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Human cognition is augmented through social interaction. We learn through testimony, we acquire concepts from others, we share theories, and we build knowledge in teams. We pass this knowledge across generations and over time our understanding improves. It would appear to be the case that no other animals do this.

How do we do it?

This is the question on which my research focuses – what we might call the cognitive foundations of social epistemology. It has proceeded along three strands. The first explores the origins of cooperative communication (how we inform each other), the second strand explores the impact of social interaction on cognition (how we help each other to think), and the third explores the ways in which groups interact to create ideas and theories (how we create new knowledge together). Here is a brief overview of my research in these three areas.  

1. Origins of Informative Communication: Touching, Pointing, Labeling


Informative communication begins with pointing gestures – these are the first referring gestures produced by children. But why do children begin pointing when they do, and how does this first informative gesture develop into verbal reference? My work aims to answer the first question by showing that pointing emerges from touch, which becomes ritualized through interaction with parents into pointing gestures (4). For the second question, my work explores how some features of language inherit their semantics from the spatial semantics of pointing, specifically our use of labels, demonstratives, and indexicals (1, 2, 3).

Relevant papers/studies:



O'Madagain, C. (2014). When Shapes and Sounds become Words: Indexicals and the Metaphysics of Semantic Tokens. Thought - A Journal of Philosophy, 3 (1): 71–79 pdf


O'Madagain, C. (MS) Statues, Stones and Demonstrative Thought (under review) pdf


O'Madagain, C. (MS) This is a paper about Demonstratives (under review) pdf


O'Madagain, C. Stoeber, G. Strickland B. (under review) The Origin of Pointing: Evidence for the Touch Hypothesis (results presented at SRCD 2015, ESPP 2016, Reading XPhi conference 2016, pdf

2. Social Interaction and Cognition


In what ways does social interaction augment our cognition? In ‘Davidson, Husserl and the Social Origin of Objectivity’ (5) I argue that social interaction may augment our ability to recognize that the world includes aspects that we cannot perceive, beginning with the reverse sides of objects in our immediate vicinity, and ultimately including our understanding that there are objective facts about the world that we could be wrong about. In a theoretical paper with Michael Tomasello I develop the view that at the highest level, interaction allows us to engage in joint attention and thereby collaboration on mental representations themselves, which we suggest plays a crucial role in our acquisition of explicit reason (6). And in two studies on metacognition in young children and apes, I explore the development of our ability to keep track of conflicts in our beliefs and between our own beliefs the beliefs of others (7, 8).


Relevant papers/studies:



O'Madagain, C. (2015). Davidson and Husserl on the Social Origin of Objectivity (In T. Szanto and D. Moran (eds) Discovering the We: the Phenomenology of Sociality, Routledge pdf


O'Madagain, C, and Tomasello, M. (under review) Joint Attention to Mental Content and the Social Origin of Reasoning. pdf


O'Madagain, C. Schmidt, M., Call, J. and Tomasello, M. A New Paradigm for Metacognition (in progress, with children and apes).


O'Madagain, C. Helming K, Shupe E, Call, J. and Tomasello M. When do we Acquire the Concept of Objectivity? (in progress, study with children and apes).

3. Groups, Concepts, and Collaborative Reasoning


When we  collaborate, we can perform tasks more efficiently than when we act individually – both practical but also cognitive tasks. How does human society take advantage of this? Here I explore this question in a number of ways. First, I explore how we some of the concepts that we work with are inherited from others - from experts, or sometimes even from our community as a whole (9). I argue that our ability to take advantage of other's concepts greatly expands what I call our 'epistemic load' - how much knowledge we are capable of having as individuals, and as a result as a community (10, 11). In a paper with Paul Égré, we explore what it might mean for one concept to be better than another, and hence why we would have an advantage in deferring to experts (12), with a new account of conceptual norms that draws on epistemic utility theory. And in a study with Daniel Haun, I explore whether we are capable of recognizing when to defer to majority opinions and when not to (13).



O'Madagain, C. (2014) Can Groups have Concepts? Semantics for Collective Intentionality. Philosophical                 Issues, a supplement to Nous, 24 (1): 347–363. pdf


O'Madagain, C. (2014) Group Agents: Persons, Mobs or Zombies? International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 22:2, 2012. pdf


O'Madagain, C. (2016). Outsourcing Concepts: Deference, Extended Mind, and Expanding our Epistemic                  Capacity (forthcoming in A. Clark and D. Pritchard (eds) Socially Extended Knowledge, Oxford University                    Press) pdf


Egre, P. and O'Madagain, C. (under review) Concept Utility pdf.


O'Madagain, C. "Six million people can't be wrong": The Wisdom of the Crowd Fallacy (with D. Haun, in progress; results presented at ESPP, St. Andrews 2016). View poster of results here


Walmsley J. and O'Madagain, C. (in progress) The Worst Motive Fallacy.



Cathal O'Madagain,
Feb 21, 2017, 8:44 AM