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Perspectives on language and mind

that an artisan could construct. Thus he rejected traditional theories
of tides because we cannot “duplicate [them] by means of appropriate
artificial devices.”
The Galilean model of intelligibility has a corollary: when mech-
anism fails, understanding fails. The apparent inadequacies of me-
chanical explanation for cohesion, attraction, and other phenomena
led Galileo finally to reject “the vain presumption of understanding
everything.” Worse yet, “there is not a single effect in nature . . . such
that the most ingenious theorist can arrive at a complete understanding
of it.” For mind, the Galilean model plainly fails, as Descartes convinc-
ingly showed. Though much more optimistic than Galileo about the
prospects for mechanical explanation, Descartes nevertheless specu-
lated that the workings of res cogitans may lie beyond human under-
standing. He thought that we may not “have intelligence enough” to
understand the creative aspect of language use and other manifesta-
tions of mind, though “there is nothing that we comprehend more
clearly and perfectly” than our possession of these capacities, and “it
would be absurd to doubt that of which we inwardly experience and
perceive as existing within ourselves, just because we do not compre-
hend a matter which from its nature we know to be incomprehensible.”
He goes too far in saying that we “know” the matter to be incomprehen-
sible, but anyone committed to the belief that humans are biological
organisms, not angels, will recognize that human intelligence has spe-
cific scope and limits, and that much of what we seek to understand
might lie beyond these limits.
The fact that res cogitans escapes the model of intelligibility that
animated the modern scientific revolution is interesting, but in a
way not important. The reason is that the entire model quickly col-
lapsed, confirming Galileo™s worst fears. Newton demonstrated, to
his dismay, that nothing in nature falls within the mechanical model

On nature and language

of intelligibility that seemed to be the merest common sense to the
creators of modern science. Newton regarded his discovery of action
at a distance, in violation of the basic principles of the mechanical
philosophy, as “so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has
in philosophical matters a competent Faculty of thinking, can ever fall
into it.” Nonetheless, he was forced to conclude that the Absurdity
“does really exist.” “Newton had no physical explanation of it at all,”
two contemporary scholars observe, a deep problem for him and emi-
nent contemporaries who “accused him of reintroducing occult qual-
ities,” with no “physical, material substrate” that “human beings can
understand” (Betty Dobbs and Margaret Jacob). In the words of one
of the founders of modern Galilean studies, Alexander Koyr´, Newton
demonstrated that “a purely materialistic or mechanistic physics” is
To the end of his life, Newton sought to escape the absurdity,
as did Euler, D™Alembert, and many since, but in vain. Nothing has
lessened the force of David Hume™s judgment that by refuting the self-
evident mechanical philosophy, Newton “restored [Nature™s] ultimate
secrets to that obscurity in which they ever did and ever will remain.”
Later discoveries, introducing still more extreme “Absurdities,” only
entrenched more deeply the realization that the natural world is not
comprehensible to human intelligence, at least in the sense anticipated
by the founders of modern science.
While recognizing the Absurdity, Newton defended himself
vigorously against the criticism of continental scientists “ Huygens,
Leibniz, and others “ who charged him with reintroducing the “occult
qualities” of the despised scholastic philosophers. The occult qual-
ities of the Aristotelians were vacuous, Newton wrote, but his new
principles, while unfortunately occult, nevertheless had substantive
content. “To derive two or three general Principles of Motion from

Perspectives on language and mind

Phaenomena, and afterwards to tell us how the properties and Actions
of all corporal Things follow from those manifest Principles, would be
a very great step in Philosophy,” Newton wrote, “though the Causes of
those Principles be not yet discover™d.” Newton was formulating a new
and weaker model of intelligibility, one with roots in what has been
called the “mitigated skepticism” of the British scientific tradition,
which had abandoned as hopeless the search for the “first springs of
natural motions” and other natural phenomena, keeping to the much
more modest effort to develop the best theoretical account we can.
The implications for the theory of mind were immediate, and
immediately recognized. Mind“body dualism is no longer tenable, be-
cause there is no notion of body. It is common in recent years to ridicule
Descartes™s “ghost in the machine,” and to speak of “Descartes™s
error” in postulating a second substance: mind, distinct from body.
It is true that Descartes was proven wrong, but not for those reasons.
Newton exorcised the machine; he left the ghost intact. It was the
first substance, extended matter, that dissolved into mysteries. We can
speak intelligibly of physical phenomena (processes, etc.) as we speak
of the real truth or the real world, but without supposing that there is
some other truth or world. For the natural sciences, there are mental
aspects of the world, along with optical, chemical, organic, and others.
The categories need not be firm or distinct, or conform to common-
sense intuition, a standard for science that was finally abandoned with
Newton™s discoveries, along with the demand for “intelligibility” as
conceived by Galileo and early modern science rather generally.
In this view, mental aspects of the world fall together with
the rest of nature. Galileo had argued that “At present we need
only . . . investigate and demonstrate certain of the properties of
motion which is accelerated,” putting aside the question of “the cause
of the acceleration of natural motion.” After Newton, the guiding

