Bryn Mawr College

Center for Science In Society

To facilitate the broad conversations, involving both scientists and non-scientists, which are essential to continuing explorations of
  • the natural world and humanity's place in it,
  • the nature of education,
  • the generation, synthesis, and evaluation of information,
  • technology and its potentials,
  • the relationships between forms of understanding.

Language: A Conversation

Meeting Notes
March 19, 2003

Carol Bernstein (English), Anne Dalke (English, Gender Studies) Paul Grobstein (Biology) Ruth Guyer (Bioethics) Jane Hedley (English) Eric Raimy (Linguistics) Rob Wozniak (Psychology)

One Summary View prepared by Eric Raimy. (Views by other participants encouraged and can be sent either by email or posted using our working group forum area):

The reading for this week's meeting was Chapter 3 of Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning. The title of this chapter is "Entry into Meaning" and the main points of discussion were the question of the theory of mind and what was the value and implications of Bruner's claim that a drive for narration was the motivation for the acquisition of language.

Discussion began with Rob questioning why we had skipped the second chapter. He pointed out that this was where Bruner laid out his main claims about the nature of narration. The group agreed that we would go back and read this chapter for the next meeting.

The discussion of the theory of mind was started by Jane asking for clarification of exactly what is was. Rob explained a basic interpretation of the theory of mind (that a person has knowledge that other people have mental states) but denied that there was proof of "the theory of the mind." Rob's denial is based on the premise there is always a possible alternative explanation for the overt behavior that is used to argue for the theory of mind. Put another way, all evidence that is used in support of mental states (a major part of the theory of the mind) can be provided an alternative explanation without making use of mental states. The relevance of the Turing Test (discussed in earlier meetings) on this issue was discussed.

Paul replied to Rob's arguments by putting forth a restatement of Rob's points as rebuttal. Paul summarized Rob's argument as proposing that it is not possible to infer from overt behavior that there is a "mind" or even mental states. The result from this conjecture as it was accepted in some parts of psychology is to deny mental states which led to the current "sterile" status of psychology. A way out of this situation is to not ask if mental states can be proven but instead to ask if the idea of mental states is useful.

Rob replied to Paul's ideas by sharpening his points. The first was to point out that he was not denying that children impute autonomy of agency, usually one of the types of evidence used in support of the theory of the mind. Instead, Rob pointed out that "meaning" is not the same as "information." Positing "information" with the child is sufficient to explain all of the data in support of the theory of mind but the theory of mind wants the conclusion to be that "meaning" is involved. Another point that Rob made was that the methods used in experiments many times determine the results. This fact explains why different experiments indicate that a child shows "theory of mind" behavior at different time frames (earlier or later in development).

Paul chimed in again with his earlier idea that we should be asking whether an idea is useful and not whether it is correct. He then suggested that we focus on the structure of Bruner's arguments in the chapter we read. Paul summarized this as "narrative drives language acquisition" and posed the question whether this was a useful idea.

From this point the idea arose of whether there could be a "paucity of narrative'" which caused a deficiency in language acquisition. This lead to a very heated discussion among Paul, Rob and Eric. Both Paul and Rob were intrigued by the idea of narrative paucity and resulting deficiency in language acquisition. Eric vehemently denied this possibility holding to two points. The first is that as long as there are human beings present there will be sufficient amounts of narratives to support language acquisition. The second is that all adults appear to have an equal amount of competence in their native language. Both Paul and Rob felt that the issues involved here were empirical ones and that we (noone?) had the right data to determine the answer to this question. Eric doubted that a case of "narrative paucity" would ever be found. The participants agreed to disagree at this point and the meeting ended.

For the next meeting the group will be reading Chapter 2 of Bruner's Acts of Meaning.

Home | Calendar | About | Getting Involved | Groups | Initiatives | Bryn Mawr Home | Serendip Home

Director: Liz McCormack - | Faculty Steering Committee | Secretary: Lisa Kolonay
© 1994- , by Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College and Serendip

Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:18 CDT