What’s The Language of Thought, That A Person May Grasp It?

by David J. Lobina: What I really mean, of course, is what The Language of Thought (LoT, postea) is like; after all, in previous entries of this series on the relationship between language and thought, I have stated what the LoT is supposed to be, and thus, that can hardly still be an issue this late in the day – if anything, the question now is not what the LoT is, but what’s in it. In order to approach the latter question, we can do with a reminder on the former.

Starting from two reasonable, but by no account, universally accepted, assumptions about human cognition – namely, that much of cognition involves mental representations (possibly symbolic representations) as well as computational operations over these representations (in philosophy, these two assumptions are known as the representational and computational theories of mind, respectively) – one of the most striking features of the kind of thinking we conduct on a daily basis is how flexible it is. What I have in mind by this is the ability to combine information from different modalities (aural, visual, etc.) into a single representation, the result a thought, a decision, or what have you.

Verbum mentis ~ mental language. Illustration by Irshad Salim

Such cognitive flexibility has often been taken as suggesting that the merging of different kinds of information must take place in a representational system that is in fact amodal – that is, a common code composed of, not words, pictures, or sounds, but abstract concepts, the mental particulars I have claimed in this series subsume most of cognition. And just like the words of a natural language, mental concepts can combine with each other into ever more complex representations (sometimes called conceptions), thereby explaining the richness of human thought – and, in turn, accounting for the “language” in the language of thought.

Despite the choice of words, the correspondence between the structure of the LoT and the structure of natural language should not be taken as being isomorphic, or even commensurable. This is a point I have already stressed in previous entries of the series, but which will become even more significant here, as I intend to show how the structure of thought is best ascertained through an analysis of the structure of natural language.

Though the contemporary locus classicus on the LoT, as mentioned before, is Jerry Fodor’s 1975 book, The Language of Thought, the idea of a “mental language”, a verbum mentis we use to do most of our thinking, is a rather old one. A relevant figure in this respect is William of Ockham, the 14th century Franciscan friar whose ideas on the mental language once made Fodor feel that his own take on the matter was a bit blasé.[i]

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