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Jean Nicod Prize & Lectures 2009


Sources of Human Knowledge

Short biography

Elizabeth S. Spelke is The Marshall L. Berkman Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Her laboratory focuses on the sources of uniquely human cognitive capacities, including the capacity for formal mathematics, the capacity for constructing and using symbolic representations such as maps, the capacity for developing comprehensive taxonomies of objects, and the capacity for reasoning about other humans and their social groups. Spelke studies these capacities by investigating their origins and growth in human infants and children, by considering human cognition in relation to the capacities of nonhuman primates, and by comparing the capacities of humans from diverse cultures. Current projects investigate: (1) how infants and children recognize objects, extrapolate object motions, and group objects into functional categories such as foods and tools; (2) how infants and children recognize human agents, reason about their goal-directed actions and mental states, and use other people as sources of information about objects; (3) how infants and children single out potential social partners for social interaction, sharing and cooperation, (4) how infants and children develop knowledge of natural number and arithmetic; and (5) how infants and children represent space and reason about geometry.


Brochure ǀ Poster

Tuesday June, 9th, 4 - 6pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 29, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris
(Amphithéâtre Jules Ferry)
Toward a cognitive science of human thinking: Why so slow?

Since Plato’s time, scientists have revolutionized our understanding of physical and biological phenomena, as well as our understanding of human perception and action. In contrast, our understanding of higher human cognition has advanced so little that current investigators can cite ancient sources with a straight face. In this lecture, I consider why the most important aspects of the human mind have been so resistant to scientific analysis, and I describe a strategy for overcoming this resistance. The strategy centers on two proposals. First, human cognition builds on a small set of core knowledge systems: systems that are as amenable to study as our systems for perceiving depth or reaching for objects. Second, new cognitive capacities and systems of knowledge develop through the productive combination of these core systems: a combinatorial process that depends on humans’ species-specific faculty for natural language. I illustrate the strategy by describing research on two core systems for representing inanimate, manipulable objects and animate, goal-directed actions. Moreover, I consider one uniquely human capacity that arises when these systems are combined: the capacity to represent artifacts as structured objects with dedicated functions.
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Elizabeth Spelke will be awarded the Jean-Nicod Prize after the lecture.

Wednesday, June 10th, 2 - 4 pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 45, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris (Salle des Actes)
Natural number

The system of natural number concepts has two striking characteristics: it is extremely simple, and it is extremely rare in the living world. Although all living creatures must be sensitive to quantity in order to forage, budget their time, and navigate the social world, only humans represent exact cardinal values and both determine and operate on those values through an iterative counting process. Studies of non-human animals, human infants, and human adults in diverse cultures provide evidence that this ability depends on two core systems that humans share with other animals: a system for representing individuals in parallel, and a system for representing approximate numerical magnitudes. These systems are unrelated to one another in animals and infants, but they are productively combined as children learn number words and counting. Studies of adults in remote cultures, and of adults lacking conventional language input, provide evidence that language plays a central role in the construction of natural number concepts. Further studies of children and adults provide evidence that both language and core number systems remain at the foundations of our mature natural number concepts. I consider how natural language might play this integrative role.
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Tuesday June, 16th, 2 - 4 pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 29, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris
(Salle Paul Lapie)
Natural geometry

Philosophers from Socrates to Kant have viewed Euclidean geometry as a parade case of an innate system of knowledge. Contrary to this view, studies of animals from ants to humans suggest that biological organisms have multiple systems for representing the shape of the surrounding world, each with a restricted range of application and none with the full power of Euclidean geometry. Humans, however, go beyond the limits of these systems and forge more abstract and general geometric representations. These representations are reflected in our pictures, models, and especially in geometric maps. By using and mastering maps and other spatial symbols, children may construct natural geometry through processes not unlike those that give rise to natural number. But how do children come to understand these symbols? Recent research suggests that map understanding itself depends on the acquisition of language.
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Wednesday June, 17th, 2 - 4 pm
Ecole Normale Supérieure, 29, rue d’Ulm, 75005 Paris (Salle Paul Lapie)
What makes humans smart? Social cognition, natural language, and human uniqueness.

Humans are primates, whose perceptual and action systems strikingly resemble those of other animals, but humans alone develop new systems of knowledge that solve problems unlike any faced by our ancestors. What innate differences between humans and other animals account for the flexibility and productivity of human cognition? According to a recent proposal by Tomasello, the primary characteristic that sets humans on a distinctive developmental path is not cognitive but motivational: humans have an innate propensity to share information, tasks, goals, and emotional states. All humans’ cognitive accomplishments, including the acquisition of natural language, develop from this propensity. I consider Tomasello’s proposal in relation to a rival proposal that inverts it. Like natural number and natural geometry, I suggest, shared intentionality builds on core systems shared by diverse animals: in this case, two distinct systems for representing goal-directed actors and social partners. Uniquely human forms of communication and cooperation arise from our unique capacity to combine these core representations productively. Language, once again, may be the source of this capacity.
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Short bibliography

2008. Olson, K. R., & Spelke, E. S. Foundations of cooperation in young children. Cognition, 108, 222-231.
2005. Shusterman, A., & Spelke, E. S. Language and the development of spatial reasoning. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence, & S. Stich (Eds.), The innate mind: Structure and contents, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 89-106.
2005. Xu, F., Spelke, E. S., & Goddard, S.. Number sense in human infants. Developmental Science, 8(1), 88-101.
2001. Spelke, E. S., & Hespos, S. J.. Continuity, competence, and the object concept. In E. Dupoux (Ed.), Language, brain, and cognitive development: Essays in honor of Jacques Mehler (pp. 325-340). Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.
1996. Carey, S., & Spelke, E. S.. Science and core knowledge. Philosophy of Science, 63(4), 515-533.
1996. Hermer, L., & Spelke, E. S. Modularity and development: The case of spatial reorientation. Cognition, 61, 195-232.
1994. Carey, S., & Spelke, E. S. Domain-specific knowledge and conceptual change. In L. Hirschfeld & S. Gelman (Eds.), Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture, pp. 169-200. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
1994. Hermer, L., & Spelke, E. S. A geometric process for spatial reorientation in young children. Nature, 370, 57-59.
1994. Spelke, E. S. Initial knowledge: Six suggestions. Cognition, 50, 431-445. (Reprinted in J. Mehler and S. Franck (Eds.) Cognition on Cognition, pp. 433-448. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.)
1993. Spelke, E. S., & Van de Walle, G. Perceiving and reasoning about objects: Insights from infants. In N. Eilan, R. McCarthy, & W. Brewer (Eds.), Spatial representation. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
1990. Spelke, E. S. Principles of object perception. Cognitive Science, 14, 29-56.
1990. Spelke, E. S. Origins of visual knowledge. In D. Osherson et al. (Eds.) An invitation to cognitive science, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Reprinted in A. I. Goldman (Ed.) Readings in philosophy and cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.)
1988. Spelke, E. S. The origins of physical knowledge. In L. Weiskrantz (Ed.), Thought without language. Oxford, UK: Oxford Press.
1986. Spelke, E. S., & Kestenbaum, R. Les origines du concept d’objet. Psychologie Française, 31, 67-72.



Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
(Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales)

Ecole Normale Supérieure
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales