Tag: cognitive psychology

Category specific semantic deficits: implications for structure of conceptual knowledge

Category specific semantic deficits: implications for structure of conceptual knowledge

images (1)Cognitive psychology is well-known for attempting to use individual cognitive – and SPECIFIC – failures as catalysts for larger discussions about the structure of processes critical to human rational thinking.

Attached is a power point presentation I created as an undergraduate after reviewing numerous case studies. It summarizes my own commentary re: both the case studies per se and the theoretical stakes of this problem-set.

Category-Specific Deficits 2

Continue reading “Category specific semantic deficits: implications for structure of conceptual knowledge”


Quine’s weak Whorfian hypothesis?

I am continuing to notice both implicit and explicit parallels between two different discourses: on the one hand, the philosophy of language/mind, and on the other, cognitive and psycholinguistics. Its eye-opening: I hadn’t been aware how influential many of the anglo-american philosophers I am familiar with were to other, non-philosophical discourses.

F. Xu, in The role of language in acquiring object kind concepts in infancy (Cognition, 85), showcases Quine’s influence on “theories of conceptual development in which language plays a crucial role.” (Xu, 224)  Quine’s view may be seen as a weaker Whorfian hypothesis to the extent that it holds cross-linguistic differences as corresponding to cognitive differences between groups. More importantly, apparently, is Quine’s regard to the ontological effect of such cross-linguistic differences.

“Quine…considered how language may be used to build our ontology.  Most widely discussed is the case of the conceptual distinction between objects and substances from the linguistic distinction of count/mass syntax.  Quine proposed that the infant’s world is profoundly different from ours for lack of representations of enduring objects, and that it is by learning the count/mass syntax of a natural language, e.g. English, that the infant is able to “boot-strap” herself into a more adult-like conceptual scheme.  On this view, [call what follows p] cross-linguistic differences result in profound conceptual differences in adults; e.g. speakers of Japanese, which lacks the count/mass distinction, would not represent the ontological distinction between individuated entities, such as objects, and non-individuated entities, such as substances. Furthermore, [call what follows q]children learning different languages would follow rather different developmental trajectories.” (Xu, 224)

Oddly, Xu goes on to imply that Quine’s view can be distinguished further: “Empirical investigations of this issue have found that the strong version of this view is wrong: even English-speaking children who have not mastered the count/mass syntax already differentiate objects from substances in extending word meanings.” (Xu, 224)

To be honest, I’m not entirely familiar with Quine’s theory of cognitive development.   I’m not entirely sure, either, of what the “strong” version of this account is–though I suspect it is the idea that “children learning different languages would follow rather different developmental trajectories.” (Xu, 224)

To review, the difference between the strong and weak Whorfian claim is allegedly that the former supports a “linguistic differences correspond to cognitive, non-linguistic differences in thought between groups” line of thought while the latter supports the lesser claim that certain KINDS of cognition, a “thinking for speaking” kind, might be influenced by linguistic effects.

The alleged distinction in Quine’s theory of cognitive development (i.e. that BOTH p and q) doesn’t parallel the strong/weak distinction in the context of Whorfian claims.  Unless someone else can offer another way to read Xu’s interpretation of Quine’s view, that is.

Problems with testing the ‘linguistic relativity’ position

I’m currently enrolled in a course that has focused mostly on the linguistic relativity position as it exists in contemporary cognitive psychology (and to some extent, anthropology).

In a very basic sense, the linguistic relativity position says that the language a person uses determines how he or she thinks about the world in the sense that users of distinct linguistic communities actually encode (i.e. represent) the world (or an aspect of it) quite differently.

There are a number of problems characteristically cited in contemporary discussions that I’d like to review.  I’ll present these simply as obstacles to an objective treatment of this view.

  • Significance of the way the instructions of a task are presented (especially relevant in bilingual and/or cross-linguistic experimental designs)
  • Domain vs. Structural-centered approaches
  • Cultural vs. Linguistic effects on cognition
  • Population representation: the samples of these studies rarely (if ever) can be said to be representative of the “linguistic community” that they are purportedly members of
  • Insufficient description and/or knowledge of cultural differences within a particular “linguistic community”

Another I’d like to add to the list is:

  • Conflation and/or imprecise use of the term “language” and/or “linguistic community”

The latter could be rephrased as “issues concerning the projectability (in the sense that Nelson Goodman attributes to that term) of ‘linguistic effects’

To put it in a much better way: even if an experiment (and its interpretation) purport and do a good job of showing a correspondence between a linguistic difference and a cognitive difference between two communities, its uncertain whether the conclusion(s) is projectible to “language in general”–or, to emulate Heidegger’s treatment of ‘being vs. Being’–Language.

So for instance, let’s say that users of Language A actually do differ in their experience of ‘space” (i.e. in their spatial cognition) as compared to users of Language B, does it then follow that

  1. “linguistic relativity is true” because it was shown that members of one linguistic community manifested distinct cognitive patterns as compared to the cognitive patterns manifest for members of another linguistic community….OR
  2. “linguistic relativity is true” because Language (i.e. “language itself”) determines the cognitive differences observed in different linguistic communities (that is, “different linguistic communities IN GENERAL” and not merely “differences among particular linguistic communities”)

Long story short is that depending on how a conclusion regarding the relationship between “language users” and “thought” (i.e. cognition of a nonlinguistic type) is projected, you’ll see very different takes on the “stakes” of the claim.  In the first case the cognitive difference is due to language-effects between one particular linguistic community and another particular linguistic community.  In the second case, the cognitive difference (i.e. the difference in thought) is taken to indicate a general effect of language itself, that is, Language…otherwise known as “the capacity for language”.

In a very short time observed cognitive differences between distinct linguistic communities becomes explainable via recourse to “the capacity for language”–a description in close proximity to something an advocate of Chomsky’s positions might say.  The irony is, of course, that proponents of the linguistic relativity position are OPPOSED to Chomsky’s program, to the whole edifice upon which the “universal grammar” conception is built.