The thesis of Steven Pinker’s new book, The Stuff of Thought, (in stores today, 9/11) is that the words we use are determined by a set of abstract concepts built into the brain. So, for speech to have begun we must have evolved the ability to transform those abstract concepts into concrete words. The trouble is, jumping the abstract/concrete divide from the abstract side of the gap is like building an anti-gravity machine. It contradicts something fundamental.
I’m not making up a straw man when I report Steven Pinker says that the meaning of words rests on abstract concepts. Here are a few examples plucked at random from a full orchard of possible picks:
If there is indeed a language of thought, it will have to be quite abstract … it can’t just reflect the sights and sounds of the events [p. 77] … What exactly would go into this abstract language of thought? [p. 78] … Conceptual metaphors can be learned and used only if they are analyzed into more abstract elements like “cause,” “goal,” and “change” which make up the real currency of thought. [p. 259]
We normally think of abstractions as things removed from a concrete context, but Pinker reverses that idea. Concrete statements have been expanded from abstract origins. This strikes me as an astounding turnabout, and if it were true might possibly stand on a par with switching motion from the sun to the earth, but Pinker downplays the reversal. He states his thesis and immediately says, “Your reaction might have been, ‘So what’s the big deal? How else could people know how to use the words in their vocabularies?” [p. 91] He does not pause to discuss the common opinion that we rely on our senses to use words, and on the next page he suggests there is very little controversy in his account:
Almost everyone in the various nature-nurture debates acknowledges that people have to be born with an ability to represent certain elementary concepts (if only “red,” “loud,” “round,” and so on) [p. 92]
Actually, many participants in the nature-nurture debate believe that the innate representation of, say, red or loud, is a sensation, not a concept. For Pinker, however, perceiving something as red or loud is not enough. We require a concept if we are to recognize it. He states the point directly at the end of the book, “Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensations the world presents.” [p. 428]
So, if somebody points to a woman and says, Now that is what I call a red dress!, the meaning isn’t to be found by looking at the dress, but by checking that abstract concept. It is true that checking the concept is exactly the way my PC would go about decoding the sentence. It is also true that Pinker says, “the human mind and commercial digital computers are two exemplars of the category ‘computational system.’” [p. 259] But Pinker offers no information about how people move from their timeless, stick figures of abstraction to the sensuously integrated here-and-now that makes up concrete experience.
Here’s a famous sentence from Proust that Pinker quotes while dismissing the importance of sensory experience,
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. [p. 269]
The experience captured in this sentence led to a million-word novel, but let’s just see what is involved in getting from concepts to this sentence.
- Sensations must be brought together—warmth, liquidness, crumb texture—while other sensations must be ignored—no mention of pressure from sides of shoes, weight of tea cup in hand, air blowing on face.
- Events have to be united as well—touching palate, shudder, stopping. Other events are omitted—swallowing, tea shaking in cup.
- One psychological state, being intent, is also identified, while the previous state of mild boredom goes unmentioned. Then there is an unnamable state, “the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”
- Two unnamed focuses of attention are also important to this sentence. At first both narrator and reader are looking outward, toward the world, the cookie and tea, but after the shudder the narrator’s attention shifts inwardly and he redirects the reader as well toward what is going on inside him.
All of these abstractions are brought together into a coherent experience of surprise and wonder. There are two possible ways to enlarge the abstractions. Perhaps we merely confabulate, making the world up as we go along. Or there must be some pre-existing structure that organizes the concepts into a whole. It would be hard to explain why natural selection would favor confabulation, but we don’t have to. Pinker devotes a chapter to metaphors in which his principle point is that we do not just make up the world. That leaves us with the pre-existing structure. Pinker calls them “assemblies,” because they are assembled from basic, innate concepts. He is vague about how they come together, but however they unite the results are prefabricated.
So there is a ready-to-go assembly of tea drinking that links the temperature, liquid of the tea, and crumbs of the cookie. But wait, could we skip the liquid and substitute a spoon—no sooner had the warmth from the spoon and mild sting of the crumbs stirred my palate. Yes, Proust could have said that instead or a thousand other possible phrases. Those others would not be so apt, however, because Proust is telling us about the relation between the taste of tea mixed with a madeleine cookie and his boyhood happiness.
We might suppose that there is some system for selecting the apt assembly and creating an apt sentence, but the difference between an apt remark and an eternal verity is the concreteness of the apt statement. And, by definition, both the basic concepts and their assemblies lack concreteness. So how does the assembly jump to the other side of the abstract/concrete divide and say this situation calls for this remark?
It’s easy to go from the concrete to the abstract, as in boys [concrete] will be boys [abstract], because the second boys strips away the details and specifics of the here-and-now of the first boys. But going in the other direction, from abstract to concrete, requires adding information not to be found in the original offering. But remember: ex nihilo nihil fit; from nothing comes nothing. You can no more pull new information from a magician’s hat than you can honestly produce a new-made rabbit.
Not surprisingly, Pinker makes no attempt to explain how we jump the abstract-concrete divide, so I was startled when, at the very close of the book, he says “the language of thought can be pressed into service to conceive and express a ceaseless geyser of ideas.” [p. 437] But we need more than just Old Faithful spraying us with novelties. We need good ideas, apt ones that work in our time and place. We need, in short, some selection process that stands apart from the geyser, watches its output, and says, oh, there’s a promising one. That process is as much a mystery after reading Pinker's book as it was before.
I'll have two more posts on this book next week.