Current Research Projects


Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC)

ILLC research lines within the ABC

The Institute

The Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC) is a research institute of the University of Amsterdam in which researchers from the Faculty of Science (FNWI) and the Faculty of Humanities (FGW) collaborate. Research within the ILLC is focused on the fundamental principles of encoding, transmission, and comprehension of information. Emphasis is on natural and formal languages, but other information carriers, such as images and music, are studied as well. Research at ILLC is interdisciplinary, and aims to bring together insights from various disciplines concerned with information and information processing, such as logic, mathematics, computer science, linguistics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and philosophy.


Music Cognition and the Origins of Musicality  

Programme coordinator: Prof. dr. Henkjan Honing

Subject: Musicality in all its complexity can be defined as a natural, spontaneously developing set of traits based on and constrained by our cognitive abilities and their underlying biology. One critical challenge is to delineate the constituent elements of musicality. What cognitive mechanisms are essential for perceiving, appreciating and making music? At the ILLC the Music Cognition Group (MCG) group aims to arrive at a cognitive and biologically informed theory about the constituent features that underlie the human capacity for music. These insights can, next to raising public awareness of the shared human capacity of music, be expected to have an impact on music education and related curricula, as well as providing scientific support for the many functions that music can have, ranging from aesthetic, cultural and social to medical and therapeutic applications.

Key publications:

  • Honing, H., ten Cate, C., Peretz, I., & Trehub, S. E. (2015). Without it no music: cognition, biology and evolution of musicality. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 370(1664), 1-8.

  • Honing, H. (2013). Structure and interpretation of rhythm in music. In Deutsch, D. (ed.), Psychology of Music, 3rd edition (pp. 369-404). London: Academic Press / Elsevier.

  • Honing, H., Bouwer, F. L., & Háden, G. F. (2014). Perceiving temporal regularity in music: The role of auditory event-related potentials (ERPs) in probing beat perception. Merchant, H., & de Lafuente, V. (Eds). Neurobiology of interval timing, Series: Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology (pp. 305-323). Springer.

  • Winkler, I., Haden, G., Ladinig, O., Sziller, I., Honing, H. (2009). Newborn infants detect the beat in music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 2468-2471.


The social construction of conceptual space

Programme coordinator: Prof. dr. Robert van Rooij

Subject: With our use of language we can communicate relevant information in an efficient but still reliable way. The organizational principles of language (i.e. linguistic rules) and our ability to reason from what someone literally said to what he actually meant make this possible. The overall aim of this project is to come to a better understanding of why these reasoning principles and rules are what they are and how they are used in actual communication. We make use of behavioral models from economy and evolutionary principles from theoretical biology to develop a theory that can substantiate these hypotheses and that can explain specific linguistic phenomena and observed rules of interpretation. We employ decision theory and game theory to determine the actual interpretation of a sentence of which the meaning is underspecified by conventional linguistic rules. Evolutionary game theory and experimental techniques from artificial intelligence are used to investigate which rules of interpretation are more likely to emerge than others.

Key publications:

  1. T. Brochhagen, M. Franke & R. van Rooij (2016), Learning biases may prevent lexicalization of pragmatic inferences: a case study combining iterated (Bayesian) learning and functional selection',  CogSci 2016.

  2. K. de Jaegher & R. van Rooij (2014), Game theoretic pragmatics under conflicting and common interests, Erkenntnis, 7}: 769-820.

  3. M. Franke & R. van Rooij (2016), `Strategies of persuasion, manipulation and propaganda’, In J. van Benthem, S. Ghosh & R. Verbrugge (eds), Models of Strategic Reasoning, Logics, Games and Communication.


The Logic of Conceivability


Programme coordinator: Prof. Dr. Franz Berto


Subject: Our mind represents non-actual scenarios to extract information from them. We cannot experience beforehand which situations are or will be actual. So we explore them in our imagination, leaving our perceptions offline: ‘What would happen if...?’. The cognitive importance of this activity is hardly overestimated. But what is its logic? The orthodox logical treatment of representational mental states comes from modal logic’s possible worlds semantics: the modal analysis of knowledge, belief, information, was taken up by philosophy, linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence. However, the approach faces major problems. The Logic of Conceivability (LoC) project aims at dealing with them.

One major purely logical problem is that mainstream epistemic logics model cognitive agents as logically omniscient, thus as disconnected from the reality of human, fallible minds.

One major philosophical problem concerns the entailment from conceivability to so-called absolute possibility in ‘thought experiments’ of theoretical philosophy: how does conceiving a scenario give evidence of its possibility?

LoC will address such issues via the techniques of non-classical logics with non-normal worlds semantics.


