A meaningful reply

November 23, 2007

Roy Harris has written a blistering review of my book The Origins of Meaning (Books, October 26). I think I can see where he is coming from.

For my treatment of "the familiar linguistic form/meaning dichotomy", Harris thinks I am coming from "the late 19th century". Indeed, Saussure, in the early 20th century, emphasised the binding of form and meaning within a holistic system.

But form and meaning are distinguishable. How else could Saussure have written about a relationship between them?

Form and the meaning in language have links to things outside language, acoustic patterns and motor commands in the case of speech, and the referents of words in the case of meaning.

My project is about the integration of language with other experience and activity. Harris suspends judgment on my project until seeing what I will say about the origins of linguistic form. I can perhaps assuage him by acknowledging that the binding of a pre-linguistic concept to a form (such as a word) has a transforming effect on the original concept, as has been confirmed by psychological experiments.

The Origins of Meaning concerns an evolutionary stage when there was no language. The linguistic sign didn't spring from nowhere. I am indeed coming from the late 19th century, following Darwin in insisting on the continuity between humans and apes. Again, this is about integration, of our view of humans with our view of non-humans, without minimising the differences.

Harris swipes aside thought about language origins as a "Darwinian will- o'-the-wisp". I partly share his appreciation of Saussure, but wonder what he thinks about Darwin.

Another way of saying, as Harris does, that I have "bought heavily into the current jargon of animal 'cognition'" is to describe the project as synthesising relevant 20th and 21st-century scientific research in human and comparative psychology.

"Much of what Hurford and other anti-Cartesians say about animal minds sounds like upmarket Mickey Mouse decked out in pseudoscientific terminology" - this seems to show where Harris is coming from.

Implying some "pro-Cartesian" stance makes him a strange bedfellow of Chomsky, whose ideas he has also castigated energetically.

More broadly, this is a fundamental attack on most current psychology. Maybe the 22nd century will judge Harris right, and we have wasted our time following another will-o'-the-wisp, but from where I am standing now, it doesn't seem likely.

James R. Hurford, Professor of language evolution and computation research unit Edinburgh University.

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