Emergence of Language

Language and Abstraction Emergent Human Capacity

The power to think abstractly is a precondition for seeing the world as having ‘meaning’ transcending the meaning (J. J. Gibson would say affordances) in concrete instances of objects available to perception.

Science and the Evidence of the Senses

While it is true that the power to assume the abstract attitude is the basic precondition for concept formation and language development, and that it is conceptual knowledge that man values most highly.  Yet we must never forget that concepts, including of course scientific concepts, are built from perceptual knowledge, which brings us to the subject of science and the application of the principle of emergence in scientific explanations of the physical world.  Science is a tool for the conceptual discovery of the nature of our world.  Science is a method for systematically observing, exploring, classifying, manipulating, controlling and measuring the properties of entities in order to reveal their hidden structural and causal nature.  Notice how much of science depends on the evidence of our senses, our perceptual contact with the world (through observing, exploring, manipulating, controlling, measuring, etc.)

Hierarchies of Conscious Powers

Emergence theory is not a paradigm to replace or override underlying layers of causal ontology.  This is as true for the physiological as for the psychological levels of emergent causality.  Higher  cognitive functions, such as conceptualization and language formation do not supervene, but rather exploit, build upon, constrain, and actively utilize the powers the lower powers from which the higher powers emerge and transcend.

Emergence theory, as it is applied to consciousness,  is a scientific perspective and insight that helps scientists (and layman if they are interested in science) to account for why consciousness has the very properties that it does have at the level of perceptual consciousness and how higher levels of consciousness, of conceptual and linguistic consciousness, can emerge from the perceptual level of awareness through a discontinuous level of cognitive transcendence from the perceptual to the conceptual and linguistic.

Thus the emergence theory of language and concepts  does not regard these powers as functions that replace or supervene the evidence of our senses nor that level of meaning which is given by our senses.  This is made clear if we remember that the first level of conceptual awareness is that of isolating, abstracting and eventually (through language) naming the fundamental categories or dimensions of perceptual contact with the external world.

Montessori vs Piaget on the Discovery of Object Qualities

This abstraction of sensory dimensions (of sharred object qualities across multiple instances of objects) in order to form concepts of perceived qualities of objects,  is most clearly understood in the experimentally empirically derived pedagogic methods of Maria Montessori, whose theories, results and explanations stand in sharp contrast with those of Jean Piaget. Montessori uses pedagogical materials to help the child both isolate and identify the different perceived qualities of objects.

Any object that we wish to use for the education of the senses must necessarily present many different qualities such as weight, texture, color, form, size, and so forth.  How are we to isolate from many qualities the one single one so that attention may be focused on it?  This is done by a series and it graduations; the objects are identical among themselves with exception of the variable quality which they possess. from The Discovery of the Child: Maria Montessori,  translated by M. J. Costelloe, (1967),  p. 101.

Montessori’s view of perceptual training is based on a realist view of perception, in which our senses provide us with direct awareness of objects at some level of specificity, but are able, through perceptual training, or as Eleanor Gibson would call it Perceptual Learning and Development. learn to see more details and relationships within the given perceptual experience.  Contrast Montessori’s approach to the nature of perceptual knowledge and how to train the child to hone his perceptual skills with the views of Jean Piaget:

To know is to construct or to reconstruct the object of knowledge in such a way as to capture the mechanism of the construction.  [Or put positivistically] to know is to produce something in thought in such a way as to reconstitute the ‘way in which phenomena are produced’.  – from The Mechanisms of Perception, by Jean Piaget, Basic Books,(1969), p. 356.

Piaget’s Kantian Constructionist view of knowledge and perception, is subjectivist and holds that what we ‘see’ is actually created (constructed) by the mind, presumably based on preformed Kantian cognitive filters and constructs.   Thus object qualities cannot be discovered (presumably because we have not access to ‘the object in itself’, i.e. to the noumenal object) but is rather a subjective construct of the mind that is retained and insofar as it remains accommodative to the child’s interactions with external (phenomenal) reality.

The bioperipatetic rejects the Kantian (and therefore the Piagetian)  view of perception as subjectivist, nativist and constructionist in nature and prefers the Gibsonian theory of perception. See here.

The Emergence of Language

Achieving the abstract attitude underlies the emergence of true language development, the ability to grasp a whole new category of existents, the category of symbols.  Symbols are, at the level of perception, merely concrete shapes, and nothing more.  With the breakthrough to the conceptual level of consciousness, symbols are grasped as objects that ‘stand for’ or ‘mean’ or ‘refer to’ other objects of a given class.  This breakthrough is not a case of operant conditioning  in which an event or visual cue is paired with a reward or punishment, which any mammal can learn to respond to appropriately.   On the contrary, this breakthrough, which is possible only to humans (as far as we know) is, I submit, an emergent phenomenon.  It does not represent a cognitive achievement of gradual awareness on a continuum (as in the case of unfocused to focused vision, for example, or gradual operant conditioning, the conditioned learning of concrete associations between perceptual events) but rather, as with all emergent phenomena, a fundamental discontinuous break with its foundational level or sub-hierarchy, in this case,  the merely perceptual level of cognition.

