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What is Symbolic Cognition?

  • Ronald J. PlanerEmail author


Humans’ capacity for so-called symbolic cognition is often invoked by evolutionary theorists, and in particular archaeologists, when attempting to explain human cognitive and behavioral uniqueness. But what is meant by “symbolic cognition” is often left underspecified. In this article, I identify and discuss three different ways in which the notion of symbolic cognition might be construed, each of them quite distinct. Getting clear on the nature of symbolic cognition is a necessary first step in determining what symbolic cognition might plausibly explain.


Symbolic cognition The evolution of language Inner speech Language of thought Meaning conventions 



I would like to thank Kim Sterelny and Lauren Reed for comments on an early draft of this article. I would also like to thank the anonymous referees for their feedback.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author reports no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Philosophy and Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of LanguageThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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