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Ch. 3 - Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts 
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Post Ch. 3 - Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts
Ch. 3 - Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts (and Other Radical Theories of Language and Thought)

Please use this thread for discussing Ch. 3 - Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts (and Other Radical Theories of Language and Thought).


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It seems to me that the central question here is what mental constructs are innate and what is learned. The second issue addressed is whether language determines thought or vice versa. Pinker makes a good argument that a cognitive framework is built into the structure of the human brain which predetermines our sensory perceptions in terms of space, time, substance, and causality. He argues for a meta-language of concepts that precedes and structures spoken language. Does a newborn baby perceive the world as a changing kaleidoscope of color and sound, upon which pattern must be imposed by experience? Or are some patterns already in place, inherent in the physical structure of the brain, or still dormant in genes that have not yet been activated in the developmental process? Do we think in the words of our native language, or in nonverbal representations of meaning?

To me, Pinker is convincing. Not too surprising, since I haven't been exposed to the arguments of the other schools of thought.



Mon Jan 07, 2008 8:02 pm
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tlpounds wrote:
JulianTheApostate, you wrote that From everything Pinker has written, he's a strong believer in the similar structures of different languages. In Chapter 3, he argues against the claim that speakers of different languages think differently.

I am reading Chapter Three now, and so far, I haven't seen his argument in favor of similar structures between languages. Could you give me some points of reference so that I may look them over? What page(s) is this argument on?


In chapter 3, which I too am reading now, Pinker delves into a few different theories out there. I do not have the book here so I cannot get into specifics. But I just wanted to follow "tlpounds" in stating that up until this chapter, I have not seen Pinker assert that different languages have similar structures. In fact, I have been understanding his position to be somewhat opposed to this.

His whole treatment on the different placement of certain verbs has made me think this. It is hard for me to really go into this as I am not fluent in linguistics and alot of the terms he uses are still floating willy nilly around in my head.

We should probably move all this to the chapter 3 thread. I will cut and paste this there, so please direct any posts regarding this topic there.

Mr. P.


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Last edited by Mr. Pessimistic on Fri Jan 18, 2008 4:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Jan 18, 2008 4:36 pm
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seeker wrote:
To me, Pinker is convincing. Not too surprising, since I haven't been exposed to the arguments of the other schools of thought.


He makes quick work of the first theory presented in Chapter 3. I also loved the "Shoulder's of Giants" wordplay Dennett offers regarding the gentleman who proposed this theory. While stating emphatically that the man is way off base, they also compliment him for his efforts.

seeker wrote:
Or are some patterns already in place, inherent in the physical structure of the brain, or still dormant in genes that have not yet been activated in the developmental process? Do we think in the words of our native language, or in nonverbal representations of meaning?


As for the theory itself...I mean...why WOULD the word or concept for "Carburator" be imprinted in our brains when for millions of years there were no carburators?? There may be basic conceptual units in our brains, but I agree that they would more likely be more basic than that!

I also like his summation of why there are indeed basic concepts in our brains from the get go: "that is why bricks and rhubarb do not develop language". lol

So far for me, as George pointed out, I am tending to see that our language is shaped by our thoughts but also vice versa. It is a 'reflexive loop' (was that George that said that or Pinker....I am not sure).

Mr. P.


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I made the following statement in the Chapter 2 thread.
Quote:
From everything Pinker has written, he's a strong believer in the similar structures of different languages. In Chapter 3, he argues against the claim that speakers of different languages think differently.

A couple of you objected to that, and I can see why after rereading it. My remark was too terse and the phrasing was sloppy. Here's what I meant to say.

Despite what I said earlier, different languages obviously have different structures, as all linguists, including Pinker, observe. However, Pinker, like Noam Chomsky, argues that all languages share certain commonalities. The human brain is predisposed to expect certain language structures, as opposed to being a pure blank slate. That's why children can learn their native language so easily and why people are so capable of communicating through language.

My claim that "he argues against the claim that speakers of different languages think differently" was too strong. More accurately, Pinker argues that there are definite similarities in how different language speakers conceptualize the world, in contrast to the Whorfian hypothesis.



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Post loss of illusions, or never believe what teachers say
I'm reading what I can, not being at ease with linguistics.

I've found a humourous story page 118:

"Incidentally, many people believe that these doublets -- a Germanic word for the animal and a French word for its meat -- come from a time when Anglo-Saxon peasants tended animals but only their Norman overlords got to eat them."

