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Is language necessary for consciousness?

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Volume 9 , Issue 6 June Pages Related Information. We begin with the idea that the business of philosophy is to obtain for us genuine knowledge or perhaps, on some conceptions of knowledge, to obtain the knowledge that we have such knowledge — see my a, ch. We then add to this a foundationalist conception of the architecture of knowledge, according to which all knowledge must be grounded in beliefs that are certainly true by means of principles of inference that are also certain.

And then it follows that only deduction can be legitimate in primary philosophy. If other methods of inference — including inference to the best explanation — are to be employed at all, then they must first be vindicated by means of deductive argument from premises that are certainly true. But the mistake in this argument, in my view, lies in the foundationalist premiss. Rather, the best account of the architecture of our knowledge is coherentist.

According to this view, a belief comes to be justified by forming part of an explanatory network of such beliefs, which collectively provide the simplest, most coherent, explanation for the course of our experience. From such a perspective, inference to the best explanation can play just as fundamental a role in the construction of appropriately coherent sets of belief as does deduction.

There is then no reason why philosophers should not, at least tentatively, avail themselves of such modes of inference in advance of attempting to vindicate them. Indeed, there is some reason to think, contrariwise, that even deduction must rely, tacitly, upon an inference to the best explanation — if only on an inference from the fact that an argument seems valid to us to the conclusion that it is so — in which case there is no philosophy which can be done without employing explanatory inferences.

In the chapters that follow, then, I shall be concerned with questions that are substantive as well as with those that are more narrowly analytic.

Is language necessary for consciousness?

Indeed, many of these questions might equally be raised, from a somewhat different perspective, by scientific psychologists. There is a good reason for this. For it is particularly common in periods of scientific revolution in Kuhn's sense; see his that scientists should need to consider the sorts of larger 'framework' questions distinctively raised by philosophers.

Mental States, Conscious and Nonconscious

For example, Einstein engaged in extensive reflection on the nature of space and time, in the period when he was developing the theory of relativity, which might have seemed familiar to Locke, or to Leibniz, or to Kant. Arguably, psychology is in just such a state of revolution and self-analysis. For the basic nature and direction of psychological enquiry are currently topics of intense psychological debate; and one of the strands in this debate is — or should be — the role to be accorded to natural language in our best model of human cognition.

Moreover, since the resolution of this latter issue is currently empirically undetermined as I shall argue in Chapter 2 , it is crucial to stake out and explore the implications of the different frameworks within which more detailed investigations may take place. That is what I have tried to do in this book, in connection with the presently-unfashionable hypothesis that much of human thought is conducted in natural language. So my hope is that the ideas defended here will be of interest to psychologists and other cognitive scientists, just as much as to philosophers.

But this must be for them to judge. I shall be arguing for a version of the latter thesis. My view is that much of human conscious thinking is, necessarily given the way in which human cognition is structured , conducted in the medium of natural language sentences. I do not, however, make any claim to have demonstrated the truth of this view beyond all reasonable doubt. For the arguments that I provide in its support are broadly empirical ones, involving inferences to the best explanation of a range of phenomena. They are therefore vulnerable to counter-attack from those who can provide further recalcitrant data, and may reasonably be rejected by anyone who can provide a better explanation of the phenomena in question.

What I do hope that I have shown, however, is that the case for the independence of thought from language is by no means as clear-cut as many philosophers and cognitive scientists have assumed. And I therefore hope to have provided encouragement for further work to be conducted in the alternative, language-involving, paradigm. Roughly speaking, the overall message of the book has the form, 'Hey!

Let's have a look over here! There's a view which hasn't been taken as seriously as it should be lately.


One question at issue in this debate is our understanding of the nature and function of natural language. If thought is independent of such language, then language itself becomes only a medium for the communication of thoughts. I shall refer to this theory of the role and significance of natural language as the communicative conception of language. According to the communicative conception, the function and purpose of natural language is to facilitate communication and not except indirectly, by enabling the acquisition of new beliefs to facilitate thinking.

Language will still have to be represented and processed within the cognition of each individual, of course. The communicative conception of language has been widely endorsed in the history of philosophy, by figures such as John Locke , Bertrand Russell , Paul Grice and and David Lewis It is also the standard model for those now working in cognitive science, who view language as an isolable, and largely isolated, module of the mind, which is both innately structured and specialised for the interpretation and construction of natural language sentences.

If, on the other hand, natural language is constitutively involved in our conscious thinkings as I shall argue , then language is itself the primary medium of such thought, and much such thinking is essentially linguistic. I shall refer to this as the cognitive conception of language, since it accords a central place to natural language within our cognition. On this account we often think in language, and the trains of reasoning which lead up to many of our decisions and actions will consist in sequences of natural language sentences.

Language thus has an intra -personal cognitive function, as well as having its obvious inter-personal uses. Here the picture of communication through language is quite different. When a speaker utters a sentence, on this view, their utterance expresses a thought by constituting it, not by encoding or signalling it. A hearer who is a competent user of the same language will then understand that utterance in virtue of it constitutively expressing, for them, the very same or a sufficiently similar thought.

The cognitive conception of language has been endorsed by such disparate figures as Ludwig Wittgenstein and , Lev Vygotsky , Benjamin Lee Whorf , Daniel Dennett , and also sometimes Noam Chomsky — at least, that is how I interpret Chapter 2 of that work; but Chomsky has since disavowed any such view in personal correspondence.

My own diagnosis of what has happened in the cognitive sciences in recent decades is this. Researchers have become increasingly convinced, by neuropsychological and other evidence, that the mind is more or less modular in structure, built up out of isolable, and largely isolated, components see Fodor, , Sachs, , and Shallice, They have also become convinced that the structure and contents of the mind are substantially innate see Fodor, and , and Carey, , and that language is one such isolable and largely innate module see Fodor, , and Chomsky, There has then been, amongst cognitive scientists, a near-universal reaction against the cognitive conception of language, by running it together with the Whorfian hypothesis.

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Most researchers have assumed, without argument, that if they were to accept any form of cognitive conception of language, then that would commit them to Whorfian linguistic relativism and radical empiricism, and would hence be inconsistent with their well-founded beliefs in modularity and nativism see Pinker, It is important to see, however, that someone endorsing the cognitive conception of language does not have to regard language and the mind as cultural constructs, either socially determined or culturally relative.

A large part of my task is to show that there is a position intermediate between the communicative conception of language on the one hand, and Whorfian relativism the Standard Social Science Model on the other, which deserves the attention of philosophers and cognitive scientists alike. More than this, of course, I hope to convince the reader that this combination of views is not only possible, but plausible. In fact the issues before us are ones which have profound methodological implications for both philosophy and psychology, as we shall see in more detail in section 1.

If thought is independent of language, then the philosophy of language has no right to claim the sort of foundational position within philosophy as a whole which it has been accorded through much of the twentieth century. On the contrary, it should be the philosophy of mind — more narrowly, the philosophy of thought — which is more basic. It will also follow that the study of the cognitive mechanisms involved in the acquisition and use of natural language should be accorded no more central position within psychology than the study of any other mental faculty, such as vision or memory.

Elizabeth Schechter Indiana University Verified email at iu.

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Verified email at umd. Articles Cited by Co-authors. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 6 , , Behavioral and brain sciences 32 2 , , Contemporary debates in cognitive science, ed. Stainton, , The British journal for the philosophy of science 53 2 , , Articles 1—20 Show more. Help Privacy Terms. The cognitive functions of language P Carruthers Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 6 , , Language, thought and consciousness: An essay in philosophical psychology P Carruthers Cambridge University Press ,