Meditations on Mentalese

Question: Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker states that “People think in a language different to any spoken language”. Discuss.

(Alright it was a little moe specific than that but I can’t quite find anything on my desk at the moment. I’ll clean it one day. Promise.)

Introduction

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” If I had to choose one sentence to represent my argument then it would be this quote attributed to Flannery O’Connor. Mentalese exists across the board, that much is necessary. What we humans have is a ‘levelled up’ form that uses human languages to help to represent abstract terms like love and lust, emotions and ideas, things in faraway galaxies that we have never even seen but we know that they exist from what we know of mathematics and physics. I agree with Pinker that there is mentalese. But I disagree that it is ‘different to any natural language’ in the case of humans.

My argument is against Pinker’s claim that “we think in a language different to any spoken language” because to phrase it as such is deliberately misleading. There are two potential interpretations that we could conclude from this statement. At first glance, Pinker seems to be saying that this thing we call ‘mentalese’ is a language in the sense that it obeys the properties of Universal Grammar, this would be a false assumption as mentalese is not an ‘acquired’ thing, it is how we represent propositions in our molecular minds (Pinker, 2004, p. 82).

The other possible interpretation that one conclude, would be that spoken languages and the language of thought, are fundamentally different things. I agree with the view that language and thought are different things, but not that they are so different that they cannot affect one another as this interpretation of Pinker’s claim suggests.

My stance is closer to that of Nativism than Linguistic Determinism but denies that language and thought are independent systems. I shall be basing my claims off the works of Keith Chen (Could your language affect your ability to save money?, 2012), Monique Fleckon (Flecken, et al., 2014). They, state that the feature of a language to portray the future as a distinct and separate state has an effect on the way in which we perceive the world (Fleckon) and the way in which we spend (Chen).

Discussion

Our brains are too big. We, as a species, would have a greater success rate if we had a smaller head, and smaller brain, simply because birth would not be as traumatic and life threatening (The Science of Dank Memes, 2016). So why is our brain so big? Human intelligence is the obvious answer here but I wish to look at a more specific aspect of human intelligence. One of the functions that our big brain has is that it seems to set us up for language (Pinker, 2004, p. 32) . Be this through general purpose learning strategies or through something like Steven Pinker’s Universal Grammar. Yet, even though the vast majority of our brains have this remarkable ability to acquire language, there are those who have either grown up without the input needed or are suffering from an aphasia. If language and thought are the same thing then those who have either never acquired language, or have lost language, should not be able to think. The fact that they can proves that there is something like a mentalese. But to say that is not to state the whole story. Mentalese does not account for abstract thought. This is another equally possible conclusion that we could draw from the tip of the tongue phenomena that Pinker claims to be layman proof for mentalese (Pinker, 2004, p. 57).

Language and thought being fundamentally different things implies that there can be one without the other. Although thinking about the nonsense that certain politicians sprout, it really does seem like they can manage without it. Language does require thought. What we say is certainly shaped by our thoughts and to some degree, what I wish to discuss is that our thoughts are aided by our language.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that there is a Language of Thought. We’ll take Pinker’s idea of mentalese as a name for this ‘language’. What properties and features would such a ‘language’ need to have in order to actually exist in a world beyond our hypothetical imaginings? How does it relate to languages as we know them? Any mature human being able to understand/produce a sentence must have some kind of mental representation of what they said. This follows by necessity. In order to be able to impart meaning to what it is that I say, I need to know that what I am saying has some kind of a meaning, even if I do not know exactly what that meaning is for you, I at least have some preconceived idea that is just so automatic that it is quite possibly innate.

This means that mentalese has to be more inclusive than human language. It needs to be able to account for the recursive ability of language and the simplest explanation for this would be that it too has a recursive system (Aydede, 2015). This is not the only similarity between a Language of Thought and human languages. But recent arguments have been laid forth that suggest that it may just be the recursive ability of our thoughts that allow us to construct grammar and language (see Corballis, M.C., 2014). But this supports Pinker’s claim that language is a universal feature of the human aspect (Pinker, 2004). But, so must a system of representation which acts as a medium of thought be present in all thinking life. Humans have mentalese in common with the likes of dogs, and cows, and wolves, but dogs, cows and wolves cannot do abstract mathematics, so if we have the same kind of mentalese then what makes us able to do more with it than the rest of the animal kingdom?

