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Material Symbols

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What is the relation between the material, conventional symbol structures that we encounter in the spoken and written word, and human thought? A common assumption, that structures a wide variety of otherwise competing views, is that the way in which these material, conventional symbol-structures do their work is by being translated into some kind of content-matching inner code. One alternative to this view is the tempting but thoroughly elusive idea that we somehow think in some natural language (such as English). In the present treatment I explore a third option, which I shall call the “complementarity” view of language. According to this third view the actual symbol structures of a given language add cognitive value by complementing (without being replicated by) the more basic modes of operation and representation endemic to the biological brain. The “cognitive bonus” that language brings is, on this model, not to be cashed out either via the ultimately mysterious notion of “thinking in a given natural language” or via some process of exhaustive translation into another inner code. Instead, we should try to think in terms of a kind of coordination dynamics in which the forms and structures of a language qua material symbol system play a key and irreducible role. Understanding language as a complementary cognitive resource is, I argue, an important part of the much larger project (sometimes glossed in terms of the “extended mind”) of understanding human cognition as essentially and multiply hybrid: as involving a complex interplay between internal biological resources and external non-biological resources.
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Keywords: Extended Mind; Hybrid Systems; Language; Materiality; Mind; Symbols; Thought

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2006-06-01

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