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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Abstract: "Beyond the anthropocentric (aka linguistic) mistake: Languaging as if nature mattered"

This is my abstract for the 1st International Conference on Interactivity, Language and Cognition (Odense, September 12-14).


Beyond the anthropocentric (aka linguistic) mistake: Languaging as if nature mattered
Morten Tønnessen

“How easy it is for inherited concepts to stifle our senses!”
Abram 2010

“[F]orgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Luke 23:34

Daniel Everett suggests that discourse entails dark cognitive and cultural matter, namely what is not said but is still somehow in discourse. How can we study the «dark matter» of our enlightened worlds? Can we escape the tunnel-sight on language?

To simple-minded humans (philosophers included), language largely constitutes reality. And yet language is free to evolve at the inkling of an eye, the hunch of a confused mind. Without a doubt, language does in many senses open the world up to us – but it also conditions and constrains us. Homo sapiens sapiens is a creature that organises ecological reality in linguistic categories – both perceptually and behaviourally. It is very “natural”, therefore, to commit the anthropocentric mistake, namely to reason (erroneously) that human reality is practically all there is. We tend to think in terms of language, and in terms of language, all is language. All is human language – all is human.

What we do not realize, when committing this mistake, is that it is not only our species that judges, that categorises, that is different, and so forth. It takes a brilliant (and somewhat ludicrous) mind to differentiate between the world as we see it and the world as it may be beyond (underneath, beneath) language. The anthropocentric – or indeed linguistic – mistake, then, consists in mistaking human reality for reality as such. Misjudging the nature of reality, we misjudge our nature – living nature – human nature. In consequence, even our own distinctive nature is obscured. Is there a way out of this ‘house of language’?

Perhaps there is. I suggest that language rather than being external to the human Umwelt (von Uexküll), as fellow biosemioticians Sebeok and Hoffmeyer have suggested, is internal to it. If so, then in a sense language is perception (and action) – and often perception (and action) is language. If cognition is situated, embodied, extended and distributed, then we must be able to be “thinking with animals” (Daston and Mitman (eds) 2005) in a literal sense. In fact, aren’t we already? Examples to this effect will be provided, demonstrating that we are indeed enmeshed in a cultural meshwork (Thibault 2011) – which was never merely human – as well as in a natural meshwork.

Abram, David 2010. The Discourse of the Birds. Biosemiotics 3(3): 263-275.
Daston, Lorraine and Mitman, Gregg (eds) 2005. Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Thibault, Paul 2011. First-Order Languaging Dynamics and Second-Order Language: The Distributed Language View. Ecological Psychology 23: 1–36.

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