Wednesday, October 26, 2005

It all comes back to Fleck

I really enjoyed Clark’s chapter on language. For me, that was where the ideas in the book came together. I also liked the way he seemed to connect his ideas to the ideas from the other books we have read. On page 212, where he describes how language works with our minds, he says that “it may . . . exhibit types of phonetic or grammatical structure that exploit particular natural biases of the human brain and perceptual system. If that were the case, it would look for all the world as if our brains were especially adapted to acquire natural language, but in fact it would be natural language that was especially adapted so as to be acquired by us.” Here he presents the question of language development in a chicken-or-egg scenario, arguing that instead of our being “especially adapted” for language use, language was “adapted so as to be acquired by us.” Though he does not mention it, it seems like the first scenario, which he seems to indicate is the one that is most readily accepted, could be the result of the kind of linear smoothing that Fleck describes, where messy processes end up seeming inevitable because the steps and missteps that led to their fruition are covered up by history.

Clark’s description of the ways in which language can be used as a tool by the mind are also interesting. The three ways he mentions are 1) to “offload memory onto the world,” 2) to use labels to simplify the environment, and 3) to use “linguistic labels” to simplify learning (201). The concept that stood out for me here is his claim that the “most obvious benefit of the linguistic encoding of thoughts and ideas, is . . . that such encoding formats our ideas into compact and easily transmitted signals that enable other human beings to refine them, to critique them, and to exploit them (204). I wonder how close this idea is to that of using language as symbols for thought to the dreaded idea of thought being symbolic. It seems like he is treading a fine line between the two. I’m not sure he is worried about that because one of his goals is bringing the two back together, but I wondered what the application of this conclusion would be.


Blogger mdl said...

Hi--is this john? thought so. if not, hello whoever you are. Thanks for your post. I needed someone to give me his theory on language "in a nutshell." I stumbled a little bit through this section do your remarks help clarify things a bit. I may be mistaken, but I think that he is definitely is trying to "tread a fine line," as you write, between between language as symbolic thought and thought as performed in certain qualfied cases through symbols. I had the sense that he doesn't want to abandon the "computational" or symbolic processing aspect of the brain all together, and is placing it somewhere "above" as The Embodied Mind folks do. He makes some distinctions between his models and theirs (which Eileen's post starts to get at), but I'm not super clear how these pan out. What do you think?

11:37 AM  
Blogger jmj said...


It is John. I think one of his goals in the book is to avoid depicting cognition as symbolic processing in the head and the opposite extreme of completely ignoring the human ability to manipulate symbols.

I don't know if that answers your question.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Eileen McGinnis said...

Sorry to add my befuddlement to the general befuddlement, but: I agree with John's assessment that Clark wants to avoid the description of cognition as exclusively or even mostly internal symbol manipulation, while acknowledging that we are capable of manipulating symbols (including language). Anyway, I thought the passage on "representation-hungry problems"(166-170) might be a spot where we could look more closely in class--does he suggest that advanced cognition does require discrete objects or symbols to manipulate, and, not finding them in the external environment, we must create internal symbols on which to operate? It's a crucial passage, but I had trouble navigating it.

3:14 PM  

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