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Animal Brains and the Work of Words: Daniel Dennett on Natural Language and the Human Mind

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In this article I discuss Daniel Dennett’s view of the role of natural language in the evolution of the human mind. In contrast with defenders of the Language of Thought Hypothesis, Dennett claims that natural language is an evolved tool for communication, originating in behavioural habits of which users were initially not aware. Once in place, such habits changed access to information in human brains and were crucial for the evolution of human consciousness. I assess Dennett’s approach from the viewpoint of philosophy of mind and language and consider its ontological implications. I contrast Dennett’s views with the universalist and internalist claims of Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky and show how, by appealing to memes and cultural evolution, Dennett resists such claims. I then analyse how this picture goes together with a deflationary view of consciousness. I end by pointing out that although Dennett’s global picture seems to point towards a pluralistic ontology, he himself refrains from taking such a step.

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  1. The Intentional Stance is a viewpoint from which physical systems are attributed beliefs and desires and their behaviour predicted. It is the core concept of Dennett’s physicalist and non-reductionist philosophy of mind. Dennett contrasts it with the Physical Stance and the Design Stance (Miguens 2002, Ch. 2). The Intentional Stance works for things designed to use information to accomplish function (Dennett 2017: 37). By treating a physical system as a rational agent, the Intentional Stance works as explanatory shortcut relative to e.g. an account resorting to laws of physics. Dennett philosophy of psychology is built on a conception about the relations between the three stances (Miguens 2002, 2.2). Dennett rejects an instrumentalist (i.e. merely heuristic) interpretation of the Intentional Stance; in fact the evolutionary viewpoint adopted in later works helps him ground what he sees as his metaphysical realism regarding the mental (see Dennett 1987, 1995, Ch. 14, The evolution of meanings, and, especially, Real Patterns, Ch. 5 in Dennett 1998).

  2. Dennett is widely regarded (and criticized) as a strong adaptationist, close to e.g. Richard Dawkins. In the 1995 book he engages in ongoing controversies in the philosophy of biology surrounding adaptationism.

  3. These are reasons tracked by evolution, i.e. identifiable ‘reasons’ for the coming to be of new design which are no one’s reasons.

  4. Words are for Dennett the best example of ‘memes’; I will soon get to that concept.

  5. The British philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) was at one point Dennett’s teacher at Oxford.

  6. The three authors are references for philosophy of mind and language. Jerry Fodor was a main representative of the representational-computational theory of mind, according to which mental states are not to be identified with physical (brain) states. Brain states realize mental states but these could be realized by other physical states (e.g. electronic states in digital computers). This is one way to formulate what in philosophy of mind is known as functionalism. As for Noam Chomsky, he revolutionalized linguistics in the 1950s–1960s with his idea of an innate Universal Grammal, taken to be a module of human minds. Modularity means that the workings of language are isolated from the rest of cognition. Paul Grice’s proposals concern non-natural meaning, i.e. human linguistic meaning, meaning something by means of words (by contrast with natural meaning as in ‘smoke means fire’). For Grice sentence and word meaning should be analyzed in terms of what speakers (‘utterers’) mean. Utterers’ meaning is then to be analyzed in terms of utterers having certain intentions. Grice also proposes a set of necessary conditions for communication called the Gricean maxims which concern informativeness and relevance. For very useful introductions to these topics, see Cowie (2017), Rescorla (2019) and Grandy and Warner (2020).

  7. Fodor was always as reluctant as Noam Chomsky once was to think about language directly in term of evolution. For a detailed critique of the uses of evolutionary thinking in approaching the metaphysics of mind and meaning (namely by Dennett), see Fodor (1998), Part IV, Philosophical Darwinism. Chomsky partly retracted from a similar position (see Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch 2002).

  8. For a more recent and somewhat different way of thinking, see Dennett (2017), Chapter 9, The role of words in cultural evolution.

