• StreetlightX
    4.4k
    In one of her books, Hanna Pitkin relates a charming little story which I think that alot to teach us about how language works, and in a way that questions some of our usual approaches to the subject.

    Pitkin relates the story of her friend's three year old, who walked into her parents bedroom one morning with her blanket in tow. Asked to take the blanket back to her bed, the child exclaimed: "I simply can't function in the morning without my blanket!". Pitkin recounts: "At first her parents were astonished; they had no idea that a word like 'function' was in the child's vocabulary. But then they recognised the expression as one the mother characteristically uses about her morning coffee, and everything seemed clear: the child had merely 'picked up' the expression. Moreover, she 'picked it up' well enough to use it correctly on this (almost?) appropriate occasion".

    I think this is super cool and shows, among other things, that language is at once both simpler and more complex than we sometimes give it credit for. Simpler because it shows that we don't necessarily need to know what's going on with every single word in order to use a word: it's doubtful that the child 'really' knows what the word 'function means; rather it's just 'the kind of thing you say' in that kind of situation. She really doesn't want to part ways with her blanket right now, and her employing the expression 'I simply can't function...' is a way of expressing that. Were she to be asked "what does function mean?", she might likely stumble, or just rephrase herself to say something like, "I want my blanket right now" or somesuch. Yet for all that we can't really say she doesn't know what she means.

    Alot of A.I/machine learning takes place along these lines, in which what is 'learned are patterns, and what to 'do' when encountering such patterns. This is one of the reason that both children and AI can make some sometimes pretty hilarious mistakes when a pattern is recognized but it isn't quite the right one (I once recall a child, visiting a new set of apartments, exclaiming "this has great infrastructure!"). One distinction to make here however, is that the child in question is not merely repeating her parent, but modifying what is said; she understands the expression well enough so that she projects the expression into a new context, while still retaining meaning.

    But this 'simplicity' of language is, from a different vantage point, also a sign of complexity. For it implies that language is also not something learnt atomistically, 'built up' out of a set of sets of discrete definitions which are then put together. What the child has learnt is not 'just' a set of words, but a whole life-context as it were. As Pitkin writes, the child "looked at language and looked at the world and looked back and forth... And the 'world' it looked at was not just a collection of objects... [but] included people, and their feelings and actions, and consequences". And this, understandably, is precisely the kind of thing A.I. can struggle with.

    Anyway, just wanted to write something up about the story and draw out a couple of possibly interesting implications.
  • Wallows
    9.6k
    What the child has learnt is not 'just' a set of words, but a whole life-context as it were. As Pitkin writes, the child "looked at language and looked at the world and looked back and forth... And the 'world' it looked at was not just a collection of objects... [but] included people, and their feelings and actions, and consequences". And this, understandably, is precisely the kind of thing A.I. can struggle with.StreetlightX

    Psychologism?
  • Wallows
    9.6k
    Explain yourself.StreetlightX

    Well, I believe that the child understands the context of the word "function" by the verbal tone/pitch and whatnot along with the intension of the speech act by her mother in the story.

    It is through, or even primarily through knowing the performative intension of the function of "I cannot function" that allows the person in the story to conclude or decipher the meaning behind the phrase.
  • StreetlightX
    4.4k
    Got an argument or line of reason or you're just throwing this out there? And what's any of this got to do with 'psycologism'?
  • Wallows
    9.6k


    Just throwing some thoughts out there.
  • unenlightened
    4.1k
    What does 'simply' mean here? One might substitute 'just'.

    Therefore justice is simplicity.

    Or possibly the unit of meaning is not the word, but the phrase, which would explain why Shakespeare is full of cliches.
  • Amity
    950
    Hanna Pitkin relates a charming little story which I think that alot to teach us about how language works, and in a way that questions some of our usual approaches to the subject.StreetlightX

    Lovely story but I'm not sure that it teaches us anything we didn't know already.
    A child learns to speak by imitation. Echoing. Parroting.

    The trouble is when aping affects political thoughts, absurd behaviour and voting patterns.

