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Article Type: Comparative review From: Journal of Documentation, Volume 65, Issue 6
Of Minds and Language: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque CountryEdited by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Juan Uriagereka, and Pello SalaburuOxford University PressOxford2009xii, 459 pp.ISBN 9780199544660Mindboggling: Preliminaries to a Science of the MindRoy HarrisThe Pantaneto PressLuton2008ix, 173 pp.ISBN 9780954978020Rationality and the Literate MindRoy HarrisRoutledgeNew York, NY and London2009Vol. 7xv+190 pp.ISBN 9780415999014Routledge Advances in Communication and Linguistic Theory
Keywords: Mind, Psychology, Language, Linguistics
Linguistic theorizing in the US has long been based on the belief that language provides a “window into the mind,” that linguistic structures reveal brain and/or mental structures. In a lecture first given in 1967 Chomsky argued that “the study of language may very well, as was traditionally supposed, provide a remarkably favorable perspective for the study of human mental processes” (Chomsky, 2006, p. 86). Linguists have made many bold claims about the mind on the basis of dangling participles, left versus right branching syntactic notations, vowel movements, and, in the first of the books under review here, “Merge”, i.e. “a primitive operation that takes objects already constructed, and constructs from them a new object” (from Chomsky’s “Opening Remarks” on p. 25). We are informed that most of the linguistic-biological organs discovered during the 1960s-1980 s have been replaced by an organ called Merge, and that this was an evolution of theory rather than of brains. Of Merge we read:
Emergence of unbounded Merge in human evolutionary history provides what has been called a “language of thought,” an internal generative system that constructs thoughts of arbitrary richness and complexity, exploiting conceptual resources that are already available or may develop with the availability of structured expressions … The core principle of language, unbounded Merge, must have arisen from some rewiring of the brain, presumably the effect of some small mutation. Such changes take place in an individual, not a group. The individual so endowed would have had many advantages: capacities for complex thought, planning, interpretation, and so on. The capacity would be transmitted to offspring, coming to dominate a small breeding group. At that stage, there would be an advantage to externalization, so the capacity would be linked as a secondary process to the sensorimotor system for externalization and interaction, including communication (p. 29).
Chomsky then argues that “there seems little reason to postulate precursors to unbounded Merge” (referring to the assumed biological organ, not the theoretical imagination): the appearance of Merge is at one and the same time the appearance of language and thought, “a language of thought”. The mind and all things mental are “emergent properties of brains” (Chomsky, quoting Vernon Maountcastle on p. 17). As “reflective creatures” Chomsky argues, “we go on to seek a deeper understanding of the phenomena of experience … In principle these questions are subject to empirical inquiry into what we might call ‘the science-forming faculty,’ another ‘mental organ’” (Chomsky, quoting Vernon Maountcastle, p. 18). If I understand this correctly, language and thought are properties of biological systems, specifically those we call brains. For Chomsky, “the term ‘language’ means internal language, a state of the computational system of the mind/brain that generates structured expressions, each of which can be taken to be a set of instructions for the interface systems within which the faculty of language is embedded” (pp. 18-19). The study of “the genetic endowment for language” he calls “Universal Grammar” and this he studies within “the biolinguistic framework … the study of language as part of biology” (p. 19).
Anyone who can buy into a theory which takes “the perceived sentence (7) What did John eat?” (p. 28), analyzes it semantically and synactically, postulates a computational system in the brain that will “generate” this structure (but why?), claims that this system arose as a mutation (ah, that’s why) and that is why human beings are capable of complex thought will find this book fascinating. It is, as its proponents never cease to repeat, the standard theory and a rational, empirically based, scientific theory at that. The papers which follow Chomsky’s Opening Remarks treat of foundational abstractions, Merge, evolution, epigenesis and brain wiring in Part I (Overtures), Merge, universals, interfaces, movement, uninterpretable features and probabilistic grammars in Part 2 (On Language), language acquisition in Part 3 and biological variation, innateness, perception and the brain in Part 4 (Open talks on Open Inquiries).
