Language and Meaning

by Mark English

The topic of eliminative materialism (or ‘eliminativism’ as its current manifestation is usually called) has been the focus of some recent debate. What prompted this piece, however, was a brief discussion in a comment thread about a very specific kind of eliminativism which applies to language and which is known as semantic (or meaning) eliminativism.

My original intention was to write a short essay describing what semantic eliminativism is and giving a personal view on how plausible or useful (or implausible) it might be as a way of conceptualizing how the semantic side of natural language actually works. But I realized, not only that the term has been used in different ways by different theorists, but also that the discussion surrounding it is embedded in some very intractable philosophical problems.

Consequently I decided to slant my discussion in a more linguistic direction, though without attempting to explicate basic concepts such as polysemy, homonymy, semantic fields, prototype theory, etc.. (Prototype theory, which was developed by Eleanor Rosch amongst others, has influenced the way I see concepts and categories: they are less arbitrary and language-driven than I had previously believed them to be.)

Nor will I be dealing with language acquisition or evolutionary questions. Regarding the former, there is a solid body of data which any semantic theory needs at least to be compatible with; with respect to the latter, perhaps the most directly relevant work is ethological. Attempts to teach simplified languages to chimpanzees are also interesting in this context, as is the growing body of genetic and archaeological data which is slowly providing a foundation for understanding how and when human language developed.

Frame semantics, an approach pioneered by Charles J. Fillmore, has deep roots in linguistic theory. Fillmore worked within the framework of, and made major contributions to,  Chomsky’s early syntactic theory before developing his own system (case grammar) which he saw as being complementary to Chomsky’s. Case grammar eventually evolved into frame semantics which has played an important role in some major research projects in the general areas of computational linguistics and artificial intelligence.

People come to these sorts of topics for very different kinds of reason. Some are driven simply by intellectual curiosity concerning how our brains process language; for others such knowledge is a means to a particular end – the development of natural language processing systems, for example. Much of the philosophical literature is concerned with defending or attacking various metaphysical perspectives on human culture and agency. My own interest in language is in part philosophical and in part scientific. With respect to the scientific side, my formal training has been predominantly in syntax and phonology – not semantics – and I have an interest in evolutionary perspectives on language.

Words can be seen as tokens (actual or concrete instances of a word being used) and as (abstract) types. The latter are commonly seen to be represented in our brains as lexical entries (the terminology varies) incorporating phonological, morphosyntactic and semantic elements. The semantic eliminativist suggests that these stored representations (if representations they are) lack an intrinsic semantic component.

The claim is not that we can eliminate meaning from an analysis of language and communication (that would be absurd), but rather about the way words are or are not stored in the brain, and about ways of conceptualizing meaning which avoid postulating unnecessary processes and unnecessary metaphysical entities.

On the face of it, however, the claims of the semantic eliminativist seem very implausible, if only because of the intimate connections between grammatical (e.g. syntactic) processes and meaning.

The development of Fillmore’s thinking may point to a solution here. His grammatical case-based approach gradually led him to see situations rather than words as the drivers of meaning. In his later work, situational frames (of which there are many, linked into networks within individual brains) are cognitive schemata which underlie the meanings of the words which evoke them.

My preferred approach is to see linguistic hypotheses and theories as aids to research and to stay as close as possible to the empirical evidence. To use Karl Popper’s terminology, they are conjectures which are tested against (and often “refuted” by) experimental or other empirical results. And if a theory of brain function leads to fruitful applications, it may not be a vindication of the theory but it is a mark in its favor.

Does metaphysics come into this process of theory creation and testing? Yes. Natural languages arguably carry their own implicit ontologies, and the same applies to theories. As I see it, individuals draw on various cultural sources – including science – both to elaborate and to constrain their metaphysical commitments.

Semantic eliminativists reject the notion that words (as stored lexical entries) have meanings. This is, however, not a well-supported position, and semantic eliminativism is only briefly alluded to by Luca Gasparri and Diego Marconi in their excellent review of lexical semantics (published as the entry for Word Meaning in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Semantic eliminativism can be seen as an extreme form of contextualism and in their account of contextualism Gasparri and Marconi discuss the views of a philosopher, François Recanati, who is sympathetic to meaning eliminativism. Seemingly echoing Fillmore, Recanati sees words as being associated with “abstract schemata corresponding to types of situations.”

“Words could be said to have, rather than “meaning”, a semantic potential, defined as the collection of past uses of a [particular] word on the basis of which similarities can be established between source situations (i.e., the circumstances in
which a speaker has used [the word]) and target situations (i.e., candidate occasions of application of [the word in question]).”

Such a view (unlike Fillmore’s) obviously poses problems for neural processing. “It is natural to object,” write Gasparri and Marconi, “that even admitting that long-term memory could encompass such an immense amount of
information (think of the number of times ‘table’ or ‘woman’ are used by an average speaker in the course of her life), surely working memory could not review such information to make sense of new uses.”

They also question whether Recanati’s approach is an improvement on traditional linguistic accounts.

Of course, lexical semantics does not encompass all, or even most of, semantics. In the real world of linguistic communication we are not dealing with words in isolation or as such, but with orders, statements, questions and so on which occur in specific communicational contexts. Sometimes a single word constitutes an order (as in “Stop!”); or a warning (as in “Fire!”); or an answer to a question. In other contexts, a single word can stand for an implied statement (“Idiot!” for “He is/you are an idiot.”)

Obviously, most speech (and linguistic communication generally) involves strings of words, sometimes very long strings indeed. But the sentence (or something like it) is generally seen as the basic message-unit, that is, as the shortest string which can be said to encapsulate a message.

The meaning of these strings is generally seen to depend on the meanings of the various lexical components which are strung together to make the sentence. The principle behind this process is known as “compositionality”: basically that the meaning of the whole derives in an ordered way from the meaning of the parts.

