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‘Cognitive’ as a Shibboleth and the Irrelevance of Neuroscience

A gloss on a recent essay in the mass media (Nicholas A. Christakis, “Let’s Shake Up The Social Sciences.” The New York Times, Sunday Review, July 21st, p.12,) may interest readers of this blog, since the essay is representative of attempts to reorient the study of human beings in society by examining the biological basis of behavior along lines pursued in the new century by neuroscience. It is noteworthy that the author does not mention linguistics among the social sciences that he thinks would benefit by retooling, even though language is the basis of human thought and communication, and has been during the last 200,000 years of evolution.

As with psychology, the recent vogue for the label ‘cognitive’ among linguists has given rise to the idea that there is something genuinely scientific only to disciplines pursued under the cover of this label, as if the exploration of the neurophysiological processes involved in speech (both its production and understanding) were the key to language and its use. But as Charles Sanders Peirce, America’s greatest philosopher-scientist and the modern founder of sign theory, emphasized, THE SIGN HAS NO CHEMISTRY.

As social beings, we transact our behavior by thinking in and exchanging SIGNS, a process Peirce called ‘semeiosis’. Semeiosis is always at bottom a matter of interpretation, the ability to assign and understand meaning. If we are to explain the thought processes that underlie intentionality and purposive behavior, which are at the root of the social sciences, it will only be by developing sign theory in the spirit of Peirce’s whole philosophy, including his great achievement, the working out of the theory of interpretation. No matter how deep our knowledge of neural networks, synapses, and the prefrontal cortex, such knowledge will always be fundamentally beside the point because it will explain neither semeiosis nor interpretation.


3 Responses to “‘Cognitive’ as a Shibboleth and the Irrelevance of Neuroscience”

  • Vincent Colapietro says:

    Thoughtful and important response to a pervasive yet unfortunate trend in contemporary thought and culture. Given the consistency with which Michael Shapiro makes such observations, it is more accurate to say – characteristically thoughtful, reasonable, and timely reply.

  • Michael Lamb says:

    Nor consciousness, as per promissory behaviourism, as it’s the only wherewithal we’ve got to bring language to bear on the prototheoretical investigations and speculations of neuroscience, not v.v. as the behaviourists (and their imagined nemesis Chomsky) absurdly imagine. It never seems that scientism and its pop presenters in the NYTs of this world and even less pop media pay even this much lip service to the fact that “language is the basis of human thought and communication, and has been during the last 200,000 years of evolution.”

    BTW I agree with you on most things, and think 200,000 is probably about right, but what do you base it on?

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