Literature/2011/Corballis

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Corballis, Michael C. (2011). The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization. Princeton University Press.

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  • Professor emeritus of psychology, the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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The Recursive Mind challenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. "I think, therefore I am," is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental "time travel"--the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.

Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, animal behavior, anthropology, and archaeology, Corballis demonstrates how these recursive structures led to the emergence of language and speech, which ultimately enabled us to share our thoughts, plan with others, and reshape our environment to better reflect our creative imaginations. He shows how the recursive mind was critical to survival in the harsh conditions of the Pleistocene epoch, and how it evolved to foster social cohesion. He traces how language itself adapted to recursive thinking, first through manual gestures, then later, with the emergence of Homo sapiens, vocally. Toolmaking and manufacture arose, and the application of recursive principles to these activities in turn led to the complexities of human civilization, the extinction of fellow large-brained hominins like the Neandertals, and our species' supremacy over the physical world.

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Language and Mind

Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

-- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

In his novel Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell painted a grim picture of a future in which the ultimate technology for thought control was the language Newspeak, which could render impossible all modes of thought other than those required by Ingsoc (English Socialism). We have struggled past 1984, but political life, at least, is still replete with euphemisms designed to make us think differently. [...] An extreme movement known as General Semantics was established in 1933 by Count Alfred Korzybski, an engineer, and popularized in best-sellers such as Stuart Chase's Tyranny of Words, and Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action. [...] According to General Semantics, human folly is created by semantic damage brought about by the structure of language.

The relation between language and thought is one of the most contentious issues in the history of philosophy. As we saw [elsewhere], Chomsky's concept of I-language -- the common language underlying E-language -- is essentially the language of thought. This is encapsulated also in the so-called language of thought hypothesis proposed by the philosopher Jerry Fodor, who argued that virtually all of the concepts underlying words are innate.[1] Steven Pinker refers to this as the theory that "we are born with some 50,000 concepts," based on the number of words in the typical English speaker's vocabulary.[2] Of course the actual words we use will depend on the linguistic environment a person is exposed to, but it is as though we have been already supplied with all the meanings we shall ever want, and all we need do is discover the verbal labels. [...]

The idea of a strong connection between language and thought implies that nonhuman animals are incapable of thinking as we humans do, an idea defended by the psychologist Clive Wynn in his 2004 book Do Animals Think? [...] (pp. 151-152)

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Gradient-optical-illusion.svg
The shade of the bar looks invariant in isolation but variant in context, in (favor of) sharp contrast with the color gradient background, hence an innate illusion we have to reasonably interpret and overcome as well as the mirage. Such variance appearing seasonably from context to context may not only be the case with our vision but worldview in general in practice indeed, whether a priori or a posteriori. Perhaps no worldview from nowhere, without any point of view or prejudice at all!

Ogden & Richards (1923) said, "All experience ... is either enjoyed or interpreted ... or both, and very little of it escapes some degree of interpretation."

H. G. Wells (1938) said, "The human individual is born now to live in a society for which his fundamental instincts are altogether inadequate."