Does Understanding Need Language?

Jon Cogburn is a great professor because he always inspires me to work on really cool problems. Yesterday was the first day of his graduate seminar on animal cognition and he already suggested an awesome topic for my term paper: Does Heidegger’s account of understanding require language? Since we are reading Brandom, and Brandom uses a similar contrastive approach whereby humans are understood as being discontinuous from animal minds in virtue of linguistic-inferential doings, I will defend Brandom by defending Heidegger’s argument (which Brandom himself is heavily indebted too). I think I am also going to use Charles Taylor’s account of constitutive self-interpretation and Tomasello and Clark’s account of linguistic constructionism to demonstrate the way in which language modifies understanding so as to create world-richness. And this account will be structured by a holistic, usage-based (rather than formal) model of language acquisition wherein the syntactical abilities of young children are primarily item-specific with only little ability for systematicity.  Here is an abstract I whipped up last night:

Heidegger appears to contradict evolutionary science when he claims that whereas humans are “rich” in world, nonhuman animals are “poor”. Calling him a “linguistic chauvinist”, scholars often commit Heidegger to a view of understanding that is “equiprimordially” grounded in linguistic practice or “cultural discourse” (construed broadly). In this paper, I will argue that this interpretation is mistaken because it overlooks the prepredicative or prethematic level of understanding common to all organisms, what Heidegger calls the hermeneutic as-structure, in distinction to the apophantic or assertorial as-structure. Moreover, scholars often commit Robert Brandom to a similar “linguistic chauvinism” beset with the same problems associated with Heidegger’s views on animals. In this paper, I will show (1) how understanding does not require language and (2) how language significantly modifies understanding so as to “enrich” the world. Doing so will relieve the pressure on both Heidegger and Brandom’s theory of mind and language.


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

4 responses to “Does Understanding Need Language?

  1. I’ve thought about this and what I end up finding myself asking is when is a sign-system a language for Heidegger? I suppose this might be the “slippery slope” approach to say Tomasello’s views on language. When was their language?

    My own thought though is that this is ultimately not helpful. Rather the question becomes what level of sign-significance allows for understanding in a Heideggarian context. The problem with casting it in the “does it need language” is that I’m not sure one can really get a solid grip on it. (Unless one is arguing that even in his vague terms Heidegger doesn’t require language – which would be quite interesting)

  2. Gary Williams

    Clark, I’m not sure how to parse your comment. By asking, “Does understanding need language?” I think we can get more clear about the nature of both understanding and language. When Heidegger says that animals are “poor” in world, this is often taken to mean that there is no world at all for animals because they lack the linguistic dimension. I want to argue that, for Heidegger, understanding and interpretation of entities “as entities” is operative before the acquisition of genuine assertorial (propositional) language. Accordingly, both animals and humans understanding entities “as entities” in terms of the hermeneutic as-structure (which is based on circumspective concern, which in turn is based on the underlying mood or care-structure). Heidegger is quite explicit when he says that even a unicellular organism is structured by Care whereas a rock is not. And Heidegger also says that if you have a Care-structure, then you are capable of interpreting entities in terms of an in-order-to, which opens up the structure of world-hood. But the care-structure is not unique to humans (as per what he says in the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics). So in order to differentiate humans from nonhumans, we must look at the explicit, apophantic (assertorial) as-structure rather than the tacit understanding of the hermeneutic as-structure. This gets complicated however because there are two senses in which one can understand entities “as entities”. You can do it in terms of the circumspective concern, which is prepredicative, or you can do it in terms of explicit assertions, which is predicative. Often Heidegger doesn’t clearly distinguish between these two levels, but I think the distinction is nevertheless there. I hope that makes sense.

    • Sorry for being opaque. Perils of writing on my iPhone while tired.

      Typically there is a distinction between signs and language. Therefore the question arises whether the “as” structure requires language or whether signs can do it.

      Sounds like you are more or less saying the same thing. As you say there are two ways to take the “as” structure. Clearly my dog doesn’t see a table as a table. But he sees it as something, just not a linguistic something. I agree we have to make that distinction though. (Assuming we’re saying the same thing here)

  3. vicente

    Yes, really cool topic ! I would very much be interested in reading your term paper when ready, if possible.

    To me the concept of “meaning” is fundamental in understanding the nature of consciousness. It is clear that semantic can’t be derived from syntax, but is syntax needed for semantics, or is it possible to have some kind of pure intuitive thought process, that includes meaning and “understanding”, without any syntax (language).

    Maybe, I don’t know, you could consider different kinds of understanding, is it the same to understand the theory of relativity, that to understand the motivation of a man’s act? You might find, that for some kind of understanding you need a language basis, for others an intuitive direct approach could be enough.

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