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The Language of ThoughtReview - The Language of Thought
A New Philosophical Direction
by Susan Schneider
MIT Press, 2011
Review by Juan J. Colomina, PhD
Dec 27th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 52)

Since Gilbert Harman wrote Thought in 1973, some scholars have defended the language of thought hypothesis (LOTH). Thus, they argue that the language of thought (LOT), or Mentalese, is an internal language-like representational code in which the mind represents concepts. According to LOT, the mind is composed of 'mental words' (or symbols) that are combined in sentences when someone thinks (Harman 1973:65, Fodor 1975). When someone thinks she is involved in algorithmic processes that manipulate step-by-step concrete symbols to generate a certain result or behavior. Then, LOT is normally added to the computational theory of mind (CTM). CTM asserts that thought is a computational process that involves the manipulation of semantically interpretable mental symbols and sentences that are processed with algorithms (Fodor 1994). Following this theory, Susan Schneider presents a new approach to the LOT hypothesis that pretends review the previous classicist, Fodorian account. But she also provides a renewed view in which the Fodorian pessimism about the computationalism is rejected, LOT is applied to the central system and an accurate account of symbols is developed. To analyze if Schneider manages to establish her aims I dedicate this review.

Overview of the book

The book tries to answer to three basic questions that LOT should correspond with. First, the book responds to Fodor's pessimism of the computational account of conceptual thought and central system. According to Schneider, if we defend, like Fodor does, that the central system is not computational, then the thought cannot be symbolic after all. Against the Fodorian pessimism, she analyzes the relevance and globality problems. The Relevance Problem explains if and how human beings determine what is relevant in a computational way in human thought. Fodor asserts that no viable computational approach is available, though the cognitive mind is non-computational. According to Schneider, we should not proceed differently analyzing the relevant problem in human beings like when analyzing the relevance problem in other computational systems. Both are a question of empirical investigation. The answer, Schneider says, can be provided by the global workspace theory (GWT). Chapter 2 develops a new GWT-based approach to the central system that frames a LOT within cognitive and computational neuroscience to sharpen its understanding.

Global properties are characteristics of a sentence in the language of thought that depend on how the sentence interacts with a larger plan. This is to say, holism is a basic feature of LOT. Fodor asserts that if thinking is sensitive to those sentences, thought cannot be computational because it is sensitive to the context. This is the Globality Problem. Chapter 3 problematically defends that Fodor's version of this problem is self-defeating, like other different construals of the problem.

LOT and CTM defend that mental states are symbolic. Thus, the second problem  the book tries to solve is 'What is a symbol?' According to Schneider, the symbolic nature is "a matter of the role they play in computation... [T]hey are determined by the symbol's total computational role -- the role the symbol plays in the algorithm that is distinctive to the central system" (p. 22). She calls this position the algorithmic view. This view is not new and it was defended by different scholars in the last few years (for instance, Fodor 1994 and Stich 1983). But those authors never developed an accurate theory of symbols. To provide this view, chapter 4 identifies the functions that symbols are supposed to play and denies that any competing conception of symbols provide a viable approach to those roles.

In chapter 5, Schneider provides three different arguments to assert the algorithmic view of symbols. The first argument for classicism  says that "a mechanism computes when it produces outputs or tokens given certain inputs tokens, according to an algorithm" (p. 112). If this is right, Schneider says, classicism requires a symbol be typed by sameness and difference of the total computational roles that are classified by two different schemes: the intrapersonal and the interpersonal LOT scheme. This argument provides an answer to possible criticism about the compositionality, productivity and systematicity of thought as well as an explanation that how two different individuals can have symbols of the same type. Second, though it seems that we have mental processes that are not determined by LOT syntax and the algorithms, the supervenience argument says "sameness in (total) computational role is a necessary condition on the type-identity of LOT symbols" (p. 117). If this is right, Schneider says, we can reject Fodor's (2000) claim that CTM is incomplete and cannot characterize mental processing in the central system. Thirdly, the (computational-level) Frege cases argument says that "without individuation of modes of presentation (MOPs) by total computational (or for non-computational theories, narrow functional) role, then either there will be missed predictions, or there will be counterexamples to certain psychological laws" (p. 119). According to Schneider, if the previous arguments are true, then a symbol is defined by the role it plays in the algorithm that describes the central system and not by the causal profile of the symbol.

Chapter 6 reshapes LOT. Schneider provides a new account about neo-Fregean modes of presentation according to the renewed view on LOT as non-semantic and symbolic. She also responds to different objections to a symbolic LOT approach, like why different individuals will not satisfy the same generalizations (the publicity problem) or how can concepts be innate if symbols are not shared (the concept nativism problem).

According to Schneider, "concepts are the fabric out of which thought is woven" (p. 159).

