Topic 4: The development of linguistic concept study as anthropocentric conceptualization of reality in pragma-functional realization of a concept.
Lecture 10. The development of linguistic concept study
· To look at the main backgrounds of linguistic concept study development
· To trace the differences in understanding of concepts, in methods and devices of their investigation
· To give the examples of conceptual opposition
Language is often central to the ideas that are put forward in theories about education. We can see this in a number of so-called socio-cultural theories about learning and conceptual change, where language often plays a foundational role for the theory as a whole. Another reason for considering language together with ideas of learning is that there are several different concepts of language that could be used in such discussions. In socio-cultural theories about language one also often claim to have another concept of language than mentalist theories have. It seems moreover that many problems in those investigations are based upon the concept of language used. Many socio-cultural theories unintentionally do have the same basic conception about language as mentalist ones, and that they both do also often share the same presuppositions about what language is.
The most common view about language in general is an idea that we will here call a linguistic or grammatical view. It is a view that is based upon language as a lexicon and a grammar. Language is then a set of words and grammar regulates how these words can be meaningfully combined and altered. This is the view that is used in ordinary school grammar that most people are familiar with since their youth.
This view of language is also usual in philosophy of language and in several theories in linguistics such as Chomsky’s generative grammar. Language is here supposed to consist of words, and rules for the use of these words. Some words are classified as nouns others as verbs, etc. There are then rules for these words about how they are allowed to be combined into meaningful sentences etc. The grammar has then the function of being the rules that regulates the use of words and gives language a structure. Language is thus a system of expressions.
The idea of language as a system of expressions is common to most mentalist theories of language. In Chomsky’s theories language is supposed to be build up by simple units such as verb phrases and noun phrases etc. There are moreover transformation rules that regulate how these units are allowed to be combined. We have then a grammar in the mind that is ”a system that specifies the phonetic, syntactic and semantic properties of an infinite class of potential sentences” (Chomsky, 1980, p. 35). Language is thus regulated by rules to form a structure.
We can say the same about language and rules in for example Piaget’s theories.
But what kind of claim does a theory have regarding the question of explaining understanding. Is the theory supposed to explain how understanding works or is it a theory that is restricted to give a method that can be used in teaching? Let us look at an example from James Wertsch (Wertsch, 1998).
Wertsch discusses some ideas from K. Burke (Burke, 1969). Wertsch is interested in using Burke’s ideas about a so-called pentad together with his own ideas of mediated tools. A pentad consists of five elements that are to be used in an investigation of analyzing the understanding of an agent’s action and motives. The elements are: Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose. Wertsch explains them as roughly being the same as the questions ”What? Where? Who? How? and Why?”. He also says that they are what school children are taught to answer in essays and what journalists use in writing an article.
One question one now could ask about the pentad is if it is supposed to give an explanation of the problem of how human understanding works, or is it just a method that can be used to analyze what motive an agent has with an action. I guess that Wertsch would say that the theory is supposed to give an explanation of what understanding is. Nonetheless, if the pentad consists of the ultimate components that constitute understanding of motives, these components ought to be in a way non-analyzable or at least the primary ingredients in understanding. They ought to explain what a motive as such is, as contrary to an answer to the question of what the motive for an action was.
If we however take a closer look at, for example, the category „Act”, which is supposed to equal the ”What-question”, we must say that this can’t be something that is primary to what is to be explained. The act or what-has-happened-question is an extremely complex question.
The question already presupposes that we know how to describe and understand the world and can therefore be used as a tool when reporting something. But it can’t answer the question of what it is that makes up what understanding is. The what-question can therefore be used by journalists since they are not researchers, but it want work in an explanation of how we understand motives since it presupposes most of what we would like to explain. The pentad can thus be used as a tool to structure the parts involved in a description of the motive that someone had for acting in a certain way. We can from this analysis know what the motive was, but we won’t know what it is that makes it possible for us to understand the motive. So if Wertsch has the ambition to answer that question he won’t succeed.
Andrea A. di Sessa and Bruce L. Sherin discusses in a joint article the question of what a concept is (di Sessa & Sherin, 1998). In this article they does not seem to distinguish between the vocabulary (the set of words) a language have and the concepts this vocabulary represents. Di Sessa & Sherin wonders if every word correspond to a concept or not. This is a question that do however seem to be a bit odd, since it is a question that has long ago already been answered in philosophy of language. A language consists of several words that make up the vocabulary, but it is the content to these words that are the concepts. Sometimes one word has several different meanings, where each meaning is a concept. We then have ambiguity. If we are uncertain which concept are meant in a certain sentence we make an investigation to clear this out. How this could be done is a practical problem, but it is not a theoretical one. Sometimes, on the other hand, we have several different words for one concept. If this is a problem we can also here make an investigation to clear out which, or if, two different words have the same meaning or not. This is not either a theoretical problem, but if one does not distinguish the vocabulary from the content it will be.