Taking a closer look at what Fleckon, von Stuterheim, and Carrol (2014) have found, we see that their findings support the claim of a ‘weak’ form of linguistic relativity. This helps to explain how, with mentalese aided by human language, we have a far wider range of possibilities of thought. Their study showed that speakers of German were more likely to focus on the potential end points of a motion event than Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) speakers were (Flecken, et al., 2014). They attribute this to the different aspectual markers found in each language. The speakers of German have greater focus on endpoints in both their expression of the event and for the duration of time that their eyes dwelt on the potential endpoint.

Their findings oppose Pinker and gives support to the gentler version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which states that our language and our thoughts are directly interlinked (Kay, P. and Kempton, W., 1984). Such a theory of Linguistic Determinism is commonly supported by the supposedly massive array of words for snow that Eskimos supposedly have. This originally comes from Franz Boas’ text Introduction to the Handbook of North American Indians (Boas, 1911)and has escalated out of proportion since Whorf himself misreported on Boas’ findings in an MIT technology review (Whorf, 1940). Time and time again has the reported number of Eskimo words for snow been changed and misreported, even by lecturers meant to be perpetuating evidence and not what it has been falsely cited as (Pullmum, 1989, p. 280). Despite the untrustworthiness of some of its claims, the idea that our language determines our thought is a possible one, but not on as strong a level as Sapir and Whorf suggested.

To make the claim that our languages shape our thoughts is to make the claim that one without language is one without thoughts. This is what the strictest version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis entails. We have observed feral children being taught languages (Long, M.H., 1990). We saw how difficult it was for them to learn language but to assume that they have no thoughts because they have no language to shape it is absurd. That very idea seems absurd to me. That’s why we have this thing called mentalese.

Keith Chen gives us more ground to stand on with the claim that it is human language that enables us to think abstractly. He matched families on as many levels as he possibly could with the only difference being their language. What he found was that the concept of a future in our mother tongue has some impact on the way in which we spend and save (Could your language affect your ability to save money?, 2012). A handful of families with this difference would mean little as it could be the case that those families who saved more and spoke a futureless language just had a tradition of saving more. But if we replicate this study on more and more groups of people then we can find out just what it is that causes the difference in their saving habits. If it really is the case that futureless language speakers are better savers because their concept of the future is an extended form of the present (Could your language affect your ability to save money?, 2012), then we can conclude that our language definitely has an impact of abstract thought.

Outlook

Pinker definitely seems to be on the side with the stronger arguments for base thoughts. Thoughts which must be present in animals and language-less people alike. On some level, Pinker and those who stand beside him must be right when they say that there is this so-called mentalese. Where I disagree with Pinker is the level to which this occurs. In my personal experience, I have never been able to ponder about abstract concepts such as love versus lust without formulating my ideas in strings of words. Mentalese exists. It is a base system of representation that enables thought. But this is limited in its capabilities. What studies like those conducted by Fleckon, (Flecken, et al., 2014) and Chen (Could your language affect your ability to save money?, 2012) can tell us is that our language does at least have some impact on the way in which we perceive the world. There is some extent to which our language shapes our thoughts.

However, not enough evidence exists yet for us to conclusively say this. We need more studies along these lines investigating the connection between language and abstract thought. We also need to conclude that it is indeed true that non-human animals are incapable of abstract thought. I stand with Chen, von Stutterheim, Fleckon, and I disagree with Pinker and the schools of Nativism and Linguistic Determinism. ‘I do not think that I think in the way that he [Pinker] thinks I think. (Cole, 1998).

References

Aydede, M., 2015. The Language of Thought Hypothesis. [Online]
Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/language-thought/
[Accessed 30 August 2016].

Boas, F., 1911. Introduction to the Handbook of North American Indians. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin.

Cole, D., 1998. I Don’t Think So: PInker on the Thinker. [Online]
Available at: http://www.d.umn.edu/~dcole/pinker.htm
[Accessed 15 October 2016].

Corballis, M.C., 2014. The recursive mind: The origins of human language, thought, and civilization. Princeton University Press. Vancouver

Could your language affect your ability to save money?. 2012. [Film] Directed by Kieth Chen. Edinburgh: TED.

Flecken, M., von Stutterheim, C. & Carrol, M., 2014. Grammatical aspect infuences motion event perception: fidings from a cross- linguistic nonverbal. Language and Cognition, 6(1), pp. 45-78.

Kay, P. and Kempton, W., 1984. What is the Sapir‐Whorf hypothesis?. American anthropologist, 86(1), pp.65-79.

Long, M.H., 1990. Maturational constraints on language development. Studies in second language acquisition, 12(03), pp.251-285.

Pinker, S., 1994. Mentalese. In: The Language Instinct. s.l.:Harper Perenial Modern Classic, pp. 55-82.

