Language as a cognitive technology
Ever since Descartes singled out the ability to use natural language appropriately in any given circumstance as the proof that humans — unlike animals and machines — have minds, an idea that Turing transformed into his well-known test to determine whether machines have intelligence, the close connection between language and cognition has been widely acknowledged, although it was accounted for in quite different ways. Recent advances in natural language processing, as well as attempts to create “embodied conversational agents” which couple language processing with that of its natural bodily correlates (gestures, facial expression and gaze direction), in the hope of developing human-computer interfaces based on natural — rather than formal — language, have again brought to the fore the question of how far we can hope machines to be able to master the cognitive abilities required for language use. In this paper, I approach this issue from a different angle, inquiring whether language can be viewed as a “cognitive technology”, employed by humans as a tool for the performance of certain cognitive tasks. I propose a definition of “cognitive technology” that encompasses both external (or “prosthetic”) and internal cognitive devices. A number of parameters in terms of which a typology of cognitive technologies of both kinds can be sketched is also set forth. It is then argued that inquiring about language’s role in cognition allows us to re-frame the traditional debate about the relationship between language and thought, by examining how specific aspects of language actually influence cognition — as an environment, a resource, or a tool. This perspective helps bring together the contributions of the philosophical “linguistic turn” in epistemology and the incipient “epistemology of cognitive technology” It also permits a more precise and fruitful discussion of the question whether, to what extent, and which of the language-based cognitive technologies we naturally use can be emulated by the kinds of technologies presently or in the foreseeable future available.
Keywords: language, cognitive resource, cognitive environment, cognitive tool, pragmatics, semantics, syntax, sequential ordering, formulaic expressions, information retrieval
Published online: 10 January 2003
Cited by 10 other publications
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