Unlike Fodor, Chapter 7 develops a conceptual atomistic approach that is pragmatic. It is drawn from concept pragmatism and referentialism and, Schneider says, it "satisf[ies] more of the desiderata that many believe a theory of concepts should satisfy" because it "introduces a much-needed psychological element to conceptual atomism" (p. 23). Some scholars argue that the representational nature of thought can be solved by providing a referential theory of content or a broad content account. But this kind of response has counterexamples: the Frege cases. Suppose the Hesperus-Phosphorus classic example. The content of both mental symbols -#Hesperus# and #Phosphorus#- represent the same object --Venus- despite the fact that those symbols differ in their cognitive meaning. Frege cases suggest that a LOT account of the mind is mistaken because it asserts that thought cannot be symbolic. In cases where individuals lack certain relevant knowledge for their behavior, they fail to behave like LOT predicts because they are sensitive to broad contents and are insensitive to the ways in which the referent is represented.

This is the third problem that the book confronts: 'How do we solve the Frege cases?' Or stated differently, 'What is the relation between meaning and symbolic mental states?' Frege cases estate that if mental states are symbolic and computational it is unclear how they can have the kind of semantic properties that LOT claims have. Unlike the standard LOT answer that claims that those "counterexamples to intentional generalizations arising from intentional laws that are sensitive to broad contents rather than to the ways the individuals conceives the referent" (p. 3), Schneider puts the algorithmic conception of symbols to work to refine the LOT approach and include the Frege cases while offering generalizations that predict them. At the last, Schneider supposes that Frege cases are not counterexamples but tolerable exceptions to the broad psychological account that she defends.

 

Problems in Schneider's view of the language of thought

Several authors defend some kind of LOT account. Maybe Fodor is the most known. But he is not the only one. Authors like Gilbert Harman, Ned Block, Peter Carruthers, Michael Devitt or Georges Rey also develop different shorts of LOT in the last years. All of them reject the Fodorian semantic atomism and/or deny Fodorian pessimism about the limitations of the computational mind. Schneider explicitly says that her purpose is to renew the standard view of LOT, or classicism, developed by different scholars. Nevertheless Schneider cites no one of them like agreeing with Fodor and only focuses her criticism to the Fodorian idiosyncratic view of LOT. (Also Rey (2011) points out this lack in Schneider's book). Though this is a relevant fault, nevertheless it is not the main problem in the Schneider's account.

Much more troublesome is the question about the nature of the symbols. According to Schneider, a symbol is "[a] entity that is both computational and semantic in the following strong sense: to have its content essentially" (p. 93). The question, it seems to me, is unanswered if we only assert something that we suppose. What is this entity? Neurons? Networks? Some kind of cells? Schneider does not provide a response. If one of the problems with the LOT program, Schneider says, is the failure to define symbols, it seems that Schneider does not sufficiently clarify them either. She only specifies that what is at stake here is how to individuate a symbol. Schneider says that a symbol can be individuated "by the role it plays in computation" (p. 111) according to "a total computational role" (p. 113). Does this mean holism? Or context-sensitivity? If precisely her account is non-semantic but syntactic, we can also see problems providing  an explanation for this total role if we do not know the complete causal history of the every possible behavior. In my assessment, the answer cannot be to appeal to pragmatic atomism because the kind of generalizations provided by the algorithms that individuate symbols leads to the failure of symbols being shared.

Schneider proposes a broad psychological answer to the Frege cases. This response is a neo-russellian-referentialist computational account that subsumes the intentional explanations of some attitudinal attributions. In Schneider's view, Frege cases are not counterexamples but tolerable exceptions. This is a weak answer. Appealing to an exceptional definition of ceteris paribus laws applied to the psychological computationalism, like Schneider does, only permits a partly-accurate account of  human psychology but does not explain sufficiently the intentional facts that it fulfils in ordinary human behavior.

A further problem in Schneider's LOT theory is to explain all behavior as conceptual. Why does an individual appeal to conceptual knowledge in behavior? Sometimes it is not necessary to appeal to nothing more than the ordinary manner by which the individual respond to certain situations. If we suppose, like Schneider does, that all our content is conceptual, we must suppose that all our behavior responds to a high-order level of complexity that assuming previous data is present in our nature that update old information to a personal level. This obtains a concrete output. How to explain it? A total explanation of the LOT requires answering to this question.

To summarize, though the Schneider's LOT view has, in my assessment, some unresolved issues, her book is  good proof of the health of contemporary philosophy of mind as a field, answering different questions about human behavior. To get rid of old stigmas and to raise issues with certain positions is a necessary step. Schneider has provided this first step in her book, showing LOT as a viable response when she focuses it towards computational and cognitive neuroscience for its naturalism to succeed.

 

References

Harman, G. 1973. Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fodor, J. 1975. The Language of Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fodor, J. 1994. The Elm and the Expert: Mentalese and Its Semantics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fodor, J. 2000. The Mind Doesn't Work That Way. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Rey, G.  2011. Review of Schneider's The Language of Thought. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/27637-the-language-of-thought-a-new-philosophical-direction-2/

Stich, S. 1983. From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

 

© 2011 Juan J. Colomina

 

Juan J. Colomina, PhD, Visiting Research Scholar, Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin


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