Pinker, S., 2004. The Language Instinct. s.l.:Harper Perennial Modern Classic.

Pullmum, G. K., 1989. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, Volume 7, pp. 275-281.

The Science of Dank Memes. 2016. [Film] Directed by SciShow. s.l.: YouTube.

Whorf, B. L., 1940. Science and Linguistics. Technology Review (MIT), 42(6), pp. 229-231, 247-248.

Riding my Demons

A Daily Response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Moonshots

So I am one of those people who will not do anything if I have not got the motivation for it. Sometimes the motivation comes to me in a spur of joy and other times it comes in the form of maintaining adherence to my moral code – in other words, it’s motivated by obligation. But lately, I haven’t had any of that motivation. I haven’t felt that excitement that I used to feel while writing. I no longer feel that sense of joy when I devour the knowledge kindly imparted by others. Whenever I have the motivation to do something, anxiety kills it. And when I don’t have that motivation, I no longer care that I don’t.

I was looking at the moon on my way home yesterday, just enjoying its serene beauty. I remembered the day when I wished that I would follow Armstrong and Aldrin onto the moon. I remembered what I used to feel like. When anxiety and depression hadn’t slam-dunked my dreams into an eldritch ocean of despair. I want those days back. I want those days back. I started to slip further down the slope that I have been dragged down for the past few weeks, and I remembered what I wanted. I wanted emotion. I wanted passion. I wanted anger and I wanted rage. I wanted the burning desire to achieve my goals. I wanted to feel the pain and suffering that urged me to rejoice in those calm  moments. I wanted peace, I wanted tranquillity. What I wanted, was to feel human again.I know I have spoken about this point several

I know I have spoken about this point several times before but this is really all I want. I had someone say that they hate me and that they can never forgive me for what I did. I was caught in a situation that I could lie to get out of, but then my lie would not have been believed. Or I could have told the truth and hurt not just the person whom my words were directed at but also the one who I was trying to keep afloat. My moral code does not forbid lies and deceit. It acknowledges the blissful state that is ignorant and only if one expresses a great enough desire to know the truth of the situation does deceiving them become bad. I believe in freedom. Well, the illusion of it. I believe that we should all be able to live our lives how we choose to so long as that choice does not harm others. I don’t care if you want to agree with this or not, but I would be interested in finding out your reasons for why or why not. I want to feel truly human emotion, yet all I have at the moment is my undesirable reason.

First and foremost, I want to feel human again. In order to do that, there are a few things that I feel I need first. This post is dedicated to that list. Of what I want in order to feel human again. This post is dedicated to the people like me. Those who can no longer fight their demons. Our lives may be short, but that just means that we can concentrate our greatness.  Continue reading “Riding my Demons”

The Masks that we Wear

A Day-Late Response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Surface

This post was initially going to be a bit of a rant about surface people. I don’t consider myself one of them and dealing with them makes me feel unfulfilled. I want depth and intellectual stimulation when I speak to someone and when I converse with someone living on the surface, I don’t get that. No, I don’t believe that I am part of any elitist group of ‘deep’ people. I don’t think anyone is any greater depth than anything else.

No, that’s a lie.

I do think that we have different depths. Yet, in my experience, the deepest people are the most damaged. Maybe there is something about psychological scarring that just prevents us from living a surface life. A life of ease. A life where our greatest issue is the next paycheck coming in on time or our child’s grades. A life where ends meet, but without great ease. A life in which we don’t have to worry about anxiety or depression. Suicide or a stroke. The way others perceive us and whether or not we are ‘acceptable’. Because that is what a lot of us really want. To be accepted. Yet, we don’t fit in with the rest of you. We don’t fit in with you people who are able to smile with ease and genuinely enjoy life to its full. Is it too much to ask for acceptance? Is it too much to ask for stability? Is it too much to ask for a day off from our obligations? Our society? Our world? Our lives?

Here  sit, drugged up, on caffeine, craving for just a day off. A day off without having to worry about what I will suffer from doing so. I am tired. And lazy. Terribly lazy. Like, if I have not got the motivation to do anything then I just won’t. And even then, sometimes it just too much effort.

Well, I guess that kind of did turn into a rant about surface people. What I was going to write was, “I dislike the fact that surface people can live a life without regret, worry, or concern, to the same degree as we scarred people are. I’m not saying that we are anything apart from worse off because we are weaker than you surface people. We are scarred and we are damaged. Just like anyone is. Thing is, that scar affects us more than we can cope with and sometimes, just sometimes, it puts us into a rut that we can’t get out of. And when you surface people tell us to just ‘get over it’. That is when we snap. That is when we lose our ability to maintain control and everything just shatter. I beg of you, surface people, never, NEVER, tell someone to ‘just get over it’.”