While most of the papers in this collection follow the Chomskyan paradigm, not all do, or rather, one does not. Gallistel’s chapter “The Foundational Abstractions” presents a brief argument against the view that “language is the (or, perhaps, a) medium of thought,” claiming that birds compute elapsed time, make cognitive maps, search those maps for records of food, perform operations of subtraction and numerical comparison and recognize the intentions of those observing them. This all suggests to Gallistel that it is unlikely that “these abstractions arose either from the language faculty itself or from whatever the evolutionary development was that made language possible in humans” (p. 68). His arguments suggest something rather different to this reviewer, namely that he has engaged in extensive anthropomorphization when interpreting the findings he has reported.
If one wishes to look at language as people use it rather than as arbitrary structures that the brain generates, there is very little relevant material in this volume other than some of the discussions of language acquisition in Part 2. There are discussions of the measurements of brain activity while engaged in some linguistic task, but that is a look at neurology, not language. An explanation for this lacuna is ready to hand in Hinzen’s paper “Hierarchy, Merge, and Truth”. There we read that “Today’s ‘standard’ theory of the architecture of the human language faculty” has been developed in response to what “this faculty has to have if it is to be usable” (p. 125). Those “must have” features are:
(i) a computational, combinatorial system that combines expressions from a lexicon, LEX (i.e. a syntax) and employs a basic structure-building operation, Merge;
(ii) a realm of “meanings” or “thoughts” that this combinatorial system has to express or “interface with”; and
(iii) a realm of sound, or gesture (as in sign languages), that the system has to equally interface with, else language could not be externalized (or be heard/seen) (pp. 125-6).
That is, everything is as easy as i, ii, and iii, or ABC, except that neither numeracy nor literacy play any role in the theory. In the case of numeracy this is evident in Chomsky’s brief remark “it means that the numbering system might just be a trivial case of language” (p. 33). (In other papers in this collection – those of Gallistel, Gelman, and Hauser – numbers and counting are discussed briefly.) In the case of literacy, this volume contains no discussion at all. Astonishingly, there is no theory of signs, just an “interface” between the combinatorial system and “meanings” or “thoughts” (which is it? or are these terms synonymous?) and another interface between the combinatorial system and the mechanics of making and perceiving noises and gestures. A theory of signs would have to address the relation between the sign made and its meaning but in this model no such relationship is possible as the “interfaces” are elsewhere. Language is a biological system and its description is exhausted in treating of (i) syntax, (ii) semantics, and (iii) physiology of speech, understood here as being limited to sound or gesture. Language is not an activity arising from social interaction but simply a biological “organ” (the scare quotes used by Chomsky apparently mean that he is hedging his bets) whose properties – accidentally, Chomsky insists – allow it to be utilized for communicative purposes. One suspects that both language and thought as depicted in these papers would look much different were we to regard them as emerging from the social life of creatures with bodies and brains, much like fashion shows, gourmet cooking, mass transit, house building, football and internet surfing emerged.
The two recent works by Roy Harris discussed here are as far removed from the biolinguistics framework as one could imagine. For one thing, Harris offers no just-so stories as the contributors to Of Minds and Language do whenever one might expect evidence: neither “some small mutation” nor “rewiring” are brought in as deus ex machina. Harris does draw on recent neurological research, but in a very different way and with a decidedly careful attitude about what we may actually conclude from that research after we have stripped it of its questionable assumptions and the conclusions following from them.
Perhaps the clearest expression of the main difference between Harris’ approach to “language and the mind” and that of Of Minds and Language appears in his discussion of the “mereological fallacy” in Mindboggling. The term mereological fallacy refers to “attributing to parts of a human being (or animal) features and functions that logically belong only to the whole creature” (Mindboggling, p. 141). He quotes Bennett and Hacker:
Human beings, but not their brains, can be said to be thoughtful or thoughtless; animals, but not their brains, let alone the hemisphere of their brains, can be said to see, hear, smell and taste things; people, but not their brains, can be said to make decisions or to be indecisive. (Bennett and Hacker, 2003, p. 73)
While Chomsky and the contributors to Of Minds and Language equivocate and excuse themselves with “huge promissory notes left to pay” (Chomsky on p. 32), they are nevertheless confident that mind is an emergent property of brain. The “unresolved problem” of “how properties ‘termed mental’ relate to ‘the organical structure of the brain’” (Chomsky, quoting Joseph Priestly, p. 32) remains. This problem of mind and matter is related to “The basic problem” of linguistic research, which is, Chomsky writes, “that even the simplest words and concepts of human language and thought lack the relation to mind-independent entities” (p. 27).
