Friday, November 5, 2010

What is the Relationship between Language, Analogy, and Cognition?

The capacity for analogy and "higher order, abstract, role-governed, relational reasoning” seems crucial to human cognition (Penn et al. 2008). According to psychologist Dedre Gentner, this capacity may explain "why we're so smart." (Gentner 2003).

In an interesting new article in the journal Language and Cognition Dedre Gentner and Stella Christie explore the relationship between relational/analogical reasoning and language (see here, subscription required). Here's the abstract:

What makes us so smart as a species, and what makes children such rapid learners? We argue that the answer to both questions lies in a mutual bootstrapping system comprised of (1) our exceptional capacity for relational cognition and (2) symbolic systems that augment this capacity. The ability to carry out structure-mapping processes of alignment and inference is inherent in human cognition. It is arguably the key inherent difference between humans and other great apes. But an equally important difference is that humans possess a symbolic language.The acquisition of language influences cognitive development in many ways. We focus here on the role of language in a mutually facilitating partnership with relational representation and reasoning. We suggest a positive feedback relation in which structural alignment processes support the acquisition of language, and in turn, language — especially relational language — supports structural alignment and reasoning.We review three kinds of evidence (a) evidence that analogical processes support children's learning in a variety of domains; (b) more specifically, evidence that analogical processing fosters the acquisition of language, especially relational language; and (c) in the other direction, evidence that acquiring language fosters children's ability to process analogies, focusing on spatial language and spatial analogies. We conclude with an analysis of the acquisition of cardinality — which we offer as a canonical case of how the combination of language and analogical processing fosters cognitive development.


Gentner, Dedre, & Stella Christie (2010). Mutual bootstrapping between language and analogical processing. Language and Cognition (2:2): 261–283.

Gentner, Dedre (2003). Why we’re so smart. In D. Gentner and S. Goldin-Meadow (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought (pp.195-235). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Penn, Derek C, Keith J. Holyoak. and Daniel J. Povinelli (2008): Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 109-130.


Chris said...

Michael, as I understand it, this was the underlying idea behind Douglas Hofstadter's Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies. Though that book addressed the problem of getting computers to think, it couched the basic problem in terms of analogies.

Michael Pleyer said...

Chris, thanks for the link!
there's a massive amount of literature from various points of view on the topic. Douglas Hofstadter is also featured in the edited volume The Analogical Mind: Perspectives from Cognitive Science. His perspective seems really interesting so I'll definitely look into it at some point.