But that does too means that if one does not make this distinction one is using a concept of language as if it consists of words and not of the content of words. In philosophy of language it is always the content to words that make up the language. What this content consists of is a philosophical problem, but the distinction between word and content is not. That likewise means that in understanding of language it is the concepts that is understood, so understanding and thinking is therefore done with concepts and not with words.
According to di Sessa & Sherin is a concept a kind of knowledge system (di Sessa & Sherin, 1998, p. 1170).There are according to di Sessa & Sherin two components that are used to give us information about something. We must select and combine observations in a process that is called integration. And we must also be able to determine that we observe the same information in a new situation. This is called invariance by di Sessa & Sherin. These two criteria are criteria of identification. If we are going to observe something we must be able to discriminate it from its environment and we must besides be able to identify it on another occasion. We could say that in one way it is nothing wrong with these two requirements. The problem is that it is not clear on what level diSessa&Sherin put these demands. The thing is that if we are going to sort out certain properties from other properties in deciding what properties that belong to a specific concept, we must already be able to observe these properties in advance. That means that we must already have the concept we are trying to learn. This is a well-known problem that has been discussed from such different points of view as by the behaviourist W. v. O. Quine (1960) as by L. Wittgenstein (1958).
Besides the question of language as a calculus and language as a vocabulary there is also the question of what, if any, ontological implications different views of language has. The traditional idea of realism is that the world exists independently of a mind, and idealism says that the opposite, that the world is dependent of a mind. A modern version of idealism is the so-called linguistic idealism. It means that the world exists in the way language describes it and that there is no other way than via language to access it. The world is then dependent of the way it is described. This view is sometimes represented in socio-cultural theories and we shall therefore investigate that idea a bit.
One of the main ideas in socio-cultural research is that learning is done in an interaction with other people in society. The agent is then not just a passive receiver of a message or of information which when required will give new knowledge. He or she will participate in an active way in a process that involves, among other things, language. The language will then be a tool that in some kind of active way mediates knowledge. Included in this view is also often the idea that language is a filter between the world and the mind (Säljö, 2000 & 2002, Östman, 2003). As a filter language is not a single unity that is acquired by every speaker of the language, so that every speaker of it would have the same understanding of the world. Language is instead diverted in different discourses where each discourse contains of distinct areas of knowledge. The mind thus uses language as a tool to understand the world. The world is what’s more understood according to the discourse used.
If language is a filter between the world and mind it also means that thinking must be distinct from language. The idea seems to be that mind does not have access to the world without something mediating it. This mediating thing is language and therefore mind has to think about the world as language describes it. We are thus in a way prisoner in language. Although the mind seems to be something that can think without language, it still needs language to come in touch with the world. The subject can therefore not think of the world in another way than language describes it. And that means language. This moreover means that we here have a form of linguistic idealism. The world exists as language describes it and there is no independent access to it.
The view of language as a discourse that humans learn by participating in a social activity, do also contain an idea of language as something that is determined by use (Östman, 2003). Östman and other do often refer to Wittgenstein in this claiming that language is set by its use. The use talked about in socio-cultural theories is a use of a rule-governed discourse, and not the actual use of language. The difference from mentalist ideas of language is then basically that language is acquired through a social activity, and is not innate or something that develops during the child’s growth. The difference is then a question of acquisition and not a question about what language consists of.
The idea of language as a discourse does however not only include the idea of language as a system. It do is also based upon a confusion of language as a vocabulary and language as consisting of its conceptual content. According to socio-cultural theories language in the form of discourses is supposed to be a filter between the mind and the world, since different discourses are supposed to consist of different concepts. It does however looks like that these discourses are not based upon concepts, but just upon a vocabulary.
If language is a mediating filter between the mind and the world, the mind must be able to think without this language. The mind must be something that can, so to speak, chose between different languages. That means that the mind must be able to think independently of a language. What does this thinking then consists of?
If two different thoughts about the same thing can be distinguished, the thoughts need something that differs them from each other. If the mind has a thought of something as a, and another thought of something as b, the conceptual difference between the two thoughts is that we have used different concepts (not words) to describe that which we are thinking about. If we do that we are using concepts. We are thus using concepts to distinguish between two different ways of thinking of something. That also means that we are thinking in concepts and that there are no mental ideas that precede the concepts. So thinking of something means to think with language and that language consists of concepts, not of words. Using language (as consisting of concepts, and not of words) in thinking of something can thus not be something different from thinking itself. And if the content in a thought would consists of something just mental it ought to be an idea about how something is, but having an idea of how something is, is to use a concept to think about it.