These basic and unresolved problems for the study of language and mind have a different status for Harris. The connection between mind, language and world he conceives in very different terms, since he does not seek the “essential nature of language” (Chomsky, p. 27) or of mind in neurology. Their is no equivocation in Mindboggling:
I do not think that my mind is my brain (or any part of my brain) under a different description. Nor do I think it is related to my brain as one organ to another. But I do not think it could function without my brain any more than I think I could see without eyes … But, having said that, I admit that the mind I think I have is largely a linguistic construct. In other words, I can imagine that, if I had been brought up to speak a quite different language, I might have learnt quite different ways of talking about my inner and my outer world – perhaps it might have been a language in which there was no word for mind at all. But I think I would have needed some way of articulating verbally the connexions and differences between those two worlds (pp. 157-8).
And why would he or any of us talk “about my inner and my outer world … articulating verbally the connexions and differences between those two worlds”? Because:
The primary function of mindspeak is nothing other than to integrate two kinds of experience that we all have: experience of an “inner” world and experience of an “outer” world … [T]he fact remains – and it is a fact of first-order experience, not a product of “theory” – that the conduct of our daily lives constantly requires us to distinguish between thinking that something is the case and finding that it is – or is not – the case … But if we cannot manage this thinking-it-is-the-case-versus-finding-that-it-is/isn’t-the-case distinction at all, we are likely to find ourselves in deep trouble with our fellow human beings (pp. 145-6).
Mindboggling is a series of 27 short chapters (all but three of them exactly five pages long, the others four and six) on the various ways that human beings have thought (or at least written) about mind: “The vulgar mind,” “The ghostly mind,” “The well-behaved mind,” “The other mind,” and so on all the way to “My mind.” The questions, problems and positions discussed in these chapters are each examined with Harris’ sharp mind, clear prose and wonderful humour. For example Chapter 11 “The mind located” closes with the following paragraph:
The fuss about the location of the mind (nincluding whether it has a location at all) is symptomatic of a failure to grasp something important – the role of vulgar mindspeak in our understanding of experience. The mistake of those who insist on a location for the mind is on a par with supposing that it ought to be possible to find the exact place on (or off) the football pitch where the match was won. The mistake of those who deny that the mind has any location is on a par with supposing that winning the match had nothing to do with what happened on the pitch at all (pp. 64-5).
His references to the “vulgar mind” and “mindspeak” are crucial to understanding his arguments throughout the book, and thus the book begins with the chapter “The vulgar mind”:
I propose to start from the question itself as presented here, “Do you have a mind?”: that is, a question formulated in English and addressed to readers whose acquaintance with English is sufficient to enable them to grasp the relevant vocabulary and syntax … Where did you get the idea that you even might have a mind? I suggest it came from one or both of two sources. One is whatever you might happen to have read about the mind. But even if you have never read anything on the subject, there remains the other source, which I will call for convenience “vulgar mindspeak” (pp. 1-2).
Vulgar mindspeak is Harris’ term for “the language of what is sometimes called ‘presystematic’ or ‘commonsense intuitions’ about the mind” (p. 3). It is the language of “I think”, “I have an idea”, and mind your “baby, the step, the consequences and your Ps and Qs” (p. 2). We are using Harris’ vulgar mindspeak when we speak or write of intentions, opinions, reasons and recollections. It is not a theoretical or scientific language, but one rooted in personal inner experience. Vulgar mindspeak “does not encapsulate some kind of transcendental wisdom about mental activities” Harris writes, adding “I think it harbours the roots of those widespread confusions about human communication that I labelled the language myth” (p. 148).
