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Writer's Profile
Lucy Wills

Specialised Subjects

Biology, Education, Neuroscience, Psychology, Statistics

I have recently graduated from a reputed UK University with a first class honours degree in Applied Psychology (BSc). I have studied various aspects of psychology including social, cognitive, developmental and differential. I have expertise in areas including evolutionary approaches to behaviour, cognition and neuroscience, the study of consciousness and statistics. I am currently applying for higher level study and hope to embark on this in the coming year. Since graduating I have participated in the running of research projects and academic conferences taking on the role of note-taker and report writer. I recently wrote up the full report and executive summary for the Hearing the Voice conference supported by the IAS at Durham University.

Is language necessary for consciousness?

The debate surrounding the necessity of language for consciousness has a long history within the disciplines of psychology, philosophy and linguistics (Chafe, 2007). Key figures within the fields of study stand on different sides of the debate. Some scholars argue that consciousness does not at all necessitate language (e.g. Keenan, 2003, as cited in Morin, 2006).  Others argue that consciousness is fully facilitated by language and is not possible without it (McCrone, 1994). However, current literature and emerging evidence show that arguing at either of these extremes is too simplistic (Morin, 2006). Pulling together evidence and theories, this essay will present a theoretically based idea that there are different levels of consciousness ranging from unconsciousness to highly conscious reflective self-awareness. Thus addressing the question asked by Morin (2006); at what level of consciousness, if any, does language become a necessity for conscious experience? In line with Damasio’s (1999, as cited in Blackmore, 2003) claim, it will be argued that language is not needed for a ‘core consciousness’ but is necessary for extended interpretations of consciousness. It will be argued that language is not necessary for consciousness when conceptualised as a general state of awareness involving perceptual processing and attending to the external environment (Morin & Everett, 1990). Language becomes a necessary element as consciousness increases to a higher level of self-consciousness (Neuman and Nave, 2010) and metaconsiousness (Frawley, 2007), which evidence suggests are based on language-related abilities such as inner speech and cross-domain integration. The essay concludes by reflecting on the discussion and the general area of debate in this area.

Vygotsky states that the mind has various mental functions and that the connection between these is key to understanding consciousness (Vygotsky, 1934). He believed that consciousness is the mechanism by which information from various domains are bound together through the essential mediator of language in the form of internalised speech (Frawley, 1997). This is similar to Carruthers’ thesis that there is a language dependant non-domain specific arena in the brain where information from various modules is collated and processed. Dennet (1991) also believes that language allows different domains of the brain to communicate with each other, thus producing conscious experience.  However, as Frawley points out, Vygotsky’s conception of ‘consciousness’ refers to a higher level of consciousness involving higher mental function and individually mediated activities known as metaconsiousness. Vygotsky differentiated between three kinds of subjectivity that increase in levels from an elemental level of subjectivity and knowing (znanie to Vygotsky), through to a level of general consciousness and co-knowing (soznanie), to a higher level of metaconsciousness involving thought and reflection (osozanie). Frawley (1997) supports this idea and defines the three levels as non-conscious processing, consciousness and metaconsciousness. Making use of evidence and theory, this essay will develop the above differentiation further and show different levels of subjectivity that can be covered by the umbrella term ‘consciousness’.

Morin (2006) reviewed and integrated nine recent theories of levels of consciousness (such as Zelazo, 2004; Damasio, 1999, as cited in Morin, 2006) to form three general levels of subjectivity (not taking account of unconsciousness) based on the conglomeration of common features within each of the theories. Morin labels the first level ‘consciousness’ which is similar to Frawley’s conception of consciousness and Vygotsky’s znanie and soznaie. This is a general state of awareness which involves directing attention outward toward the environment (Duval & Wicklund, 1972, as cited in Morin & Everett, 1990). Organisms in this state process and experience sensations and perceptions but in a manner in which no awareness of such mental events is present. The organism is “immersed in the experience” and takes no reflective role. Given this, it is argued that language is not necessary for consciousness at this level as reflection requires thought based in language (Allen, 2010; Morin and Everett, 1990). Consequently, this is often accepted to be the kind of consciousness experienced by preverbal human infants and some non-human animals (Dennet, 1969, as cited in Allen, 2010). Flavell (1993) demonstrated this by showing that preschool aged children are generally lacking in the ability to reflect on the contents of their own consciousness.  At the very high end of this level, Morin acknowledges the presence of a very basic state of self-awareness. This involves the ability to differentiate oneself from the surrounding environment, recognise oneself (such as in a mirror) and the early beginnings of a theory of mind (Allen, 2010). Many argue that socially intelligent animals such as apes, humans and elephants have this level of consciousness (Mitchell, 2009). These abilities develop in human infants with age, leading to a large change in consciousness at the emergence of language (Fernyhough, 2008) that sets humans apart from other animals and takes them into a true self-consciousness (Dennet, 1996b, as cited in Blackmore, 2003).

