Steven Pinker is a prolific author on topics bearing on the relation of brain and language. His books are always thought-provoking and at the same time easily readable and amusing. His latest book The Stuff of Thought is an ambitious attempt to explore how language constructs or forms the mind. Language as a window into human nature [Steven Pinker 2007 The Stuff of Thought. London:Allen Lane.]
Much of his study is concerned with words, their link to reality, their origin and development, though he also explores the minutiae of grammar in an attempt to understand how thought is ordered. The starting-point for critical examination is a close look at what he says about words. [Pinker extracts or summaries are shown in inverted commas]
Words and reality: a word must leave some trace in the brain. Human characterisations of reality are built out of a recognisable inventory of thoughts. The notions of space, time, possession and goals appear to make up a language of thought (Kant was surely right).
Every one of the half million words in the Oxford English Dictionary had to be thought up by a person at some point in history, accepted by a community and perpetuated through the ages. How this tacit agreement was forged across a community is mysterious, a real puzzle.
Words for many kinds of things are rigidly yoked to the world by acts of pointing, dubbing and sticking together; words are fettered to reality. The meaning of a word for a natural kind is not a description or definition, but a pointer to something in the world. Thinking is rooted in physical experience with a finite stock of signs which entangle us in the world outside our heads.
How do people conjure up a new sound to label a concept? Where do new words come from? new roots?
The most obvious source of a new root is onomatopoeia. Somewhat handier than onomatopoeia is sound symbolism and phonaesthesia (sneeze, sniff). Examples of words invented by a child for butterfly – as if the words are supposed to act out the flapping of the wings and also recognising the motor component of hit
The most remarkable thing we do with language is learn it in the first place - how a raw stream of noise could conjure up concepts in the childs mind out of nothing is a mystery.
A first approach is to look at the elements of thought through the complexities of grammar; the combinatorial apparatus of grammar mirrors the combinatorial apparatus of thought.
Emotionally laced words can fool us into thinking that the words have magical powers rather than being arbitrary conventions.
What counts as thought? What counts as language? How do we think? In words? Without words? In images? How different from animals?
Word and meaning ? Alex, Irene Pepperbergs grey parrot, answering some difficult questionsgrey parrot
Creative thought ? The New Caledonian crow tries with a piece of wire to get some meat out of the tube. Failing to do so, it bends the wire into a hook. Without training or any demonstration or previous experience, it makes a hook and uses it to get the meat.Caledonian crow
Learning by trial and error ? David AttenboroughDavid Attenborough describes how crows in a Japanese city found a new way to solve their problem
The nature of mind The unrecognised structure of minds
THE METHODS OF INVESTIGATION. Introspective Observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always. The word introspection need hardly be defined -- it means, of course, the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover. Everyone agrees that we there discover states of consciousness. All people unhesitatingly believe that they feel themselves thinking, and that they distinguish the mental state as an inward activity or passion, from all the objects with which it may cognitively deal. I regard this belief as the most fundamental of all the postulates of Psychology, and shall discard all curious inquiries about its certainty as too metaphysical for the scope of this book. [William James Principles of Psychology]
The dark cave of the mind (Virginia Woolf) The radius refluxus - the beam of light that the human mind focuses on itself (Francis Bacon) lucidus ordo - an orderly clarity formed by the mind in conjunction with Nature
But since William James we also have the possibility for direct examination of the brain in the process of using words, thinking, feeling and acting. Investigating mind directly
A lot of people think (have thought) about thinking – Descartes Locke Kant etc Wittgenstein and a multitude of modern authors, Fodor, Jackendoff, Chomsky etc. etc
Ever since Darwin and Wallace people have wondered how the human mind evolved the ability. to reason about abstract domains such as physics etc. which have no relevance to reproduction and survival.
