Speaker Series

AY 2018-19:

  • 4/9/2019, 4:30-6 Prof. Peter Langland-Hassan (Cincinnati), will give a talk entitled “Explaining Imagination”(UCHI seminar room, Babbidge Library 4th floor).
  • 2/15/19, 4-5:30 Prof. Cameron Buckner (University of Houston) will give a talk entitled “Rational inference in nonhuman animals (including those without cortex)”, (UCHI seminar room, Babbidge Library 4th floor).
  • 12/7/18, 4-5:30pm, Laurel Hall 206
    Prof. Jill de Villiers will be giving a talk on concepts and language on Dec 7, 4pm (Laurel 206).
    Are concepts always before language?

    Abstract: 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.
  • 11/6/2018, 5 pm, UCHI seminar room
    Daniel Weiss (Psychology, Penn State): “Motor planning in primates: Insights for language evolution?”
    Abstract: 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.
  • 11/5/2018, 12:20pm, BOUS A106
    Prof. Weiss will also be giving a talk titled “Statistical learning of multiple inputs: The role of context and the impact of bilingualism”to the Neurobiology of Language/Cognitive Science/Science of Learning and Art of Communication Talkshop series.
    Abstract: 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.
  • 10/12/2018, 10 am HBL Class of 1947 Conference Room, Babbidge Library:
    Whit Tabor (Psychology, UConn): “Escape from fraughtness: how signaling emerges as an aspect of coordination in a cooperative game among humans”
    ​Abstract: 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.

AY 2017-18:

  • 5/4/2018 -Josh Armstrong (Philosophy, UCLA) : “The Evolution of Non-natural Meaning”

Abstract:  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.

  • 3/2/2018- Jacob Beck (Philosophy, York):  “Chrysippus’ Dog Reconsidered: On the Detection of Logical Reasoning in Nonhuman Animals”

Abstract: 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. 

  • 1/26/2018- Joshua Knobe (Linguistics/Philosophy/Psychology, Yale): “Norms and Normality”

               Abstract: 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).

AY 2016-17:

  • 3/24/2017 – Paula Droege (Philosophy, Penn State) & Victoria Braithwaite (Biology, Penn State): “Beyond Analogy: Understanding Pain in Animals”Abstract: 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.
  • 12/12/2016 – Ulrich Stegmann (Philosophy, Aberdeen): “Animal Signals, Acquisition Conditions and the Explanation of Behavior”Abstract: 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.

AY 2014-15:

  • 9/26/14 – Philippe Schlenker (Cognitive Studies, Institut Jean-Nicod; Linguistics, NYU): “Monkey Semantics: Two ‘Dialects’ of Alarm Calls”
  • 12/4/14 – Robert W. Lurz (Philosophy, Brooklyn College): “Testing Consciousness and Cognition in Apes”
  • 1/23/15 – Laurie Santos (Psychology, Yale):  “Do Primates Have a Theory of Mind?: New Insights and New Questions”

Past ECOM Speaker Series (at UNC – Chapel Hill)

AY 2013-2014:

  • Michael Pendlebury (Philosophy, NC State): “A Reconstructed Kantian Approach to Animal and Human Minds”
  • Doug Long (Philosophy, UNC-Chapel Hill): “Agents, Mechanisms, and Other Minds – Revisited”
  • Paul Pietroski (Philosophy & Linguistics, Maryland): “Framing Event Variables”
  • Dean Pettit (Philosophy, UNC-Chapel Hill): “Affective Semantics: Speaking Objectively about Emotion”
  • Elisabeth Camp (Philosophy, Rutgers): “Rationality and Representations”

AY 2012-2013:

  • Misha Becker (Linguistics, UNC-Chapel Hill): “Inanimate Subjects and the Discovery of Sentence Structure”
  • Geoffrey Pullum (Linguistics, University of Edinburgh): “The Grammar and Meaning of Anaphoric ‘One’: Multidisciplinary Implications”
  • Garrett Mitchener (Mathematics, College of Charleston): “Why is Language Complicated? And What Can Evolutionary Theory Say about It?”
  • Gary Varner (Philosophy, Texas A&M): “A Two-Level Utilitarian Perspective on Humans and Animals”
  • Daniel Weiskopf (Philosophy, Georgia State University): “Evolution and the Vehicles of Thought”
  • Craige Roberts (Linguistics, Ohio State University): “Questions in Discourse: Alternatives and Guiding Intentions”

AY 2011-2012:

  • Dean Pettit (Philosophy, UNC-Chapel Hill): “Semantics Without Reference”
  • Brady Clark (Linguistics, Northwestern): “The Evolution of Displaced Reference”
  • Paul Roberge (Linguistics, UNC-Chapel Hill): “Proto-Language: What is it, who had it, and how did it develop into full modern language?”
  • Anne Bezuidenhout (Philosophy, University of South Carolina): “Language and Normativity: Locating Norms Outside of Language”
  • Karen Neander (Philosophy, Duke University): “Sensory-Perceptual Contents”
  • Lisa Parr (Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University): “15-Year Retrospective on Face Processing Studies in Nonhuman Primates”


The ECOM Speaker Series from Fall 2011 – Spring 2014 were made possible with support from the UNC-CH Institute for the Arts and Humanities.