I was thinking about the invention of writing. Before we had writing, we didn't have writing; but we had the potential to have writing. We know this because cats and caterpillars don't have writing, but humans do; yet, humans once didn't have writing, and developed the ability.

So humans always had the potential to be able to write; but not the actuality, until one day we did.

Does this imply that we may have within us other latent talents and abilities, that we simply haven't discovered and mastered yet?

I mean to distinguish writing from mere technology. Perhaps I should have said language. We have language ability in our physical brains. But we didn't always have language. And even when we started with grunts and yells, we had within us the potential to speak all the languages of the modern world, with modern eloquence.

So language, and writing, are deeper than mere technologies. Otherwise this question would have a trivial answer that writing is just a technology that we developed. But language is deeper than that. So I'm wondering if we have perhaps any deep potentials in our brains that we simply haven't discovered or developed yet.

What do philosophers say about this question?

  • Doesn't it depend on the definition of "Technology"? Can't someone say that language is also a technology? Moreover, we have evidence to say that "there are some animals who use tools in everyday life, e.g. chimpanzees ". Also, animals communicate each other using voice, isn't it language?
    – Deamonpog
    Jan 12, 2014 at 4:26
  • The answer is "yes, trivially". People of today have an undiscovered skill to use a popular machine that's going to be invented next year.
    – prash
    Jan 12, 2014 at 6:41
  • Writing is an invention, and it's been invented more than once. It's definitely a technology or a group of technologies and isn't common among all humans. Whereas speech is more of a built in capability shared by all (or extremely high percentage of) humans.
    – obelia
    Jan 12, 2014 at 23:10
  • "There's nothing new under the sun". Also, Hegel never actually claimed that there are no more than 7 planets (including the sun and moon).
    – Mitch
    Jan 13, 2014 at 2:07
  • By looking at level of your thinking i can safely tell you that you don't need to know what other "philosophers" think about it. You already thought everything good about. Just continue thinking more. My answer to your question is yes. We have a lot of other fundamental skills similar to language ability and more. But as people take some time to learn language other skills take years/decades and special circumstances to learn/activate. You are one of those others you ask. They don't know better than you.
    – Asphir Dom
    Apr 12, 2014 at 23:42

4 Answers 4


Brains are powerful information computation engines. Although they are specialized for certain tasks (vision, language, etc.), they also are flexible enough to take over the roles of other parts of the brain.

Given such flexibility, there is almost certainly some new capacity that we will want to use them for, and will do so successfully and well.

It won't work as well as vision--we've had millions of years of honing of visual tasks. But as good as with language? Maybe. Look at how good we are at weird multi-step games like Go.

  • He maid emphasis on the word technology to say that new thing would be something UNIMAGINABLE now, and you give him simplest and wrong processor analogy.
    – Asphir Dom
    Apr 12, 2014 at 23:38
  • @AsphirDom - I don't think you understand my answer. I certainly don't understand your objection enough to say anything different than I already said.
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 13, 2014 at 2:02
  • I tell you. What i mean is that your answer has nothing to do with Philosophy (the thinking about thinking) but rather reflects simplistic (most naive) view on what reality (which for you is brain) is. He did not SAY brain. He said HUMANS. Your answer is valid as a default thinking pattern. Not as a thought about matters beyond language.
    – Asphir Dom
    Apr 15, 2014 at 10:33
  • @AsphirDom - I am still having trouble following you--where is this thinking about thinking coming from? The OP never mentioned that. I take it that not only are you a dualist, but you do not think the mind even has access to what the brain does? (A dualist that allows mind to use the output of the brain should not have any quarrel with my statement.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 15, 2014 at 11:29

The unstated major premise implicit in this line of reasoning is that some kind of 'potential' must precede anything that comes into existence. This is a tautological and not very useful way of conceiving of potential. Might as well claim the potential for writing and language were present in the Big Bang.

Potential is normally taken to denote something more immediate and concrete. If you're six-foot-ten and average fifty points a game in college, basketball scouts will rate your potential for going on to have a professional career more highly than if you're five-foot-nine and can't dribble a ball the length of the court without tripping over yourself. They might be wrong, but it's not very likely.

If you've read histories of spoken and written language you know that humans similarly showed concrete signs of having the capacity for developing these systems of communication, signs that are not present in the histories of cats or caterpillars. That the human brain might be capable of conforming itself to the demands of yet-to-be-developed forms of communication and even other modes of reasoning or being-in-the-world is certainly thinkable; but the 'potential' of the kind of brain we have is obviously not unlimited, and the nature of the limits will be as characteristic for humans as the limits that exist for cats and caterpillars.

Concerning the technology aspect of your question, humans have already adapted themselves to the demands of technologies that offer advantages for such adaptation and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Philosophers of information have had some interesting, speculative things to say about what this willingness to adapt might mean for our future interactions with 'virtual realities.' Chances are excellent that we will go on conforming ourselves to the idiosyncratic needs and limits of whatever technologies yield the greatest cognitive, communicative and other rewards for the investment of effort.

  • I think you may actually be answering a different question. He asked specifically about skills, and skills differ markedly from mere potentials. To put it concretely, you possess the skill of juggling unwittingly is quite different from you happen to be able to learn how to juggle and well-suited to it.
    – virmaior
    Mar 15, 2014 at 14:55

We could or could not have skills that we haven't discovered yet. How can we be sure? We haven't discovered them yet! We can't say yes or no, because we just ignore that right now.

Also: "We didn't always have language". We have always had language, what we have not always had is written language, that is the signs system we use for writing and reading. These written signs are a "translation" of sounds (human speaking) into visual signs. Writing is indeed an invention, but language is inherent in us humans.

