Natural Aesthetics

Part 3 Language

How to become human (through art)

Part 3 Language


The key to maximising our cognitive abilities is language. As Stewart and Cohen state, ‘Language and intelligence evolved together, both being inextricably linked to culture.’[i] Language is the most powerful tool, used both internally and for communication. Public language plays a key role in Mithen’s model of cognitive evolution, ‘the capacity for this [human consciousness] is likely to have co-evolved with social intelligence and once public language was used for talking about the non-social world, such as about making artefacts and hunting animals, the barriers between those the worlds of society, nature and artefacts collapsed.’[ii] Mark Turner, like Mithen, looks to the Upper Paleolithic explosion of culture, arguing language is central and metaphor key, ‘The defining story of our species—culturally, intellectually, and neuro-biologically—is the story of how we developed the ability to forge conceptual integration networks out of strongly conflicting inputs, to create new meaning in the blend.’[iii]

Two Swimming Reindeer on mammoth tusk, from Montastruc France, c13,000 years old


The breakthrough in understanding language came with Herder’s Essay on the Origin of Language (1772) and the realisation that language expanded thinking, offering a new reflective stance towards the world. Wilhelm von Humboldt utilised Herder’s ideas in his image of language as a web, an ‘infinite use of finite means.’[iv] (David Abram notes that traditional societies understand the ‘weblike nature of language.’[v]) Humboldt follows Rousseau in seeing humans as ‘fundamentally a creative, searching, self-perfecting being: ‘to enquire and to create – these are the centres around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve’.’[vi] Language is a productive-expressive act – as Humboldt said, language comes into being ‘in the very act of its production’ – and distinguished language as ergon (objective product or work) and language as energeia (energy, activity).[vii] It is the creative power of this combinatorial symbolic system that poetry utilises.


Donald Norman claims language is the tool for thought that allows us to continue to invent ever more useful cognitive artefacts that in turn support even more invention, (cumulative bricolage) leading to better quality thinking, making us more intelligent.[viii] The use of external representations (writing, mathematical notation, drawing, and models): allow a group to share the same representation, affording group thought; expansion of the working memory affords more complex representations and time and space for reflection: ‘Reflection is a critical, >>essential ingredient for the development of new ideas. Some technological media support reflection, but many do not.’[ix] Scaffolding has far reaching implications; the fact we hear our own voice enables the self to become an object to the self (William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Jerome Bruner[x]); Hendriks-Jansen uses the term ‘scaffolding’ in his argument that language has both innate and developmental inputs,[xi] the term is used in learning theory.[xii]


Merlin Donald highlights one element in his ‘explosive’ third stage of hominid development – memory, mother of the Muses (a set of psychosomatic mechanisms encompassing history, religious ritual, cosmology, as well as the arts of poetry, song and dance). Donald’s core claim is that this stage introduced external memory storage and retrieval, and new working memory architectures, using external memory and the invention of permanent visual symbols- i.e. ‘material culture.’ He writes, “The key event during this transition was the emergence of the human speech system, including a completely new cognitive capacity for constructing and decoding narrative.’[xiii] Donald’s claim makes sense if culture, nature, mind-body, language, tools and techne are considered as intertwined, processural, and emergent – though the Muse focused on declarative memory ignoring procedural memory.[xiv]


Just as Herder’s ‘Essay on the Origin of Language’ (1772) introduced the realisation that language expands thinking, Vygotsky and Luria note, ‘All the artificial tools, the entire cultural environment, serve to ‘expand our senses’.’ The invention of simple tools like tallies vastly expanded memory from natural forms of memory to cultural ones.[xv] Vygotsky and Luria were influenced by Engels’ view that humans use tools to control nature and other humans; but in doing so behaviour is circumscribed and transformed. For example, artefacts expand and transform memory, as more complex modes of external memory become available.[xvi] Darren Tofts has written a history of memory, as a prehistory of cyberculture.[xvii]


