Mindboggling: Preliminaries to a Science of the Mind

Richard Gregory on an introduction to a way of interpreting communication and linguistics

November 13, 2008

The author, Roy Harris, is professor of general linguistics at the University of Oxford, and has a reputation for originality. He develops and defends integrationism, which regards communication as a creative activity in which language is seen not as a code, but rather as an opportunity to evoke possible meanings very much dependent on context.

Harris believes that "integrationism has important implications for our understanding of interpersonal relations as well as of modern society and its communicational resources, including the entire range of arts and sciences". He holds that "integrationism (as opposed to segregationism, ie, any approach which assumes that systems of communication are independent of their potential users or of the context in which they can operate) denies the existence of context-free signs. Signs, including linguistic signs, are products of the communicational process, not its prerequisites".

Mindboggling questions whether we have mind, discussing whether language is possible without mind. It naturally starts with the Greeks, but rather oddly does not extend into experimental studies of cognitive brain processes and dismisses current cognitive psychology as unhelpful.

The book is divided into nearly 30 very short chapters, including "The Vulgar Mind", "The Ghostly Mind", "The Well-Behaved Mind" and "The Wilful Mind". This makes it easy for the reader to focus on specific issues, although almost all the discussions refer back to linguistics. Phenomena and theories of perception, memory, thinking and cognitive psychology are scarcely mentioned. This is a pity, because there are illuminating similarities between the way language and perception, for example, work: there are illusions in both, and probabilities from prior experience are crucially important in all aspects of mind.

Throughout is a concern with the "language myth" - the way most of us think of language as a rigid code where words are supposed to have specific, even God-given "correct" meanings. Evidently, denying this is central to integrationism.

The sixth chapter, "The Computerised Mind", asks: "Could your mind be a neural computer programme installed in your head?" Harris points out that recent artificial intelligence moves into connectionism - neural networks with connections strengthened by use. He says: "Heavier 'traffic' will reinforce a connection and lighter 'traffic' weaken it. This will affect the behaviour of the network as a whole and its capacity for dealing with 'messages'. Exactly how this model can be deployed to throw light on the workings of the mind is still a matter of controversy ...", and quotes David Rose: "a cautious conclusion is that the operation of networks might explain 'at least certain aspects of the mind' at 'one level up from single nerve cells'."

Harris concludes that "even that vague promissory note would be regarded by many as over-optimistic". He rejects computer analogies, but what does he offer in their place? Is he claiming that linguistics has adequate concepts? It seems not, for he rejects most of current linguistic theory. What he offers no doubt would be rejected by cognitive psychologists and by the artificial intelligence community, including defenders of neural nets. They will admit, however, that consciousness and especially qualia of sensation are deeply puzzling and apparently not illuminated by computers.

Harris is not afraid of making challenging statements: "there is a standing assumption not only that language reveals the mind but that linguistic differences between the sexes reflect mental differences between the sexes. This kind of linguistic psychology actually drives the debate and is essential to it, for a very simple reason. If linguistic differences between men and women were 'merely verbal', they would be of no more significance than the fact that men's clothes button up left-over-right, whereas women's clothes button up the opposite way."

This book is easy to read, but it toys with some difficult ideas. It is not really understandable without previous reading and thinking on these complex subjects. The book lacks information about the author or his clearly interesting mind, and there is no index - perhaps it is not allowed in integrationism.

Are these significant "preliminaries to a science of mind"? This is a really important question for teachers and students of psychology and artificial intelligence, and also sociology and linguistics. This book is valuable in asking questions and throwing down the gauntlet to current philosophers. It is not, and does not pretend to be, a primer, or a crib for accumulating knowledge on these technical and daunting topics. It is perhaps more akin to taking a climbing holiday with an intellectual companion.

Mindboggling: Preliminaries to a Science of the Mind

By Roy Harris
The Pantaneto Press
173pp
£11.95
ISBN 9780954978020
Published 19 September 2008

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