Professor awarded David E. Rumelhart Prize

Ray Jackendoff, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and Seth Merrin professor of philosophy, was named the 2014 recipient of the David E. Rumelhart Prize on Aug. 2. Jackendoff is the first theoretical linguist to win the prize awarded by the Cognitive Science Society.

“We are all proud of [Jackendoff] and think it is not just deserved, but overdue,” Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett, Jackendoff’s co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, said. “It’s a very distinguished group of people that have won the Rumelhart award, and none [is] more distinguished than [Jackendoff].”

Considered a premier cognitive science award, the Rumelhart Prize recognizes those who have offered important contributions to the theoretical foundations of human cognition. The prize is named after David Rumelhart, a prominent cognitive scientist from the 1980s, and offers a $100,000 prize.

Next summer’s Cognitive Science Society meeting will feature a symposium organized around Jackendoff’s work, where he will also lecture.

Jackendoff has published several influential books on his theories of linguistics, philosophy and cognitive science, according to Associate Professor of Psychology Aniruddh Patel. Jackendoff’s book, “A Generative Theory of Tonal Music,” was the first sophisticated look at how music processing works in the mind and became a landmark in the field of music cognition, he said. Patel explained that the book applied the conceptual and analytical tools of linguists to the field of music in a new way.

“[Jackendoff] has written many influential books, and he has written in a way that really reaches across disciplines,” Patel said. “He is read and understood by many people who aren’t coming from a specialized field.”

According to Dennett, Jackendoff’s accessible and interdisciplinary approach, which spans linguistics, philosophy, music, cognitive science and psychology, differs from those of other experts in the field.

“[Jackendoff] has been very eager to make his contributions amenable to being adopted by people in other fields — not just linguists, and that’s something that is really important because a lot of linguists isolated themselves from the rest of cognitive science, and [Jackendoff] didn’t,” Dennett said. “His model is both more ambitious and more articulate than just about anyone else’s.”

Patel agreed that Jackendoff’s interdisciplinary approach helped him stand out as a frontrunner in his field.

“Theoretical linguistics has gotten very technical and very hard to understand for those not immediately in that discipline,” Patel said. “Jackendoff has the sophistication of a world-class linguist, but he has been able to write about ideas in ways that are accessible for other fields.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Swarthmore College, Jackendoff studied under renowned linguist Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s graduate program.

“It was a very exciting time in linguistics,” Jackendoff said. “Everybody knew everybody, and you saw everything as it came out, and every time you did something different, it was new and exciting.”

Although he was one of Chomsky’s students, Jackendoff said many of the linguists’ theories actually contradict one another.

“I started as a real follower, but our ways diverged over the years,” he said. “I certainly have the utmost respect for what [Chomsky] has done. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”

Both Dennett and Jackendoff hope that the recognition will bring attention to the new Ph.D. program started by the Center for Cognitive Studies last year at Tufts. The prize confirms the high levels of research achieved in the field of cognitive science at Tufts, and Jackendoff hopes the award will encourage more students to apply to the graduate program in the future.

In addition to aiding the new graduate program, Jackendoff hopes the award will provide him with time for more research and future publications.

“My theory of the design of language mostly concentrates on the relation between syntax, meaning it doesn’t say much about sound systems or the interior structures of words,” Jackendoff said. “One of the projects that I have been working on quite a lot this summer is trying to extend my framework to those areas.”

Although the Rumelhart Prize recognizes the work he has already achieved, Jackendoff is not finished challenging the fields of linguistics and cognitive studies.

“It’s really exciting to have gotten this recognition from an unexpected part of my profession, and it’s a challenge to keep working at a level that is worthy of it,” Jackendoff said.