Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On language and the philosophy of mind

I was struck by the way that Larissa MacFarquhar finesses a delicate strategy in her piece on Pat and Paul Churchland (“Two Heads” Feb. 12, 2007). Her article thoroughly explains how these two philosophers of mind are working to complicate (and ultimately do away with) the linkages between language and thought; in other words, MacFarquhar effectively uses language to describe how we might begin to imagine a world without language. The Churchlands’ wish to get beyond language is rather puzzling, especially given their own adoption of more sophisticated and nuanced language in their day-to-day lives. Collaborative writing practices also seem to reflect the sort of brain-sharing that interests the Churchlands: one often reads accounts of collaboration in which co-authors finish each other’s sentences or anticipate one another’s thoughts. For that matter, aren’t all serious engagements with what we call ‘literature’ instances of ‘brain joining’, however mediated or incomplete? In fact, isn’t this precisely the reason why The New Yorker devotes impressive (and, frankly, expensive) amounts of empty space to the margins of its poetry selections? These spaces make room for readers to enact a brush against another brain, to inhabit the perceptual processes of another human. One can accept language as a “minor phenomenon,” and yet still spend a lifetime expanding one’s mind with words.