Taking Stock

I just want to add my support to Kathleen Stock, not because of her specific views (though they strike me as plausible), but as a rebuke to those in the “philosophy profession” who have been persecuting her, as well as the moral cowards who let it happen. She is quite right about projection, immaturity, social bubbles, and sheer malice. Here I make common cause with her (and others I won’t mention here).


Biology and Culture: An Untenable Dualism

Biology and Culture: An Untenable Dualism



The concept of the biological engages in three conceptual contrasts: the biological versus the physical (inorganic, inanimate); the biological versus the divine (supernatural, godlike); the biological versus the cultural (invented, constructed). I am concerned with the last of these contrasts: the idea that the cultural falls outside the scope of the biological—that culture is essentially non-biological. I wish to question this contrast, maintaining instead that culture is a special case of biology. Properly understood, biology includes culture, so that cultural studies are a type of biological studies. Culture is as much a biological fact of the human species as anatomy and physiology. This is not intended as a reductive claim but simply as correct taxonomy; it is a claim about the extension of the concepts as ordinarily understood.

The question obviously turns on what is meant by the word “biological”. The OEDhas “relating to biology or living organisms”. This gives the desired result quite straightforwardly: culture is clearly an aspect of living organisms, since humans are organisms that live. The culture of a community is part of its way of life (compare Wittgenstein’s “form of life”)—culture is a living thing. There is no culture where there is no life—there is no culture of rocks or electrons. Culture is thus a biological trait of humans, like speaking or walking or breathing. It certainly isn’t a physical trait or a divine trait; it’s how certain organisms live. Arts, customs, religions, and so on are woven into the life of certain evolved organisms. But, it may be objected, this is too quick, since culture is not instinctive or innate or genetically fixed—hence not part of our biology. We invent culture; we acquire it; we construct it. Culture is not prefigured in the genes but freely created, which is why it varies from place to place and time to time. Thisis the intended contrast, not captured by the dictionary definition. In a word, culture isn’t genetic.

The point may be conceded, though with the insistence that culture depends upon genetically transmitted capacities (such as the human power to create, stipulate, and legislate). It is true that the contentsof a particular culture are not written into the genes, though its enabling conditions no doubt are—just as Englishis not written in the genes, though the general capacity for language is. There is no gene for literary modernism or surrealism in painting or punk rock. However, it is far from clear that this is the right way to define the biological. For, first, many aspects of the life of organisms count as biological that are not genetically encoded: for example, local knowledge and specific actions. The genes don’t determine what an animal will know of its local environment or which particular individual it will mate with—these are contingencies of its particular history. But it would be strange to deny that they are biological facts: they are certainly not physical (inanimate) facts or divine (spiritual) facts. When a predator strikes this token event is not preordained in its genes but is nevertheless a fact of natural biological history. The sentence “The lion killed the antelope” records a particular biological (zoological) event. Similarly for such facts as the spread of a species across a continent—this too is a biological affair. This is because these facts concern the life of organisms, and life is more than what is contained in the genes.[1]They are, in the jargon, epigenetic—yet still plainly biological in nature. A wound is also a biological business, though not genetically predetermined. There is clearly much more to biology than strands of DNA. Indeed, DNA itself is not clearly a living thing, but simply a complex molecule; only in the context of an organism’s life does it count as part of biology (the same is true of other molecules in the body). We had the concept of the biological before we knew anything about genes and DNA, or even inheritance, so that concept can’t be tied by definition to the genes; intuitively, it is simply the concept of what is alive.

And, second, what if we encountered a species (perhaps on another planet) that had the same art, customs, religions, etc. as us but these were all innate in that species? What if the species had its culture as a result of genetic endowment? Would that mean that they hadno culture, because culture by definition is gene-independent? I don’t think so: they simply have a culture that is caused differently from ours. The contents are the same though the origin is different, so the right thing to say is that they have a culture very like ours. The concept of the cultural does not logically exclude genetically based culture, on pain of denying that this species has a culture. It isn’t that this “culture” is biological but is not really a culture; rather, the culture exists as a result of a certain kind of biological fact, viz. the genes. Indeed, it could turn out that ourculture is genetically determined (contrary to current theory)—this is an epistemic possibility. If that turned out to be true, would we conclude that we never had a culture all along? No, we would conclude that our culture is genetically based, contrary to what we thought. So the concept of culture does not require freedom from genetic influence, and the concept of the biological does not require dependence on such influence. The conceptual pair biological-culturalcuts across the conceptual pair genetic-acquired (invented). Thus we can’t rule out the thesis that culture is a special case of biology by observing  (truly) that culture is not innate.

On what grounds could we deny that culture is a form of biology? Well, we could claim that it is merely physical, or alternatively that it is positively supernatural. Presumably the size and weight of an organism is not a biological property of it but a merely physical property, since you don’t have to be a living organism to have size and weight. True enough, but culture is not possessed by non-living objects, only by living organisms. So culture belongs with the life of organisms not with the inanimate world of objects having size and mass. Culture is an attribute of life not of lifeless matter in motion. On the other hand, if we had a divinely created immortal soul that exists independently of the evolutionary process, and culture grows from that supernatural entity, then indeed culture would not be properly designated biological. The soul would not be biological (as God is not[2]) and culture is its special province. But I take it such a view is just empirically false: we have no such supernatural part or essence, any more than other animals do. The point is that giventhis fact culture must be rated biological; it can’t be non-biological unlesswe have a divine part of the sort suggested. Thus once we accept that culture is not physical and also not divine the only thing left for it to be is biological.

