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Project description

From language and memory, to music and narrative – humans display the ability to create and understand complicated sequences. This project proposes that this syntactical ability lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

Primary participants

Principal Investigators:
Professor Rob Barton, Anthropology, 
Professor Zanna Clay, Psychology, 

Professor Andy Byford, Modern Languages and Cultures, 

Visiting IAS Fellows: 

Syntactical Structures (Michaelmas Term 2024)

Underpinning key traits of the human species – language and technology, mindreading and causal reasoning, cumulative culture, aesthetic creation – is a remarkable ability to produce and process syntactical structures. While the concept of syntax has been developed foremost in the study of language, this project proposes that language represents but one manifestation of a more general capacity for syntax.

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Michaelmas Term 2024

From language and memory, to music and narrative – humans display a remarkable ability to create and understand complicated sequences. Every day, we effortlessly combine thousands of actions, thoughts and objects to create complex artefacts, explanations, and aesthetic forms, from tying a shoelace to telling a story, from appreciating a melody to cooking a meal.  The project team proposes that this syntactical ability lies at the heart of what it means to be human. This project presents a theory with testable hypotheses about how human activities, artefacts, cultures and aesthetic forms are created and organised; about the specialised human capacities that support this; about how these capacities evolved; and about the universal processes that generate them. Even more broadly, it is also a critical analysis of how different disciplinary perspectives on the syntactical basis of phenomena such as literary narratives, reasoning, music, and autobiographical memories, can enrich one another. Through an adventurous interdisciplinary exploration of the sequential nature of the human condition, this project will open up new avenues of enquiry about the role of syntactical structure spanning cognitive and cultural domains, including literature, music, and dance. By doing so, it will shed new light on the human mind, cultural evolution, and aesthetics.



This project’s ambition is to assemble a unifying theory of ‘syntax’ that would articulate its general significance for multiple disciplines. Key to achieving this is the development of interdisciplinary dialogue across the many domains in which syntactical structure plays a vital part. The Project Team will draw on a range of disciplines, including cognitive science, literary analysis, anthropology, musicology, computer science, philosophy and history of science. By bringing these distinct areas of inquiry together, they aim to develop a new, synthetic, vision of syntactical structures which they  posit as a basis both for conceptualizing the uniqueness of our species and for explaining its impressive cultural and ecological expansion, as well as its extraordinary imaginative abilities, behavioural flexibility and dazzling cultural diversity. The project is organized into four interlocking themes:


  • Mind, brain, cognition (weeks 2-3):
    The project starts by investigating the topic of serial ordering within cognitive science and comparative psychology in order to rethink some of these fields’ fundamental, yet often uncritically used, concepts and ontologies. Here, they are here interested in questioning the very idea of a cognitive ‘mechanism’, as well as of the modelling of brain structure and function through concepts such as ‘modularity’, ‘domain specificity’, and ‘executive control’. The advent of ‘4E cognition’ represents an exciting new direction in the cognitive sciences that could help resolve the mind-body problem through the integration of embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended cognitive processes. They will explore the opportunities that 4E cognition offers to expand the theory of serial ordering and syntax and its role in cognitive evolution. Central to our analysis of syntactical structures is the historical and cultural context of concepts relating to the organisation of the mind and mental properties. Mental concepts and categories are often modelled on culture-specific and historically contingent preoccupations (e.g., ‘executive control’) and technologies (e.g., computers), providing a strong argument for considering historical and cultural contexts of these ideas. Part of our discussion will thus focus on the philosophical history of where and how, in what conceptual forms, and in which epistemic and cultural contexts, ‘syntax’ emerged as a way of accounting for what is distinctive or unique about the human mind and behaviour. This will enable a robust reflexive examination of the epistemic, cultural or ideological assumptions that this particular framing entails, and how this then informs some of our present models and ideas.
  • Learning, culture, evolution (weeks 4-5): Whatever neural systems and cognitive dynamics enabled humans to comprehend and execute syntactically organised actions, they hugely enhanced social learning, providing the cognitive preconditions for the efflorescence of diverse cultural forms. These range from ritualistic movements that promote bonding and intersubjective synchrony, to complex skills that have generated the myriad of arts and technologies over time. However, there is still a lack of understanding of precisely how the capacity to learn and comprehend ordered sequences translates into the distinctive human capacity for cumulative culture, expression, and imagination. Through interdisciplinary discussion, the team will go beyond simplistic definitions of culture as ‘socially learned information’ and generate new ways of understanding syntactical structuring as not simply an auxiliary scaffolding for the encoding of meaning in cultural forms and artefacts, but as, in fact, decisive for understanding both cultural stability and change.

  • Narrativity, causality, meaning (weeks 6-7): Nowhere is the human capacity for combining events into complex hierarchical chains of causal relations more apparent than in narratives. Narratives shape both fictional and factual accounts; they are central to both science and literature; they lie at the core of individual, highly personal, dreams and memories as well as collective, eminently public, histories and political messages. In other words, narrative underlies both our subjectivity and our sociality. As Carrithers (1992) argues, “Narrativity distinguishes humans from other species and is key to understanding our complex social world…it consists not merely in telling stories, but of understanding complex nets of deeds and attitudes”. On this view, we are Homo narrans, a creature who understands and shapes our world through narratives and stories. Narratives are not always linear:  the creative and playful capacities of narrative structure, from circuitous plotting and unexpected endings to time travel and the construction of parallel universes, may be seen as experiments in causality, veritable laboratories in which theoretical questions about the philosophy of temporality, subjectivity and consciousness are developed. Here, we will focus on how humans use narrative syntax to make sense of the world and exert influence over it.

  • Aesthetics, music, dance (weeks 8-9): Temporal sequences form the core basis of many aesthetic forms, including those in which narrativity may not at first seem explicit. Homologies such as violations of expected expressive sequence structures in music and dance, causing surprise or stimulating sensations in the audience, are similarly important artistic devices. Can the hierarchical sequencing of language and music be explained in terms of different uses of the same mental mechanisms and bodily affordances?  Here, they ask how far parallels in the notion of syntactical structure, including its computational description, can be taken in the realm of art, focusing on music and dance. Building on the findings of the preceding weeks and extending its impact to a wider audience, the team will organise a dance performance with musical accompaniment in collaboration with the music department and student dance society, followed by commentary and discussion including the performers reflections on the experience of learning and performing sequences. The event will serve to exemplify the various issues tackled by a project, intertwining questions of embodiment with the social role of culture, and linking compositionality with narrativity.

Building on the format of an earlier workshop series supported by the IAS and a Research Development Project,  the team will commence with an introductory and orientation week, followed by fortnightly thematic presentations and structured discussions; team members will alternate weekly to lead further discussion and reflection to expand on themes and develop further insights to guide and take the project forward. Each theme will be led by a specialist drawn from our team, with IAS Fellows and visiting scholars playing a critical role. This gives flexibility to adjust how each theme is approached, with continuous reflection on the interdisciplinary process. It also creates ample opportunity between workshops for team members and IAS Fellows to develop some of the concrete objectives,  as well as given the project's IAS Fellows opportunity to engage in wider university activities and collaborations. 


Events and Activities: