Syllabus   |   Join our Slack workspace

Monday, August 29th   |   Empiricism

Required Reading

Thursday, September 1st   |   Rationalism

Required Reading

Thursday, September 8th   |   The Language Instinct

Required Reading

Monday, September 12th   |   First Assignment: Basic Research Skills

Required Reading

  • There is no required reading for this day, and you don't have to submit a critical feedback the night before. Instead, you should start working on the first assignment and come to class prepared to talk about the challenges that you encounter. We will discuss the assignment and some strategies for completing it in class.

First Assignment

  • Your task for this assignment is to find and read one of the sources that Steven Pinker cites in Chapters 1 or 2 of The Language Instinct, describe a way in which he oversimplifies or misinterprets some of the claims or evidence that is found in the source, and explain why we should care.

    To do this, you will have to start by re-reading the chapter, looking for claims that you might want to double check. Then you will have to use the bibliography find the original source of these claims. (Note that in The Language Instinct, there are no footnotes or in-text citations in which bibliography entries are cited. Instead, there is a "Notes" section at the end of the book that lists the citations for each page.) You will then have to track down the book or article that Pinker is relying on and read the relevant parts of it. To find the source, you can look up articles on google scholar or using the Hunter College' Library's journal lookup page. To find books, you can check the library. (I will show you some other options in class.)

    Please keep in mind that you might have to do this more than once, since there is no guarantee that you will find a good example of oversimplification or misinterpretation in the first source that you check. That's okay: the point of this assignment is to get you to practice these research skills. This assignment is about the process more than it is about the end result.

    Your assignment should be no more than 500 words long, and it's okay if it is as short as 250 words. (Longer is not better; be concise and efficient in your writing.) The assignment is due at 11:59pm on October 1st. You should send it to me in a direct message on Slack (not as an attachment, just paste it into the text box).

Thursday, September 15th   |   Which Knowledge is Innate?

Monday, September 19th   |   Does "Innateness" Make Sense?

Thursday, September 22nd   |   Class cancelled on this day

Monday, September 26th   |   No class on this day

Thursday, September 29th   |   A Defense of Innateness

Monday, October 3rd   |   Does language influence how we think?

Thursday, October 6th   |   Against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Required Reading

Monday, October 10th   |   No class on this day

Thursday, October 13th   |   Second Assignment: Reading Science

Required Reading

Tips on Reading a Scientific Paper (Second Writing Assignment)

(Please read this 4-page document before you read whichever paper you choose to write about, and follow the method it outlines for reading a scientific paper. It includes several exercises that I recommend completing as you go. You don't need to hand in answers to these exercises, but they will give you a good way to measure your own level of understanding as you read.)

First Writing Assignment

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of work purporting to show that which language a person speaks has significant effects on how they think. This idea is sometimes called "linguistic relativism" or "neo-Whorfianism."

Each of the reading options below is a scientific paper that presents some evidence for an influence of language on thought. Your job this week is to choose one of the articles, read it carefully, and write a 500–750-word paper explaining its significance. To what extent does the paper you've selected show that Pinker's claims in Chapter 3 have turned out to be incorrect? Assuming that Pinker hasn't changed his mind about what he said in Chapter 3 (he hasn't!), how might he respond to someone who claims that this study had debunked his understanding of the relationship between language and thought?

Your assignment is due by 11:59pm on Friday, October 14th. You should submit it by sending it to me as a private message on Slack.

Reading Options (Choose One)

Monday, October 17th   |   A nuanced take on Sapir-Whorf

Required Reading

Thursday, October 20th   |   The language-of-thought hypothesis

Required Reading

Monday, October 24th   |   Holism about psychological states

Required Reading

Optional Video Lecture

(This is a video that I made for an online version of this course, about the debate between Fodor and Dennett. You might find it useful.)

Thursday, October 27th   |   Eliminative Materialism

Monday, October 31st   |   Nonlinguistic Thought

Required Reading

Thursday, November 3rd   |   Language Processing and Computation

Required Reading

Video Lecture

(Please watch this video that I made for an online version of the course, about the model of language processing defended by Pinker, its implications, and one of the current main alternatives. Note that I originally wrote the lecture presupposing that it would be viewed by people who'd already read chapters 4 and 5 of The Language Instinct. But it should still be understandable without that, and I think you will find it useful.)

