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Journal Article

Specifically Human: Going Beyond Perceptual Syntax

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Filippi, P. (2013). Specifically Human: Going Beyond Perceptual Syntax. Biosemiotics, 7(1), 111-123. doi:10.1007/s12304-013-9187-3.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002E-6234-7
The aim of this paper is to help refine the definition of humans as “linguistic animals” in light of a comparative approach on nonhuman animals’ cognitive systems. As Uexküll & Kriszat (1934/1992) have theorized, the epistemic access to each species-specific environment (Umwelt) is driven by different biocognitive processes. Within this conceptual framework, I identify the salient cognitive process that distinguishes each species typical perception of the world as the faculty of language meant in the following operational definition: the ability to connect different elements according to structural rules. In order to draw some conclusions about humans’ specific faculty of language, I review different empirical studies on nonhuman animals’ ability to recognize formal patterns of tokens. I suggest that what differentiates human language from other animals’ cognitive systems is the ability to categorize the units of a pattern, going beyond its perceptual aspects. In fact, humans are the only species known to be able to combine semantic units within a network of combinatorial logical relationships (Deacon 1997) that can be linked to the state of affairs in the external world (Wittgenstein 1922). I assume that this ability is the core cognitive process underlying a) the capacity to speak (or to reason) in verbal propositions and b) the general human faculty of language expressed, for instance, in the ability to draw visual conceptual maps or to compute mathematical expressions. In light of these considerations, I conclude providing some research questions that could lead to a more detailed comparative exploration of the faculty of language.