Granted, there are potent conversational implicatures at work here. In many contexts if I assert, “Culture is biological” I will be taken to assert (or be committed to holding) something false, namely that culture is genetic or somehow just like reproduction and digestion, or as subscribing to some form of biological reductionism (“it’s all in the genes”, “there is nothing to humans but their bodies”). But such implicatures are not part of the very meaning of the term “biological”, as the dictionary confirms, which term merely captures the notion of a living organism. It is the same with psychology: psychology is really part of biology (the part concerned with the minds of organisms), though it could be misleading to say this in certain contexts, suggesting perhaps that psychology is reducible to physiology or that the mind is wholly in the genes. Implicatures, as always, are not logical implications; pragmatics is not semantics. Since we are here in ideological territory, it would not be surprising if the entire resistance to subsuming culture (and psychology) under biology derives from these fraught implicatures and not from the mild thesis under consideration. That thesis, to repeat, is just the anodyne suggestion that culture is part of the life of a particular animal species—not a divine infusion or a chunk of inanimate nature. Part of the life of the human species is reproduction and digestion, part comprises the various compartments of the mind, and part is the culture we have invented (with some input from the genes). Our inventions are as much part of our natural form of life as our anatomy; they are not somehow “above” it or discontinuous with it. And note that culture is a species universal, even if its form varies from case to case: all human societies have a culture. Martian scientists would add it to our phenotype along with our other traits and study it as such. The idea of a radical discontinuity here is really a relic of discarded religious conceptions of the nature of human beings, with their dualist views of the mind and body. It is a kind of superstition.

It is a question whether other species have anything deserving to be called culture. Evidently Neanderthals did and probably other hominid species too, but some existing species may also possess rudiments of culture—language, an aesthetic sense, rituals, tools, social hierarchies. We can certainly easily imagine other species with a culture resembling ours (they are the stuff of science fiction). The important point is that in these cases we would be ready to accept that culture is continuous with biology: for there is nothing in the contentof culture that precludes a biological perspective on it. If bees had a primitive culture, we would not jib at the suggestion that this is part of bee biology (certainly not a manifestation of the god of bees). And what we call culture is clearly woven into accepted biological aspects our nature—just consider eating and courting, dressing and dancing. Where does biology stop and culture begin? It is all just part of life’s rich pageant, as the saying goes—what constitutes the life of a particular species on a particular planet at a particular time. Human culture grew over time and its early manifestations were obviously dependent on the biological nature of our ancestors—there is no point at which biology ceased and culture took over as a separate force. Culture is just a new twist on biology.[3]Anthropology is a branch of biology, but directed at a particular aspect of our nature. If other species had more in the way of culture, as might be true on distant planets, there would have to be several branches of anthropology (and a new name for it), with a blurring of the boundaries between biology and these other studies. The physical sciences deal with the inanimate, inorganic world, while the biological sciences deal with the animate, organic world—with life in all its dimensions (cellular, psychological, cultural). The biological character of culture should not be a controversial thesis, despite those looming implicatures. The OEDdefines “culture” as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”. Nothing in that definition opposes culture to biology, and indeed the reference to human intellectual achievement places culture firmly in the biological domain, because human intellect precisely is a biologically based species characteristic. Culture is certainly not an imposition from outside, as if infused by God’s magic finger. Ultimately, of course, it depends on the brain, a biological organ of the body.

It might be protested that culture differs from biology in one crucial respect, viz. that it is not functional. Biological traits contribute to survival (of the genes ultimately) or they are eliminated by natural selection, but culture rises above these crude laws of nature—it serves no biological purpose. It is splendidly unconcerned with mere survival; it might even operate counter to survival (e.g. religious martyrs). Let us agree that culture is not biologically adaptive, at least in every respect: does that show it is not biological? No, because many traits of organisms are biological but not adaptive—they are side effects of adaptive traits. Plausibly, culture is a side effect of human intelligence (see the dictionary definition), which is adaptive; so it is a side effect of something biologically functional. If so, it is biological in just the way other side effects of adaptive traits are—heavy coats, fragile feathers, tottering bipedal walkers, and energy-hungry brains. The underlying traits confer advantages, but they also carry costs—biological costs. In any case, the non-functionality of culture is no proof of its non-biological status. There is really nothing to inhibit us in accepting the banal truth that culture is as much part of life as anything else in biology.[4]


Colin McGinn

[1]Natural selection itself is not encoded into the genes of nature (there are no such genes), but it is still a biological process, because it concerns life. It isn’t determined by genes (though it does determine them), but it is the biological process par excellence. The same might be said of mutation: there are no genes formutation, but it is a biological event nevertheless. Being biological and being in the genes are not coextensive properties, let alone synonyms.

[2]Actually the question is not entirely straightforward: as a matter of theology, we can agree that God is not a biological being, but is he not alive? He isn’t dead and he isn’t inanimate, so isn’t he a living thing in some sense? I won’t pursue the question.

[3]One consequence of this perspective is that English (that particular natural language) is as biological as the innate universal grammar that underlies it.

[4]Biology used to be called natural history (compare physics as natural philosophy): in that nomenclature we could say that culture is part of natural history—as is history itself. The same could be said employing the phrase “life sciences”. The word “bio” comes from a Greek word meaning “life”, so that “biology” just means “study of life”.


