Battle in the Mind Fields

Battle in the Mind Fields

by John A. Goldsmith, Bernard Laks

Hardcover(First Edition)

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“We frequently see one idea appear in one discipline as if it were new, when it migrated from another discipline, like a mole that had dug under a fence and popped up on the other side.” 

Taking note of this phenomenon, John Goldsmith and Bernard Laks embark on a uniquely interdisciplinary history of the genesis of linguistics, from nineteenth-century currents of thought in the mind sciences through to the origins of structuralism and the ruptures, both political and intellectual, in the years leading up to World War II. Seeking to explain where contemporary ideas in linguistics come from and how they have been justified, Battle in the Mind Fields investigates the porous interplay of concepts between psychology, philosophy, mathematical logic, and linguistics. Goldsmith and Laks trace theories of thought, self-consciousness, and language from the machine age obsession with mind and matter to the development of analytic philosophy, behaviorism, Gestalt psychology, positivism, and structural linguistics, emphasizing throughout the synthesis and continuity that has brought about progress in our understanding of the human mind. Arguing that it is impossible to understand the history of any of these fields in isolation, Goldsmith and Laks suggest that the ruptures between them arose chiefly from social and institutional circumstances rather than a fundamental disparity of ideas. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226550800
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/20/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 656
Sales rank: 874,088
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.20(d)

About the Author

John Goldsmith is Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and Computer Science at the University of Chicago. Bernard Laks is Senior Member of the Institut Universitaire de France and university professor of language sciences, phonology, and cognitive sciences at University of Paris Ouest.

Read an Excerpt


Battle in the Mind Fields

In the Beginning

Battle in the mind fields: the characters in this story are, for the most part, a feisty and pugnacious cast. They come prepared for battle, they rarely take prisoners, and they enter the fray defending the faith. These are philosophers, psychologists, linguists, cognitive researchers of all stripes, the inheritors of the great classical questions that may live forever: What is thought? How is it that we are conscious of ourselves? How is it that humans are endowed with the gift of language? Is the multiplicity of languages in the world an indication that there are many ways of viewing the world, or are all the languages of mankind cut from a common cloth?

This book describes the evolution of some of these ideas and provides a rough snapshot of some of these people, with the goal of understanding the present, and with the certainty that the only way to understand the present is to understand where it has come from. A glance at what is to come may give the impression that we have wandered a bit through the pages of the past, but we promise that what we have included has reverberated in some fashion right down to the present day.

One of the best reasons to study the history of our disciplines is that everything we think we have learned was once an answer to a living, breathing question, and it was an answer provided at a time when alternative answers were also being taken every bit as seriously. But once an answer is certified as true and placed among our certainties, we forget the question to which it was the answer, and the consequence is that we forget what were the alternatives that once enjoyed some traction. In short, we become trapped by our beliefs — not always a bad thing, as long as it leads to no problems. But this phenomenon leads in a natural way to a sclerosis of the mind, a hardening of the mental arteries, and in the end a less adequate understanding of what the disciplines have learned the hard way.

Although much of our perspective in this book derives from personal experience, we have also gained a great deal from the sociologists and philosophers who have studied the evolution of thought in various disciplines. Pierre Bourdieu, for example, made the case for what he called "anamnesis," with a slight nod towards Plato, though using the term in his own way. He argued that a necessary condition for scientific progress was understanding explicitly the conditions (not to mention the context and the constraints) under which dominant scientific ideas had emerged. He was referring not just to science, but also to the vast range of social endeavors that constitute human society. Whether we call it change, or development, or evolution, the fact is that the moment that we live in is always one of confrontation and contestation, for all the reasons discussed in this book. Once that moment has passed, powerful forces enter into play to pretty up the past, to make it docile and submissive. Understanding and wisdom demand just the opposite, though; they demand that we know where we came from and how we got here.

