Petrus Hispanus Lectures 2014 – Susan Carey

May 29, 2014 12:00am

Susan Carey (Harvard University)

Susan E. Carey is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. She is an expert in language acquisition and children’s development of biological concepts and is known for introducing the concept of fast mapping, whereby children learn the meanings of words after a single exposure. Carey has received many academic awards and distinctions, including the Jean Nicod Prize for philosophy of mind in 1998, and she was the first woman to receive the Rumelhart Prize in 2009, which has been given annually since 2001 for significant contributions to the theoretical foundation of human cognition. Carey is the author of Conceptual Change in Childhood, which reconciles Piaget’s work on animism with later work on children’s knowledge of biological concepts.


Lecture I.  The Origin of Concepts:  Natural Number
27 May 2014, 11:00, Anfiteatro III
Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon

Abstract: Alone among animals, humans can ponder the causes and cures of pancreatic cancer or global warming.  How are we to account for the human capacity to create concepts such as electron, cancer, infinity, galaxy, and democracy?
A theory of conceptual development must have three components.  First, it must characterize the innate representational repertoire—that is, the representations that subsequent learning processes utilize.  Second, it must describe how the initial stock of representations differs from the adult conceptual system.  Third, it must characterize the learning mechanisms that achieve the transformation of the initial into the final state.  I defend three theses. With respect to the initial state, contrary to historically important thinkers such as the British empiricists, Quine, and Piaget, as well as many contemporary scientists, the innate stock of primitives is not limited to sensory, perceptual or sensory-motor representations; rather, there are also innate conceptual representations. With respect to developmental change, contrary to “continuity theorists” such as Fodor, Pinker, Macnamara and others, conceptual development involves qualitative change, resulting in systems of representation that are more powerful than and sometimes incommensurable with those  from which they are built.  With respect to a learning mechanism that achieves conceptual discontinuity, I offer Quinian bootstrapping.
I take on two of Fodor’s challenges to cognitive science:  1) I show how (and in what ways) learning can lead to increases in expressive power and 2) I show how to defeat mad dog concept nativism.  I challenge Fodor’s claims that all learning is hypothesis testing, and that the only way new concepts can be constructed is by assembling them from developmental primitives, using the combinatorial machinery of the syntax of the language of thought.  These points are illustrated through a case study of the origin of representations of natural number.


Lecture II.  The Origin of Concepts:  Logical connectives and abstract relations
29 May 2014, 15:00, Anfiteatro
Faculty of Psychology, University of Lisbon

Abstract: In lecture I I argue for innate domain specific systems of representations, systems of core cognition, illustrating with two such systems with numerical content.  Systems of core cognition are perception like in many ways:  the format of representation is most likely iconic, and entity identification is supported by innate perceptual analyzers.  The existence of systems of core cognition, so specified, does not preclude the existence of innate representations with different properties.
Here I consider what form innate support for logic might take.  Logical connectives (or, not…) and symbols for abstract relations (e.g., same) are not likely to be iconic in format nor perception like in any way.  At issue is whether non-linguistic animals, and/or prelinguistic human infants, have a logic-like, language-like, Language of Thought, capable of propositional representations formulated over discrete arbitrary symbols.  I will present the progress we have made on addressing this question around two case studies:  reasoning according to the disjunctive syllogism (A or B, not A, therefore B) and representations of the abstract relations same and different.