Ellen Lau of the University of Maryland will be presenting a colloquium entitled “Individuals in brain and language” in ILC N211 at 3:30 Friday May 12th. All are welcome! The abstract is below.
Abstract: In this talk I would like to consider what is known about how the human mind and brain represents individuals, and what the implications are for our theories of linguistic interpretation. In standard model-theoretic semantics, individuals are simply taken for granted as part of the world model; and I too assume that the world itself contains individual entities. But if we take seriously the goal of developing a theory of the natural language semantics that is instantiated in the human mind, we need to know something about how the mind manages to approximate the world in mental representation, as it is this mental representation of the world to which natural language has to be mapped. As Bach (1989) noted, this is as challenging for individuals as for anything else. Although cognitive neuroscience is still in its infancy, some rough outlines of how the brain represents individuals are becoming clearer. As I will review, there appear to be multiple, redundant representations of individuals in different circuits that evolved for different purposes and which differ in format and temporal continuity. Some of our representations of individuals are fleeting, serving the purpose of helping us to accurately represent the structure of a current situation or interaction while it is happening. Others, supported by different brain circuits, are designed to last a longer period of time, allowing us to re-identify a previously encountered individualand successfully integrate new knowledge about them with prior knowledge. Yet a different form of representation for known individuals is included within the semi-permanent long-term knowledge base that also supports generalized knowledge. The diversity of individual representation formats suggested by cognitive neuroscience thus raises new and interesting questions for semantic theory about what we should take to be the internal world-model in which sentences are interpreted. A separate set of questions has to do with how representations of individuals get populated in the brainsystems reviewed above. Again, we may be willing to grant that a ‘fixed and given’ domain of individual entities really exists (e.g. summed across all times and locations in a multiverse), but minds have neither the capacity for nor access to that full domain, and must approximate and expand it piecemeal over time. Key insights into how the mind does this, with interesting implications for our theories of noun meanings, are provided by Sandeep Prasada’s ‘instance-of-kind’ theory from cognitive psychology, which argues that kinds are mental representations that generate individual representations of instances much like a class definition in object-oriented programming languages contains code that can generate new instances of the class.