Mindboggling is neither a textbook on philosophy of mind, nor an exposition of any particular theory of mind. The book was, Harris writes, “a self-imposed project” which forced him “to address certain questions I had previously thought about only vaguely, and obliged me to ‘think them through’” (p. 160). My suspicion is that this “self-imposed project” was a necessary “thinking through” that was intimately bound up with the writing of Rationality and the Literate Mind.
In Rationality and the Literate Mind Harris sets out to argue two theses:
conceptions of human rationality vary according to the view of language adopted; and
the view of language adopted by the literate mind is not the same as the view of language adopted by the preliterate mind (p. xiv).
His point of departure is “the ‘plasticity’ or ‘malleability’ of the human brain as established in contemporary neuroscience,” a matter of great importance for Harris as “it means there is no reason to believe that human rationality (whatever that may amount to) is somehow already built into the structures of the brain ab initio” (p. xiv). The recognition of this plasticity of the brain (not of the mind) has led to the “concern that changes in language-related technologies may, over the course of time, change the way human beings think … concerns about whether current information technologies are not already bringing such changes about.” He notes that “Worries are voiced about the dangers here of ‘blurring the cyber-world and ‘reality’” (p. xi), quoting from recent works by Maryanne Wolf and Susan Greenfield, but Harris offers a few words of caution:
Valuable as the results of contemporary neuroscience are, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the way these results are presented by neuroscientists often bears the mark of cultural idées fixes about literacy itself. From the examples mentioned above, for instance, it is clear that literacy is unquestionably accepted as Good Thing, while anything that threatens to undermine the achievements of the literate mind is a Bad Thing. But this is a value judgment: it is not a factual conclusion delivered by the results of neuroscientific research (p. xii).
His second caveat concerns the mereological fallacy mentioned above:
The brain no doubt plays an essential role in coordinating various separate processes that are involved in the act of reading. But it is nevertheless the child – not the child’s brain – who learns to read, just as it is the child – not the child’s brain – who learns to eat with a knife and fork, play hide-and-seek, and do many other things that children learn to do (p. xiii).
The third caveat concerns the distinction between brain and mind:
For some neuroscientists, evidently, the mind just is the brain under another description, or when considered as operating in a certain way (especially when “thinking”). According to Greenfield, “challenging the old dichotomy of mind versus brain, or mental versus physical, is one of the most impiortant achievements of current neuroscience” (Greenfield 2008: 50). But, again, this is to confuse the factual deliverances of neurological research with their culturally slanted interpretation. Whatever Greenfield or like-minded neuroscientists may claim for their own discipline, there is no translation available which will convert the neurophysiological predicates of English (or any other language) into corresponding mental predicates. So it would save a lot of needless embranglement to keep the two separate from the start (p. xiii).
In the first chapter, “On rationality, the mind and scriptism”, Harris discusses various views on the nature of rationality and its relation to writing. To avoid the many problems associated with the different ways people think about rationality, Harris makes it clear that the rationality he is discussing “has to do strictly with establishing the validity of conclusions … Unless attention remains focussed upon valid inference … the discussion of rationality easily slides into a free-for-all about the psychology of belief and its relation to human behaviour” (p. 15).
The second through fifth chapters are largely devoted to the anthropological literature on the primitive or “prelogical” mind: Evans-Pritchard, Frazer, Lévy-Bruhl, Boas, Tylor, Durkheim and Mauss, with the fifth chapter (“The great divide”) tackling the writings of Millman Perry, Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, Jack Goody and Marshall McLuhan on the effects of writing and mediated communication on the mind. This is all material that Harris has not previously discussed in much detail and a welcome addition to his previous discussions of the literatures of linguistics and philosophy. A couple of passages critiquing “Jack Goody’s argument that ‘writing gives a permanent form to speech’”especially caught my eye:
First, the survival of a text is entirely dependent on the materials used and the way they are used by the user. Second, regardless of the materials, the survival of a text also depends on the survival of a population of readers. Writing that cannot be read is not a text but a collection of marks. Furthermore, even under conditions of near-universal literacy such as prevail in modern Western societies, very little of what is written is destined to function as an everlasting record for future generations (p. 72).
