Today I was reading George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. (Yeah, I know, I’m way behind on the required reading for writing this blog.) Anyway, I came upon a passage (pp. 58-59) that discusses the following questions: “Does language make use of general cognitive mechanisms? Or is it something separate and independent, using only mechanisms of its own?” As Lakoff observes, these are questions of great importance to the study of language and cognition. If language uses general cognitive mechanisms, then we can use our understanding of language to update our beliefs about how the mind works in general, and vice versa. But if language is something separate, then we need to keep our theories separate as well.
This is interesting, of course, but what I found especially fascinating was the following paragraph:
This issue is a profound one, because it is by no means obvious that the language makes use of our general cognitive apparatus. In fact, the most widely accepted views of language within both linguistics and the philosophy of language make the opposite assumption: that language is a separate “modular” system independent of the rest of cognition. The independence of grammar from the rest of cognition is perhaps the most fundamental assumption on which Noam Chomsky’s theory of language rests.
The reason I found this passage fascinating is that Lakoff says “it is by no means obvious”, but Lakoff’s conclusion that “language [does make] use of our general cognitive apparatus” is completely obvious to me. Whenever this sort of thing happens, I like to take a step back and ask “What are my beliefs and assumptions that make this obvious to me?” and “What are the beliefs and assumptions that make this non-obvious to other people?” (It’s also useful to ask these questions in the reverse direction: “What are my beliefs and assumptions that make their position non-obvious to me, and what are their beliefs/assumptions that make it obvious to them?”)
In this case, my assumptions are mostly based on my understanding of evolution, in particular the fact that evolution usually builds on or modifies pre-existing mechanisms rather than inventing entirely new ones. For this reason, I expect language to have evolved as an outcropping of pre-existing cognitive mechanisms; it seems highly unlikely to me that we would have just developed a whole separate grammar module with no relation to already-existing structures.
This allows me to identify a whole class of assumptions which influence my understanding of how the mind works. Specifically, I make use of my knowledge of evolution when thinking about cognitive science. Presumably, other people have different intuitions either because they just don’t use their knowledge of evolution when reasoning about cognitive science, or because they have a different understanding of how evolution works.
Now let us ask the questions in reverse. As Lakoff repeatedly observes, the cognitive scientists, linguists, and philosophers who support the other position (that language is a completely separate module) have been influenced by traditional dualist and computational understandings of the mind.
This entire discussion reinforces two major themes of my philosophy: the fact that our current models are wrong, and the importance of studying many different fields. For the former, when I see how obvious previous generations’ beliefs were to them, it gives me the perspective to realize that future generations will probably feel the same way about my own beliefs. After all, I know very little about evolution, partially because I’m not an evolution-ologist, and partially because most of that field’s models must also be incorrect or incomplete.
Regarding the study of many different fields, traditional ideas from linguistics seem quite implausible to me because I’ve read a couple of books about evolution. This suggests that the more fields I study, the more diverse perspectives I will be able to incorporate when building my models. I’m sure that my current models seem preposterous to specialists in various other fields.