Why science needs to understand language

Today scientists have major disagreements about everything that has to do with human behaviour. They surface, for example, in issues of economics, biology, psychology or psychiatry.1 It is a bit like a chicken and egg question. Some believe that society comes before the individual, while others believe that the individual comes before society; the first believe that biology should be understood culturally, and the second that culture should be understood biologically. It does not take a scientist to perceive that there is something unscientific in this situation. Indeed, what is compelling about science is what seems to be lacking in this case, that is, its ability to sometimes explain, to give you that a-ha moment you get when you solve an ordinary puzzle. This is a pleasant feeling of wholeness, not necessarily certain, but at least lacking in disagreement.2

There is a lot of so-called multidisciplinarity in science, of fitting together pieces of information as in a jigsaw puzzle. But that is not explaining. As a small child who asks his or her parents where babies come from, you might know quite a lot about babies, parents and animals, but still not be ready to understand their explanation. Your eventual realisation is not simply building on that pre-existing knowledge in your mind. It is the creation of new integrative ideas, such as the existence of a kind of seed inside all of those animals. You may have realised this because somebody told you, which means that language plays an important role in it. However, the feeling you get is quite different from the mere act of hearing or uttering words. It is the feeling that something has made sense in the literal sense of the words.

Explaining and understanding thus seem to unite body and mind, emotion and reason; but most importantly, they seem to unite language and thought. Thinking that babies come from a kind of seed does require language. However, language also requires thinking where things and people come from. This is both because language is a tool that we use to communicate meanings,3 and because the most important meanings in any language are probably mother and father. Who are our mothers and fathers? This is not an obvious question, which makes anthropology also relevant. If language is a cultural tool, this is surely because it is primarily used to have children within a culture. The question therefore arises: at which point after the Enlightenment did the linguistic and thinking abilities of the West break free from those traditional reproductive constraints?4

Indeed, there must be something in language that still divides science due to how science depends on language precisely, and chances are it is biological. Unfortunately, the science of biology does not understand language either. Biologists see language as just another form of animal communication, even though animals don’t tend to create separate cultures or wonder who their parents are. This is why socially minded scientists typically think of their work as just another form of cultural expression, one that shapes ‘a Western world’ and does not really explain anything. But this is akin to saying that the words mother, father, female or male have nothing to do with the biological fact of parenthood. Meanwhile, analytically minded scientists work under assumptions akin to saying that physical or biological fact is all there is to the meaning of those words, yet this is clearly not true either.

I have therefore turned to those who study language in itself, who are also divided between social and analytic approaches. The first believe that language is a tool cultures use for communication, a tool no different from fire or music; whereas the second assert that it is a sort of computation that happens in the brain, one that resulted from a lucky genetic mutation. Linguists have spent a great deal of energy on this debate because they seem to be adamant that language must be correctly defined. Why does this happen? How can roughly half of the people who study language or anything else get things consistently ‘wrong’? Why do they even take it personally?5

Science needs to understand language because something about language begs for an explanation. There is no human society without language or kinship, and probably all societies share the moral principle of calling their parents mother, father or similar terms. In principle, these words are not necessary for our species to endure, so why are they so important? By paying attention to these personal facts, we can begin to genuinely understand and explain ourselves.

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Jose Maanmieli

  1. The theoretical divide in biology relates to the unit of natural selection, which some insist is the gene. Biomedical psychiatrists, for their part, regard biology as the study of genes, while social psychologists tend to reject evolutionary principles. These biases are interesting due to how they relate to our perception of reality. We have explored the issue from the perspective of those who are called mentally ill in our article titled ‘Social destructionism: Psychosis and the limits of dialogue.’
  2. The nature of explanation and knowledge is the topic of my explanation of morality. I argue that morality is a linguistic phenomenon that we use to deceive others by deceiving ourselves about reality. This means that we often view knowledge in overly formal ways due to our moral prejudices.
  3. James Hurford’s The Origins of Meaning is a very valuable resource for those who understand that biology is not opposed to culture.
  4. We have an article where we examine in detail how the concept of marriage affects a researcher’s understanding of the origins of language, and makes it impossible to integrate biological and cultural views on it. Marriage and kinship are of course the moral sine qua non of human societies. Language, morality and kinship have probably evolved together.
  5. The quarrel between Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett is well known: ‘In 2002, Everett took a research post in linguistics at the University of Manchester. One day, he decided to tell his wife about the thing that had been nagging away at him – he no longer believed in God. “I remember when I finally said, ‘I just don’t believe in this stuff at all any more’, and she immediately got up from the table, walked over to the phone, and called our children. She left me three weeks later.’ -Daily Telegraph
  6. Check out ’The nature of kinship terms: From dad and mum to god and society’
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One thought on “Why science needs to understand language”

  1. (Not surprised to see Chomsky in the notes). Yes, thank you. I look forward spending time digesting and assimilating this. I’m trying to direct my continuing education and this is very helpful.

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