The importance of talking about talking

PhD defence Jasper van den Herik

A remarkable characteristic of language is that it is reflexive: we often talk about talking itself. In his dissertation 'Talking about Talking: An Ecological-Enactive Perspective on Language', PhD student Jasper van den Herik examined the function of this reflexive use of language in the context of recent developments in the cognitive sciences. On the 6th of June he will defend his dissertation at Erasmus University Rotterdam. His PhD was part of the NWO project ' An enactive approach to language and mathematics' under the supervision of prof.dr. FA. Muller.

Language and cognition

According to most cognitive scientists, we think with our brains. Cognition, a technical term for thinking, is taken to be information processing in the brain. In such a vision, language is a means of moving information from one brain to another. However, a growing group of cognitive scientists is dissatisfied with this model. They emphasize the importance of the body and the sociomaterial situatedness of thought. To understand the mind, we cannot limit ourselves to the brain, but we should also consider the body and our social practices.

The reflexivity of language

In his dissertation, Van den Herik states that if we start from this embodied and situated view on thinking, we should first of all see language as a social act. Language does not get its meaning because it transports information, but through the function it fulfills in social interaction. The meaning of language cannot be reduced to individual brains, but arises in social interaction. The reflexivity of language is very important to understand this process. Reflexive use of language has a normative function: whenever we try to explain the meaning of a word to someone, or we ask what they mean, or we disagree on whether a word is offensive, or someone else corrects their language, we (re)negotiate the properties of language.

The perspective developed in this dissertation serves two functions. First of all, it contributes to an embodied and situated explanation of typical human forms of cognition. Second, it sheds new light on philosophical problems with regard to language, such as the nature of linguistic knowledge, the origin of semantic content, and linguistic normativity.

More information

For more information about this ceremony, please contact Evaline Bender, communications officer a Erasmus School of Philosophy, by phone +31 010 4088980 or by email: