We all know the story of the blind philosophers and the elephant—how one got hold of the tail, another the trunk, another an ear, another a leg, and another the body, and how their different empirical findings led to radically different definitions. I often see references to that story when people talk about the nature of language. Pragmatists define language one way, syntacticians another, but we should not let the elephant parable blind us to the fact that an elephant can be understood as a whole, and I am confident that language too will eventually be understood whole.
Every science began as a series of random empirical facts whose trees obscured the forest. Astronomy only made real progress when the heavens were understood to be responding to gravity. So there is no reason to take the elephant metaphor as meaning that the study of language is forever doomed to confused argument.
The papers in the recently published book Attention and Meaning are notable for the way they grasp so many separate approaches to language under the unifying idea of attention. Todd Oakley's chapter, "Attention and the Experience of Language," is particularly broad in the scope of linguistic facts it pulls under one umbrella. Oakley boldly states, "Eight elements capture the phenomenology of human attentional engagement with the entirety of mental and conscious life." [p. 152] In other words Oakley is claiming for attention the same unifying status found in other fields thanks to gravity, natural selection, etc. The elements he refers to are:
Greater Attentional System (a continuum for bringing targets from an inactive state to focused awareness)
Signal System (means of sorting a signal from noise)
- Alerting (maintains a general readiness to process novel items)
- Orientation (factors that dispose one to select particular targets)
Selection System (governs cognition)
- Detecting (directing attention to specific targets)
- Sustaining (concentrates attention in effort to understand target)
- Controlling (maintains attention in face of distractions and multi-tasking)
Interpersonal System (governs intersubjective engagement)
- Sharing (peripheral awareness of another)
- Harmonizing (paying attention to same target and contemplating similar aspects of it)
- Directing (intentional manipulation of another's attention).
These eight elements are what Oakley proposes for explaining "the entirety of mental and conscious [human] life," including the verbal.
Symbols, including linguistic ones, are grounded in this Greater Attentional System. It is the grounding of symbols—i.e., the reference to some phenomenon outside the symbols themselves—that distinguishes computer processing from animal processing. Symbols may be grounded at any level of the attentional system:
- the signal system grounds words in their sounds, or appearance or gesture. Puns are grounded at this level; "Listen to me and your slack mind will be taut" does not translate because the meaning lies in the accidental taught/taut English homonym, the lowest level of the attentional system.
- The selection system grounds the so-called content lexicon which evokes spatial orientation, images, sounds, odors, motor sensations, and emotional resonances.
- The harmonizing and sharing of the interpersonal system also grounds language in a social context. For example, I was a boy during the Civil Rights Movement when talk of "states' rights" was a popular term used in the defense of bigotry and oppression. Today I recognize that there can be legitimate appeals to states' rights, but I always greet the phrase with intense suspicion, due to my having grounded it in the defense of hatred.
Obviously there is much more to say about how language and the attentional system interact. Oakley's long chapter itself appears to be a summary of his book From Attention to Meaning: Explorations in semiotics, linguistics and rhetoric. This posting is primarily to tell people that the chapter (downloadable here) is worth the effort of the study and to note that his conclusion—"Language is really a semiotic system for directing and harmonizing the attention and intention of others" [182-3]—is something this blog has argued for years. The idea explains both the founding puzzle of this blog—how so remarkable system could have evolved from animals entirely lacking in it—and why language is so liberatingly powerful.