Tag Archives: linguistics

Extreme Cases



At the threshold of the divine, how to know
But indirectly, to hear the static as
Pattern, to hear the ragtag white noise as song—

No, not as song—but to intuit the song bird
Within the thorn thicket—safe, hidden there.
Every moment is not a time for song.

Or singing? Imagine a Buddha, handmade,
Four meters high of compacted ash, the ash
Remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.

With each footfall, the Buddha crumbles. Ash shifts.
With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates.
To face it, we efface it with our presence.

An infant will often turn away as if
Not to see is the same as not being seen.
There was fire, but God was not the fire.

Eric Pakey is the author of ten collections of poems, most recently Trace (Milkweed Editions 2013) and Dismantling the Angel (Free Verse Editions 2014). A new collection, Crow-Work, is due out from Milkweed Editions in 2015. He is the Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University. Kenyon Review Fall 2011

Werner Herzog on Chickens from Tom Streithorst on Vimeo.

Since most categories are matters of degree (e.g., tall people), we also have
graded concepts characterizing degrees along some scale with norms of various
kinds for extreme cases, normal cases, not quite normal cases, and so on. Such
graded norms are described by what are called linguistic hedges (A4, Lakoff
1972), for example, very, pretty, kind of, barely, and so on. For the sake of imposing
sharp distinctions, we develop what might be called essence prototypes,
which conceptualize categories as if they were sharply defined and minimally
distinguished from one another.

When we conceptualize categories in this way, we often envision them using
a spatial metaphor, as if they were containers, with an interior, an exterior, and
a boundary. When we conceptualize categories as containers, we also impose
complex hierarchical systems on them, with some category-containers inside
other category-containers. Conceptualizing categories as containers hides a
great deal of category structure. It hides conceptual prototypes, the graded
structures of categories, and the fuzziness of category boundaries.
In short, we form extraordinarily rich conceptual structures for our categories
and reason about them in many ways that are crucial for our everyday
functioning. All of these conceptual structures are, of course, neural structures
in our brains. This makes them embodied in the trivial sense that any mental
construct is realized neurally. But there is a deeper and more important sense in
which our concepts are embodied. What makes concepts concepts is their inferential
capacity, their ability to be bound together in ways that yield inferences.
An embodied concept is a neural structure that is actually part of, or
makes use of, the sensorimotor system of our brains. Much of conceptual inference
is, therefore, sensorimotor inference. ( George Lakoff Philosophy in the Flesh )

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Speech Recognition

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A sign-system such as a natural language is not an input-output system of encodings and decodings for the transmission of contents from one mind to another. Instead, it is a normative and conventional resource consisting of semiotically salient differentiation-types for producing, acting on and transforming situation conventions and the cognitive representations that people have of the situations in which these conventions operate. Paul J. Thibault

Hat tip to eldon, my Netdynam colleague, for hipping me to the book Brain, Mind and the Signifying Body, by the semiotician Paul J. Thibault. It fits into a funny reflexive picture, because I’m reading my friend Heward Wilkinson’s The Muse As Therapist, and, trying to pare away time to keep two different music-making projects percolating. Then Thibault pops into the frame. Really, Heward and Paul should get to know each other someway other than in my tiny mind!

Which is to say, it’s probably been years since I set up two wondrously knotty books by my night stand. (I don’t recommend trading off between Heidegger and Husserl as I once tried to do.) Oh, and to make this picture complete, Bra Ken, generously sent me the back issues of his literary chap House Organ. This does make dr.p’s head spin when I can’t decide what looking glass I’m going to pick up.

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It’s the political season and so I’m happy to indulge two obsessive interests, politics and the social psychology of the citizenry. Actually, I don’t need a political season to be gripped, it’s always the political season in my house.

Over at Colonel Pat Lang’s blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis 2008, one of the handful of blogs I read as a matter of routine, a fascinating post, Kristol On Obama (2/25), and comments popped up over the question of who might be the most qualified nominee for the Democratic Party. I posted a comment that survived about six hours. I have nothing but respect for Colonel Lang’s moderating abilities, but don’t really know why my thought got kibboshed. In any case, my point was simple enough: if one really wants to drill down into voter preferences, you’re going to be soon framing the inquiry in terms of the constituent features of how it is people define and devise their preferences, and, eventually should this inquiry become detailed, you’re going to be speaking of social cognition and cognitive complexity.