Topics not discussed in this presentation Language theories – logistic verbal approaches - the mis-use of language: in thought, in philosophy, in linguistics, in psychology, in the computational approach, in logic - mechanistic approaches - the narrowly rational use of language - mentalese etc - not metaphor considered as a purely linguistic concept
Pre-verbal thought only one aspect of mind – other ways of mind functioning – and in other animals Pre-verbal thought > language ? The root of language – its relation to the world
ABSTRACT CONCEPTS Wonder by Darwin and others how we came to reason about abstract matters like physics etc, not serving survival and reproduction? Is there some form of hierarchical progression in the brain ? The repetition of a similarly structured process at successively higher levels ?
Neuroscience research into abstraction ? (Abstraction of Mental Representations: Neuroscientific Evidence Christoff and Keramatian) Progressively higher degrees of abstraction located in the lateral frontal cortex Progress from a photograph, a picture, to a cartoon – increasingly reduced – Hitlers moustache like abstraction – on and on to the minimum - the gist as a brain process – a neuronal process
GRAMMAR? Large parts of the innate sets which go to constitute syntax will exist for pre-human organisms Grammar has to manage the behavioural choices and patterns of action of humans and of animals, patterns of action that humans and animals must have neurally represented (in the brain) long before language emerged Before the grammar of language, there is the necessary grammar of action and perception with which every language however apparently different has to grapple One can look for an innateness of grammatical elements which could converge in a (completely new and different) description of) universal grammar?
WORDS? Where do new words come from? The motor component of hit - the child and butterfly? From noises to concepts in the child a mystery ? Magical words - when only arbitrary conventions ? A human being as a network of words? the mind as a network of words? Perhaps not Words come at their own slow speed - awaiting the unavoidable words? The compact idea, the compact word-set?
Words are anchored in the cortical motor patterning and are expressible as actions. The brain can be seen as a network of motor patterns lodged at specifically appropriate places, as Pulvermullers research has suggested.
ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR? Is there anything to be learnt from: animal communication and thought? animal creative thought? animal learning by trial and error? Perhaps this, that apart from language, our brains function in similar ways It is speech and language that has made us different, in some extraordinarily important ways
WHERE IS THE BRAIN GOING? Maybe the brain has a direction (if not a purpose)? a brain drive seen in thought and language What is it like? what process does it resemble? Can one see an evolutionary process in the brain ? In some sense the survival of the fittest structures, the fittest thoughts ? The freedom of the mind, of thought, taking the form of the control of attention - the choice of what, out of many possibilities, many possible thoughts, many possible actions, we choose to centre on ?
What are we left with from Pinker? Is language a window into human nature? Words must leave traces in the brain? A language of thought? Each word emerging and surviving through time - a real puzzle ? A finite stock of signs ?
What conclusions can one reach? The rudiments of thought exist in birds, apes, whales and no doubt many other animals There is no doubt a hierarchical pattern for animals for thought and consciousness, dependent on brain size and complexity The hierarchy of thought (dependent on brain size and structure) was a normal part of the evolutionary process The brain was evolving, thought was evolving, Language and speech is a step not taken by other animals We can talk about our thought- observe (watch) our thought, our thoughts, our thinking The character of our thought, the content of our thought, the complexity of our thought, was changed by language
VIRGINIA WOOLF talking about the nature of words in a radio broadcast in the 1930s broadcast
The evolutionary origin of speech and language is to be found in the human ability to imitate, to use gesture, that is to use arm and bodily movements to point to something or to model something. Speech came when there was a change in the human brain (perhaps related to brain changes associated with the new ability to walk on two feet - bipedalism) which allowed the neural motor programs which pattern all movement (particularly movement of the hands and arms) to be transferred (by motor equivalence, fully explained in many earlier presentations) to become articulatory gesture, movements of the mouth, the tongue, the larynx which produced distinctive sounds, words, structurally related to the structure of the originating gesture. GESTURE INTO SPEECH AND LANGUAGE
Human thought is radically different from animal thought because we have speech and language and animals do not But language is not the whole of human thought. We think in images and in trial mental actions. We think in core properties, feelings and emotions, which we no doubt share with many animals. So Pinker may be right in seeing language as a window into the mind but not as the only route (or the most important route) to understanding human nature. [See the extensive material on language and evolution at http://www.percepp.com] To conclude (provisionally):