Key publications:


Inquisitive semantics


Programme coordinator: Dr. Floris Roelofsen


Subject: Language is the primary means of human communication, and the main vehicle for scientific as well as common sense reasoning. The interpretation of linguistic expressions has been investigated extensively from various theoretical perspectives, ranging from linguistics and cognitive science to logic and philosophy. At the heart of this multi-faceted enterprise is a simple but powerful conception of meaning. Namely, the meaning of a sentence is taken to lie in its truth-conditions: one knows the meaning of a sentence if one knows under which circumstances the sentence is true, and under which it is false. This truth-conditional notion of meaning, however, has a fundamental shortcoming. Namely, while it is suitable for declarative statements, it does not apply to other sentence types, like questions, which are not naturally thought of as being true or false in a given situation.

Inquisitive semantics advances a new notion of meaning, one that generalizes the truth-conditional notion and allows for a uniform and integrated analysis of statements and questions. Since this switch in perspective takes place at such a basic level, it opens up new horizons for all disciplines that traditionally rely on the truth-conditional notion of meaning. But inquisitiveness remains to a large extent ill-understood. Which linguistic constructions give rise to inquisitiveness? How do various operators propagate the inquisitiveness of their argument? Which operators exploit the inquisitive content of their argument to produce truth-conditional effects? The inquisitive semantics group addresses these questions using both formal and experimental methods.


Key publications:

  • Ivano Ciardelli, Jeroen Groenendijk, and Floris Roelofsen. Inquisitive semantics: a new notion of meaning, Language and Linguistics Compass 7(9), 459-476, 2013.

  • Floris Roelofsen and Donka F. Farkas. Polarity particle responses as a window onto the interpretation of questions and assertions, Language, 91(2), 359-414, 2015.

  • Ivano Ciardelli, Floris Roelofsen, and Nadine Theiler. Composing alternatives, Linguistics and Philosophy 40(1), 1-36, 2017.


Cognitive and computational semantics


Programme coordinator: Dr. Jakub Szymanik


Subject: At the heart of the multi-faceted enterprise of formal semantics lies a simple yet powerful conception of meaning based on truth-conditions: one understands a sentence if one knows under which circumstances the sentence is true. This notion has been extremely fruitful resulting in a wealth of theoretical insights and practical applications. But to what extent can it also account for human linguistic behavior? The past decade has seen increasing interaction between cognitive science and formal semantics, and the emergence of the new field of experimental semantics. One of its main challenges is the traditional normative take on meaning, which makes semantic theories hard to compare with experimental data. The aim of this programme is to advance experimental semantics by building cognitive semantics, that is semantics founded on cognitive representations in addition to logical abstractions.


The programme specifically focuses on the phenomenon of quantification in natural language as numerical information plays a central role in communication. We talk about the number of students in a class, or the proportion of votes for a particular political party. Recent progress in the study of computational constraints on quantifier processing in natural language has laid the groundwork for extending semantic theory with cognitive aspects. In parallel, cognitive science has furthered the study of non-linguistic quantity representations. The programme will integrate formal models of quantifier semantics with cognitive representations of quantity in order to obtain a cognitive semantics of quantifiers, which is both logically precise and psychologically plausible.


Key publications:

  • Jakub Szymanik. Quantifiers and Cognition. Logical and Computational Perspectives, Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy, Springer, 2016.

  • Jakub Szymanik and Camilo Thorne. Semantic complexity influences quantifier distribution in corpora, Language Sciences, 2017.

  • Alistair Isaac, Jakub Szymanik, and Rineke Verbrugge. Logic and complexity in cognitive science, Johan van Benthem on Logical and Informational Dynamics, A. Baltag and S. Smets (Eds.), Outstanding Contributions to Logic, Vol. 5, 2014, pp. 787-824.


Dialogue Modelling


Programme coordinator: Dr. Raquel Fernández


Subject: Although we tend to take our conversational abilities for granted, spontaneous dialogue requires a substantial amount of linguistic, cognitive, and social skills. Uncovering how these hidden skills manifest themselves in language is of crucial importance to be able to understand human communication, to help people communicate more effectively, and to build computer systems that successfully interact with people using natural language. This research programme contributes to this fascinating challenge by specifically focusing on linguistic interaction in the presence of asymmetry, i.e., imbalances or mismatches between dialogue participants on three different dimensions: (i) linguistic abilities, as in child-adult dialogue; (ii) topical knowledge, as in interaction between experts and novices; and (iii) social roles, as in conversations between individuals with power differences. Looking into asymmetric settings provides a great opportunity for investigating the dynamic changes that linguistic interaction can potentially bring about — how do our choices of words and phrases contribute to language learning, to knowledge transfer, or to opinion shifts? We seek to answer such questions by exploiting theoretical insights from linguistics, psycholinguistics, and sociology and by applying sophisticated computational techniques to large amounts of data collected from real conversations. The research programme thus falls within the area of Dialogue Modelling, a research field devoted to the study of linguistic interaction that lies at the interface of theoretical and computational linguistics, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. Besides being of great scientific significance, the knowledge generated is also of wider societal relevance as it can inform the practical design of computer systems that assist humans with a variety of tasks through interactive natural language interfaces.




