Brainy ideas

Tufts is a ‘serious player’ in the field of cognitive science

How does the mind work? When you are sitting in a concert hall listening to a piece of music, do you hear it the same way the person next to you does? Does a cup of coffee taste the same to everyone? And when we speak, how do we understand each other, make meaning of words or form sentences and ideas?

Ray Jackendoff © MELODY KO

Cognitive science is perhaps the consummate interdisciplinary subject, drawing on philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience and other fields to understand an enormously complex issue: how the brain works.

For a number of years Tufts has boasted faculty from many disciplines whose work focuses on cognitive research, but the university has never offered a program or major in the field. The university’s Center for Cognitive Studies is primarily research-based. Last year, linguist Ray Jackendoff was recruited from Brandeis to join Tufts, where he is the Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy. With his presence, Provost Jamshed Bharucha said, it may be time to offer a major in cognitive science.

“Ray Jackendoff is one of the pre-eminent linguists of our time,” said Bharucha. “He has also made seminal contributions to a wide range of areas within the interdisciplinary field that is called cognitive science. His work has had an impact on philosophy, psychology, anthropology and music, in addition to linguistics. He is quite extraordinary in his interdisciplinary approach, even while being recognized as a leader in his discipline. For example, his work on music theory is a landmark work and the definitive work on the relationship between music and language.”

Classic and classical
That work is A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (MIT Press, 1983), which Jackendoff wrote with Fred Lerdahl of Columbia University. The book aims to construct a grammar of music based on linguistics. It has become a classic in music theory.

A classical clarinetist, Jackendoff has performed as soloist with the Boston Pops and several other Boston-area orchestras; for 20 years, he was principal clarinet of the Civic Symphony Orchestra of Boston. With pianist Valentina Sandu-Dediu, he has recorded a CD, “Romanian Music for Clarinet and Piano.”

The co-author of a classic work in music theory, Ray Jackendoff is also a classical clarinetist. © MELODY KO

Bharucha said Jackendoff is an “excellent fit” as he joins Daniel Dennett, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, as a co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies. “We have a strong presence in cognitive science already,” Bharucha said, “and adding Ray adds to the critical mass that makes Tufts a serious player in the field.”

Jackendoff has had a busy first year. Along with Phillip Holcomb, professor of psychology, he organized an undergraduate introductory cognitive science course, which was taught by a team of 12 faculty members from the departments of Psychology, Philosophy, Child Development and Computer Science. Last spring, Jackendoff and Maryanne Wolf, professor of child development and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, arranged a workshop for elementary and middle school teachers on infusing their curricula with linguistics. The idea, said Jackendoff, is to give teachers knowledge about issues of language and language acquisition as well as tools for dealing with children who speak non-standard dialects and those with reading disabilities.

System of meanings
Jackendoff initially set out to be a mathematician, and he majored in math as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College. But he decided he was cut out for something else, and applied to graduate schools for linguistics. He earned his Ph.D. from MIT, where he studied under Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle. He had been a faculty member at Brandeis since 1971.

“My central interest,” he said, “is the system of meanings that language expresses. I take from the central tenets of modern linguistics that meanings reside in the minds of speakers, and that’s really quite different from the philosophical tradition. It seems to be a central assumption of most of the philosophical traditions that you can speak of the meaning of a sentence independently of the minds of speakers who use the sentence.

“Also, there’s another idea that there’s nothing to meaning other than the context in which it’s used, so that it’s a social phenomenon. I’m saying that in order for it to be a social phenomenon, the users of language have to have something in their heads that they think they’re communicating.”

For Jackendoff, coming to Tufts meant a chance to join some distinguished colleagues he already knew, including Dennett, whom he has known for 20 years. “For most of that time,” he said, “we’ve been part of—I don’t know if you’d call it a salon—but about half a dozen people get together every month or two to discuss interdisciplinary issues, and this has been a terrific experience for me.” Joining Dennett and Jackendoff at the get-togethers are people from Harvard, MIT, the New School in Manhattan and Olin College. Provost Bharucha is now a member.

Jackendoff’s newest book, Language, Culture, Consciousness: Essays on Mental Structure, is scheduled for release by the MIT Press in June 2007. The publisher calls the book “a breakthrough in developing an integrated theory of human cognition.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at