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A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning by Ray Jackendoff

Nikki Dekker doesn’t think too much of Ray Jackendoff’s book.

That classification of this book as ‘a user’s guide’ is either a clever marketing trick or wishful thinking. Handbooks are generally focused and well-structured, whereas A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning stretches unpredictably across philosophy, linguistics, psychology and critical theory to talk about, well, anything. Professor Jackendoff grants as much in his Foreword, where he says the book is not so much a study of one subject, but a summary of the range of issues he’s been writing about for the past thirty years. That’s enough to make me a bit suspicious. Thirty years of careful thinking in one small book? But after all, what Jackendoff wants is for his work to be accessible. So here he has written up his theories in everyday language, with everyday examples, and even some pictures. And yes, from one rather narrowly-defined perspective, Thought and Meaning is readable. But in the way popular works of non-fiction and science are readable, this book fails. There is no evident personality in the writing to carry the theories across to the reader: the sentences are bare and formal. A good read demands more than simplicity: it requires the writer to think of the aesthetics – the means of presentation – as well as of the content of his book. As it is, the style of Thought and Meaning shifts too often. Sometimes it’s a textbook, then it’s personal opinion, then it’s abstract reflection – all of these littered with details that make it difficult to grasp exactly what it is that Jackendoff wants to tell us. However, Philosophy Now’s readers might be assumed to be able to work their way through sometimes chewy writing for original ideas, and there is some original thought in Thought and Meaning. Moreover, Jackendoff’s explanations of the theory of language are clear and concise, and his pleasure in sharing this knowledge with the rest of the world is evident.

The true gem of this book is what Jackendoff calls ‘The Unconscious Meaning Hypothesis’. This is the proposition that our experience of meaning is essentially unconscious. Thus, although words convey meaning, we do not seem to be able to locate meaning anywhere outside the words themselves. Jackendoff argues that the single conscious aspect of our linguistic thought, speech and understanding, is a technical aspect of it: pronunciation.

This abstract and complicated theory, laid out in comprehensible sentences, with plausible arguments and examples, brings out the potential of Jackendoff’s thought. Unfortunately, this section is an exception. Most of Thought and Meaning consists of boring textbook-type lectures – that is, until Jackendoff sees the opportunity to get into metaphysical questions, where he seems to enjoy using funny typography to make fun of ‘big concepts’ like Real Essence.

Regrettably, Jackendoff cannot deal with the big concepts either. For example, he tries to buy himself out of the real question of what thought is by asserting that he isn’t talking about ‘thought itself’, only about the ‘experience’ of thought – but exactly how these two concepts differ never quite becomes clear. Similarly, the ‘experience’ of meaningfulness does not depend on meaning, but on the existence of meaning. Do you follow the distinction? If so, you’re doing better than me, because I’m lost. And halfway through the book, his argument completely falls apart. Jackendoff states that certain ‘feelings’, such as ‘novelty’ and ‘sacred’, accompany words, giving them meaning. He presents this theory with his characteristic obscurity and lack of evidence, only to never mention these attributed word-feelings again.

Clarity and step-by-step argument is not standard procedure in Thought and Meaning. Often, Jackendoff supports his argument with an off-hand reference to something that hasn’t even been discussed yet. For instance, he writes, “Compared to the cases we’ll look at next, the second way turns out to make more sense.” This is not an argument. And why can’t he share the cases first, and then allow me to decide which way makes more sense? Call me old-fashioned, but I believe theories should be given due time to be presented with attention and precision, instead of rushing over details in order to move on to the conclusion. But this book would rather ‘make sense’ of the reader’s feelings and intuitions than set out a logical argument to truly enlighten the User’s understanding of Thought and Meaning. In that sense, it’s not unlike your average popular science book off the bestseller table – except that it’s not as well written, and less entertaining.

The final chapters discuss chamber music and the state of academia – subjects that do not seem to be related to anything else in the book other than being part of the author’s interests. However, this unconventional ending does shed light on Jackendoff’s aspirations. Evidently he wants to reach beyond even the fields of linguistics, cognitive studies, philosophy, and psychology, to discuss society at large – and all in under three hundred pages.

© Nikki Dekker 2013

Nikki Dekker studied Literary Theory. She is the editor for Dutch broadcasting company VPRO.nl.

A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning by Ray Jackendoff, OUP, 2012, 288 pages, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0199693207

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