For those unfamiliar, the 'cognitive conception of language' refers to a claim made by some theorists that, in the words of Carruthers:

"besides its obvious communicative functions, language also has a direct role to play in normal human cognition (in thinking and reasoning)."

I've found such accounts extremely intriguing, especially that of Daniel Dennett (1994), who basically claims that language is what turns our massively parallel brain into a decent serial processor.

However, I'm distressed that such discussions are generally tethered to the Philosophy of Mind and despite my efforts, I've yet to come across any empirical evidence or cognitive models that are for or against such hypotheses.

So, do such studies exist (or are underway)? Or is there something fundamental to this subject that keeps it only in the realm of armchair discussion?


  • $\begingroup$ While language is not needed for all thinking, besides Dennett's serialization, you need language to think about abstractions and generalizations other than vaguely. Third, one of our major limitations is in working memory and language helps in "chunking" ideas so we can think about more things at one time. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ Preaching to the choir :-), I've come to similar conclusions from my readings in philosophy and theoretical cognitive psychology. The question remains however, as to whether or not any empirical and/or modeling evidence supports such claims. $\endgroup$
    – zergylord
    Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 6:37
  • $\begingroup$ That's funny, I have just the opposite opinion (based solely on introspection and anecdotal evidence [Einstein claiming to arrive at the theory of relativity in his sleep]): that language is a tool for social interaction ONLY, and that subconscious thought processes are not only more powerful at handling complex information but also well able to deal with abstract concepts (which in truth are not abstract at all, but only names we give to complexes consisting of affective, cognitive, konative and other aspects). $\endgroup$
    – user1196
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ While you believe serial processing to be the summit of cognition, computer science is busy trying to get parallel processing to work after having understood the limits of serial processing. Your question is based on assumptions about language and cognition that are as old as the ancient Greek philosophers, while recent neuropsychological research has begun to find evidence for the secondary character of conscious thought, e.g. rational decisions happening after actions have been triggered. Language is an effect of consciousness, not a prerequisite for "intelligence". $\endgroup$
    – user1196
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that there are conflicting intuitions on this conception of language, but this is why I posed the question in the first place: what evidence is there supporting one side over the other $\endgroup$
    – zergylord
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 21:12

1 Answer 1


There's a quite active line of research (and debate) in experimental psychology and cognitive science on this. It often goes under the rubric of the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis". I only know some of the work in this domain, but I would suggesting checking out research (experiments, not just armchair discussion) by Lera Boroditsky and Gary Lupyan.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I've followed this debate quite a bit and while its quite interesting, it appears to focus elusively on how having a different language affects cognition (e.g. English vs. French color concepts). My concern here is how language in general enriches our cognitive capabilities. $\endgroup$
    – zergylord
    Commented Feb 22, 2012 at 2:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Gary Lupyan has used paradigms like articulatory suppression to look at how task performance is impaired when the contribution of language is removed. $\endgroup$
    – Dan M.
    Commented Feb 23, 2012 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ Just realized Gary Lupyan had the same advisor as me; small world! $\endgroup$
    – zergylord
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 21:26

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