Pinker tells us that the story

a- comes from Ivanhoe

b- is not true!

I learnt that story in high school (with millions of other trustful souls).
In the version of the story I heard it was not implied that only the Norman lords ate meat, but that they brought their own words for what was in their plates. Also of course Invanhoe was not mentioned, since the story was true.


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Post Missing something?
JulianTheApostate wrote that "I made the following statement in the Chapter 2 thread."
Quote:
From everything Pinker has written, he's a strong believer in the similar structures of different languages. In Chapter 3, he argues against the claim that speakers of different languages think differently.
A couple of you objected to that, and I can see why after rereading it. My remark was too terse and the phrasing was sloppy.


Julian! I finally found something written by Pinker in Chapter Three that supports your argument that the author is a strong believer in the similar structures of different languages. I was having trouble seeing where you came up with this argument during the first 100 pages of the book. However, on page 108, he finally wrote something that corroborates your claim:
"According to Radical Pragmatics, a permanently existing conceptual structure underlying the meaning of a word is also as mythical as the Jack of Spades because people people can use a word to mean almost anything, depending on the context...English and other languages of earthlings, just don't take it to that extreme. The nuance in the way people use words, according to Radical Pragmatics, calls for a way of thinking about language and thought that is very different from the image of a dictionary in the head with fixed chunks of conceptual structure packaged with every entry."

Still, he only touched very lightly on the topic of similarity between languages here. If you were like me, and if this were the first book by Pinker --or any other linguist for that matter --that you've read, how would you know from this book that he weren't writing in what seems to come across as an extremely eurocentric position? Have you read anything from the first three chapters that would challenge my interpretation of his work thus far? I feel like I am missing something...



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Post Extreme Nativism v. Radical Pragmatics
In the first part of Chapter Three, there are two very different schools of thought on language that are weighed against the other: extreme nativism and radical pragmatics. The former argues that people are born with an innate inventory of certain basic concepts, as well as an ability to form new ones from experiences that build upon the inborn concepts. Radical pragmatics, on the other hand, refuse to accept the thought that an inherent consciousness of an idea/feeling can exist before being introduced to and learing it is, quite frankly, B.S.
Although, as Seeker said, Pinker makes an extrememly convincing argument for the radical pragmatic side, I couldn't help but wonder what credance there is to extreme nativism. As the adage goes, the truth about language probably "lies somewhere in between." I am skeptical about which concepts would be innate. As some of you have mentioned in your posts, I can't see how somthing that can't be broken down into any simpler defintitions, like a carburetor, could be an innate concept. We must have learned it through experience. However, as a teacher, I have seen many students with disabilities. Some with extreme disabilities can understand and communicate very simple and basic needs. Then, I thought about Helen Keller. How was Ann Sullivan able to teach someone with severley stunted senses? How was she able to teach someone who lived in a world of darkness to learn and to communicate?
The first word Keller was taught, as we've all been told, was water. Yes, Sullivan wrote the word over and over in her hand until she made the connection. But, how could Keller have made the connection in the first place without having some sort of innate idea about what water was? If it wasn't a thing to her in the first place, how was she eventually able to connect actual water to its name?
Surely, there is room for both schools of thought on the idea of language.



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Post Re: Missing something?
tlpounds wrote:
If you were like me, and if this were the first book by Pinker --or any other linguist for that matter --that you've read, how would you know from this book that he weren't writing in what seems to come across as an extremely eurocentric position? Have you read anything from the first three chapters that would challenge my interpretation of his work thus far?

Pinker is a linguist who has been a professor at MIT and Harvard. Any linguist, especially one who's that prominent, would base his or her conclusions by studying multiple languages, not just English or European languages. Also, the arguments in chapter 2 were pretty subtle, even though he discussed English most of the time, and that chapter would have been incomprehensible if a wide range of languages were covered.

At first, it was surprising the Chapter 2 focused so much on English. Based on the observations in the last paragraph, along with me my prior knowledge of Pinker's philosophy, I assumed that his broader conclusions applied to other languages, even though he didn't say so explicitly until later.
tlpounds wrote:
In the first part of Chapter Three, there are two very different schools of thought on language that are weighed against the other: extreme nativism and radical pragmatics.

Here's a concern that came to mind when reading that part of the book. Since I wasn't previously familiar with those theories, my sole exposure to them came from someone who disagrees with them. Though Pinker puts forth a good-faith effort to describe opposing theories, it still seems a little one-sided to learn about them from Pinker. I'm reminded of some ancient Greek philosophers, whose works are only known through rebuttals by Plato or Aristotle.



