A number of faculty and students in the School of Philosophy have interests in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, and in particular their intersection. This talk series supplements our regularly-scheduled colloquia with talks specifically geared towards talks by researchers whose research spans traditional interdisciplinary boundaries, in particular with linguistics and cognitive science. The series is co-organized by Professors Alexis Wellwood, Sam Clarke, and Deniz Rudin.



Current Series


Academic Year 2023-2024

The Mind and Language speaker series will take place in person in the seminar room of the Mudd Hall of Philosophy, and synchronously on Zoom. Our schedule is still in development; please contact Alexis Wellwood to join our mailing list and receive updates.

  • April 26, 2024, 3-5pm PT
    Fei Xu (UC-Berkeley, website), TBA
  • May 3, 2024, 3-5pm PT
    Josh Armstrong
     (UCLA, website), TBA



Past Series


Academic Year 2022-2023

  • September 16th, 2022, 3-5pm PT
    Chaz Firestone (JHU, website), “The Perception of Silence”
    What do we hear? An intuitive and canonical answer is that we hear sounds — a friend’s voice, a clap of thunder, a minor chord. But can we also perceive the absence of sound? When we pause for a moment of silence, attend to the interval between thunderclaps, or sit with a piece of music that has ended, do we positively hear silence? Or do we simply fail to hear, and only know or judge that silence has occurred? Philosophers have long held that our encounter with silence is cognitive, not perceptual, hewing to the traditional view that sounds and their properties (e.g., pitch, loudness, timbre) are the only objects of auditory perception. However, the apparent prevalence of silence in ordinary experience has led some philosophers to challenge tradition, arguing for silence perception through thought experiments and new theoretical perspectives. Yet, despite such theorizing, silence perception has not been subject to direct empirical investigation. Here, I present the first empirical studies of the hypothesis that silence is genuinely perceived. Across multiple case studies, I’ll show (both through experimental results and also through subjectively appreciable demonstrations) that silence can ‘substitute’ for sound in illusions of auditory eventhood — and thus that silences can serve as the objects of auditory perception. This work also paves the way for empirical approaches to absence perception more generally, with consequences for broader questions about the objects of perception, representations of negative properties, and other foundational issues at the intersection of the philosophy and psychology of perception.
  • April 21st, 2023, 10am-12pm PT
    Ian Phillips (JHU, website), “What do the inattentionally blind see?”
    Inattentional blindness (IB) – the failure to notice perfectly visible stimuli when attention is otherwise engaged – has fascinated scientists and philosophers for nearly half a century. A key reason is that IB is thought to illuminate the relationship between attention and awareness, seemingly revealing that visual consciousness requires attention. In drawing such conclusions, a crucial assumption is that subjects who report not noticing an unexpected stimulus are truly unaware of it. But is this assumption secure? Here, in several experiments involving a total of over 10,000 participants, I’ll present evidence that subjects who report not noticing an unexpected stimulus can still answer questions about it at above-chance levels. Moreover, through the inclusion of ‘absent’ trials in which no stimulus appeared, I’ll further show that subjects in these experiments are biased to report not noticing, suggesting greater awareness than is revealed by yes/no questioning. Thus, and perhaps ironically, inattentional blindness in fact provides evidence that awareness of certain features survives inattention. Indeed, these results are consistent with a rarely discussed account of IB: Inattention does not abolish awareness, but rather degrades it.


Academic Year 2021-2022

  • December 3rd, 2021, 3-5pm PT
    Henrike Moll (USC, website), “Shared Intentionality: From Joint Attention to Increasingly Complex Forms of Perspective-Taking”
    In my talk, I will trace milestones of early social-cognitive development from the perspective of shared intentionality theory. Our studies show that joint attention at age 1 is an important entry gate into other people’s minds. When in joint attention with others, infants are better able to discern what objects others have and have not experienced than when outside of joint attention. By the age of 2 to 3 years, toddlers can take others’ visual and epistemic perspectives, at least when directly interacting with them. For example, 3-year-olds know when another person sees an object in a different color than they do. At the same age, children can anticipate the surprise of someone who is approaching reality with false expectations. Although many of these studies reveal an early competence in perspective-taking, systematic limitations have also been identified. The developmental pathway leads from acts of joint attention to increasingly explicit forms of perspective-taking over ontogenetic time.


Academic Year 2020-2021

The Mind and Language in Los Angeles (MLLA) speaker series will take place virtually this year via Zoom, and all are open to participants around the globe.

