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1 Introduction Different words sometimes express the same thought. Take these three sentences: (1) Homo currit. (2) Un homme court. (3) A man is running. Does it not make sense to say that a Latin speaker who sincerely affirms (1), a French speaker who sincerely affirms (2), and an English speaker who sincerely affirms (3) all share the same belief? Those subscribing to a theory of mental language consider this way of speaking with utmost seriousness. They hypothesize that in individual minds there exist, under one form or another, mental representations that, although independent of the languages of communication , are combinable into more complex unities in precisely the same way that the words of a language are combined into sentences. They would say, in the case of our example, that the three sentences each express, in different words, the same complex mental state (or at least isomorphic mental states), of which neither the whole arrangement nor the constitutive elements depend in principle on the particularities of Latin, French, or English. In this view, mental states are endowed with semantic roles: we say that a belief is true or false, that a concept, or an idea, signifies this or that thing. The position, moreover, holds that the realm of mental symbols has a compositional structure like that of spoken language. In recent analytic philosophy, Jerry Fodor is the great promoter of “the language of thought”; the very burden of his research on this subject is to determine what kind of internal structure it is appropriate to attribute to mental states. To subscribe to the mental-language hypothesis is to opt for what Fodor calls a “constituent structure,” the model of which is borrowed from linguistic analysis: a population of signifying units articulated in different sequences according to a very precise syntax and thus contributing, each in a well-regulated manner, to the semantic values of the sequences in question (to their signification, for example, or to their truth-value if required). Fodor thinks that this hypothesis is both natural and successful in explaining many cognitive traits that, empirically, characterize the human 1. Translator’s note: unless otherwise indicated, citations are English translations of Panaccio’s French. 2. See, in particular, Fodor 1987, 135–54, the appendix entitled, “Why There Still Has to Be a Language of Thought.” F6925.indb 1 F6925.indb 1 10/24/16 12:52:19 PM 10/24/16 12:52:19 PM 2 introduction species. Learning one’s mother tongue, for example, supposes already a capacity for symbol-processing. However, there is something strange about the notion of a language common to all that is not a language of communication and whose units are “mental” without being accessible to introspection. At the very least, the idea is not obvious in itself. Fodor comes to it by a complex and sometimes tortuous process of reflection on the actual state of linguistics and cognitive science. Curiously, in the fourteenth century, the Franciscan William of Ockham expounded a very similar idea: that there is a universal oratio mentalis (“mental speech”) that is independent of languages and yet underlies uttered speech and is itself structured like a language, with syntactic categories (such as nouns, verbs, prepositions, and adverbs), semantic functions (significatio, connotatio, suppositio), and, in the final analysis, a fine-grained compositional structure such that truth-values of mental judgments are a direct function, by means of a precise computation, of the reference (or suppositio) of the complex or simple concepts that are their subjects or predicates. The resemblance to the contemporary language of thought hypothesis is striking. And more astonishing is that today’s cognitive theorists rarely cite Ockham and take no inspiration from him. Fodor does say he wants “to resurrect the traditional idea of a ‘language of thought,’” but he is probably thinking of Locke or Hobbes, who each occasionally spoke of mental discourse. These authors, however, did not equip their mental discourse with a very precise compositional structure, much less with a syntax, as did Ockham and his successors . From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the Ockhamist idea, in its essence, disappeared, and the early modern period knew little of it. Between the oratio mentalis of Ockham and the language of thought of Fodor there is at once a clear relationship and a discontinuity. I think even the most stubborn relativist will recognize that this is an especially interesting case for the historian of philosophy. Various projects come to mind. We could, on a theoretical...


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