Ambiguity as a Species Defect


Ambiguity as a Species Defect



Ambiguity in natural languages is commonly regarded as a lapse from perfection. A perfect language would not contain ambiguity. Why is this? Because language is used for communication and ambiguity impedes communication. If an utterance is ambiguous, it is harder for the hearer to figure out the intended meaning; and in many cases it is not possible to do this without further questioning. Language is then failing in its purpose (or one of them), which is to convey information quickly and effectively. Ambiguity is the enemy of understanding. If we had invented language from scratch, or were constantly reinventing it, we would be thought guilty of poor craftsmanship—creating a defective product. Ambiguity is clearly not a necessary and unavoidable feature of language, since invented languages are often designed to be free of it. We can construct languages that contain no lexical ambiguity or syntactic ambiguity, as with standard formalized languages. So the defect of ambiguity is a contingent feature of natural human languages not a necessary feature of languages as such.[1]

Nor is the problem local or confined; a typical human language such as English is rife with ambiguity. Often we don’t notice it because the intended reading is so salient, but the formal structure of the language generates ambiguity all the time. The classic “I shot an elephant in my pajamas” is ambiguous in a characteristic way, i.e. it is not clear whether the modifier “in my pajamas” applies to the speaker or the elephant. The sentence “Old friends and acquaintances remembered Pat’s last visit to California” is said to have 32 different readings. The Chomsky favorite “Flying planes can be dangerous” has infinitely many counterparts (e.g. “Dating women can be dangerous”). Syntactic ambiguity is pervasive and prodigal. Thus we must be constantly on our guard against it for fear of failing to express our meaning. Language is an ambiguity trap that easily lures us into error. We are always in danger of failing to communicate given the formal nature of the vehicle. It could have been worse—our every utterance could have been dogged by ambiguity—but things are bad enough as it is. And yet ambiguity is not integral to the very nature of language. Apparently we have been sold a shoddy product, one expressly constructed to get in the way of communicating.[2]

Why is this? Why is human language so defective? The question acquires bite when we acknowledge that language is a biological phenomenon: it is an adaptation shaped by natural selection, encoded in the genes, part of our birthright as a species. It is as if we have all been born with a defective heart or liver that does its job only fitfully and inefficiently. True, our bodily organs are not perfect—they can become diseased and break down—but they are not like our language faculty, which has the defect of ambiguity built right into its architecture. So the question must arise as to how such a defective biological trait originated and why it has not been improved upon over time. One would think there was some selection pressure against rampant ambiguity—that it would have been remedied over time. Yet there is no reason to believe that human language is moving towards less ambiguity, lexical or syntactic. It seems content to remain stuck in its current lamentably ambiguous condition. This is a puzzle: why does ambiguity exist, especially on such a large scale, and why does it persist? It looks like a design flaw of major proportions, so why is it biologically so entrenched? Why don’t we speak unambiguous languages? Why do constructions like “flying planes” exist at all? It is doubtful that comparable ambiguities afflict the languages (communication systems) of other species such as bees, birds, whales, and dolphins; and it would be bad if that were the case given that such languages are crucial to survival. So why does ourspecies settle for anything so rickety and unreliable?

First we must recognize that this is a genuine puzzle—it really is strange that human language is so riddled with the defect in question. Why isn’t there a simple one-one pairing between sign and meaning? Why is the connection between sound and sense so loose? Let me compare linguistic ambiguity with what are called ambiguous figures, the kind found in psychology textbooks (e.g. the Necker cube or the duck-rabbit). These are aptly described as cases in which a given physical stimulus can be interpreted in two different ways—hence “ambiguous”. So isn’t the problem of ambiguity found outside the case of language, and isn’t it really not that much of a problem? But these cases are relatively rare and confined: they are generated by psychologists drawing sketchy pictures on pieces of paper. Seldom do we find anything comparable in nature: it is not as if vision by itself is constantly generating such ambiguities.[3]We might wonder whether a patch of shade yonder is a black cat or a shadow, but such cases are not common and don’t generally disrupt the purpose of vision. It is not that vision is biologically constructed so asto lead to such uncertainties of interpretation. But in the case of language the problem is endemic and structural: ambiguity is both common and practically consequential. If vision were as prone to ambiguity as language, we would find ourselves in trouble (imagine 32 ways to see a snake, most of them not as of a snake). Ambiguity in vision is sometimes a problem, but it is not ubiquitous enough to thwart the purpose of vision (i.e. gathering accurate information about the environment); if it were, we would expect natural selection to do its winnowing work. But ambiguity in language really is a practical problem, as well as an inherent design flaw: it cuts at the very heart of communication. The question, “What did she mean?” can be pressing and momentous. And the reason for ambiguity in vision is obvious enough: vision is an interpretative, hypothesis-generating process, proceeding from an often-exiguous basis in the stimulus environment, so it must sometimes boldly venture alternative hypotheses. But language has ambiguity built into its syntax, its rules of sentence formation. It is constitutionally ambiguous.

