On Philosophy

November 18, 2006

Speech and Consciousness

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 3:00 am

There is a bit of a mystery surrounding how our use of language is connected to our conscious experience; it seems as if we have the ability to speak about all parts of our conscious experience. Even if we can’t describe the experience in objective terms (what is it exactly to be happy?) we can still indicate when we are having a particular experience. And this in turn indicates that all of the information that makes up consciousness is available to our speech centers. But why should this be so? Certainly it is possible that there could be aspects of our conscious experience that simply could not be talked about, or even alluded to. The fact that there aren’t, and that it is hard to imagine what consciousness would be like without this connection, demands an explanation.

One novel explanation of this phenomena is to pick out language as the foundation of what we think of as conscious experience, a move that both Wittgenstein and Dennett* seem to make, to some extent. Consciousness is then reduced to some kind of speaking to ones self, and because it is ultimately all speech it makes sense that this inwards speech can all be made public, if we so choose. But there are two major problems with a view such as this. One is that even though we can’t say what exactly happiness or anger are they affect us differently, indicating that there is content to those conscious states, content that is not fully captured by our speech, and thus that conscious experience can’t be solely a result of inner speech. Secondly it seems reasonable to suppose that some animals are conscious, and this contradicts the view that consciousness is a linguistic phenomenon, since animals don’t have language.

Of course it would be equally mistaken to think that our conscious experience is completely independent of our language. Certainly our language seems to lend structure to our thoughts, and that structure allows us to think about our own experience in ways that would be impossible without it. But, even so, it seems that there is some fundamental consciousness that can exist without language, thus leaving us with the mystery of why the entirety of this fundamental consciousness should be available for discourse.

The answer might have to do with the close connection between thought and language use. But before I tackle that let me briefly discuss a broad class of theories about how consciousness works. The theories I have in mind state that consciousness essentially has a circular structure, meaning that one of the features that makes an experience conscious is that in some way it is incorporated into future conscious experiences. And one of the ways in which this can happen is through some form of primitive “thoughts”, specifically some features of the conscious experience are picked out, transformed a bit, and incorporated into the next moment of experience. For example, reflecting on an event that has just happened is one such example of a kind of primitive thought.

Now there must be something in the mind that drives us to produce speech. And given one of the uses of speech, to communicate information about what is currently happening, it seems reasonable to suppose that one of these thought “pathways” could have been employed, in addition to its regular use, to provide the content for speech acts under certain conditions. And the rest, as they say, is history. Eventually the formal structure of language became the structure of some of our thoughts as well, so that when we think abstractly we are almost forced to think linguistically.

And this could be the reason why all conscious experience is available to our speech. All conscious experience, by definition, is available to the kind of reflexive process described here, since that is what makes it conscious. And thus if language is motivated by one part of that process then any part of consciousness could drive a speech act. Of course the validity of this theory depends on how consciousness actually works, and we really don’t know enough to say if this is a good theory about the connections between language and consciousness. However by providing such a theory we at least demonstrate that the close connections between language and consciousness don’t necessarily imply that consciousness is a linguistic phenomenon.

* You may be thinking that Dennett has never said anything this radical. And I admit that there are other ways to read his work. But we can arrive at this interpretation from two different lines of thought present in his work. One of them is the idea of heterophenomenology, which states that consciousness is accessible through people’s reports about their conscious experience. And this can be read strongly, as saying that the reports are all there is to consciousness, or it can be real weakly, as saying basically what I have said here, that our consciousness is fully available as the foundation for speech acts. The second is Dennett’s ideas about the emergence of consciousness found in his book Consciousness Explained. Dennett says that consciousness arises from the practice of talking to others turned to talking to oneself. And this certainly seems to imply that consciousness is simply a special use of language, and that consciousness can’t exist without language. Or it could be read as simply asserting that the complexities of human consciousness couldn’t arise without language.


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