“The reality, however, is otherwise, for it is becoming increasingly clear that the acquisition of the uniquely modern [human] sensibility was instead an abrupt and recent event…. And the expression of this new sensibility was almost certainly crucially abetted by the invention of what is perhaps the single most remarkable thing about our modern selves: language.” If so, then an answer to the question “What is language?” matters greatly to anyone concerned with understanding our modern selves.” — Noam Chomsky
The general question I would like to address in these lectures is an ancient one: What kind of creatures are we? I am not deluded enough to think I can provide a satisfactory answer, but it seems reasonable to believe that in some domains at least, particularly with regard to our cognitive nature, there are insights of some interest and significance, some new, and that it should be possible to clear away some of the obstacles that hamper further inquiry, including some widely accepted doctrines with foundations that are much less stable than often assumed.
I will consider three specific questions, increasingly obscure: What is language? What are the limits of human understanding (if any)? And what is the common good to which we should strive? I will begin today with the first, and will try to show how what may seem at first to be rather narrow and technical questions, if pursued carefully, can lead to some far-reaching conclusions that are significant in themselves, and differ sharply from what is generally believed – and often regarded as fundamental – in the relevant disciplines: cognitive science in a broad sense, including linguistics, and philosophy of language and mind.
Throughout, I will be discussing what seem to me virtual truisms, but of an odd kind. They are generally rejected. That poses a dilemma, for me at least. And perhaps you too will be interested in resolving it.
Turning to language, it has been studied intensively and productively for 2500 years, but with no clear answer to the question of what language is. I will mention later some of the major proposals. We might ask just how important it is to fill this gap. For the study of any aspect of language the answer should be clear. Only to the extent that there is an answer to this question, at least tacit, is it possible to proceed to investigate serious questions about language, among them acquisition and use, origin, language change, diversity and common properties, language in society, the internal mechanisms that implement the system, both the cognitive system itself and its various uses, distinct though related tasks. No biologist would propose an account of the development or evolution of the eye, for example, without telling us something fairly definite about what an eye is, and the same truisms hold of inquiries into language. Or should. Interestingly, that is not how the questions have generally been viewed, a matter to which I will return.
But there are much more fundamental reasons to try to determine clearly what language is, reasons that bear directly on the question of what kind of creatures we are. Darwin was not the first to conclude that “the lower animals differ from man solely in his almost infinitely larger power of associating together the most diversified sounds and ideas”; “almost infinite” is a traditional phrase to be interpreted today as actually infinite. But Darwin was the first to have expressed this traditional concept within the framework of an incipient account of human evolution.
A contemporary version is given by one of the leading scientists who studies human evolution, Ian Tattersall. In a recent review of the currently available scientific evidence, he observes that it was once believed that the evolutionary record would yield “early harbingers of our later selves. The reality, however, is otherwise, for it is becoming increasingly clear that the acquisition of the uniquely modern [human] sensibility was instead an abrupt and recent event…. And the expression of this new sensibility was almost certainly crucially abetted by the invention of what is perhaps the single most remarkable thing about our modern selves: language.” If so, then an answer to the question “What is language?” matters greatly to anyone concerned with understanding our modern selves.