    To be sure, Trump is ‘telling it like it is’ for those who believe what he says. For those who disagree with his views, the ‘like it is’ is a racist, fascist, Islamophobic, narrow-minded, and essentially false perception of reality.Halim Shebaya

    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/trump-tells-it-like-it-is_b_9836974

    Trump 'tells it like it is'.
    This phrase is repeated ad nauseam whenever someone is asked why they voted for him.
    Combined with the media who do not 'tell it like it is' - the repeated 'Fake News' - this language is powerful as a way of looking at the world and people; 'feelings, actions and consequences'.

    And the 'world' it looked at was not just a collection of objects... [but] included people, and their feelings and actions, and consequences". And this, understandably, is precisely the kind of thing A.I. can struggle with.StreetlightX

    Sometimes, I think AI would be preferable to our robotic and moronic reactions and responses.
    If it were possible to implant a linguistic logical process whereby people can think with greater care, would we do it - if it were for the good of the many - to counteract stupidity and lessen hostility - would our world become safer, more secure?

    Interesting topic
    how language works, and in a way that questions some of our usual approaches to the subject.StreetlightX

    What are our usual approaches to the subject ?
  • Marchesk
    3k
    Lovely story but I'm not sure that it teaches us anything we didn't know already.
    A child learns to speak by imitation. Echoing. Parroting.
    Amity

    But how does that get turned into understanding? After-all, neither a [arrot nor current AI can make that transition. What is about human children that imitation leads to them learning how to use words?
  • StreetlightX
    4.4k
    A child learns to speak by imitation. Echoing. Parroting.Amity

    But this is not a case of that. The whole trust of the story is that the child has used the phrase in a new way, one that specifically doesn't simply parrot the parent.
  • Baden
    8.9k


    Yep, while children's ability at explicit logical analysis of language is obviously far poorer on average than adults, they are highly sensitive to the emotional valences and contextual cues around which particular chunks of language are uttered: functions, desires, behaviours etc. Kids instinctively pick up on what's being done and that has a visceral impact on them such that productive use rearises in a similar context. You often hear that children soak up language like sponges, and we think of them absorbing new vocabulary, grammatical rules and so on. But what they're really soaking up is how to live in the context of people speaking, and the words and grammar are less important than the linguistic acts (in whatever form) that can be repeated and / or reformulated (not just imitation @Amity, see Chomsky vs Skinner in the 60s) in order to master the function that needs to be mastered. And it has to be so considering a) how much of language is idiomatic / metaphorical etc. and b) that children are thrown into a socio-linguistic world in which they can only navigate through achieving affects on other language speakers, with the currency of affect, again, not being words and grammar directly but particular speech acts that may even be sentences or phrases that can't be broken into their constituent parts and retain their sense.
  • Amity
    950
    But this is not a case of that. The whole trust of the story is that the child has used the phrase in a new way, one that specifically doesn't simply parrot the parent.StreetlightX

    Yes. It is not only a parroting of the words alone but an imitation or copying of the behaviour and context in which the parent used it. Body language if you like. I agree with Wallows.

    Well, I believe that the child understands the context of the word "function" by the verbal tone/pitch and whatnot along with the intension of the speech act by her mother in the story.Wallows
  • Amity
    950
    But how does that get turned into understanding? After-all, neither a [arrot nor current AI can make that transition. What is about human children that imitation leads to them learning how to use words?Marchesk

    How does anything get turned into understanding ?
    The learning process. The ability to learn is possessed by humans, animals and possibly some machines.
    We learn by our interactions with others and our environment.
    I guess it's the progression from passive to active learning that leads to understanding.
    When we recognise what we understand and what we do not.
    We can develop such understanding by play and role playing which aids in the development of thinking and language skills.

    At least that's my take. What do you think ?
  • Amity
    950
    how language works, and in a way that questions some of our usual approaches to the subject.
    — StreetlightX

    What are our usual approaches to the subject ?
    Amity

    And how did the story question how language works ?