But what is the key to understanding this breakthrough? Terrence Deacon, using Peirce’s hierarchical tripartite semiotics, views the move to symbol use as the uniquely human leap.[xviii] Symbols are abstracted and independent of the environment and relate to systems of symbols, but based on iconic and indexical processes, which must, ‘continuously evolve new means of fitting with and anticipating its environment’ thus providing a realist link between language and the world.[xix] At some stage hominids stripped speech sounds of their associated meaning and reserved meaning for combinations of sounds strung together, expanding the range of meaning – this was the revolution of syntax.[xx] Joseph Catalano stresses the use of convention itself, ‘The world of artefacts had already made things exist ‘by convention.’ All artefacts are conventional, or arbitrary, because they involve a use of matter arising from human intentions.’[xxi] Flurian Coulmas also thinks that what is more important is the use of convention itself: ‘The step from simple mnemonic devices such as tally sticks to the first conventional system of writing capable of recording information on clay tablets was immeasurably greater than all subsequent steps combined.’[xxii] Michael Coe refers to pictograms and ideograms as ‘logographic,’ (a symbol standing for a word) because the reader understands their message through language and not through the picture itself.[xxiii] The narrative is not in the picture. David Direnger believes a pictogram, ‘is the utilitarian beginning of written language, aiming to convey to the mind not the pure representation of an event, but a narrative of the event.’[xxiv] The picture becomes a pictogram only by becoming incorporated within a narrative, and this narrative is the way the pictograms and ideograms are strung together.


Deacon asserts that the, “origin of ‘humanness’ can be defined as that point in our evolution where these tools [symbolic reference] became the principle source of selection on our bodies and brains.”[xxv] Deacon invites us to ‘imagine language as an independent life form that colonises and parasitises human brains, using them to reproduce.’[xxvi] This memetic turn leads to an argument that poetry infects us, but as we co-evolved, there is no need for a parasitic analogy, and memes don’t take us far in understanding cultural change or stasis.[xxvii] Language changed the structure of the human brain as it (language) evolved and in turn, evolving human brain structure affected the evolution of language. Each brain processes language differently (even identical twins), which is evidence against the theory that specific linguistic rules or categories are hardwired and innate.[xxviii] Language, like everything else, is ecological, developing as the human organism negotiates the world.


Robert Logan reminds us that Neanderthals had larger brain capacity yet inferior cognitive skills, due to inferior information processing which demonstrates the importance of language. Public language plays a key role in Steven Mithen’s model of cognitive evolution: ‘the capacity for this [human consciousness] is likely to have co-evolved with social intelligence and once public language was used for talking about the non-social world, such as about making artefacts and hunting animals, the barriers between those the worlds of society, nature and artefacts collapsed.’[xxix] Mithen has come to see that cognitive fluidity arises from material culture, noting, ‘Both private and public language act as tools for thought and play a fundamental role in the evolution of consciousness: in the opening up of our minds to ourselves. But during the course of the latter stages of human evolution, another tool was found that may have had even greater consequences for the evolution of consciousness: material culture itself.’[xxx]


Derek Bickerton notes the ontogenetic gap in language use, between simple linear beading of words without grammar or syntax, and the association of two and more words. Apes cannot get past this early stage – chimps don’t use poetry. He supposes that the Upper Paleolithic transition is the equivalent dramatic leap in larger cultural terms.[xxxi] John McCrone uses the term ‘bifold’ for his hypothesis that mind emerges from a dialectical process between two evolutionary processes – the biological and the cultural.[xxxii] He believes that thought and language work together ‘to probe for meaning, and that thought and inner speech eventually become largely fused within the adult mind so that just the ‘inkling’ of a speech act can do the thought-driving work of a fully-expressed speech act.’[xxxiii]