Sometimes a biological trait has a defect as an inevitable side effect of an adaptive characteristic. Thus it is with the human bipedal gait and large brain, or the giraffe’s elongated neck—there is a price to pay for the benefits conferred (in fact, this is true for all traits given that they all require nutritional upkeep). We can see this principle in operation in the case of those ambiguous figures—ambiguity as the price of inference. So could it be that the ambiguity of natural language results inexorably from some super-advantageous design feature? Suppose it resulted from the property of infinite productivity: you can only have that brilliant property if you alsohave some concomitant ambiguity. The trouble with this suggestion is that there is no obvious move from productivity to ambiguity—why should the former entail the latter? Mere combinatorial structure also doesn’t lead to ambiguity. Artificial languages are productive and combinatorial, but they don’t contain ambiguity. Nor can hypothesis generation be the explanation: true, we have to infer what someone means from the words he utters (along with context), but it is the words themselves that bear an ambiguous relation to meaning. The question is why language permits constructions like “Flying planes can be dangerous” to begin with. Why not just have the sentences, “Flying in planes can be dangerous” and “Planes in flight can be dangerous” (though the former sentence admits the reading, “Flying around inside of planes can be dangerous”)? The fact that the hearer is engaged in an inferential task doesn’t explain why ambiguity of this kind is so rampant and inbuilt. So it is hard to see how it could be a by-product of some desirable design feature; it looks like the product itself. If we just consider quantifier scope ambiguities, we see how inherent to natural languages ambiguity is—and that it is easily removable by some device equivalent to bracketing. So why does our language faculty tolerate it? Why not just clean up the mess?[4]

One possible explanation is that human language is so spectacular an adaptation that it can afford many rough edges and design failures (compare early wheels). It is sogood that it can afford to harbor some vices—it’s still better than having no language at all. This may be backed up by the observation that human language is a recently evolved trait still going through its awkward adolescent phase—eventually it will mature into something more streamlined and fit for unqualified celebration. There may be something to this point, but it doesn’t remove all aspects of the puzzle, because it doesn’t tell us why language evolved with this defect to begin with when better options were in principle available, and there seems no evidence of any movement away from ambiguity heretofore. It might be suggested that ambiguity is like vagueness: it’s not a good thing, to be sure, but tolerable when the alternative is no language at all. I won’t consider this kind of answer further here, because it is difficult to evaluate without further evidence; but perhaps mentioning it serves to highlight the lengths we would need to go to in order to find an answer to our question. I don’t think we would find it plausible that the reason for intermittent blindness is that it is better to have occasionally blind eyes than none at all, but that is essentially what is being proposed by the explanation suggested—communicating by language is such a marvelous gift that serious defects in it can be lazily overlooked by the evolutionary process. Ambiguity is really not like the retinal blind spot. What if our language faculty enabled us to parse and understand only half of what is said? That would be rightly regarded as a grave defect, for which there is no obvious explanation. But ambiguity is rather like that—it really does impede successful communication. And even when it doesn’t, there have to be mechanisms and strategies that enable us to avoid its snares—it’s always less effort to understand an unambiguous sentence than an ambiguous one. Processing speech is certainly not aidedby ambiguity. It’s not a blessing in disguise.

It is an interesting question where human language will be in the distant future. Will its present level of ambiguity survive or will it become more perspicuous? Are we now placed on a linguistic path that cannot be altered? What would it take to impose selective pressures on the ambiguity-producing structure of our grammar? At present we have an evolved capacity that tolerates rampant ambiguity, yet functioning well enough to get by in normal conditions; but the architecture is fundamentally unsound, allowing for forms of words that could have many meanings apart from the one intended. Language should make things easier for the speaker and the hearer than it now does.[5]


Colin McGinn





[1]I have found only one paper dealing with the question addressed here (though I am by no means expert in the linguistics literature): “The Puzzle of Ambiguity”, by Wasow, Perfors, and Beaver. There is no date on the paper or place of publication (I found it on the internet), and to judge from its content the problem it discusses is not generally recognized. I welcome any information about other published work on the subject.

[2]I won’t discuss whether ambiguity exists in the underlying innate language prior to its expression in a particular sensory-motor format. It may be that all ambiguity exists at the level of spoken speech and results from the demands imposed by this medium; there may be no ambiguity at the more abstract level of universal grammar. I remain agnostic on this question.

[3]“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!”

[4]It might be thought that ambiguity is useful as a means of concealment: say something that some people will take in one way while conveying a different message to others. But this is not a good explanation for why human languages are ambiguous in just the ways they are. It is grammatical rules themselves that allow sentences to be both grammatical and ambiguous, not pragmatic considerations of the kind just mentioned. Ambiguity surely didn’t evolve as a means of selective deception.

[5]Philosophers are apt to speak of natural language as logically imperfect, as judged by the standards of some ideal language; but ambiguity makes natural language biologically imperfect, because the biological function of speech is communication and ambiguity gets in the way of that. Imagine if a given monkey cry could mean either “Predator nearby” or “Food in the offing”! Compare “Get thee to the bank!” said by someone in the vicinity of both a river and a lending institution.


New Company: Philosophical Applications

I would like to announce the formation of a new company by myself and partners. It’s called Philosophical Applications and the website can be accessed under applyphil.com. I won’t explain it here because it is better explained there. You can go to the website by clicking on the Consulting button on this website. Any comments welcome.


Reading Jane

I’ve just finished reading all six of Jane Austen’s novels, beginning with Persuasion and ending with Northanger Abbey. These two (along with Mansfield Park) are often regarded as inferior to the big three of EmmaPride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. But I must say I didn’t have that reaction: I loved them all equally, each in their different way–because the author shone through so luminously. I won’t even attempt to enumerate their virtues for fear of litotes. Indispensable reading. Enough said.


