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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Why we call parents ‘parents’

– All societies find it important to call parents by these names and nicknames
– This language universal has not been recognised by science
– I suggest that it confuses our minds by mixing natural and social concepts
– I explain how it relates to myth, identity and our close relationships

Why do we call our parents ‘Mum’, ‘Dad’ and other similar words? Researchers tend to say that those words come from the sounds babies make, but this isn’t a very satisfactory answer. Probably all societies teach children to call their parents by names and nicknames that mean they are parents. This is very strange when you think about it. Whenever someone is special we give them a proper name. Parents are very special but we give them common names.

This practice does not seem to change with adulthood or cultural progress. In modern society, a father will typically get upset if you, as his child, called him by his personal name. On the other hand, you will get upset if he did not call your dog Charlie but any other word indicating a dog. ‘I am your father’, he will argue, and draw on his biological knowledge. Whereas you will give a number of cultural reasons why your dog is special.

The relationship between language and reality is viewed predominantly from two fundamental perspectives.[i] One sees the mind as a sort of computer that would allow the child to identify her real parents. The other one sees it as a sociocultural entity, so that such a reality could not be something the child logically discovers, but something that is created in interaction with others.

This theoretical dichotomy is probably as unhelpful as arguing with your parents over who is special and why. It means that science does not understand words that are central to our sense of reality. Indeed, it is true that parenthood has a biological basis, but it is also true that parenting is a markedly cultural activity. Should we not elucidate this question before attempting to solve any other big mysteries? This question has been in my mind ever since I became a parent myself.

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Story of an academic article

Let me introduce our project by telling you about our first article. In 2017 the Finnish journal Psykoterapia-lehti published ‘Psykoosi: Sosiaalinen destruktionismi’, which deals with the personal yet abstract nature of mental illness. We were very excited; it was our first academic article. We had originally drafted it in English and were planning a more ambitious version for the international readership, one that would more generally address the theory and practice of psychiatry. The result is now published on this site as well as on the excellent academia.edu, though we first tried the usual publishing route. Here is the cover letter I wrote for it:

Dear Editor:

This article introduces a new, comprehensive view of mental illness as a phenomenon intrinsic to human society. We use first-person accounts to illustrate our case because it is grounded in individual experience, and we address the psychiatric model of Open Dialogue because of the importance of human interactions. The article concludes by proposing a way forward for psychiatry in its relation to the behavioral sciences and philosophy.

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