The Origins of the Human Mind

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2021

Susan E. Carey (Department of Psychology) 
Freshman Seminar 71F  4 credits (spring term)  Enrollment:  Limited to 12

The adult human mind is a unique phenomenon on earth. Only people can ponder the causes of and cures for global warming or pancreatic cancer, and can think thoughts about molecules, genes, democracy... Animals, and human infants, do not have most of the 500,000 concepts expressed by words in English. How does the human mind work, and how can we understand how it came to be, with its vast repertoire of concepts from which we routinely compose thoughts? Seminar participants will explore together the origins and development of human knowledge in the individual child, in relation to two larger time scales: biological evolution and historical/cultural development. We will begin with several case studies, including case studies of the origin of a perceptual ability (depth perception), and of the concepts natural number and agent and mind. These case studies illustrate how all of the disciplines within the cognitive sciences, as well as anthropological, archeological and historical disciplines, shed light on these issues and establish that these perceptual and conceptual capacities have deep evolutionary roots. The main focus will be on experimental work from psychology. We will then turn to two case studies chosen by the participants in the seminar, chosen to illuminate human uniqueness (candidate topics include the origin of moral concepts, of logic, or of language). At the end of this seminar students will have a grasp of the theoretical debates about the nature of the human mind that have animated philosophy since the time of the Greek philosophers, as well as why considerations of the origins of the mind were always seen as central to these debates.

Prerequisites: Students taking this seminar should have an interest in learning about the cognitive sciences, which draw primarily from linguistics, analytic philosophy, computer science, and experimental psychology.

See also: Spring 2021