Regular visitors to this blog will know that two weeks ago we devoted a series of posts to exploring the proposition that words are tools for piloting attention. Then last week one of the final posts about presentations at the Stellenbosch conference cited a paper by Peter Gardenfors that rejected as incomplete the thesis ,“that symbolic communication is the process by which one attempts to manipulate the attention of, or to share attention with another individual.”
Dr. Gardenfors said this could not be the whole story because:
One aspect that is missing in his characterization is that depending on the character of the “outside entity” different cognitive demands on the individual whose attention is manipulated will be relevant.
Gardenfors cites difficult cases:
The most difficult type of communication concerns novel entities that do not yet exist. Collaboration about future, non-existent goals falls within this category. Here the signaler can neither rely on common knowledge about the entity, nor on cues from the environment. … we submit that it is for this kind of communication that symbols prove their mettle.
Giorgio Marchetti posted a response on this blog, saying Gardenfors does not seem to realize that words are capable:
of piloting or directing it [attention] toward itself (more precisely: toward the attentional operations which always and invariably characterize our conscious experiences, and which constitute what we call the "meanings" of the words referring to those experiences).
This blog is very sympathetic to Marchetti’s position, but visitors to the blog are probably not going to understand that reply fully if they are unfamiliar with Marchetti’s paper on “Attentional Semantics” in the current issue of Cognitive Processing. As an example of things not visible in the here and now, the paper includes an interesting account of the meaning of “time,” but it is far too technical for me to summarize on this blog.
The limit Gardenfors mentions—communicating about things that do not exist—is one of the hardest things for humans to do effectively, especially if the very idea of the thing does not exist either. A few years ago I wrote a history of the discovery of the ice age (The Ice Finders) in which the problem was exactly that nobody had ever seen such a thing and could not imagine what Louis Agassiz (the theory’s promoter) was talking about. Unless he physically led people to look at the evidence—huge moraines, high scratches on the walls of the Alps, and gigantic boulders far from their geological source—people would imagine the pictures they had seen of Alpine glaciers and balk at the claim that such a thing could grow to be continent-sized. Finally “the necessary poet” appeared in the form of an arctic explorer, Elisha Kent Kane, who had been trapped for two winters at Greenland’s northern end. He wrote a very successful book that described a land of enormous glaciers and suddenly everybody could picture a world covered by ice. Charles Lyell then wrote a book about human prehistory in which he used Greenland as the metaphor for the ice age. Suddenly people could not even remember why they had found the ice age is an incomprehensible, impossible idea.
Metaphor is the key to using language in circumstances when pointing at the here and now won’t work. It draws attention to experiences the listener can imagine even though the world offers no physical examples for their eyes or ears.
The concreteness of metaphors provides a way of focusing attention on common aspects of separate things. They also offer a way of thinking concretely about airy experience that is not at all understood. Thus, we can “grasp” an idea, making very vivid something that has been mysterious for thousands of years, probably tens of thousands of years, possibly even millions of years. We can talk about it, and know the experience of what we are talking about, without having any notion of the science of it. It provides a way of sharing attention with an idea, which is why I found Gardenfors’ objection weak and unpersuasive.
There are, however, objections to reliance on metaphors and I will discuss those in tomorrow’s post.