsequent studies have explored the implications of this idea for a number of different questions, including issues in semantics (e.g., intuitions about gradable adjectives) and issues in cognitive science (e.g., the way people ordinarily think about alternative possibilities).

Beyond Analogy: Understanding Pain in Animals

Paula Droege & Victoria Braithwaite

Mar 24, 2017

Pain is an enigma, we all know what it is, but nobody other than you can experience the pain you feel. Because animals cannot tell us their experiences, it is difficult to understand whether they experience pain and if they do, how they process it. To address this problem, we need to consider the mechanisms that underlie pain, and then investigate the capacity for these kinds of process to occur in different animals. Constructing lists of attributes that are normally associated with human pain – cognitive bias, plasticity of nociceptive response, long-term learning – is inadequate without a theory that shows how these attributes demonstrate the capacity for conscious pain. We believe the affective aspect of pain, the conscious feeling of aversion, is central to concerns about animal pain and welfare. While dissociable from the sensory aspect of pain, both are normally interconnected and adaptive. In our view, the felt emotion of pain aids the animal in flexibly responding to its environment and situations involving pain. Consciousness is necessary to determine a situation-appropriate response under novel conditions; to attend to and select relevant stimuli; and to tailor actions in pursuit of goals.

Animal Signals, Acquisition Conditions and the Explanation of Behavior

Ulrich Stegmann

Dec 12, 2016

Animal communication is usually understood in terms of signalling: Senders emit signals that convey some information to receivers. Since information transfer appears to play a central role in explaining animal behaviour, there has been some debate about the kind of information involved. In view of general philosophical theories of information and content, animal signals are thought to either convey a kind of natural information or a kind of representational content. Here I approach the topic from the point of view of the information contents that scientists actually attribute to animal signals. I will argue that actual content attributions often pick out the conditions under which receivers acquired their dispositions for signal- and situation-specific responses (‘acquisition conditions’). This yields a notion of receiver-dependent content that is explanatory and widely applicable.