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Julian:
Quote:
Here's a concern that came to mind when reading that part of the book. Since I wasn't previously familiar with those theories, my sole exposure to them came from someone who disagrees with them. Though Pinker puts forth a good-faith effort to describe opposing theories, it still seems a little one-sided to learn about them from Pinker.


Well, if it helps any, none of my professors at my university were fans of Linguistic Determinism in its extreme forms.

So, while I don't think that the language we speak creates our perception of the world we live in, I think that learning new words/concepts can alter how we think. For example, the means of communication open to us because of the invention of the Internet has forever changed the meaning of the word "communicate"...


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Loricat wrote:
Julian:
Quote:
Here's a concern that came to mind when reading that part of the book. Since I wasn't previously familiar with those theories, my sole exposure to them came from someone who disagrees with them. Though Pinker puts forth a good-faith effort to describe opposing theories, it still seems a little one-sided to learn about them from Pinker.


Well, if it helps any, none of my professors at my university were fans of Linguistic Determinism in its extreme forms.

So, while I don't think that the language we speak creates our perception of the world we live in, I think that learning new words/concepts can alter how we think. For example, the means of communication open to us because of the invention of the Internet has forever changed the meaning of the word "communicate"...


Those rival theories do seem a bit hard to swallow. I to am new to the theories and yes, Pinker is not a proponent of the theories, but I also agree he is presenting a fair estimation of them.

The Extreme nativism is the most problematic to me. I mean, just the idea that the word 'carburator' already exists in our minds is a bit insane, as I mentioned above. I just cannot find any way to make that idea makes sense.

As for Determinism, I agree with Loricat, and I also remember Pinker saying as much, that words we use and learn can impact our thoughts, but not to the extent that words have a profound influence on HOW we think and how we create and utilize language.

I am enjoying this book. This is a totally new topic to me and the reading is slow going, but I feel rewarded after each chapter.

Mr. P.


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Mr. Pessimistic wrote,
Quote:
Those rival theories do seem a bit hard to swallow...The Extreme nativism is the most problematic to me. I mean, just the idea that the word 'carburetor' already exists in our minds is a bit insane...I just cannot find any way to make that idea makes sense.


Perhaps the proponents of extreme nativism believe in the idea of eternal return!? (Are you on Chapter Four now?) For, if you believe in eternal return, (which is "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you-all in the same succession and sequence"), then the word "carburetor" could, in fact, be innate to us. Since we have known it before in our hundreds of "past lives," there is no reason why "carburetor" shouldn't we be a part of our psyche since birth. Without eternal return, though, extreme nativism holds less credence to me....



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tlpounds wrote:
Mr. Pessimistic wrote,
Quote:
Those rival theories do seem a bit hard to swallow...The Extreme nativism is the most problematic to me. I mean, just the idea that the word 'carburetor' already exists in our minds is a bit insane...I just cannot find any way to make that idea makes sense.


Perhaps the proponents of extreme nativism believe in the idea of eternal return!? (Are you on Chapter Four now?) For, if you believe in eternal return, (which is "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you-all in the same succession and sequence"), then the word "carburetor" could, in fact, be innate to us. Since we have known it before in our hundreds of "past lives," there is no reason why "carburetor" shouldn't we be a part of our psyche since birth. Without eternal return, though, extreme nativism holds less credence to me....


I am in Chapter 4 now. FWIW, eternal return sounds like bunk to me as well. Where is this idea from? Who proposed it and who supports it?

Mr. P.


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Not only does eternal return sound like bunk, but it also doesn't really answer the objection. We could not have had an innate word for carburetors because we have had human language for tens of thousands of years. Carburetors are very recent developments in that time scale.

I think Pinker's critique of Extreme Nativism is spot on.

George


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Mr. Pessimistic wrote
Quote:
I am in Chapter 4 now. FWIW, eternal return sounds like bunk to me as well. Where is this idea from? Who proposed it and who supports it?


Nietzsche posited the idea. (Please see my post on the Chapter Four thread.) It has its roots in Egypt and Rome, yet some theories in physics today, including Stephen Hawking's "arrow of time," have a bit of eternal return in them. Ckeck out this article on wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_return

Also, have you read the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera? It's one of my favorites, but more importantly, it is a work that is centered around the concept of eternal return, with the author explicitly referring to and building on Nietzsche's idea.



Mon Jan 28, 2008 8:45 pm
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