"You see, I would argue, the neural circuits were well-engraved: an
Acura Integra, the smaller of our cars, the more responsive of our
cars, the non-station wagon--the features of the blue car were nearly
identical to the features of the red car, so when our brains grasped
for a verbal referent they had a good chance of picking the standard
phrase we used for the red car. And, of course, neither of us had any
trouble understanding what the other meant by the phrase "the red
Bad economist. No cookie for you. Go get Marx' "Theses on Feuerbach"
off the shelf. Open to page one:
"The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of
Feuerbach included - is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are
conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not
as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively."
Do not ask what properties your old red car possessed. Ask: How did
the red car fit into your system of praxis? Did the new car fit into
the same place?
Then, imagine momentarily that you possessed a transcript of all speech
within the Delong household from 1988 (when you bought the red car) to
its replacement in 2001. Measure the rate of co-occurance of "red" and
"car" in this transcript using any of a number of basic,
non-connectionist, techniques. Mutual information is the simplest, but
I'm doing my thesis on minimum description length, which is more
complicated but has other advantages. Using mutual information, you
could compare the entropy of "car" with "red car", and will find that
they are at least comparable. "Car" paired with other adjectives will
most likely not have comparable entropy.
So, on the one hand we have an object of praxis that has a significant
role in your life, and on the other we have a conjunction of words
occurring in a pattern comparable to a single word. This is no
coincidence, comrade. You could have continued to use the phrase "red
car" to indicate the new car. You did not do so because you took some
effort not to, either for the sake of an imagined linguistic norm or to
ease communication with non-Delongs with whom you might need to discuss
your Acura. Most likely the first.
There is no need to invoke features here. The object as practice
covers this ground far more easily.
The occurrence of priming in this case - the return to saying "the red
car" - is a sign that this type of semiotic creation is a behavioral
norm which you have consciously chosen to violate. In fact, you've
acted in a manner contrary to the linguistic norm. A "Tudor house" is
an exact analogy to the "red car" - you're unlikely to see one in
Berkeley that was built when the Tudors were on the throne.
Now, there was no need to invoke connectionism in explaining this
outcome. Neurons were, to be sure, involved. But so were hands, feet
and carburators. As for modeling, quite non-connectionist information
theory was up to the task.
Shah here has it partly right:
"Any real discussion has to has some discussion about the interactions
and interfaces between all of that mess, because it's pretty much
certain (to me) that the emergent properties of both language and
consciousness arises from contact points within all the systems in the
At least as important to symbol use and production are the contact
points between physical cognitive devices within our bodies and our
practices and (in Marx' sense of the word) human sensuous activities.
But I have issues with Feldmann here:
"For embodied cognitive science, any computational-level formalism must
be effectively reducible to the connectionist level and thus to brain
No, no, no, no! Nothing reduces to brain mechanisms because (thumping
the table) BRAINS DON'T SIT IN GLASS JARS!!!!! This used to be one of
the key tenets of embodied cognition as a research program.
Have we forgotten Bateson's blind man?
"Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick. I go tap, tap, tap. Where
do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is
it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick? Does it
start at the tip of the stick? But these are nonsense questions. The
stick is a pathway along which transforms of difference are being
transmitted. The way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting
line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways
which leave things inexplicable."
This basic failure of "embodied cognitive science" to actually embody
its cognition in actually existing bodies is the thing that I most have
against it. It may be necessary to have a computational level of
description for human cognitive activity - it seems reasonable enough -
but there can never be a NEURAL level which is complete, descriptively
adequate and consistent with macro observation because (more
thumping) COGNITION IS NOT CONTAINED IN BRAINS!
I'm all in favor of studying brains. I support research into
connectionist algorithms and alternative computing principles. But I
do not imagine that the solution to the problems of linguistics is
primarily to be found in those things.
And I think that is one area where Feldmann and I are really on
different pages. He slags the Chomskyans for ignoring brain research
when it goes against them, which is right on because their whole
research program is based on the idea that the brain must contain
certain things. But I don't think connectionism or brain research are
really going to bring clarity to much in linguistics either.
It's possible that in this respect we only differ in emphasis and
vocabulary. I haven't read his book yet.
As for grounding things in metaphor... I was once an advocate of this
approach. I'm not anymore. The information theoric explanation I
offered for the "red car" also offers an alternative perspective on
metaphor. Rather than seeing metaphor as a consequence of neural
association, it makes at least as much sense to see neural association
as a consequence of metaphoric usage.
Instead of making metaphors central to cognition, we might reread some
Saussure. There is a meaningful, practical, opposition between "This
situation is good" and "This situation is bad". We not only think
different things when we hear the one and not the other, we do
different things, and the things we do have different consequences
depending on the objective conditions underlying those statements.
For Saussure, the existence of this opposition is central to
linguistics and semiotics. Oppositions of the same sort are central to
information theory and computing.
However, there is no opposition between "This situation is bad" and
"This situation stinks". That fact alone would, for a lexicographer,
be evidence that "to be bad" is the definition of "to stink" in some
contexts. Now, situations cannot literally stink. If they could,
there would be an opposition between "this situation is bad" and "this
situation stinks" because they would entail different actions and
This lack of opposition makes it possible for "this situation stinks"
to take some type of metaphorical meaning. The semantic overlap
between "to stink" and "to be bad" - that things that stink are not
generally positively regarded - in combination with the practical fact
that what we often wish to communicate about situations is whether they
are positive or negative from some perspective, makes this metaphor
comprehensible. Regular use, in turn, makes it conventional.
This explanation seems more likely to me because the kinds of metaphors
he is invoking are not actually used all that systematically. Even
though "bad" can be systematically expressed as a bad smell, the
English language does not systematically express good as a good smell.
You can't say "this situation smells like roses".
Again, the mechanisms involved here do include some brain activity,
although it is possible to model them using quite non-connectionist
explanations, but more importantly they involve practical knowledge of
the conditions under which language is used. They turn on activities
that go on outside the brain.
Here, I think the cognitivist program in the US and I have to go our
separate ways. They tend to see neurobiological modeling and metaphor
as being at the root of cognition and semiotics. I tend to see praxis
and opposition as central instead. There is some compatibility here,
but I think in the end will all be for naught.
It bothers me to see linguistics so easily set adrift from its
fundamental Saussurian roots, and it bothers me to see so much of what
academic Marxism did right - placing a huge huge emphasis on practice -
forgotten as if it never existed.