Institut Jean Nicod

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 Jean Nicod Emerging Ideas

Séminaire doctoral et postdoctoral de l'Institut Jean-Nicod

Jean Nicod Emerging Ideas is a talk series which offers a forum for young researchers, post-doctoral fellows, doctoral students, and masters students from the Institut Jean Nicod and from neighboring laboratories to present their current research. Works in progress presented by speakers will preferably deal with interdisciplinary issues and be representative of the key areas investigated at the Institut Jean Nicod (i.e. philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and anthropology).


If you are interested in giving a talk, please contact Martin Fortier

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Institut Jean-Nicod, ENS, Pavillon Jardin, 29, rue d'Ulm 75005 Paris. Conference Room of the Pavillon.



June 13, 11:30 am
Eric Mandelbaum (Harvard University),
Fragmentation of Thought and the Web of Belief

At least since Quine, it has been thought that beliefs are stored in a web-like structure. The web of belief model has three main commitments: that all the beliefs one has are synchronically causally related; that the beliefs in the center of the web correspond to the necessary truths, while contingent truths are housed at the periphery; and that strength of belief is a function of how centrally stored the belief is. However, this view is generally supported on epistemological, not psychological, grounds. The cognitive science of belief appears to falsify all three Quinean commitments. In this talk, I’ll discuss how a psychofunctional theory of belief reformulates our models of belief storage and updating.


June, 20, 11:30 am
Anna Drozdzowicz (Oslo, IJN),
The nature of linguistic intuitions about utterance content

The talk provides a theoretical framework for one type of linguistic intuitions – intuitions (and judgements) about whether certain linguistic expression could be used or is used to mean such-and-such, which I call here judgments about utterance content. Such judgements are specially relevant to many debates in philosophy of language and linguistics, as they constitute a potentially important source of evidence for speaker meaning. The strategy is not an innocent one (Bach, 2002) and the reliability of such reflective judgements cannot be taken as a brute fact (Higginbotham, 2000). I provide an account of basic features and the scope of judgements about utterance content. I argue that they do not provide evidence about literal meaning and that they cover both strongly and weakly communicated content (contra Azzouni, 2013). For the rest part of my talk I discuss the question of what might be a plausible mechanism responsible for delivery of judgements about utterance content. I finish with raising several issues concerning their utility for different research programmes at the semantics/ pragmatics interface.

Passed Sessions

Friday 25th October, 11 am
Erin Zaroukian (Postdoc, IJN)
Variation in vagueness

In natural language, vagueness abounds. In the sentence John served approximately 50 sandwiches, for example, there is potential indeterminacy in what counts as a sandwich, what counts as an event of serving, and what quantities qualify as approximately fifty. I explore sentences like these in the context of the question What is the nature of vagueness?  I address this through case studies of a variety of modifiers, focusing on approximately, maybe, and about, as in John served approximately/maybe/about 50 sandwiches. Comparing modal modifiers like maybe to non-modal modifiers like approximately, I argue that vagueness is a systematically heterogeneous phenomenon by identifying fundamental differences in the vague readings these two classes of modifiers produce.

Friday 29th November, 11 am - To be held in the Meeting room of the Département d'Etudes Cognitives 
Baptiste Gille (Quai Branly),
Supernatural Beings: Proposal for a New Cognitive Theory of Counter-intuition.

Abstract :
I submit for consideration the theory of ontological violation proposed by Boyer (1994; 2001) and show that it can be developed and extended to a prototypical level. This extension allows the cognitive apprehension of supernatural beings on a morphological level for iconographic or descriptive representations. Boyer considers that the understanding of supernatural beings is based on the violation of expectations held in a given ontological domain. I want to show that if there is indeed a violation, it remains that, in some cases, this violation mainly occurs at the level of specific or prototypical expectations. Thus, I try to restore the status of what Boyer calls “oddities”, which are forms of chimerical constructions, but which do not constitute, for him, a viable criterion for the understanding of supernatural entities (Boyer 2001, 118).
At a methodological level, I present an anthropological approach to the morphological analysis of concrete entities. At a theoretical level, I highlight the fact that a single psychological theory – the “Domain-Specificity theory” – underpins Boyer’s system (Boyer 2001, 101-106). It is my contention that one can understand the cognitive constitution of supernatural beings by resorting to intuitive psychological principles which are not based on the distinction between specific domains. I suggest focusing on the prototypical analysis of the basic-level category. I therefore thoroughly follow Boyer’s recommendations: cognitive anthropology is able to explain religious phenomena in terms of a special use of our basic cognitive intuitions which are mobilized in our daily interactions.