On nature and language

principle was extended to all of science. The eighteenth-century
English chemist Joseph Black recommended that “chemical affinity
be received as a first principle, which we cannot explain any more
than Newton could explain gravitation, and let us defer accounting
for the laws of affinity, till we have established such a body of doc-
trine as [Newton] has established concerning the laws of gravitation.”
Chemistry proceeded along that course. It established a rich body
of doctrine, achieving its “triumphs . . . in isolation from the newly
emerging science of physics,” a leading historian of chemistry points
out (Arnold Thackray). Well into the twentieth century, prominent
scientists regarded molecules and chemical properties as basically
calculating devices; understanding of these matters was then vastly
beyond anything known about mental reality. Unification was finally
achieved sixty-five years ago, but only after physics had undergone
radical revision, departing even more from common-sense intuitions.
Notice that it was unification, not reduction. Chemistry not only
seemed irreducible to the physics of the day, but indeed was.
All of this conveys important lessons for the study of mind.
Though they should be far more obvious to us today, they were already
clear after Newton™s demolition of the mechanical philosophy. And
they were drawn at once, pursuing John Locke™s suggestion that God
might have chosen to “superadd to matter a faculty of thinking” just as
he “annexed effects to motion which we can in no way conceive motion
able to produce.” In Newton™s words, defending his postulation of in-
nate active principles in matter, “God, who gave animals self-motion
beyond our understanding, is, without doubt, able to implant other
principles of motion in bodies, which we may understand as little.”
Motion of the limbs, thinking, acts of will “ all are “beyond our un-
derstanding,” though we can seek to find “general principles” and
“bodies of doctrine” that give us a limited grasp of their fundamental

Perspectives on language and mind

nature. Such ideas led naturally to the conclusion that properties of
mind arise from “the organization of the nervous system itself,” that
those properties “termed mental” are the result of the “organical struc-
ture” of the brain just as matter “is possessed of powers of attraction
and repulsion” that act at a distance (La Mettrie, Joseph Priestley). It
is not clear what might be a coherent alternative.
A century later, Darwin expressed his agreement. He asked,
rhetorically, “Why is thought, being a secretion of the brain, more
wonderful than gravity, a property of matter?” Essentially Locke™s sug-
gestion, as elaborated by Priestley and others. It is well to remember,
however, that the problems raised by the Cartesians were never ad-
dressed. There is no substantial “body of doctrine” about the ordi-
nary creative use of language or other manifestations of our “noblest”
quality. And lacking that, questions of unification cannot be seriously
The modern cognitive sciences, linguistics included, face prob-
lems much like those of chemistry from the collapse of the mechanical
philosophy until the 1930s, when the bodies of doctrine that chemists
had developed were unified with a radically revised physics. Contem-
porary neuroscience commonly puts forth, as its guiding idea, the
thesis that “Things mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of
brains,” while recognizing that “these emergences are not regarded
as irreducible but are produced by principles that control the interac-
tions between lower-level events “ principles we do not yet understand”
(Vernon Mountcastle). The thesis is often presented as an “astonishing
hypothesis,” “the bold assertion that mental phenomena are entirely
natural and caused by the neurophysiological activities of the brain,”
a “radical new idea” in the philosophy of mind that may at last put to
rest Cartesian dualism, some believe, while others express doubt that
the apparent chasm between body and mind can really be bridged.

