Institut Jean Nicod

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Colloque en l’honneur de Dan Sperber



  L’Institut Jean Nicod organise un colloque en l’honneur de Dan Sperber du 12 au 15 décembre 2012, avec la participation de spécialistes reconnus en philosophie, anthropologie, psychologie et linguistique.


Scott Atran (CNRS) ǀ Pascal Boyer (Washington University) ǀ Susan Carey (Harvard) ǀ Gerge ly Csibra (CEU, Budapest) ǀ Daniel Dennett (Tuft s) ǀ György Gergely (CEU, Budapest) ǀ Alvin Goldman (Rutgers, NJ) ǀ Gilbert Harman (Princeton) ǀ Stephen Neale (CUNY) ǀ Ruth Millikan (U. of Connecticut) ǀ Michael Tomasello (Max Planck, Leipzig) ǀ Deirdre Wilson (UCL) ǀ Conclusion Dan Sperber (IJN)   


Mercredi 12 décembre
Salle Dussane, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45 rue d’Ulm


12h30-14h30 Inscription

Welcome and introduction

Chair : Maurice Bloch (London School of Economics)
Pascal Boyer (Washington University)
Are concepts modules ? Maybe Dan Sperber was right after all. The case of ownership intuitions

16h-16h30 Pause café

Susan Carey (Harvard)
Conceptual change


Jeudi 13 décembre
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45 rue d’Ulm.Théâtre.

Journée organisée en partenariat avec le CRNAP (Cooperative Research Network in Analytic Philosophy, Princeton) et la Chaire de métaphysique et philosophie de la connaissance du Collège de France.


Chair : Ned Block (New York University)
Daniel Dennett (Tufts)
How Darwinian is cultural evolution ?

10h45-11h15 Pause café

Gilbert Harman (Princeton)
Is Human Argument a Spandrel ?


Chair : Gloria Origgi (Institut Jean-Nicod)
Alvin Goldman (Rutgers University)
Theory of Reasoning and Argumentation : Evolutionary vs. Epistemological Approaches

15h45-16h15 Pause café

Scott Atran (Institut Jean-Nicod & U. Michigan)
The science of the sacred and seemingly intractable conflicts


Vendredi 14 décembre
 Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45 rue d’Ulm.Théâtre.

Chair : Nausicaa Pouscoulous (University College London)
M. Tomasello (Max Planck, Leipzig)
Beneath the Relevance Inference

10h45-11h15 pause café

Ruth Millikan (Connecticut)
How to out-relevance Relevance Theory


Chair : Julie Grèzes (Laboratoire de neurosciences cognitives)
Gergely Csibra (CEU-Budapest)
Human infants expect kind-referring signs in ostensive communication

15h45-16h15 pause café

György Gergely (CEU-Budapest)
The opacity of fire

19h Conference dinner
Bouillon Racine, 3 rue Racine, 75006 Paris


Samedi 15 décembre
Salle Dussane, Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45 rue d’Ulm


Chair : Robyn Carston (University College London)
Deirdre Wilson (University College London)
Irony, hyperbole, jokes and banter

10h45-11h15 pause café

Stephen Neale (CUNY)
The ontology of communication




La participation au colloque international et à l’atelier NaSH est gratuite. Toutefois, en raison de strictes limitations d’espace, l’inscription est obligatoire. Merci de faire une demande d’inscription auprès de :

Date-limite : 5 décembre 2012

Les demandes d’inscription seront acceptées dans l’ordre d’arrivée et dans la limite des places disponibles.




The science of the sacred and seemingly intractable conflicts.
Atran, S. (Institut Jean-Nicod & U. Michigan)

Maybe Dan Sperber was right after all.
The case of ownership intuitions

Boyer, P.

This is an attempt to show that we can infer the conceptual repertoire of organisms from the kinds of selective pressure that shaped their cognitive systems. I will illustrate this focusing on human intuitions and reflections in the domain of possession and ownership.We tend to assume that various notions about property, gifts, tranfers, etc., require a unified concept of ownership. However, psychological evidence also shows great uncertainty (and many contradictions) in people’s explicit understanding of the notion, as well as many discrepancies between explicit understandings and intuitions. I propose that people do not actually entertain a unified ’ownership’ concept, but a set of heuristics about use and exclusion, which stem from different domain constrains (e.g. exclusivity in mates is not the same as in objects), and constitute most of what humans need (in terms of conceptual structure) to manage coordinated use of resources with others.

Conceptual Change
Carey, S.

Episodes of knowledge acquisition consisting solely of belief revision must be distinguished from episodes that require conceptual change.

The existence of conceptual change has implications for at least two aspects of Dan Sperber’s amazingly fertile research program : what attractors might be like in attractor/selection models of cultural stability and the importance of intrapersonal epistemic values. I illustrate these implications with a case study of conceptual change within intuitive biology.

Human infants expect kind-referring signs in ostensive communication
Csibra, G.