  • April 16th, 2020, 9-11am PT (18-20 CET)
    Heather Burnett (Université de Paris, website), “Pragmatic Sociolinguistics: Formalizing the Social World”
    This presentation argues that the formalization of a certain class of sociological theories into game-theoretic models can help researchers in formal semantics, pragmatics and analytical philosophy of language get a handle on an area that has long been resistant to formal study: the social world. More specifically, we study the ‘Pragmatic Sociology’ framework of Boltanski & Thévenot (1991) and argue that, when applied to language, it can be integrated with current models of language use and interpretation that are based on game-theoretic principles, such as Franke (2009), Frank & Goodman (2012) and Burnett (2019). Although Boltanski & Thévenot use language that is suggestive of mathematical models used in economics, the fine details of framework that they lay out in their book remain underspecified. Furthermore, although Pragmatic Sociology has spawned a wealth of sociological work in the past 30 years (see Lamont & Thévenot 2000 for a sample), the influence of these ideas in linguistics and philosophy has been minimal. We argue that this framework (and other more “practice” oriented social theories) has particular properties that make it a good candidate to be integrated with current linguistic theories, and with cognitive science more generally. We therefore give a formalization of Pragmatic Sociology’s main units: ‘polities’, ‘worlds’ and ‘orders of worth’, and show how they can be extended with ideas from formal game-theoretic pragmatics to provide a general model of how language influences and is influenced by the social world. We argue that such a formalization has two major benefits: firstly, it will result in a better understanding of major aspects of Boltanski & Thévenot’s theory, which could benefit sociologists, and, secondly, it will help provide better foundations for linguists and philosophers studying linguistic meaning from a mathematical perspective.
    Thévenot & Boltanski (1991) De la justification. Les économies de la grandeur · Burnett (2019) Signalling games, sociolinguistic variation and the construction of style. Linguistics and Philosophy · Frank & Goodman (2012) Predicting pragmatic reasoning in language games. Science · Franke (2009) Signal to act: Game theory in pragmatics · Lamont & Thévenot (2000) Rethinking comparative cultural sociology: Repertoires of evaluation in France and the United States
  • March 19th, 2020, 9-11am PT (12-2pm ET)
    Jonathan Phillips (Dartmouth, website), “Knowledge before Belief”
    Research on theory of mind has primarily focused on demonstrating and understanding the ability to represent others’ non‐factive mental states, for example, others’ beliefs in the false‐belief task. Representations of knowledge, by contrast, have received comparatively little attention and have often been understood as depending on prior representations of belief. After all, how could one represent someone as knowing something if one doesn’t represent them as believing it? Drawing on a wide range of methods across cognitive science, I consider which is the more basic kind of representation. The evidence indicates that non-human primates attribute knowledge but not belief, that knowledge representations arise earlier in human development than belief representations, that the capacity to represent knowledge may remain intact in patient populations even when belief representation is disrupted, that knowledge (but not belief) attributions are likely automatic, and that explicit knowledge attributions are made more quickly than equivalent belief attributions. Critically, the theory of mind representations uncovered by these various methods exhibit a set of signature features clearly indicative of knowledge: they are not modality-specific, they are factive, they are not just true belief, and they allow for representations of egocentric ignorance. I argue that these signature features elucidate the primary function of knowledge representation: facilitating learning from others about the external world. This suggests a new way of understanding theory of mind—one that is focused on understanding others’ minds in relation to the actual world, rather than independent from it.
  • February 19th, 2020, 3-5pm PT
    David Barner (University of California, San Diego, website), “What’s innate about integer concepts?”
    In 1978 Gelman and Gallistel proposed a powerful nativist thesis regarding the ontogenetic origin of integer concepts in human children, and argued for a series of five distinct “counting principles” which included one-to-one correspondence, stable order, and the cardinal principle. This proposal was met with several significant waves of responses from non-nativist psychologists, who argued that children’s early counting behaviors do not respect the counting principles in various ways. Currently, the field has achieved a remarkable degree of consensus regarding the empirical facts of number word learning, but the questions set out by Gelman and Gallistel remain difficult to answer, and a clear synthesis is absent. In this talk I lay out these facts and suggest a new synthesis, according to which the core innate feature of number word learning is Hume’s principle of one-to-one correspondence, somewhat akin to what Gelman & Gallistel argued. However, I also argue – against their thesis – that the format by which one-to-one is innately represented – i.e., some form of parallel