"Symbolic Systems as
Explanations of Perception"
Abstract: The learning of symbolic systems that represent abstract domains like time and number is often explained as a type of inductive process, whereby children compose abstract concepts from simpler, primitive, building blocks. Often, these building blocks are presumed to be perceptual: Number word meanings are constructed from representations of objects or approximate magnitudes, and time words are constructed from the perception of duration and events. In this talk, I argue that this general approach is misguided, and that perceptual systems do not supply the building blocks from which abstract concepts of number and time are constructed. Instead, I argue that these systems were created by humans precisely because of the inscrutability of number and time to our perceptual systems – i.e., in order to describe and explain phenomena that would otherwise be unavailable to our senses. As evidence for this idea, I show that children’s first meanings of time words – like minute, hour, and day – do not encode perception of duration, but instead are defined in terms of one another – i.e., as part of a logic, which only gets mapped onto perception years later. Similarly, I show that children acquire the logic of number words – and how they are related – before they reliably map number words to perception, and that even when these mappings emerge, they are malleable and created on the fly, rather than being constitutive of number word meanings.