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
4 February 2002

Carol Bernstein (English), Doug Blank (Computer Science), Peter Briggs (English), Sharon Burgmayer (Chemistry), Anne Dalke (English, Feminist and Gender Studies), Paul Grobstein (Biology), Ruth Guyer (General Studies, journalist), Deepak Kumar (Computer Science), George Pahomov (Russian), Eric Raimy (Linguistics), Leslie Rescorla (Psychology), Katherine Rowe (English), George Weaver (Philosophy)

One Summary View (prepared by Eric Raimy/Paul Grobstein; views by other participants encouraged and can be sent either by email or posted using our working group forum area):

Initial discussion of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (chapters 1-2) and Dreaming By the Book by Elaine Scarry (Chapters 1-3) not unexpectedly laid bare some "two culture" differences in perspective/approach/expectation and, correspondingly, began the productive elaboration of some themes for further conversation.

It quickly became clear that "conceptual content" and "mode of presentation" were not, for many of us, readily separated. Strong arguments were made that it is not in fact possible to make such a sharp dichotomy ... that content and presentation are inevitably to one extent or another intertwined in generating meaning. Pinker's "boosterism" for linguistics/cognitive science was seen as a relevant part of his presentation, one which needed to be considered in evaluating the book's impact. More generally, there was some concern that Pinker took advantage of a reader's presumption that scientists argued "logically" while more clandestinely slipping in (consciously or unconsciously) significant messages in particular examples/metaphors (with perhaps different impact on different readers). The issue of the relation between "content" and "presentation" as exemplified in the two books and responses to them seem worth pursuing in future discussion.

Pinker was seen as aspiring to communicate with a more general audience while Scarry was identified as writing more for a narrower audience. Nonetheless, there was a noteworthy tendency of many participants to feel much more interested in/invited into/comfortable with one of the two books than the other. This clearly had partly to do with degree of familiarity with examples and allusions in the text but seemed to correlate also with other things yet to be fully explored. Accounting for differences among participants in how "interesting/inviting/engaging" they found the two books also seems potentially worth pursuing in future discussion.

A second, possibly related, spectrum of reactions had to do with content somewhat more directly. Both Pinker and Scarry were seen by some of us as preoccupied with things as they are, with the fixed and constrained rather than with the plastic, fluid, and open-ended ("more concerned with how people learn language than with how to use it"). A third, also possibly related, spectrum of reactions had to do with cultural dependence, with the importance or lack thereof of asking how and why particular questions about language were being posed in both Pinker and Scarry ... and the extent to which these hows and whys reflected unspoken cultural influences on both. The term "essentialism" arose in this context (as well as in the context of explorations of the brain, see below). Some further discussion of "essentialism," of cultural dependence, and of constraint (vs generativity, see below) in the broad context of intellectual activity might be productive in the future.

These general issues intermingled with and permeated the beginnings of more specific explorations of more explicit claims made in the Pinker and Scarry books. Clearly the issue of cultural dependence is central to a main theme of Pinker: that language has its origins not in culture but rather in "instinct". Concerns were expressed both about the issue of what exactly Pinsker means by this term and about the justification for it based on the kinds of observations Pinker cites (up to present point in the book). The meaning and significance of the "innateness" of language clearly needs more attention, particularly in light of the obvious role of experience/culture in language and the general concerns about constraint vs. generativity.

While Pinker is primarily concerned with trying to understand where language comes from beginning from a biological rather than a cultural perspective, Scarry is primarily concerned with its use, with how it successfully evokes images. The two share, however, a common sense that considerations of cognition and the workings of the individual mind/brain are useful in thinking about language. A proposed condensation of Scarry's main focus is that writers over the years have discovered things about the human mind/brain that neuro and cognitive scientists have yet to be able to actively explore. These have to do with the processes that link interpretation of language with image/ feeling. The usefulness of the individual, brain/mind perspective common to both Pinker and Scarry is worth further discussion, particularly in the light of some of the more general issues mentioned above.

A major set of themes that emerged from intersecting the work of Pinker with that of Scarry related to the precision or lack thereof in language, a subject which had arisen in the context of an earlier "two cultures" discussion. Part of Scarry's argument was based on what was referred to as the "impoverished" nature of language relative to other forms of expression such as painting or music or theater. This characterization relates to certain aspects of brain function which may need further discussion. Regardless, it elicited the useful alternative characterization of language as "chaste", emphasizing that its relative spareness made it particularly inviting of engaged interpretation (an idea perhaps similar to McLuhan's earlier "cool" media?). A consideration of the contexts in which is it useful to consider language as "impoverished", "chaste", "precise", "allusive", "constraining", "generative", considering both language itself and the variety of uses to which it is put by individuals and in culture, seems worth continuing in future discussions.

Abstract as some of the issues discussed may seem to some, they have quite concrete real life implications and consequences, not the least of which are variations in pedagogical styles and individual methodological preferences and presumptions that incline different groups of people to doubt the usefulness of conversation with other groups. In this important sense, it is appropriate that the "text" for the group's conversation is not only the Pinker and Scarry books but the conversation itself as well. One might think of the conversation as an exploration of the capability of language to bridge discordances perhaps created in part by language itself. In this spirit, the group agreed that, in its next meeting, it would focus more on particular ideas explicitly developed by Pinker and Scarry. In so doing, we are not taking a position on the issue of the relative importance of essentialistic as opposed to embedded constructions of meaning but simply exploring the intellectual usefulness of particular approaches to particular texts, and of the more explicit ideas developed in those texts. Given the concerns expressed about impoverishment and constraint, Paul Grobstein volunteered to make some brief introductory comments about the "generativity" and potential for allusiveness in a system originating in "instinct".