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Language, Consciousness, Culture: Essays on Mental Structure by Ray Jackendoff

Petter Naessan talks Ray Jackendoff’s cultured thinking.

Prof Ray Jackendoff from Tufts University delivers interesting insights into language and mental structure in this book, demonstrating an awareness of the complexities of the mind and a flair for detail. The Professor explores numerous topics, including the conscious and unconscious aspects of language structure, and fairness, selfishness and morality, among others.

As Jackendoff confesses, the formal analysis of normal, everyday language is “probably a challenge.” Some of the treatment of the well over a hundred example sentences amounts to what I’d call hard core linguistics. It’s quite abstract, and scattered with abbreviations and the technical jargon of formal linguistics. Although this isn’t a major problem, as many of the terms are explained in the text, a list of abbreviations and conventions in the front of the book would probably contribute significantly to its reader-friendliness.

Jackendoff’s main focus is the development of a theory of meaning in the mind; or, cognition in terms of mental structure. The mind ultimately resides in the brain, since there are no mental properties causally independent of brain events. Jackendoff rejects the notion that mental structures are directly about the wider world, because the neurons “deep inside the brain that are responsible for cognition have no privileged access to the ‘real world’; they interact only with other neurons.”

Jackendoff’s main approach is Conceptual Semantics. This theory assumes that concepts can be studied; that concepts are instantiated in the brain; that they have a formal structure; and that concepts expressed by words have ‘combinatorial structure’. That is, unlike theorists such as Noam Chomsky who highlight the importance of sentence grammar, Jackendoff outlines a ‘parallel architecture’, in which several separate but interacting capacities (for sound patterns, grammar and meaning) are linked by rules of correspondence. Each capacity has a part to play in the overall structuring of language and thought.

Jackendoff thinks that much of what shapes our minds is preconscious. Capacities facilitating speech processing and production are not readily available for introspection. To the extent that consciousness presents itself, it does so via qualia (the ‘blueness’ of blue, the ‘painfulness’ of pain, etc.). Sound patterns are necessary and sufficient for the presence of linguistic qualia. In sign language, meaning and perception takes place qua visual images and not as sound images, but Jackendoff maintains that sign and spoken language show close correspondences. Meaning, however, is neither necessary nor sufficient for experience.

How can this be? Jackendoff offers a stretch of nonsense syllables, “ishkaploople pukapi datofendle,” and says that although you don’t understand any meaning, you still have a form of experience, a quale. On the other hand, if there were an experience of meaning but no associated sound pattern, there’d only be an absence of qualia; or maybe a quale of absence (such as when you try desperately to remember a word you know and have the meaning, for, but the word won’t come out).

For Jackendoff, meaning does not come in any particular language; it’s universal. Thinking ‘in’ any language is a matter of attaching lspecific sound patterns and grammar to a concept that can be expressed in any language. However, virtually all the language data is from English. For example, on p.225 we are told that the action of eating invariably involves two characters, only one of which is obligatorily expressed in the grammar. When eating, one eats something; but swallowing has only one obligatory character – the one that swallows – whilst the material swallowed is linguistically optional. True as this may be for English, it does not hold cross-linguistically. In Wirangu, an indigenous language from the west coast of South Australia, the stem ngal- expresses both ‘eating’ ‘drinking’ and ‘swallowing’. Since it’s a transitive verb, all sentient beings who ‘drink’ ‘eat’ and ‘swallow’ must be marked with a special ‘doer’ or ‘action’ segment.

What about some verbs that express transactions; buy, sell, rent and trade (p.158)? Concerning the Australian Western Desert language Yankunytjatjara, there seem to be no traditional equivalents: neither would one expect any, since the speakers were traditionally hunter-gatherers.

Dare one say that the meanings Jackendoff outlines are hardly universal? That meaning is invariant across languages is a debated opinion within linguistics (to put it mildly). These examples may be surface phenomena, not invalidating the gist of Jackendoff’s outlook. But if data from other languages than English were dismissed wholesale as exceptions or aberrations, we might suspect that his theory is too powerful or non-falsifiable. Jackendoff does say that conceptual structure theory “should be supported by linguistic (including crosslinguistic) evidence.” Checking a hypothesis about language by comparing word meanings between languages is mentioned once: that ‘believe’ and ‘intend’ “express exactly the same attitude, in one case directed toward a situation (or proposition) and in the other toward an action” (p253).This idea could be checked by seeing if there are languages in which the English ‘believe’ and ‘intend’ translate into the same word. Some evidence is reported from Mandarin and French.

Jackendoff maintains that all linguistic processing and production, all interpretation, perception, moral values, social norms and institutions are reducible to neural networks in the brain. So it’s ultimately about biology. It’s far from clear to what extent this perspective can yield logical and meaningful explanations of what human beings are up to. For instance, Jackendoff’s ‘Axiom 1’ is about being favourably inclined and cooperative toward one’s own group. ‘Axiom 2’ holds that “other things being equal, if you are not a member of my group, I will behave unfavourably toward you. In particular, I will compete with you; and I expect the same from you” (p168). I think it’s far from clear that ill-will towards non-group members (however defined) is a self-evident aspect of our human nature. If a small group is unfavourably inclined towards others of its own species, one would eventually expect results comparable to that depicted in films like Deliverance: inbreeding. Inbred populations generally struggle with various impairments – so wouldn’t it seem biologically counterproductive to be instinctively unfavourably inclined towards members of other groups?

Overall, this book raises important questions, and Jackendoff’s discussions are generally cautious and well-behaved. The deep diving into levels of mental structure by tackling sentence meanings may be hard to grasp for some non-linguists, but I believe this book has plenty to offer any philosophically-interested reader. One may agree or disagree in various ways with his approach and results, but Professor Jackendoff’s contribution is nevertheless well worth the time.

© Petter Naessan 2008

When not attacking unsuspecting books and having coffee breaks, Petter Naessan works as a research assistant in Linguistics at the University of Adelaide.

Language, consciousness, culture: essays on mental structure, by Ray Jackendoff, MIT Press, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0-262-10119-6 pps.xxiv + 403.

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