Why? Because the sine qua non of scientific progress is what we might call the disenchantment of the scientific world. The student discovers a scientific world, ready-made and already endowed with simplified stories of the past. But the scholar who wants to understand must free herself of that thrall and be on a first-name basis with that world; the scientist must eventually become the master of those stories, and in most cases, that means knowing how we got to where we are. Know where you came from, and you will know where you are going. And so we will have to begin in the past: not as far back as we might — in ancient Greece, say — but with a rapid introduction to the most relevant themes of the nineteenth century, when it seems that we can find the odd character here and there who is already contemporary and many others who are almost there.

People respond and react to what they read, what they hear, and what they are told. That's only human nature. No one locks himself in a closet and refuses to be influenced by other people. Yet it is not at all rare to encounter brilliant thinkers who try to wipe the historical slate clean — tabula rasa! — and start over, afresh. Of course they themselves never do start over afresh, themselves unaffected by all the ideas and scholarship of the past — that would be impossible — but they send forth the message that the work of the past is unimportant. This seems very odd, and so it is. There is some willful forgetting going on, and we would like to know why and to figure out what ought to be done to overcome it.

All thinking is a continuation of conversations that we have overheard or participated in. If we want to understand a book, we might need to have read perhaps not everything its author has ever read, but a quite a bit, and often what we find obscure in a difficult writer is obscure simply because we have to roll back some thought process that the writer had engaged in when presented with other questions, other possibilities, and other ideas. Sometimes we engage in fast reading, just as we sometimes eat fast food, but just as there is for slow food, there is also a great need for slow reading, and we will engage the reader in such an activity in this book. We are tempted to say that a bibliography which goes back no more than five years is either unscientific or dishonest. That is too simple, and of course we could imagine papers where a slender bibliography was all that was needed. But as a generalization, it has lot going for it. When it comes to the central questions of the mind, the giants of human thought have preceded us, and we must remember that if we often disagree with them, we never leave them behind. It is critical that we remind ourselves that part of the essence of scientific work consists of confronting a vast library of ideas. When we know a field thoroughly, we find that nine times out of ten, we can summarize and on occasion even evaluate a book by doing nothing more than reading the bibliography carefully.

The second half of the twentieth century saw the development of an overarching new view of mind which, despite its importance, has no simple name and which will be a major concern of both volumes of this book. This new view is tightly bound to the machine that has changed our lives: the computer. But the connection is not a simple one. Computers, the real thing, first appeared during World War II, largely as part of the war effort, in the United States, in England, and in Germany. Computers were needed at first to solve differential equations rapidly so that artillery could be more accurately aimed, then to break enemy codes and encryption systems, and eventually to help in the development of the atomic bomb. But computers were not the simple source of the new ideas about the mind. If anything, it was the other way around. People were able to invent and create computers because these new ideas about logic and computation were already being developed. Technology, philosophy, logic, mathematics: all these fields were tied together in a complex unity that is no less real today than it was in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Soft Mentalism, Hard Mentalism

A principal focus of our account is this transitional period and the change in the way the mind was understood. To give a name to this transition (though one that will need a good deal of spelling out over the course of the book), we will look at this shift from a soft mentalism to a hard mentalism. Soft mentalism focused on consciousness and self-awareness, while hard mentalism focused on representation, intension, and belief. Hard mentalism began as a fantasy: machines that could talk, play chess, and do sums. Pascal and Leibniz had some success with machines that could calculate. These fantasies began to take on form, if not life, and Charles Babbage came as near as anyone in the nineteenth century with his analytical engine. Hard mentalism sees Leibniz as its patron saint, while soft mentalism looks to Descartes. And as logic is the science of what makes thought possible, there are two concepts of logic that correspond to these mentalisms: hard logic and soft logic.

