By Charlotte Brookins
University of Iowa professor and neurophilosopher Carrie Figdor has been awarded a prestigious $234,000 grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to pursue research in bonobos and dolphins, specifically about whether they have proper names in their communication systems.
“It’s thrilling!” says Figdor on receiving the grant. “It’s great to have all of that come together in a successful grant, especially since interdisciplinary projects are hard to pull off.”
Figdor, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, works in the field of philosophy of psychology and neuroscience, philosophy of language, metaphysics, neuroethics, and media ethics. She has published multiple papers and a book.
With this award, Figdor will be able to focus on her research over the next three years, which extends the research published in her book, Pieces of Mind: The Proper Domain of Psychological Predicates, published by Oxford University Press in 2018. Examining the evolution of cognition from the perspective of phylogeny—the study of evolutionary history within groups of organisms—Figdor is studying the details of how language and other communication systems evolved over time.
“This is a broader question than asking about the evolution of human cognition specifically. Just as evolutionary biologists ask how all species evolved from a last universal common ancestor, they are also interested in knowing how particular features or traits came about,” she explains.
The grant will also help Figdor and her collaborators—primate researcher Francine Dolins (UM-Dearborn) and dolphin researchers Diana Reiss (CUNY-Hunter) and Brenda McGowan (UC-Davis)—break new ground in the realm of philosophy of cognition—the study of the fundamental nature of cognition regarding intelligence and existence.
“Interestingly, whether nonhuman communication systems include proper names is hardly explored— there are some suggestive studies and findings,” explains Figdor. “But no experimental work on whether at least some animal species use individualized sounds or signs the way we use the individualized sounds or signs we call ‘proper names.’ So, our research will break new ground.”
Figdor is especially grateful to the university for its role in supporting her research.
“For me, the most important feature of the University of Iowa leading to this grant is the generosity of the Board of Regents and the citizens of Iowa to provide faculty with sabbatical leave,” she says. “This grant would never have come about without the opportunities that my 2019-2020 sabbatical opened up for me.”