An inquiry such as this stands in contrast to the much dimmer position of trying to understand why people opt for a preference (unlike one’s own) by using one’s own process of, as it were, preference-making as the means for analysis. Of course this happens all the time: ‘My decision is correct and all those who are incorrect don’t know how to correctly decide.’

Because Barack Obama’s popularity has evoked descriptive language ranging from his supporters being a movement to their being a cult, William Kristol decided to do some psychologizing. Colonel Lang picked up on this. My own sense is that Kristol is a terrible psychologizer and Colonel Lang, alas, latched onto a straw man. (As it might be said: Kristol didn’t go to primary sources materials.) Still, it is worthwhile to consider how this so-called movement is made up of various social psychological moving parts. But what are its parts?

Luckily, I’m unable to do this because I have neither the expertise or the data. However, I do know several things about how the movement could be broken down so it could be analyzed and better understood as social psychological phenomena.

You have to ask people why they support Obama. Do this first as a means of directing the inquiry toward the actual richness underneath the so-called summing movement. Assuming that the generalization is supported by the thick part of a Bell Curve is unreasonable if you can’t back up the offered generalization at its magnitude.

(Kristol’s psychologizing was risible and bogus even as an assertion about sub-group affectual motives.)

On a busy day at the grocery store, it looks like a movement to get through the check out line. At the same time, each shopper’s basket tells a different story. The admixture of different agendas, intents, preferences, taken as a single thing looks as a movement would look, and at the same time, is also a loose amalgam of many moving parts. It is varied and so earns being understood as a matter of these parts being differentiated.

It is unlikely that similar dynamics aren’t also in play in the campaign of Hillary Clinton. This hypothesis is researchable. Short of doing the research, my informed guess is based on how gigantic is the sample given by the magnitude of the group of each candidate’s supporters. Because the group-at-large is enormous in size, it could be expected that within each group there are sub-groups moved either by largely feeling-toned reasons or largely thinking-toned reasons.

This suggestion simply points in the direction of each group having as sub-groups groups which represent aspects of the spectrum of possible modes of attraction (to the candidate.) Hidden in this suggestion is a more concrete suggestion: it can also be expected that the disposition of an individual voter would promote their being attracted to the other candidate, were they to shift allegiance, via the dispositive modality they happen to favor.

I ‘m for Obama. I’m unmoved by affectual appeal. I’m for Obama because my paramount issue is protecting the Constitution (against its being sundered.) Obama, as a liberal Constitutional scholar and ex-law professor, seems to me to have the high level ability to protect the Constitution and fight its being sundered. Were my support to shift, it would shift along dispositive lines having to do with my understanding how Hillary Clinton represents–in an appealing way–my thinking-toned interests.

It is possible, even likely, that Barack Obama offers more grip to the sub-group(s) which tend to offer allegiance based more in their own affectual dispositions. Yet, it would be a mistake to over-generalize this mode of appeal based only in the ability to make up (literally,) a case for this based in Obama’s language and the self-reports of only affect-based supporters.

In fact, it would possibly be a mistake to lump Obama’s cognitively elite supporters into the feeling-toned camp without gathering data in support of this move.

The narrative about Obama’s idealistic campaign does refer to its transformative rhetoric. As Colonel Lang wrote in his blog’s comment section,

I think it is a great mistake to ignore politicians’ rhetoric

Yes. But how one chooses to contextualize the language, grant significance, and posit ramifications, does not lend itself to a tidy analysis. Ironically, informal analysis might be prone to having its significance elevated magically; this against doing the legwork of thinking through the concrete variations in actual psychological appeal and voter preference-making; especially to analyze these at the individual cum sub-group levels of analysis. (Hmmm, thinking of Saussure here…)

However, it is doubly ironic that this false generalizing nevertheless offers up a ripe target-worthy generalization. There’s a kind of scapegoat effect: heart-felt support needs to be punished a bit. Even if all one can say about the mistaken generalization used for this purpose is: ‘it’s heartfelt!’


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