Friday 6th December, 11 am
Alexis Wellwood (University of Maryland)
What 'meaning' can (and probably should) mean
What do we mean when we talk about the meanings of words? What should linguists mean?  The dominant view in natural language semantics is that a good account of the meanings of words will be a specification of their (compositionally-determined) truth conditions. I argue that, even if words have truth conditions, this is not the right characterization of meaning from the perspective of human psychology. Hilary Putnam famously argued that the truth-conditional approach to word meanings as intensions, i.e. functions that determine extensions, cannot be psychological in principle. Yet, meanings might be intensions in quite another sense. Alonzo Church held that intensions are procedures (algorithms) that compute functions (sets of input-output pairs), a distinction perfectly mirrored in David Marr's discussion of Level 2 versus Level 1 study of the visual system. Making Church's distinction in the language domain leads to a very different way of thinking about the study of meaning as a part of linguistics. I present evidence from a number of experiments with children and adults in support of the view advanced by Paul Pietroski, in which meanings are psychological procedures that direct the construction of complex concepts.

Friday 13th December, 11 am
Sam Wilkinson (Durham Univ.),
Auditory Verbal Hallucinations and the Anticipatory Nature of Experience.

My aim is to formulate an account of auditory-verbal hallucinations (AVHs) occurring in the context of schizophrenia, which is both informed by empirical findings and does justice to the subjective experience of voice-hearing. I argue that AVHs cannot be fully understood in isolation from their broader experiential context. They are symptomatic of global experiential changes, and any complete account of them needs to understand these changes. I start by attempting to formulate a clearer statement of what is involved, phenomenologically speaking, by looking closely at first-person patient reports. I then explain these phenomenological changes in terms of recent work on “hierarchical predictive processing” (HPP) (see Clark 2013, for a review). I present data suggesting that schizophrenia involves predictive processing going wrong. I then show how this predictive processing view supports a recent distinction between “inner speech hallucinations”, which occur in quiet contexts where attention is inwardly directed, and “hypervigilance hallucinations”, which occur in loud contexts where attention is outwardly directed (Dogdson and Gordon 2009).

Friday 20th December, 11 am
Guillaume Dezecache (IJN),
Studies on emotional propagation in humans: The cases of fear and joy.

Crowd psychologists of the 19th and 20th centuries have left us with the idea that emotions are so contagious that they can cause large groups of individuals to rapidly and spontaneously converge on an emotional level. Good illustrations of this claim include situations of crowd panic where large movements of escape are thought to emerge through local interactions, and without any centralized coordination. Our studies sought to investigate the propagation of two allegedly contagious emotions, i.e., fear and joy. I will present two theoretical and two empirical studies that have investigated, at two different levels of analysis, the phenomenon of emotional propagation of fear and joy: firstly, at a proximal level of analysis (the how-question), I discuss the potential mechanisms underlying the transmission of these emotions in crowds, and the extent to which emotional transmission can be considered analogous to a contagion process. Secondly, at an evolutionary/ultimate level of analysis (the why-question), I ask why crowd members seem to be so inclined to share their emotional experience of fear and joy with others. I present a study showing that the transmission of fear might be facilitated by a tendency to modulate one’s involuntary fearful facial reactions according to the informational demands of conspecifics, suggesting that the biological function of spontaneous fearful reactions might be communication of survival-value information to others. Finally, I discuss the implications of these studies for the broader understanding of emotional crowd behavior.

"Anthropology of psychological essentialism”

24th of January, 2014

11:30 - 12:30
Charles Stépanoff (EPHE, LAS),
“Understanding individuality: About individual essences and categories”

Abstract: Why do we essentialize social categories? Why do people consider belonging of individuals to certain categories as innate, inalterable and giving a lot of information about them (about their character, their vices, or their skills)? Social essentialism has been interpreted as the result of a transfer from folkbiology to social groups (Atran, Boyer, Gil-White): we essentialize social categories because we mistakenly treat them as biological species. This hypothesis, called “analogical transfer”, is based on the theory of the modularity of the mind. Other students interpret essentialism as a domain-general mode of understanding that permits interpreting causality in many domains independently from biology (Gelman, Hirschfeld). Ethnography can help to untangle empirically these questions. Among Tuvans (Southern Siberia), belonging to the category of shamans is innate and inalterable. However, their category is not conceptualized as a biological species, for shamans are supposed to eat each other. I advocate for the hypothesis of individual essentialism that helps to understand essentialization of high ranked categories (e.g. aristocracy), and leads to discard the “analogical transfer” hypothesis.

