CDS 2017 Preconference:

The Ontogenetic Origins of Abstract Combinatorial Thought

Susan Carey, Roman Feiman, Susan Hespos, & Dedre Gentner


Presupposing a representational/computation theory of mind leaves open what principled distinctions there are among kinds of representational systems exist. 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. The present workshop concerns the ontogenetic origins of these capacities. Ever since Descartes (at least) some philosophers have argued that sensorimotor and perceptual representations are fundamentally different from linguistic ones, and are the only representational systems that are available to human infants. These discussions point to human language, and the conceptual representations that human language makes possible, as possibly fundamentally different from the other representational capacities of animals and prelinguistic infants. On this proposal, human language is the key to understanding the humanconceptual repertoire and the human capacity for language-like, combinatorial thought with complex logical form, such that the latter type of representation emerges in ontogenesis only upon the mastery of language. The workshop will be organized around two case studies of theoretical proposals concerning the putative joint in nature between pre-linguistic representations and linguistic ones with overlapping content (Case 1: abstract relations;  Case 2: propositions and logical connectives.) The workshop will explore how we can bring data to bear on whether, prior to mastering the relevant aspects of natural language, infants have representations with properties on the language-like side of the putative joint in nature.


12:30 PM Introduction (Susan Carey)
12:40 PM Dedre Gentner
1:20 PM Susan Hespos
2:00 PM Coffee Break
2:10 PM Susan Carey
2:50 PM Roman Feiman
3:30 PM Group Break-out Sessions
4:30 PM Report from sessions and Discussion