Book Chapter

Is Language the Ultimate Artefact?


Wheeler M (2007) Is Language the Ultimate Artefact?. In: Wallace B, Ross A, Davies JB & Anderson T (eds.) The Mind, the Body and the World: Psychology After Cognitivism?. Exeter: Imprint Academic, pp. 269-308.

Andy Clark has argued that language is “in many ways the ultimate artifact” (Clark 1997, p.218). Fuelling this conclusion is a view according to which the human brain is essentially no more than a patterncompleting device, while language is an external resource which is adaptively fitted to the human brain in such a way that it enables that brain to exceed its unaided (pattern-completing) cognitive capacities, in much the same way as a pair of scissors enables us to “exploit our basic manipulative capacities to fulfill new ends” (Clark 1997, pp.193-4). How should we respond to this bold reconceptualization of our linguistic abilities? First we need to understand it properly. So I begin by identifying and unpacking (and making a small “Heideggerian” amendment to) Clark’s main language-specific claims. That done I take a step back. Clark’s approach to language is generated from a theoretical perspective which sees cognition as distributed over brain, body, and world. So I continue my investigation of Clark’s incursion into linguistic territory by uncovering and illustrating those key ideas from the overall distributed cognition research programme which are particularly relevant in the present context. I then use this analysis as a spring-board from which to examine a crucial issue that arises for Clark’s account of language, namely linguistic inner rehearsal. I argue that while there is much to recommend in Clark’s treatment of this issue, some significant difficulties remain to be overcome. Via this critique of Clark’s position, alongside some proposals for how the revealed problems might be addressed, I hope to edge us that bit closer to a full understanding of our linguistic abilities.

language; distributed cognition; inner rehearsal

Publication date31/12/2007
PublisherImprint Academic
Publisher URL
Place of publicationExeter