Cognitive Processing

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 77–88 | Cite as

How to reason without words: inference as categorization

  • Ronaldo Vigo
  • Colin Allen
Research Report


The idea that reasoning is a singular accomplishment of the human species has an ancient pedigree. Yet this idea remains as controversial as it is ancient. Those who would deny reasoning to nonhuman animals typically hold a language-based conception of inference which places it beyond the reach of languageless creatures. Others reject such an anthropocentric conception of reasoning on the basis of similar performance by humans and animals in some reasoning tasks, such as transitive inference. Here, building on the modal similarity theory of Vigo [J Exp Theor Artif Intell, 2008 (in press)], we offer an account in which reasoning depends on a core suite of subsymbolic processes for similarity assessment, discrimination, and categorization. We argue that premise-based inference operates through these subsymbolic processes, even in humans. Given the robust discrimination and categorization abilities of some species of nonhuman animals, we believe that they should also be regarded as capable of simple forms of inference. Finally, we explain how this account of reasoning applies to the kinds of transitive inferences that many nonhuman animals display.


Animal cognition Categorization Learning Reasoning Similarity 



We wish to thank Junko Obayashi and members of the Indiana University Biology Studies Reading Group for their suggestions and encouragement while preparing this manuscript. Elisabeth Lloyd and Robert Treichler provided helpful written comments. Both of the authors benefitted from the comments and questions following presentation of these ideas to the IU Logic Seminar, and C.A. also acknowledges the useful questions and comments from audiences at the Universities of Bonn, Memphis, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. We thank Holger Lyre at University of Bonn and the journal referees for encouragement and comments. Finally, C.A. deeply regrets that he never met Brendan McGonigle in person nor did Professor McG. live to see a long-promised draft of this paper due to his sudden death at the end of 2007. His energetic, enthusiastic, and challenging emails on the topic of transitive inference will be missed, but his seminal work remains.


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Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceCognitive Science Program, Indiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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