Psychology Magazine

An Ecological Approach to Language

By Andrew D Wilson @PsychScientists
Language is often held up as an example against the possibility of the radical (non-representational) psychology we advocate for. You might be able to explain perception-action without representations, people say, but we can't see how you'll ever be able to explain 'real cognition, like language' without them. It's finally time for us to begin chipping away at this criticism. In the next few posts I'll lay out a first draft of an embodied, ecological analysis of language use.
Psychologists usually assume that catching a fly ball and talking about catching fly balls are two different kinds of thing. I reject this assumption (it is just an assumption) and I am going to treat language use as the same kind of thing as other examples of embodied cognition. Treating language as just another instance of embodied cognition allows me to import the lessons learned from perception-action type tasks and apply these to language tasks. This will lead to very different questions about language use than are typical in the literature. The next post will describe what I mean by this in some detail.
I will then sketch out an initial task analysis of language use. As promised, we are guided here by Bingham's task-specific device approach, which is a method for studying high-dimensional complex systems such as the human perception-action system. The idea is that you must study how systems like these behave one task at a time by 1) characterising the task in detail, 2) identifying what is required to solve the task, 3) looking for those resources across both the organism and the task environment (cognition is both embodied and extended), 4) identifying the information that might support an organism's access to those resources, and finally 5) experimentally test your hypotheses within the confines of your chosen model task and identify the smart solutions that are options. The task analysis post will not go through all these steps because these ideas aren't ready for it yet. But, I'll spend quite a bit of time talking about elements of steps 1, 3, and 4.
So, here's what's coming up in the next two posts, which I plan to roll out beginning this weekend so that people might actually have time to read and comment on them:
Language isn't magical (but it is special): I describe how to think about language as a form of embodied cognition with a particular emphasis on the similarities and differences between perceptual information and linguistic information.
Language: A task analysis (kind of): I characterise 6 types of tasks for which linguistic information is either necessary or useful. I also lay out the notion of perceptual-linguistic systems and explain why this account of language is explicitly non-representational.
If you're reading this and thinking "This can't possibly work! I want to yell about it - on the internet!" then please wait until you've read the next post so you have something specific to criticize. These posts are a first go at a difficult question, not a final, fully-fledged research programme. We hope to get some good discussions going in the comments to help hone these ideas further!
Bingham, G. (1988). Task-specific devices and the perceptual bottleneck. Human Movement Science, 7 (2-4), 225-264 DOI: 10.1016/0167-9457(88)90013-9  Download

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