animal cognition

course description

When philosophers have attempted to define human nature, it is often by reference to or contrast with that of animals. And yet the most natural way to understand animal minds is by comparing their abilities to (what we think we know about) our own. Our thinking about animal minds thus seems trapped between two biases: viewing animals as wordless, furry versions of ourselves (anthropomorphism), and holding that animal thought is only rational, interesting, or otherwise valuable insofar as it resembles human cognition (anthropocentrism). These doubts can leave us wondering whether a rigorous empirical study of animal cognition in its own right is even possible.

In the first half of this course, we will review the study of animal thought from the Ancients to the current explosion of empirical work on animal cognition. We will begin with the debates about human nature in Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, continue to survey the notion of the wordless "brute" caught in the debate between the rationalists and empiricists, the dramatic way that Darwin's theory of evolution changed the terms of the debate, the foundations of comparative psychology in Morgan and Romanes, the arguments of the radical behaviorists, and finally the cognitive revolution against the behaviorist's epistemological strictures.

In the second half, we will explore particular debates regarding specific cognitive capacities in current animal cognition research. The empirical study of animal cognition today is a highly interdisciplinary field—with crucial contributions by psychologists, ethologists, philosophers, and biologists—that aspires to use well-designed experiments to overcome the biases of anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. However, there remain a variety of philosophical challenges facing the field, such as whether folk psychology (appealing to contentful mental states like beliefs and desires) provides a viable framework for the empirical study of animal psychology, whether animals have consciousness, whether animal cognition can be studied in the lab or only in the wild, and whether neuroscience might provide additional purchase on these issues. We will conclude the course by discussing the ways in which these issues arise in several debates over particular animal cognitive capacities, such as tool use, episodic memory, theory of mind, transitive inference, and metacognition.