Why science needs to understand language

Human cognition depends on language, but a definition of language remains elusive. This theoretical problem divides scientists who study human behaviour. We can overcome it by examining a fundamental feature of language: kin terms

In the study of human behaviour, there are many neurologists, geneticists, cognitive psychologists, psycholinguists and other researchers with an analytic approach. These professionals view our actions as determined by our component parts, such as cells and molecules. They believe that this internal mechanism can sometimes malfunction, so they often have a medical inclination.

On the other hand, there are researchers who believe that human behaviour is determined by ‘society’, of which we are component parts. This camp includes many sociologists, anthropologists, social psychologists and sociolinguists with a holistic view of our actions. For these people, the mechanism of society can sometimes malfunction, so their inclination is humane as opposed to medical.

These two academic teams may have heated debates or simply ignore each other. An analytic scientist will often sneer at the holist’s lack of rigour, whereas the latter will look at the first as insensitive and narrow minded. Sometimes the disagreement will even be part of the same scientist’s multidisciplinary approach [3; 14]. Why does this happen? Why do all these experts avoid examining the level of individuals and our everyday interactions? Perhaps we are not either governed by microscopic parts or by a superior entity, and these unordinary things are attractive because we are prone to symbolic thinking.

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