12:30 - 13:30
Denis Regnier (IJN, LAMC),
“Clean people, unclean people: History, cognition and the essentialization of ‘slaves’ among the Betsileo”

In the southern highlands of Madagascar, Betsileo descendants of ‘commoners’ (olompotsy) essentialize slave descendants: they think that slave descendants have an ‘inner essence’ that makes them what they are, cannot be cleansed and will be passed on to their children, no matter what they do. This case of psychological essentialism, as strong as it is among the Betsileo, raises the questions of why, when and how such an essentialization has taken place, since there is evidence that slaves in pre-abolition times (i.e., before 1896), although deemed ‘unclean’, were not essentialized – or only weakly essentialized – by ‘clean’ and free people. The paper will discuss Betsileo history and ethnography, as well as recent research on the essentialism of social categories to suggest an answer to these questions

31st of January, 11:30 am
Mark Sheskin (IJN),
“The Origins of Fairness: Experiments with Children and Monkeys”

Recent research has argued that surprisingly advanced fairness judgments can be found early in childhood development and even in some nonhuman primates. I present new experiments showing the opposite: situations in which monkeys do not care about fairness and young children show spiteful preferences against fairness. Which set of research should you believe? Both, of course! In a review including both sets of research, I will discuss the similarities and differences in the fairness of these populations. The interesting question becomes about which aspects of adult fairness can be found in these other populations, and how the initial state matures into the adult one.

February, 14, 11:30 am
Jeremy Kuhn (NYU),
"Domain and scope of existentials in spoken and sign language"

Two well known facts about quantifiers in natural language:

I. They can "take scope" over other quantifiers, yielding ambiguity in sentences like (1) (one dog total, or one per cat?).
II. They easily and promiscuously undergo domain restriction: the sentence in (2) is not a statement about every single bottle in the universe, but merely about the bottles in some relevant context.

(1) Some dog chased every cat.
(2) Every bottle is empty.

These two facts interact in logically interesting ways when it comes to existential quantifiers ("some boy", "a dog", "one pencil"): in particular, if the domain of the existential is restricted to a singleton individual, the existential becomes effectively scopeless (the two meanings in (1) become synonymous if there is only one dog to choose from).  Based on this observation, Schwarzschild (2002) proposes that it is exactly this interaction which is responsible for a group of surprisingly wide-scope readings that are sometimes available for existential quantifiers.
In this talk, I revisit this connection with data from sign language, in which the use of space allows quantificational domains to be overtly realized (Davidson and Gagne 2013), and in which the scopal properties of existentials depend on this use of space (Barbarà 2012). I overview these facts, then sketch a semantic analysis in terms of domain restriction/choice functions. Notable connections, both theoretical and empirical, are also drawn to the theory of dynamic semantics, a model that is used for the introduction and retrieval of discourse referents.

April, 4, 3:30pm-5pm
Guillaume Dumas (Florida Atlantic University)
"Second-person neuroscience and complex systems approach of social interaction"

This talk will present empirical investigations of both human-human and human-machine interactions, with a focus on the neurobiological mechanisms of social cognition and the multi-scale modeling of neural, behavioral and social coordination dynamics. While several theories have been proposed to infer the link between neurobiology and social psychology, the dynamical and reciprocal components of human interaction are still poorly explored. This is especially true for social neuroscience, where recording simultaneously the brain activity from several subjects remains difficult. This is nevertheless possible with a neuroimaging methodology called "hyperscanning". I will first present how the combination of situated social paradigms with hyperscanning recordings allows to relate social patterns at the behavioral level with the emergence of specific patterns at the brain level (Dumas et al. PLoS ONE 2010; Dumas et al. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2012). The related intra- and inter-brain patterns reflect different aspects of social interaction, such as interactional synchrony, anticipation of other's actions and co-regulation of turn-taking. Then, I will present biologically inspired numerical simulations can reproduce some of the results and how it points out a potential role of the human brain anatomical structure in the facilitation of sensorimotor coordination and thus may partly account for our propensity to enter in couplings with others (Dumas et al. PLoS ONE 2012). Finally, I will present a recent tool called the Human Dynamic Clamp, which consists in an artificial agent integrating equations of human motion at the neurobehavioral level. A human and this "virtual partner" are then reciprocally coupled in real-time, which allow controlling both its intrinsic dynamics and the coupling with the human, while maintaining the continuous flow of interaction. This generalizes previous empirical paradigms and also provides a Turing-test for theoretical models of social cognition. Preliminary results already showed an effect of the coupling on the collective behavior and attribution of intention. In conclusion, I will compare these results with other published studies (Froese et al. 2014), and discuss their place in the current theoretical debate about the constitutive role of social interaction for social cognition (Gallotti 2012; Gallotti & Frith 2013).


