Language anyone?

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 16 Mar 1995 14:50:48 JST

As we are looking for new topics to discuss, allow me to offer one of my
own obsessions--the relation of ideas about language to the culture of
the discipline (and more broadly the world) in which we live , work and

I myself come at this issue as someone who did a year of formal logic as
an undergraduate, got excited by reading Noam Chomsky in graduate
school, and then went on to work for a while as a research assistant in
an artificial intelligence project supervised by Roger Schank. To this
day the prospect of finding (the words are Levi-Strauss's) a
"Mendelevian table of the mind," whose permutations and
combinations define the universe of human possibilities continues to
excite me.

I have, however, become increasingly sensitive to observations that the
messy realities of human language do not yield easily to oversimplified
abstract analysis. Looking back I recall a brilliant image offered by
Wallace Chafe; the occasion was, I recall, a colloquium at either
Berkeley or Cornell. Chafe noted that language as described by
Chomsky and his followers is like a new erector set. All the parts are
clean and shiney and designed to fit together. Real languages, he said,
are more like old erector sets found when cleaning out a closet. The
pieces are dirty. Original pieces are missing. Others are dented or
damaged. Original pieces have been replaced by screws, rubber bands,
blobs of old chewing gum. These sets have a history.

Now when I think about language and how we use it in academic and
other discussions, I start from a position best expressed by Donald
McCloskey in _The Rhetoric of Economics_. I, too, was trained in a
facts and logic, positivistic view of language that, looking back, we now
recognize as part and parcel of Modernism. I, too, have learned that
facts and logic are only part of what we say; more is stories and
metaphors. Our problem is that while we share certain rules and
procedures for evaluating the former, we are mostly confused about the
latter. How we might get unconfused is the subject that refuses to leave
me alone.

Besides McCloskey, other texts that have taught me a lot are

On the literary side--

George Steiner, _After Babel_, and
Stephen Olsen, _Omen of the World_.

On the technical side--

George Lakoff, _Women, Fire and Dangerous Things_.

I would also recommend a piece by Maurice Bloch, on "Language and
Cognition" (The title may be a little different; it's lecture in which he
talks about the implications of cognitive science for anthropology.)

Dan Sperber's _Rethinking Symbolism_ andseveral of the small books
of essays (e.g., _Reconnaisances_) by Rodney Needham point in similar

I'd love to get into some serious talk about this subject. Anyone out
there interested?

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)