The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Cognitive Grammar

The US linguist Ronald Langacker, one of the originators of cognitive linguistics (whose first conference was organized in 1989), reacted against the prevailing view that language is a self-contained system that can be studied in isolation. He opposed the view that grammar was distinct from lexicon and semantics, and that the meaning of a sentence could be expressed in mathematical logic. Langacker believed that language cannot be separated from cognition, that semantics is about concepts, and that semantic analysis is conceptual analysis. Ultimately, he believed that language is psychology and neurology as much as it is linguistics.

Noting that grammar is simply a way to refer symbolically to concepts, i.e. that grammar is a symbolic element connecting phonology (the sounds of speech) and concepts, Langacker recast grammar as an extension of the lexicon.  Grammar is an “inventory of symbolic resources”. Grammatical units have a meaning, just like the items of a lexicon have meaning. This “meaning” cannot be merely a truth condition or a combination thereof, because that meaning is related to the whole cognitive process of understanding/speaking language, i.e. to a cognitive domain.

For example, the class of nouns refers to a kind of cognitive processing, and that is its meaning, whereas the class of verbs refers to a different kind of cognitive processing, and that is its meaning. And different classes of nouns (e.g., count nouns as opposed to mass nouns) refer to different kinds of “noun” cognition.

Any item in the lexicon (any word) refers to a kind of cognitive processing, which is its meaning.

Langacker admits only three kinds of units: semantic (the concepts), symbolic (grammar, lexicon, morphology) and phonological (the sounds). The symbolic units connect units of the other two kinds.

At the same time, the form used to construct the concept is also “meaningful”. One can create a content using many different forms of language. Langacker used the   term “imagery” to refer to how content is structured. By definition, a grammar already forces constraints on the “images” that content can assume. Each grammar already limits the universe of imagery that is available to the language user.

Rather than sentences and grammatical rules, Langacker’s grammar is built on image schemas, which are schemas of visual scenes.

Again, only a semantic and a phonological component are necessary, mediated by a symbolic component. This approach directly reflects the semiological function of language: to build symbols for concepts (semantics) by means of sounds (phonology).  Grammar reduces to these symbolic relationships between semantic structures and phonological structures.

A speaker's linguistic knowledge is contained in a set of cognitive units, which are originated by a process of reinforcement of recurring features (or “schematization”), or, identically, by a process of patterns of neural activity. These units are, therefore, grounded in daily experience and are employed by speakers in automatic fashion: a unit is a whole that does not need to be broken down into constituents to be used. Phonological units, for example, range from the basic sounds of language (such as the "t" of the English language or the "r" of the French language) to familiar phrases and proverbs.

Units form a hierarchy, a schema being instantiated in sub-schemas.  A linguistic category may be represented by a network of quite dissimilar schemas, clustered around a prototype.  A grammar is but an inventory of such units. 

Nouns and verbs are central to grammatical structure because of the archetypal status of a cognitive model whose elements are space, time, matter and energy. That is a world in which discrete physical objects move around in space thanks to some form of energy, in particular the one acquired through interactions with other objects. Matter spreads over space and energetic interactions occur over time. Objects and interactions are instantiated, respectively, in space and time. Objects and interactions are held to be the prototypes, respectively, for the noun and verb grammar categories. These categories differ primarily in the way they construe a situation, i.e. their primary semantic value is "imagic", has to do with the capability to construe situations.

Langacker took issue with the “Chomskyan” view that language is an infinite set of well-formed sentences or any other algorithm-generated set.  To him, a language is a psychological phenomenon that eventually resides in neural activity. Chomsky's generative grammar is merely a platonic ideal.


Back to the beginning of the chapter "Language: Minds Speak" | Back to the index of all chapters