Sunday, June 17, 2007

Structurational Cognition

Between my revisiting (once again) questions of "knowledge management" and finding myself in arguments about Noam Chomsky over at Truthdig, I realize that it may be time for me to return to more fundamental questions of the nature of cognition. This time around, however, I think I can now the enjoy the advantage of all the time I have put into reading Anthony Giddens and my efforts to feel more comfortable with his theory of structuration. This is a theory of how social systems can replicate themselves that is based on a dialectical relationship between the structural and behavioral properties of the system. This is an approach that Giddens himself acknowledges as being heavily informed by recent hermeneutic thinking. Hermeneutics had its origins in the decoding of obscure Biblical texts; but, over the last two centuries, it has expanded to encompass the more general body of texts. More recently, Paul Ricœur expanded even further to encompass actions, as well as texts; so it is not too much of a stretch to take a hermeneutic stance in thinking about general cognition.

The "Chomsky connection" comes from the question of whether cognitive behavior (in Chomsky's case the capacity for using language) can be grounded in structures, particularly structures that are innate in humans by virtue of their genetic makeup. One of Chomsky's early bursts of polemic was an attack on B. F. Skinner's book, Linguistic Behavior, which was grounded in the premise that all behaviors were conditioned by experiences and had nothing to do with any a priori structures in the "body" doing the experiencing. Giddens' dialectical stance toward the reproduction of social systems argues that neither of structure and behavior is in any way prior to the other. Rather, structuration is the ongoing process through which each induces change in the other. Giddens sees the structure of a social system as an organization of rules and resources. That structure provides a framework within which actors, both individually and in groups, cultivate and exercise "regular social practices." Those practices, however, can induce changes in the framework of rules and resources; and, by the same token, those changes can induce changes in the "regular social practices." So, in the spirit of dialectical synthesis, structure and behavior "feed" each other, rather than opposing each other.

Consider, now, how we exercise our capacity for cognition (a turn of phrase that I find far more apposite than "manage our knowledge"); and, since I came into this by reviewing Chomsky, let us concentrate on linguistic capacity. Chomsky is probably still the strongest card in the hand of structuralist positivism. When I heard him lecture at UCLA about twenty years ago, he made it clear that he believe that, sooner or later, all questions of semantics would eventually be reduced to questions about syntactic structures, the discipline he devoted most of his career to exploring (when he was not writing about politics). This amounted to a flat-our rejection of Wittgenstein's behavioral premise that we can only understand a word in the context of its use; and, to this day, the disciples of these two schools of thought continue to go at it head-to-head.

In the face of such a sharp opposition, one cannot resist the dialectical urge to seek out synthesis; and Giddens may be the one to point us in the right direction. Beginning from the "other side of the coin," so to speak, this time, we could say that Wittgenstein argues that we need to examine the "regular social practices" that arise through the ways in which we use language. To appropriate J. L. Austin's turn of phrase, we need to examine how we "do things with words;" and Habermas tried to extend that strategy to a more general view of social practice with his theory of "communicative action." However, as Giddens knew full well, one cannot talk about any practice without situating it in a structural framework; so the path that leads us from Wittgenstein through Austin into Habermas is one that gradually assembles such a framework of resources and rules that govern those resources. The framework we know best is the one we use to parse sentences, but these days it is hard to maintain Chomsky's strong conviction that syntactic structures can carry all the weight. Furthermore, the more we know about the plasticity of cortical behavior, the easier it is for us to accept Giddens' proposition that this framework is always changing in response to the practices that take place within in, which brings us back to the premise that changes in the framework also induce changes in the practices.

For those of us who live in the "real world" (or, perhaps worse, the "world of business"), the opposition of Chomsky and Wittgenstein may seem like an academic exercise; but the ongoing intrusion of the word "knowledge" in the way we now talk about work is another matter. This exercise does nothing more than reinforce yesterday's argument that using this word does not serve us very well, then I can take some satisfaction in the "journey" I have just conducted. I may not like it; but I am realistic enough to know that we all now live in a techno-centric world. Techno-centrism survives and sustains itself by focusing on structures, usually to the extent that we try to abstract our very "sense of reality" (appropriating this time from Isaiah Berlin) into structural representations. However, when we deep-end on those abstractions to the extent that we lose touch with the social practices, we run the risk of also abstracting away the human nature of the people who are supposed to be served by our technologies. If this means that we lose touch with what I have previously called "the human side of doing business," then it may be time to step back and ask why we are doing business at all or, to sound even more extreme, what right we have to lay claim to our own existence.


Anonymous said...

Interesting titles on carbon credits. I'll have to check them.
I thought it might be interesting to see just how people can value the work and opinions of an Israel lobby denier and what sort of commentary I'd find. Chomsky's promotion of a two state solution is zionism, just not the genocidal maniac type.

More on the one state solution for those interested:

Anonymous said...

78731 Steven, I read and enjoyed your article. It appears you are a linguistics expert yourself. If not, surely a devout disciple to it. I appreciate your professional opinion and the interesting knowledge you exemplify.

As for me and coming from the perspective of an interested non expert, what I’ve gathered from the Psychology of Language debate concerning Chomsky and Jean Piaget is perhaps what I believe to be its most important aspect. Evolution. To believe it or not! This is the real question here, at least in layman’s terms.

Do we believe our cognitive, inbred ability to communicate has basic unchanging limitations, or does it have more multidimensional evolving aspects?

Well I believe in evolution! For this reason I tend to lean toward Chomsky. We all climbed out of the same slime pond hundreds of millions of years ago and the complexities of the brain, especially it’s communications center are as complex as life itself and life is an ever changing, ever developing and evolving process. I see no limitations to it. Life will find a way.

There is no doubt that the “gift” of communication separates us from the other animals and in fact there is hardly a doubt our communication is the main tool to our survival as a species. Does it evolve? Will it continue to evolve? There is evidence that suggests it does. To take the other side of the coin one would almost have to believe in an Adam and Eve and throw Darwinism right out the window.

Evolution is what brought us from the pond to the days of homo erectus and we’ve come a long way since then. As surely as we have abandoned the cave to embrace modern culture, science and technology, so too have we improved our language and communications skills. Is this as far as it gets? Perhaps! But I believe it is only the beginning!

Thanks Steven!

Stephen Smoliar said...

From a scholarly point of view, any discussion of evolution probably ought to be preceded by the study of language acquisition, since that provides a "data point" for where evolution has led and from which it could depart (advance?). Of course both sides of the coin are represented in acquisition theory. The positivists want to reduce it all to representations and the mechanisms through which they are constructed. The post-Wittgenstein crowd prefers to think in terms of processes, arguing that you cannot take a "snapshot" of a particular "state" of "language knowledge;" but, as I pointed out in the original post, you still need to embed those processes in some kind of structural framework. Ironically, one of the more interesting process models (Edelman's) is one based on selection from a population (as in the "survival of the fittest" models). However, the "population base" for language acquisition is not the same as that for the evolution of life forms; so it is unlikely that these two stories will ultimately fall under a single process model.

There is probably also a co-evolutionary model for the relationship between linguistic capacity and the structure of the language being used. I lack the background to address that question, but it is interesting to ponder that language, itself, seems to evolve more rapidly than our species does. Look at the way dictionaries, grammars, and even usage manuals change over the centuries. Nevertheless, I tend to agree with Gould that we have no right to assume that we are the final link in that "great chain of being!"