Lakoff & Johnson argue that Chomsky’s view of language is based on the Cartesian conception of mind, and repeats Descartes’ mistakes, which they list as: the separation of mind and body; transcendent autonomous reason (reason is of the mind not body); essences (everything contains an essence that makes it what it is); rationality defines human nature; mathematics ideal reason; reason as formal – the ability to reason is ability to manipulate symbols within formal rules; thought as language, as formal and mathematical; and innate ideas.[xxxiv] This separation pervades our thought and institutions, and severs the mental from the physical; philosophers and psychologists study minds / natural scientists deal with bodies. The new linguistic branch of cognitive science reveals fundamental processes and structures of human cognition, offering alternatives to the Chomskian miraculous appearance of universal grammar. It is likely that language has emerged via various inventions.


Marx-Engels in The German Ideology supposed, ‘language is practical consciousness … language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men.’[xxxv] Heidegger, despite his acknowledgement of the power of language, did not realise the essential nature of this interior scaffolding (e.g. ‘The Way to Language’).[xxxvi] Wittgenstein also stressed language as public communication and an external reference, neglecting the auto-use of language. He failed to realise Clark’s point that language has a vital role as internal thought tool (reflecting how idiosyncratic language processing is).[xxxvii] Language is not controlled by a single central intelligence, but is a distributed, dynamical and adaptive system – the product of cultural evolution. Using language reaches beyond single modules to a variety of regions of the cortex, some predictable, others not – thus the impact of mental modelling. [xxxviii]


As Vygotsky has shown – language is as much about becoming human by thinking as communication.



[i] Stewart & Cohen, ibid, p10.

[ii] Mithen, Handaxes, ibid.

[iii] Mark Turner, ‘The Cognitive Study of Art, Language, and Literature’ Poetics Today Vol 23:1, 2002, p16. There are authors who claim an earlier symbolic revolution. Ian Watts specialises in the archaeology of ochre and argues that the real ‘transition’ occurred much earlier: ‘the MSA2b [c 100,000-75,000 BP in Africa] witnessed the most significant suite of behavioural changes seen in the course of the Upper Pleistocene.’ The Evolution of Culture: An Interdisciplinary View, Ed., Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight & Camilla Power, Edinburgh UP, 1999, p120.

[iv] Herder thought language and thought are inseparable. John Zammito thinks Herder was as important a philosopher as his teacher, Kant, though ‘the pre-critical Kant’ prior to the first Critique of 1781 was similar. Herder later criticised Kant for ignoring language and artificially creating dichotomies in the mind. John H. Zammito, Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002.

[v] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world,

Pantheon, 1996, p83. (His work is discussed in later chapters.)

[vi] Chomsky, 2002, p24.

[vii] He wrote ‘Language is (in its very essence) not a product but an activity. Its true definition can therefore only be a genetic one; it is the ever-repeated workings of the mind towards making the articulated sound capable of giving expression to thought.’ Humboldt, quoted by Danny Alford, ‘Reality, Mind, and Language as Field wave and Particle’,

January, 1981.

[viii] But there’s no evidence that information technology leads to better ‘thinking’ and he fails to give weight to the embodied experiential underpinning of thought. He claims, ‘Technology has made us smart, smart in the sense of being better able to think, to reason, to make judgments.’ Donald A Norman, Things That Make Us Smart, Addison-Wesley, 1993, p250. Norman stresses the mind's representational capacity, its ability to form mental models that enable us to understand and explain complex events.
In his earlier, The Psychology of Everyday Things (POET) (1986), Basic Books, 1998, Norman demonstrates that machine-orientated design and ignorance of how humans interact with artefacts often leads to an inefficient, sometimes dangerous, human - machine interactions. He uses the term affordance (see to describe the relationship between the person and the environment.  A table affords support such as sitting.  See James Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979. > And William Gaver, ‘Affordances for Interaction: The Social is Material for Design’, Ecological Psychology 8, 1996, p111-29.

