Language of mind

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The language of the mind ( Latin lingua mentis , English language of thought ) is a hypothesis that assumes the existence of a type of language in which thought processes take place. The most important proponent of this thesis is Jerry Fodor , who elaborated the idea in 1975 in his book The Language of Thought . The term was probably first used in this context by Gilbert Harman in 1973 .


The thesis

Ansgar Beckermann summarizes the thesis of the language of the mind as follows:

“(1) Mental representations are structured.
(2) The parts of these structures are 'transportable'; the same parts (i.e. type-identical parts) can appear in different representations.
(3) Mental representations have compositional semantics; the meaning of complex representations results in a regular way from the meaning of the parts. "

- Ansgar Beckermann : Analytical introduction to the philosophy of mind.

The language of the spirit, also called "Mental", has a structure that is composed of individual meaningful parts (like the words in natural languages). These meaningful parts can appear in different representations, just like words or parts of sentences can also appear in different sentences. As in other languages, the meaning of the individual representations can be put together from the meaning of the parts.

Mentalsic differs from other languages ​​in that it is not realized acoustically or optically, but rather through neural firing patterns or bit patterns in the memory of a computer.

The goal

The aim of the hypothesis of the language of the mind is to reconcile physicalism with intentional realism. It should explain how causally effective propositional attitudes (such as wishes, beliefs, etc.) (see intentionality ) can be physically realized, and disregards phenomena such as qualia , dreams, auditory and visual imagination .

In order to realize these propositional attitudes, the mental presupposes a computationalist model of the mind. One such model posits that the human mind works like a computer in certain respects. Thinking is understood as a sequence of computational steps that function solely on the basis of the syntactic properties of the language parts (see also Von Neumann architecture ).

History of the language of the mind

The more recent discussion of the hypothesis of the language of mind was sparked by Jerry Fodor , who embeds it in his representational theory of mind . Nevertheless, the idea is not new: in ancient times, Plato compared thinking with reading the Book of the Soul and Aristotle believes that spoken words are only signs of states of mind. In the 18th century Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz postulated the existence of a self-interpreting language of the mind.

Arguments for the language of the mind

The following arguments support the hypothesis of a language of the mind:

The methodological argument

If there are causally effective intentional states, then it is plausible to assume that these states can occur not only individually but also in combination. If, for example, talking and driving are each realized by an intentional state, then it seems plausible to assume that there is a state that enables simultaneous talking and driving, and that this is composed of the individual states for talking and driving.

Productivity argument

Another argument in favor of the language of the mind explains the property of the productivity of mental states with the productivity of language-like structures. Proponents of this argument assume that there are potentially infinitely different propositional attitudes. This potential infinity can also be found in linguistic expressions that arise from ever new combinations of constituents . This analogy suggests that there are also spiritual constituents that can be put together in any number of different combinations.

System capacity argument

A third argument in favor of the language of the mind is the systemic capacity of propositional attitudes. In principle, anyone who is convinced that Romeo loves Juliet can also be convinced that Juliet loves Romeo. This can be explained by assuming at least the following components of these beliefs:

  • Julia
  • Romeo
  • ... loves ...

Such a composite systematic nature can also be found in spoken, written and sign language, the aim of which is to express a person's thoughts. If one assumes that there is a language of the mind, it can be assumed that this systematic capacity of natural languages ​​can be explained by the systematic capacity of Mental.

Arguments against the language of the mind

Various arguments and philosophical theories speak against the theory of the language of the mind:

Eliminative materialism

The eliminative materialism advocated by Patricia Churchland and Paul Churchland , for example , claims that there are no mental states in reality. But if one assumes that mental states do not exist, the assumption of a language of the mind is also superfluous, since intentional states are not realized anywhere.


Connectionism offers an alternative to the computationalist model of mind. He claims that the intelligent behavior of living beings is based on neural networks and not on systems that manipulate characters, which are similar to a Von Neumann architecture . So there are also no sentence constituents that can be manipulated by such a system.

Anti-individualism by Putnam and Burge

The anti-individualism , represented by Hilary Putnam and Tyler Burge , claims that the content of intentional states a person is not alone results from the consideration of the person, but also that their environment and language community play an important role. Anti-individualism is thus opposed to the computationalist model of the mind, since this presupposes that the intentional state of the mind is completely determined by non- relational properties.

Intentional Realism and the Computationalist Model of Mind

If the language of the mind, as for example Jerry Fodor tries to make an intentional realism compatible with physicalism, the following problem arises:

While intentional realism requires that the meaning of the states is causally relevant, the computationalist model of mind ascribes this role to the formal properties of the states.

