CFS Lecture by Hannes Rakoczy: Representing regularities and rules - how human children and non-human primates carve up the world

Lecture by Hannes Rakoczy, Institute of Psychology, University of Göttingen, Germany.


Much recent research in cognitive development has shown that the core of our adult way of viewing the natural world is already in place early in ontogeny. Even infants conceive of their environment as made up of enduring objects and governed by general regularities that they swiftly infer from limited observations.

In this talk, I will first report new comparative work showing far-reaching commonalities in these core cognitive capacities in human children and non-human primates. Just like human infants, non-human primates engage in basic forms of intuitive statistical reasoning and inductive learning of regularities. And they do not just reason about regularities and relations of superficial features of objects and events. Rather, much like human children, apes are psychological essentialists: they individuate objects according to their deep, essential properties that are responsible for their identity and that are more informative for predicting and explaining the regularities in the objects’ behavior than surface features.

In the second part, I will report new developmental work that shows that young children’s inductive learning crucially goes beyond that of non-human primates in not being confined to carving the world at its statistical joints. Human inductive learning is not only about the extraction of descriptive regularities. Rather, from very early in development, children swiftly engage in rational inductive learning of prescriptive rules and norms from limited observations – learning about what one ought to do rather than about what generally happens. In several domains (such as pretend play, games, language use, ownership, morality), young children have been found to infer, understand and actively enforce agent-neutral rules applying to themselves and others alike. Their grasp of such norms is rather sophisticated: they understand, for example, that such norms are context-relative and arbitrary to a greater or lesser degree and that some such rules (so-called constitutive ones) actually bring into existence socially constructed objects and facts; and their reasoning about such social norms is systematically integrated with other forms of social cognition such as Theory of Mind from early on– in contrast, for example, to strong modularist claims about different forms of social cognition.

Humans and other primates thus share a basic natural worldview – conceiving of the world as made up of natural objects defined by their essential properties and governed by general regularities. Humans’ core worldview, however, goes far beyond this in including distinctively social and normative categories: The world as even young children think of it consists of natural objects and those constituted by social rules and practices alike, and is governed by natural regularities as much as by prescriptive rules.