  • Not sure the original OP meant "we" in the way you interpret it here, he probably meant "at some point in our evolutionary history our ancestors didn't have language". Even though language might reasonably be considered to be inherent in modern humans, in the historical case the truth of this would depend quite a lot on what one means by both language and human, as well as when one thinks each arose.
    – Lucas
    Mar 15, 2014 at 20:22
  • l o l. OP did NOT you ask you to scan from him logical possibilities. He asked what "philosophers" think about it? So what do you think about it? NOTHING. Do you have a feeling what might be there? NO FEELING. Intuition? NO.
    – Asphir Dom
    Apr 15, 2014 at 10:37

This is an excellent question, and I don't think Mattmark's answer is irrelevant at all. 'wherever' it is that humans live, our cultural-ecological niche is somewhere in the infinite regressions between the Actual and the Potential. I will return to this in a moment. In answer to the 'undiscovered skills' question, philosopher of technology Jaron Lanier came up with the interesting concept of homoncular flexibility to describe what he calls 'pre-adaptive biology'; that is, all the things we are 'wired' to do without knowing that we can do them. For example, all humans are physiologically capable of swimming, but those who live in an environment without bodies of water or knowledge of other humans who swim may never 'discover' that they can swim. Lanier first realized this while working with Jeremy Bailenson et al at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction lab http://vhil.stanford.edu/, where 'mistakes' in Avatar environment experiments enabled them to experience skills and forms of embodiment that they didn't think were possible (like being 'turned into' a lobster claw, or a triangle).

In cognitive science, the modularists argue that we have an evolved 'language module', or a 'swimming module', or a 'cooperation module', etc. So from that perspective, we may not have fully-evolved modules for skills we haven't needed to practice yet. In this sense, it is a silly question to ask whether we posses a module for X, X being that-skill-which-no-human-alive-has-thought-about. But I think a cybernetic perspective is more interesting here, and we need to ask about, and experiment with, emergent properties of organisms and humans in different environments. From an object-oriented ontological perspectives, interacting with objects and tools also leads us to imagine and practice more skills - the kind of skills that 'exteriorize' some of our abilities (like storing our memories in written symbols, or increasing our movement abilities with bikes, cars, and planes), or require making objects an extension of our bodies. This is what Heidegger calls a 'readiness-to-hand' relationship with objects: when we drive, we are not consciously aware of how a car becomes an extension of ourselves; we are 'immersed' in or with it, or merged with the car. Archeologist Bjornar Olsen takes this notion farther and argues that 'objects remember'. He goes beyond the second-order phenomenological claim that memory is in the body (and not just in the mind-brain); like a body that 'remembers' how to ride a bike. He would say that here, memory is in the mind, the body and in the bike! (try riding a bike without a bike, he jokes, and you are left with the sound of one hand clapping). All this to say that our potential for new skills is not just in our brains (and certainly not just, as Lanier suggest, in unknown, but a priori cognitive modules), but also in the tools, objects, and world around us. The Inka had toys with wheels, but they hadn't "yet" invented the chariot. Humans everywhere built sails and kites before they figured out flying machines.

Re: spoken language: inbuilt module or not, it is not something we are born with. Spoken language is a particular expression of our symbolic capacities, just like writing or painting, but it is a technology that is exterior to humans; the signs and symbols of spoken languages are stored in the memories of living humans (later tablets, papyri, books, and hard drives), but they die with humans, tablets, and hard disks! There are gesturalist theories (Michael Corballis) of the origin of language through hand-gestures ('sign-language is a pleonasm, since all language is the exchange of signs). Spoken language probably spread organically in some places, and diffusionally in others (like bows, arrows, and agriculture), and it is more than probably that some bands of paleo-luddites would have rejected it for a while (like people who intitally rejected telephones or facebook). Speaking with hand-gestures makes more sense in a predator-prey environment, in fact, and may be responsible for honing our symbolic skills for a very long time.

Now back to the question of 'potential'. As symbolic creatures, we mostly interact with what is not actually the case on the one hand, and what could or couldn't be the case on the other. When we make sense of the world through languages and mental categories, we do this through symbols, and not the thing itself ( a name is not the thing named; the map is not the territory, etc.). We also project our minds (or Theory of Mind) into anyone and anything, all the time. Consider our capacity for agent-detection, which is basically an extrapolated Theory of Mind. We cry in movies (by projecting our feelings into non-existent agents), we see faces in the clouds, 'detect' predators in the shadows, and believe in all kinds of supernatural agents. Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer argues that we cannot not believe in and interact with 'supernatural agents', because we are always projecting our ToM, thereby creating imagined agents that are not actually there. I would argue that as humans, we are potential agents a lot more than actual ones.

So in terms of new skills, the sky is limit. My only concern is that the things we have built remember too much and do too much of the business of imagining at this point. Start with Plato's Phaedrus (how writing techology makes us forget), and read Tim Ingold on the history of lines and Michel Serres on the history of writing and memory to get a good sense how much potential we are also losing each time we outsource ourselves to things. Tim Ingold, unlike most other anthropologists, argues that we should think of knowledge and culture as skill: it is incorrect to say that 'culture is passed on from generation to generation', he proposes; instead, we should say that 'skills are regrown in each generation' through experimentation in the world. What happens to our ability to merge and experiment with the world when we leave most of it to objects? Consider language once more. You could ask if, at one point, we will develop a module for telepathic communication. In a sense, we already have. With non-spoken sign-language, our ancestors were already silently planting thoughts into each other's brains. Now with instant-messages, we also share symbols through entirely soundless communication. We do it for longer and we reach farther than our ancestors in that proverbial savanna, but our attention spans are much thinner, and we also rely on a chain of technology that none of us fully understands or could recreate on our own. In this sense, we have devolved, and our future generations will have less and less skills.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .