Consciousness and Language

Does consciousness require language… or does language require consciousness?

Posted Aug 09, 2016

Language is one of the most distinctive features of the human species. There are good reasons to believe it is a uniquely human capacity that no other organism has (Berwick and Chomsky, 2016). Unlike other species, we learn complicated linguistic rules easily and without voluntary conscious effort during the early years of our lives. As our vocabulary increases, we are able to parse not only the structure of sentences and the role and meaning of words, but also the way in which sentences and words can be used for social and practical purposes. We learn, for example, that the same sentence “this is really good” can be a compliment, an honest assertion, or a joke, depending on the context and intonation of the speaker’s voice. Social behaviors increase in complexity because of language. Rational capacities also increase with language, since language allows us to make our thoughts explicit. In addition, language makes possible the practice of overtly asking for reasons and justifications—a foundation for obtaining knowledge. Homo sapiens became sapiens largely because of language.

The situation, however, is quite different with respect to the role of consciousness, particularly the kind of subjective experience associated with phenomenal consciousness (e.g., what it is like to experience pain or fear). Although consciousness is frequently associated with our understanding of meanings, the relation between language and consciousness is not straightforward, and it is becoming more difficult to establish this relationship because consciousness seems to be present in many species, while language is not. We can call this problem the radically uneven distribution of language. It seems that language evolved quite recently in humans; consciousness, at least in its basic experiential form, evolved in many species and probably much earlier than language (we talk more about this and the consciousness-attention dissociation in a previous post and in Montemayor & Haladjian, 2015). This is a vexing problem because consciousness seems to be intrinsically related to intelligence and cognitive flexibility, and therefore, to language’s ability to ground human rationality.

Intuitively, it feels that there must be an important relationship between language and consciousness. Perhaps language is even a necessary condition for consciousness. This would, however, restrict consciousness to humans if it turns out that language is indeed a uniquely human capacity; hence, the difficulty in the question that needs to be addressed.

First, we need an understanding of language and its role in cognition. One view is that linguistic capacities structure thinking. As the format for inferential reasoning, language may not only be a capacity to communicate, but fundamentally the way in which thoughts are encoded (Fodor, 1975, 2008). Language is clearly necessary for all kinds of reports concerning our mental life, and therefore, it is critical for the capacity for reporting conscious states. In fact, the very reportability of our mental states depends on linguistic capacities (although some basic communication can occur non-linguistically through gestures, but this still requires some form of semantic understanding). Importantly, it is in virtue of our language capacities that we have access to our thoughts and to the thoughts of others. If one conceives of consciousness as access to our thoughts for action and report—the so-called ‘access consciousness’ (Block, 1995)—then it is entirely unsurprising that language could be considered as a necessary condition for consciousness.

But there are alternative ways of understanding language. For example, one could think of language not as a symbolic format used for accessing contents and drawing inferences (i.e., symbolic representations), but rather as a set of natural skills that allow for the possibilities for action, which are embedded in our interaction with the environment—this would be akin to affordances (Gibson, 1979). The main idea here is that the crucial distinction between human language and other animal kinds of communication is not a distinction in kind (i.e., it is not a completely different type of capacity), but rather it is a difference in complexity. In other words, our language skills are more abstract and inferentially complex than the communication skills of any other species, which is related to our ability to have very complex interactions with our environment and with others.

In principle, however, the same dynamical, skillful, and environmentally grounded capacities that constitute language could be found in other species. This is a plausible view from an evolutionary point of view, which avoids the problem of the uneven distribution of language. But notice that even with this less symbolic view of language, its main function is still related to thinking and reasoning for action, and to accessing information in an epistemic way (in a way that guarantees success and the increased likelihood of true belief). Although it is clear that on this view some animals may have language, which is an advantage if one considers language to be a necessary condition for consciousness, this view is not without problems. Two salient difficulties for this view are: (a) determining how a semantics based on behavior and goals is capable of explaining the inferential and hierarchical structure of sentences, which is basic for language comprehension; and (b) determining whether or not designating many species into “language speakers” comes at the cost of blurring the distinction between communication in general and linguistic-syntactic communication in particular.

Since approaches to language are about access to information and inferential reasoning for action, it seems that language may well be a necessary condition for access consciousness—but what about phenomenal consciousness? The framework outlining the consciousness-attention dissociation (CAD) offers a solution to the problematic relation between language and consciousness. While access consciousness and complex cross-modal attention to contents may necessitate language, phenomenal consciousness may not necessitate language. This proposal is helpful in many ways. For instance, phenomenal consciousness may be present in many species, while language may be restricted to humans (depending on how one defines language, but here we are talking about the ability to communicate in a linguistic-syntactic manner). This perspective also captures basic intuitions about the nature of conscious experiences. For instance, why would the epistemic functions of language be necessary to experience pain or fear? Is it not possible for a living creature to experience basic sensations and emotions without a symbolic way of characterizing concepts or semantic contents, or independently of ways of accessing possibilities for action?

The view that language is a necessary condition for phenomenal consciousness (or basic subjective experience, which includes something like experiencing pain) is becoming less plausible because of theoretical reasons, such as those presented by CAD, and also because of empirical findings, such as those concerning the neural correlates of basic emotions. Distinguishing access to information, or access consciousness, from phenomenal consciousness helps explain why we associate not only intelligence with access consciousness, but also moral standing with phenomenal consciousness. This distinction is deeply related to the question of what exactly could be the role of phenomenal consciousness? If one holds the view that phenomenal consciousness does not play any role (that it, as it were, just “sits there” in us) then one commits to a kind of epiphenomenalist view (that consciousness is just a by-product of cognitive processing with no meaningful purpose). We believe that this view is mistaken. In our next blog we present reasons in favor of the view that phenomenal consciousness plays a very important role with respect to moral evaluation.

- Carlos Montemayor & Harry Haladjian


Berwick, R.C., and Chomsky, N. (2016). Why Only Us: Language and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Block, N. (1995). On a confusion about a function of consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18(2), 227-247. 

Fodor, J. A. (1975). The Language of Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fodor, J. A. (2008). LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Montemayor, C., & Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.