Pure Structuralism: Language or Cognition?

During our analysis of fashion magazine ads, I suggested that it is our cognitive abilities to conceptualize and memory that permit us to distinguish a bag from a woman in a photograph. Jeff then firmly stated that a structuralist would disagree because they would argue that it is our linguistic abilities that permit us to give meaning to the photograph. So with a structuralist perspective emphasizing language so much, I tried to figure out what it was about ‘language’ that might be so different from cognition.

Cognition is clearly a prerequisite for language. Our memory and ability to personify experiences and senses into symbols is what allows us to think. You might say we have a need, desire or just natural abilities that drive us to think, conceptualize and categorize objects. When we represent perceptions and ideas into expressible symbols, it becomes a language. Cognition semantically permits us to give meaning to syntax.

Cognition being a prerequisite for language suggests that the differentiating factor between language and cognition is the ability to communicate with expressible symbols. And communication requires two people. If that be the case, then wouldn’t a pure structuralist approach necessitate (phenomenological) intersubjectivity?

1 Comment

  1. jeffreybardzell

    Just to clarify a few things. In your characterization, we have cognition and then we express it with language. That is, as you state rather clearly, cognition is prior to language.

    But this is exactly what structuralists deny. They argue instead that language structures our cognition. We cannot think outside of language. All of our ideas, prejudices, values, distinctions–all of it–comes to us through language. Language is the precondition of thought. Thus, language happens first, and then cognition.

    If you accept that model (and I’m not saying you have to–that’s what the structuralists argued) then language mediates a single individual’s consciousness, and the only “intersubjectivity” that is really relevant (according to this account) is that which is shared by all members of a linguistic community (e.g., speakers of American English).

    As my various parentheticals should make clear, I don’t subscribe to this view as presented. But I agree that it has strong elements of truth–language is more important than a mere vessel in which to express our extra-linguistically-formulated thoughts. Also, unless you understand this view, it will be hard to understand the poststructuralist critique of it, which does ultimately fuse aspects of it and phenomenology in a more nuanced (if still radical and dizzying) model.


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