28 August 2012

A User's Guide to Thought and Meaning - Ray Jackendorff (2012)

I picked up A User's Guide to Thought and Meaning while in Boston at the MIT Press bookstore this spring, and it has a tangential stream that was of interest to me in relation to this blog. The book attempts to examine language, meaning and thought from a cognitive perspective.

The concept I most struggle with is the "Unconscious Meaning Hypothesis" (UMH): this says that of the three structures that make up a linguistic expression (phonology/pronunciation, syntax/grammar and semantics/meaning), "the one that most resembles the experience of thought is phonology." (p. 103). In other words, there's an emphasis on the interior pronunciation of words as the key to awareness of thinking ("we can only be aware of the content of our thoughts if they're linked with pronunciation" p. 90). Here's more on the idea, in comparison with other primates:
One difference is that we have language - the ability to convert our thoughts into communicable form by linking them to pronunciation. According to the UMH, this linking bestows on us a second difference: language enables us to be conscious of our thoughts in a way that animals can't be. But it's not through awareness of the thoughts themselves. Rather, it's through awareness of the phonological "handles" linked to the thoughts, which other animals lack. 
In short, beings without language can have thoughts, and our consciousness derives its form from the pronunciation of the inner voice, not directly from our thoughts themselves. So thought and consciousness aren't the same thing at all. (p. 109)
Jackendorff separates meaning from a "feeling of meaningfulness" - he writes "Meaning is unconscious." (p. 111).

This all feels pretty jumbled to me!  While it does seem true that a fair amount of what arises in our conscious mind is in the form of thought as language (i.e. internal chatter), I don't think that's all that's there, nor do I think there's such a disconnect from meaning, nor that all meaning is unconscious.  There is certainly the struggle to put a thought into words, but if we can detect that the linguistic expression is not conveying the meaning properly, then it seems to me that the meaning is in some way conscious.

In an earlier chapter, Jackendorff references Wittgenstein, with this quote:  "One is tempted to use the following picture: what he really 'wanted to say', what he 'meant' was already present somewhere in his mind even before we gave it expression." (p. 83, from W's Philosophical Investigations).  Whether this indicates W thought that the meaning was truly conscious or not is unclear.

However in a happenstance I came across an article on Wittgenstein today by Ray Monk, called "Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking" which I liked.  Here's one bit:
Like Freud, Wittgenstein took very seriously indeed the idea that our dreams present us with a series of images, the interpretation of which would reveal the thoughts we have relegated to the unconscious parts of our minds. "If Freud’s theory on the interpretation of dreams has anything in it," Wittgenstein once wrote, "it shows how complicated is the way the human mind represents the facts in pictures. So complicated, so irregular is the way they are represented that we can barely call it representation any longer."
This book surely deserves a more well-thought out response, but my bottom line is that I don't really buy into the UMH.  It seems to me that we need even more clarity in our language to express meanings - and I am most intrigued by the interactions of the conscious and the unconscious.  In my view the mind includes at least portions of what we might term unconscious - for instance those things that we have learned so well that we don't have to pay conscious attention to them, like riding a bicycle.  Yet if we encounter a dangerous or confusing situation on a bicycle, suddenly we can "shift gears" and become hyper aware of minute decision-making steps to attempt to avoid catastrophe.

No comments: