Monday, September 03, 2018

Reading :: The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture

The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture
By Robert K. Logan

My friends, I use this blog to process my readings, evaluate them, and understand how they fit in with various scholarly conversations. Usually this approach works well for me. But every once in a while, I run into a reading that I have a hard time drawing a bead on. And this book is most certainly one of them.

The author is a professor emeritus in the Department of Physics at U-Toronto. But, long ago, he became interested in questions of mind, language, and culture—"I am not a linguist or a cognitive scientist but rather a physicist who morphed into a media ecologist" (p.7) and "as far as the field of linguistics goes, I am autodidactic and not an expert" (p.10). Here, he seeks to (a) advance the Extended Mind Model to explain the emergence of language, (b) supplement that model with others in the literature, and (c) "develop the notion of Universal Culture, which is to culture what Chomsky's Universal Grammar is to language" (p.4).

He summarizes the sweep of his argument at the beginning of the book: argues that "the origins of speech and the human mind are shown [in this book] to have emerged simultaneously as the bifurcation from precepts to concepts and a response to the chaos associated with the information overload that resulted from the increased complexity of hominid life." That is, information overload necessitated a new way to handle it, speech. "Rather than regarding thought as silent speech, one may just as well regard speech as vocalized thought" (p.5). Essentially, he argues, language extended the human brain, creating the human mind (p.6).

He extends this argument in the next chapter, overviewing the "six modes of language" (p.30): speech; writing and numbers; "the language of science," which is "a form of knowledge management" (p.31); computing; and the internet. (He does not appear to offer a definition of language.) Each form of language, he argues, arises from information overload, requiring a new way to deal with the resulting abstractions (p.33). "Consequently, each new mode of language is informatically more powerful than its predecessors, but at the same time a little less poetic, with the exception of the Net" (p.33). Each arises from a "crisis" in which information overload led to chaos, leading to "a new abstract level of order" (p.42). This idea is interesting and highly appealing—if it can be substantiated.

The author claims that he is "influenced" by Vygotsky (and quotes the 1962 edition of Thought and Language; see pp.43-44).

Like Logan, I'm not a linguist, and I certainly haven't put in the time reading Chomsky that he has. But I do see problems with the overall thesis. For instance, Logan does not discuss what happens if the crisis is not dealt with—if a new abstract order does not emerge. Does the social group reach a steady state of low-boil crisis? Does it collapse? These questions seem crucial, since to the best of our knowledge, writing was invented only three times in world history. (For that matter, does he mean "crisis" the way Vygotsky used the term, as a dialectical contradiction?) He also characterizes science as a "language," which seems to be at odds with what we know about science as a social practice.

Beyond these questions, I began seeing argumentation patterns that seem foreign to the social sciences with which I am familiar—although perhaps my linguist friends can tell me whether they are common in linguistics. For instance,

  • Logan argues that "language speeds up thought processes" and, as proof, notes that he had formulated this idea independently of Marshall McLuhan, who he later discovered said the same thing (p.47). (He offers no empirical proof that language speeds up thought processes, which would be a momentous claim. One can safely argue that language changes the task, allowing someone to do the same work in less time.) 
  • Similarly, in discussing how tools emerged from trial-and-error, he asserts: "A scientific analysis of these tools would reveal that they had achieved an optimum design long before the advent of modern engineering" (p.59)—but provides neither a proposed analysis nor other proof. 
  • Later, he asserts without explanation: "Dance is basically a form of body language set to music" (p.61). 
  • Although Chomsky's Universal Grammar and Logan's own Extended Mind Model are not falsifiable, he concedes, "the one hope I have, however, that I might be on the right track is that, I believe, Christiansen (1994), Deacon (1997), Donald (1991, 1998), Tomasello (1999), and I have come to similar conclusions from completely different starting points" (p.82; see a similar argument on p.223).
  • Although two approaches might explain known facts about grammar acquisition, "the one trump card that I would play now ... is Occam's razor..." (p.141).

He dismisses arguments the same way: "In numerous cases, however, I felt that the conflicts in the literature were artificial and were more a case of academic turf wars than anything substantive" (p.71). Well, okay then.

Many other examples show up across the book, and as I read through them, I wondered whether they had to do with a different style of argument—or with Logan's autodidacticism. For instance, Logan argues confidently that oral speech is changed by writing in that "orally composed sentences rarely contain more than seven to nine words" because "short-term memory can only deal with seven plus or minus two items at a time," and thus "it is only sentences that are written out that will contain large numbers of words with the exception of certain erudite lecturers who compose written prose in their head or read them from a prepared text. Such a speaking style often puts its listeners to sleep because they are unable to keep track of such long sentences" (p.125). Put aside the fact that Logan offers no evidence for these claims—a bigger problem is that words and sentences are not natural units of speech, they are analytical units that were invented in written speech. (Also, Logan doesn't seem to have conversations with the same people I do.)

In fact, as the examples above suggest, Logan rarely refers to empirical research when constructing his theory, although that research is both plentiful and produced by some of the same people he cites. He is, however, comfortable citing occasional simulations—"The results of the computational simulations and artificial language learning show that it is possible that languages evolved to match hominid cognitive abilities rather than the other way around" (p.144).

Beyond these issues, Logan doesn't seem to be consistent with the theorists that he cites. Although I don't know Chomsky well, I do know Vygotsky, and Vygotsky would not agree with the following assertions that Logan makes:

  • Speech is vocalized thought (p.5).
  • Speech is a biological process and thus governed by Darwinism (p.17; cf. Understanding Vygotsky Ch.9 among other places).
  • "mind = brain + language" (p.63) — later changed to "mind = brain + language + culture" (p.250).
  • Words encode concepts and allow for more efficient processing (p.67).
  • "Word meanings are personal, belonging to the individual producing them or interpreting them" (p.232)
  • The mind is best explained as dualist (p.235).
Logan ends with a chapter in which he asks whether culture is an organism, then suggests that an individual's culture is an organism while a society's culture is a species (pp.264-266). I really couldn't tell whether Logan was using "organism" as a metaphor here or whether he meant this assertion literally. But whatever it is, he extends it by arguing that if individual culture is an organism, then memes are its genes (p.277). 

As I mentioned above, I use this blog to process what I think of books. Most of the time, I have a good idea of what I think before I begin writing the review. This time, I didn't, and the relatively unedited text you see in this review chronicles my thinking through of the book. As you'll intuit, I think the book is deeply flawed. It doesn't engage deeply with at least some of the literature; it makes some superficial arguments at crucial places; it asserts as undisputed facts claims that need empirical grounding; it makes claims that are in fact disproved by empirical language and literacy research. That is, it reads like the work of an autodidact from another field who has not put in the time to test his arguments. 

I make this evaluation with some hesitation. After all, the author does make a point of saying that he has worked with luminaries such as Schmandt-Besserat and McLuhan, and he has published about media since at least 1977, long before I even thought about such matters. Yet, at least in this book, he does not effectively make his case. I can't recommend it.

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