2000 William James Fellow Award

Elizabeth S. Spelke

Harvard University

Psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists have long wondered how much of human knowledge is learned and how much is present at birth. Until recently this question was addressable only via thought experiments. The pioneering work of Elizabeth Spelke has provided elegant empirical research addressing these issues. Based on her work we now know that infants as young as 3- and 4- months, much like adults, understand that the world is composed physical object that are solid, substantial, continuous in time and space, and interact with one another by contact and force transmission. Spelke’s research demonstrates the remarkable capacity of infants to predict movement and to understand characteristics of objects that could not be derived from their experience in the world. The “Spelke object” is what the infant has innately. In the process of demonstrating these fundamentally important points about native knowledge, Spelke has developed techniques of studying infants’ beliefs that are far more probative than might have been imagined only a short time ago.

Spelke’s work begins to answer perennial philosophical questions about the origins of human knowledge about space objects, motion, unity, persistence, identity and number. The infant appears to know much more about these things than all but a few philosophers and psychologist would have guessed. Spelke’s research shows that psychological research in cognitive psychology can address some of the most fundamental questions about human nature.