Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the shoulders of...

I have a little while before I head off through the currently lashing rain to do my now routine few hours in the library, which I'm currently thoroughly enjoying, and certainly getting a decent amount done in the wee hours of the morning.

I wanted to post a quotation, which made me chuckle, which I came across last weekend while reading Steven Pinker's book 'The stuff of thought' (authors@Google talk on this book),  a study on how we can learn a great deal about the way we think through the way we speak and pick up language. I've never been disappointed by a Pinker book yet, and generally close the last page with a thoroughly altered perception of the world from that which I started with.

In a chapter focusing on the inateness of language, Pinker choses to discuss the extreme possibilites, starting with the ideas of Jerry Fodor, who believes that we are born with around 50,000 concepts which are pinned with their corresponding vocabulary when we come across the words which fit the concept. Though Pinker clearly has some fondness for Jerry, he does dress him up as the joker and discusses the straw man concept specifically to build him up and knock him down. Pinker clearly isn't alone in his dismissal of Jerry's ideas. The quotation below, more humorous than insightful into the world of neurolinguistics, comes from Dan Dennet (see here for a great TED talk on dangerous memes), whose writing I enjoy very much:

Most philosophers are like old beds: you jump on them and sink deep into qualifications, revisions, addenda. But Fodor is like a trampoline: you jump on him and he springs back, presenting claims twice as trenchant and outrageous. If some of us can see further, it's from jumping on Jerry.

Incidentally, the argument and mockery is not unidirectional, with Fodor arguing against Dennet's very machinery of philosophy - see Fodor's wikipedia article for details.

On a similar note, after being rather disappointed with Maryanne Wolfe's first couple of chapters of Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain I was extremely pleased that it picked up considerably and though there were occasionally too many unnecessary details on the neurophysiology behind her ideas, the sections on dyslexia, especially with respect to the condition in different languages, was fascinating.

Anyway, about time for me to brave the weather, plenty of papers to read through tonight...

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