All human languages allow for making generic statements about kinds, which fosters the acquisition of generic knowledge by linguistic communication. I present recent findings that suggest that non-verbal ostensive communication may also induce the expectation of generic content already in pre-verbal infants. In particular, our studies demonstrate that, when the objects are deictically referred by a communicator, 9-month-old infants, like adults, tend to encode potentially kind-relevant properties, like shape and colour, of the objects while ignoring their incidental properties, such as location and numerosity, which are restricted to the particular objects in the situation. One interpretation of these findings is that, by default, non-verbal demonstratives are expected to refer the object kind, rather than to the particular objects present in the scene. In a further series of studies using electrophysiological measures we have found that as soon as infants start to learn words for objects, they assume that verbal labels refer to object kinds rather than to individuals or object features. Furthermore, seeing pictures of familiar objects activate the representation of the corresponding kind concepts in the infant brain only when the objects are presented in an ostensive-referential context. I propose that these phenomena reflect an expectation of genericity elicited by ostensive communication, and such a bias facilitates the learning of generic knowledge from others.

How Darwinian is cultural evolution ?
Dennett, D.C.

Sperber has been perhaps the most insightful critic of the memetics approach to cultural evolution, and some of his objections have pointed to major problems with the more facile versions of memetics, but once the objections are placed in the perspective of Godfrey Smith’s Darwinian Spaces, one can see that some of them are not so much problems for memetics as considerations that move the phenomena of cultural evolution into a different region of the space of (proto-, semi-, quasi-) Darwinian phenomena, and none the worse for it. Many other biological phenomena occupy intermediate positions ; we must eschew essentialism and be good Darwinians about Darwinism itself.

The Opacity of Fire
Gergely, G.

In this talk I’ll discuss the evolutionary origins and adaptive role of cognitive opacity of beliefs in human conceptual and cultural development in light of new evidence from preverbal infants’ early understanding of ostensive communicative demonstrations of cultural knowledge about artefact and social kinds. The issue of opaque beliefs was originally ignited by Dan Sperber’s (1997) proposal that humans’ evolved a cognitive attitude to acquire and hold ‘reflective semi-propositional’ beliefs justified by deference to the authority of their source. I’ll argue that evidence showing young infants’ preparedness to interpret ostensive demonstrative displays as making reference to abstract kinds provides strong support for Sperber’s insight. Natural pedagogy theory (Gergely & Csibra, 2006) proposed that selective pressure for trust-based ostensively guided communicative transmission of relevant cultural knowledge was first created by the emergence of hominid tool use and tool manufacturing technologies whose cognitive opacity for naïve observational learners represented a learneability problem of relevance selection that endangered their intergenerational transmission. Here I’ll extend this argument to the domain of ‘distributed social technologies’ or ‘collaborative tools’ involving cooperatively performed coordinated means actions with complementary roles to achieve joint goals (Tomasello, 2008). I’ll argue that early emerging socially distributed collaborative cultural skills and practices of our hunter-gatherer anchestors – such as hunting or making and using fire – also represent cogent examples of cognitively opaque cultural skills whose intergenerational transmission requires ostensive communicative relevance-guidance. I’ll speculate that new evidence about early hominid adaptations to cooked food (Wrangham, 2009) suggests that cognitively opaque socially distributed technologies of making, keeping, and using fire may have emerged as early as 1.8m years ago which may have necessitated the co-evolution of early forms of ostensive communicative skills of pedagogical knowledge transfer.

Theory of Reasoning and Argumentation : Evolutionary vs. Epistemological Approaches.
Goldman, A.

Is Human Argument a Spandrel ?
Harman, G.
Did language evolve because it made argument possible or because it made complex thought possible ?

The Ontology of Communication
Neale, S.

How to Out-Relevance Relevance Theory
Millikan, R.S.

I propose a purely referential theory of the meanings of almost all extensional terms in a language. These terms are actually "Millian" ! Nothing beyond pure reference is carried by them from speaker to hearer, for example, no conceptual truths, no inferential mandates, no grasp of paradigm property sets, nothing to be "loosened" or "tightened." How then does language work ? Language is directly structured by the contingent structure of the world itself. The route to hearer understanding is wholly indirect, passing mandatorially through the structure of the world, Understanding is fully mediated by the idiosyncratic manner in which the hearer has independently come to grasp that structure. Pragmatics goes all the way down.

Beneath the Relevance Inference
Tomasello, M.

Ostensive-inferential communication only works with organisms that are fundamentally cooperative. This insight clarifies several aspects of the Relevance Theory approach, especially concerning the evolutionary origins and ontogenetic emergence of this uniquely human form of communication.

Irony, hyperbole, jokes and banter
Wilson, D.

In the last ten years, following the collapse of standard definitions of irony as a matter of saying one thing and meaning the opposite, a range of disparate phenomena including hyperbole, banter, understatement and rhetorical questions have been commonly treated as forms of irony in the experimental literature (Gibbs 2000, Leggitt & Gibbs 2000). Drawing on recent work by Wilson & Sperber (2012), I will argue that these phenomena display none of the distinctive features of irony in most of their uses, and that new theoretical accounts and experimental paradigms are needed to prise them apart.