In speech, an item cannot just be “shifted” from one place to another, or held in abeyance pending a reorganization of the whole sequence. These points that Goody makes are well made and well taken. But what Goody seems reluctant to admit is that examples of this kind (written lists and tables), which support his case best, are actually those which show up most clearly the misconception involved in regarded writing as just a “representation” of speech. For the (physiological) fact is that speech affords no room for structures that rely on two-dimensional relations, as do writing and all forms of drawing. It is that – and not the sensory shift to “the visual domain” as such – which makes writing structurally different from speech (pp. 72-3).
Harris follows his critique of Goody with short sections on McLuhan and Lévi-Strauss and then sums up the some of the literature critical of the champions of the “writing restructures consciousness” school in a section entitled “Technological determinism,” concluding with “The great divide reconsidered”:
For present purposes what emerges as important is that, neurophysiologically, the literate brain is different from the preliterate brain. That difference cannot be dismissed as a theoretical fiction or cultural illusion … What has to be recognized is that, just as the literate brain is variously configured as between different individuals and communities, so too is the literate mind.If even this much is admitted as the contribution of neuroscience, there is no ground for dismissing out of hand the thesis that literate and preliterate communities tend to produce typically different mental habits, insofar as these are favoured by the brain’s development of new patterns of circuitry …On the other hand, as far as rationality is concerned, brain research offers no positive evidence to suggest that reasoning processes are in some way independent of other mental abilities (including linguistic and language-related abilities). Just as there is no brain “centre” for reading and writing, there seems to be no brain “centre” for reasoning either (pp. 77-8).
And with this much established and disestablished, Harris returns to the “question of exactly how rationality relates to literacy.” We go back to Aristotle, dialectic, the syllogism, and the principle of non-contradiction:
When we examine the Organon, it is evident that there is one pivotal piece of thinking that bears the hallmark of a literate mind above all else. That is Aristotle’s invention of the seemingly simple device which is crucial to his syllogistic. The device in question is nowadays known as the variable … The idea of allowing a single arbitrary letter of the alphabet to “stand for” a whole class of items cannot, for obvious reasons, be entertained in a preliterate society. Here we see literacy leaving its indelible mark on Western thinking about reasoning … (p. 87).
His discussion of Aristotle’s variables, the syllogism and definitions throughout chapters six and seven have much of interest for anyone working with ontology development. The discussion of the homonymy problem is marvelously clear:
[T]here is no natural “reason” why the same name should – or should not – be given by convention to two quite different individuals or things or classes thereof. Nor is the existence of synonyms a problem: nothing prevents the same person or thing from having two (or more) different names. Linguistic convention appears to be tolerant of both states of affairs. There is no overriding linguistic principle that decrees a universal one-to-one correspondence between a name and what is thereby named … [I]f there are no general critieria for homonymy, every proposed definition (logos) is potentially ambiguous … So we find Aristotle maintaining through thick and thin that “correct” definitions can be given … Be that as it may, before the work of syllogistic reasoning can begin there seems to be a prior obligation on the logician to establish that the terms in question are free of homonymy (pp. 97-8).
Aristotle attempts to solve his problem by defining a definition as “a statement of ‘essence’” (p. 99). And here, ontologists take note:
[W]hat Aristotle takes for granted is that an essence is what is defined by a definition. A definition is given in a form of words. No form of words is self-defining. So the form of words has to capture something else other than its own image. This something else … is – precisely – the essence of the thing to be defined. But this is where the muddle takes off. For what has not been explained is how the essence can be both (i) what makes the form of words interpretable as a definition (i.e. supplies its meaning) and, at the same time, (ii) whatever it is that makes the thing what it “essentially” is, i.e. “in itself”. The gap between (i) and (ii) tends to go unnoticed by the literate mind. For writing encourages the illusion of being able to deal with thought, or the abstractions involved in thinking, “directly”, i.e. at a level where the abstractions in question can dispense with any communicational anchorage other than that of the signs visually present before the reader … What is in fact being bypassed is speech; but consciousness of bypassing speech is easily construed subjectively by the reader as bypassing words altogether and thus gaining immediate access to the processes of thought (p. 100).