[ix] Don Norman, post SIGCHI Bulletin, October 1994, Vol 26:4. p78-79. [DL 5.11.2000]

[x] Bruner has a ‘distributed’ view of Self in his practice oriented cultural psychology, which sees ourselves in terms of dialogical relations to others in our environment.’ Bruner seeks ‘to attend to the practices in which ‘the meanings of Self’ are achieved and put to use.’ J. S. Bruner, Acts of Meaning, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990, p116.

[xi] The language of others enable the child to make the leap to language and ‘it is only with the onset of language that the child’s mind becomes truly representational. ‘The alternative (to Chomsky’s view) I have sketched proposes that language competence does have a partial explanation in natural selection, in that we have certain species-typical activity patterns adapted for language acquisition but that the actual development of the competence can come about only through performance and requires the prior existence of a public language that can serve as scaffolding.’ H. Hendriks-Jansen, Catching Ourselves in the Act: Situated Activity, Interactive Emergence, Evolution, and Human Thought, MIT Press, 1996.

[xii] Scaffolding is where a facilitator creates a scaffold for students to achieve a task, then the next task is set and scaffolded but with students beginning to learn on their own, and adapt the scaffolds to various situations. It is a theory of cumulative bricolage. See A. N. Applebee & J.A. Langer, ‘Instructional Scaffolding: Reading and Writing and Natural Language Activities’, Language Arts 660, 1983, p168–175.

[xiii] Merlin Donald, 1991, p16. He calls objects which embody memories and which combine in many different ways with the brain’s distributed, context-ridden ‘engrams’, ‘exograms’.

[xiv] Memory is now categorised into two types: declarative memory (available to consciousness includes memory for such things as daily episodes, words and their meanings, and history) and procedural memory (generally not available to conscious awareness, including, motor skills, associations, puzzle solving skills etc.). I would suggest that a rich poetics utilises all of these processes to varying degrees.

[xv] All the artificial tools, the entire cultural environment, serve to ‘expand our senses’ (Viner, 1909). Modern cultural man can allow himself the luxury of having the worst natural abilities, which he amplifies with artificial devices thus coping with the external world better than the primitive man who used his natural abilities directly. The latter broke a tree by beating it on a stone, modern man takes an axe or a frame-saw and does this work quicker, better, and with less energy wasted.’ Lev Vygotsky and A. R. Luria, Studies on the History of Behaviour: Ape, Primitive, and Child, Erlbaum, 1993, 169-70, 177. Language is seen as extension of mental life, and at the social core of human nature by thinkers as diverse as Bergson, Gehlen or McLuhan.

[xvi] Culture is the way cognitive achievements, such as tool use but also representational techniques and devices and institutional and social practices are transmitted down the generations. (A Lamarkian system piggy-backing on a Darwinian one, though Vygotsky suggests that cultural evolution has succeeded biological evolution).

[xvii] Darren Tofts & Murray McKeich, Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture, G + B Arts International, 1998.

[xviii] Pierce system was Icon (referring by resemblance); index, (referring by being affected by the object); and symbol involving convention or habit. See J. Buchler Ed., Writings of Peirce, Dover, 1955, p98-119.

[xix] Deacon, 1997. He this takes a realist position of the development and application of our symbolic systems – though the nature of the tie between the world, thought and brain events is still a mystery, and so is the development of language – how did the first human to use language make any sense. Deacon suggests it was gradual development with a mix of vocalisations, gestures and use of objects, (p407). The leap was symbolic reference, a conventional code linking objects with words -without any physical connection. This differs from both iconic reference, where the calls are a resemblance of something we notice, and indexical reference where the signal is causally linked to the sign that it depicts. Deacon hypothesises that genetic variations that rendered brains more adept at crude language were favoured and that language began as a cognitive adaptation with genetic assimilation as language and brain co-evolved. The child’s mind does not embody innate language structures. Rather, language has come to embody the predispositions of the child’s mind. 1997, ibid.

