Language and Evolution: Homepage Robin Allott


[Extracted from The Power of Words See also Language, Perception and Action: Philosophical issues]


What I want to emphasise is the unrecognised power of words, the value of the individual word. We take words - language - very much for granted, just as we take our eyes, our power of vision for granted. But both are tremendously flexible and wide-ranging powers - which have hardly been described in any complete way, never mind explained.The paper is intended to do two main things. to categorise and illustrate the power of words, the different roles which language plays. Second, to assess the relevance for each of the areas considered of the motor theory of language evolution and function.

Language is a powerful instrument. It is used in many different ways and constitutes one of the principal forces controlling and forming human behaviour. Besides its most familiar and normally most discussed use, communication, language is important through its use in one's private thought, in science and in oratory, in poetry, in philosophy - and perhaps most remarkably in techniques of hypnosis. The paper is intended to do two main things. to categorise and illustrate the power of words, the different roles which language plays. Second, to assess the relevance for each of the areas considered of the motor theory of language evolution and function.

How can language succeed (generally) in each of these roles?


Science has been successful, philosophy on the whole has not. This makes the question of the power of words in philosophy different from that of the power of words in science. Uncertainty about the nature and objectives of philosophy adds to the difficulty.

OED: That department of knowledge or study which deals with ultimate reality, or with the most general causes and principles of things

Views about the nature and achievements of philosophy vary widely. Some authors have been reasonably optimistic, others extremely pessimistic, others think that although little has been achieved so far,philosophy may yet find some fruitful line of progress. Below are a few examples of each tendency.


An enlightening and satisfying interpretation of the universe. 'Completely unified knowledge', in contrast with the 'partly unified knowledge' of science (Spencer). The mind's insight into what knowing is.(Hegel)


A futile battle between combatants clad in impenetrable armour. The spectacle of philosophers quarrelling endlessly over the same issues.(Rorty) The scandalous fact that after more than 2000 years philosophers are still unclear about what philosophy is. (Ambrose) The way these cusses slip so fluently off into the 'Idea'... etc. .. and undertake to give a logical explanation of everything which is so palpably trumped up after the facts. (James)

A middle view:

There is no reason to believe that philosophical enquiries their very nature, inconclusive.This was a remediable fault of philosophers, due to premature system-building and impatient ambition, which left them neither the inclination nor the time to assemble the facts, impartially and cooperatively, and then to build their unifying theories, cautiously and slowly, on a collective, and therefore secure, base. (Austin). There is no hard-and-fast line between scientific and metaphysical problems. All our scientists are describing the same world but in many different languages. Put their descriptions into a single language, which will reveal the common features of the world.

What could be plausible objectives for philosophy?

- to accommodate the human mind in the conceptual structure of science? - to unite subject and object? - to unite mind and brain, mind and body? - to understand understanding?

But where, if one pursues one or other of these objectives, should one put language, the role, the power of words in philosophy? Until comparatively recently, philosophers paid surprisingly little attention to the role of language, even though philosophy relies on language and the analysis of language more than any other intellectual pursuit. Hegel himself made only scattered and unimportant references to language, In Descartes, as Merleau-Ponty has pointed out, "its mediating role may pass unnoticed ... Descartes nowhere mentions it. .. never even mentions language as the condition of the reading of the cogito."

In this century, philosophers have become 'sensitised' to language, though often in only limited respects, not recognising the total dependence of all philosophising on the use of words, and the objective of philosophers as being essentially to create a unified structure of words.

The concern with language has taken various forms. Wittgenstein's early and later work was preoccupied with language. The central question of the Tractatus is: How is language possible? How can a man, by uttering a sequence of words, say something? "One is often bewitched by a word. For example, by the word 'know'". (note 12) Though finally he was pessimistic about the potential of philosophy: "It can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is 'purely descriptive'

Another manifestation of a new interest in language was the development of the 'ordinary language' school (chiefly in Oxford). The guiding idea of this was that ordinary language is more subtle and less confused than the earlier linguistic philosophers had supposed and something could be learnt from the study of use in ordinary language of key terms in philosophy. Our common stock of words embodies [ connections and distinctions] .. likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you and I are likely to think up in our armchairs of an afternoon - the most favoured alternative method (Austin). But he [Austin] accepted that even although 'as a preliminary' the philosopher must track down in detail the ordinary use of words, in the end he will always be compelled 'to straighten them out to some degree'.

A parallel line of thought (Ryle) was that many of the problems of philosophers derive from their own misuse of ordinary terms in language; the misuse of words like 'know' and 'mind', 'believe', 'doubt', 'infer' and so on. Misconstructions and absurd theories would be revealed and many so-called philosophical problems would disappear. And others thought that a concern with language was irrelevant(Popper): "Language is no more than a kind of spectacles through which one looks at the world: "one shouldn't waste one's life in spectacle-cleaning or in talking about language". Another view emphasised the likely need to reform the basic terms of philosophy. According to Feyerabend, our everyday language itself incorporates theories; we can hope to make advances in such tangled fields as the mind-body problem only if we are prepared to recognise that there may need to be wholesale changes in our ordinary modes of using such expressions as 'thought' and 'sensation'...

The emphasis in England and the United States on the role of language in philosophy was unwelcome to most Continental philosophers. So Van Breda: "the thesis that the sole point of contact with that reality which philosophy wishes to understand is language is entirely inadmissible. To say that the reality we wish to understand is conceptual reality is still more objectionable" The philosopher wants to understand not conceptual reality, but the world in which we live, in all its complexity".

