Is Language in the Head?

Is Language in the Head?

It has been said that meaning is not in the head, but is language in the head? A naïve response to this odd question might be: “Well, no, because language is speech and speech is in the mouth and throat”. Technically, the mouth is in the head, of course, but the question is really asking whether language is in the brain. The speech organs are not in the brain, so speech is not in the brain, i.e., the sounds that come out of a person’s mouth. A person would not be speaking English, say, if the sounds they made were not the sounds characteristic of English, but of Chinese, even if their brain were in the same state as that of an English speaker (suppose the articulatory organs have been artificially hooked up to a Chinese voice generator). However, if the brain were identical, it would be sending motor commands to the speech organs identical to those sent by an ordinary English speaker, so to that extent the language would be English. And the language employed in silent soliloquy would clearly be English. The speech organs merely externalize internal linguistic operations; they are not what the language fundamentally is.[1] The syntax of the language would also be in the head (brain), even if the articulatory organs were unable to externalize this syntax. Perhaps we are under some sort of perceptual illusion as to the location of language, brought on by the fact that we hear the sounds of language and see the speaker moving his or her lips; but really, language is located in the brain machinery behind these outer manifestations. After all, a person might be a master of English even if the speech organs don’t function at all (and he or she cannot perform the acts of a sign language). Language exists in the brain (e.g., Broca’s area) not in the motor systems by which it is externalized in communication. Speech acts are not the essence of language (unless we mean internal speech acts). A brain in a vat could have mastery of a language, possibly under the illusion of performing speech acts with mouth or hands. Language is like thought in this respect: thought too has modes of externalization (speech and other bodily actions), but these are not the essence of thought. Thought is in the brain, if anywhere, not in the body that expresses thought (and may fail to in cases of paralysis). Only dogmatic behaviorism could deny these virtual truisms. By all means say that speech is the embodiment of language, its vehicle in acts of communication, its overt manifestation, but don’t say that language is speech, i.e., the sounds and marks (let’s not forget writing) produced by the body. Obviously, a machine that merely replicates the sounds of English doesn’t know English. Language is in the human head not in the atmosphere (where soundwaves reside). Nor is it in the hand motions of speakers of Sign. Language is in the head as electricity is in atoms—not in the effects of electricity that we observe. Howlanguage exists in the brain is still a subject of study, and presents many mysteries, but that it does is scarcely deniable. We should therefore be internalists about language. Linguistics and philosophy of language are really discussing an internal property of the human animal not the bodily events that provide the external medium of linguistic expression (the externalization of language mastery). It is acceptable to talk as if speech is the subject of interest, given that it is publicly available and acts as a vehicle of language, but we should not make the mistake of identifying language with speech. And remember that inner speech is itself just another manifestation of language not its indispensable essence. Performance isn’t competence, here and elsewhere.

In the light of the above, we might want to revisit externalism about meaning: is it to be supposed that language is in the head but meaning is not? That sounds fishy, fantastical. First, let’s formulate the thesis more precisely. Instead of saying “in the head” we should say “in the person”: for it might justly be complained that it is a category mistake to say that meanings are in the head; rather, they are attributes of the person (same for language). Then the question is whether meaning is an internal property of the person or an external property—intrinsic or relational (compare being bipedal and being married). Second, we need to clean up the usual formulation of the twin earth thought experiment: so-called twin earth is not a twin of earth but rather a very similar (but not completely similar) variant of earth. This is because “twin” earth contains XYZ not H2O, these being distinct substances that happens to look alike. A real twin is not just a superficial copy but a deep copy—same DNA, same anatomy, a precise duplicate. But twin earth is not an exact duplicate of earth but a partial duplicate, given the difference in its liquid content. A genuine twin planet could not produce a difference of meaning for “water”. We do better to speak of a sister planet—very similar in outward appearance but not the same through and through. Nor is it necessary to the thought experiment to suppose that the planet is otherwise precisely identical to earth; all that is necessary is that “water” designates different substances on the two planets. Indeed, it is not required that we imagine two planets; two sides of this planet will do fine.