enumeration – is not readily translated to the sequential algorithms of culturally constructed counting algorithms, explaining why children’s early counting behaviors do not immediately express Hume’s Principle. Second, compatible with Gelman & Gallistel, I argue that an innate (ostensibly linguistic) syntax is responsible for generating a stable count list that extends beyond the limits of human sequence learning. But contrary to them I argue that the procedures that are the output of this syntax precede the conceptual content that it represents – namely, a numerical successor function that generates an infinite number of numbers. Learning how to express one-to-one correspondence via a sequential algorithm, and how to extend this algorithm via a generative syntactic rule are the two key cultural innovations that form the basis of counting, and are also the key conceptual hurdles that children face when learning to count.
  • November 13th, 2020, 3-5pm PT (5-7pm CT)
    Guillermo del Pinal (UIUC, website), “The logicality of language: Contextualism vs semantic minimalism”
    The Logicality of Language is the hypothesis that the language system has access to a ‘natural’ logic that can identify and filter out as unacceptable expressions that have trivial meanings—i.e., that are true/false in all possible worlds or situations in which they are defined. This hypothesis helps explain otherwise puzzling patterns concerning the distribution of various functional terms and phrases. Despite its promise, Logicality vastly over-generates unacceptability assignments. Most solutions to this problem rest on specific stipulations about the properties of logical form—roughly, the level of linguistic representation which feeds into the interpretation procedures—and have substantial implications for traditional philosophical disputes about the nature of language. Specifically, Contextualism and Semantic Minimalism, construed as competing hypothesis about the nature and degree of context-sensitivity at the level of logical form, suggest different approaches to the over-generation problem. In this talk, I explore the implications of pairing Logicality with various forms of Contextualism and Semantic Minimalism. I will argue that, to adequately solve the over-generation problem, Logicality should be implemented in a constrained Contextualist framework.
  • October 30th, 2020, 3-5pm PT (6-8pm ET)
    Chris Barker (NYU, website), “Rethinking scope islands”
    Displaced scope is one of the most distinctive and characteristic features of natural language. Quantifiers, adverbs, comparatives, etc. all routinely take displaced scope. Yet despite long, intensive study, constraints on scope taking remain poorly understood. In particular, in pursuit of an analogy with overt syntactic movement, the field has long assumed that scope taking is clause bounded—in the jargon, that clauses are *islands* for scope taking. However, I will argue that abundant naturally-occurring counterexamples show that this assumption is not correct. Instead, I will show that scope islands are sensitive to the identity of both the scope-taker and the predicate embedding the island. Although this is far more fine-grained than the standard picture, there still may be general principles that govern scope taking. I propose the *scope island subset constraint*, which says that given two scope islands, the scope-takers that can escape one will be a subset of the scope-takers that can escape the other. Once we develop a fuller and more accurate picture of constraints on scope taking, we can begin to address deeper questions, such as: given that displaced scope is possible at all, why should there be any constraints on it? Any why *those* constraints?
  • October 2nd, 2020, 3-5pm PT
    Cleo Condoravdi (Stanford, website), “Dependence in Counterfactuals: Evidence from Polarity Reversal”
    Dependence between facts plays a big role in what we have to give up and what we can hold on to in making a counterfactual assumption. This talk presents grammatical evidence for a type of fact-dependence that is contextually determined. The evidence comes from the phenomenon of ‘polarity reversal’, where positive polarity items (PPIs) can exceptionally appear with clause-mate negation in the antecedent of counterfactual conditionals. For instance, the PPI “already” is acceptable in “If she had not already arrived, we would have postponed the meeting” despite the presence of negation. Previous work has assumed that PPIs can be in the scope of negation in the antecedent of a conditional if and only if the conditional presupposes the proposition in the scope of the negation, which makes the conditional counterfactual, and has, for the most part, attributed the phenomenon to a special kind of negation. I argue instead that the phenomenon is the result of the lexical semantics of PPIs and the interpretation of counterfactuals. Taking PPIs to be associated with alternatives, I show that polarity reversal results in scalar assertions, because in making a counterfactual assumption any contextual entailments are given up once the information that gives rise to them is revised. The connection between polarity reversal and counterfactuality follows from how asserting the conditional in a context which is compatible with its antecedent influences the relation between the ordinary content of the conditional and the content of its alternatives. This correctly predicts that the counterfactuality of the negated clause is not necessary for polarity reversal.