The physical sciences over the past four centuries have been extraordinarily successful, as no thinking person could fail to see. Like a sharp investor looking for a place to put his money, many thoughtful people have looked to the physical sciences to try to figure out what they are doing so right and to see whether there are lessons to be learned that could be applied elsewhere. The crass might call this "physics envy"; others will see it as prudence and good common sense. We will see how the fascination with science and with measurement came to center stage in the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth century, as more kinds of objects came to be placed under the scientific microscope: the sound changes in language studied in depth and detail by philologists and linguists, especially by German philologists and linguists, in the nineteenth century, for example. Taxonomic structures of cultural and social systems, of biological species, and of chemical elements all developed quickly during this period. Some of these systems were shaken up again at midcentury by the Darwinian revolution, the revolution that gave a new account, without recourse to divine intervention, of how change over long periods could be scientifically explained.

One of the messages that we expect our readers to take away is the idea that it is simply impossible to understand any of the mind fields — linguistics, philosophy, psychology, logic — over the past 100 years in isolation. Each field influenced, and was in turn influenced by, the others. This interaction, on the rare occasions it is discussed, is usually presented as a quaint corner of dusty history. We will try to show how wrong this view is, and how much these disciplines have suffered from being unaware of the origins of many of the most important ideas and values that have shaped them. An important part of this intimate relation between the fields derives directly from the fact that these disciplines share deep historical roots, and in many ways these fields were once one. There is much to be learned, for example, from watching how psychology fought for its independence from philosophy after the middle of the nineteenth century and how linguistics continues to view its independence from psychology and to reflect on that independence.

We will frequently see an idea appear in one discipline as if it were new, when it actually migrated from another discipline, like a mole that dug under a fence and popped up on the other side. Disciplines may at times emphasize their limits; under most conditions this is a bad thing, but these limits help clarify for a wide range of workers what the questions are that they should be addressing. Still, there are always individuals who are passionately interested in issues that transcend a single discipline and whose work therefore becomes multidisciplinary. It may be possible to write a history of a single discipline, but it is not possible to research a history of a discipline and restrict oneself to that discipline: the reality, the boots on the ground, has always seen thinkers read and write across the disciplinary boundaries.

We have found it useful to adopt some of Bourdieu's perspectives, as we noted just above. Bourdieu generalizes the notion of capital from the economic domain to a wide range of social arenas, all the while recognizing that this capital can grow, diminish, accumulate, or even in some cases be wiped out in a crash. It is a banality to say that money is both a reality and a social construction. No one needs any explanation that money has its reality: it can be transformed into a sweater, a dinner, a car. And it is a social construction; without the force of a government behind it, a 10-dollar bill is just a slip of custom-made paper, not good for much at all. And while there is an arbitrariness to the units with which we measure monetary value, all capital has the possibility of accumulating, of being added to by its owner.

In various social arenas, which Bourdieu calls fields, individuals enter into different relations with one another; most of the relations discussed in in this book involve academic and scientific roles. In different fields, actors may work to accumulate capital, even though the capital is generally specific to each field. In the academic realm, the notion of capital corresponds to authority and influence, and under certain conditions it can transfer across fields; although the economic metaphor breaks down in such cases, since a transfer from one field to another need not involve a decrease in accumulated capital in the first. But transfer across fields, as Bourdieu underscores, is far from obvious and far from automatic: it is indeed a complex alchemy, which can involve far more than an explicit or pre-established set of rules; it may depend on a larger context, including ideas circulating on more extensive fields, or a sensitivity to the widest field of all, the zeitgeist.

In the rest of this chapter, we will survey the principal themes that return frequently in the story that will capture our attention. We have cast a wide net, from a chronological point of view, so that we can see recurrences — and see them we will.

Liberation Moments

Here is the first noteworthy observation: new ideas that catch on are always perceived by the catchers-on to be liberating them not just from a set of ideas but from a dogma of an earlier generation. Each successful new way of looking at mind, language, and reasoning is viewed as a notional liberation moment. This way of putting it captures both the heady revolutionary fervor that comes along with a new scientific perspective and the sensation that a new perspective brings out explicitly what was wrong with the old conventional wisdom. Now, with the problem out in the open, we can get rid of it, put it behind us, and move forward with new vigor. We see the dogma of our elders and wonder how they could have failed to see it for what it was, as we see it now.

