The Cognitive Functions of Language
Peter Carruthers, "The Cognitive Functions of Language," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 25, No. 6, December 2002, pp 657-726.
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This paper explores a variety of different versions of the thesis that natural language is involved in human thinking. It distinguishes amongst strong and weak forms of this thesis, dismissing some as implausibly strong and others as uninterestingly weak. Strong forms dismissed include the view that language is conceptually necessary for thought (endorsed by many philosophers) and the view that language is de facto the medium of all human conceptual thinking (endorsed by many philosophers and social scientists). Weak forms include the view that language is necessary for the acquisition of many human concepts, and the view that language can serve to scaffold human thought processes. The paper also discusses the thesis that language may be the medium of conscious propositional thinking, but argues that this cannot be its most fundamental cognitive role. The idea is then proposed that natural language is the medium for non-domain-specific thinking, serving to integrate the outputs of a variety of domain-specific conceptual faculties (or central-cognitive ‘quasi-modules’). Recent experimental evidence in support of this idea is reviewed, and the implications of the idea are discussed, especially for our conception of the architecture of human cognition. Finally, some further kinds of evidence which might serve to corroborate or refute the hypothesis are mentioned. The overall goal of the paper is to review a wide variety of accounts of the cognitive function of natural language, integrating a number of different kinds of evidence and theoretical consideration in order to propose and elaborate the most plausible candidate.