This sort of approach works well with formal languages but, mainly because of contextual issues, it does not work so well with natural languages and ordinary human communication. Semantic eliminativism, as a form of externalism, sees compositionality as being – at best – of only marginal significance.

Though I have made it clear that I have serious reservations about semantic eliminativism, I share some of the convictions which drive it, including the view that meanings and messages are not “things” which are sent from one person to another.

There is a tendency (I have it myself) to see speaking as “conveying” something from one brain or mind to another. According to this view, a string of words encodes something (a message?) which is sent via some channel (sound waves, squiggles on a screen or paper…) from the speaker or writer to others whose senses and cognitive processes take in and decode this thing-that-was-sent, this meaning-thing, this message. You could see the initial coding as like the wrapping up of a parcel. The parcel is then sent and received and unwrapped (decoded). So that the very thing that was sent is received.

But, of course, this is not how linguistic communication actually works. For one thing, this model fails to account for the misunderstandings which are endemic but all too often unnoticed in ordinary social communication. Increasingly I have come to see linguistic communication as something of a “surface” phenomenon, often papering over (as it were) huge differences in the way individuals see the world; or sometimes (as in many comment threads) creating divisions and dichotomies which are largely linguistic and which fail to reflect in an accurate or perspicuous way the actual differences and divisions which lie behind the disagreements in question.

You could see language – certainly in its mundane social uses – as a set of games we play which facilitate and enhance social interaction (and manipulation). The same could be said of more formal contexts: rituals and so on. Another context where this game metaphor seems to apply is the academic one. Academic seminars (in my experience) certainly have this quality. There are many unwritten rules and conventions which all the regular participants know and follow.

The game metaphor is a metaphor and not a theory, but it seems very appropriate. Due to the popularity of Wittgenstein’s work, it has been much discussed. And, crucially, it avoids postulating the existence of mysterious, metaphysically problematic entities which are actually sent or conveyed from one person to another.

Without question, the speaker of a language has developed an intuitive sense of the sound system (phonology) of that language, involving a practical knowledge of a set of phonemes and rules for combining them, coupled with a kind of mental dictionary (or lexicon) which lists lexical items (words) as specific sounds/strings of sounds with certain morphological and syntactic features and functions. If we didn’t have an intuitive sense of these things, not only would we be unable to speak, we would not even be able to distinguish the sounds of spoken language from random vocalizing; in other words, to recognize certain specific vocal sounds and sound sequences as words and sentences (orders, statements, questions, etc.) rather than as mere noises.

The main question at issue with respect to semantic eliminativism is not whether language has a semantic dimension, but rather to what extent (if at all) a lexical item as stored in the brain incorporates semantic elements. This question may not be answerable in a definitive way, but I think the view of most linguists is that semantic elements and semantically-relevant links to various parts of the brain constitute an important part of a lexical entry.

The morphosyntactic and phonological aspects of a language can be more easily modelled than the semantic side of things and, admittedly, the difficulty of systematizing semantics leaves a lot of space for speculation and radical theories like meaning eliminativism and other forms of externalism. There is no denying that context is a crucial element in most forms of linguistic communication, and any satisfactory theory must come to terms with this fact, as well as with the dynamic and pragmatic aspects of meaning.

In the final analysis, however, linguistic theories are scientific in the sense that they stand or fall according to their usefulness in advancing understanding and in facilitating the development of various technologies. They make implicit claims about how the world is and are subject to a slow winnowing process, on the one hand, as our knowledge of the neurophysiology of language develops and, on the other, as progress is made in computational linguistics, and artificial intelligence generally.

In fact, the latter is particularly important. Whether we manage to create truly intelligent – and articulate – machines or not, whether this program succeeds or fails, we will, in the course of pursuing it, have learned some genuinely new and profound things about the nature of our own minds.

48 Comments »

  1. I take a very non-standard position about language.

    Semantic eliminativists reject the notion that words (as stored lexical entries) have meanings.

    I guess that’s a point of agreement, in a way. That is, I agree that words do not have meanings. Rather, it is the other way around — meanings have words. When we communicate, it is meanings that we wish to communicate. We sometimes struggle to find words that we can use to express those meanings. But we do know what meanings we are trying to communicate.

    I suppose I’m something of a syntactic eliminativist. If “language” refers to the kind of syntactic structure that is studied by the Chomsky school of linguistics, then I hold that a natural language is not actually a language.

    The main question at issue with respect to semantic eliminativism is not whether language has a semantic dimension, but rather to what extent (if at all) a lexical item as stored in the brain incorporates semantic elements.

    If anything, I’m inclined to question the idea of lexical items stored in the brain. Yes, if I memorize a poem, then I could be said to have stored lexical items. An actor memorizing his script could also be said to have stored lexical items. But, for the most part, I do not see human knowledge as existing in the form of stored lexical items. So, from my perspective, the question of whether stored lexical items incorporate semantic components does not even arise.

    I’ll add that I am not trying to start an argument about this. I’m just presenting a very different perspective on language.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Neil

    “… words do not have meanings. Rather, it is the other way around — meanings have words.”

    I see what you are getting at. But I have reservations about the way you expand on this and (especially) on your other points about syntax and the lexicon. I know what meaning is, but I’m not sure I know what “a meaning” is. At least we can talk sensibly about words (as tokens, *and as types*).

    “I suppose I’m something of a syntactic eliminativist. If “language” refers to the kind of syntactic structure that is studied by the Chomsky school of linguistics, then I hold that a natural language is not actually a language.”

    I deliberately avoided focussing on Chomsky here, but his ideas have developed a lot and there are many competing schools which trace back to his ideas. By the 1980s the focus was already turning to the lexicon.

    “If anything, I’m inclined to question the idea of lexical items stored in the brain. Yes, if I memorize a poem, then I could be said to have stored lexical items. An actor memorizing his script could also be said to have stored lexical items. But, for the most part, I do not see human knowledge as existing in the form of stored lexical items. So, from my perspective, the question of whether stored lexical items incorporate semantic components does not even arise.”

