Animal Cognition and Philosophy

There is a great philosophy paper about animal cognition here. It covers a lot of familiar ground for evolutionary linguists but there is some great discussion of metacognition experiments and a pretty comprehensive list of all of the most important animal behavior papers of the last thirty years. Well worth reading for newcomers and experts alike.

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2 Responses to “Animal Cognition and Philosophy”


  1. 1 Chris January 19, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Great blog! I found this via Psycholinguistics Arena‘s blog post aggregator.

    Let me pose a question that will at first make me sound high, but which is actually quite a serious question about animal cognition: do dogs have truth?

    In other words, is the concept of truth/falsity unique to human cognition? Is there a case where an animal like a dog can be said to have the cognitive experience of believing X is false?

    Truth/falsity is critical to human language, just consider counterfactuals and negative verbs.

  2. 2 languageevolution January 27, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    This is where my shaky grasp of semantics means I don’t really have a clear opinion of my own. My best answer is to point you to pages 114-117 of James R. Hurford’s brilliant book ‘The Origins of Meaning’ (2007). He argues that yes, indeed, animals can be said to have a logical sense of truth and falsification. He argues that inner psychological states are best represented as a hierachy, not an absolute. Given this definition then some animal mental states exhibit many of the characteristics of some of the characteristics of human consciousness.
    So an animal can be said to have a false belief if say, a cat, is lured with a piece of string. The cat belives the string to be prey, and we can reasonably assert this to be a false belief when judged against the norms of behaviour we have observed in that animal. Clearly animals do not seemingly demonstrate the metacognition that we possess (they cannot seemingly know that they know this to be a false belief), but this is not the same thing. This is by no means a complete solution and is still problematic if you want to search for human levels of semantic experience. But it still seems reasonable to say that a dog exepriences a mental state that corresponds with the conceptual experience that we call truth/falsity.
    I’ve probably really badly paraphrased Hurford, and if you want to follow his argument in detail then I’d really recommend getting the book.


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