But these are minor emendations compared to the main defect in the usual formulation: the thought experiment doesn’t demonstrate that all of meaning is not in the person, only that some of it isn’t.[2] The same goes for the extension of the thesis from meaning to mind: some of the mind is not in the person as an intrinsic non-relational property, but it doesn’t follow that all is.[3] In fact, upon closer analysis we have the much more modest result that the meaning of only some expressions is (only partially) not in the person, namely those that have a demonstrative component (ordinary natural kind terms like “water”). To put it baldly, all we have is the thesis that linguistic context is not in the person—for example, the fact that one object or kind and not another is being pointed to in a given case of reference fixing (“that liquid”). And that is a truism: in this sense perception is not in the person, being determined by causal context. Nor is knowledge located solely within the person (though partially it is), simply because knowledge requires truth. Given that context helps to fix reference for indexical expressions, it of course follows that an aspect of meaning isn’t located in the person (what Kaplan calls “content”)—he or she is located in the context. The context is external to the person and it helps to determine the reference of “water”; so, neither meaning nor mind is wholly within the person. But this isn’t a remarkable metaphysical discovery but rather a platitude dressed up as a startling new insight. It is certainly a truth worth knowing, and admits of solid demonstration, but it isn’t a radical new view of meaning and mind. Yes, two persons can be in the same intrinsic condition and refer to distinct objects with the same indexical term—but that is hardly surprising, given context-dependence. And terms like “water” can be semantically tied to such demonstrative reference via the act of reference-fixing, but that too is not a startling discovery about where meaning and mind are located. For it is entirely compatible with the claim that nearly allof meaning and mind are located within the individual—are completely “individualistic”. The cash-value of “meanings aren’t in the head” is simply “indexical reference is context-dependent”—big effing deal!

Thus: language is in the head, and meaning is mainly in the head. Syntax (grammar) is in the head and so is phonetics, if we mean “voice commands from the brain to the articulatory apparatus”. The lexicon is also in the head, though words can be overtly pronounced on occasion. The meaning of most words is wholly in the head (person), though some words have an indexical component that brings in context. Persons are equipped with an elaborate internal mental apparatus that they bring to the world; but they are also placed within the world, and that provides a linguistic context that can select a particular object as reference. This is all reassuringly obvious and distills the basic truths that have emerged from discussions of internalism and externalism.[4] The rhetoric has outpaced the logic.[5]

[1] I am with Chomsky on this (the “I-language” etc.). See chapter 1 of What Kind of Creatures Are We? (2016).

[2] See my Mental Content (1989) for a detailed discussion.

[3] Can we say that meaning is in the mind? I don’t see why not, even if meaning is not in the person, since the boundaries of the person correspond to the boundaries of the body (roughly). Neither mind nor meaning are (completely) in the person, though they are attributes of the person (partially relational attributes).

[4] I am thinking of Kripke, Putnam, Donnellan, Kaplan, Burge, myself, and others.

[5] To be clear, I think opponents of externalist thought experiments are mistaken, but the externalist thesis is far less momentous than has sometimes been supposed. A modest form of externalism is trivially true—but still true, which is not nothing.

4 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    A tangential question: within the context of evolution, do you think it is possible that a species could develop the capacity for complex internal language (like we have) before developing such language capacity between organisms (eg inter-organism communication was no more than simple signing, but inner dialogues were as sophisticated as ours)? If sophisticated language skills (not innate capacity, but realisation of such a capacity) must always be taught, this does not seem like a possibility. If this is the case, then could we say language is just as much shared between heads/people as it is in them?

    [One might argue internally our brain and body are engaged in vastly more complex internal “dialogue” than we are conscious of, but I am assuming such communication would not count as language in the sense philosophers use the term, so I am not considering it in the context of the above question..]

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      It is probably true that a language used purely for thought could not be taught, but it still be possible to possess it by means of individual experience and innate endowment. After all, thought can’t be taught either, not from the ground up anyway.

      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        It would certainly make for an amusing short story – a people that were capable of creating the richest and most sublime inner monologues, but could only communicate with one another through grunts. Actually, perhaps it happens more than we realise.


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