Until my senior year in college, I didn't even know that the field of linguistics existed. It was much smaller then, with courses available in only a handful of universities. I had often thought that there ought to be such a field and that I would want to take courses in it if it did exist, since I had found the study of foreign languages (Latin, German, Russian) interesting. But the only means available at my university for going on with language study after the elementary level was to study literature. Actually, Yale did have a program in linguistics, an illustrious one as I learned later, but it was only for graduate students. The reason I thought there ought to be such a field was that the investigation of language in itself -- as opposed to the literature embodied in it -- might make it possible to get a handle on how thinking works, on how our mental systems try to give us understanding of the world and our relationships to it. Our thinking systems are the means of all our science and of all philosophy.
Most of the linguistics of the past few decades has been concerned with topics other than those of this book. Language is so rich and variegated, and the languages of the world so diverse, that the available research topics cover a vast scope. In my graduate student days (at UC Berkeley), the study of the mental basis of language was actually forbidden territory. It was thought that there was no scientific or logically valid way to pursue such studies and that linguistics could not claim to be a science if it indulged in them. For me to accept that view would have been to dash my own hopes of understanding how language is related to the mind. Fortunately, I did not have to wait very long for a change of climate that allowed 'mentalistic' studies to become respectable.
I still feel, as I did in my naive Freshman days, that a proper goal of a human being is to try to understand the world. But our attempts to understand the world are exercises of our minds, our instruments for knowing things, and are restrained and sometimes even led astray by limitations of these instruments. Our minds engage in thoughts, and thinking gets embedded in our words. We need to understand how language moves our thinking so that we can understand how much of what we think we know comes just from operations of our thinking instruments. If they are faulty, how can they reach understanding? If you see the world through tinted glass the world looks tinted. Is it really tinted or is this appearance just the contribution of the glass? It might have just the color of the glasses and they only amplify; but if you aren't aware that you are wearing glasses you don't even ask such questions. Our predicament is worse not only since the mind is far more complex than some tinted glass, but also since we cannot take it off. And even when we try to understand the mind we have to use it still.
Because this book treats language and the brain, included in its subject matter are the languages and information systems of its readers. You the reader have a brain, which you too can examine indirectly to obtain some evidence pertaining to the observations of these pages. If you care to, you can take my words as not just findings I have reached but as a guide to your exploring of the structure of your own device for thought.
In this book, I use the pronoun 'I' to refer to myself, 'you' to refer to you the reader, and 'we' for you and me together. I tell you this because according to the convention followed in some books, the author refers to himself as 'we'. I'm not doing that -- when I write 'we' I mean you and me together, for example as we take the next step in our joint exploration. I think of it as a joint exploration rather than as me leading you by the hand, for two reasons: First, you won't really get some of the points unless you let your mind actively participate in the process. I want you to think for yourself and not to take my word for anything; all I am doing is giving you some things to think about, in a somewhat ordered way. Second, it is not that I have completed the exploration and am now telling you what I have found. This exploration is in progress now for me while I am writing this account, and so I think of you as someone I can talk to as I find my way. And so you are exploring right along with me.
When I was young I had a wild dream: to understand the workings of the mind. There was no way I could foresee what things I might encounter nor how far I'd get. And now I have come farther than I dreamed I ever would, and so my heart is full of gratitude for all the help received; and yet the journey is still far from done. Though much more exploration lies ahead, my hope is strong because I am but one of the explorers of this hidden land. The others and young pilgrims yet to come will bring more light to make the darkness fade away as in the hour before the dawn.