Summer 2020

The Mind and Language in Los Angeles Summer Zoom (MLLA SZ) will be held between May 26 and August 11, 2020, featuring speakers from across the United States and around the world.

  • August 13th, 2020, 9-11am PT (12-2pm ET)
    Dorothy Ahn (Rutgers; website), “Pointing, demonstratives, and loci”
    Pointing appears early in human development and continues to interact with language, spoken and signed. In formal semantics, the discussion and the analysis of pointing in the two language modalities have developed independently of each other. In the spoken domain, pointing is analyzed as a co-speech gesture with research focusing on determining how it enters the compositional meaning of the grammatical content. In the signed domain, the indexical pointing handshape (IX) is analyzed as a core grammatical element used for referent tracking. In this talk, I present one way in which the two areas of research can come together. Specifically, I propose a new analysis of demonstratives in spoken languages that focuses on their unique interaction with deictic pointing, and extend this analysis to sign languages. I discuss the main implications of this analysis and how it relates to other recent studies on demonstratives, loci, and acquisition of referential expressions.
  • August 4th, 2020, 3:30-5:30pm PT (5:30-7:30 CT)
    Diti Bhadra (UMN; website), “Connecting perception, inference, and temporality: nominal and propositional evidentiality”
    In recent times, we have heard a lot about “firsthand knowledge” vs. “non-firsthand knowledge” on the news, and how these notions connect to whose testimony can be trusted or not. In this talk, I will explore the fundamental basis of knowledge – how do human beings connect a piece of evidence to a piece of information and form core justified beliefs? Most formal semantic accounts of evidentiality focus on propositional evidentiality [PE], i.e. where an evidential scopes over a proposition, and can have DIRECT flavor (sensory perception) or INDIRECT flavors (inference, hearsay, etc). In this work, we venture into the sparsely studied domain of nominal/non-propositional evidentiality [NPE], where an evidential scopes over a nominal. A striking fact about NPE systems is that the only available flavor of evidence is overwhelmingly DIRECT (Jacques 2018, Aikhenvald 2018). Why does such a fundamental divide exist among languages with PE and NPE? More succinctly, what is it about nominals that favors only sensory perception? This work is the first comparative formal semantic account of perception of nominals and propositions that tackles these questions, and adds another dimension: temporality. Drawing data from several understudied languages, I first discuss how perception is intertwined with nominal tense in NPE, and vital contrasts with tense in PE perception. With an analysis couched in modal logic, I argue that at the semantic core of evidentials are spatio-temporal accessibility relations that are grounded in historical necessity, allowing us to provide a unified and holistic view of the phenomenon across NPE & PE systems in a principled way.
  • July 28th, 2020, 3:30-5:30pm PT (6:30-8:30 ET)
    Alan Bale (Concordia; website), “Built to Scale: Exploring the empirical foundations of using degrees, dimensions and measure functions to analyze natural language”
    It has become common practice to use degrees and measure functions to analyze the semantics of simple comparative constructions such as “Jody is a better speaker than Sam”. Furthermore, such analyses often exploit mathematical operations like addition, multiplication and division. If such analyses are on the right track, then one wonders if we are forced to accept that abstract properties like beauty and talent can be coherently mapped to numerical values. Similarly, are we forced to accept that anyone who can understand a comparative sentence has (innate) knowledge of mathematical operations and measurement systems? Naively speaking, one might question the appropriateness of a degree semantics for comparatives, especially given that mathematics and measurement systems seem to be a fairly recent discovery in human history.
    In this talk, I will provide a brief overview of some of the empirical motivations for a degree analysis. I will argue that we do not need to assume that the language faculty requires an innate scale of degrees that supports mathematical operations. Rather, I will present an alternative analysis where “degrees” (if we still want to call them that) are built from more basic relations between individuals. As a result, scales of beauty and talent need not involve any kind of numerical evaluation or comparison. Furthermore, these derived “degree” structures do not always form a linear order and hence are not always isomorphic to some kind of numerical system. Finally, I will argue that by constructing scales from more basic relations we can account for a fundamental property of our language faculty, namely Monotonicity.
  • June 30th, 2020, 3:30-5:30pm PT
    Judith Fan (UCSD; website), “Cognitive tools for making the invisible visible”
    How does the human mind transform a cascade of sensory information into meaningful knowledge? Traditional approaches focus on how people process the data provided to them by the world, yet this approach leaves aside some of the most powerful tools humans have to actively reformat their experiences, including the use of physical media to externalize thoughts by drawing or writing. The goal of my lab’s research is to “reverse engineer” the core mechanisms by which employing such cognitive tools enable people to learn and communicate more effectively. Our recent work focuses on sketching, one of our most basic and versatile tools, because it also represents a key challenge for understanding how multiple cognitive systems interact to support complex, natural behaviors. This talk will highlight our recent progress, as well as open research questions in this domain.