Harris’ discussion of propositions, the syllogism and the principle of non-contradiction fascinated me as Michel Meyer has also seen in these the source of a long-lasting philosophical malaise in the Western tradition. The critiques of Harris and Meyer are not identical, but reading them one after the other was quite an experience for this reviewer. Since the semantic web is simply the technological instantiation of the world as propositions (triplets) related syllogistically, at least chapters seven and eight should be required reading for everyone seriously engaged in thinking about the foundations of the semantic web.
For this reviewer, Chapter 9, “Interlude: constructing a language-game” was the most spectacular. In previous books Harris has discussed Wittgenstein’s imaginary primitive language of a group of builders and those discussions impressed me greatly. Here, the analysis and discussion go way beyond anything Wittgenstein attempted, and reveals Harris to be a far more profound thinker. Harris concludes:
According to the integrational account, A’s actions anticipate B’s, which in turn presuppose A’s. That is what makes their signs part of an integrated language-game. What each of the participants does is contextually and systematically relevant to what the other does within the same temporal continuum and the same programme of activities. It has nothing to do with truth. It is a conception of communication which lies beyond the reach of Aristotelian logic altogether. It proposes an account of meaningful human interaction that is radically different, in theoretical basics, from any other account that has been proposed in the Western tradition (pp. 132-3).
In the final three chapters Harris brings out the key consequence of literacy: the decontextualization of the word. With Aristotle’s introduction of variables:
The first steps are being taken towards divorcing “logical relations” from “social relations”, i.e. removing the concept of rationality from the everyday activities of human beings dealing as best they can with everyday situations, and relocating it in a hypothetical realm of possibilties. Recognizing actual causes and effects, together with the practical connexions between them, thus becomes of secondary importance (pp. 151-2).
Literacy “sponsors the conception of words as decontextualized bearers of meanings. That makes it feasible to identify ‘propositions’ as unsponsored combinations of words. The sentence All men are mortal does not need a sponsor: it just ‘exists’ in its own right” (p. 152). And at this point Harris touches on the computer:
The final steps in the relocation come with those extensions of symbolic logic which make it possible to award the accolade of rationality to complex operations far beyond the capacity of any normal human mind to execute. The burden of safeguarding rationality is thus transferred from human beings to machines, which do possess the requisite O[perational]D[escriptions]. The digital computer, as its developers proudly boasted, is the supreme “logic machine”. It can tell you “what follows from what” much faster and far more reliably than you can, or any fellow human being …What has been happening along the way in this long-term transfer of authority and responsibilities (from Aristotle, to the medieval scholastics, to the authors of Principia Mathematica, to the computer) is a gradual, progressive dehumanization of reason …What the computer can “do with words” is a lot more than you can. Nowadays we cannot even ourselves judge whether the computer “got it right”. We should have to employ another computer to check that. And perhaps a third computer to check the second …? A rationality regress looms. All this is an inevitable consequence of treating language and logic as if they could be divorced, by intellectual fiat, from social reality … (pp. 152-3).
By decontextualizing language, meaning is assumed to reside in the text itself, the text is “intrinsically complete … An interpreter is surplus to requirements. The text needs neither the presence of the author nor the presence of a reader” (p. 157). This goes for information science as well as for Derrida, about whom these remarks were written.
In his “Epilogue: rethinking rationality” Harris begins with the statement “Rationality – or, at least, most of what we often try, overambitiously, to subsume under that generalization – is a product of the sign-making that supports it” (p. 160). This is followed by a sketch of an integrational view of meaning and an integrational semiology. Harris locates the difference between the Aristotelian and Western view of rationality at “the exact point at which human rationality is seen as linking up with language as social praxis” (p. 176). The Western view has always taken language for granted, beginning the “analysis of reason at a level where ‘propositions’ can be identified simply by citing” sentences and systematizing them. The integrationist view “sees rationality as being based in the first instance in the ways that human beings attribute meanings to signs of any kind in the pursuit of integrated activities” (p. 177).