But if an approach by way of language is impracticable or undesirable, what alternative is there? The other more traditional approach was in terms of perception, analysis of the ways in which we come to know the world. This approach also was widely thought to have reached a dead-end with Kant's Critique; the 'thing-in-itself' is unknowable. All we have access to are the categories into which our experience must fall; we cannot escape from ourselves to achieve any real knowledge of the world. More recently, Merleau-Ponty and Konrad Lorenz have suggested ways of escaping from the Kantian dilemma. Merleau-Ponty's rallying cry has been 'Back to perception' in terms of a body- subject involved in perception. Lorenz as a biologist formulates the answer to the Kantian dilemma in the following terms:: "The cognitive apparatus is itself an objective reality which has acquired its present form through contact with and adaptation to equally real things in the outer world The 'spectacles' of our modes of thought and perception, such as causality, substance, quality, time and place (the Kantian categories) are functions of a neurosensory organisation that has evolved in the service of survival. What we experience is a real image of reality, albeit an extremely simple one, only just sufficing for our practical purposes".

Both of these responses to Kant seem valid. The philosophical impasse of perception is resolved by the evolutionary and historical convergence of the organisation of the perceiving subject and the real perceived world. For Kant, human understanding 'prescribes its laws to nature' - but evolution, developing nature, had much earlier in biological history 'prescribed' to the human mind its categories and functioning, to accord with the real world. The integration of perception, action and language, combined with the true knowledge of the external world which the evolution of the cognitive and visual apparatus has made possible, opens the way to a new pursuit of philosophical truth through language. For the human race, the Kantian forms of understanding have, as a result of evolutionary development, become embodied in our neurological and physiological structures. The perceiving subject and the perceived object are equally real. Knowledge derives from the interaction between them.

Language is not 'the sole and essential point of contact for the philosopher with reality' - and the most pressing contacts with reality impose themselves without any intermediation of language. Nor is language an abstract rational structure but one built on human neurophysiological structure. Language is validated by perception and action, not the other way round. Language, as a flexible instrument designed to match the open-endedness of human experience, perception and action, can be a reliable medium for exploring, recording and developing man's knowledge of the external world and of his own nature.

Philosophy has in the past aspired to the certainty and success of science (particularly mathematics. Nowadays philosophy has to take account also of the striking successes of the physical and biological sciences. The essential problem of philosophy is the problem of the whole of which we are part, our bodies and brains as part of nature. Philosophy can advance as science increasingly tackles the physiological and neurological foundations of human behaviour. Ultimately 'understanding the mind may not be as intricate as our vanity hoped or our intellect feared' (Llinas) Without a new input from the brain sciences, philosophy, a discipline founded on language and on the manipulation of the meaning of words and sentences,is in practice in no better position to explain its primitive concepts,e.g. 'meaning', than it is to explain the nature of the colour 'red'. Philosophy cannot by verbal manipulation arrive at any deeper understanding of 'mind', 'thought', 'belief', 'knowledge', The power of words in this context will come from their reality as neural patterning, with a real relation to the processes or states to which the words refer. On this approach, the word 'consciousness' is a real neural organisation which has a real relation to the neural organisation (activity?) which is seen as constituting consciousness.


WORDS: This has been an attempt to identify, analyse and explain the power of words. One might ask: Why the power of words and not the power of language? There are several reasons: 'language' is much less specific, a vaguer concept, than words but at the same time there has been much more discussion of the function, structure and philosophy of language than there has been of words. The new point made in this paper is that each word has a power deriving not from convention or authority but from its sound structure. However, the significance of language as such in the evolution and development of human beings and human societies has been immense but needs, and has received, separate treatment in other papers on Evolution and Culture, the Role of Language, the Pinker Language Instinct.

MOTOR THEORY OF LANGUAGE: How far, for each of the areas considered in this paper are the views and the experience of practitioners consistent with the motor theory of language evolution and function? If words, in these different roles, are powerful because of the origin of language by modelling on the motor system and the link to perception, what next? Where does this lead? Where should this lead? Where it should lead is to a complete revision of ideas about the functioning of poetry, the mode of operation of hypnosis, the impact of oratory, the direction of development in philosophy. In due course practitioners in these different fields may find the ideas in this paper useful.

PHILOSOPHY: Academic philosophy is generally fragmented with many academic philosophers heading down ever-narrowing cul-de- sacs. What is needed is a switch from partial philosophies to total philosophy - as philosophy once was. This would not be the old metaphysics, a manipulation simply of verbal concepts and conceptual neologisms but a philosophy which takes full account of the human brain and the human body. The way forward in philosophy is through neurophilosophy (Patricia Churchland), the integration into the thought of philosophers of the ever-growing neurological understanding, reinforced by new methods for observing and measuring the activity of the brain in real time in its production of language, formulation of actions, generation of emotions.

SCIENCE: In Science, both the words and the measuring (instrumental) techniques are needed. E=MC^2 means nothing unless there are the words Mass, Energy and Speed of Light correlated with the formula; the mathematical symbols have linguistic meaning.There is no hard-and-fast line between scientific and metaphysical problems; the words act as Cartoons for complexes of the scientific experience, the iceberg words in Science (in this science and poetry approach one another as St. John Perse proposed). All scientists are describing the same world but in many different languages; the need is to put their descriptions into a single language, which will reveal the common features of the world, make possible an enlightening and satisfying interpretation of the universe.

EVOLUTION: Given the power of words, and their functioning in language, and given language as the faculty so sharply separating humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, a new understanding of words and language must have great relevance in assessing the human race's past, present and future. Should we be preparing an obituary for the human race [see the dinosaurs] or should we attempt to assess an evolutionary future which language and the intellectual capacities deriving from language make possible? [Evolutionary Significance of Human Life.]