A Natural Language of Thought

Domi Dessaix

The subject of this talk is the Natural Language of Thought proposal, which seeks to adapt Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) to the Language of Thought Hypothesis (LOTH) in the philosophy of cognitive science. NSM is a research program based on the hypothesis that there is a small set of indefinable concepts, the semantic primes, which along with their associated combinatorial rules, are universal across languages. LOTH is the idea that at least some of our cognitive processes share important features with language, and are thus intrinsically language-like. In this talk, I will set out what the Natural Language of Thought takes from these projects, and point to some important ways in which it is distinct from each. I will then consider whether the view might be taken as a defence of the solid metaphysical foundations of using the NSM primes as meta-categories. In other words, if the Natural Language of Thought proposal is correct, does this mean that the primes are more likely to be the best meta-categories for cross-linguistic and cross-cultural investigations? I suggest that the answer to this question should be a qualified ‘yes’. 

The aesthetics of ‘time-reckoning’: a Guna chromatic history

Paolo Fortis

This paper offers some reflections on the relations between aesthetics, sociality and cultural change among Guna people from the San Blas Archipelago of Panama. I draw on notions of ‘chromatism’, as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and ‘time-reckoning’, as elaborated by Nancy Munn. I consider the implications of Guna women’s progressive adoption of an extravagant ‘chromatic’ dress style, paralleled by men’s adoption of a ‘discrete’, or monochromatic style. Over the past one hundred years considerable changes have occurred in the Guna visual system, including the development of multi-coloured figurative blouses (mola) worn by women and anthropomorphic woodcarving (nudsu) produced by men.

Guna have revolutionised their settlement pattern, moving from small village-based communities on the Atlantic coast of the Darién forest to the in-shore islands of San Blas, where most villages are now located and where the population has dramatically increased. Such changes have been accompanied by intensified contact with missionaries, traders, Panamanian guards and the US Army based in the Panama Canal Zone. My discussion will connect visual styles to notions of personhood and sociality, arguing that Guna aesthetics afford us an insight into their historicity and social world that is not attainable through conventional historical study based on written sources.

Collaboration as meta-category – a discussion

Maya Haviland

In this paper I will consider ‘collaboration’ as a ‘meta-category’ – one of particular relevance and currency within realms of cross-cultural action and knowledge production. Collaboration is often understood differently not only across disciplines but often also by different actors within a specific collaborative project or enterprise. When collaboration is invoked, negotiating difference is always implied. As a category of action its qualities include the coming together of multiple meanings and ‘worlds’. Yet little work has been done to explicate the ways in which cross-cultural conceptions of collaboration manifest in real world contexts.  Nor have its implications been examined; different conceptions and articulations of what collaborative practices are do not necessarily hinder collaborative action, yet they can have long reaching implications for the abilities of various actors to access value from their participation in collaborative engagements. This is in part because of the changing nature of collaboration as a ‘meta-category’– its growing association with ideas of ethical practice in the cultural sector. In this paper I will discuss some research approaches I am developing to explore conditions that enable collaboration in the context of cultural institutions, drawing on examples from research and practice in art-based collaborative ethnography.

Mind the translation!

Frances Morphy and Howard Morphy

Translation between languages involves a double articulation: it can seldom be ‘literal’. Every language is enculturated, in that the categorisations salient to the culture are encoded in the language in complex ways. Our focus is on differences and overlaps between Yolngu-matha and English categories, and the choices made, when speaking in English, by Yolngu-matha speakers. We will look at their use of English ‘mind’, which has no counterpart in the Yolngu-matha languages, and of ‘law’ that—at first sight—seems to. 

What do Yolngu mean by choosing to use a particular word rather than seemingly plausible alternatives, and what are they really doing? We will argue that in making a choice they are constructing a meta-category, and that such acts of meta-categorisation must be commonplace in certain contexts of cross-cultural discourse, through time and space. We will also argue that we can draw insights about Yolngu-matha categories from Yolngu-matha speakers’ use of English: the choice of a particular word signals an overlap between Yolngu-matha and English categories. There exists a family resemblance that can be captured by the notion of an implicit meta-category, rather than, as some would argue, an absolute ontological divide between the ‘worlds’ of English and Yolngu-matha.

