Think About It
Through the lenses of science and philosophy, student-faculty research explores animal cognition
by Tony Moore
Somewhere in the chasm between a simple animal reaction to the world and using language to express views on the world lies the ability to think about it.
Since St. Anselm in the 11th century, scientists and philosophers have been pondering what it means to have one's thoughts actually be about something—which they refer to as "intentionality." The inquiry has often led to a key question: Besides humans, exactly what animals have the cognitive ability needed to generate such thoughts?
Now Assistant Professor of Philosophy Chauncey Maher and Molly Mullane '15, a philosophy and anthropology double major, are exploring the subject for an upcoming book.
"Many nonhuman animals exhibit sophisticated cognitive skills," says Maher, who has focused recent research on the question of intentionality. The ability of New Caledonian crows to fashion tools to retrieve food and honeybees' ability to communicate about the location of sources of nectar, he says, "raise a significant philosophical question: Which animals have inner states that 'stand for,' or represent, things in the environment? What sorts of evidence would show such a thing?"
Humans use pictures, sentences and maps to represent other things. The summer research is aimed at finding out, through secondary sources, whether any nonhuman animals work on some level with signifiers such as these.
"I have always been interested in cognitive science and the more empirical side of philosophy," Mullane says. "I've taken several classes that have touched on aspects of our research, and I have specifically studied intentionality before, but the research I've been doing this summer is much more empirically focused than anything I have done in class."
When the summer is over, Maher will be a few steps closer to an introductory book on intentionality that he intends to write with a colleague at New York's New School for Social Research. "Our basic aim will be to clarify the different things one might mean in claiming that some animal or other thinks about the world," he says. "Ideally, not just students of philosophy, but anyone interested in animal cognition, could learn from and enjoy it."
2013 Summer student-faculty research