Grammatical Life


Colin McGinn: The Meaning of Life — Grammatical Life

IMG_0767Excellence Reporter: Prof. McGinn, what is the meaning of life?

Colin McGinn: I prefer to say that life is meaningful rather than that it has a meaning. It has a grammar, but no semantic interpretation. There is coherent form, but there is nothing outside human life that confers meaning on it (God, the Universe, Truth, the Good).

What are the components of this grammar?

It has an intellectual component, an aesthetic component, and an athletic component. For me these are mainly philosophy, music, and tennis (though other intellectual, aesthetic, and athletic components play a part). These are essentially activities—rule-governed creative activities. Not observing but doing. Philosophy follows the rules of logic, music is based on repeating patterns, games and sports have their constitutive rules. Yet all are creative, requiring effort and dedication (as well as talent): they are freedom disciplined by form. Nothing outside of them gives them significance; they are meaningful in themselves.

As you acquire mastery of language during childhood and later, so you work to acquire mastery of these categories of life-grammar. You try to speak and write well: similarly, you strive to have intelligent thoughts, good musical technique, and a beautiful backhand. This involves learning from others as well as constant practice. It requires internalization and externalization, competence and performance, inner knowledge and outer act. Living well is a skill.

It is important to combine these components, not to focus on one and neglect the others. Each thrives in combination with the others. A day is like a paragraph that brings these elements together—or a long well punctuated sentence (think Jane Austen). The intellect must be productively engaged, music played, a sport honed. Then the day will be grammatical and not ill formed—meaningful not nonsensical or incomplete. The human language faculty combines semantics, syntax, and phonetics; the human life faculty combines thinking, art, and sport. There is nothing outside language that gives it meaning (nothing “transcendent”), and yet it is meaningful; and there is nothing outside these human activities that gives them meaning, and yet they are meaningful. Meaningfulness is immanent, in the thing itself not hovering over it.

And just as we are born to speak meaningfully, so we are born to live meaningful lives—we are miserable otherwise. (Indeed, I would say that speaking meaningfully is part of what makes life meaningful: for language is implicated in thought and communication, and is itself a wonderful thing.) These strivings for meaning are part of our innate nature, so that the potential for meaningful lives is in us from the start. To what degree we can achieve these aims, as the world currently exists, is another question.


~Colin McGinn was educated at Manchester University (Psychology, BA and MA, 1972) and Oxford University (Philosophy, B Phil, 1974). He went on to teach philosophy at University College London, Oxford University, and Rutgers University, with visiting positions at UCLA and Princeton. He has published 25 books and many articles and reviews, including Moral Literacy: Or How to Do the Right Thing, Ethics, Evil and Fiction, Philosophical Provocations, and Sport: a Philosopher’s Manual. He has written for many publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The LA Times, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, Nature, and others. He has been interviewed many times (e.g. by the Times of London) and appeared on several TV shows (e.g. Bill Moyers). He has worked as a philosophical advisor to George Soros. He is an internationally acclaimed philosopher and teacher. Presently, he is Chief Philosophical Executive of the new consulting company Philosophical Applications.

Copyright © 2019 Excellence Reporter




Speechless Language


Speechless Language



Normally when a human being learns a language he or she learns to speak and be spoken to. Sounds are produced and understood. An acoustic ability is acquired. But this is not always so: some people learn language (e.g. the English language) without the aid of sound. They neither hear sound nor produce it. Instead they rely upon vision and gesture (or writing). Their language ability is not notably inferior to those that speak and hear. What does this tell us about human language? What, in particular, does it show about the initial state of the human language faculty?

Presumably there is no analogous phenomenon in the case of other species that use language (or a communicative symbol system). A deaf and mute bird doesn’t cleverly exploit its eyes to substitute for hearing sounds, resorting to a sign language or the written word. Similarly for whales, dolphins, and bees. For these species if you can’t speak you don’t have a usable language (dance in the case of bees). The innate language faculty is specifically geared to speech—to a particular sensory-motor system. There is no flexibility in mode of expression and reception, unlike with humans. Does this mean that human language ability is intrinsically purely cognitive? Is speech just a learned add-on to innate linguistic competence? We learn to speak in a particular accent in a particular language, but this is not a matter of innate endowment—is it the same for the sense modality we adopt? Each of us couldhave learned to communicate by sight and gesture, and without much difficulty, so is the human language faculty neutral with respect to sense modality? Is it just a convention or accident that we end up speakinglanguage? Could it even be that our language faculty initially evolved as a visual-gestural system and only later became connected to our ears and vocal organs?[1]What if mostpeople used a non-auditory medium for language—wouldn’t we then suppose that this is the “natural” way to communicate? We have chosen the acoustic route, but we could have gone visual without loss or inconvenience. Is the language faculty inherently indifferent to its mode of externalization? It certainly isn’t indifferent to syntax and semantics, but phonetics seems like one option among others.

