Wednesday, June 11, 2008

TLS April 11 2008

frm Barbara J. King's review of Gregory Radick's The Simian Tongue: The long debate about animal language, and Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature:

In his zoo work, [Richard] Garner invented what we would today call the primate playback experiment. . . .

This re-emergence [of the playback technique] is mainly due to the work of the British ornithologist-turned-primatologist Peter Marler. . . .

The Amboseli vervets made scientic history. When the vervets heard a played-back call originally uttered in the presence of an eagle, they fled into the bushes. For leopard and snake calls, they responded in distinct but similarly adaptive ways. Seufarth, Cheney and Marler proved that the calls contained not just high-arousal cues but specific information about the environment.

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"Linguists," [Pinker] writes, "call the inventory of concepts and the schemes that combine them 'conceptual semantics'. Conceptual semantics--the language of thought--must be distinct from language itself, or we would have nothing to go on when we debate what our words mean."

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Consider two drawings, one sharp-edged and spiky, the other soft and cloudlike, that grace a page of the book. Which is the malooma and which is the takata? People tend to agree on the answer (the cloud is malooma), because our brains are prepared to make sense of sound symbolism.

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Pinker occasionally back-pedals from the reductive abyss. He reassures readers, for instance, that the patterned regularities he discusses are not "necessarily direct reflections of the genetic patterning of our brains; some may emerge from brains and bodies interacting in human ecologies over the course of human history". For those who approach human behavior by working to understand acts of meaning-making between people, far stronger support exists for embodied and distributed cognition than is hinted at by Pinker.

One example comes from neuroscience, where research reveals the great plasticity of the human brain. In a dynamic and iterative process that unfolds according to each life's experiences, our brain circuits are sculpted and resculpted. Another example comes from a thought experiment. What if we rigged up one of Richard Garner's cages and settled inside, on an urban street, in a remote rural village, or along a forest path, to witness human interaction unfold? How far would conceptual semantics take us in interpreting what we would hear and see? Anthropologists have been there, and done that (minus the cage). Humans everywhere, they know, mak meaning together in song-laden sacred rituals, loud messy conflicts, or calm conversations. It is in creative, contingent, unpredictable and emotional meaning-making that our human nature truly lies.


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from Raymond Tallis's Commentary "License my roving hands: Does neuroscience really have anything to teach us about the pleasures of reading John Donne?"

For the extraordinary thing about human beings--and what captures what is human--is that they transcend their bodies; that human experience is not solitary sentience but has a public face; it belongs to a community of minds. This is a process that has developed over many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years since hominids parted company from the monkeys. The neuromythologist, trying to find citizens and their worlds in neurones, stuffs all that has been created by the collective of brains back into a stand-alone brain; indeed into a small part of such a brain. True, we require a brain to participate in the community of minds; but that participation is not to be reduced to activity in bits of brains.

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It is important not to suggest that it is only in rather special states of creativity--say, reading or writing poems--that we are distanced from animals. This is a mistake. We are different from animals in every waking moment of our lives. The bellowing on the lavatory that I referred to earlier demonstrates a huge gulf between us and our nearest animal kin. But if we deny this difference (invoking chimps etc) even in the case of creativity--and the appreciation of works of art--then no distance remains. That is why one would expect critics to be on the side of the poets, with their sense of this complexity, rather than siding with the terribles simplificateurs of scientism.


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from "Then and Now," from Gore Vidal's review of M. A. Screech's translation of Montaigne's essays:

"In every work of genius", wrote Emerson, "we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." After four centuries, Montaigne's curious genius still has that effect on his readersm and, time and again, one finds in his self-portrait one's ow most brilliant apercus (the ones that somehow we forgot to write down and so forgot) restored to us in his essays . . . .

4 comments:

Harry said...

All science is reductive, of course: that's the point. An explanation which is more complicated than the things it is trying to explain is no explanation at all.

It astonishes me the certainty with which some people tell us that neuroscience couldn't possibly be useful in understanding how poetry works — about the pleasures of reading Donne, in fact.

It certainly doesn't tell us anything very interesting yet, as far as I can gather. But then it's a discipline which is barely beginning to scratch the surface.

When you read people like Pinker talking about art, it can seem astonishingly philistine and clumsy, because of the kind of sweeping generalisations and assumptions that are necessary.

But it's a first step; a first attempt to tease coherent strands from the tangled mass of human consciousness.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Harry,
I think the TLS writers are excoriating Pinker's version of neuroscience, rather than neuroscience itself. I have not read Pinker, and so I cannot tell how fair they are in their description of Pinker. I agree that it remains to be seen how useful neuroscience can be in explaining poetry, but I think the popularisers of neuroscience are more guilty of over-certainty than the skeptics.

Harry said...

I think that's true. On the other hand, scepticism is an easy position: attempts to explain art by people in cognitive science, sociobiology and so on are at least trying to do something other than just apply the intuitions that can be obtained by introspection. And what I find interesting isn't so much the exact answers they come up with; it's the process of exploring the kinds of answers that might conceivably be useful.

And when it comes to over-certainty and reductiveness, you could say the same about, say, many historicist readings of literature; I wonder if they would provoke quite the same reaction in the TLS. Perhaps they would.

Jee Leong Koh said...

"exploring the kinds of answers that might conceivably be useful" is a splendid way of putting it, Harry. We may get different kinds of answers if we pose to poetry different kinds of questions. I hope I am not being too flippant when I suggest that hypothesis-making and criticism are part of the scientific method.

The lead reviewers in the TLS are certainly not without bias. The Raymond Tallis piece, however, is a Commentary responding to an earlier Commentary by A. S. Byatt who explained her thrill from Donne in neuroscientic terms (e.g. mirror neurons). In this debate, the TLS seems to offer both sides of the issue, without suggesting there are only two points of view.

As for historicism, if my memory serves me right, the TLS reviewer of Greenblatt's latest book on Shakesepeare was respectful but also critical of the limits of New Historicism.