That last remark suggests that Harris’ integrational semiology has as much to offer researchers on graphical interfaces and web design as to those engaged in ontology development. Both of the Harris books reviewed here discuss issues of importance in information science, and they approach these topics from a perspective not to be found anywhere else. They are as provocative and profound as they are clearly written. They are not books for everyone, however, as understanding them requires some pretty vigorous thinking and questioning much of what our literate culture takes for granted. On the other hand, Of Minds and Language is a book for a quite different reader. I do not think that anyone involved in any aspect of documentation would find anything of practical value in that book, and matters of theoretical interest are abundant only if you share the biolinguistics paradigm informing the papers therein.
I have reviewed these three books together because I recommend reading them together: the reader of Of Minds and Language who has previously read Mindboggling and Rationality and the Literate Mind will be reading with an awareness of the many assumptions, equivocations and careless language marring the papers edited by Piatelli-Palmarini. Most of the positions accepted, expounded or argued for in Of Minds and Language have been sharply criticized in one or the other of the Harris books. On the other hand, the reader of Harris’ works who has also read Of Minds and Language will have a good background in the most current formulations of many of the ideas that Harris critiques.
As one who deals all day everyday with language in use, particularly in the context of libraries and the use of information technologies, I have found Harris’ writings more interesting and more fruitful than those of any other writer on linguistics. Perhaps if I were a biologist or a neuroscientist I would have a greater appreciation for Of Minds and Language, but as a student of language and linguistics, I found Of Minds and Language to be totally confused. The confusions arise in part from the reification of theoretical entities, turning them into objects of natural science, and in part because of the near complete disregard for actual linguistic behaviour (linguistic examples are always made up and such pitifull examples of language at that).
If language is an organ in the brain, then we need to find it, but the neurosciences have found no such language organ or centre. So Chomsky puts “organ” in scare quotes. What does this mean? It can only mean that Chomsky recognizes the need for a biological basis if his ideas are not to be dismissed as theoretical fictions like the ether, but he has no such basis. His research and analysis are all based entirely on not-so-arbitrary sentences which he himself has conjured up for the purpose of investigating language. He is in fact writing of a “spiritual organ” just like writers on the occult sciences do, perhaps hoping that sometime in the future his “organ” will be discovered by real biologists (among whom he cannot be counted). In spite of the linguistic facts all around us (spoken and written), in spite of all the references to scientific writers from Priestly to Lewontin and Carroll and the promissory notes to be paid, the language “organ” as Chomsky presents it is on a par with the “Third Eye” and ESP, i.e. it is offered as a hypothetical biological explanation for which there is no biological evidence. This is the price he pays for trying to investigate language as something existing entirely and only within us, a matter of an inaccessible and invisible (occult) “organical structure,” while ignoring the ubiquitous phenomena of language around us.
While Chomsky can develop an entire theory of language and mind based on his analysis of made-up texts such as “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and “John is easy to please,” Roy Harris is not so easy to please. Harris has thought long and hard about actual linguistic behaviour, about speech, writing, sign language, art and cricket as biomechanical, macrosocial and meaningful activities. That attention to the empirical facts of language use, of human and animal communication in the real world, shows in everything he has written, nowhere more than in these two latest volumes.
The language and style of Of Minds and Language is one of science, knowledge and confidence. With the exception of the paper by Gallistel, there is nowhere any critical examination of ideas, assumptions, terminology or the interpretation of research. This is in stark contrast with the two books by Harris which are almost entirely devoted to the relentless examination of presuppositions and their consequences for theory as language and practice. Rationality and the Literate Mind is the culmination of a lifetime of thinking about language by one of the most important philosophers of the past century. Mindboggling is, as Richard Gregory wrote in his review, “valuable in asking questions and throwing down the gauntlet” (Gregory, 2008). So exercise your mind – I assume you have one – and read these three books. There is far more to be gained by reading them each against the other than just choosing the one or two that might suit our habitual way of thinking about minds and language.
David BadeUniversity of Chicago, USA
Bennett, M.R. and Hacker, P.M.S. (2003), Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Blackwell, Oxford
Chomsky, N. (2006), Language and Mind, 3rd ed. , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Gregory, R. (2008), “Review of Mindboggling: Preliminaries to a Science of the Mind”, Times Higher Education, 13 November (accessed 9 April 2009)