This week Babel’s Dawn has been discussing the implications of an article by Giorgio Marchetti in the current issue of Cognitive Processing. Marchetti argues that attention is an active process, the sine qua non of consciousness, and that words are tools for piloting attention. Speech thus becomes a means of directing consciousness.
Marchetti’s article also discusses the work of an American professor of rhetoric at Case Western Reserve, Todd Oakley, who writes:
language and attention are inextricably related … [T]he components of awareness and attention influence language structure and use in the same way they influence perception and sensation. Language, like perception, is a way of organizing what someone wants herself or others to pay attention to. Linguistic constructions are … instructions for making something stand out as a figure against a less differentiated ground.
In gestalt psychology, separating figure from ground is an essential task of perception. Oakley is not just speaking figuratively when he compares language with perception. Just as perception finds a tree in a forest, speech also can identify particularity. Two people can be watching somebody approach. “Look,” says one, “at how John throws his feet out to the side as he walks.” Suddenly, the listener sees that strange walking motion; it just pops out at him like a hidden figure in one of those perception puzzle drawings.
We take that kind of second-hand observation for granted and don’t give it much credit. After all, the listener needed somebody else to point out the obvious, but it is enormously powerful for the species because it makes teaching-in-depth possible. Look at the difference it would make for the chimpanzee world.
Jane Goodall and her intellectual heirs have firmly established that chimpanzees have different abilities and personalities. Inevitably, therefore, some know one thing, some another, but they have no easy way of teaching one another what they know. Their wisdom is hard earned and individual. It does not become part of the group’s intellectual capital.
Western philosophers in general and scientists in particular downplay perception in favor of logic because perceptions can be illusory. Gerald Edelman's new book (reviewed last week) does not even list perception as a path to knowledge. Yet through sensations, perception can discover the meaning of an experience, while both logic and pattern recognition must take the meaning as a given.
If I step into a house where someone is cooking pasta, I might immediately smell a pleasing aroma. That sensation only becomes meaningful if I can somehow get beyond the aroma and know what it is. Perhaps a visual image of the food pops out at me. If no such association does appear, I can use language and ask, “Oh, that smells good. What is it?”
The answer, “Spaghetti,” works like a sensation in the way it is helpful only if I can get beyond the sound of the word. If the word is meaningless to me, I am no wiser than I was when I sniffed the air. But if it is meaningful, I may suddenly visualize a plate of the pasta with red sauce and grated cheese floating on it. “Oh, yes, of course. How could I miss the smell of spaghetti?”
This kind of knowledge gets us oriented in the real world. Once we perceive that Socrates is a man, we can manage all sorts of logical manipulations with the proposition that Socrates is a man, but something has to get us started.
This perception-word connection goes a long way to explaining why people find stories so easy to understand and mathematical logic so difficult to follow. Stories evoke perceptions; equations do not, or at least they do not evoke them so readily. It also explains why successful storytelling obeys perception-oriented rules like, “Show, don’t tell.”
“Joe’s arm did a kind of double-take when he started to pick up Mary’s suitcase. He tossed her a questioning look,”
is much more effective than
“Joe was surprised by the weight of Mary’s suitcase,”
and that is more effective than,
“X anticipated Y’s suitcase to weigh less than Z lbs, but it weighed Z + A lbs.”
Each alternative moves away from perception. The first sentence puts the reader in the scene, viewing the incident. Following the event is a simple as standing there and watching it. The second tells what happened, but to understand it the reader has to imagine something like Joe’s double take. The third takes extensive translation into sensory events before it can be understood in any sort of human context.
People have known these sorts of teaching and storytelling guidelines for a very long time. They seemed well established when the first stories were written down 5,000 years ago. There is no reason to suppose they were not well known among storytellers 50,000 years ago. So it comes as something of a shock to realize that theories of language and of speech origins have not come close to explaining these basics.
The notion of joint attention and an attentional semantics appears to provide an ABC primer of what language does and how it works.