And here comes the twist.

Continue reading “The Masks that we Wear”

A Walking Contradiction

Has it really been four days that I was away from here? It sure felt like a lot more. Alas, dear reader, I am back. I am still tired and I am still just as lazy as I was before but at least this time, I am going to be more vocal about it. Normally when life gets too tough I go into seclusion and kick the stuffing out of all that got in my way. This time, I am going to try a different approach. Instead of relying on my own abilities to sort things out I am going to try lug it off onto others to get them to do the work for me. What I don’t like about this is that it means that I can’t adequately say that I am my own person. But even then, I don’t believe that any of us are truly our own person. We are a merger of all that we see around us and our reactions to it is what define us.

I reacted badly to a friend today. I didn’t like that. I said one thing but then countered it with what I said later. I wasn’t consistent. And I value consistency and efficiency. Perhaps because I lack both. Perhaps because I find that they just make things run smoothly and when things run smoothly, I can relax.

So why have I linked this to the prompt Maybe?

Well, maybe it is because I think that things are actually looking up now. Maybe I think I have done what I need to in my little secular state and now I need to branch out and experiment again. So maybe I am going to break out of character and converse with those that I don’t normally speak to. But then again, maybe I won’t. It’s not because I don’t want to, although a large part of it is that. But a lot of it is because I can’t. I’ve tried to walk up to someone and strike a conversation but it just doesn’t work. I can’t take that approach so I’ll have to find another method. One that works. One that allows me to maintain true to my worldview and doesn’t induce mass panic attacks. I can’t fight this thing. I have no way to fight against my demons. I can’t outrun them. That didn’t work. So maybe,just maybe, if I accept them, then I can fight with them.

Someone who I am wanting to try and get closer to told me to just pray. I’ve tried that. I failed at that too. It didn’t work for me. People say that it is because I don’t have unwavering faith in an almighty. I say that all those who do are either lying to themselves or stripping themselves of a large part of their humanity. To be human. This is as much of a pray as I can truly give. A hand offering help. The other asking to be pulled up. My heart crying out for a lover and my mind rejecting all who try.

Being human means to be destructive. To be creative. To be shallow and to be deep. To love and to hate. To reason and induce. To fight and to flee. But most importantly, it’s that we do all of this at the same time. To be human is to be a walking contradiction.

To Feel Human Again

Dream Journal 04-08-16

Just another empty vial. Nothing new happening there.

A Not-so-Daily Response to the Daily Post’s Daily Prompt: Craving

I woke up today and could tell that it was just going to be a bad day. I tried to turn it around with feigned optimism but that failed. I spent the entire day up until now on the brink of a panic attack. It’s really tough living like this and I have been doing so for far longer than I would like to admit.

Don’t get me wrong. I can fully accept the fact that most of why I am like this is my own fault. We’ve all made mistakes in life and we’ve all got something that is weighing us down. For me, I distanced myself from people when I was a child. I could not relate to anyone at my school on a level that actually promoted my psychological well being. Instead, I took an even worse route and opted for isolation. In a way, I’m glad that I did because it made me the person who I am today and I am proud of what I have come through. I am not a fighter, I wake up and greet my demons every day before I bolster my defences and run as if my life depends on it. And in a way, it does. Yet, the two polar opposite brain states that I experience allow me to balance this out. But, between the oh-my-word-is-that-a-flower-floating-through-the-sky-I-CARE-ABOUT-EVERYTHING!!! To a state, where nothing really matters. It’s just . . . apathy.

Alternating between these two states is like jumping from tightrope to tightrope, with no safety cord, as they are being dragged behind supersonic jets in the sky thousands of metres up. It’s the most tiring thing I have ever done and I am still doing it as of this moment. I am still running from those circus demons who want to push me off and fighter pilots A and D who wish to twist and entangle me with the very thing that keeps me afloat.

I am tired. I am drained and I want a rest. I think I deserve a rest, but I know I am not going to get one. All I can do is try to help myself by only chewing on what I can digest. I am overambitious and afraid of failure. (Yet, funnily enough, I do not mind it when I am wrong).

I know that many of you out there are craving things like love and companionship. I’ve read some of your tales of heartbreak and desire. All of you people going around doing regular things, creating, destroying, craving. Yu are wonderfully human and I want you to be able to accept that being destructive is part of our nature, but that does not mean that we should just allow it to roam free.

Is it too much for me to ask if I can just feel human?