Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

On Language and Thought: A Question of Form

Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

On Language and Thought: A Question of Form

Article excerpt

1.The Question Now Being Put

The question of how language and thought relate is possibly time immemorial, and the extant literature too large to review satisfactorily in a single paper. Such a description of the general state of affairs won't surprise anyone; what may raise a few eyebrows, perhaps, is the claim that large tracts of the modern literature are afflicted by two rather important problems. Firstly, scholars focused on this relationship are hardly ever clear as to what they take language and thought to be exactly, as definitions are rarely put forward; and complementing this, the very same scholars are usually rather vague regarding how language and thought are supposed to relate at all.

Myriad possibilities can be imagined in either respect, but identifying the different prospects necessitates significant exegetical effort and the rewards are to be found outside the language-and-thought literature. Natural language, to begin here, may be defined in many different ways: as a computational system of the mind, along with its connection to other mental systems (Chomsky, 2013); as a set of mental representations, perhaps in terms of propositional attitudes (Fodor, 1979, 2001a); as a purely communicative system, thereby closely connected to mind reading and joint attention abilities (Tomasello, 2003); as an exclusively real-time processing phenomenon (Frank, Bod, & Christiansen, 2012); as a symbolic system (Deacon, 1997); etc.

Whatever perspective one adopts, the particular choice will surely have a significant effect on what sort of issues are considered in the study of how language and thought are actually related. In fact, it is not an uncommon feature of the language-and-thought literature that the eventual terms of comparison employed in many a study are in fact the result of the conclusion to an argument on how to relate the two phenomena rather than a principled way to approach the problem at hand. Among the different possibilities, we find the following, prima facie incompatible options: linguistic (viz., syntactic) representations may be the actual vehicles of the main medium of thought humans employ (Hinzen, 2013); thought may be in fact impossible without language, this capacity necessitating the representation of the propositional attitudes, an ability some scholars have argued to be only achievable by employing language (Davidson, 1997, 2001; Millikan, 2001); language may connect different conceptual systems of the mind via the (syntactic) level of what used to be called logical form, these systems otherwise unconnected in the absence of a fully formed language faculty (Carruthers, 2002); the employment of language in speech (either inner or outer) may augment one's computational powers during explicit mental processes, language therefore at least enhancing (but probably not replacing) thought (see Clark's contribution in Carruthers & Boucher, 1998); natural language may be in fact inadequate as a system of thought, its main function being the communication of thoughts rather than its representation, thought therefore constituting a (perhaps slightly) different mental phenomenon altogether (Fodor, 1975, 2001b, among others); etc.

The result is that scholars are seemingly talking about very different phenomena when discussing the reputed relationship, from representational and architectural issues to processing phenomena. What's more, these scholars also differ in terms of how central they take language to be for thought, from those who defend that the most sophisticated forms of thought are conducted in natural language (Davidson, Carruthers), in some cases concluding that there is no medium of thought other than language, thus cutting the distinction very loose indeed (Hinzen), to those who believe that thought is instead conducted in a medium other than natural language, language and thought thus (again, perhaps slightly) different domains of the mind (Fodor).

It would certainly be a good thing to catalogue the different arguments (and data) to make sense of what they tell us about human thought tout court, but my objectives are focused elsewhere here. …

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