Lest we get fooled by our own tools: A Wittgensteinian perspective on categories

Maïa Ponsonnet

Wittgenstein repeatedly warned us against metaphysical illusions, and in particular against our misguided fascination for pre-existing essences. The risk is particularly acute when we try to understand and deal with categories. We often forget that the categories we use are our creation and result from our own decisions, rather than being a reflection of purported worldly essences. When we do remember, we are often wrongly tempted to conclude that they are arbitrary. We also regularly forget about their defining properties – in particular, that most of them have a ‘family-resemblance’ (or ‘prototype’ in Rosch’s terms) rather than a classical Aristotelian structure.

Failing to recognise or understand the nature and properties of our categories results in a number of false entailments. I will identify, describe and analyse several of these, illustrating them with examples about the meta-category ‘emotion’ and highlighting the corresponding lines of reasoning, their false premises, and the resulting mistakes and confusions that occur. I do not, however, conclude pessimistically. As long as we carefully keep in mind that categories are no magic processors, but human tools that we create to help us describe the world, then devising and sharing meta-categories is by no means as hazardous as we may fear.

Whoosh, off I go into another mode: mimeticals as a meta-category of spoken language

Eva Schultze-Berndt

In this paper, I will propose a new cross-linguistic functional meta-category of ‘mimetical’, to account for the frequent switch from the descriptive to the mimetic mode in spontaneous interaction. Examples of mimeticals are representational gestures, direct speech, ad-hoc sound imitations, and conventionalised ideophones representing e.g. a manner of motion, a type of impact, or a texture, as illustrated in (1) to (3).

(1)           Well there I was, clearing out my hamster’s cage, when all of a sudden, WHOOSH, off I goes to another planet. [English; British National Corpus]

(2)           nguyung-ngunthu=ni=biya         yugung=ung           gani-wardagarra-nyi

                husband-kin3=erg=seq               run=restr                 3sg>3sg-follow-pst

                . DEB .    gurunyung=gi      gani-ma               nu \          (Jaminjung)

                knock           head=loc                    3sg>3sg-hit.pst      3sg.obl

‘her husband ran after it and WHACK! hit it (a goanna) on the head for her’ 

(3)          kɔrɔ   ne,     kùwà        gɔ-ngbe           kù-nyɔ                         ḍɔbɔrɔɔɔɔɔ↑   (Siwu)

              now    tp         ku-stuff        ku-prox                 ku-look                                    ideoph.soft

            ‘Now this stuff here, it looks ḍɔbɔrɔɔɔɔɔ’ [soft](Dingemanse 2017: 124)

Mimeticals belong to a different dimension from those functional categories that can be mapped onto phrasal or clausal syntactic categories. Rather, mimeticals can be identified by their prosodic foregrounding. They can correspond to a syntactically separate (‘thetical’) constituent (1), or be parasitic on a conventional syntactic category such as a complement (3) or a complex predicate (2).

Recognising mimeticals as fundamental to human communication will enable us to analyse more accurately the syntax of spoken language, better describe language-specific mappings between lexical and functional categories, capture culture-specific conventions of the narrative genre, and pinpoint similarities between ordinary language use and artistic representations.

Living within the pattern: recursivity as a pan-Aboriginal meta-category

Diane Smith

How is it that, in the complex, layered and often dynamic social systems of Australian Aboriginal societies, deep patterns of continuity – structural, institutional, epistemological, ontological – are reproduced over time? How do Aboriginal people continue to recognise and live their personhood and grouphood while responding strategically to pattern disruption?

This paper proposes the existence and operation of a mode of category logic – perhaps conceivable of as a pan-continental meta-category – that provides the calculus and language for generating a particular preferred pattern of living that supports these two seemingly contradictory trajectories. I call this pattern the meshed relational network, and the meta-category ‘recursivity’. I suggest that recursivity is particular type of meta-category that is deployed to secure the benefits of both ‘classical’ and ‘prototype’ category logic; it reaffirms boundedness, the ideal, the permanent, and the resistance to change associated with ‘classical’ categories, and also the benefits of being able to manipulate internal structure to maximise the flexibility, fuzziness and change associated with ‘protoype’ categories. Producing the drive towards dynamic sameness that is integral to Aboriginal ontology, it is arguably the patterning logic not only of Aboriginal governance but also of art, kinship and marriage systems, ceremonial and song cycles, and economic exchange. 