  9. According to Travis (see e.g. Travis 2017) natural language structures are material vehicles in use among humans—their domain is what he calls ‘the psychological’. What one takes to be the particular thoughts expressed in particular occurences (as well as their truth or falsity) is an occasion-sensitive matter regarding a domain which he calls ‘the logical’. Such conception of the relations between language and thought is meant to work without appeal to either any supposed internal language (a LOT) or occasion-independent, Platonic, fixed propositions, with fixed meanings (the ‘thoughts’ expressed). The focus on use and materiality of Travis’ view is paralel to Dennett’s emphasis on behavior. Both would agree with Wittgenstein that ‘nothing is hidden’.

  10. He contrasted it with the notion of genes, upon which it is modeled. See Dennett (2017), Chapter 11 for a response to criticisms.

  11. Design worth getting acquired by learning is a supplement to the design an organism is born with. Still, it dies with the organism. This is not so with cultural items, which are external to organisms.

  12. I call the question ironic because Dennett is a very vocal critic of Thomas Nagel famous What is it like to be…? criterion for consciousness.

  13. See Dennett (2017) Chapters 12 and 13, The Origins of Language and The Evolution of Cultural Evolution.

  14. Manifest image is American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’ (1912–1989) term for how things are to us, ‘the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world’. Sellars contrasts it with the scientific image, which is made up of our best scientific theories and how they tell us the world is like (see Sellars 1963). The two concepts are crucial for Dennett’s full view of mind and language.

  15. Dennett draws an interesting analogy with children’s linguistic development. Children enter the order of language by only progressively gaining understanding of what they are doing by uttering words (Dennett 2017). Analogously Dennett often speaks of language as a capacity to transmit information we only ‘sort of’ understand.

  16. Dennett’s sees this as the origin of human selves. Although every living being keeps track of itself and is engaged in self-preservation, and so is, in that sense, a self, our very selfy sense of self involves, in Dennett’s metaphor, a center of narrative gravity made possible by language: an ‘I’ and its story of personal identity.

  17. It is like something for me to be me here and now; it is not like something to be a stone, or the computer in front of me.

  18. See Dennett (2017) for the classical references in philosophy of mind (besides Thomas Nagel he mentions e.g. John Searle and David Chalmers). Dennett has always been a stern critic of such orientations in philosophy of mind.

  19. It is often objected to Dennett that he simply misses the target, which is the subjectivity of consciousness, an ontologic trait. For a full analysis of the grounds for Dennett’s apparently outrageous claims regarding consciousness, namely for a full analysis of his claim that the term qualia is an epistemologic term for the intrinsic, innefable, incorrigible status of contents of first-person reports, followed by the claim that contents of first-person reports simply do not have such properties, see Miguens (2002), Ch. 3, on Dennett on consciousness. Notice that Dennett does not claim that there are no conscious (i.e. self-aware, self-probing, self-reporting) creatures. What he claims is that consciousness, when correctly understood, does not have the ontological (or epistemological) import philosophers usually atribute to it.

  20. I am leaving aside here the very interesting investigations on whether communication is grounded on manipulation rather then cooperation.

  21. See Miguens (2002), Chapter 6, for a detailed analysis of Dennett’s physicalism.

  22. This is one main topic of Ch. 6 (on Physicalism, Content and Consciousness—From Philosophy of Mind to Ontology) in Miguens (2002). There I claim that there is an unsolved tension in Dennett’s work between, on the one hand, his professed non-reductionism, formulated around the Intentional Stance, and, on the other hand, his scientistic form of physicalism. I argue that Dennett ultimately opts (unjustifiedly) for a reductionist form of physicalism, disregarding his own best orientations.

  23. I would like to thank the editors of this special issue of Topoi, in particular Selene Arfini, as well as the anonymous reviewers, for their very helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.


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This work was done as part of my participation in Project PTDC/FER-FIL/32203/2017, funded by the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT).

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Correspondence to Sofia Miguens.

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Miguens, S. Animal Brains and the Work of Words: Daniel Dennett on Natural Language and the Human Mind. Topoi 41, 599–607 (2022).

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