Lisa Zsiga comments…

Lisa sent me this message (after trying to post a comment, and finding the blogomat wouldn’t let her post):

Thanks for the response to my question. This is exactly the sort of discussion/clarification I was hoping to elicit. My issue was really that Steve Anderson seemed to be talking past much of what John said.

I came away from John’s talk (as did others, I think, based on comments I’ve gotten on my comment) understanding that he was advocating shifting the focus of linguistic study away from what happens inside the head to the data that exists in the world. I think I see now that he’s saying that such a near-term shift in focus is compatible with a long-term goal of understanding the mind, right? But the idea of moving away from the mind/brain as an object of study came through much more forcefully in the talk.

I’m sympathetic to that view as a data-oriented person myself. But I was struck when one of Steve’s first points stated that it was uncontroversial that the proper object of linguistic study was human cognition. And certainly by the end of his talk, though it came across obliquely, Steve seemed to be saying that neurolinguistics was the wave of the future. And that does seem to be at odds with John’s view.

Anyway, on the surface at least, the two talks seemed to be advocating moving the field in very different directions, and I was really hoping for more clarification on the subject, so that we all could better understand the compatibilities and differences.

One Response

  1. Yes, what you said you came away with was exactly what I was suggesting—getting into the observed world what it is that we are trying to explain.

    But I do think that linguistic methods shed light on the nature of mind. I didn’t say why in my talk, partly because it would have taken us far from linguistics, and partly because I don’t have a simple and clear answer to offer. As I see it,
    we need to begin with a rough sketch of what it is that we understand the mind to be composed of—not an easy task. I think that there are four things that we need to include, minimally: self-awareness, rational inference, agency,
    and language. It seems to me that these four capacities lie at the core of what we understand our minds
    to be and what we take them to be capable of. We are aware of ourselves; we are able to draw inferences; we perceive ourselves as doing things, not just responding
    like leaves in the wind; and we have this mysterious capacity that linguists have been trying to figure out.

    Some philosophers and psychologists have suggested that language plays a major role in our sense of agency—for example, the fact that grammar imposes a first-person
    singular construction might be part of what we need to understand that we are active agents. One could argue something similar for the possibility of rational inference. Self-awareness? Does language play a role? I don’t know.

    But these are the deep and fundamental issues of mind, it seems to me (and I think that anyone reading in the history of philosopher would not find such a state wildly wrong). If they are connected to the study of the brain, the connection is far from obvious (though, I recognize, some do base their philosophy of mind on a confidence in the modern brain sciences).

    The neurosciences are fascinating and their results are rich. But their contribution to the philosophy of mind is very, very limited, and honestly, much the same can be said of their contribution to linguistics at this point, it seems to me.

    If Steve Anderson were advocating moving towards the neurosciences (and it’s not clear to me that he was, but maybe he was), he would have a hard case to make. But I won’t put words into his mouth on that —

    John Goldsmith

    goldsmith - January 8th, 2008 at 9:36 pm

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