Picture:  Jordan Zlatev. There is clearly a close relationship between consciousness and language. The ability to conduct a conversation is commonly taken as the litmus test of human-style consciousness for both computers and chimpanzees, for example. While the absence of language doesn’t prove the absence of consciousness – not all of our thoughts are in words – the lack of a linguistic capacity seems to close off certain kinds of explicit reflection which form an important part of human cognition. Someone who had no language at all might be conscious, but would they be conscious in quite the same way as a normal, word-mongering human?
It might therefore seem that when Jordan Zlatev asserts the dependence of language on consciousness, he is saying something uncontroversial. In fact, he has both broader and more specific aims: he wants to draw more attention to the relationship on the one hand, and on the other readjust our view of where the borders between conscious and unconscious processes lie.

It seems pretty clear that a lot of the work the brain does on language is unconscious. When I’m talking, I don’t, for example, have to think to myself about the grammar I’m using (unless perhaps I’m attempting a foreign language, or talking about some grammatical point). I don’t even know how my brain operates English grammar; it surely doesn’t use the kind of rules I was taught at school; perhaps in some way it puts together Chomskyan structures, or perhaps it has some altogether different approach which yields grammatical sentences without anything we would recognise as explicit grammatical rules. Whatever it does, the process by which sentences are formed is quite invisible to me, the core entity to whom those same sentences belong, and whose sentiments they communicate. It seems natural to suppose that the structure of our language is provided pre-consciously.

Zlatev, however, contends that the rules of language are social and normative; to apply them we have to understand a number of conventions about meanings and usage; and whatever view we may take of such conventions their use requires a reflective knower (Zlatev picks up on a distinction set out by Honderich between affective, perceptual, and reflective consciousness; it’s the latter he is concerned with). To put it another way, operating the rules of language requires us to make judgements of a kind which only reflection can supply, and reflection of this kind deserves recognition as conscious. Zlatev is not asserting that the rules of grammar at work in our brain are consciously know after all: he draw a distinction between accessibility and introspectability; he wants to say that the rules are known pre-theoretically, but not unconsciously.

Perhaps we could put Zlatev’s point a different way: if the rules of language were really unconscious, we should be incapable of choosing to speak ungrammatically, just as we are incapable of making our heart beat slower or our skin stop sweating by an act of will. Utterances which did not follow the rules would be incomprehensible to us. In fact, we can cheerfully utter malformed sentences, distinguish them from good ones and usually understand both. Deliberate transgressions of the rules are used for communicative or humorous effect (a rather Gricean point). While the theory may be hidden from introspection, the rules are accessible to conscious thought.

If the rules of language were unconscious, asks Zlatev, how would we account for the phenomenon of self-correction, in which we make a mistake, notice it, and produce an emended version? And how could it be that the form of our utterances is often structured to enhance the meaning and distribute the emphasis in the most helpful way? An unconscious sentence factory could never support our conscious intentions in such a nicely judged way. Zlatev also brings forward evidence from language acquisition studies to support his claim that unconscious mechanisms may support, but do not exhaust, the processes of language.

At times Zlatev seems to lean towards a kind of Brentano-ish view; language requires intentionality, and nothing but consciousness can provide it (alas, in a way which remains unexplained). Intriguingly, he says that he and others were deceived into accepting the unconsciousness of language production at an earlier stage by the allure of connectionism, whose mechanistic nature only gradually became clear. I think connectionists might feel this is a little unfair, and that Zlatev need not have given up on connectionist approaches to reflective judgement simply because they are ‘mechanistic’.

All in all, I think Zlatev offers some useful insights; his general point that a binary division between conscious and unconscious simply isn’t good enough is indeed a good one and well made. I wonder whether this is a point particular to the language faculty, however. Couldn’t I make some similar points about my tennis-playing faculty? Here too I rely on some unconscious mechanisms, and couldn’t tell you exactly which arm muscles I used in which way. Yet making my hand twist the racquet around and move it to the right place also seems to require some calculated, dare I say reflective, judgements and the way I do it is exquisitely conditioned by tactics and strategy which I devise and entertain at a fully self-conscious level.

Be that as it may, it’s bad news for the designers of translation software if Zlatev is right, since their systems will have to achieve real consciousness before they can be perfected.


  1. 1. Peter Main says:

    I think a good parallel to the brain processes involved in speech production at the syntactical level, though a far simpler one, is the way we can control our breathing. Normally, when we aren’t thinking about it, our lungs pump away faster or slower, deeper or shallower according to the demands of our system, without our giving it a conscious thought. But if we want to we can bring our breathing entirely under our control, even stopping it altogether for a limited time. That’s very like the way our sentence construction is entirely automatic except when we attend to it, when we can bring it entirely under our conscious control.

    Deeper speech production (and interpretation) processes, on the other hand, are mostly beyond our conscious control. Such processes, as you point out at the end or your article, are like muscle movements in sport. We really have no conscious idea how we manipulate the muscles involved in speech production. (We can, however, modify them to produce different accents.) Neither do we know how we interpret the sounds we hear and flesh them out as words that we can understand.

