Workshop on the origins of the symbolic mind

Please see information about this week’s workshop below:

Workshop on the origins of the symbolic mind

Wednesday 16th November 2016
Northfield’s Campus, University of Wollongong
14:00-18:00, Research Hub (19.2072), Building 19

Dates for the first appearances of crucial technological innovations and symbolic material culture are continually being pushed back in time. This trend contradicts the theory that a mutation related to brain function caused a sudden and relatively recent cognitive revolution in our lineage. However, the alternative theory of gradual biological evolution may not fit the archaeological record, either. Traditions within populations are discontinuous in time and space, while independent populations can converge on common practices. Accordingly, there is a growing consensus that changes in the archaeological record of human behavior are better explained by changes in local conditions, such as ecology, demography, and culture.

What does this consensus tell us about the origins of symbolic cognition? Given increasingly older dates for key innovations and the shift in explanatory focus from internal biology to external factors, the mainstream argument is that cognitive modernity must be much older than previously thought. The workshop will critically evaluate the assumed identification of biological continuity with cognitive continuity. It will also consider to what extent cognitive capacities are innate and context independent, and will explore the tensions between such a nativist theory of cognition and recent developments in cognitive science, which emphasize that cognition is scaffolded, extended, and even constituted by behavioral practices. Contributions to this workshop will consider possible explanations of distinctive features of symbolic minds – explanations that may depend not only or mainly on having the right kind of biological capacities but more pivotally on transforming them via interaction with the appropriate culturally created local conditions.

This workshop brings together archaeologists and philosophers working at the University of Wollongong (UOW) to explore the implications of these developments for cognitive archaeology and for cognitive science more generally.


Alex Mackay, Senior Lecturer, ARC DECRA Fellow, Centre for Archaeological Science, UOW
Sam Lin, Lecturer, Centre for Archaeological Science, UOW
Zenobia Jacobs, Professor, ARC QEII Research Fellow, Centre for Archaeological Science, UOW
Tom Froese, Vice Chancellor’s International Scholar, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, UOW
Daniel D. Hutto, Professor of Philosophical Psychology, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, UOW

All welcome.

Talk on genuine intersubjectivity at UOW, Australia

I was awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s International Scholar Award to come to the University of Wollongong in Australia from Oct 3 to Dec 3 this year. The aim of my visit is to integrate Dan Hutto and his group’s work on radical enactive philosophy of mind at the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry with the empirical work on the earliest symbolic expressions conducted by members of the university’s Center for Archaeological Science.

As part of my stay here I am scheduled to give a public seminar on my research into social interaction. Here is the announcement:

Title/Topic: When me and you are more than two: Searching for the conditions of genuine intersubjectivity
Speaker: Dr. Tom Froese (National Autonomous University of Mexico; UOW VISA Fellow)
Time: 3.30 to 5.00pm
Place: 19.2072 (Research Hub)
Contact: Michael Kirchhoff (

Abstract: The most meaningful experiences in our lives derive much of their significance from being shared with other people. However, is it actually possible to share a moment such that there are two subjects of one experience? Mainstream cognitive science is forced to reject this possibility of genuine intersubjectivity because another person can only play an instrumental role in the generation of one’s experience. Essentially, our experiences with family, friends, and loved ones do not involve them at all; these experiences are ultimately constituted by mental representations in one’s mind for which they can, at best, serve as an external cause or trigger. In this talk I question the validity of this solipsistic approach. Drawing on insights from dynamical systems modeling, I consider the basic conditions that would allow interacting individuals to become transformed into one integrated system with collective properties. I then present the latest evidence from psychological experiments that investigate the role that social interaction plays in shaping our awareness of other minds. I conclude that there is nothing mysterious about the possibility of genuine intersubjectivity.