It seems true to say that human language (unlike the language of other species) is more of a cognitive phenomenon than a sensory-motor one. For one thing, we use language in inner monologue not just in communication with others (I doubt this is true of bees and whales). The structure of language is a cognitive structure that can be present in a variety of sensory-motor contexts. But it would surely be wrong to suggest that we are not genetically disposed to speak: speech is biologically programmed in humans and it follows a fixed maturational schedule. Human speech organs are designed to aid speech; they are not just accidentally coopted for this purpose.[2]We don’t needto use these organs in order to master language, but it is surely naturalthat we do—it is certainly not a conscious choice!  So is the human language faculty inherently acoustic or not? Neither alternative looks very plausible: it is possible (easy) to learn language without sounds andwe are built to favor sounds. One might suppose that the case is somewhat like walking on the hands when born without functioning legs—an option of last resort. Do the deaf feel an inclination to speak and listen as infants, but find they cannot, and so resort to sign language? That doesn’t appear to be the case—they take quite naturally to the visual medium. There is certainly somethingmodality-neutral about human language. On the other hand, we are clearly designed to speak—as we are not designed to play cricket.

Here is a possible theory: humans have twolanguage faculties, one cognitive, and the other sensory-motor. Call this the dual capacity theory. Both are innate and genetically coded, but they can be disassociated, as they are in the deaf. We are familiar with the idea of distinct components in language mastery—the semantic component, the syntactic component, and the phonetic component—well, there are actually two linguistic faculties coded into our genes. This idea will not surprise those who favor the notion of a language of thought: this language might exist separately from our language of communication in our mental economy. They might not even have the same grammar. What the dual capacity theory suggests is that the faculty we use when we speak is itself divided into two—and the deaf use one of them but not the other. They use the same innate grammar as the rest of us, but they don’t use the same sensory-motor system (though there is no reason to deny that it is programmed into their genes). The eliciting or triggering stimulus for normal language development isn’t operative in their case, but they use exactly the same internal schematism. This explains why their language skills are comparable to the sound dependent, while not denying that speech is the natural human condition (in a non-evaluative sense). That is, we are born to speak, but we don’t have to in order to master communicative language. There are two separate psychological modules. It would be possible in principle to retain the sensory-motor module while lacking the cognitive module, so that articulate speech is possible but there is no real understanding of the principles of grammar (this would be like those “talking” parrots).[3]Thus there can be double dissociation. Quite possibly the two modules evolved separately: maybe the cognitive module initially evolved as an intrapersonal aid to thought, to be followed later by a communicative faculty that recruited the older faculty. We tend to speak of thelanguage faculty, as if we are dealing with a unitary structure, but in fact there are two of them—there is more structure here than we thought. The cognitive faculty has nothing intrinsically to do with speech, though it obviously gets hooked up to speech during ontogenesis, while the sensory-motor faculty has everything to do with speech. No such duality obtains in the case of other linguistic species, which is evidenced by the fact that deafness spells an end to language ability for them. At its core, we might say, human language is not a sensory-motor capacity—though there is nothing wrong with saying that speech embodies linguistic competence. We really have two kinds of competence (and two kinds of performance): competence in the universal principles of grammar, possessed by the hearing and the non-hearing alike; and competence in the production and perception of speech. The former has nothing intrinsically to do with the ears and vocal organs, while the latter is dedicated to that sensory-motor system. When it is said that a language is a pairing of sound and meaning that is strictly speaking inaccurate (witness sign language), but it is true enough that the understanding of speechis such a pairing. Clarity is served by firmly distinguishing language and speech, but there is no need to deny that speech is the operation of a language faculty. To put it crudely, “language” is ambiguous.

The case might be compared to memory. We speak loosely of “the faculty of memory” but enquiry reveals that different things might be meant—there is not a single faculty of memory. There is long-term memory and short-term memory (and maybe others): these memory systems operate differently, permit of double dissociation, and no doubt have different genetic bases. Both are rightly designated “memory” and they have clear connections, with neither deserving the name more than the other, but they are distinct psychological faculties. Similarly, “language” applies to two psychological faculties, which can be dissociated, and which recruit different kinds of apparatus. When someone makes a general statement about “language”, we do well to ask him what human faculty he is referring to–speech or the more general capacity possessed by the deaf. Indeed, even that is too parochial, since we can conceive of language users who don’t have sight either but communicate by means of touch: they too have mastery of the grammar of human language (both universal and particular), but they don’t hear or see the words of language—they feelwords (and cause others to feel them too). Their underlying linguistic competence is more “abstract” than any particular sense modality: but so is ours, despite our saturation in the acoustic. What is truly universal in human language is this abstract faculty that exists in people with different modes of expressing it—universals of speech are relatively confined.

Once we have made this distinction we can distinguish different domains of study: are we studying the universal abstract language faculty or are we studying its expression in specific peripheral sensory-motor systems? What is called “psycholinguistics” could be about either of these. Which properties of language belong to which faculty? No doubt the type of externalization will impose specific conditions on the form of what is expressed, but there will probably be universal patterns found across all modes of externalization (subject-predicate structure, say).[4]The temporal dimension of speech will affect its structure, along with the memory limits that accompany this, while the recursive property is likely to stem from the internal universal language. Combining phonemes is not the same as combining the lexical elements that constitute the common human language. Particularly intriguing is the question of maturation: do the two language faculties develop in the same way and at the same time? It could be that the internal language develops more rapidly and serves as the foundation for the development of speech (or sign language). It is not constrained by motor maturation and may be more “adult” than its external counterpart. If we think of language development as a process of differentiation, it may differentiate at a different rate from external speech—and proceed from a different basis. It may permit inner speech before the onset of outer speech. We certainly can’t infer its maturational schedule just by observing the growth of outer speech. With respect to evolution, it may be that the cognitive language faculty evolved much earlier than the vocal language faculty, which is thought to be relatively recent (about 200,000 years ago). We might have been using language for much longer than we have been speaking it. The larynx is a late accretion to language use, and a dispensable one.[5]


Colin McGinn

[1]I consider this hypothesis in Prehension(2015).