    I agree that (most) human knowledge is not stored as strings of words. But our practical *knowledge of language* requires certain basic elements.

    It’s obvious that if you grow up in a particular language community you learn how to use and recognize a *particular set of phonemes*. These are the basic building blocks of language: without them, no natural language. Strung together they are words, phrases, etc.. One’s lexicon is just the words one happens to know (stored in the brain). They are stored as (abstract) types. Exactly how they are stored is a question we cannot yet answer, but *that* they are stored seems pretty uncontroversial.

    Like

  3. But no machine will understand language as we understand language because they are not conscious.

    To give an obvious example a machine can never process the phrase “this makes the sauce bitter” because a machine can can know what ‘bitter’ means or even what a sauce is. Our understanding of language is intimately tied up with how things feel. A machine (or at least any machine that we can presently imagine) can process language in a manner analogous to this.

    I can plan an improvement to my house without any verbal language, but just with a set of memories of how things look and feel. A machine can’t do this.

    If I want to get someone else to do this I have to put it in language, which is not always easy because I can’t think of (or do not know) the word for certain steps or materials. Once I have found these words and communicated the process presumably the person links these back to his own set of remembered impressions.

    Like

  4. Very wide-ranging! Some very random comments from someone who is always daunted by the complexity of all this stuff.

    To take Davidson’s discussions of malapropisms again, we can suffer the wrong word or even a neologism for quite a while, providing we can sort out the reference, but it is more cognitive work, it seems to me. Whatever neural mechanisms there are, will be as efficient ie lazy as they can be (viz implicature so you don’t have to keep opening your mouth).

    I am quite taken by the studies showing EEG (and fMRI) synchronisation between (human) individuals interacting while performing cooperative tasks – I seem to recall one study where the more synchronized, the better the performance at the task. I think they are empirical evidence for how concepts are in fact things that are sent and faithfully received, even if we can’t parse exactly how.

    My curiosity re “meaning eliminativism” was piqued by the discussion here:

    https://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2018/02/linguistics_using_category_the.html#more

    After reading the Recanati nosology (as summarized in that Carsten paper), I get the impression that one reading is quite close to Neil’s above – we temporarily attach the words in this environment/setting to the concepts that arise in our minds in that setting.

    Hey, while I was rereading Anatole France’s Revolt of the Angels, the angel says “La guerre et le romantisme, fléaux effroyables!” – War and Romanticism, each as crappy as the other!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s obvious that if you grow up in a particular language community you learn how to use and recognize a *particular set of phonemes*.

    I agree about the importance of phonemes. But, beyond that, it get’s murky.

    Take the expression “He could’ve done that”. Most people write that out in full as “He could have done that.” However, some people write it as “He could of done that.” That second written form seems to be increasing at present. So is the word “have” or “of”? Or is it really an ambiguous sound, rather than a word? If I think back several decades, then as a child it always sounded more like “of”, but we write it as “have” because that better fits our syntactical theories of language.

    Like

  6. I liked the last phrase of the article the best…

    “…have learned some genuinely new and profound things about the nature of our own minds.”

    I’m not sure “genuinely new” is still possible given that the nature of our minds has been studied for thousands of years, but certainly a study of language can reveal profound understandings about the nature of thought to each new generation. Developing such understandings about the nature of thought seems crucial given that we not only observe reality through thought, we ourselves are made of thought psychologically. It seems impossible to overestimate the influence of the nature of thought upon the content of thought, thus philosophers seeking to get to the bottom of things are wise to put their focus upon the nature of thought.

    It seems the noun is a basic building block of language and thus represents a good starting point for any investigation. The noun illustrates a key property of the nature of thought, how it operates by a process of division. This process of conceptual division is the source of both of our genius and insanity, competing factors which will decide our fate as a species. Thus, by itself, the noun alone opens a door in to an all important investigation in to the fundamental human condition.

    As a product of thought, the noun inherits the divisive nature of thought. Thought operates by a process of division, and thus the function of a noun is to divide.

    We can see this same process of thought generated division inherited by more sophisticated products of thought, such as ideologies. It seems that every ideology ever created anywhere in the world has inevitably sub-divided in to competing internal factions, often with murderous results. Even philosophies explicitly about love have not escaped this process of division and conflict. The universality of this phenomena should instruct us that the division and conflict is not arising from the content of thought, but from a deeper level, the nature of thought itself.

    If it is true that division and conflict arise from the nature of thought, then such divisions can not be healed by any content of thought, any philosophy, given that all philosophies are made of that which is the source of the division, thought. So what began as a study of a simple noun can soon reveal insights which challenge philosophy itself.

    Speaking of which, if they wish readers can choose to observe that the above analysis of language makes it’s way towards the heart of the human condition without the need of any specialized language. Philosophy is useful to the degree it is accessible to the largest number of people, and while specialized language is great for inflating the authority of the philosopher, it’s actually an obstacle to the larger more important goal of inflating the usefulness of human reason.

    Like

  7. I know native Maltese speakers who furiously deny that “Alla” is the Maltese word for “God”, and yet when they say a phrase like “Thank God” will use the word “Alla”.

    Like

  8. Robin

    “But no machine will understand language as we understand language because they are not conscious.”

    I talked about the *possibility* of creating truly intelligent and articulate machines. We already have machines which exhibit what could reasonably be called intelligence. We already have systems we can “talk to” to some extent (usually within narrow domains). I am not suggesting that machine intelligence will “understand as we understand”, but obviously these systems will get better and better in terms of flexibility of language use. The question in my mind is: Will we hit some kind of limit on what is possible in NLP before we get to the point of being able to have intelligent discussions with machines?

    Consciousness is another issue. Connected, but other.

    Like

  9. David

    Thanks for the link. I found particularly interesting the comment by Callum Hackett (Feb. 9, 1:07am). Previously I mentioned the rise of lexicalism (which is associated with categorial grammars) in the 1980s. His comment implies that this tradition is still alive and well, albeit that there are alternative approaches. (Or, as he puts it, there is a radical possibility *on the horizon* in respect of semantics, and linguistic theory more generally.)

