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Animal Agency

This project will develop lines of investigation begun in our existing project on “Evolution, Rational Agency and Motivation.” The main focus will be on the interaction of normative and descriptive conceptual resources in recent advances in our understanding of animal behaviour and its relevance for conceptions of normativity in human agency.

These themes were addressed at the CSMN conferences “Human and Non-Human Animal Agency” (Oslo, April 2008) and “The Emergence of Intersubjectivity: Developmental, evolutionary and philosophical aspects” (Copenhagen, September 2009, in cooperation with the Danish Centre for Subjectivity Research). We shall draw on this work in the coming period. The rapid development of cognitive ethology in the past few decades is a paradigm case of interdisciplinary synergy, insofar as the striking development of cognitivism in ethology links up with advances in cognitive psychology generally, in evolutionary biology, and in neuroscience.


Our work will address the following issues:

  • What are the normative elements embedded in ethological descriptions and explanations of the behaviour of non-human animals, particularly in social and communicative behaviour? Is it possible to discern, through species comparison, a naturalistic “scale” of kinds of normativity, and to articulate developmental and evolutionary conditions for “full-blown” agent capacities, i.e., those manifested in rational, responsible action?
  • What are the operative application conditions of terms for cognitive and affective states in descriptions and explanations of animal behaviours of varying degrees of sophistication? In particular, what methodological safeguards have been developed to protect against interpretive bias and projection, in obtaining and assessing the relevant empirical evidence?
  • What can we learn from the study of (in particular) non-human primates, as well as infants, about the significance of the emergence of language for agent capacities? Is it possible to determine empirically which aspects of agency (affective as well as cognitive) are presupposed by linguistic communication, and which depend on it?

A focal point will be Tyler Burge’s recent major opus (2010), which promises to reframe philosophical discussion of the natural and evolutionary grounding of distinctively human normativity. We will also engage with Daniel Dennett’s rich account of the evolution of capacities of agency. Central throughout the project will be the scientific advances of leading researchers in the evolution and development of animal and infant behaviour (particularly Tomasello, Spelke, and Rochat). We will link this work with research on perceptual psychology and related issues developed in sub-project C. In investigating the relation between non-linguistic communicative capacities, the emergence of cooperative abilities, and the evolution and development of linguistic competence, this sub-project also connects closely with work in the Linguistic Agency branch in sub-projects Metarepresentation and Linguistic Competence

Published Jan. 20, 2012 2:20 PM - Last modified Apr. 9, 2015 1:24 PM