[2]Caution: not originally so designed—vocalization long preceded speech in humans—but refined in the direction of speech since speech began (compare hands and tools).

[3]It is a question how language-like the sensory-motor system would be without the backing of the cognitive system. Subtracting speech from the human subject leaves language intact, as shown by the deaf, but what if we subtract the internal language faculty from the activity of speech?  Would we still have full productivity? Would grammar really exist for the sounds that emanate? This is an empirical question and not an easy one to answer. My suspicion is that we would get substantial degradation, but it may be that humans have evolved a good deal of autonomy in the speech centers of the brain, so that speech might exhibit many of the properties of the internal modality-neutral language faculty. Just as language ability is largely independent of general intelligence, so speech ability might be largely independent of cognitive-language ability. Certainly it is logically possible for there to be an autonomous faculty of productive grammatical speech in addition to a similar faculty for the inward employment of language—that is, one faculty for speaking and another for thinking in words.  The question is like the question of how much of perception would survive without cognition.

[4]Chomsky makes this point. The internal language could be a lot simpler, structurally, than external speech, because of the constraints imposed by the sensory-motor system. There might be no gap between deep and surface structure in the internal language, with no transformations linking them.

[5]To simplify somewhat, there are three possible positions: language is only speech (traditional linguistics); language isn’t speech at all (Chomsky today); language is both speech and something else (an internal cognitive structure) (me). These questions remain murky and it is helpful to open up the theoretical options, though the speech-centric position is surely indefensible. (I’m grateful to Noam Chomsky for helpful comments.)


Differentiation and Integration

Differentiation and Integration



According to standard embryology, the process of ontogenesis is characterized by organic differentiation. From an initially homogeneous collection of cells tissues of various kinds are formed. This is no doubt powered by genetic instructions from within the original uniform cells. Maturation is thus a transformation from sameness to diversity as tissues develop in the body according to a fixed schedule. The end result is an organism composed of many organs each equipped with a characteristic type of cell and associated physiology—heart, lungs, bones, kidneys, etc. As differentiation occurs there is a need for coordination between the new types of tissue and the organs that tissue serves, and the adult organism clearly contains components that need to be integrated into a functioning whole. Thus there is no differentiation without integration (and vice versa). These are the twin pillars of biological development: genetically driven diversification and concomitant integration of the elements thereby generated.

This basic picture can be applied to language development. Initially there are just undifferentiated cooing sounds existing alongside the inarticulate sounds of crying, but these soon come to be replaced by language-like sounds (consonants and vowels) without structural complexity. These in turn are replaced by one-word sentences (“dada”, “milk”) that display the rudiments of language. Only later do these come to be combined into two-word strings, and subsequently into the full range of syntactic and semantic categories. The details don’t matter for present purposes: what concerns us is that language development follows a pattern of differentiation analogous to that undergone by the body.[1]A relatively formless initial state is gradually transformed into a highly structured system of elements that combine together. Anatomy develops by differentiation, but so does grammar. When the initial unstructured sentences are transformed into noun phrases and verb phrases there has been a process of differentiation comparable to the formation of heart and lungs (or the internal anatomy of each). This is not surprising once we accept that language is itself a biological phenomenon—an aspect of the human organism. And it makes logical sense: you derive an intricately structured organism from unstructured beginnings by a process of differentiation (it would be difficult to implement such differentiation in the sperm and egg). Language doesn’t emerge fully formed in the child but matures in the brain by a process of increasing structure and complexity. It grows by splitting into different functional units—that must nevertheless be integrated if they are to achieve their purpose. We are accustomed to the idea that language is a system built for integration—producing sentences by combinations of words—but we must also recognize that it is a system that arises by differentiation from something more primitive.[2]It was once a growing thing in the child and only reaches stasis after a lengthy sequence of differentiating stages—just like other human organs. Language is a product of gradual ontogenesis, which only later achieves its full combinatorial power. The adult language faculty enables integration ad infinitum, but at one time it was without much in the way of internal structure (relatively speaking). So let us add to the productive power of language its origins in a simpler form of living tissue. Grammar is the form that linguistic differentiation takes in human ontogenesis—just like anatomy and physiology. Linguistic differentiation is biologically at one with histological differentiation. Language thus follows the same basic pattern of organic growth. How else could the architecture of language arise?