Morin’s next level is self-consciousness (self-awareness). Mead (1972, as cited in Blackmore, 2003) argues that while other animals may be conscious in a basic sense, only humans have the ability to become self-conscious. This is also supported by Oatley (2007).  Self-consciousness involves directing attention inward toward the self and become the object of one’s own attention (Duval & Wicklund, 1972, as cited in Morin and Everett, 1990). In this higher level of consciousness, the organism becomes a reflective observer and processes self-awareness information. It is aware that it is awake and experiencing mental events and can usually comment on this (if verbally competent). Various self-referential processes take place within the state of self-awareness including autobiographical memory, self-talk, self-description as well as the outcomes of these processes such a theory of mind and self esteem. An even higher level called meta-self-consciousness is advocated by Morin. This is equivalent to metaconsciousness and involves constant self reflection on one’s own thoughts and experiences of being self-conscious. The essay will now present theories and evidence showing that language is necessary for these reflective higher levels of self and metaconsciousness due to their basis on inner speech, reflective thought and integration of thought through the use of these faculties (Carruthers, 1998). In discussing this, it should also become apparent that the lower level of general consciousness (previously discussed) does not necessitate language.

It has been argued that inner speech (as defined by Vygotsky, 1934) plays a central role in self-consciousness (Morin,2009; Neuman and Nave,2010; Carruthers,2002). Neuman and Nave (2010) and Carruthers (1996) claimed that the mind reflects on its own operation in natural language in its internalised form of inner speech. Morin and Michaud (2007) reviewed 59 introspection studies that looked at the role of inner speech in self-consciousness and self-referential activities. All of the studies used either PET or fMRI to investigate brain activity in relation to inner speech when engaged in several domains of self-reflection e.g. self recognition, autobiographical memory and agency. The brain area of interest is the left inferior frontal gyrus (LFIG). Activation of this area has been associated with inner speech use (e.g. Carruthers, 2002). Of the 59 studies in the review, 55.9% found activity in the LIFG while subjects engaged in self-referential activity. Within studies that had looked at autobiographical memory, 75% reported LIFG activation. The starkest finding was that 100% of studies that took a measurement at REST showed LIFG activity. This evidence suggests the use of inner speech in self-referential activity and therefore supports that language is necessary in self-consciousness. Although this is good evidence, the results should be considered with some reservation as the review fails to fully report the results of a control non-self-referential-activity group. It is briefly mentioned that LIFG activity was also found in this condition; however, this inner speech is attributed to ‘other cognitive functions’. Although this may be so, it raises the question of how can one know that the use of inner speech in self-referential-activity groups was related to the self-consciousness and not to ‘other functions’?  Even with the question unanswered, the review presents good evidence of the use of language in consciousness.

Further evidence for the necessity of inner speech in self-consciousness and awareness has been provided by the case study of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (Morin, 2009). After suffering a stroke at the left fronto-temporal junction (between Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas), Taylor experienced a loss of inner speech and has claimed that this caused deficits in self-consciousness and awareness. After recovering, she described her experience. She claims that thoughts that were once verbal became more visual as she gradually lost inner speech ability. She describes a silence in her mind and an altered state of consciousness and feeling as though she was no longer knew who she was. Her main deficit was a loss of self-awareness due to a loss of ‘left hemisphere consciousness’; without language to constantly flow through her mind in thought, she lost her self identity and fell into a lower consciousness. This is supported in her assertion that she never lost consciousness in the basic sense of being able to focus attention externally and process incoming stimuli as is earlier described in this essay. This suggests that consciousness at lower levels is not dependent on inner speech and language and can continue in the presence of damage to these functions.

