Gerauld de Cordemoy’s Philosophy of Language & Mind


Gerauld de Cordemoy was a Cartesian philosopher, historian, and scientist during the closing decades of seventeenth-century France. Under the patronage of the King of France, Cordemoy immersed himself in his studies. One work in particular that has continued to garner attention to this present day is his work on human language, Discours physique de la parole, which was originally published in 1668. In this phenomenal work, Cordemoy investigates the function and origins of human language, and what that might mean with regards to human nature. For example, Cordemoy asserts that the existence of human language is proof that the human mind/soul exists (res cogitans in Cartesian terms). What follows is nothing more than a simple summary of Cordemoy’s insights into human language and mind, and consequently what that might mean concerning the nature of human beings as compared to other animals.

Before beginning, the text that I will use in this summary is based off of the Friedrich Frommann Verlag reprint from 1970. This reprint edition is based off of the 1677 edition of the text, which was the final edition that the author was involved with. There was one final edition made with the help of his son from 1704, but this was well after the death of author (d. 1684).

The Problem of Other Minds

From the very beginning, Cordemoy starts off with the extremely difficult subject of what constitutes reasonable proof of the existence of another mind in a person:

Entre les Corps que je vois dans le monde, j’en apperçois qui sõt en toutes choses semblables au mien, & j’avouë que j’ay grande inclination à croire qu’ils sont unis à des Ames comme la mienne.

Among the bodies that I see in the world, I perceive them in all things to be similar to me, and I confess that I have a great inclination to believe that they have a unity of a soul (mind) [with body] just as myself.

Gerauld de Cordemoy, Discours physique de la parole, 1

The subject necessarily means asking how can one know if their neighbor is truly human and not some sort of extremely elaborate machine designed to fool someone. Here, Cordemoy takes for granted that constituent parts do not establish any sense of unity that can possibly provide a first-person point of view. Leibniz highlights this point quite well in his Monadology, although he was no Cartesian:

17. Moreover, it must be confessed that perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds, that is to say, by means of figures and motions. And supposing there were a machine, so constructed as to think, feel, and have perception, it might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so that one might go into it as into a mill. That being so, we should, on examining its interior, find only parts which work one upon another, and never anything by which to explain a perception. Thus it is in a simple substance, and not in a compound or in a machine, that perception must be sought for. Further, nothing but this (namely, perceptions and their changes) can be found in a simple substance. It is also in this alone that all the internal activities of simple substances can consist.

Gottfried Leibniz, Monadology, Paragraph 17

Now, before exploring the deep subject, Cordemoy first starts off by explaining the parameters of the human body. Cordemoy acknowledges that certain aspects of a human being’s body are affected by mechanical inputs i.e. environmental factors. For example, being in cold air causes the body to move slower before warming up, while being in warmer air would facilitate easier movement. Nevertheless, Cordemoy observes that there are some aspects that cannot possibly be accounted for under mechanical or physical principles. For instance, for animals, Cordemoy believes that they are simply extremely complex machines that do not have a soul or mind. However, he notices that these animals’ nature determine them to self-preservation. In other words, they often act on instinct. Nature’s inputs cause so-called levers in the physical brain and organs of animals to act in a deterministic fashion just like how when one puts a ball on a hill, one can expect it to begin rolling down it as per the laws of physics. In humans, however, Cordemoy observes something quite different:

Car quand ie vois qu’ils s’approchent avec fermeté de ce qui les va détruire, & qu’ils abandonnent ce qui les pourroit conserver, ie ne puis attribuer ces effets à cette proportion mécanique qui se recontre entr’eux & les obiets…

Because when I see that they [the living being] are approached with the strength that is going to destroy them, and that they abandon the recourse that would preserve them, I am unable to attribute this effect to that mechanical proportion which [I previously] recognized between them and [their external] objects…

Gerauld de Cordemoy, Discours physique de la parole, 7

Such a thing indicates the presence of a free will, which is neither random nor determined. At which point, Cordemoy then goes on to examine the language or speech that his fellow humans exhibit compared to echoes of mountains and the repetition of birds. On the latter he says:

Par exemple, je ne dois pas legerement croire qu’un Perroquet ait aucune pensée quand il prononce quelques mots: car outre que je remarque qu’apres luy avoir repeté une prodigieuse quantité de fois les mémes Paroles dans un certain ordre, il ne rend iamais que les mesmes mots & dans la mesme suite; il me semble que ne faisant point ces redites à propos, il imite moins les hommes, que les échos qui ne répondent iamais que ce qu’on leur a dit; & s’il y a quelque difference entre les Perroquets & les échos, c’est que les rochers en repoussant l’air sans rien changer aux impressions qu’il a receuës, rendent les mémes voix qui les ont frappez, au lieu que les Perroquets forment une autre voix semblable à celle qui leur a frappé l’oreille, & que souvent ils repetent les Paroles qu’on ne leur redit plus. Mais enfin, comme ie ne puis pas dire que les rochers parlent quand ils renvoyent les Paroles, ie n’ose pas asseurer aussi que les Perroquets parlent quand ils les repetent; car il me semble que parler n’est pas repeter les mesmes paroles dont on a eu l’oreille frappée, mais que c’est en proferer d’autres à propos de celles-là: & comme i’ay raison de croire que tous les corps qui font des échos ne pensent point, quoy que ie leur entende redire mes Paroles, parce qu’ils ne les rendent iamais que dans l’ordre que ie les ay proferées; je devrois iuger par la mesme raison, que les Perroquets ne pensent point aussi.

