Symposium 2013 > Topics

The relationship between language and numerical cognition represents a special case of the connections between language and thought upon which all linguistic communication depends. Understanding these connections requires that we tackle problems revolving around what the meaning of "meaning" is -- how do we extract "message" from linguistic (and non-linguistic) communicative signals? A huge part of that enterprise involves figuring out how language and reason are connected. This topic has ties going back to the origins of formal logic in antiquity, to late 19th and early 20th century development of modern logic, to the emergence of theories of computation (leading to the digital computer). The relationships between quantification and number are extremely important in this respect. What natural language quantifiers (e.g., every, some, most) do is allow us to say things about the relationships between sets of things, thus some of the core aspects of our ability to reason relies on our abilities to individuate and to count (mental representations of) entities in the world. On the other hand, while we share some kinds of "counting" abilities with other species, a sense of precise number appears uniquely human. This has led some to suggest that this aspect of our numerical competence is reliant upon language. But languages differ in the nature of their number vocabularies. So exploring, for example, cross-linguistic/-cultural distinctions in this domain allows us to examine deep questions about the directionality of influence between language and thought. Present day research on quantification/number attempts to understand the relevant kinds of language/thought connections in terms of the underlying competencies involved, the nature of the mechanisms that can realize those systems, how those mechanisms may be encoded in our neurological hardware, how they are acquired/learned, and how they emerged in our species in evolutionary history.

This 3rd Morris Symposium brings together linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to present and discuss cutting edge research addressing the mental representation, processing, development/ acquisition, and neurocognitive underpinnings of number and quantification in human language. The overarching goals of this symposium will include sketching the limits of current knowledge and identifying unresolved issues relevant to answering questions such as the following:

  • What kinds of underlying mechanisms support our “number sense”? 
  • How do the types of mechanisms relevant to handling number that are known to be shared with other species relate to those capacities that appear to be uniquely human (e.g., in addition to language, our sense of “precise number” and mathematical reasoning)? 
  • How does our number sense relate to the representation, processing, and child acquisition of natural language quantifiers (e.g., all, most, some, etc.)?
  • What is known about the underlying brain circuitry supporting number sense or quantificational reasoning (e.g., from neuropsychological studies of patient groups, neuroimaging, and electrophysiological studies)? 
  • How do these systems relate to other brain systems involved in language? 
  • How do cross-linguistic differences in the organization (or presence/absence) of number vocabulary relate to non-linguistic processing of number?