Undergraduate Program

Topics in Dialog: Language and Thought

Course: CSC  260
Term: Spring 2011-2012

 Instructors: James Allen and Greg Carlson

Here is the Syllabus: Spring2011 syllabus


There is clearly a connection between natural language and thinking, though researchers differ on how closely connected the two are. This course will explore the literature on what natural language reveals about our thinking and reasoning processes. We will consider theories and explore how they relate to issues both of linguistic semantics and computational semantics. One of the key tools we’ll use to evaluate theories is entailment -- do the models provide insight into how we can determine whether one sentence entails another. Closely issues related to this is the computational goal of building a comprehensive common-sense knowledge base by reading sources such as dictionary definitions and encyclopedias such as wikipedia. Reading will be drawn from many fields including Philosophy, Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Arti-ficial Intelligence.

Rather than attempting a comprehensive survey of the literature, we plan to focus on a few se-lected issues in depth, taking several weeks for each topic. Here’s a sampling of issues we’ll con-sider:

- What does a language reveal about core conceptualizations such as space, time, causality, prob-ability, the nature of stuff, motivation, and other seemingly core concepts.

- Since definitions define word meanings in terms of other word meanings, there’s a risk of defi-nitions becoming circular (and in fact, you’ll find that most dictionaries are). Do we need a set of primitive concepts to which all others are defined? are circular definitions useful as is? How are such definitions grounded?

- What is the nature of events as described in natural language, how are they structured and how do we individuate them? The course will consists of weekly discussion groups based on selected papers.

Beyond the common core of readings assigned each week, students will be expected to read additional pa-pers and to give short presentations on them. Each student will also do an individual research project on a topic determined in consultation with the instructors.