The language breakthrough is dramatically illustrated in the beautiful first scene of act three of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, wherein Helen (the deaf and blind child) suddenly ‘gets’ that the finger patterns pressed against here hand by her teacher Annie Sullivan, are not mere playful shapes, but rather signs that stand for things, things that have nothing to do with fingers!  Watch this beautifully acted scene from the movie The Miracle Worker.  Which shows so dramatically and beautifully the miraculous breakthrough from the perceptual world of concretes to the world  of language and what that capacity opens to man’s understanding of himself and of the universe!

Language as a Sociologically Emergent Phenomenon

Helen needs Annie to break through to the world of language.  Although it is the individual who must make the breakthrough to the abstract level and to grasp that certain phonemes and graphemes, signings (sign language) , tactile patterns (brail) are symbols that refer  to other objects for which they stand as cognitive ‘place-holders’ or ‘indexes’, nevertheless, languages are not themselves the products of individuals acting on their own, but rather acting in a social context with the fundamental human need to communicate by means of a shared  systematic, culturally emergent ‘vocabulary’.    This vocabulary emerges via a long process of coming to agree on a largely arbitrary system of phonemes and graphemes which are subsequently learned and taught to the offspring of that society.

All societies across the entire globe develop unique languages as part of their social culture and use this language to communicate social knowledge and myth.  To develop abstraction is an individually emergent phenomenon universal to all humans.  To develop a language is a universal socially emergent system common to all human societies.

“If language is intimately related to being human, then when we study language we are, to a remarkable degree, studying human nature.” – from  The Miracle of Language, Charlton Laird

We have found only two graphical forms of language representation across all of human cultures:  symbolic pictograms, symbols that stand for images (often with abstract semantics added to the ‘meanings’, and symbolic phonemes, symbols that stand for vocal sound sequences that make up words.

Some languages start with pictograms, but emerge later into a dual system of pictogram/phonetic graphemes that map to phonemes.  The most remarkable example of this is Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Thus Tut-Ankh-Amun, the name of the great Egyptian king, is represented as pictographic graphemes which map to the phonemes ‘Tut’, ‘Ankh’, ‘Amun’. which can then be read as a sequence of sounds that invoke a concept, the famous king of ancient Egypt Tutankhamun, shown below in pictographic phonemic form:


Carlton Laird addresses this critical issue, the transition from language symbols as  graphemes to language symbols representing  phonemes (human verbal sounds) in the evolution of language.

The crucial point, of course, was that sty which a symbol which had once stood for a word became the symbol for a sound, a free agent which could b3 used to represent a sound wherever the sound occurred, in an old word or a new one.  – from The Miracle of Language,  ,  p. 214

Laird traces this concept from the Phoenicians to the Egyptians:

The Phoenicians either made this discovery, or they had the sense to make use of it.  It was known to the Egyptians, who were able to spell out a word if they liked, but Egypt never made the transition from a series of pictures which had become symbols to a series of symbols which represented sound and nothing else.  – from The Miracle of Language,  ,  p. 214

But why do all societies develop languages?  And how is this actually accomplished?  It all seems miraculous, if we think about it.  To get some clues regarding The Miracle of Language, see Carlton Laird’s book with that eponymous title.  As to the origin of language, Laird writes in The Miracle of Language,:

As language we know a great deal about it, but as t an invention — perhaps the greatest invention of all-time — we know almost nothing.  The the sense in which the word invention is commonly used — something devised by an individual or individuals, by known means, at a given time and place — we have not even a plausible guess.  We know only that there must have bee a time when there was no language, and then there was =time when there was a language, but we do not know how, when, where of by whom language came into being.  p. 17

. . .

In short we know nothing about how language started, and we have not even the materials from which we might hope to find out.  – p. 19

Since the 1953 publication of Laird’s book,  little progress has been made in the search for the origins of language:

Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved.  from The mystery of language evolution,  by Hauser, Yang, Berwick et al., Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5: 401.

Thus language is clearly not traceable to a single origin or single individual nor group of individuals.  It is an emergent tool for human thought whose structure, syntax, semantics  and vocabulary all emerged  from many practical influences from earlier languages and forms, under the pressure of fundamental social institutions (of law, philosophy, literature, journalism and science, to name but a few) to both record ideas and more importantly to communicate and share ideas among all men across all of mankind.


Copyright © 2014 by bioperipatetic.com Published on: Sep 1, 2014 @ 3:17

Latest revision: March 2, 2015  @ 3:31 pm

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