Key publications:

  • Raquel Fernández. Dialogue. In  The Oxford Handbook of Computational Linguistics, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 2014.

  • Sarah Hiller and Raquel Fernández. A Data-driven Investigation of Corrective Feedback on Subject Omission Errors in First Language Acquisition. In  Proceedings of the 20th SIGNLL Conference on Computational Natural Language Learning (CoNLL), 2016.

  • Bill Noble and Raquel Fernández. Centre Stage: How Social Network Position Shapes Linguistic Coordination. In  Proceedings of the 6th Workshop on Cognitive Modeling and Computational Linguistics, pp. 29-38, June 2015.


Cognition, Language & Communication


Programme coordinator: Dr. Willem Zuidema


Subject: A major challenge for both the language sciences and the field of artificial intelligence is how to reconcile observations about the uniqueness of language with those about the biological continuity of the underlying neural and genetic mechanisms. In the CLC-lab, we try to face this challenge head-on by developing models that do justice to insights from both traditions. These models include models of semantic and syntactic parsing (using various probabilistic grammar formalisms and deep neural network architectures), models of distributional semantics and brain decoding, models of artificial language learning, iterated learning and language evolution, and occasionally models of arithmetic, music and planning. The main focus of the lab is currently on using insights from these many modeling studies for understanding how the brain deals with the hierarchical structure of language.


Key publications:

  • Alhama, R. G. & Zuidema, W. (2016). Pre-Wiring and Pre-Training: What does a neural network need to learn truly general identity rules? Proceedings of the Workshop on Cognitive Computation: Integrating Neural and Symbolic Approaches.

  • Phong Le and Willem Zuidema (2014), The Inside-Outside Recursive Neural Network model for Dependency Parsing, Proceedings EMNLP’14.

  • Willem Zuidema, Language in Nature: on the Evolutionary Roots of a Cultural Phenomenon. In: Philippe Binder and Kenny Smith (eds.), The Language Phenomenon, Berlin: Springer (2013)




Cognitive Models of Language, Music and Vision

Programme coordinator: Prof. dr. Rens Bod

Subject: The human cognitive system organizes perceptual information into hierarchical descriptions that can be represented by tree structures. Tree structures have been used to describe linguistic, musical and visual perception. This research line investigates the commonalities between the different forms of perception and aims at developing a general underlying mechanism that governs all perceptual organization. Such a unified mechanism may solve a small part of Alan Newell's famous challenge to create a single model for all cognitive behavior.

Key publications:

  • A. van Cranenburgh, R. Scha & R, Bod, 2016. Data-Oriented Parsing with Discontinuous Constituents and Function Tags. Journal of Language Modelling, vol. 4(1), 57-111.

  • Bod, R. (2002). A Unified Model of Structural Organization in Language and Music. Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, 17(2002): 289-308.

  • Honingh, A. and R. Bod (2005). Convexity and the Well-formedness of Musical Objects. Journal of New Music Research, 34(3), 293-303.

  • S. Frank and R. Bod, 2011. Insensitivity of the Human Sentence-Processing System to Hierarchical Structure, Psychological Science, 22(6), 829-834.


Logic, psychology of reasoning, and the brain


Programme coordinator: Prof. dr. Michiel van Lambalgen


Subject: The main aim of the program is to show that logical languages can be fruitfully used as high-level specifications of cognitive functions, and mathematical logic can be used in explaining human reasoning behaviour. To achieve these goals, logical and computational models are paired with methods from empirical psychology and neuroscience in an innovative way. The empirical investigations concern both healthy and cognitively impaired subjects.


Key publications:

  • Blutner, K.R. (2004). Nonmonotonic inferences and neural networks. Synthese 141, 143-174.

  • Keith Stenning and Michiel van Lambalgen. Human Reasoning and Cognitive Science. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.

  • Baggio, G., van Lambalgen, M., & Hagoort, P. (2015). Logic as Marr's computational level: four case studies. Topics in Cognitive Science, 7(2), 287-298.

  • Alistair Isaac, Jakub Szymanik, and Rineke Verbrugge. Logic and complexity in cognitive science, Johan van Benthem on Logical and Informational Dynamics, A. Baltag and S. Smets (Eds.), Outstanding Contributions to Logic, Vol. 5, 2014, pp. 787-824.