The Best Game in Town: The Re-Emergence of the Language of Thought Hypothesis Across the Cognitive Sciences

Behavioral and Brain Sciences:1-55 (forthcoming)
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Mental representations remain the central posits of psychology after many decades of scrutiny. However, there is no consensus about the representational format(s) of biological cognition. This paper provides a survey of evidence from computational cognitive psychology, perceptual psychology, developmental psychology, comparative psychology, and social psychology, and concludes that one type of format that routinely crops up is the language of thought (LoT). We outline six core properties of LoTs: (i) discrete constituents; (ii) role-filler independence; (iii) predicate-argument structure; (iv) logical operators; (v) inferential promiscuity; and (vi) abstract content. These properties cluster together throughout cognitive science. Bayesian computational modeling, compositional features of object perception, complex infant and animal reasoning, and automatic, intuitive cognition in adults all implicate LoT-like structures. Instead of regarding LoT as a relic of the previous century, researchers in cognitive science and philosophy of mind must take seriously the explanatory breadth of LoT-based architectures. We grant that the mind may harbor many formats and architectures, including iconic and associative structures as well as deep-neural-network-like architectures. However, as computational/representational approaches to the mind continue to advance, classical compositional symbolic structures—i.e., LoTs—only prove more flexible and well-supported over time.

Author Profiles

Jake Quilty-Dunn
Rutgers - New Brunswick
Nicolas Porot
Mohammed VI Polytechnic University
Eric Mandelbaum
CUNY Graduate Center


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