Language is so distracting

Thanks for the invitation to be a featured scholar on Brains. It’s good timing for me, since I just turned in proofs for my second book (The Animal Mind, with Routledge) and I’m on sabbatical. This means I may actually have the time to write up some of my talks and write down some of my thoughts. In January I head off to E. Kalimantan, Borneo to spend some quality time with wild orangutans—as a philosopher of psychology I’ve always thought it important to get involved doing some of the psychology research I’m writing about. This will be the first time I’m involved in cognition research with free-range animals; I’ve worked with captive dolphins, rehabilitant orangutans in E. Kalimantan, and pre-school children. Apparently, the biggest difference between captive and wild research is that on this trip I may not even see any orangutans. That’s part of why field researchers publish so little compared with captive researchers!

Over the next two weeks I plan to introduce my work past, present, and future. It all revolves around a simple theme—getting something for nothing. Or for cheap, at least. I’m interested in the cognitive capacities that are needed for various abilities, within a very broad understanding of “cognitive”. As it turns out, I’m following the advice of C. Lloyd Morgan. In his famous Cannon, Morgan said, “in no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development” (Morgan 1903, 292). By this, Morgan meant to suggest that when doing psychology, whether with nonhuman animals or humans, we should examine whether the behavior requires conceptual reasoning, or whether it could have been accomplished via nonconceptual, associative, or perceptual processes instead. (Morgan wasn’t interested in explaining animal behavior in terms of environmental inputs, the way the behaviorists were, and contemporary readings of Morgan too often read him through a behaviorist lens.)

While Morgan’s Cannon interpreted well might be just fine, I think it isn’t the lesson we need from him right now. Instead, I find what I’ve been calling Morgan’s Challenge to offer a helpful corrective. Morgan writes, “To interpret animal behavior one must learn also to see one’s own mentality at levels of development much lower than one’s top-level of reflective self-consciousness. It is not easy, and savors somewhat of paradox” (Morgan 1930, 250). Morgan advises us to not over-intellectualize human cognition, and I see myself following this advise when I say I want to see what we can get for cheap.

Language is one of the most intellectual aspects of human cognition. I won’t belabor the point by listing all the great things about language—it clearly helps us do lots of things. But having language can also lead to the creation of many problems. Once we can identify concepts we can argue about those concepts, and create fights and wars and strife. We can waste a lot of time reading others’ words, we can become disconnected from our current environment by looking at all the words that surround us on the street and cell phone, or by rehearsing conversations and rehashing arguments. We can spend a lot of energy being upset by the words of someone we’ve never met, taking seriously something that could be ignored. The words in our head can be a constant irritation, and some people spend a lot of time and money trying various ways to quiet them.

It’s not that I have anything against language—stories and songs are great, and conversations can be ok. But one of my favorite children’s books is Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman, and it doesn’t have a word in it. And for adults, I appreciate the work of Shaun Tam, such as The Arrival. No comprehensible language in either book. But everything is perfectly understandable. The question that strikes me as I “read” books without words in them is how much of the understanding is scaffolded on already having language. My research follows the same line of thought, examining how much can one get in the way of cognitive capacities without speaking or understanding a language.

Sometimes it seems that language is like Christ—it is through language that all things are possible. And I’m just as skeptical of the psychological claim as I am of the religious one. But we are variously told that language is the sine qua non. Without language there is no belief (Davidson). Without language there is no metacognition (Bermúdez). Without language there is no episodic memory (Tulving). Without language there is no agency (I’ll pin this on Kant). Without language there is no rationality (Descartes). Without language there is no intentional communication (I’ll pin this on Grice). Without language there is no moral agency (I’ll pin this on Korsgaard). What a sad little world it is for those critters without language! They lack so much.

Over the next two weeks I’ll present some reasons I have for thinking one can be a folk psychologist without language, one can be an agent, be a self, and can communicate. I also want to bring up some points about studying cognition in animals, and why I think it is worth facing the challenges of field research and folk psychological thinking when studying animal minds.

In my next post I’ll sketch some arguments from my book Do Apes Read Minds?. I challenge the common view that we humans are so good at predicting what one another will do next because we read minds—not like a mentalist reads minds, but rather we constantly interpret people’s behavior as being caused by hidden beliefs and desires. That view is like thinking we see others as bags of skin filled with filled with hidden beliefs. On my view, we see people.

[Image credit: “Tepantitla mural, Ballplayer A (Daquella manera)” by Daniel Lobo (Daquella manera) – Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –,_Ballplayer_A_(Daquella_manera).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Tepantitla_mural,_Ballplayer_A_(Daquella_manera).jpg]


  1. Kristina Musholt

    Hi Kristin,

    Thanks so much for accepting our invitation! I am very sympathetic to what you’re suggesting here – looking forward to hearing more about your reasons for thinking that language matters less than is often thought.

    • Elizabeth Picciuto

      I have thought much about this issue, especially in terms of cognitive disability, and researched it very little. I’m very excited to read what you have coming.

  2. Hi Elizabeth, thanks for posting. I hope I’ll have things to say that speak to your interests, too. I’ll be posting about communication, speculating a bit about different modes of communication, and that might interestingly tie into reaching people with certain kinds of cognitive disabilities that impacts linguistic abilities.

  3. Hello Kristin,

    There are many positions one could “pin on Grice” but I’m not sure how the position you describe above can be pinned on him. You say “Without language there is no intentional communication”. Now, I can see Griceans claiming (in some sense) that without FP there is no intentional communication. But, since Griceans want to explain language (or more precisely, linguistic communication) in terms of intentional communication, they would be in serious trouble if language was required for intentional communication.

    What did you have in mind here?

  4. Thanks Robert! I AM fudging here…there is a missing premise, which is that one needs language for the kind of metacognitive processing many people seem to think Grice wanted (3rd or 4th level, depending on who you ask, right?).

    So it sounds like on your reading of Grice intentional communication serves as the foundation of linguistic communication, which is interesting. I’d like to hear more about that.

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