May 30, 11:30 am
Emmanuel de Vienne (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre),
"How could one be a perspectivist? Language socialization and spirit categorization among the Trumai Indians (Mato Grosso, Brazil)"

Philippe Descola’s animism, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism are two dominant analytical concepts in the ethnology of Lowland South America. I will argue that these so-called “ontological” approaches tend to underestimate other interesting phenomena such as the contextual and interpersonal variations of ontological discourses, the categorization and detection procedures of supernatural beings, the emotional dimension of spirit encounters, and the ways this knowledge is transmitted to children. Through the ethnography of the denetsak, the main figures of Trumai cosmology, this presentation will try to fill this gap and shed new light on the epistemological status of animism and perspectivism. In so doing, my intent is also to discuss important aspects of religious cognition, pragmatics and emotional cognition.

April 18, 11:30 am
Katharina Helming (IJN)
"Making sense of early false-belief understanding"

The topic of this talk is the puzzle about early belief-ascription: Young children demonstrate spontaneous false-belief understanding, but they fail elicited-response false-belief tasks. Based on recent converging evidence, a pragmatic framework to solve this puzzle will be introduced. Young children do understand the contents of others’ false belief, but they are overwhelmed when they must simultaneously make sense of two distinct actions: the instrumental action of a mistaken agent and the experimenter’s communicative action. I will discuss predictions of this account and present preliminary data supporting it.

May, 9, 11:30 am
Radu Umbres (Institut Nicod),
"Cultural imitation, cognitive opacity, and secrecy. The continuing enigma of the cargo cult"

Cargo cults were one of the most spectacular phenomenon in human history, yet their most puzzling aspect remains largely unexplained. In hundreds of (probably unrelated) events across thousands of kilometres and spanning several decades, Melanesian communities engaged in apparently irrational behaviour in response to contact with Western civilisations. From makeshift airstrips cut through the forest, equipped with guiding fires, observation towers and "radio" shacks using coconut headphones, to "five o'clock teas", military parades and handshakes, natives performed amazing replications of Western behaviour and artefacts. While most anthropologists focused on these practices as anti-colonial, revolutionary or forms of cultural accommodation, the task of explaining an absurd form of cultural imitation was somewhat brushed aside. I will argue that theories developed by CEU psychologists Gergely and Csibra following Dan Sperber can shed some light upon the issue. By analysing what was imitated and especially what was not, cargo cult imitation appears as neither indiscriminate, nor unreasonable. Rather, given the huge technological disparity between the cultures in contact, the polarised attitudes of Whites versus Melanesians, and the local folk epistemology of linking knowledge, power and secrecy,  it is a case of hyper-creative cultural learning gone wrong due to cognitive opacity and lack of cooperation. Moreover, cargo cults as cultural imitation may raise a fascinating hypothesis about the adoption of missionary Christianity in Melanesia and elsewhere.

June, 6, 11:30 am
Emmanuel de Vienne (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre),
How could one be a perspectivist? Language socialization and spirit categorization among the Trumai Indians (Mato Grosso, Brazil).

Philippe Descola’s animism, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism are two dominant analytical concepts in the ethnology of Lowland South America. I will argue that these so-called “ontological” approaches tend to underestimate other interesting phenomena such as the contextual and interpersonal variations of ontological discourses, the categorization and detection procedures of supernatural beings, the emotional dimension of spirit encounters, and the ways this knowledge is transmitted to children. Through the ethnography of the denetsak, the main figures of Trumai cosmology, this presentation will try to fill this gap and shed new light on the epistemological status of animism and perspectivism. In so doing, my intent is also to discuss important aspects of religious cognition, pragmatics and emotional cognition.