For example, I ought not to thoughtlessly believe that a parrot speaks any sort of thought when it pronounces some words, because besides what I have remarked after him having repeated a prodigious number of times the sames words in a specific order, he only renders the same words and in the exact same order. It seems to me that making these repetitions, he imitates less the people, than the echos [of mountains] which only every bounce back with what we say to them. And if there are some differences between the parrots and the echos [of mountains], it is that the rocks repell the air without rendering any change upon the impressions which one has spoken, [thus] rendering the same voice that strikes them, whereas the parrots form another voice resembling what has struck their own ears, and that often they repeat the words/speech that we have said to them on many occasions. But in the end, just as I am unable to say that the rocks speak when they echo the words, I dare not be assured also that the parrots are speaking when they repeat the words; because it seems to me that speaking is not to repeat the same words of which one ones has been exposed via ear, but rather it is by uttering others concerning those words. And just as I have reason to believe that all of the bodies which make echos do not think, despite hearing them repeat my words, since they only every render them in the order which I have proffered to them; likewise I ought to judge by the same reason, that parrots do not think either.

Gerauld de Cordemoy, Discours physique de la parole, 18-20

On the former, humans, he says:

Mais aussi si ie trouve par toutes les experiences que ie suis capable d’en faire, qu’ils usent comme moy de la Parole, ie croiray avoir une raison infaillible de croire qu’ils ont une Ame comme moy.

But also if I find by every experience that that I am capable of having, that they use speech just like myself, [that is creatively, ie neither random nor determined], I would have an infallible reason to believe that they have a soul/mind just like myself.

Gerauld de Cordemoy, Discours physique de la parole, 21

The Purpose of Language: Giving Signs to Thought

 Cordemoy adopts the view that language is nothing more than making known one’s own thoughts. Additionally, he breaks down his understanding of language by supplying the framework between the signified (the idea that applies to the exterior object) and the signifier (the word). He says:

D’où ie connois, que ces signes sont d’institution; & comme cette institution suppose necessairement de la raison & des pensées en ceux qui sont capables d’en convenir, ie n’avancerois peut estre rien avec temerité, si i’asseurois des à present que ces Corps sont unis à des Ames.

Whence I know that these signs are an institution. And since that institution necessarily presupposes reason and thoughts in those who are capable of agreeing [with me], I would not perhaps advance anything with temerity, if whether I would establish that at present these bodies are united with a soul/mind.

Gerauld de Cordemoy, Discours physique de la parole, 23

This is quite the shocking conclusion on Cordemoy’s part because it was only earlier that he concluded that the use of language in a creative fashion would constitute indubitable proof that the individual speaking has a mind/soul. Now it seems that he is saying otherwise. In short, Cordemoy is attempting to reconcile extreme skepticism with taking a position. Although he provides no concrete solution, which I don’t think anyone ever will, he does explain his criteria for taking a position. He says:

Quand je verray que ces signes conviendront à ceux que i’auray faits pour dire mes pensées; quand ie verray qu’ils me donneront des idées que ie n’avois pas auparavant, & qui se rapporteront à la chose que i’avois déja dans l’esprit; Enfin quand ie verray une grande suit entre leurs signes & les miens, ie ne seray pas raisonnable, si ie ne crois qu’ils le sont comme moy.

When I see that these signs agree with those that I have made for voicing my own thoughts; when I see that they give me ideas which I did not have beforehand, and which will be returned to the thing that I already have in mind; then in the end I see a large series between their signs and my own, I would not be reasonable if I do not believe that they are the same as myself [with body and soul/mind].

Gerauld de Cordemoy, Discours physique de la parole, 28-29

In other words, because Cordemoy can have an intelligible conversation with another person, it means that they think. This is because the words that they use indicate thoughts and bring up thoughts within his own mind. This is why one of the main purposes of language deals with thought itself, although he does include communication as well. Cordemoy also recognizes that the signs or words used to represent an idea are far from fixed due to the existence of foreign languages, which show development and change over time. In particular, those with knowledge of multiple languages use a variety of words to describe the same idea, whether it be in Italian, French, or Spanish. Even within the same language, multiple words might describe the same idea. In short, language is not synonymous with thought. Thought constitutes something deeper than language.