Taylor claims she lost her sense of self-conscious emotions, of individuality and had great difficulty accessing any autobiographical memories. These are high order abilities associated with a high level of metaconsciousness and were impaired due to language loss.  In addition to this, she claims she was no longer able to see herself as a separate entity from the surrounding environment. This is considered a very basic form of self-awareness (as already discussed) that has even been claimed to be present in primates (Allen, 2010) thus illustrating the low level of consciousness available without language. Interestingly, she states that having been stripped of language and memory abilities, she was aware that she now had a consciousness resembling that which an infant may possess. This also supports the present argument that very young children have only a basic consciousness particularly before the emergence of language and memory abilities. Despite this evidence, there are some aspects of the experience which do not fit in with the present argument. For example, Taylor argues that she kept some metacognitive skills and was fully aware of being unable to hold onto thoughts. This awareness and also her ability to retrospectively introspect on her experience suggests that she actually maintained more meta-self-consciousness than she gives credit for (Mitchell, 2009). In addition, there is no direct evidence and therefore, the deficits experienced could have been caused by something other than inner speech loss such as the peripheral left hemispheric damage that was suffered. In order to investigate this further, one could use case studies of people with left hemisphere damage but no loss of inner speech and record their deficits. This would be difficult and complex and is yet to be explored. Mitchell (2009) criticizes the explanation provided by Morin and Taylor for her experience as ‘problematic’ and ‘piecemeal’. He asserts that Taylor puts too much emphasis on inner speech in normal experience and her introspection is not firm evidence.  Despite this, Mitchell acknowledges there are degrees of consciousness and a higher level must be dependent on language. This is in line with the current argument and provides further support.

Carruthers (1996) agrees with these views and asserts that consciousness involves self-awareness which requires thought. He claims inner speech (and therefore language) must be at least someway involved in certain types of thought. Carruthers (2002) argues that some thought types (e.g. conscious propositional thoughts) can only be entertained through use of language in the manner of an imaged natural language sentence in the form of inner speech (Carruthers, 1998). As a fully metaconscious being, when we have a thought (an imaged auditory sentence experienced as inner speech), we are not only aware of what we have just thought but also that we have just thought it. In addition to this we are also aware of the way in which we thought it i.e. as a natural language formulation or as visual images. This is named reflexive thinking. This multi-level of awareness is explained in Carruthers’ model of human consciousness which shows that the language faculty allows the contents of consciousness (a lower level of awareness) to be reflected upon. This reflection can be reiterated continuously to a high level of awareness and is fully dependent on language. These imaged sentences are our conscious thoughts (Carruthers, 1998).  This theory supports the argument that language is necessary for high level consciousness, and especially for thought.

In addition, Carruthers believes a main function of language is integrating and collating information from various domains to create a unitary conscious experience (Carruthers, 2002). He argues that all non-domain specific reasoning is conducted in natural language. All cross modular thinking of this sort takes place at the level of linguistic representation know as ‘logical form’ (LF) (Chomsky,1995, as cited in Carruthers,2002). The language faculty has access to information from various domains and can build LF representations that combine this information to produce conscious inner speech.  This is demonstrated by Hermer-Vasquez, Moffet and Munkholm (2001) which used a similar experimental paradigm to Cheng (1986). In Cheng (1986), adult rats were unable to perform as expected as they could not integrate information from different domains. Hermer-Vasquez et al., (2001) showed that children under the age of six also cannot integrate different types of information much in the same way that adult rats cant. It is believed that this inability is caused by different information areas being unable to communicate with one another due to the absence of sophisticated language abilities (or any language in the rats’ case) and a lack of inner speech. This is supported by Hermer-Vazquez, Spelke and Katnelson (1999, as cited in Hermer-Vasquez et al,2001) who showed that when inner speech was intentionally disrupted in verbally competent adults during the task, they performed at the same level as both the infants and rats. This shows inner speech to be the faculty permitting completion of this task by allowing integration. Adults and children around 6-7 years can integrate the information and thus experience a more refined and unified consciousness that is rich in inner speech.

This essay has presented evidence and theories showing the necessity of inner speech for self-awareness (Morin, 2009), thought (Carruthers, 1996) and information integration (Carruthers, 1998; 2002) thus supporting the argument that language is essential for higher levels of consciousness such as self-consciousness and metaconsciousness (Neuman and Nave,2010). In presenting this, it has also become clear that lower levels of consciousness such as a general ‘consciousness’ (Morin,2006) and basic self awareness do not rely on language as they are present in verbally incompetent beings e.g. mammals, preverbal infants. The literature in relation to the debate of language and consciousness is irresolute, although many other lines of evidence indicate support for the present argument such as theory of mind research, evolutionary studies and research with autistic individuals. Such evidence could be discussed in another exposition. However, there are still ubiquitous philosophical disagreements in relation to the nature of conscious experience and until these are resolved it is unlikely a full understanding of the necessity of language in consciousness can be achieved.

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ONLINE RESOURCE: Allen, C. (2010). Animal Consciousness.  Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy. Available at Accessed 21.1.2011