[xx] Though in themselves the sounds of language are meaningless, they can be recombined in different ways to yield thousands of words, each distinct in meaning…. In just the same way, a finite stock of words… can be combined to produce an infinite number of sentences. Nothing remotely like this is found in animal communication. Derek Bickerton, Language and Species, p15-16.

[xxi] ‘Coulmas’s point is valid, but it has to be put in proper perspective. The move from mnemonic devices to numbers and from pictures to pictograms established a distinctive kind of convention, but not convention itself.’ Joseph Catalano, Thinking Matter: Consciousness… Routledge, 2000, p53. Jonathan Culler, ‘If a cave man is successfully to inaugurate language by making a special grunt signifying ‘food,’ we must suppose that the grunt is already distinguished from other grunts and that the world has already been divided into the categories ‘food’ and ‘non-food’.’ Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982,  p96

[xxii] Flurian Coulmas, The Writing Systems of the World, Blackwell, 1989, p9.

[xxiii] Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Mayan Code, Thames and Hudson, 1992, p26-9.

[xxiv] ‘However, picture writing even in its more elementary stage is more that a picture. It differs from picturing, which is the beginning of pure pictorial representation or art, in the fact that David Diringer, The Alphabet, 3rd ed. Funk and Wagnalls, 1978, p10.

[xxv] Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, p345.

[xxvi] Deacon, 1997, p111. Deacon argues ‘modern humans need the language parasite in order to flourish and reproduce, just as much as it needs humans to reproduce. Consequently, each has evolved with respect to the other.’ p113.

[xxvii] Richard Dawkins says, ‘When I proposed memes, it was not quite a joke, but it wasn’t really intended to be a contribution to the theory of human culture, it was really just to say Darwinism is a more general theory than most people realise, it’s not just about genes, it’s about anything self-replicating. And memes are a suggested alternative self-replicating entity. They are the equivalent of genes in human culture, they’re ideas or clothes fashions or something like that. Susan Blackmore argues that memes were the decisive factor in the evolution of modern humans. Susan Blackmore thinks that our large brains and our memetic abilities co-evolved together. If you had a bigger brain you’d be better at imitation, and if you were good at imitation you’d be better able to pick up memes, and so on. ‘The Descent of Man Episode 3: Is Anyone in There?’ The Science Show, ABC Radio National 2000, Produced by Tom Morton See her The Meme Machine, OUP, 1999. The question is do memes fit into the evolutionary algorithm of variation, selection and heredity? Here there is disagreement.

[xxviii] Israel Rosenfield, The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An anatomy of Consciousness, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, p82.

[xxix] Mithen, Mithen, ‘Handaxes and Ice Age Carvings: Hard Evidence for the Evolution of Consciousness’  ibid. In Chapter One, ‘Life, Death, and Time’.

[xxx] Mithen, ‘Handaxes’ ibid. ‘Modern humans, especially those after 50,000 years ago, learned how to overcome those evolutionary constraints by exploiting material culture, by telling stories, and performing rituals as a means to offload and provide cognitive anchors for ideas that have no natural home within the evolved mind. In this regard, the modern brain is unlikely to be significantly different from that of a Neanderthal. But it is linked into the world of human culture that augments and extends its powers in remarkable ways.’ Mithen, 2001, p51.

[xxxi] Derek Bickerton, 1990.

[xxxii] McCrone stresses the interaction between culturally-evolved thought habits and the natural thinking and reasoning powers of the animal brain with the claim that speech and speech-enabled habits of thought are things that ‘grow into the brain’ during development. Thus the two forces genetic and cultural merge and the boundary becomes blurred as the ‘software’ effects changes in the ‘hardware’. John McCrone, ‘A Bifold Model of Freewill’, version of paper that appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, August 1999. [DL 6.9.2001]. The bifold idea first aired in John McCrone, The Myth of Irrationality, Macmillan, 1993.

