Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Affordances, Mythologies

A cranky anonymous poster at Chris's blog posted a link to Jeff Elman's An Alternative View of the Mental Lexicon (smallish pdf). The abstract:

An essential aspect of knowing language is knowing the words of that language. This knowledge is usually thought to reside in the mental lexicon, a kind of dictionary that contains information regarding a word's meaning, pronunciation, syntactic characteristics, and so on. In this article, a very different view is presented. In this view, words are understood as stimuli that operate directly on mental states. The phonological, syntactic and semantic properties of a word are revealed by the effects it has on those states.

It's a provocative view, but ultimately unsatisfying. It would be a terrible thing, in my opinion, were the insights into the constitution of meaning suggested by Gibson's ecology of perception theoretically reduced to an idea of stimulus. I have been wondering what Gibson's notion of affordances would do within a more fully developed semiotics, one that distinguished indexical from iconic and symbolic functions, signals from signs, signifiers from signifieds, linguistic signs from myths (second order representations), or what have you. I don't feel any special call to do structuralism, defend its precepts, or reiterate its findings in some alternative mode, but I think if you're going to examine a phenomenon that would be like mental structuration, it would be worth your while to take a peek at how the structuralists and their academic progeny have examined functions and operations that bear on the problems that interest you.

It's not my intention to lay all this at Elman's feet, because I expect he's devoted his scientific career to developing and advancing his viewpoint, and much of the work that he's done has gone straight to the heart of the structuralist project. To a great extent the appearance of reductionism may simply be an artifact of the narrowness of the genre "article in a scientific journal," so the critical reader is left to sort out which aspects of a complex presentation are direct products of the author's conceptualizations, which are byproducts, which are epiphenomenal, and which are irrelevant. But who's to say? The author?

The fundamental suggestion of the present proposal is to treat words as stimuli, whose "meaning" lies in the causal effects they have on mental states. Or, to paraphrase Dave Rumelhart, words do not have meaning, they are cues to meaning. On the face of it, this might seem to demote the role of any given word in determining the meaning of utterances, but in fact it gives it far greater potential for interacting flexibly with other cues. Understanding the often systematic and sometimes idiosyncratic effects of these cues remains the challenge. It is here that computational models might help to lead us to more precise and formal theories.

I'd agree with that penultimate statement, but the final statement doesn't quite follow. As much as Elman's Simple Recurring Networking model impresses me, it hasn't convinced me that the sort of more precise and more formal theories that such modeling lends itself to would be up to the task of yielding remarkably clearer understandings of systematicities embedded in cultural contexts, much less idiosyncracies of interpretation.

Incidentally, I'd been meaning to say something about the nomothetic in relation to the definition of science, but I reckon that just about covers it. A basic conundrum I see for the scientist is that while a goodly portion of the phenomenal world is, so to speak, ipsative, ipsative methods of inquiry are not generally conducive to standard procedures of verification. It is a grave error in my view to "solve" this problem by treating the nomothetic and the empirical as if they were coextensive.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:58 PM.


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