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Michael C. Corballis
The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization
Princeton: Princeton University Press (2011)
This is the first time I have read any of the several philosophical books that Michael Corballis has written. I am more familiar with his scientific publications, some of which are core “must reads” for any budding neuropsychological researcher. In “The Recursive Mind,” he outlines his approach to placing the relationship between language and thought. This is an issue that has compelled thinking in neurophilosophy for many decades and remains hotly debated and discussed. In this new book, he explores the landscape of this relationship in a manner different than the somewhat predominant “language centric” philosophical approaches – giving primacy to thought.
Contrary to individuals like Chomsky, he sees thought and other cognitive functions (specifically memory) as the key holder to the human species and our civilization. It is not thought that bent to language, but language that has adapted itself to the vastness of human thought. Corballis presents an argument that language has evolved to the form we know it today to allow individuals to share their memories and plans and, as such, to bring to the present events that are not present in the immediate environment and, indeed, are imaginary, hoped for, or fictional. His description of the roles of different types of memory functioning is written in a very understandable manner.
The book provides a broader framework for understanding language in human evolution aside the far more reported and known Chomsky-based models.
It is recursion, in this perspective, that underlies this vast cognitive capacity. Recursion has expressed itself in several key human mental faculties: language, theory of mind, and what he refers to as “mental time travel” to the past and the future. Recursion developed in the human neuropsychological toolkit. It required advances in the central nervous system’s memory systems and in our neuropsychological capacity for hierarchical organization, both of which are consequences of the human brain, rather than the brains of other animals.
You might ask yourself, ‘What is recursion and what is it doing here?’ I did. That’s one reason why you might want to take on this book.
He has an accessible writing style for individuals like myself who are definitely not fluent in these philosophical approaches. Insightful and with humor, he brings the reader along through a fairly complex landscape. Readers who pay attention to footnotes will enjoy and find additional meaning from them in this book.