Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Louder Than Words - Book Review Part 1

I have begun reading Ben Bergen's new cognitive linguistics book "Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning". From the book description:
In Louder than Words, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen draws together a decade’s worth of research in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience to offer a new theory of how our minds make meaning...Through whimsical examples and ingenious experiments, Bergen leads us on a virtual tour of the new science of embodied cognition.
Let me note that the book description falsely suggests that this is Ben's theory; rather, as Ben rightly points out, embodied cognition is a research program dating back 40+ years. This book is Ben's attempt to survey the evidence for it. If this sounds like an update of Lakoff's 1990 Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, you will be forgiven for making that connection as Bergen is Lakoff's student turned professor. Bergen is Luke to Lakoff's Obi-Wan, as it were.

I am basically sympathetic to embodied cognitive science as I was trained in cognitive linguistics at SUNY Buffalo by a host of Berkeley linguistics alumni including Len Talmy, Jean-Pierre Koenig, and Robert Van Valin (as well as non-Berkeley cognitive linguists such as David Zubin and less directly Jürgen Bohnemeyer).

However, while I have a lot of Berkeley blood in me, I am a skeptic by nature (see my various critiques of Borodistky and the Neo-Whorfians here). I never became a devotee of RRG as Van might have wanted. I never became a devotee of strong lexalism as JP might have wanted. I am naturally inclined to decline the kool-aid, regardless of who is offering.

I hope this will make me a good close reader of Ben's book.

So far I have only read Lakoff's short introduction and Bergen's chapter one "The Polar Bear's Nose". I'll make this first entry short.

First, introductions to academic work are difficult. You have to explain background assumptions to non-experts in a way that doesn't turn off the experts who read it. I remember having this experience while reading a colleague's intro chapter to her dissertation on the psycholinguistic processing of certain kinds of morphemes and she had a line at the opening something like "morphemes are the smallest meaningful unit..." and I kind of giggled at such a basic Ling 101 claim in a dissertation on psycholinguistics. But you have to have that kind of sentence just to prove your own basic level competence.

Such was my response to Ben's intro. It was basic stuff that any grad student in linguistics or cognitive science has been through a hundred time ad nauseam , but it has to be stated up front for the *others*.

I don't have anything major to say about the intro, but here are some things I've tweeted or noted in margins that bear adding:
  • Okay, this is trashy, but it bears stating. When I first read the title "Louder Than Words", my first thought was Brian Griffin's book "Faster Than The Speed of Love" from Family Guy.
  • Ugh! Overstatement. Reaction time and eye tracking are not "fine measures" that "peer inside the mind". They are useful, but they are the stone knives and bearskins of scientific tools. We use them because we don't have anything better ... yet. claims these tools have provided results that are "revolutionary" (p 5) - pure hyperbole. 
  • "Meaning is something that you do almost entirely in your mind." Bergen (p. 6). Dear Ben .. hmmm.... what's the non-almost part?
  • I think Bergen is guilty of constructing a straw man version of the Mentalese argument for symbolic reasoning. Bergen suggests that symbolic reasoning is incompatible with non-literal reference, variation, and creativity. False.
  • He hasn't explicitly mentioned "theory of mind" yet, but he's danced around it repeatedly. He clearly believes that humans alone possess the capacity to theorize about the mental states of others and that is the basis of language as our key cognitive advantage.
  • I don't like his rhetoric about the power of words. he makes them sound like knives you can stab people with ("A few words can change our religion. Words affect who we are" p 3). First, I think this is classic overstatement. I don not think words are knives. If serious academics write like this, how can we reasonably differentiate ourselves from those idiot Neuro-linguistic programming morons who write things like "Neuro-Linguistic Programming describes the fundamental dynamics between mind (neuro) and language (linguistic) and how their interplay affects our body and behavior (programming)." We can hardly complain about charlatans like these if our own best and brightest cognitive linguistics write almost identical sentences.
  • His treatment of "traditional theories of meaning" (p 6) is standard, and completely misses its utterly Western bias. I don't think the Chinese tradition of analyzing meaning looks anything like this.
  • His claims that we all have our own meaning of words like "dog" based on our experiences and memories (p 12) will likely be not born out by evidence ... by I'm open minded.
  • The embodied simulation hypothesis that states we imagine ourselves performing an act in order to understand it sounds a lot like the the motor theory of speech perception, which has been around a while. The recent work on mirror neurons may prove valuable for both lines of research.

Okay, good enough for now. On to chapter 2 "Keep Your Mind n the Ball".


Matías Guzmán said...

Hey, have you thought about going full liberman against neurolinguistic programming? It would be fun.

Chris said...

Matías - yes, actually I have thought about that. However, I'd have to dig in to their literature and frankly, I just don't have the heart. It's incoherent blather. Does anyone really want to bother?

Pascal-Denis Lussier said...

Wish someone would, as I don't have the energy.
Perhaps silly, but whenever I write "NLP" anywhere that may be read by laymen, I inevitably feel a deep need to go back and change it to "Natural Language Processing" as I absolutely dread the thought of anyone assuming I meant "neuro-linguistic programming".

Unfortunately, which you touch upon, embodied cognition seems to easily lend itself to such far-out idiocy.

Chris said...

Maybe auto-correct could actually help us?