What can the language of consciousness teach us about its nature?

Daniel Stoljar

A big set of questions in contemporary philosophy is whether, and to what extent, the insights of linguistically informed philosophy of language can be brought to bear on traditional philosophical problems about the scope and limits of human knowledge.  For example, some philosophers suggest that the expression ‘know’ is a context-sensitive term, rather like ‘tall’ or ‘bald,’ and that in consequence there is a pattern of confusion and ambiguity in widely discussed skeptical arguments — arguments which would show, if successful, that we know considerably less than we take ourselves to know. Other philosophers reject this idea on the ground that it is linguistically implausible that ‘know’ is a context-sensitive term.  In our recent ARC Discovery Grant, David Chalmers and I seek to investigate a similar set of questions, but this time focused on the expressions used in the philosophy and science of consciousness.  In this talk, I will review the project and its background, and then look briefly at two examples of such expressions: ‘what it is like’ and ‘seems’.

Visions of vibrancy: Kuninjku paintings of the energy of country

Luke Taylor 

This paper investigates art created by contemporary Kuninjku bark painters living in Arnhem Land and the ideas artists employ in judging the effectiveness of a work. Their creations are inspired by the Ancestral powers that exist in the artist’s country although there are elements of these paintings that they consider to be ‘new’. Rather than drawing inspiration from intercultural experiences, contemporary Kuninjku artists are manipulating local aesthetic categories and art forms that have a deeper and more longstanding existence. The paper will explore the relation between work produced for sale and that used in ceremonial contexts to explicate the artists’ contemporary inspiration. I contend that Kuninjku artists have a developed aesthetic theory and that they pass this on to children through informal artistic apprenticeships. A broader world audience also find these contemporary paintings visually effective. There may be an underlying psychological basis for this acceptance although this is not my focus. Rather Kuninjku artists have strived to educate their market and there have been relatively recent developments in Australian, and world, art history that prepared audiences for acceptance of this kind of Kuninjku art.

Anchoring ‘meta-categories’ in universal human concepts

Anna Wierzbicka

Many of the common ‘meta-categories’ in contemporary scholarly discourse are unique to English (e.g. ‘science’, ‘emotions’). Yet scholars who talk about ‘meta-categories’ are usually not interested in English as such; rather, they want to compare ways of thinking across languages and cultures. They are faced with a dilemma: should we take as our main conceptual and communicative tools some accustomed abstract nouns well established in European languages (e.g. ‘art’, ‘religion’, ‘colour’) or in Anglophone discourse, or should we rather try to anchor cross-cultural comparison in concepts shared by all human groups? It seems to me that, from a theoretical point of view, the latter approach is clearly preferable, and that in fact it is necessary if we want to understand the diversity of human ways of thinking in an authentic way (not through the prism of English, or European, concepts).

In my talk I will discuss, in some detail, two ‘meta-categories’ which are of particular interest to anthropologists and philosophers: ‘art’ and ‘religion’; and I will try to show that these can be anchored in conceptual universals. In these areas as in others, cross-cultural diversity can be studied, without Eurocentrism or Anglocentrism, through shared human concepts established over decades of cross-linguistic research guided by NSM semantics.

Colours as groups, colour as concept

Diana Young

This paper is about ‘colour’. Colour is both a concept and a category when it tends to appear in the singular, and a quality - when it can become ‘colours’. Over recent years some scholars of anthropology and linguistics have argued that this concept of colour is not a universal category at all but a culturally constructed one (e.g. Saunders 1999; Wierzbicka 2008; Young 2011). Earlier research claimed to find that colour naming indicates degrees of sophistication in a language and, by inference, in a culture or society (Berlin and Kay 1968).

Here I will discuss how the concept or category of colour changes as it is exported across cultures during colonisation, and the epistemological implications of this among Western Desert Aboriginal people. The expressive qualities of colours lend themselves to group formations that might be considered as ‘meta’. These metacategories are, I’ll argue, expressive rather than linguistic. I will also discuss the development of these over time from the mid twentieth century to the present.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

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