I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Connectedness and category formation

My reflections on Teresa Brennan's Transmission of Affect have taken a (not-so-unpredictable) turn toward the linguistic. Surely I am attracted to this model of affect and humanity (interconnectedness, touching without touching) for the same reasons I find usage-based models of language much more palatable. A formal model (continuing the analogy) would posit separate human bodies, each autonomous actors, though with rules of co-occurrence, causation, etc. Nothing personal against Aristotle and his categories (image from Knowledge Representation Book), but it just doesn't feel right. Things are not this or that. Things are this and that. Sometimes what constitutes "this" and what constitutes "that" is debatable, even among the most highly informed.

OK, not only does it not feel right. The evidence suggests (convincingly) that it is not right, not in language, not in cognition. See, just to name a few, Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Phonology and Language Use, Regularity in Semantic Change, and Usage-Based Models of Language. In these models, units are not self contained. There is the commonplace but mind-blowing evidence of priming at all levels, in semantics and syntax. There are the strikingly similar cross-linguistic paths toward abstract meanings. Everything is connected, shared and moving. 

Why would anything else in human consciousness be any different?

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