The latest episode of Ginger Brown's excellent Brain Science Podcast is an interview with Benjamin K. Bergen, a linguist, former student of George Lakoff, and author of a new book called Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Those who have been following the podcast for the four or so years it has been around, will be rewarded by this episode, as it expands one of Brown's leading interests in cognitive science, embodied cognition (from Wikipedia: "...the embodied mind thesis holds that the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body").
Bergen argues that what grounds human language is not Steven Pinker's mentalese, which is really nothing more than an elaboration of Noam Chomsky's deep structure (Brown does not like Chomsky), but instead the activation of regular sensory and motor systems in the brain. In short, to see a cup and to hear the word "cup" involves the same vision system in the brain. Bergen explains:
Well, the embodied simulation hypothesis would say you are activating, among other things, parts of your vision system to create an experience of what you think it would look like for maybe me to be in my office, maybe for the dog to be in my office, maybe for the dog to be lying down, and what it would look like if my dog were a puppy. You might be using your auditory system to re-create an experience of what it would be like to hear a sleeping puppy, if you have had such experiences; maybe a little bit of puppy snoring, or something like that. If I, however, use language describing something a little bit more active—maybe if I said 'I had to slam the door to my office in order to get it closed, because it's a little bit jammed'—then you might use your motor system. Those parts of your brain that are responsible for actually performing actions with the skeletal muscles might come online, and might become engaged, in order for you to recreate this experience, what it would be like to pull closed an office door through the resistance imposed by a tight jam.Those who are familiar with Spinoza's work will see his ghost in this new and strange scientific thinking. You will recall this passage from the Ethics, which was published in 1677:
Spinoza's philosophy of emotions, the human body, and memory are making sense to an age that arrived 340 years after he died.
We thus see how it comes about, as is often the case, that we regard as present many things which are not. It is possible that the same result may be brought about by other causes ; but I think it suffices for me here to have indicated one possible explanation, just as well as if I had pointed out the true cause. Indeed, I do not think I am very far from the truth, for all my assumptions are based on postulates, which rest, almost without exception, on experience, that cannot be controverted by those who have shown, as we have, that the human body, as we feel it, exists (Coroll. after II. xiii.). Furthermore (II. vii. Coroll., II. xvi. Coroll. ii.), we clearly understand what is the difference between the idea, say, of Peter, which constitutes the essence of Peter’s mind, and the idea of the said Peter, which is in another man, say, Paul. The former directly answers to the essence of Peter’s own body, and only implies existence so long as Peter exists ; the latter indicates rather the disposition of Paul’s body than the nature of Peter, and, therefore, while this disposition of Paul’s body lasts, Paul’s mind will regard Peter as present to itself, even though he no longer exists.