Optional Video

(I briefly discuss this video in the above lecture, and so I am linking it here. It will be a required ``reading'' in a later week. It is the clearest explanation I have seen of how modern AI systems actually work. Note that if you find it interesting, you should also watch the next video in the series, which is about how these systems "learn.")

Monday, November 7th   |   Artificial Intelligence

Required Reading

Thursday, November 10th   |   Against AI and the Computational Theory of Mind

Required Reading

  • John Searle: Minds, Brains, and Programs
    (Note: This paper is followed by a series of short commentaries by other authors, many of whom are critical of Searle's argument. Those are the best part, so make sure to read them!)

Monday, November 14th   |   Artificial Neural Networks

Required Reading

(This is the clearest explanation I have seen of how modern AI systems actually work. Note that if you find it interesting, you can also watch the next video in the series, which is about how these systems "learn.")

Thursday, November 17th   |   Chimpanzee Language? (+ Third Assignment)

Required Reading

Third Writing Assignment

For the third writing assignment, your job is to find a single primary source that bears on a topic we've discussed in this class and explain in a 500–750 word paper how this source should change what we think about this topic. Which of the claims in our required readings does it bear on, and how? Should it make us more skeptical of what one of the authors we've read has argued for, or does it further reinforce something they said? How, exactly, does the evidence or argument introduced by this primary source work?

The difference between this assignment and the second assignment is that this time you are responsible for finding the primary source yourself. This makes the assignment more difficult and requires that you demonstrate some new research skills (on which, see the handout above). In addition to the paper itself, you should include a brief (2–3 sentence) explanation of how you found the source that you used. This can be part of your bibliography, and doesn't count toward the word count.

Please note that the primary source that you use can be either a scientific source (which typically reports on an experiment or an analysis of some new data) or a philosophical primary source (which typically includes a new argument for some claim that isn't directly based on empirical evidence gathered by the author). Either option is okay, but you should be aware of the difference between them. And I would encourage you to focus on properly explaining a single piece of evidence (experiment or argument) rather than trying to summarize more than one. Bear in mind that a single primary source might contain many pieces of evidence, in which case you should not attempt to explain everything in the article. Please aim for depth of discussion about a single piece of evidence rather than a broad discussion of several pieces.

I will be evaluating these assignments in all of the same ways as the last assignment: Does it clearly and concisely explain the evidence given in the selected primary source? Does it do a good job of explaining how this evidence bears on a specific claim made in one of our required readings? But this time, I will also be evaluating the quality of the source itself. Is it a primary source? Is it a reputable one? Does it actually bear on the topic being discussed?

The assignment should be 500–750 words long. Your assignment is due by 11:59pm on Tuesday, November 22nd. You should submit it by sending it to me as a private message on Slack. (Please just paste it into a text box like an ordinary assignment, don't upload a Word or PDF document.)

Monday, November 21st   |   An argument for the uniqueness of human language

Required Reading

Thursday, November 24th   |   No class on this day (Thanksgiving)

Monday, November 28th   |   Syntax and semantics in animal signals

Thursday, December 1st   |   Great ape gestural communication

Monday, December 5th   |   The language of thought in animals?

Thursday, December 8th   |   TBD

Required Reading

  • TBD

Monday, December 12th   |   TBD

Required Reading

  • TBD

Final Writing Assignment   |   Due on Friday, December 16th

Final Writing Assignment

Your final writing assignment is to write a research paper in which you defend a thesis about some issue that we have encountered in the required readings this semester, using three primary sources to help you defend your thesis. You could either criticize something we've read this term, or defend one of their claims in a way that the author didn't. Either way, it is very important that I understand what your thesis is, and how each part of the paper contributes to your defense of it.

You should choose a different topic than on your third assignment. You must cite at least three primary sources to support your claims. Just as in the third assignment, I will be grading these assignments partly on whether you have found and appropriately used good primary sources that actually contribute to the claims that you are making. You may want to review my guide to different kinds of academic sources.

My single most important piece of advice is to choose as specific a thesis as you can. Don't try to do too much! 1000 words may seem like a lot, but it is not much space in which to properly discuss three different pieces of evidence for your thesis. And it is therefore crucial that you choose a manageable, modest thesis—something on which a good amount of research has been conducted, but that you can reasonably defend in a small assignment.

Your paper should be about 1000 words long. (As usual, longer is not better. Write efficiently!) The paper is due by 11:59pm on Friday, December 16th. Submit it by pasting it into a private message to me on Slack. (Please don't submit it as a Word or PDF document.)