The Last Stand For Mentalese


Pinker’s Resistance Pinker’s book “The Language Instinct” is based on battle between natural language and mentalese theories. Pinker supports mentalese. He raises problems for the idea that thinking is done in natural language. For example:

We have all had the experience of uttering or writing a sentence, then stopping and realizing that it wasn't exactly what we meant to say. To have that feeling, there has to be a “what we meant to say” that is different from what we said. Sometimes it is not easy to find any words that properly convey a thought. When we hear or read, we usually remember the gist, not the exact words, so there has to be such a thing as a gist that is not the same as a bunch of words. And if thoughts depend on words, how could a new word ever be coined? (Pinker 1994: pg 57-58).

Pinker’s Resistance He makes several good points in that passage. Of course, the ideas in that passage do not show that thinking must be done in mentalese. They simply raise a problem for the idea that thinking is done in Natural Language.

Lets look at each of Pinker’s points

Pinker’s Resistance Saying something other than what I wanted to say

An example is the “tip of the tongue” phenomenom. You want to express a point, but can’t find the right word to use in the sentence. You end up using a slightly different word. You can induce tip-of-tongue phenomenom in people by asking them to provide a name for an object according to its definition:
For example: an instrument with a graduated arc of 60 degrees used in navigation (especially at sea) and surveying for measuring the angular distance of objects by means of mirrors

Pinker’s Resistance You might form a mental image of the object but have difficulty finding the right word to name it Pinker thinks this shows that thought is independent of language. Perhaps this case shows that thoughts are formed and sometimes there is difficulty translating the thought into language.

If thinking was done in English, we would never experience this type of phenomenon. BTW: The instrument described was a Sexant

Another explanation

Perhaps a better way to explain the experience is to suggest that the thought is not fully formed, and the difficulty lies in the formation of the thought. We end up being forced to form a thought that we are not happy with. When this happens we might believe that there is a better thought that would be more precise, but we just can’t form the thought. We might also believe that we would recognize a better thought, if only we could form it.

Another explanation Maybe we formed the right thought, but then immediately forgot. We then have a memory that we had another thought, and the feeling of frustration comes from trying to retrieve that other thought. It’s a memory problem, not a translation problem. Similar situation to trying to remember the name of a familiar face

Another challenge We usually remember the gist of what is said and not the exact words Pinker thinks the “gist” of a statement differs from sentences of Natural language such as English. This is because we don’t usually remember the thoughts of other people exactly as they communicate them—instead, we remember roughly what they said (the “gist”). Does this show that the “gist” of a thought is stored as a hidden sentence of mentalese?

Another challenge Maybe true that don’t remember the exact words, but that doesn’t refute the claim that thinking is done in natural language. Pinker says the “gist” is different from a bunch of words, but I do not agree. I think the gist of a sentence is itself a sentence.

If I think about the gist of a sentence I’ve heard, the thinking of that gist is done in language. It may not be the same sentence, but it is still a sentence (perhaps with slightly altered meaning).

Another challenge Perhaps as I hear sentences from other people, my mind alters the utterances to store them in the most efficient possible way. Perhaps we should think of a “gist” as a recipe for reconstructing the original sentence. The brain is not a recorder, it stores parts of information then does reconstruction. The reconstruction could involve fragments being pieced together according to recipe while the brain fills in the missing details.

Another challenge So, the gist of a sentence may be the recipe for reconstructing a sentence. But, couldn’t Pinker say that these recipes are in fact mentalese encodings of sentences? I’m don’t think so, because recipes contain fragments of information and instructions to show how the information should be reassembled. There is nothing in a recipe for a thought process to get a grip on. Furthermore, if mental process could manipulate the fragments, then there would be no need for the recipe. Analogous to attempting to slice a cake before it has been made. You can’t perform such an operation upon the recipe and raw ingredients.

Another challenge If thoughts depend on words, how could new words ever be invented? Pinker seems to think that new words are invented to express new thoughts formed in mentalese. After all, if thinking was done in words of natural language, then new words would never appear because there would be no new thoughts needing to be expressed with new words.

Another challenge I do not think this poses a problem for the idea that thinking is done in natural language Meanings of new words can always be expressed in terms of existing words. New words catch on because they form complex meaning in a quicker, more direct way. In other words, they make thinking more efficient. Consider “eftpos”, originally an acronym for “electronic funds transfer at point of sale” Many people do no know what “eftpos” stands for, but if asked what it means, they describe it in similar terms.

Another challenge It is not the case that a new thought arose that needed a word. Rather, the new word appeared in order to form a complex thought that was originally made from a number of words.

Another example is the word “scuba”. Most people know what “scuba” means, but do not know where it came from. It was an acronym: “Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus” The acronym caught on for obvious reason—its easier, thus making talk and thought more efficient.

Another challenge What about a phrase like “Rock ‘n’ Roll”? It caught on because of the way it sounds. Doesn’t really resemle the style of dance. But it sounds good. It uses alliteration. It is difficult to see how “rock ‘n’ roll” could have been coined if thought was done in mentalese. There is no letter “R” in mentalese so there is little reason for why a mind would put these two words together. As far as mentalese thought would be concerned, the phrase “Rock ‘n’ Roll” could mean “Stone ‘n’ Tumble”, and it is difficult to see why a mind would think this thought when thinking about a musical genre.

Another challenge The phrase “Rock ‘n’ Roll” only exists because of its appeal in natual language

Next time: The problem of ambiguity, Einstein’s thoughts The case of Brother John

Powerpoint by BRENT SILBY Produced at UPT Christchurch, New Zealand

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