Language and Mind: Challenges and Prospects
Abstract of the lecture
With the impressive steps towards unification of the natural sciences in the twentieth century, the study of human thought and behavior has come to be seen as the next frontier of inquiry, posing new and provocative challenges. The cognitive sciences have introduced a shift of perspective in the study of these topics, from the study of behavior and its products to a focus on the internal mechanisms of mind that provide the basis for action, interpretation, and the growth of knowledge and understanding. This "cognitive revolution" has brought certain traditional questions to the forefront of scientific inquiry. It has also revived some classical ideas about the nature of thought and action, reconstructing them within a framework made available through the progress of the formal and natural sciences. In particular, these developments made it possible to undertake productive inquiry into the nature, use and acquisition of language, providing a guide for the inquiry into the neural mechanisms that have the properties and satisfy the conditions that are coming to light in this research, and thus offering the hope for further unification of scientific understanding.
Recent work suggests that the mind is highly modular, with interacting faculties that have their own internal structure. The language faculty is based on invariant principles, an element of the human biological endowment. These provide the basic structure of human languages and make it possible for a rich system of knowledge and understanding to develop, shared with others, on the basis of fragmentary data that suffices to determine the restricted options of variation that are permitted. This faculty is closely linked to motor and perceptual systems, and to a conceptual system with, it seems, similar properties. The language that "grows in the mind" as it is tuned to the environment is a generative procedure that determined the structure of an infinite array of expressions, permitting the free expression of thought.
Recent work suggests that language design is in a sense dysfunctional, meeting conditions of elegance and simplicity while yielding difficult computational problems for language use. These properties may be related to other features of language, unusual in the domain of biological systems. These properties do not prevent communication or conflict with evolutionary biology, but they do call for explanation.
The language faculty is apparently a true species property, common to the human species, unique to it in essentials, and fundamental to many aspects of human existence. It is also relatively accessible to study. While its detailed structure appears to be specific to it, we might suspect that other systems of knowledge, belief, judgment and creation may share some of the general properties that are coming to light as the faculty of language begins to yield some of its secrets.