    The bottom line? There’s no hard and fast line between what we can bring under conscious control and what we can’t. We’re told that some adepts can bring their heart rate under conscious control, and of course we can all lose conscious control of everything if stunned.

    Thanks for a most interesting site, and keep up the good work!

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Peter.

    Perhaps I can take the opportunity to mention that my posting rate has slowed a bit recently because my wife is going through chemotherapy (she’s likely to make a complete recovery in a few months). This has meant less time for reading and writing; but I will be back up to speed in due course.

  3. 3. Tor Hershman says:

    You talk real good like.

  4. 4. Christopher Richard Wade Dettling says:

    It might?
    It seems?
    What can I say?

  5. 5. Gilbert Wesley Purdy says:

    ASCII and ye shall receive! I know! I know! Who needs yet another computer analogy (or bad pun) but it is worth considering. Deep language programming might be like ASCII programmed real-memory space (sub-conscious) but much more complex (ASCII only providing letters and operators). Some physical memory (sub-conscious function) utilizes the code (and other language oriented physical memory structures), but, mostly, the codes function as the substrate of virtual-memory (learned sub-conscious structures capable of alteration through retraining or additional training). The actual on-screen operations, by this analogy, are one’s consciousness. Errors in the conscious use of language, then, supported by a more highly functional virtual-memory program, can be caught and corrected as they occur, in a way that neither the real-memory (subconscious) portion of language nor the conscious-mind could account for.

    What does repetitive/rote learning do any way? Surely it uploads and reinforces information into a virtual-reality-type structure within the subconscious. Thus, at first we speak a new language with a painful sense of struggling with the grammar. In time we don’t even think about the grammar until we come upon a new case (which we then “memorize,” upload and reinforce). We do the same as we learn how to drive, etc. Young drivers, therefore, are more dangerous because they are too conscious of what they are doing (while not being conscious enough of the things that belong in the conscious, the implications, the executive function).

  6. 6. peter reynolds says:

    It sounds as though language is a motor response to a complex neural network. eg it is not expressing the conscious content of our mind but rather almost accidentally – neural processes are triggering motor responses of muscles. I suppose in this scenario language is not planned or thought about at all, it is just the resonance of a very complex circuit that has an extremely complex physical, chemical and electrical structure. In fact it means nothing but because its fundamental building blocks are harmonised with the environment, then it appears to mimic our environment. If you like – it is the environment talking through the complexity of our bodies. I suppose our ‘self’ in this scenario is just a distillation of the totality of our environment. Then really we are an expression of our environment or one could say at a slightly deeper level – an expression of our universe.

  7. 7. Mike says:

    Could it be that the delima we see in this web page is similar to sub-consciousness vs detectable awareness actulization protocols which are in the delay order of 120 mili seconds ? When we speak, could the delay simply be the delay we see in many repeatable experiments related to sub conscious vs consciousness (awareness)? The delay albeit slow by computer propagations (which are on the order of Micro Seconds), is fast enough to escape conscious detection, and it’s underlying dynamics too quick for conscious detection. Once the propagation delays have been initiated however, “on the fly” changes based on learned language rules (unconscious or conscious) can now be detected and presentations by made by the conscious entity (the speaker), subsequently changed. One might assume this is not an “open loop” scenario, but rather a closed system of consciousness and sub conscious interactions/protocols/communication links, with the measureable delays in exchange ever present (resulting from electro chemical delays in synapse firing).

    Sorry for the spelling errors, I got issues with it !

  8. 8. Peter says:

    That seems a reasonable hypothesis, Mike. The delays you mention must have a role in the full story somewhere, at least.

  9. 9. Mike says:

    If we were to look at the brain as a sort of multi dimentional grid (3 or more!) of cells, each with the ability to promote a connection to an adjacent cell via the crossing a threshold of electro chemical voltage/current, then we could possibly see “tracks” of activity that depending on how intense the stimulation, would either temporarally persistent OR become permanently “burned in” resulting in a track comprised of more than 2 cells (millions perhaps) ! If each cell in this grid had a range of response thresholds, then the overall Track could be stimulated within the range of a particular electrical stumulus. In this case the processing of lets say sound regognition would simply be a a unique track that was stumulated and consequently burned, ready to respond to all the primordial initial response that burned it OR any signals that fall within the range of it. NOW: Lets us suppose that many tracks since birth have been burned for all the senses, and that these track signals combine/hetrodyne/mix and cross talk their signals and that the composit mutisignals produced are with in the range of the brain grid stimulus. One could possibly conclude that consciousness is simply the (hetrodyning (or mixing) of pre-burned pathways, resulting in new tracks. We might conclude these new tracks are what we call consciousness or lets say “inspiration” or “an artistic moment” or “scientific genious”. Now since this grid is multi dimentional, theoritically an infinate number of paths could be burned. Why? How many lines can you pass through a sphere of more than 3 dimentions ? If this is the case, one could safely postulate that any brain subjected to a lot of stimulus (since birth) would house a wealth of burned pathways, which would cross talk and beat togeather, all the more likely to be a fine candidate for the next Mozart, Einstein or (and I’m being generous) Freud !