[xxxiii] John McCrone, 1999. As Stewart and Cohen state, ‘Language and intelligence evolved together, both being inextricably linked to culture.’ Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Figments of Reality, Cambridge UP, p10.

[xxxiv] Descartes argued God implanted ideas that experience could not provide and a method of introspection. See Noam Chomsky, Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rational Thought, Harper and Row, 1966. George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, 1999, p470-1.

[xxxv] Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker 2d ed., 1978, p158. Christopher Gaulker also takes an externalist position, viewing public language, ‘not as a tool for representing the world or expressing one’s thoughts but a tool for effecting changes in one’s environment.’ Christopher Gaulker ‘How to learn language like a chimpanzee’, Philosophical Psychology 3, No1, 31-53, 1990, p31. Ruth Millikan also asserts that a natural ontology of language is an ecosystem of public acts not  abstract private competence externalised used by embodied social beings to co-order their awareness of and action in the world. Over time, in partially or wholly closed communities, multiple intersecting genres and discourses bring forth ‘a language’ for communication necessary for social primates. Ruth Millikan, ‘Naturalist reflections on knowledge’ Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 65, 1984, p315—334. See also On Clear and Confused Ideas: An Essay about Substance Concepts, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

[xxxvi] Heidegger thought speech is: (1) A faculty, an activity and achievement of humans; (2) The operation of the instruments for communication and hearing; (3) The expression and communication of emotions accompanied by thoughts in the service of information; and (4) A representing and portraying of the real and unreal. Heidegger, ‘The Way to Language” in On the Way to Language, trans. P.D. Hertz, Harper & Row, 1972, p21.

[xxxvii] Neuro-imaging has recently found that the human brain responds to words with highly distributed patterns of activity – words are not decoded within a single module such as Wernicke’s area but rouse activity in far flung corners of the cortex. So for example, when subjects are shown a black and white drawing of an object like a pencil and asked to associate either an action or a colour with it, saying yellow stirs the colour processing areas of the visual pathways while saying write stirs motion perception areas. A. Martin, J.V., Haxby, F,M.,  Lalonde, C.L,, Wiggs, & L.G., Ungerleider, ‘Discrete cortical regions associated with knowledge of color and knowledge of action’, Science, 270, 1995, p102-5. The brain processes language in individual ways with highly distributed patterns of activity, George Ojermann states, ‘everyone’s network is unique.’ He has localised language centres in over 200 people (through the course of brain surgery for epilepsy treatment). There are two central areas in the brain for language processing; Werncike’s Area, crucial for speech comprehension, and Broca’s Area which is crucial for speech production; both require the awareness of consciousness for normal language performance. There are also key intersections but there are also many other localised areas and he has never found the same mosaic. George A. Ojemann, ‘Cortical organization of language’ in Journal of Neuroscience 11:2281-2287, August 1991. For further evidence of the complexity see Antonio R. Damasio & Daniel Tranel, ‘Nouns and verbs are retrieved with differently distributed neural systems, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.A.) 90:4957-4760, 1 June, 1993. Language is not as widely distributed as music or sex though. ‘Only two activities light up the whole brain, sex. We are only species where sex has this effect, the other is music, it engages the whole person in a remarkable way.’ Anne Boyd, ‘Big Ideas: Dots on the Landscape, Ep 2. Looking over our Shoulder, Radio National, 29.1.2002.

[xxxviii] When subjects are shown a black and white drawing of an object like a pencil and asked to associate either an action or a colour with it, saying yellow stirs the colour processing areas of the visual pathways while saying write stirs motion perception areas. A Martin, eta al, ibid. Ekman et al argue that current knowledge of the localisation of language offers no evidence that humans are born with neural mechanisms pre-specified solely for language processing. ‘The dramatic results of experiments involving transplanting and rewiring bits of cortex to other regions…argue strongly against solutions which depend upon innately specified populations of neurons pre-rewired for complex cognitive functions such as language.’ Elman ibid, p19.

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button