On nature and language

These are not, however, the proper ways to look at the matter.
The thesis is old, not new; it closely paraphrases Priestley and others,
two centuries ago. It is, furthermore, a virtual corollary of the col-
lapse of mind“body dualism as Newton undermined the concept of
matter, in any intelligible sense, and left science with the problems of
constructing “bodies of doctrine” in various domains of inquiry, and
seeking unification.
How unification might take place, or whether it can be achieved
by human intelligence or even in principle, we will not know until
we know. Speculation is as idle as it was in chemistry early in the
twentieth century. And chemistry is hard science, just beyond physics
in the misleading hierarchy of “reductionism.” Integration of mental
aspects of the world with others appears to be a distant goal. Even for
insects, the so-called “language of the bees” for example, problems
of neural realization and evolution are barely at the horizon. It is,
perhaps, surprising to find that such problems are lively topics of
speculation for the vastly more complex and obscure systems of human
higher mental faculties, language and others; and that we regularly
hear confident pronouncements about the mechanisms and evolution
of such faculties “ for humans, not for bees; for bees the problems are
understood to be too hard. Commonly the speculations are offered as
solutions to the mind“body problem, but that can hardly be, since the
problem has had no coherent formulation for 300 years.
For the present, the study of language and other higher human
mental faculties is proceeding much as chemistry did, seeking to
“establish a rich body of doctrine,” with an eye to eventual unification,
but without any clear idea of how this might take place.
Some of the bodies of doctrine that are under investigation are
rather surprising in their implications. Thus, it now seems possible
to take seriously an idea that a few years ago would have seemed

Perspectives on language and mind

outlandish: that the language organ of the brain approaches a kind
of optimal design. For simple organic systems, conclusions of this
sort seem very reasonable, and even partially understood. If a very re-
cent emergent organ that is central to human existence in fact does
approach optimal design, that would suggest that, in some unknown
way, it may be the result of the functioning of physical and chemical
laws for a brain that has reached a certain level of complexity. And fur-
ther questions arise for general evolution that are by no means novel,
but that have been somewhat at the margins of inquiry until fairly
recently. I am thinking of the work of D™Arcy Thompson and Alan
Turing, to mention two of the most prominent modern figures.
Similar conceptions, now emerging in a certain form in the study
of language, also had a central place in Galileo™s thought. In studying
acceleration, he wrote, “we have been guided . . . by our insight into
the character and properties of nature™s other works, in which nature
generally employs only the least elaborate, the simplest and easiest of
means. For I do not believe that anybody could imagine that swim-
ming or flying could be accomplished in a simpler or easier way than
that which fish and birds actually use by natural instinct.” In a more
theological vein, he held that God “always complies with the easiest
and simplest rules, so that His power could be all the more revealed
through His most difficult ways.” Galileo was guided by the ontologi-
cal principle that “Nature is perfect and simple and creates nothing in
vain,” historian of science Pietro Redondi observes.
The theory of evolution adopts a more complex picture. Evolu-
tion is a “tinkerer,” in Fran¸ois Jacob™s often quoted phrase. It does the
best it can with the materials at hand, but the best may be convoluted,
a result of path-dependent evolution, and under physical constraints
and often conflicting adaptive demands. Nonetheless, the conception
of the perfection of nature remains a vital component of contemporary

On nature and language

inquiry into organic nature, at least in its simpler aspects: the poly-
hedral shells of viruses, cell-division into spheres, the appearance of
the Fibonacci series in many phenomena of nature, and other aspects
of the biological world. How far this goes is a matter of speculation
and debate.
Very recently, the issues have come to the fore in the study of lan-
guage. It has become possible to pose in a productive way the question
of “perfection of language”: specifically, to ask how closely human
language approaches an optimal solution to design conditions that
the system must meet to be usable at all. To the extent that the ques-
tion receives a positive answer, we will have found that nature has “ in
Galileo™s words “ “employed the least elaborate, the simplest and eas-
iest of means,” but in a domain where this would hardly be expected:
a very recent and apparently isolated product of evolution, a central
component of the most complex organic object known, a component
that is surely at the core of our mental nature, cultural achievement,
and curious history.
Perhaps I might add one final remark about the limits of under-
standing. Many of the questions that inspired the modern scientific
revolution are not even on the agenda. These include issues of will
and choice, which were taken to be at the heart of the mind“body
problem before it was undermined by Newton. There has been very
valuable work about how an organism executes a plan for integrated
motor action “ how a cockroach walks, or a person reaches for a cup
on the table. But no one even raises the question of why this plan
is executed rather than some other one, except for the very simplest
organisms. Much the same is true even for visual perception, some-
times considered to be a passive or reflexive operation. Recently two
cognitive neuroscientists published a review of progress in solving a
problem posed in 1850 by Helmholtz: “even without moving our eyes,

