Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rosch and Lloyd: Cognition and Categorization (1978)

Read this book, and you will understand everything about where cognitive semantics comes from, and how it sees itself. I feel like quoting the whole thing word for word.

All the seeds of future greatness and future crises are visible here – as well a firm rooting in the AI and cognitive psychology of the golden age of frog neurons and cat retinas in the 1950s.

Take a look, for instance, at the names of some of the contributors: Brent Berlin, Elanor Rosch, Amos Tversky, George Miller – quite a cast. Naomi Quinn and Dan Slobin, too, are involved in the background, as members of Social Science Research Council's Committee on Cognitive Research – the Council being an institution that "the book reflects the aims of" (p. vii).


The trumpets are already out in the blurb on the flap, with the promise of "a conceptual revolution overtaking the study of language and cognition." A more detailed narrative is unfolded in the preface:
In the spring of 1976, a small group of psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists met at Lake Arrowhead, California, in a conference sponsored by the Social Science Research Council to discuss the nature and principles or category formation. Participants coming from the East Coast talked about Roger Brown's memorial lecture for Eric Lenneberg given a few days earlier. (p. vii)
Note the literary voice – "Four score and seven years ago ..." And then an indirect reference to Eric Lenneberg, just to to put some distance to the "recalcitrant cultural relativists" that Berlin grumbles about (p. 12).

The preface continues:
Roger Brown had chosen had chosen to speak about the new paradigm of reference using research in the domain of color. But research in fields such as ethnoscience, perception, and developmental psychology was beginning to appear and might also have been cited to support the claim that categorization, rather than being arbitrary, may be predicted and explained. (p. vii)
The steady stride of scientific progress, in other words. No corner of the life of "man" will evade the searchlight of scientific attention.

"Scientists now realize…"

The boogieman is also largely the same as in 1960 – behaviorism, empiricism, relativism. The Introduction thus states:
In the stimulus–response learning paradigm that dominated American psychology in the first half of the twentieth century, both the stimulus and the response were dealth [sic] with as arbitrary systems; the focus was on primarily on the connection between them. In developmental psychology, children were considered beings born into a culture in which categories and stimuli were already determined by the adult world. Anthropology, which might have sought universal principles of human experience, under the influence of Boazian [sic] cultural relativism, concentrated on cultural diversity and the arbitrary nature of the definition of categories. (p. 2)
However, somewhat confusingly, the over-rationalizing "Aristotelian" picture of knowledge is also wrong:
If other thought processes such as imagery, ostensive definition, reasoning by analogy to particular instances, or the use of metaphors were considered at all, they were usually relegated to lesser beings such as women, children, primitive people, or even to nonhumans. (p. 2)
While all of these are true observations, to me they look like a motivation for something other than a research program hailing "universal principles" and biological reductionism.

Rosch's Afterthought

But maybe this should just one of the germs of contradiction in "second-generation" cognitive science. Rosch's abrupt change of attention in the very last part of her paper certainly seems to say so.

There, in the section "The Role of Objects in Events," she falls into an almost Heideggerian mode of thought, contemplating the "events of daily human life" and the "flow of experience" (p. 43).

Not for long, though. Soon, she gets the idea of treating everyday life events according to the same principles as she had applied to chairs and cars and vegetables (p. 44). So there we are, back in familiar territory.

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