    I am skeptical that meaning eliminativism (which, as Hackett points out, is in this context a term from relevance theory, a branch of pragmatics) can do the work its advocates claim it can do.

    You are implicitly critical of my suggestion that language is a more of a “surface” phenomenon than we usually realize; I only mentioned this idea here (which I would be happy to expand on sometime) because of its obvious compatibility with a view of language with rejects traditional ideas of meaning, i.e. it is compatible with radical views of semantics (to which I am quite open).

    Like

  10. Neil

    “… So is the word “have” or “of”? Or is it really an ambiguous sound, rather than a word? If I think back several decades, then as a child it always sounded more like “of”, but we write it as “have” because that better fits our syntactical theories of language.”

    I think you are possibly confusing descriptive with prescriptive grammar. Linguists overwhelmingly take a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach.

    There is also the question of the interaction between the spoken and the written word. But the former is primary.

    Historically you will find that the have or ‘ve (the sounds: I should use IPA characters) represent an auxiliary verb which combines with past participles of verbs to form the perfect tense. (“… have done”.)

    How you write it is another question. But even someone who said (and wrote) “of” would, if you looked at his pattern of usage, be using the “of” as an auxiliary like everybody else.

    We all have peculiarities in the way we pronounce things and use non-standard expressions. The notion of idiolect is taken very seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Phil

    From nouns to “the heart of the human condition” in one easy lesson!

    I would like to engage, but it’s difficult if you take the sort of line you do – or rather if you *present* it in the way you are doing. You have to give experts and others *some* credit for being able to think straight.

    There are genuine issues you could raise about the way academics in various fields may have gone off in unproductive directions. The word “philosophy” has many uses and various (quite different) meanings. You are using it in a particular way here which (I think) needs to be clarified.

    You’re not influenced by that old friend of Aldous Huxley, Jiddu Krishnamurti, by any chance?

    Like

  12. You can chat with God online here.

    http://chatwithigod.com/igod.html

    My vague understanding is that this is fairly old technology. But still, while hardly being perfect, it’s not bad.

    If the technology being used with iGod could be improved a few more generations it would be more interesting to chat with than many forum/blog commenters, which raises some interesting questions.

    Do you ever get frustrated with some online conversations? In the coming “machine user” era we won’t have to be frustrated, as we’ll be able to customize online conversations with machines to our particular tastes.

    Yes, I know, I know, you and I will find chatting with machines weird, objectionable etc. We’ll resist with all kinds of moral complaints etc etc. But we’re all going to die before long to be replaced by new humans who will find the new environment entirely natural because they’ve never known anything else, just as today’s young people take to the Net with an ease their parents can’t quite match.

    You and I are already most of the way right here on this page. We’ve already happily surrendered most of the human interface such as face, voice, body language etc in order to do philosophy yack all day long, an experience few of our face to face friends wish to pursue to the degree that we do. Machines will just be the next logical step along that path of reaching for exactly what we want.

    Human philosophers are a dying breed, soon to be replaced by machines, just like everything else. This is not as shocking as it might seem at first, given that most of the time most of us are just endlessly recycling ideas that have already been stated countless times. It’s the illusion that the ideas are OUR ideas, and that “owning” such big ideas makes us big as well, that keeps the fantasy of philosophy going. Machines will not be burdened with all these childlike ego distractions, and thus will likely do better philosophy than we’re able to imagine today.

    Like

    • Human philosophers are a dying breed, soon to be replaced by machines, just like everything else. This is not as shocking as it might seem at first, given that most of the time most of us are just endlessly recycling ideas that have already been stated countless times. It’s the illusion that the ideas are OUR ideas, and that “owning” such big ideas makes us big as well, that keeps the fantasy of philosophy going. Machines will not be burdened with all these childlike ego distractions, and thus will likely do better philosophy than we’re able to imagine today.

      = = =

      Given that you think so little of professional philosophy, as its done in the university and on philosophy websites and blogs, I don’t quite understand why you spend so much time on them. Sounds to me like you’d be happier — and better off — doing something else. It’s quite clear that we aren’t going to convince one another.

      Like

  13. I find it entirely controversial that either lexemes or phonemes are ‘stored in the brain’. When such a statement is made it always strikes me as a sort of attempt to be dismissive about any attempt to scrutinize the proposition — because the speaker desires such and such to be the truth to simplify their worldview. (Not necessarily accusing you of this, just saying that is how it strikes me.) I got my linguistics degree in the late 70s during a period when many theorists were scurrying to find avenues to make their marks in the wake of Chomsky. Generative semantics was au courant as one such response (Katz used to regularly visit our university and hobnob with the lingusts), and Fillmore’s CG, to take another example, was a research topic of mine in connection with universals for a thesis. Searle’s “Speech Acts” was indicative of another fruitful new area opening up.

    But I would have to say, that although some were interested in epistemology and basic philosophical questions, there was never any sort of broad consensus about materialism as it related to language… nothing close to the stance that most people would regard it as uncontroversial that linguistic entities a theorized and proposed were stored in speaker’s brains. Chomsky’s proposal of a biological LAD (language acquisition device) was viewed as ‘out there’ in many ways. It would surprise if the level of philosophical chops within theoretical linguistic departments have increased so much between the 70s and whenever you were active (or even the present day) such that any consensus opinion on this question could be either gathered or taken seriously. I doubt even that neurophysiologists hold the degree of uniform certitude you imply.

    To the extent that people are materialists, true, there would be some kind of surface level inklings about brain resident linguistic elements. But nothing persuasive, just beliefs. And of course, there are a growing number of academics who are not materialists, even outside of philosophy.