    I repeat the question since it interests me. I have noted Baden's suggestion.
    There must be more examples of approaches...
  • Terrapin Station
    13.8k
    Yeah, the child probably didn't assign any particular meaning to "function" yet. It's just a sound, part of a pattern that she's emulating in that context. That's all very similar to what goes on when we learn how to play music--learning characteristic patterns a la licks, riffs, etc. You don't assign meanings to those in the linguistic-semantic sense, but you can still emulate and use them in the usual contexts. And at first, something you think of as "inherently" part of a particular lick you might come to think of as separable and applicable to other licks and in other contexts, too. Although you're still not assigning linguistic-semantic meaning to it then (well, unless you're fairly unusual), it does "develop" in your brain in a similar way, and maybe we could say that you assign some sort of musical-semantic meaning to it at that point.
  • StreetlightX
    4.4k
    an imitation or copying of the behaviour and context in which the parent used it.Amity

    But it isn't a copying of the context. (how does one 'copy a context?' A context is given, to a degree - one acts in it; the child does not purposely arrange the environment just so, so they can use the words). Or rather, it is a projection of the context; a decision made that this context is the same as the other context, itself a novelty.
  • StreetlightX
    4.4k
    But what they're really soaking up is how to live in the context of people speaking, and the words and grammar are less important than the linguistic acts (in whatever form) that can be repeated and / or reformulated... in order to master the function that needs to be mastered.Baden

    Yeah, this is part of what I take away from Pitkin's comment that "The 'world' [the child] looked at was not just a collection of objects... [but] included people, and their feelings and actions, and consequences". One interesting question is how one gets from this to words as, as it were, free floating entities, imbued with 'meaning apart from such life-contexts. There was a phrase I was particularly struck by in one of my recent readings of Stanley Cavell where he complains about instances where words become 'nothing but their meanings': I take this to be what happens when words like 'function' eventually become dictonary-defined: then gain a sense of self-consistency at the price of detaching them from the life-world in which they gained their purchase.
  • Amity
    950
    But it isn't a copying of the context. Or rather, it is a projection of the context; a decision made that this context is the same as the other context, itself a novelty.StreetlightX

    Yes. It is not a copy of the original context. How could It be ? It is a reformulation adapted to suit the needs of the child.
    If 'our usual approaches' - whatever they are - do not include this aspect , then no wonder some might see this as a 'novelty'.
    The child used it, as appropriate, in her/his own context.
    What is surprising here ?
  • T Clark
    4.2k
    Anyway, just wanted to write something up about the story and draw out a couple of possibly interesting implications.StreetlightX

    As I read your post and then all the follow ups, I kept thinking about it from the other direction - the process you're describing is how the little girl learns the meaning of "function."
  • fdrake
    3k
    As I read your post and then all the follow ups, I kept thinking about it from the other direction - the process you're describing is how the little girl learns the meaning of "function."T Clark

    I imagine it's actually both ways at once, if you consider it retrospectively like this, rather than how stuff means stuff at the moment (and retrojections to that moment, like "she wouldn't be able to explicate the meaning of "function" despite using a phrase containing it").
  • T Clark
    4.2k
    I imagine it's actually both ways at oncefdrake

    Yes. I wasn't putting out my idea as a disagreement, just an addition.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    6.3k
    As I read your post and then all the follow ups, I kept thinking about it from the other direction - the process you're describing is how the little girl learns the meaning of "function."T Clark

    But if you think of "meaning" in this way, as something which is attributed to words, you would have to accept that we can use words without knowing the meaning of the words. How would we characterize this type of use then? The child gets some sort of message across to the parents, but we cannot call it "meaning", because the child doesn't know the meaning. What is the child doing?
  • Fooloso4
    1.1k
    How does the term 'function' function for our precocious three year old girl? Perhaps "function" means "I want it" and she is not going to give it up.
  • StreetlightX
    4.4k
    What are our usual approaches to the subject ?Amity

    I want to flesh this out more. I think one way to think of what I consider a common and usual approach is to consider meaning primarily a matter of definition. To have a meaning is to be defined, as it were. I think one of the things the example brings out is the inadequacy of that model: I don't think our three year old would be able to define 'function', if asked. Nonetheless, she means something by it, or rather, she means something by her manner of employing it among a wider constellation of actions (a sad face, a whine in her tone, a stiffened grip on the blanket).

