Rethinking the Cartesian theory of linguistic productivity

Philosophical Psychology 22 (3):251-279 (2009)
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Abstract

Descartes argued that productivity, namely our ability to generate an unlimited number of new thoughts or ideas from previous ones, derives from a single undividable source in the human soul. Cognitive scientists, in contrast, have viewed productivity as a modular phenomenon. According to this latter view, syntactic, semantic, musical or visual productivity emerges each from their own generative engines in the human brain. Recent evidence has, however, led some authors to revitalize the Cartesian theory. According to this view, a single source or a single mechanism in the human brain produces productivity in every cognitive domain, whether in the domain of music, semantics or syntax. In this article, we will address recent evidence concerning the single source hypothesis from brain-imaging studies, linguistics, cognitive theories of music perception, biology of cognition and cognitive development, along with several objections that have been presented against this hypothesis. We formulate two versions of the Cartesian theory which combine the more recent computational theory of cognition with Descartes' view on productivity

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