    On another point mentioned (maybe it was Neil?), I agree that thought or thinking (meaning) resides in a higher space than language, or as it was expressed: words don’t have meanings rather meanings have words. This is how poetry exists. Notwithstanding that you don’t know what ‘a meaning’ is, when we are thinking and expressing non-automatically (habitually) we are basically trying to coalesce some chosen words to suggest a target meaning, which is a thought or related group of thoughts.

    About “He could’ve done it”: this website lets you type IPA text, probably you know of it already… http://ipa.typeit.org/, in other words: /hi kʊdəv dʌn ɪt/. Anyway, what I’d say about it is not really related to the descriptive/prescriptive polarity, it is more probably evidence of a poor speller who has no way to notice that the pronounced utterance employed an auxiliary verb. It of course may be true in the age of texting that,a s Neil says, the writing of “of” in this case is spreading.

    Last point, all this reminds me of a cute joke making the rounds in NY/NJ linguistics circles back in my heyday, to wit: What is the definition of a linguist? ANSWER: someone who is illiterate in at least ten languages.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Don’t we also hit one of the oldest problems in philosophy? If we have a list of words and their meaning, don’t we then define every word in terms of other words, in which case we have an infinite regress or else circularity?

    My idea (not really my idea of course, the one I think most likely) is that the circularity/regress ends with the association of words etc with sense impressions.

    Like

  15. stolzyblog

    I really don’t know where you are coming from, or what specific claims of mine you are denying.

    You appear to be reacting to this (from a previous comment of mine): “It’s obvious that if you grow up in a particular language community you learn how to use and recognize a *particular set of phonemes*… Strung together they are words, phrases, etc.. One’s lexicon is just the words one happens to know (stored in the brain). They are stored as (abstract) types. Exactly how they are stored is a question we cannot yet answer, but *that* they are stored seems pretty uncontroversial.”

    I am just saying that each of us has an intuitive knowledge of the sound system of at least one language and a vocabulary (we are familiar with certain words (and not others)). This knowledge (which is practical knowledge and can easily be tested) is represented/stored/processed (I am not insisting on a particular way of putting this) in/by the brain.

    We know that certain areas of the brain are devoted to linguistic processing. Are you denying that language is processed by the brain?

    Nor do I see why you raise the topic of “materialism” in this context. You don’t have to be a materialist to accept that the brain processes language.

    Like

  16. Hi Mark.
    “You are implicitly critical of my suggestion that language is a more of a “surface” phenomenon than we usually realize”

    Yes and no 😉 I don’t even know how to think about that, given I am naturally sympathetic to computational models of mind and language use ie it will be layered, with simple stuff at the bottom.

    I have just dug out a paper I looked at last year on the neurolinguistics of “systematic” (lexical) versus “circumstantial” (pragmatic) metonymy which I think tries to address some of this (Pinango et al 2017). Mind you, they start with “[w]e explore the structure of the interface between the linguistic system and the larger, richer (and presumably older) conceptual system…” My bias is this is how we will find out – slowly.

    Like

  17. Hi Mark, you wrote…

    “From nouns to “the heart of the human condition” in one easy lesson!”

    Well, yes, it’s not that complicated. 1) Nouns divide, 2) revealing the divisive nature of what they’re made of, 3) revealing a profound form of distortion introduced in to all the products of thought, 4) a subject philosophers should logically be interested in.

    Mark wrote….

    “I would like to engage, but it’s difficult if you take the sort of line you do – or rather if you *present* it in the way you are doing. You have to give experts and others *some* credit for being able to think straight.”

    Ok, your posts are yours to write as you please, no argument there.

    For myself, I’d offer the opinion that academic philosophers seem way too obsessed with how things are presented. Imho, that’s because 1) academic philosophy is a business enterprise which depends upon the creation of authority, and 2) academic philosophers as a group seem not to have grasped that adults with PhDs should not need to have their self images protected from Internet content they voluntarily choose to read.

    As to giving “experts” credit, I don’t see them as experts, and feel that an important job of the philosopher is to explore the boundaries of whatever group consensus he/she finds themselves in. To perform this function the philosopher needs to embrace the experience of eternal unpopularity. 🙂

    Mark wrote…

    “There are genuine issues you could raise about the way academics in various fields may have gone off in unproductive directions.”

    I’ve already done that on this page. Here it is again. Fancy talk language is an important part of the philosophy BUSINESS because it aids in the creation of authority. It’s an obstacle in the sharing of reason with the largest number of people, in service to the public, ie. those generally funding the philosophy business. Fancy talk language is one of the ways professional philosophers tell their customers that they don’t matter, which is perhaps why professional philosophers so often find themselves worrying about their funding. What I’m attempting to illustrate in my posts is that fancy talk language is not a necessary part of philosophy, but is instead a function of the philosophy business.

    Mark wrote…

    “You’re not influenced by that old friend of Aldous Huxley, Jiddu Krishnamurti, by any chance?”

    Ah, well Krishnamurti felt that observation was crucial, and you appear to be a good observer, so applause to you there. Yes, I read a lot of Krishnamurti in my youth, almost 50 years ago now. I would largely credit him with helping me shift focus from the content of thought to the nature of thought, a recurring theme in much of what I write. If it pleases you, perhaps you’d like to write a post on JK sometime?

    Thanks for engaging, if only to tell me why you don’t want to engage. Although some of my commentary is admittedly inconvenient, please note that I did judge your ideas worthy of my time investment.

    Like

  18. Robin

    “Don’t we also hit one of the oldest problems in philosophy?…”

    *Dictionaries* define words in terms of other words. I don’t think anyone thinks our mental lexicons (whatever form they take) work like that – though there is a strong relational element in the sort of structuralist models that I am used to.

    Like

  19. David

    “… My bias is this is how we will find out – slowly.”

    Sure. But, as we know from the history of science, conjectures and hunches that we can only express in metaphorical terms often accompany this process – and, in the right hands (not mine!), can actually drive it.

