Home > Papers > ‘Material Symbols’ – Clark 2006

‘Material Symbols’ – Clark 2006

Clark describes an alternative to Fodorian ‘mentalese’ and rich-internal-representation accounts (e.g. Churchland, Barsalou) of language comprehension and usage. He calls his model ‘the complementarity hypothesis’.

The complementarity hypothesis says that language functions to enhance the intrinsic abilities of the biological mind (c.f. the ‘extended mind hypothesis’). The difference from Fodor’s account is clear; the difference from accounts like Barsalou’s ‘perceptual symbol system’ less obvious.

The difference isn’t an enormous one. Barsalou might say (on one interpretation) that language once it has evoked its internal perceptual effect can be discarded, Clark would prefer to make it clear that constraints of language can be constraints of thought, and that (for example) conjoining descriptors can organize and structure perception and cognition. This may not be something Barsalou would complain about terribly, but it is a useful perspective to raise.

A few examples are useful to advance the hypothesis. First, Clark raises the familiar one of chimpanzees who can perform second-order difference detection when equipped with physical symbols, but who are otherwise unable to.

He also makes use of children being able to distinguish and recall hiding locations for toys just in the case that they have linguistic abilities advanced enough to conjoin terms (‘behind the low blue wall’) but not otherwise. (This reminded me of Luria’s experiments with conjunction of more abstract terms in slightly older children, showing similar results – an inability to conjoin behavior isometric to linguistic abilities.)

To me, this suggests a way out of the linguistic relativity dichotomy. Language structures thought in an online fashion that is internalized because language is a means of extending the range of cognition.

What is the relation between the material, conventional symbol structures that we encounter in the spoken and written word, and human thought? A common assumption, that structures a wide variety of otherwise competing views, is that the way in which these material, conventional symbol-structures do their work is by being translated into some kind of content-matching inner code. One alternative to this view is the tempting but thoroughly elusive idea that we somehow think in some natural language (such as English). In the present treatment I explore a third option, which I shall call the ‘‘complementarity’’ view of language. According to this third view the actual symbol structures of a given language add cognitive value by complementing (without being replicated by) the more basic modes of operation and representation endemic to the biological brain. The ‘‘cognitive bonus’’ that language brings is, on this model, not to be cashed out either via the ultimately mysterious notion of ‘‘thinking in a given natural language’’ or via some process of exhaustive translation into another inner code. Instead, we should try to think in terms of a kind of coordination dynamics in which the forms and structures of a language qua material symbol system play a key and irreducible role. Understanding language as a complementary cognitive resource is, I argue, an important part of the much larger project (sometimes glossed in terms of the ‘‘extended mind’’) of understanding human cognition as essentially and multiply hybrid: as involving a complex interplay between internal biological resources and external non-biological resources.

Clark, A. “Material symbols.” Philosophical Psychology 19.3 (2006): 291–307. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.

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