IGS Discussion Forums: Learning GS Topics: GS and Steven Pinker
Author: Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr. (diogenes) Sunday, March 9, 2008 - 10:27 am Link to this messageView profile or send e-mail

Bruce Kodish quoted Sydney Lamb as stating "“Those who doubt that language can influence thinking are unlikely to be vigilant for the effects of language on their own thinking."

I'm presently tutoring in mathematics. The above quote analyzes to having two variables, one representing language (L) and the other representing "thought" (T), and we can ask about a relation (R) between them "R(T,L).

[Now that I've frightened off all the math-phobic and non-mathematically inclined by writing a mathematical expression, I won't use these symbols again until the very bottom of this comment.]

Language we can observe, measure, and record. But, as yet, we cannot observer, measure, or record "thoughts". The only process we have for accessing thought is two fold - personal introspection or through the process of analyzing language and behavior from which we "infer" what another person was "thinking". Moreover what the word 'thinking' "means" is not something that is clear and concise in our time-binding record. One characterization holds that "though" is "interiorized imitation of language", which we might described as sub-vocalization of language. In this case, "thought" just "is" language in another medium. Others hold that "thought" is any neurological proceses that result (eventually) in behavior, including speech (language).

In either of these "extremes" as well as positions that could be characterized as "between" the above two "endpoints" of a dimension for characterizing "thought", whatever "thought" "is", it is not directly observable, and it is principly interpreted as "expressed" in language.

According to the structural differenetial, abstraction proceeds from the event through object level experiences into levels of verbal abstractions, that is to say, that "thought", an internal neurologically instantiated process, preceeds the emission of verbal behavior (language}. Many characterize this process as causal, in that "thought" causes the behavior we call language.

What could possibly be more direct "influence" than "cause"? In any case, we cannot compare, measure, or record "thought" except after it has been expressed as language or behavior, and that is not "thought" that is being measured, recorded, or compared; it is language (or behavior}.

Consequently we may have a linguistic expression that represents two variable that, in mathematical terms, can be questioned as to their relationship, but when we look more closely at what we normally "mean" by these variables, we see that one, "thought" is inaccessible. What we can actually only measure is an abstraction from thought to language ("A(T)"). But the abstraction of "thought" just is language (L2).

Consequently instead of measuring, recording, or comparing "thought" (T) to language (L1), we are actually measuring, recording, or comparing the abstraction of "thought" (A(T)) - which is just L2 - to Language (L1), we are actually comparing Language (L2) to Language (L1). The relation that we actually can examine is between two language expressions - R(L2,L1).

Some progress is being made in observing and recording brain activity in association with language in the form of the direction to subjects to "think" about some formulations, as well as response to other types of stimuli. These, however, are also not any direct observation, measurement, or comparison of "thought" to language.

The upshot is that any argument, discussion, claim, etc., about a relation between the un-observable "thought" and anything else is essentially "academic" in the negative pejorative sense - a rediculous exercise in one-up-man-ship - "space-binding" competition.

For such a discussion to be "scientific" and worth "time-binding" effort, each such discussion must begin with a precise and agreed to formulation as to what the parties to the discusion intend by the word 'thought' - that is to say, it must start with a hypothesized "concept by postulation", and even that is not the highly variable "concept by intuition" expressed by the word 'thought'.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (better known as linguistic relativity") has become essentially a sacrosanct "principle" of general semantics. It is however, not yet scientifically and definitively defined or answered. See The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an enlightened perspective - which notes "[Q]uestions about the extent and kind of impact that language has on thought are empirical questions that can only be settled by empirical investigation."

For additional reading, see The Language of Thought Hypothesis in the same source.

Author: Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr. (diogenes) Friday, March 14, 2008 - 09:31 am Link to this messageView profile or send e-mail

David, You may feel free to re-read my prior post substuting "concept" wherever I wrote "thought". the same situation arrises - we cannot observe, measure, or compare anyone else's "concepts", and we cannot communicate our own directly to another; we can only "encode" them into language and transmit the language.

"Understanding" becomes building a model and not getting disconfirming evidence to what language the model predicts we will hear. We can find out about not understanding, but we cannot find out about understanding. This is little more than applying the basic philosophy of science in a particular limited context. Instead of modeling the universe, we are modeling another's hypothesized mental processes, but in this case with our own private idiosyncratic experience, whereas science models the universe with shared language.

Author: Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr. (diogenes) Saturday, March 15, 2008 - 09:17 am Link to this messageView profile or send e-mail

David wrote, "I was disagreeing with the notion that understanding another person’s thoughts was a rediculous exercise in one-up-man-ship...

That was not my assertion. My implied assertion is that "thoughts" (and concepts when conceived of as "in a person") are not directly accessible in any way; they can only be represented by linguistic expressions - which can be observed. Since they cannot be observed, nor measured, nor compared to anything else, we have no way to directly relate such "thoughts" or "concepts" to language. This is in spite of the fact that each person can and does relate his or her own private "thoughts" or "concepts" idiosyncratically to his or her own language expresion. And to argue about what they ("thoughts" or "concepts") "are" becomes a metaphysical exercise without any possibility of verification that gets implemented purely in attempts by one person to obtain assent from another to the first person's language (not the supposed "thoughts" or "concepts"), each seeking assent from the others for formulations about that which cannot be publically seen, cannot be empirically validated, cannot be measured. If, and only if, the participants converge on an agreed to formulation, this effort ends in time-binding cooperation, provided the process involves purely rational procesess, but it is still neither scientific nor empirical since the alleged "thoughts" or "concepts" are never observed by the other party. One or both parties change their initial formulation under the influence of the other. They "compete" for their own initial or revised formulation, thus establing claim to vertual symbolic "territory", and the same applies when they do not converge to a single formulation.

I think it rediculous to "argue" about "thoughts" or "concepts" that are conceived as internal to persons and can never be extensionally observed (in the general semantics context).

Whenever any two people come together to interact (organisms in environements as a whole) the "organisim-as-a-whole-in-its-environment" principle comes into play. We are (currently conceived as) the product of millions of years of competetive evolution, and that history does not go away because we want to ignore it. We compete for virtually everything - status, wealth, jobs, significant others, respect, love, etc., etc., - and that includes getting our pet formulations assented to by others.

The best thing that I can say (my pet formulations) about "thoughts" now-a-days is that we have a model that includes the notion of so-called "mirror" cells in our brains that evolved to allow us to see where another member of our species is looking and look there also as well as to see how they are doing what and to rapidly copy what they are doing in the same way. (These capabilities are evident down the phylogenetic scale too. As Cole Porter put it, "Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it."

For me the terms "thought", "idea", "concept", and a host of others are essentially variables with highly variable domains. I have to get past them to get to a model that includes what is going, what we (participants) want (my own only partially known due to lack of knowledeg of unconscious motivations) and others (inferred both unconsciously and consciously probably through the auspices of mirror cells), and the context, "understood" by me only partially consciously, some non-verbally, and some abstracted to language.

We may offer the expression of a "concept by postulation" - a formulation - as a "definition" of "thought", but that relates language to language; it does not relate language to "thought", although it may temporarily express the author's perception of his or her own idiosyncractic relation of the offered formulation to his or her own introspection. The formulation, however takes it out of the realm of "thought" into the realm of language.

I have offered my formulations, not my "thoughts", and I'm "competing" with your formulations, seeking in some small sense some assent, submission, etc., that leaves me with the last word - as in the "argument" is concluded - leaving me with the view that what I wrote was not understood, misunderstood, disagreed with but too much to bother responding to, partially agreed to and partially not understood, discounted entirely, received as food for thought, and many other possibilities.