    Importantly, there's nothing 'lacking' in her meaning what she says. Her saying 'I just can't function...' has a point she wants to express, and for that point, what she says is perfectly adequete. So to this:

    How does the term 'function' function for our precocious three year old girl? Perhaps "function" means "I want it" and she is not going to give it up.Fooloso4

    It's not clear that 'function' means anything at all for our child, at least not in isolation, as a word dangling by itself. She's used it, along with a bunch of other words and emotional and physiological cues, to mean something (roughly: "I need/want my blanket right now, don't make me take it back"), but 'function' on its own needs to be seen as operating with and among this wider constellation of actions and consequences without which it would be without significance.
  • StreetlightX
    4.4k
    As I read your post and then all the follow ups, I kept thinking about it from the other direction - the process you're describing is how the little girl learns the meaning of "function."T Clark

    I agree, but might phrase this differently: the process I'm describing is how the little girl learns what it is to ask and give an answer to 'the meaning of 'function'. My motivation for this rewording is that I want to emphaize that there is nothing 'missing' in the girl's current employment of 'function'. Her use of the word 'function' is not, as it were, 'half-way there' - rather, for the purposes at hand, it is perfectly adequete. Another thing this implies is that 'to know the meaning of the word 'function'', (to define it?) is not the same as being able to use the word meaningfully (although the latter is how one goes about learning the former, as you said).

    This reminds of a passage in Deleuze on the nature of learning: "A well known test in psychology involves a monkey who is supposed to find food in boxes of one particular colour amidst others of various colours: there comes a paradoxical period during which the number of 'errors' diminishes even though the monkey does not yet possess the 'knowledge' or 'truth' of a solution in each case". The girl's case in analogous to this: her use of the word 'function' is meaningful, even as she would not yet be able to say exactly what it means.
  • Amity
    950
    I think one way to think of what I consider a common and usual approach is to consider meaning primarily a matter of definition. To have a meaning is to be defined, as it were. I think one of the things the example brings out is the inadequacy of that model: I don't think our three year old would be able to define 'function', if asked. Nonetheless, she means something by it, or rather, she means something by her manner of employing it among a wider constellation of actions (a sad face, a whine in her tone, a stiffened grip on the blanket).StreetlightX

    Thanks for this example of what you consider 'a common and usual approach: 'To consider meaning primarily as a matter of definition'.
    I am not sure how or why this would be common or usual. In whose world ?
    What does 'Brexit means Brexit' mean ?

    It seems clear that a simple definition does not encompass a variety of meanings attached to a word and how it is used.
    So yes, it is inadequate.

    Since posing that question, I delved into the murky world of philosophy of language. I had forgotten my frustration when studying a module related its theories, a long time ago.

    I think I lean more to the approach as outlined in the penultimat para of the SEP article:

    .
    ..Like the other views discussed here, the view that meaning is a product of social norms of this sort has a long history; it is particularly associated with the work of the later Wittgenstein and his philosophical descendants. (See especially Wittgenstein 1953.)

    An important defender of this sort of view is Robert Brandom. On Brandom’s view, a sentence’s meaning is due to the conditions, in a given society, under which it is correct or appropriate to perform various speech acts involving the sentence. 
    Jeff Speaks

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/meaning/
    And the follow up:

    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/meaning-normativity/

    However, I have not read enough. And, for sure, it seems any theory will have its inadequacies.
    It does seem to align with my previous post where I said:

    "We learn by our interactions with others and our environment.
    I guess it's the progression from passive to active learning that leads to understanding.
    When we recognise what we understand and what we do not."

    The problem that arises in my mind is how this normative approach might fail to consider the genius and originality of creative expression.

    Thanks for thought provoking thread.
  • Amity
    950
    How does the term 'function' function for our precocious three year old girl? Perhaps "function" means "I want it" and she is not going to give it up.Fooloso4

    You answered my question of
    What is surprising here ?Amity

    The story did not surprise me. I was not surprised by it showing that:

    we don't necessarily need to know what's going on with every single word in order to use a word:StreetlightX

    ...language is also not something learnt atomistically, 'built up' out of a set of sets of discrete definitions which are then put together.StreetlightX

    The surprise element comes in the astonishment of the parents.
    It is natural that it would surprise and delight them. Their 'precocious three year old girl' would seem to have the early makings of a genius ! Wow. Now, what would that be down to...I wonder.