The idea of language as a mediating filter does however presuppose that thinking is done without concepts. It presumes that thinking is done as something purely mental without any concepts involved. Language would then be something different from thinking. It would be a language as a vocabulary. Language and concepts would then be the same. We could then not distinguish between the words and their content.
If language is a filter that is used to determine the way we think of the world, we must thus be able to think without concepts. But if language is supposed to shape our thoughts as a filter there is not anything that can be shaped. The idea then that language functions as a filter is then based upon the idea of language as a vocabulary.
The interaction between peoples that in socio-cultural theories is supposed to be the foundation for knowledge, will in those ideas just be an exchange of words, not concepts. When Wittgenstein however discusses language use, language is internal related to the world since the concepts learned is done by an activity together with things in the world. By learning to cope with mugs the child will learn the concept “mug”. Words are then accidental to that which is learned but the concept is not. This also means that thinking consists of using the concepts we learned in learning to handle the world. There is then no thinking that precedes language, with language understood as concepts. When language then is a tool it means that the subject uses concepts to understand the world. Concepts are thus not something that lies between the mind and the world. Concepts are the way the world is understood in and that is done in thinking. There is no extra medium in form of a vocabulary that lies between the mind and the world that shapes the world.
In critical theory, a binary opposition (also binary system) is a pair of related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning. Binary opposition is the system by which, in language and thought, two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set off against one another. It is the contrast between two mutually exclusive terms, such as on and off, up and down, left and right. Binary opposition is an important concept of structuralism, which sees such distinctions as fundamental to all language and thought. In structuralism, a binary opposition is seen as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language.
Binary opposition originated in Saussure an structuralist theory. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, the binary opposition is the means by which the units of language have value or meaning; each unit is defined in reciprocal determination with another term, as in binary code. It is not a contradictory relation but, a structural, complementary one. Saussure demonstrated that a sign's meaning is derived from its context (syntagmatic dimension) and the group (paradigm) to which it belongs. An example of this is that one cannot conceive of 'good' if we do not understand 'evil'. In post-structuralism, it is seen as one of several influential characteristics or tendencies of Western and Western-derived thought, and that typically, one of the two opposites assumes a role of dominance over the other. The categorization of binary oppositions is "often value-laden and ethnocentric", with an illusory order and superficial meaning.
A classic example of a binary opposition is the presence-absence dichotomy. In much of Western thought, including structuralism, distinguishing between presence and absence, viewed as polar opposites, is a fundamental element of thought in many cultures. In addition, according to post-structuralist criticisms, presence occupies a position of dominance in Western thought over absence, because absence is traditionally seen as what you get when you take away presence. (Had absence been dominant, presence might have most naturally been seen as what you get when you take away an absence.) It has been maintained that the human brain has a preference for binary oppositions, if this is so it will help explain the numerous pairs of related antonyms that are found such as hot and cold, right and wrong and good and bad.
Essentially the concept of the binary opposition isprompted by the Western tendency to organize everything into a hierarchal structure; terms and concepts are related to positives and negatives with no apparent leeway for deviation for example man and woman, black and white. Therefore many binary oppositions are organized in a hierarchy. According to Jacques Derrida, meaning in the West is defined in terms of binary oppositions, “a violent hierarchy” where “one of the two terms governs the other.” Within the white/ black binary opposition in the United States, the African American is defined as a devalued other.
The concept of binary oppositions is also evident in biblical thought and ideology. An explanatory combination of biblical verses in the scrolls turn a term of divine compassion into a measure of binary opposition—innocence versus guilt.
A more concrete example of a binary opposition is the male-female dichotomy. Some western thinkers, including structuralists, believe that the world is organized according to male and female constructs, roles, words, and ideas. A post-structuralist view is that male can be seen, according to traditional Western thought, as dominant over female because male is the presence of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence or loss. (Alternatively, Western thought could have viewed female as a presence, and male, subordinately, as the absence, or loss, of an invagination or theoretical "hole" of some kind.) The correspondence between each of the dominant Western concepts such as presence and male, as well as others such as rational (vs. emotional), mind (vs. body), thoughts and speech (vs. writings) are claimed to show a tendency of Western thought called logocentrism or phallogocentrism. John Searle has suggested that the concept of binary oppositions—as taught and practiced by postmodernists and poststructuralist—is specious and lacking in rigor.
Problem questions: What are the main backgrounds of linguistic concept study development? How are the concepts represented in linguistic concept study? What are binary oppositions?