Animals Don’t Have Souls, While Humans Do

Cordemoy asserts throughout his work that animals cannot possibly have souls. This is because, as he puts it, animals always react to stimulus the same way. If an animal is subjected to some sort of stimulus, then it reacts in a predictable manner in terms of issuing forth a cry. For this reason, Cordemoy declares that many animals abide solely by mechanistic principles of stimulus and response, and thus have no free will. With no free will, there is no soul. This to me seems to be a very large leap to make. I think Cordemoy is right insofar that no other animal seems to have a language. The mating calls, danger cries, etc. of animals never change from generation to generation. This indicates one of two things: either they have no ideas behind their cries and signals OR they do not have the capacity to change their social communicatory tools. Cordemoy endorses the former as is clear here:

Or de ces deux choses que nous reconnoissons en nous outre les mouvemens; ie veux dire la perception que nous avons des que les nerfs de nôtre oreille sont ébranlez; & la volonté que nous avons en suite de consentire au movement auquel tout nostre corps est excite, ou de le retenir; il me semble que la derniere es si évidamment distincte de nostre corps, qu’il n’y a que les personnes don’t le jugement est fort precipité, qui n’en connoissent pas la distinction.

Now [there are] two things that we know in ourselves other than movements. [They are] the perception that we have due to our ears that are shaken [by the noise vibrations]; and the will that we have [which] grants movement to everything of our body or restrains our body. It seems to me that the former is so evidently distinct from our body, that only those persons, whose judgment is hastened quickly, doesn’t know the distinction because of it.

Gerauld de Cordemoy, Discours physique de la parole, 119

What Cordemoy is referring to above is the sense of unity when someone encounters pain, love, joy, sadness, etc. The fact that there is a sense of unity, for Cordemoy, necessitates a soul (contemporary philosopher Colin McGinn has some interesting things to say about this). However, since animals behave in a way that seems purely mechanistic, as in accord with the principle that I quoted from Leibniz above, there is therefore no indication of unity. And without unity, there can be neither a soul or ideas, because ideas have content and meaning. Content and meaning necessitate a first-person view (unity).

But what of the latter view? I think it is entirely plausible that animals are restricted in a number of ways that humans are not. However, it seems quite a large leap to make the claim, as Cordemoy does, that this therefore means that animals have no sense of unity. Animals could very well have a sense of unity, but perhaps they lack a will. Or maybe they have a will, but it operates in discreet ways that evade our understanding. That is to say, in ways that do not show up in communication. These theories are interesting, but sort of moot, since I do not know what it is like to be a rock, nor do I know what it is like to be my next-door neighbor, and neither do I know what it is like to be a bat. It seems to me that that this problem brings us to the limits of our understanding.

 Hypothetical Minds Without a Body

In a part of his fifth chapter, Cordemoy posits the hypothetical scenario of there being two minds, but without a body. He then asks how these two minds might communicate. They have no bodies to issue forth sounds, let alone be heard. However, it must be recalled that under Cartesian metaphysics, the aspects of extension do not apply. Therefore, the concern of how sound is both made and received is unnecessary. These two minds would communicate with one another with the brute thoughts that are behind each word or sign in a language. In other words, they would not use a language.

Cordemoy’s hypothesis does not seem likely. First, words are arbitrary as Cordemoy understood. Therefore, they must be products of the mind. So it seems unlikely that the abandonment of the body would therefore affect in anyway an aspect that belonged solely to the mind. However, Cordemoy, for whatever reason does not consider words (signs) to be products of the mind, but rather a property of body:

Car enfin l’esprit doit plus aisément apercevoir une pensée, qui est une chose spirituelle, que le signe de cette pensee, puisque ce signe est une chose corporelle.

Because in the end, the mind ought to more easily learn a thought [from another], which is a spiritual thing/[property of res cogitans], than the sign of that thought, since that sign is a corporeal thing.

Gerauld de Cordemoy, Discours de la parole, 143

If what Cordemoy says is true, then there is a serious problem as to why different languages exist within various peoples. Either their bodies are fundamentally different in composition or genetics, which leads to a difference of language, or language is a product of the mind not the body. Furthermore, Cordemoy also assumes that the primary function of language is for communication across a spatial environment. While not entirely an uncommon assertion, it is disputed by some modern linguists (See Noam Chomsky’s lecture at the University of Dublin).

In the end, Cordemoy’s work on speech, language, and mind reaches some very viable conclusion with regards to the human mind. Its workings, while related to the body due to the brain, neither seem determined nor random. There is also a strong sense of unity. Furthermore, while Cordemoy provides a framework for knowing if another individual has a mind, he openly admits that this test and its conclusions are not beyond a shadow of a doubt. These philosophical problems and issues remain with us to this day, and are likely to continue for the ages to come.

About Alura

I have a keen interest in history, philosophy, and theology. I read about these subjects in Latin, French, German, and of course English.
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