    The most well-known theory about language acquisition is the nativist theory, which suggests that we are born with something in our genes that allows us to learn language...

    The Interactionist approach claims that if our language ability develops out of a desire to communicate, then language is dependent upon whom we want to communicate with. This means the environment you grow up in will heavily affect how well and how quickly you learn to talk...

    It’s important to keep in mind that theories of language acquisition are just ideas created by researchers to explain their observations. How accurate these theories are to the real world is debatable. Language acquisition is a complicated process influenced by the genetics of an individual as well as the environment they live in.

    https://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/mcat/processing-the-environment/language/a/theories-of-the-early-stages-of-language-acquisition
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    6.3k
    I think one way to think of what I consider a common and usual approach is to consider meaning primarily a matter of definition. To have a meaning is to be defined, as it were. I think one of the things the example brings out is the inadequacy of that model: I don't think our three year old would be able to define 'function', if asked.StreetlightX

    That is precisely the issue. To have meaning is not the same as to have a definition. There are some members here at tpf who would restrict the meaning of "meaning" to words, statements, and propositions. They will say, that only these things have "meaning" to produce a very special meaning of "meaning". And if you talk about the "meaning" which art, or a beautiful landscape has, they will insist that you are using "meaning" in a different way, claiming you use a different sense of "meaning". But this is not true at all, these things have "meaning" in the very same way that words have meaning (as your example of the child using "function" demonstrates). So these people are trying to create a division between this type of meaning and that type of meaning, without any supportive principles to show that one suppose "type" is actually different from the other. In reality, the meaning which a defined word has is no different from the meaning which a piece of art has, which is no different from the meaning which a beautiful sunset has..
  • T Clark
    4.2k
    But if you think of "meaning" in this way, as something which is attributed to words, you would have to accept that we can use words without knowing the meaning of the words. How would we characterize this type of use then? The child gets some sort of message across to the parents, but we cannot call it "meaning", because the child doesn't know the meaning. What is the child doing?Metaphysician Undercover

    I haven't really thought about the philosophy or science of language since my psych classes back in the .... well, a long while ago, so I'm uncomfortable making definite statements. But that never stopped me before. Doesn't knowing the meaning of a word really mean knowing how to use it appropriately? The little girl used it appropriately. Because her knowledge is incomplete, there's a good chance she'll use it inappropriately in the future. Then she'll learn more about what it means.
  • T Clark
    4.2k
    Another thing this implies is that 'to know the meaning of the word 'function'', (to define it?) is not the same as being able to use the word meaningfully (although the latter is how one goes about learning the former, as you said).StreetlightX

    This is sort of the opposite of what I just said in my response to Metaphysician Undercover right above this response. As I indicated in that response, I'm not comfortable that I understand the intricacies of language well enough to be sure.
  • StreetlightX
    4.4k
    What I'm struggling with is that there's only really one word - 'meaning' - to express two different things. On the one hand, there's the game of asking 'what is the meaning of such-and-such word?'. One thing I'm trying to say is that answering this question is it's own kind of language-game, one which presupposes, but does not coincide with, knowing how to use a word meaningfully. Call it meaning+, if you will. On the other hand, this knowledge of knowing how to use a word meaningfully, just is to know the meaning of a word.

    We use plenty of words - probably the vast, vast, majority of our words - without once having given any thought as to defining them in terms of meaning+. Most words we know we've learned 'passively', absorbing their use from the linguistic environment around us, employing them and occasionally being corrected, complimented, or responded to in ways which confirm or deny our correct use of a word. And it's only very, very occasionally that we really presented with a situation in which we are asked 'what is the meaning of that word?' - and I want to say that answering this question is a different skill from knowing how to use a word meaningfully, a skill which is additional to being able to use a word meaningfully.

    Part of the issue is that the explicit question of 'what a word means' generally only tends to crop up in academic discussions like this, where the question 'what is the meaning of a word?' is taken as a model for being able to use a word meaningfully. But almost none of the words we use are learned in this manner, save some extravagant ones like, 'crepuscular', say. Trying to articulate this distinction between (knowing how to) use a word meaningfully, and knowing the meaning of a word, is a bit of a struggle.
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