Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Language, embodiment, and the cognitive niche

This is the title of an essay by Andy Clark in Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Vol 10, no. 8., pp. 370-374, 2006). It discusses an alternatives to the "Pure Translation" view, stemming from Fodor, that knowing a natural language is knowing how to pair its expressions with encoding in some other, more fundamental inner code ('mentalese', or the Language of Thought). Rather language is viewed as a kind of self-constructed cognitive niche, a scaffold of words that is used to loop back upon itself to build the "thinking about thinking" that may be our best candidate for a distinctively human capacity, dependent upon language for its very existence. According to this model words and structured linguistic encoding act to stabilize and discipline (or 'anchor') intrinsically fluid and context-sensitive modes of thought and reason. Words and linguistic strings are among the most powerful and basic tools that we use to discipline and stabilize dynamic processes of reason and recall. Words, rather than being cues for the retrieval of meanings from some kind of passive storage, might be thought of as sensorily encountered items that 'act directly on mental states'. As embodied agents we are able to create and maintain a wide variety of cognitively empowering, self-stimulating loops whose activity is as much as aspect of our thinking as its result.

Looking beyond the Pure Translation view, language is treated as an aspect of thought, rather than just its public reflection. We eliminate the Central Executive where all the 'real thinking' happens and replace Pure Translation with an appeal to complex, distributed coordination dynamics: a 'wordful mind' that is populated by loops without leaders, that defies any simple logic of inner versus out, or of tool versus user... a mind where words really work.

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