  • June 18th, 2020, 9-11am PT (11-1am CT)
    Masaya Yoshida  (Northwestern University; website), “Condition C reconstruction and the structure in the ellipsis site”
    Open abstract PDF in new window
  • June 23rd, 2020, 3:30-5:30pm PT (6:30-8:30pm ET)
    Eric Mandelbaum (CUNY Graduate Center; website), “Iconicity beyond Vision: Slurs, Triggers, and Vlocks”
    This project connects two seemingly unrelated topics: slurs and the arbitrariness of the lexicon. Investigating the phonetic properties of slurs provides evidence for the thesis that disliked phonetic forms get mapped onto disliked referents, thereby displaying an odd type of iconicity and non-arbitrariness in language. Specifically, using a corpus of English words rated on valence, we find that words rhyming with slurs (e.g., ‘tyke’, ‘trigger’) are disliked relative to their synonyms (e.g., ‘tot’, ‘initiate’). Additional archival evidence shows that this isn’t due to the associative properties of slurs, but rather is due to their shared phonetic elements. Further experiments find that pseudowords with a velar plosive (e.g., ‘vlock’ vs. ‘vlort’) were believed to have negative meanings compared to control words. After presenting my data, I’ll suggest a model for why certain phonemes are disliked before discussing both what we want out of a theory of slurs and how we can characterize iconicity outside of pictorial cases.
  • June 11th, 2020, 9-11am (6-8pm CET)
    Rachel Dudley  (Central European University; website), “The difficulty of knowing”
    Children’s understanding of propositional attitude reports (and their understanding of others’ minds) has played a central role in the study of cognitive development for several decades. Over the years, an orthodox perspective emerged where children fail to understand attitude reports, with sources of difficulty being syntactic, semantic or even conceptual in nature. More recently, a tide of findings from new methods and analyses has cast this orthodoxy into doubt. These new findings suggest that even infants have a greater understanding of concepts like belief than we once suspected, and that the apparent difficulties in later childhood stem from pragmatic sources. Resolving the conflict between these new findings and the orthodox perspective is critical to understanding the development of children’s minds and their language faculties. In this talk, I’ll discuss my research on children’s understanding of the attitude verbs “know” and “think” and how it relates to the broader conflict. While both verbs describe beliefs, there are subtle differences between them. As a factive verb, “know” only felicitously describes true beliefs about propositions which we take for granted. In contrast, the non-factive “think” can describe false beliefs or beliefs which we do not take for granted. Using a combination of behavioral methods and corpus analyses, I investigate how children come to master this subtle contrast. Results from this line of research highlight the importance of pragmatic cues, particularly from the different kinds of discourse moves that we make in everyday conversation when using these verbs. Ultimately, this supports a broader picture where older children’s errors with attitude reports are pragmatic performance errors and not deeper conceptual or semantic errors, highlighting the need for more research on semantic development in infancy
  • May 28th, 2020, 9-11am PT (6-8pm SAST | 12-2pm ET)Kyle Blumberg (University of Johannesburg, website) & Harvey Lederman (Princeton University; website), “Revisionist Reporting”
    Several theorists have observed that attitude reports have what we call “revisionist” uses (Pryor, 2004; Hawthorne & Manley, 2012; Recanati, 2012; Blumberg & HolguÍn, 2018). For example, even if Pete has never met Ann and has no idea that she exists, Jane can still say to Jim ‘Pete believes Ann can learn to play tennis in ten lessons’ if Pete believes all six-year-olds can learn to play tennis in ten lessons and it is part of Jane and Jim’s background knowledge that Ann is a six-year-old. Jane’s assertion seems acceptable because the claim she reports Pete as believing (that Ann can learn to play tennis in ten lessons) is entailed by Pete’s beliefs if they are revised in light of Jane and Jim’s background knowledge. We provide a semantic theory of revisionist reports based on this idea. We observe that the admissible “revisions” are limited in a striking way. Jane cannot say ‘Pete thinks Ann is a six-year-old and can play tennis in ten lessons’ in the same context that she can say ‘Pete believes Ann can learn to play tennis ten lessons’, even though this too follows from Jane and Jim’s background knowledge together with what Pete believes. Our theory predicts the infelicity of these latter reports. It also has the resources to predict the truth of “exported” attitude reports (Quine, 1956; Sosa, 1970; Kripke, 2011) and casts the relationship between these reports and “singular thought” in a new light. We conclude by discussing how revisionist reports make trouble for a simplistic view of the connection between the relations expressed by attitude verbs in natural language and the relations of most interest to philosophers of mind and cognitive science.