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
7 October 2002

Doug Blank (Computer Science), Anne Dalke (English), Paul Grobstein (Biology), Mark Lord (Theater), Eric Raimy (Linguistics), Kathryn Rowe (English), George Weaver (Philosophy)

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 readings under discussion for this meeting were Ch 5, "Male Pregnancy and Cognitive Permeability in Measure for Measure" from Crane's Shakespeare's Brain and excerpts 1, 4, 9 and 13 from Beckett's Texts for Nothing.

Kathryn started the discussion by laying out problems she finds in the chapter from Crane. The primary concern (which was echoed by Mark) was that Crane missed opportunities to investigate aspects of the theater. It was also suggested that Crane overstated the importance of the Englightenment's 'anxiety' about the enmeshed mind and body. Kathryn illuminated this point further by giving examples of stoic vs. anti-stoic views of leaders and general people in the Englightenment period as a function of permeability. Stoic lies on the end of non-permeable while anti-stoic is on the end of more permeable.

A discussion of exactly what the notion of 'permeability' was and how it could be understood in modern terms. The group found this to be very complicated issue because although we recognized that the humor based model of human biology was not a good contemporary reflection of how we think about biology, it never the less presented a plausible way of thinking about how the human body (and mind) is permeable.

A side issue that was raised by Eric was to point out that Crane's discussion of the meanings of different words assumed that there were accessible and disjunct definitions of the meanings of different words. Eric suggested that it is not entirely clear that we understand semantics enough to make this assumption. The point that was being raised here was that many cases of metaphor and/or polysemy may be the result of us not knowing or having access to the full/'real' meanings of words.

Discussion then turned to the readings from Beckett. Beckett's purpose in these writings was to be 'culturally transcendent'. The relevance of this attempt to the group can be found in an earlier discussion where the group asked the question whether culture could be 'controlled for' in an experimental way. The main disucssion of this work centered around the idea of a 'community of the mind' found in Beckett's work. In other words, all of the excerpts had the flavor of a discussion occurring inside the writer's head. This leads to the inevitable question as to who or what is involved in this type of internal dialog. Paul suggested that most of the internal discussion as presented in Beckett's work was from the 'metonomous mind' and in cases where there was a discernable other in the discussions this was the 'metaphoric mind' interjecting into the conversation. I think a safe conclusion from this discussion is that the group agreed that Beckett achieved an 'acultural' piece of writing because we all agreed that discussions such as presented by Beckett occur in all of our minds. A flaw in this conclusion is that even though the group is diverse in backgrounds we generally all come from a similar cultural base.

The Beckett work stimulated a discussion about the relationship between the metaphoric and metonymic aspects of the mind. The basic topic was exactly how did or what is the result of the mind having both types of characteristics. Paul suggested that there was a single semantic/conceptual topography that could be manipulated or shaped in different ways depending on whether the mind was using a metaphoric or metonymic approach to navigating this topography. Eric questioned how much the conceptual topography was actually changed and instead suggested that the topography was fixed and that metaphor and metonomy provided different ways of 'seeing' or accessing the conceptual topography. This discussion only resulted in the introduction of these ideas as ways of understanding how the mind works and not in any conclusion about the mind. At this point, time was over and the group agreed on revisiting the Beckett readings for the next meeting and to read Roman Jacobson's "Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbances" which further introduces the distinction between metaphor and metonomy in the mind and will hopefully allow this discussion to blossom.