Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

John Wilkins (
Mon, 14 Sep 1998 09:37:35 +1000

Date: Mon, 14 Sep 1998 09:37:35 +1000
From: John Wilkins <>
Subject: Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

| >From Mario:
| > Well, I would call this behaviour and communication as well. I fully
| > agree. But if I understand correctly, then Derek, Bill(?) and Paul (who
| > can be considered to be representative for social psychologists) would
| > clearly dismiss this as behaviour, because it is not observable. Or at
| > least they would say that it cannot be studied since it cannot be
| > observed by physical behaviour.
| > Am I summarizing the discussion correctly?
| This is a tricky one. Wittgenstein of course, said that there is no
| private language, so your 'interior monologue' (as it is sometimes
| called) would have to be something that is in principle observable and
| comprehensible, except that most of the time you don't exhibit it.
| There are some people who suffer from Tourette's Syndrome who seem to
| be talking all the time, or at least continually muttering to
| themselves and anyone who will listen. Often they make some sense, and
| often not (perhaps more often not). Now whether the Tourette's
| monologue is representative of hidden interior monologues, I don't
| know. I think that we might need a real Wittgensteinian to comment on
| private languages as well (are you listening John???)

Well, I'm scanning if not following you all in detail.

I've never been fully convinced by the Private Language Argument. It broadly
goes: language and meanings are defined by their public use; therefore private
use can not be menaingful as there is no criterion for checking that the
"words" are used correctly. However, this is a purely functional account of
meaning which ignores the fact that signalling modules evolved over time, and
so may operate both from phyletic heritage in the absence of social stimuli
and also may operate internally, shadowing, as it were, the dynamics of a
public language. In other words, evolution and environment both make it likely
that we can have interior monologues. The problem (and point of the PLA) is
that this persists only for a limited time: a feral child never acquires the
specifics of grammar beyond that of a chimp or gorilla, although many feral
children will generate their own grammar. So extant languages will not persist
if we all became Crusoes permanently (we'd lose the grammars specific to those
languages eventually - imagine a Methuselah stranded on a planet alone: what
would that person use as language in a thousand years or so, assuming
neo-Hebbian memory?), and selection in favour of the signalling behaviours we
call language use is required to make interior monologues possible. So, I'm a
reconstructed Wittgesteinian. However, as a matter of literary exegsis, no,
Tourette's monologues would not be private languages. As an aside, have a look
at the character called Mrs Tachyon in Terry Pratchett's book _Johnny and the
Bomb_ for this sort of monologue.
| If there was a society where people always voiced their interior
| monologues, then that would have to count as verbal behaviour in my
| scheme of things. But in our 'norm' where interior monologues are
| actually interior, and Tourette's syndrome is considered a disease, it
| is a different situation.
| Having said that, I find the experience of thinking in a foreign
| language to be quite different to the interior monologue in English. I
| don't have an interior monologue in Spanish, but neither do I think in
| English and translate. The words just seem to come out. This is just
| my subjective impression.
| I think that Steven Pinker makes a good case against the idea that we
| 'think in' language (in The Language Instinct), so I'd be inclined to
| the view that unvoiced language is behaviour.
| But, as you say, unmeasureable.

Only for now.
John Wilkins, Head, Graphic Production
The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
Melbourne, Australia
Homo homini aut deus aut lupus - Erasmus of Rotterdam

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