But if this is true of language, isn’t it also true of the mind more generally? The various components (“organs”) of the mind must be integrated in order to function as a unity, but first they had to develop by some sort of maturational process. Perception, cognition, emotion, will—all need to emerge as distinct systems during ontogenesis, to be integrated later (or pari passu). But what was the initial state? Some may speak darkly of a blank state, but that would need to be supplemented by an account of how such a state could be progressively differentiated. Something has to turn into the various faculties of mind—some state of the pre-natal brain. About this process we know little to nothing, yet it must be so in some way. What is the analogue to the one word sentence or those even more primitive cooing sounds? And how did concepts emerge by differentiation? They were not present fully formed in the fetus’s brain but arose by a maturational process to become the vast combinatorial system we now deploy with such consummate ease. Presumably they arose by a process of differentiation: from William James’ “blooming, buzzing confusion” (whatever that means) to an articulated array of combinable elements. This maturational differentiation must be genetically driven, like other biological growth, but it results in a psychological faculty far removed from the initial state of the organism. Again, we know little to nothing about how this works, but we have good grounds for supposing a distinct path of differentiation and integration. One can certainly imagine that unstructured thoughts might with time transform into thoughts with a subject-predicate structure—and thence into more complex forms. First there were feature-placing thoughts (the mental counterpart of “It’s raining”) and later they turned into structured thoughts (along the lines of “There is heavy rain in London now”). Conceptual differentiation created the panoply of concepts we now take for granted.

Coordinating conceptual differentiation and integration is a highly non-trivial task, as it is in the case of the body and language. Once you have the plurality you need to keep it under control. The brain is the ringmaster here. Grammar is encoded in the brain and it sets the rules for combining words; in the case of concepts something analogous must be true—rules that combine concepts in certain acceptable ways (not just arbitrary lists or jumbles). So differentiation combined with integration requires rules or principles of coordination. The heart must be coordinated with the lungs to produce satisfactory aerobic performance; similarly concepts must be coordinated in the right way to produce intelligible thoughts. Integration doesn’t happen by magic. The more differentiation there is the greater the demands of integration. An organism with very simple thoughts doesn’t need much apparatus to keep its thoughts on track, but an organism like us relies on mechanisms that prevent thoughts from forming defectively or randomly. In aphasia these mechanisms can fail, leaving words to fail to link up correctly; in principle the same thing could happen to thoughts—concepts fail to link up to form coherent thoughts. It is surprising that more breakdowns of this kind don’t occur.[3]If there is a language of thought, there ought to be aphasia in that language if the brain is suitably damaged, which produces aphasic thought. The differentiation and integration of concepts will be tied to linguistic differentiation and integration in the language of thought.

The innate language faculty thus has two basic properties: (a) it permits unbounded productivity in its mature form, and (b) it enables a stupendous feat of differentiation as it guides the maturation of language in the child’s brain. It is as creative in the latter respect as in the former (though it doesn’t get as much credit for the latter). The adult lexicon is the product of maturational differentiation (how, we don’t know); sentence production is the outcome of integration rules. Both are built into the genetic blueprint for language. Nor does differentiation cease at normal linguistic maturity, since we continue to make linguistic and conceptual distinctions. The differentiation machine doesn’t go completely offline, its job done; it allows us to make ever-finer distinctions that aid thought. So it isn’t that one kind of creativity completely ends to be replaced by another; we are still able creatively to generate distinctions (though it doesn’t come as naturally as during childhood). Distinction making is as crucial to language development as the growth of the ability to combine existing elements. So I propose conceiving of the language faculty (and the conceptual faculty) as a union of differentiation and integration: it allows the combination of pre-formed elements, to be sure, but it also generates those elements by a (mysterious) process of differentiation. When abnormalities arrest language development we see in sharper outline the maturational stages speakers go through—we see how the differentiation process can be blocked (the same is true of human bodily growth). As adults we tend to forget this early history, but it is as essential to our mastery of language as the growth of the heart is to our survival. The language faculty is as much a creative product as it is a creative producer.

I said that differentiation and integration are the basic laws of biology (so far as concerns ontogenesis), but they are also relevant to evolutionary change. For what is species evolution but biological differentiation? Natural selection causes species differentiation (along with other factors), though mechanically not by pre-set program. There is no predetermined evolutionary schedule like the maturational schedule. Thus simpler forms evolve into more complex forms, splitting off to make a new kind of biological entity. Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny. However, there is no real analogue to integration, since the different species don’t operate together to form a larger whole. True, it used to be thought that this might be so, as if each species had its functional role in the super-entity called Nature (“the biosphere”); but these days we tend to think that the entities that have arisen by evolutionary differentiation are independent entities subject to no coordinating principles. They are not like organs in a body or words in a language. There is no “grammar of nature”.  The evolution of species is differentiation withoutintegration.[4]


Colin McGinn

[1]This point of view is defended by Eric Lenneberg in Biological Foundations of Language(1967), esp. Chapter Seven.

[2]This is in no way incompatible with the nativist account of language acquisition: the genetic instructionsfor generating full-fledged language are present at birth, but that is consistent with the existence of a maturational schedule that involves cellular and cognitive differentiation. Similarly, instructions for building a heart at a certain maturational stage are present at birth, but it takes time for the actual organ to be constructed by a process of differentiation. Nouns and verbs emerge at a certain maturational stage (the second year of life), but the program for making them was written in the genes.

[3]Drunkenness can cause breakdowns of motor coordination analogous to earlier stages of motor development (a kind of regression), including speech difficulties; but it doesn’t appear that drunkenness can derail the performance of the language of thought—we keep thinking coherently as we stagger and trip, slur and mumble.

[4]Suppose there was a symbiotic parasite that entered the brains of host species and conferred language on the host—the parasite contains grammar. The parasite might instigate a series of maturational stages of language development in the host just like those of humans. It is functioning as an organ of the host’s body/mind—much as symbiosis in general has this character. This would provide a sense in which different species might operate as a unity.