Is the language of the mind a private language?

Following Ludwig Wittgenstein's private language argument deny some philosophers that the language of the mind, a semantics can have as meaning only by conventions arises. Language conventions, however, require a social system. A single brain or even individual parts of the brain do not form a social system and therefore cannot give rise to meaningful conventions. If the proponents of this argument are correct, the expressions of the language of the mind can have no meaning.

Dispositions for action without explicit representation

Daniel C. Dennett offers a plausible alternative to intentional realism, which he illustrates with the following example:

"In a recent conversation with the designer of a chess-playing program I heard the following criticism of a rival program: 'it thinks it should get its queen out early.' This ascribes a propositional attitude to the program in a very useful and predictive way, for as the designer went on to say, one can usefully count on chasing that queen around the board. But for all the many levels of explicit representation to be found in that program, nowhere is anything roughly synonymous with 'I should get my queen out early' explicitly tokened. The level of analysis to which the designer's remark belongs describes features of the program that are, in an entirely innocent way, emergent properties of the computational processes that have 'engineering reality.' I see no reason to believe that the relation between belief-talk and psychological talk will be any more direct. "

- Daniel C. Dennett : Cure for the Common Code

As the chess example shows, actions can arise - without an explicit representation of a certain intentional state - that appear as if such a representation were present. If Dennett is right about his position, there are no intentional attitudes anywhere in the physical world. They are much more likely to be ascribed to systems that exhibit sufficiently complex behavior. A language of the spirit has no place in this attitude.

Variants of the language of the mind

The variants of the language of the mind can be divided into two categories:

One group, represented by Stephen Stich among others, does not attribute any semantic properties to expressions in the language of the mind . If the representatives of this group are right, the expressions of the language of the mind have only syntactic properties. At most, they allow a semantic interpretation of individual occurrences.

On the other hand, there are the representationalist theories of those who attribute both syntactic and semantic properties to expressions in the language of the mind. These can in turn be divided into a weak and a strong thesis: The weak thesis says nothing about how the expressions of the language of the mind get their semantic properties. This thesis can therefore also be reconciled with the fact that the meaning of mental expressions is derived from the intentional properties of mental states. According to the strong thesis, which Fodor also advocates, the intentional properties of mental states are derived from the semantic properties of the mental.

From this, however, the question arises, how the expressions of the language of the spirit get their meaning. There are different answers to this, too. Fodor advocates a causal theory of semantic reference. This theory claims that the mental expressions refer to what usually causes them. Other philosophers believe that the unassembled mental sub-expressions are innate, that we think in the language in which we speak, or that the semantic properties are emergent properties of complex systems.

See also


  • Alex Burri: Language and Thought . de Gruyter, Berlin 1997, ISBN 9783110156485 .
  • Eric B. Baum: What is Thought? . Cambridge 2004, ISBN 9780262524575 .
  • Jerry Fodor: The Language of Thought . Harvard Univ. Press 1980, ISBN 9780674510302 .
  • Jerry Fodor: Psychosemantics . MIT Press, 1987, ISBN 9780262560528 .
  • Jerry Fodor: The Elm and the Expert: Mentalese and Its Semantics . MIT Press, 1994, ISBN 9780262560931 .
  • Jerry Fodor: The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology . MIT Press, 2000, ISBN 9780262561464 .
  • Jerry Fodor: LOT 2 . Oxford Univ. Press 2010, ISBN 9780199588015 .
  • Steven Pinker : The language instinct. How the mind forms language . Droemer Knaur, Munich 1998, ISBN 9783426773635 .
  • Jesse J. Prinz: Furnishing the Mind: Concepts and Their Perceptual Basis . MIT Press, 2004, ISBN 9780262661850 .
  • Stephen P. Stich: From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case Against Belief . MIT Press, 1985, ISBN 9780262690928 .
  • Katia Saporiti: The language of the mind . Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1997, ISBN 9783110148138 .

Web links


  1. See Harman, G. (1973): Thought. Princeton, NJ.
  2. Ansgar Beckermann : Analytical introduction to the philosophy of mind. 2nd Edition. De Gruyter, Berlin 2001, p. 284, ISBN 3-11-017065-5
  3. a b c see Fodor, J .: Psychosemantics. Cambridge (MA) 1987.
  4. Dennett, DC: “Cure for the Common Code” in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981.