Concepts where there are none

The Origins of Meaning
October 26, 2007

Most linguists have now abandoned the hope that anything like "survival of the fittest" can explain the processes of linguistic change. For those still chasing that other Darwinian will-o'-the-wisp, traditionally known as "the origin of language", James Hurford's book is valuable because it lays bare with unusual clarity one current line of thinking.

Hurford splits the problem in two. This volume is devoted to looking for the origins of meaning. A companion volume, The Evolution of Linguistic Form , is promised for 2008. Since it is rather difficult to judge a publication in which the author chooses to present only one half of his case, I may have to revise my opinion next year. So far, however, there seem to be a number of basic flaws in Hurford's project. Here I have space to comment on only two.

The first is, precisely, dividing the question in half, along the lines of the familiar linguistic form/meaning dichotomy. That might have seemed sensible in the late 19th century. But nowadays no one seriously supposes that the linguistic sign is a contingent combination of two independent elements: here the form, there the meaning. What characterises language, as Saussure long ago pointed out, is the use of signs in which form and meaning are inseparable, acquiring their mutually determining values from internal relations within a holistic system. Hurford's search method does not measure up to what is being sought. The origin of cricket is not likely to be elucidated by looking first for the origin of the bat and then for the origin of the ball.

The second basic flaw is assuming that linguistic meaning is just one sub- branch in some catch-all taxonomy of meaning in general. Hence Hurford's simplistic premise that we are looking for items that existed in animal minds long before language came along to express them. They were already "inside", waiting to get "out".

Hurford has bought heavily into the current jargon of animal "cognition", "mental representations", "proto-concepts", "proto-propositions", "mental time-travel" and the like. Armed with this, there is virtually no limit to the possibilities of attributing a rich inner quasi-human life to the humblest of creatures. Some people would call this "anthropocentrism" - a charge Hurford dismisses unconvincingly in a brief footnote with a rhetorical question: "What else can we do but take an anthropocentric point of view?" But that misses the point completely. The question is: how far can we press our anthropocentrism before it produces Mickey Mouse accounts of animal behaviour, of the kind nowadays encountered in popular TV programmes?

Much of what Hurford and other anti-Cartesians say about animal minds sounds like upmarket Mickey Mouse, decked out in pseudoscientific terminology. Hurford offers a selective survey of research into "meaningful" things animals can do. Here we meet some old favourites. There are those pigeons who can tell the difference between a Monet and a Picasso. There is Alex the parrot, who can name colours, shapes and materials. And as for Kanzi, the bonobo superstar, he's so smart he could almost run for governor of California (on a Republican ticket). Somehow the pigeons who learnt to play ping pong get left out. And there is no mention of the notorious Nim Chimpsky, who turned out not to be so clever after all. Underlying all this is a question-begging use of key words such as "concept", "category", "belief" and "judgment". Various animals, we are told, have "selective behaviour" for predators. Pigeons, ducks and dogs do not get mobbed by swallows, whereas cats regularly do. Does this mean that swallows have the concept "cat"?

"Even reflex actions involve some kind of generalisation over stimuli. No two stimuli are ever the same." But, pace Hurford, it does not follow that reflex actions involve generalisation. What happens is that a human observer makes the generalisation on behalf of the animal. One might just as well conclude that my doorbell generalises meaningfully over fingers pressing it. (Clever doorbell. Every finger, after all, is different.) Hurford seems reluctant to argue such points, which are fundamental to his enterprise. The result is a wasted opportunity, a case so far of preaching to a congregation of the converted. Will the next volume rescue it?

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, Oxford University.

The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution

Author - James R. Hurford
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 388
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 9780199207855

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