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Origins of Mind: Philosophical Issues in Cognitive Development (PH357)

Timing & CATS

This module is not running in 2017-18.

Module Description

How do humans come to know about objects, causes, words, numbers, colours, actions and minds? We will attempt to answer this question using a range of conceptual tools from philosophy to examine puzzles arising from some recent scientific breakthroughs. The question, which goes back to Plato or earlier, is challenging because it requires us to consider minds where knowledge is neither clearly present nor obviously absent. This is challenging because, as Donald Davidson observes, ‘[w]e have many vocabularies for describing nature when we regard it as mindless, and we have a mentalistic vocabulary for describing thought and intentional action; what we lack is a way of describing what is in between’ (1999, p. 11).

Two recent scientific breakthroughs may bring us closer to answering the question about how knowledge emerges while also showing that it raises even more puzzles than previously assumed. The first breakthrough concerns social interaction; it is the discovery that preverbal infants enjoy surprisingly rich social abilities which enable them to engage in some forms of social interaction. We will consider how this could facilitate the subsequent acquisition of linguistic abilities and enable the emergence of knowledge. A second breakthrough involves the use of increasingly sensitive---and sometimes controversial---methods to detect expectations without relying on subjects' abilities to talk. These methods have revealed that preverbal infants have sophisticated expectations about causal interactions, numerosity, actions, mental states and more besides. We will explore how these expectations, or the representations and processes underpinning them, could also facilitate the emergence of knowledge. The two scientific breakthroughs are associated with different camps, one Vygotskian, the other nativist. Perhaps for this reason the breakthrough findings have rarely been considered together as identifying twin factors enabling the emergence of knowledge. In this module we will attempt to unite these in a single story about the developmental origins of mind.

Learning Outcomes or Aims

By the end of the module the student should be able to....

  • Understand and accurately report relevant findings from developmental psychology. They should be able to distinguish conflicting hypotheses and critically consider evidence for and against. Students should be able to identify philosophical questions arising from such findings, and to relate them to longstanding issues in philosophy.
  • Communicate clearly and substantively in speech and in writing on the questions addressed in the module.
  • Isolate the important claims within readings, both philosophical and developmental. They should be able to understand a range of experimental methods interpret data presented in tables and charts. They should be able to understand the structure of arguments, test views for strengths and weaknesses, make pertinent use of examples, and compare the substance of views consistently.
  • Pursue and organize philosophical and psychological research using a range of sources (print and electronic media), to critically evaluate reports of experiments and to engage independently in philosophical debate.

Contact Time

Normally students must attend 2 hours of lectures and 1 hour of seminars per week.

Lectures for 2016-17

Thursdays 1pm to 3pm S0.19

There will be no seminars during reading week (week 6)

Seminars for 2016-17

Seminars for this course start in week 2

There will be no seminars during reading week (week 6)

Please sign up for a seminar group using Tabula.

The lectures will be organised by domains of knowledge, so that one lecture concerns knowledge of objects, knowledge of number, and so on. The domains are chosen so that each set of developmental findings is linked to one or more philosophical issues. For instance, research on knowledge of objects gives bite to questions about modularity and the nature of tacit knowledge; research on knowledge of number invites discussions of nativism; and developmental findings on knowledge of colour may challenge certain assumptions philosophers have made about relations between language, thought and perception.

Assessment Methods

This module will be assessed in the following way:

  • Collection of short exercises (worth 15% of the module)
  • One 2,500 word essay (worth 85% of the module)

Background Reading & Textbooks

  • Baillargeon, R., Scott, R. M., & He, Z. (2010). False-belief understanding in infants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 110–118.
  • Baldwin, D. (1995). Understanding the link between joint attention and language. In C. Moore &
  • Beck, S. R., Carroll, D. J., Brunsdon, V. E., & Gryg, C. K. (2011). Supporting children’s counterfactual thinking with alternative modes of responding. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 108(1), 190–202.
  • Bermúdez, J. L. (2003). Thinking without Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bloom, P. (2000). How children learn the meanings of words. Learning, development, and conceptual change. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press.
  • Bratman, M. (1987). Intentions, Plans, and Practical Reasoning. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Campbell, J. (2002). Reference and Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Carey, S. (2009). The Origin of Concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Carruthers, P., Laurence, S., & Stich, S. (2005). The Innate Mind: Structure and Contents. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Carruthers, P., Laurence, S., & Stich, S. (2006). The Innate Mind: Culture and Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Clark, E. V. (1993). The Lexicon in Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni- versity Press.
  • Clements, W. & Perner, J. (1994). Implicit understanding of belief. Cognitive Development, 9, 377–395.
  • Csibra, G. (2003). Teleological and referential understanding of action in infancy. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 358(1431), 447–458.
  • Csibra, G. & Gergely, G. (2009). Natural pedagogy. Trends in Cognitive Sci- ences, 13(4), 148–153.
  • Davidson, D. (1990). The structure and content of truth. The Journal of Phi- losophy, 87(6), 279–328.
  • Davidson, D. (1999). The emergence of thought. Erkenntnis, 51, 7–17.
  • Davidson, D. (2001). Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Elman, J. L., Bates, E. A., Johnson, M. H., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. (1996). Rethinking Innateness : A Connectionist Perspective On Development. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Fodor, J. (1981). The present status of the innateness controversy. In Repre-sentations. Brighton: Harvester.
  • Fodor, J. (1983). The Modularity of Mind: an Essay on Faculty Psychology. Bradford book. Cambridge, Mass ; London: MIT Press.
  • Franklin, A., Catherwood, D., Alvarez, J., & Axelsson, E. (2010). Hemispheric asymmetries in categorical perception of orientation in infants and adults. Neuropsychologia, 48(9), 2648–2657.
  • Franklin, A., Clifford, A., Williamson, E., & Davies, I. (2005). Color term knowledge does not affect categorical perception of color in toddlers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 90(2), 114–141.
  • Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). The resilience of language : what gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. Essays in developmental psychology. New York, N.Y.: Psychology Press.
  • Hirschfeld, L. A. & Gelman, S. A. (1994). Mapping the Mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hoerl, C., McCormack, T., & Beck, S. R. (Eds.). (2011). Understanding Counterfactuals, Understanding Causation: Issues in philosophy and psychology. Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, M. H. (2005). Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Jusczyk, P. (1997). The Discovery of Spoken Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.
  • Whiten, A. (Ed.), Natural Theories of the Mind: evolution, development and simulation of everyday mindreading. Oxford: Blackwell.

For more, see

Course Materials

From October 2016 course materials will be available on Moodle. Simply sign in and select the module from your Moodle home page.

Please note you must be regisitered for the module on eMR in order to access the relevant page.

Module Tutor:


Stephen Butterfill

s dot butterfill at warwick dot ac dot uk