    “I don’t even know how to think about [language as a ‘surface’ phenomenon]…”

    I know this is not entirely clear. One of the things I am thinking about is a quite common experience, a sudden realization that there exists a huge difference between the way a person and someone they have been dealing with (even at an intimate level) perceives things. A person assumes – largely because of smooth and apparently successful linguistic and other communication – that there is a commonality of views. But a chance remark or judgment or reaction exposes a very different reality. It’s the kind of insight that playwrights and writers of fiction often express.

    How to tie this to neurophysiology is far from straightforward and may not be possible. But the little I know about brain processes seems to be at least compatible with these sorts of insights; which is more than can be said for some conventional ways of seeing thought and language.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. stolzyblog: I find it entirely controversial that either lexemes or phonemes are ‘stored in the brain’.

    Many people seem to have easily adopted a computer metaphor, and “stored in the brain” presumably comes from the use of that metaphor. But the computer metaphor can be very misleading. And I’m guessing that was the point being made by stolzyblog.

    As to his comments about materialism — I, too, found those puzzling. But, in retrospect, perhaps he was objecting to what I would call a mechanistic philosophy as applied to language. And if that was his point, then I would tend to agree. Physics is very mechanistic, but biology places more emphasis on adaptation. As I see it, language is biology rather than physics, adaptation rather than mechanism.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Dan

    It’s a standard term in linguistics and psycholinguistics. The Wikipedia entry for “Mental lexicon” gives a good overview. There is controversy about the construct, but the term clearly serves a purpose and delineates a set of specific research programs.

    “… Recent studies have shown the possibility that the mental lexicon can shrink as an individual ages, limiting the number of words they can remember and learn. The development of a second mental lexicon (L2) in bilingual speakers has also emerged as a topic of interest, suggesting that a speaker’s multiple languages are not stored together, but as separate entities that are actively chosen from in each linguistic situation…”

    As I tried to explain previously, I’m not particularly attached to any particular way of expressing these ideas, but each of us has this practical knowledge of the sound system of our native language and familiarity with a *particular set* of words and expressions. We do not know exactly how these elements (however they are characterized) are stored and processed by the brain, but it is demonstable that each of us has this practical knowledge of a sound system and particular words etc..

    Like

  22. Mark, in re-reading the thread, I’m curious if you could elaborate on this..

    “I would like to engage, but it’s difficult if you take the sort of line you do – or rather if you *present* it in the way you are doing.”

    You would like to engage, but find it difficult. Ok, why?

    What “sort of line” are you referring to? How is that “sort of line” an objection to engagement?

    What is it exactly about the presentation that is an obstacle for your engagement? I ask only because you start by saying you’d like to engage. How am I preventing you from doing what you say you would like to do?

    “You have to give experts and others *some* credit for being able to think straight.”

    What specifically is this comment referring to? Could you perhaps quote back the words of mine above which gave you the impression that I give no one credit for being able to think straight?

    This is a page about language, communication, a topic you seem to claiming to be expert at, so in that spirit perhaps you could communicate more precisely?

    Or not, as you wish, that’d be ok too. I’m just curious, not demanding a reply.

    Like

  23. Hi Mark

    It’s good to see your views on language spelled out here. I feel I only half understand what you are saying.

    I have a comment about style. What little I grasp about language I learnt from philosophers. Looking back on this, I notice how much examples made their ideas vivid. Frege on Venus, Quine on rabbits, Wittgenstein on builders, Austin’s marriage ceremony, Putnam’s water, Kripke’s “quus”, Searle on money — you get the point. Currently I’m reading Taylor’s “The Language Animal”, in which the concept “cool” is featured.

    When I read your OP, I see no examples and, seemingly, no way in which they could be employed. The level of abstraction is higher. And maybe the aim is different? Linguistics as you do it seems a different language game from philosophy of language as it has been practised. Your thoughts?

    Alan

    Like

  24. Hi Alan

    “Linguistics as you do it seems a different language game from philosophy of language as it has been practised. Your thoughts?”

    Linguistics is certainly a different language game (as you put it) from the philosophy of language.

    Linguistics – as I see it – is the scientific study of language. It has a philosophical dimension (as do all sciences).

    I regret that there has not been more cooperation between philosophers and linguists. As stolzyblog notes in a comment, Jerrold Katz used to hang out with the linguists when he visited his university. I wish there had been more of this, more cross-fertilization. Both ways, of course.

    Like

  25. “There has been an enormous amount of cooperation.”

    I said I wish there had been more.

    One small example. A philosophy department with which I was involved was restructured into a broader grouping which included linguistics. I was very enthusiastic about the possibilities. So was a logician I spoke to. But no one else (so far as I am aware) was much interested, and the restructure failed and another one was tried.

    But mainly I am going on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the philosophy of language literature.

    Like

  26. It is quite possible that in the near future we will have a machine that can prepare a sauce that is as good as one produced by the best chefs.

    But it is not even on the horizon that we will have a machine that understands what sauce is.

    I think that philosophy more or less depends on understanding what sauce is (so to speak) and so whatever role information technology may play in philosophy, we won’t have robot philosophers for the foreseeable future.

    Like

  27. Hi Daniel, you wrote…

    “Given that you think so little of professional philosophy, as its done in the university and on philosophy websites and blogs, I don’t quite understand why you spend so much time on them. Sounds to me like you’d be happier — and better off — doing something else. It’s quite clear that we aren’t going to convince one another. ”

    Ok, let’s analyze the post you are replying to so we can better understand what your objections are. Here is that post, sentence by sentence, to help us zero in on where the problem lies.

    1) Human philosophers are a dying breed, soon to be replaced by machines, just like everything else.

    Ok, I withdraw the word “soon” which is clearly an overstatement. But it does seem true that all forms of work are being steadily replaced by machines, and I don’t see why philosophy is excluded from that historical process.

    2) This is not as shocking as it might seem at first, given that most of the time most of us are just endlessly recycling ideas that have already been stated countless times.

