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Formulating a Phenomenological Theory of Language and Meaning

10/31/12

Permalink 08:35:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 764 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings

Formulating a Phenomenological Theory of Language and Meaning

This post concludes the series on language and meaning that I have been blogging on in recent weeks. Along the way, I used the Modern Phenomenological Method (MPhM). This method involves several steps through which one can come to a reasonable and reliable phenomenological theory. The previous five posts collectively constitute step 5 of this method, which is where one formulates a transcendental theory. In short, a transcendental theory takes into account intersubjective data but brackets out scientific preconceptions about how things supposedly work. Today's post is devoted to step 6, which is where the transcendental theory previously formulated is merged with objective data to formulate a unified phenomenological theory that is consistent with the intersubjective data and with the findings of modern science.

At present, this post will only be able to provide a brief unified theory that is somewhat speculative and is lacking in details. This is mostly a placeholder for much more intensive research that will be necessary in order to formulate a more rigorous unified theory. The following is an approximation of how the findings from prior posts can be merged with what is known about the brain and the rest of the physical body from modern science:

Remember that the most important point made in this series is that the languages that we use to communicate ultimately derive their meaning from the ideas that we have in mind when we speak, write, or gesture to others. Another important point is that all ideas ultimately are constructed from conceptual atoms that are innate to the mind. Everything that was established in the prior posts is compatible with the objective findings that have come out of modern cognitive science, though not necessarily with every theory that has been advanced.

Each conceptual atom is a type of brain state or brain activity, which are instantiated as token brain states and events. The brain must be innately configured to cause certain types of thought based on certain types of internal and external stimuli. It makes sense that this process will usually involve very complex stimuli that result in very complex structures in active thoughts, which are in turn comprised of these conceptual atoms. These thoughts can then be stored into memory and retrieved later. Each atom can also have the effect of causing certain types of behavior in certain circumstances. There are probably relatively simple structures of these atoms that have certain types of effects on behavior that cannot be reduced. Whatever effect any atoms or simple structures have on behavior, it is reasonable to conclude that the structures in active thoughts are very complex and their effect on behavior (by extension the effect that the tokens that they are comprised of) will consequently be very complex as well.

Ideas originate in the brain as result of external stimuli, which might take the form of seeing or hearing uses of language. The brain then interprets this language and forms the ideas that the language seems to be conveying. When ideas have the result of causing certain types of behavior, this will often take the form of some type of communication, be it verbal, written, etc. It is important to understand, though, that in between any external stimuli and the behavior that eventually results, there will always be a lot of internal processing, which can take into account any memories or other concurrent thoughts.

This description barely scratches the surface of how modern cognitive science can be understood as compatible with a theory of mentalese along the lines of that which is presented in prior posts. There are numerous studies that have been published that could be incorporated here and should improve the quality of this conclusion. But even if every credible published study on cognitive science were taken into account, there would still be significant gaps in the relation between language and thought that only modern phenomenology can adequately fill. There might come a day when modern science can allow us to understand, to a high level of detail, the nature of thoughts, including how they are structured and how they affect the language that one speaks. Eventually, it might be possible to formulate a detailed theory of how the different structures within the brain correspond to the cognitive atoms that thoughts are constructed from. It might someday be possible, perhaps aided by advanced brain scan technology, to form a more objective understanding of the relationship between inter-human communicative languages and mentalese. But for now, the best understanding we can achieve in these areas is through a combination of modern cognitive science and modern phenomenology.

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