Thought Beyond Language

Notes by Howard Gardner

One of the most heated debates in the cognitive sciences revolves around the question of whether other cognitive capacities are dependent upon the structure and functioning of language,  or whether cognitive capacities in, say, music or number have an independent history and mode of representation.  This study provides suggestive evidence that the capacity to carry out syntactic operations (adding, deleting, transforming, reordering) operates independently in language and algebra.  Indeed, one could argue that the study achieves the ‘gold standard’ in this area. One can be competent with linguistic operations but not algebraic ones, or competent with algebraic operations but not linguistic ones.  And it therefore implies that perhaps syntax in music also operates independently.

It should be noted, however, that the apparent independence of these two forms of syntactic operations does not prove that they evolved or developed independently.  It is possible that, at its origins, syntactic operations are similar or even identical across different contents, and only gradually achieve structural or functional autonomy.  What seems more likely, in light of this finding, is that other forms of mathematical thinking; for example, that involved in geometric or topological thinking, is quite remote from ordinary language use. And so, in a small way, the results of this study are supportive of the central ideas in MI theory.

To read the article in its entirety click here.