    And this statement attempts to explain why human philosophers are susceptible to being replaced by machines. Generally speaking, the process is already fairly mechanical, a collection of familiar themes repeated again and again.

    3) It’s the illusion that the ideas are OUR ideas, and that “owning” such big ideas makes us big as well, that keeps the fantasy of philosophy going.

    To keep the controversy at a minimum, let’s use me as the example here. I like to write about shifting the focus from the content of thought to the nature of thought. As I’m writing on that topic I often have the experience that I am sharing MY ideas. But a more objective examination would reveal that I am merely re-stating ideas that have already been discussed for thousands of years. So to the degree I am confused about that, often a significant degree, I am immersed in a realm of fantasy. Is this really such a unique experience?

    4) Machines will not be burdened with all these childlike ego distractions, and thus will likely do better philosophy than we’re able to imagine today.

    The story I have about myself is interfering with the story academic philosophers have about themselves, and vice versa, a process which routinely demands our attention and shifts the focus from the actual philosophy, as we see in this exchange. My point is simple, machines will not have this problem, unless of course they are deliberately coded to replicate human weakness.

    And now a more direct reply to your challenge….

    1) I believe our civilization is blindly racing towards collapse and thus desperately needs intellectual elites that can shine a light on the outdated relationship with knowledge which is generating this existential threat. I strongly believe in what academic philosophers could be, and must be, if all flavors of human philosophy is to continue. See the article I submitted to you for further explanation. The problem I see is that while we race towards collapse academic philosophers are distracted by a million far less important topics, and that lack of focus, that lack of reason, seems an entirely reasonable target of challenge. If a degree of scorn slips in to that challenge, it’s largely because my expectations of intellectual elites are high, and of course because like everyone else I am a far from perfect human being.

    2) Like all human beings academic philosophers wish to establish a cozy group consensus which they can be comfortable in. This is very understandable in human terms, but imho, being cozy is not what philosophy is for. As I see it, a key role for philosophers is to be continually exploring and challenging the boundaries of the group consensus, because if philosophers don’t perform this vital function it’s possible such examinations will never be done by anyone.

    This inconvenient process needs to be applied to the culture of academic philosophy as much as anything else, perhaps even more so given the crucial role academic philosophers should be playing. But the challenge is unlikely to be effectively presented by academic philosophers themselves, because their careers depend to a great degree on them being accepted and respected by other academic philosophers. If an effective challenge to the culture of academic philosophy is to be presented, it will likely have to come from the outside, from those with nothing to lose, with no stake in the game.

    This is what I’m attempting to do. And the fact that you can’t wait to get rid of me shows that it is working. You’re trying to somehow sweep my aside because at some level you correctly perceive that what I’m writing is a threat to the group consensus you are part of. I take no personal offense, and accept that if I’m going to attempt to do philosophy as I understand it, I’m going to be eternally unpopular.

    So be it. Civilization is racing towards collapse and the lives of billions hang in the balance by a thin thread. In that context, in the real world, whether I am popular or not hardly seems important.

    Like

  28. Daniel, here are two constructive suggestions which will hopefully address your concerns.

    1) As an outsider to academic philosophy I have no authority, no credentials, status, or rank etc. That is, I really pose no threat to your career or your profession, because as you correctly note, no one is going to listen to me. So given that there is nothing to fear here, there is an option to keep me around as the inconvenient house gadfly who says silly things that are perhaps easily rebutted etc.

    2) Or, if you ask me to go, I will go. No problem. I’ve already given up on scientists, abandoned the APA blog, and other philosophy blogs. So as you suggest perhaps the most rational thing for me to do would be to abandon all intellectual elites and go work in my garden while I await the coming collapse that intellectual elites are largely unwilling to attend to.

    Your blog, your choice. All I ask is a simple clear statement from you that I don’t have to parse. Stay? Or go? Which? Your call, I agree in advance in either case.

    Like

    • I think you misunderstood me. You can comment here as much as you like, so long as you remain within the boundaries we set for discussion here. You should glance at the “For Readers” tab.

      Like

  29. Mark: I was hoping you’d expand on the difference as you see it. Philosophy is not exactly a science but it is a rigorous disciple. So where do they differ?

    Like

  30. But it does seem true that all forms of work are being steadily replaced by machines, and I don’t see why philosophy is excluded from that historical process.

    Perhaps automation is taking over the more menial tasks, and thus leaving us more free time for considering ideas (for philosophizing).

    Like

  31. Neil, I’m guessing the process you’re referencing will happen within philosophy as well. When machines can make certain points as well as a person that’s going to take a lot of the fun out of making those points, and one won’t earn any credibility by saying the same things that machines can say. So, as is increasingly true in the factory today, this will push humans in to focusing on higher order thinking, whatever the machines can’t do.

    Machines will have substantial advantages that we shouldn’t underestimate. Machines won’t have egos, they won’t be concerned with social competition, and various other agendas which distract human philosophers.

    Like

    • I think you’re entirely wrong about machines, their potential, and future direction. Most advanced human activities involve not just thinking-speed — which is what computers excel at — but the active exercise of judgment and other capacities that are not essentially computational in nature.

      Liked by 2 people

  32. Alan

    With regard to the difference between linguistics and philosophy, it seems to me that the crucial difference is that linguistics (like other sciences) has *a specific subject area* which can be studied empirically. (Some disciplines are formal, of course, rather than empirical.) As I indicated, there is always a philosophical dimension to any science or area of study. Disciplines or aspects of disciplines or problems within disciplines can be reflected on from the ‘inside’ (by practitioners) and also – but not so much the problems within disciplines – by non-practitioners.

    I don’t really want just now to be drawn into saying what I think philosophy is or should be. In the past I have expressed views which would entail bringing science and philosophy closer together.

    On the other hand, I see that there always remain important problems and issues which don’t fit this model. The general area of ‘letters’ once dealt with some of these issues, but I don’t see today’s literary discourse as playing the same (important) role which it played in the past. (Technological changes have been crucial here.)