One of the ideas we will try to spell out is that we never completely drop old ideas: they remain with us, often getting harder and harder to see consciously, which is generally not a good thing. But one of the constants we will hear in the stories that are recounted by participants is this: each person, individually and in concert, felt that a great weight had been lifted from his or her shoulders, and that weight was the weight of a heavy past tradition. The behaviorists felt that way, as did the logical positivists, the early generative grammarians, and then the later generative semanticists. Yehoshua Bar-Hillel told of his similar conversion experience upon first encountering Carnap's and Reichenbach's work.

It follows from this that if you do not understand how a once dominant idea could have captured the imagination of smart, young people, then you simply do not understand it. All new ideas that grab the imagination of new people in a field do so because they are perceived as liberations from some kind of orthodoxy of the past.

Noam Chomsky expressed the heady emotion that we are talking about very well:

The whole history of grammar, for thousands of years, had been a history of rules and constructions, and transformational grammar in the early days, generative grammar, just took that over. So the early generative grammar had a very traditional flair. There is a section on the Passive in German, and another section on the VP in Japanese, and so on: it essentially took over the traditional framework, tried to make it precise, asked new questions and so on. What happened in the Pisa discussions was that the whole framework was turned upside down.

So, from that point of view, there is nothing left of the whole traditional approach to the structure of language, other than taxonomic artifacts, and that's a radical change, and it was a very liberating one. The principles that were suggested were of course wrong, parametric choices were unclear, and so on, but the way of looking at things was totally different from anything that had come before, and it opened the way to an enormous explosion of research in all sorts of areas, typologically very varied. It initiated a period of great excitement in the field. In fact I think it is fair to say that more has been learned about language in the last 20 years than in the preceding 2000 years.

The last sentence is certainly a showstopper: either you believe it or you are stunned by its scientific immodesty. But immodesty (if that is what it is) aside, it illustrates the giddy feeling of liberation that so often comes along with being part of a movement that takes itself to be revolutionary. Martin Joos, an ornery member of the post-Bloomfieldian generation, must have had this in mind when he wrote that "linguistics has been preeminently a young man's pursuit ever since the 1920's."


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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Battle in the Mind Fields

In the Beginning
Soft Mentalism, Hard Mentalism  
Liberation Moments 
Our Kind of Science 
The World of Ideas and the World of Social Relations 
Group Identity 
Jehovah’s Problem and Noah’s Solution 
Credit Problem and Heroes 
Mind and Materialism  
Chapter 2: The Nineteenth Century and Language 
Introduction: History, Typology, Structuralism  
Deep Time 
Chapter 3: Philosophy and Logic in the Nineteenth Century
Logic: Boole, Frege, Russell
 Chapter 4: The Mind Has a Body: Psychology and Intelligent Machines in the Nineteenth Century
Germany, the Homeland of Psychology in the Nineteenth Century 
Psychology Comes to the New World 
Psychology in France 
The Unity of Mankind—and the Differentiation of Types of Humans 
The Era of Machines 
Moving On
 Chapter 5: Psychology, 1900–1940 
Structuralism and Functionalism  
John B. Watson and Behaviorism  
The Second Generation of Behaviorists 
Gestalt Psychology 
The Period Comes to a Close 
Chapter 6: American Linguistics, 1900–1940
Early American Anthropology 
Edward Sapir
The Phoneme 
Leonard Bloomfield 
Sapir and Bloomfield 
The Creation of Linguistics as a Profession 
Chapter 7: Philosophy, 1900–1940
Edmund Husserl
Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein 
Logical Positivism, Logical Empiricism  
Chapter 8: Logic, 1900–1940

Three Approaches to the Philosophy of Mathematics 
The Chrome Machine of Logic 
The Logicians’ Grammar
Chapter 9: European Structuralism, 1920–1940 

Nikolai Trubetzkoy 
Roman Jakobson 
Structuralism and the Prague Linguistic Circle 
Death, War, and Pestilence 
Chapter 10: Conclusions and Prospects 

Midnight in the Century 


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