    Again apologize for the misspellings, got issues there I know !

  10. 10. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know how to explain what relationship between lanuguage and subconsciousness.i assure my consciousness there are a process there would deal with my old knowledge without consciousness to do.then,i could pay more attention to new words ,things and skills,old to subconsciousness.

  11. 11. Mike says:

    Language appears to come after consciousness, for to order objects, in agreed to protocols and standards such as language permits, one has to be conscious (and aware) of them. That said, Language could very well be a conscious catalyst that takes a standard suite of basic capability and enable it to higher levels (awareness ?), to bolster consciouness. Perhaps that is why man has the upper hand, not that other life forms are not conscious of many things.

  12. 12. peter reynolds says:

    Just to restate that by analogy with Cap Gras syndrome, as described by Ramachandran -but in a more robust way -that the self generated by the use of mirrors at the ‘mirror stage’ of human development and in evolutionary history by the use of mirrors is formed when what we have traditionally labelled the ’emotive centres’ of the brain connect communicate and coordinate with the forebrain through the creation of neural and chemical signalling.between the two areas.
    It might be that particular emotions as we think of them today did not exist before mirrors, rather being created by the first use of mirrors when we become able to precisely track the signs of the way we interact with our habitat on to our reflected image. Thus generating a connection between signs we were previously able to gesture ‘premirror’ to the signs we see on our face in the reflected image – which themselves are indicative of the way we have historically gone about our activities.
    In other words our mental maps generated in our ‘tracking areas of the brain’ became evident to us in our facial and bodily image and its dynamic when the mirror allowed us to track these ‘memories of tracking’ onto our own face and dynamic behaviour.
    Thus we could accurately map the movement of our lips with the sounds we create and our physical appearance and gesture onto inner memories of our hunting abilities. This feedback of itself elicited chemical and electrical resonances in different parts of the brain which resulted in the emergence of feelings.
    Mirror feedback might have instantiated resonances in our behaviour. For example a kind of ‘orgasm’ or frenzy. Perhaps many such types of resonances arose throughout the brain to mark particular ‘feelings’ – or correspondences between ‘internal memories of tracking behaviour’ and external signs of tracking on our faces and in our gestures.
    This creating an addictive attachment to the mirror itself – corresponding to resonances in the production of internal chemical and neural signals.
    Perhaps in particular they stimulated resonances in patterns of Calcium ion release from astrocytes..And corresponding resonant patterns in neural networks.
    (Is this the origin of orgasm then – observing that the sperm also instantiates a cacium wave in the egg when it fertilizes it.)
    Today we would think that these actions upon encounter with our mirror image are mapping our emotive – felt -state onto the signs we see in our face and body image and its dynamic behaviour.
    The above idea however suggests that it is possible that specific feelings themselves might have arisen at the mirror stage as kinds of orgasms or resonances which imprinted themselves in particular parts of the brain. That is – such resonances corresponded to each area of the brain recognizing its own particular signature in the mirror.
    Hence each type of frenzied behaviour would become associated with particular brain structures.
    These resonaces might have supervened upon other brain functions and structures in particular locations. (In the way that reading inhabited the tracking areas)
    It seems likely that such patterns could coexist with other brain function either as a chemical signal or as a superposition of neural signalling patterns or both..
    However it may be that the process of mirror feedack also gives rise to the ability to use a language so that we can communicate for the first time these internal representations of our own unique behaviour.
    In doing so the feelings we take for granted may have emerged from the level of social interaction which mirrors allowed, first by us being able to communicate internally between brain areas which previously functioned separately and simulataneously allowing us to communicate these signs to each other.
    What we call arbitarily particular ‘feelings’ today may have either been instantiated by a social agreement upon the meaning of these new complex signs – such agreement itself resulting in the emergence of what we today label as particular ‘feelings’ .
    Coordination of meaning might have been accompanied by particular synergistic combinations of pattern recognition resulting in behaviours such as for example types of ‘orgasm’ or ‘frenzy’.
    Might one hazard a guess that such orgasms or frenzy instill resonant waves of calcium ions.
    So it is possible that feelings as we know them today are an afterglow of orgasms or frenzy induced by feedback from mirrors.
    This is why feelings or ‘mind’ appear separate from the substrate in which they reside.
    That the signalling of feelings coexist spatially and temporally with our functioning body allowing us to communicate with others and with our own body.
    Is this why we observe from the illustration of the Egyptians – their obsession with phalic symbols.?
    That the mirror caused these frenzies which instantiated particular feelings.
    (The key message that the sperm carries is in the structure of the Calcium wave which it gives rise to when it meets the egg.)

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