    I don’t have any answers. I think Dan Kaufman intends to publish more on these sorts of issues and I will certainly be looking closely at what he has to say.

    I am also interested in your views.

    Like

  33. Hi Daniel, you wrote…

    “I think you’re entirely wrong about machines, their potential, and future direction. Most advanced human activities involve not just thinking-speed — which is what computers excel at — but the active exercise of judgment and other capacities that are not essentially computational in nature.”

    Well, I’m likely neither entirely wrong nor entirely right, given that none of us can fully imagine where computing and AI etc is going. When I was a kid in the 60’s computers were already here and the public, and even the experts, really had no clue about the impact of future developments such as, for example, the Internet. Today we’re about in that same position in regards to the emergence of technologies like virtual reality. So, could we perhaps agree that we’re all speculating on this topic, and whatever theories we have are unlikely to be entirely right?

    It would be interesting if you were to write an article specifying what “other capacities” you feel are distinctly human, forever beyond the reach of machines. If we were to define judgment as the exercise of reason, it’s not clear to me why machines can’t grow in that direction. I can’t say how far machines could go, but then humans are hardly expert at judgment, right?

    As an exercise we might imagine how a machine could improve upon my own writing. First, it could find my posts and identify the themes I like to address. It could learn how to imitate my writing style, and pass the Turing test. Then it could focus on one of my themes and research it, uncovering what others have said on the topic, for and against. It could lay out the history of the arguments in a way that I can not. The machine could find related topics, compare and contrast them, while offering links to further discussion. The above machine driven processes would produce content greatly superior to my own.

    The above seems to be much of what consumes philosopher’s time, and it is work that is essentially mechanical in nature. It’s not really that speculative to imagine computers taking over these kinds of jobs.

    Which brings us too…. In such a case, why would I keep writing? At the least I would be forced to go much deeper in developing insight, or I’d have to sit down and shut up because I couldn’t keep up with the machine. I’m guessing that if we were all forced to go much deeper in to developing insight by competition from machines we just might discover that there is more to be learned by sitting down and shutting up than by further fueling the compulsive thinking which ails us today.

    Here’s a specific example of how machines might exceed our ability to reason. Suppose we asked a machine which topics are the most important to address. The machine would ask for a definition of “most important”. Using Darwin as our guide we might define “most important” as “survival”. I’m guessing a machine would fairly quickly uncover that the thousands of hair trigger hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats ranks high or highest on the “most important” scale.

    Sorry to report this inconvenient truth, but philosophers (and most of the rest of us as well) have proven ourselves incapable of this level of reasoning. All across the culture all of us blab on and on and on about a million things far less important than the stark reality that everything we care about hangs by a thin thread. It appears that deep fears within the human soul make us incapable of squarely facing the reality of our situation.

    Machines won’t have that problem.

    While agreeing all of this is quite speculative, for the moment it seems credible to me that machines may exceed the human ability to reason, given how limited our own ability to reason appears to be.

    Like

    • I’m afraid I just find your entire outlook so foreign to my own understanding and sensibility that it is difficult to comment without writing a dissertation. Suffice it to say, I don’t accept your conception of what is “most important.” I don’t accept your contention that “everything we care about hangs on a thin thread.” I don’t accept your notions of thinking and reasoning and judgment and thus, your conception of what machines will do, rather than people. And I don’t accept your conception of the philosophical enterprise or what is worth doing in philosophy.

      I do philosophy because I find it interesting, love teaching students, and find writing on these topics immensely rewarding. I don’t do it to save the world or to find the ultimate truth, neither of which I think are reasonable goals in any event. I have many other interests and there are many other dimensions to my life that are of equal or even greater importance.

      Like

  34. Hi Daniel,

    A bit of a consistent pattern is developing in some of these exchanges. Note your first paragraph above. You state that you don’t agree with what I’ve written, which is fine, but you don’t then go on to say why, which is less fine. What I’m hoping might happen instead is that readers will identify some specific statement they’d like to take issue with, and then explain specifically why they are taking issue.

    As example, could you please explain how thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger launch on warning status does not qualify as “everything we care about hanging by a thin thread”. Could you please explain how an accelerating knowledge explosion will not inevitably produce ever more powers of this vast scale? And so on. If you have a case, could you please actually make it? If you can’t make the case that we aren’t hanging by a thread, then we are brothers in agreement, because I can’t make such a case either.

    As to your second paragraph, I was attempting to ask, will we still find philosophy interesting and immensely rewarding (and profitable) if readers can’t tell the difference between what we’ve written and what a machine can write? This seems a relevant question given that machines are already taking over many writing jobs, as example, see this article…

    https://www.copyblogger.com/algorithm-writing/

    If you feel that machines could never do philosophy, ok, why exactly? The question perhaps is, what properties of the human mind are so sophisticated that humans won’t be able to figure out how to replicate them in software?

    Like

  35. Daniel wrote…

    “I’m afraid I just find your entire outlook so foreign to my own understanding and sensibility that it is difficult to comment without writing a dissertation.”

    To me, this is one of the important functions of philosophy, to present outlooks that are foreign to the reader’s understanding and sensibility. To put it another way, to explore the boundaries of the group consensus.

    So if you find “my entire outlook so foreign to your own understanding” I take that as a compliment and evidence I’m headed in the right direction.

    Like

  36. Mark,

    Enjoyed as usual, comments too, and I love the topic(s).

    I’m open to meaning eliminativism, as discussed in David’s link for example, and to the idea that meaning “have words” as Neil said, though with language I think we can express more than that.

    Like

  37. Marc

    “I’m open to meaning eliminativism … and to the idea that meanings “have words” as Neil said, though with language I think we can express more than that.”

    I take it you are saying that having language gives us a richer set of meaning-possibilities. I certainly agree.

    But these matters are very difficult to talk sensibly about. Some people see language as the (only) source of meaning(s). Others downplay its importance.

    Liked by 1 person