Perspectives on language and mind

we can focus our attention on different objects at will, resulting in very
different perceptual experiences of the same visual field.” The phrase
“at will” points to an area beyond serious empirical inquiry. It remains
as much of a mystery as it was for Newton at the end of his life, when
he was still seeking some “subtle spirit” that lies hidden in all bod-
ies and that might, without “absurdity,” account for their properties
of attraction and repulsion, the nature and effects of light, sensation,
and the way “members of animal bodies move at the command of the
will” “ all comparable mysteries for Newton, perhaps even “beyond
our understanding,” like the “principles of motion.”
It has become standard practice in the last few years to describe
the problem of consciousness as “the hard problem,” others being
within our grasp, now or imminently. I think there are good reasons
to treat such pronouncements with at least “mitigated skepticism,”
particularly when we recognize how sharply understanding declines
beyond the simplest systems of nature. History also suggests caution.
In the Galilean era, the nature of motion was the “hard problem.”
“Springing or Elastic Motions” are the “hard rock in Philosophy,”
Sir William Petty observed, proposing ideas that resemble those soon
developed much more richly by Newton. The “hard problem” was that
bodies that seem to our senses to be at rest are in a “violent” state, with
“a strong endeavor to fly off or recede from one another,” in Robert
Boyle™s words. The problem, he felt, is as obscure as “the Cause and
Nature” of gravity, thus supporting his belief in “an intelligent Author
or Disposer of Things.” Even the skeptical Newtonian Voltaire argued
that the ability of humans to “produce a movement” where there was
none shows that “there is a God who gave movement” to matter. To
Henry More, the transfer of motion from one body to another was an
ultimate mystery: if a blue ball hits a red ball, the motion is transferred,
but not the color, though both are qualities of the moving blue ball.

On nature and language

These “hard problems” were not solved; rather, abandoned as
science turned to its more modest post-Newtonian course. That has
been recognized by leading historians of science. Friedrich Lange, in
his classic scholarly history of materialism a century ago, observed that
we have simply “accustomed ourselves to the abstract notion of forces,
or rather to a notion hovering in a mystic obscurity between abstrac-
tion and concrete comprehension,” a “turning-point” in the history of
materialism that removes the doctrine far from the “genuine Material-
ists” of the seventeenth century, and deprives it of much significance.
Their “hard problems” disappeared, and there has been little notice-
able progress in addressing the other “hard problems” that seemed
no less mysterious to Descartes, Newton, Locke and other leading
figures, including the “free will” that is “the noblest thing” we have,
manifested most strikingly in normal language use, they believed, for
reasons that we should not lightly dismiss.
For some of these mysteries, extraordinary bodies of doctrine
have been developed in the past several hundred years, some of the
greatest achievements of the human intellect. And there have been
remarkable feats of unification as well. How remote the remaining
mountain peaks may be, and even just where they are, one can only
guess. Within the range of feasible inquiry, there is plenty of work
to be done in understanding mental aspects of the world, including
human language. And the prospects are surely exciting. We would do
well, however, to keep in some corner of our minds Hume™sconclusion
about “Nature™s ultimate secrets” and the “obscurity in which they ever
did and ever will remain,” and particularly the reasoning that led him
to that judgment, and its confirmation in the subsequent history of
the hard sciences. These are matters that are sometimes too easily
forgotten, I suspect, and that merit serious reflection “ possibly, some
day, even constructive scientific inquiry.

Chapter 3

Language and the brain

The right way to address the announced topic would be to review the
fundamental principles of language and the brain and to show how
they can be unified, perhaps on the model of chemistry and physics
sixty-five years ago, or the integration of parts of biology within the
complex a few years later. But that course I am not going to try to
attempt. One of the few things I can say about this topic with any con-
fidence is that I do not begin to know enough to approach it in the
right way. With less confidence I suspect it may be fair to say that
current understanding falls well short of laying the basis for the uni-
fication of the sciences of the brain and higher mental faculties, lan-
guage among them, and that many surprises may lie along the way to
what seems a distant goal “ which would itself come as no surprise
if the classical examples I mentioned are indeed a realistic model.
This somewhat skeptical assessment of current prospects dif-
fers from two prevalent but opposing views. The first holds that the
skepticism is unwarranted, or more accurately, profoundly in error,
because the question of unification does not even arise. It does not
arise for psychology as the study of mind, because the topic does not
fall within biology, a position taken to define the “computer model of

On nature and language

mind”;1 nor for language, because language is an extra-human object,
the standard view within major currents of philosophy of mind and
language, and also put forth recently by prominent figures in neuro-
science and ethology. At least that is what the words seem to imply; the
intentions may be different. I will return to some prominent current
A contrasting view holds that the problem of unification does
arise, but that the skepticism is unwarranted. Unification of the brain
and cognitive sciences is an imminent prospect, overcoming Cartesian
dualism. This optimistic assessment is expressed forthrightly by
evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson in a recent publication of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences devoted to the brain, sum-
marizing the state of the art, and seems to be shared rather broadly:

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