Monday, October 23, 2006

Mind, Language and (Culture?)

The goal is to give an account of the relation between cognitive and linguistic features of humans and the way they relate with the environment. The elements proposed for the story are the following: theories of mind (as a cognitive property possessed by all humans), concept-word mappings (as part of the nature of language development), and practices that result from the relation between humans and their environment.

The story goes, roughly, like this. The practices that result from the relation between humans and their environment are determined bidirectionally by the theory of mind developed and the language used.

The parts would be explained, roughly, as follows. One of the most interesting developments in infants is their capacity to distinguish mental from physical objects, and to ascribe mental states. Such a capacity can be understood in terms of having a theory, a theory of mind. In order to predict behavior, humans in general (not only infants) make use of this theory.

In order for a sound (or a physical object) to be meaningful it must be mapped into a concept. Language is, in part at least, learned through linguistic interaction with competent (or more competent than oneself) speakers. A very important tool (among many others) to do the word-concept mapping is the theory of mind. Children as young as 3 years of age are said to used this capacity in order to identify intensions from speech and, thus, determine the meaning of new words. Here language development depends on theory of mind development.

The connection between the former looks, roughly, like this. Within the lexicon there is a set of terms that refer to mental states, the ‘mental’ entries of the lexicon. A language that overtly uses more mental entries allows for the infant to develop a richer theory of mind, partly because it allows for more word-mental concepts mappings and, so, the acquisition of more mental concepts. Here the development of the theory of mind depends on language development. And, so, we get a bidirectional language-cognition determination.

Now, for the third and most spooky element in the story, the story might go like this. There are important differences in the ways in which human groups relate with their environment (it is difficult to say, however, how to individuate groups if not in terms of these practice-relation differences). The claim here is that this relation between humans and their environment is highly determined by the Theory of Mind-Language (ToML) cognition that is developed. For example, if a highly developed and detailed ToML includes the claim that only human beings have mental states, or that only animate objects have mental states, the individual will relate differently with the environment (partly constituted by non-human objects and inanimate objects) than if the ToML is quite minimal and does not include such distinctions.

Briefly speaking, the claim would be that relevant differences in the relation between humans and their environment will be accompanied by relevant differences in the mental section of their lexicon and, thus, with relevant differences in the complexity and specificity of the Theory of Mind.