Foundations of Knowledge

  1. Sense Experience and Perception
  2. Memory
  3. Language

    'Green' Readings

    Teaching Notes 

Before asking how we justify claims of knowledge in different areas, we need to consider what kind of thing we can base any knowledge on: there must be some basic pieces of knowledge that we are completely justified in accepting, without having proven or even argued that they are true; and then there must be means to arrive at further knowledge from those basic pieces of knowledge.

In this section, therefore, we shall consider sense experience and memory, which provide us with basic knowledge; and language, which is the means by which we can express propositions, to pass on and gain knowledge. And in the next section we shall consider logic and reasoning, which enable us to deduce propositions from other propositions, and thereby to expand our knowledge.

Exercise 0.1.:
For each of the following propositions it has been claimed that our knowledge of it is incorrigible, i.e. that we could not possibly be mistaken about these matters. Try to think of situations where such a belief might be wrong.
  1. I see something red in front of me.
  2. My hand hurts a little. (But consider a situation where someone has been told by their doctor that itches are just slight pains.)
  3. 2 + 2 = 4. (But then consider: "1023 is a prime number.")
  4. John does not have a female brother.
  5. I exist. (Compare Descartes, 1596-1650: "Cogito ergo sum.")
a comment

There are very few propositions which cannot possibly be wrong just because someone believes them – and certainly not enough of them to serve as a basis of all our knowledge.

We must therefore be content to accept the evidence of our senses and memory as basic knowledge, provided that there are no overriding considerations to the contrary.

1. Sense Experience and Perception

Exercise 1.1.:
Human beings are usually said to have five senses.
  1. List the usual five senses and their sense organs, and make further subdivisions if appropriate.
  2. Try to decide on an order of the five senses, according to how essential they are for our functioning in the world.
  3. Decide on an order of the five senses according to how much information they provide us with.

Are there any other senses that you think should be included?

A common distinction, first made by John Locke (1632-1704,) is that between the primary qualities of objects, which are inseparable from them no matter what state they may be in, and their secondary qualities, which "are nothing in the objects themselves, but the powers to produce the various sensations in us by their primary qualities" (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690, II.)

So primary qualities are really in the objects, whereas secondary qualities, as perceived sensations, are only in the observer. This led Locke to argue that some of our ideas give us genuine information about the reality 'out there,' (and hence knowledge,) while others do not.

Exercise 1.2.:
According to Locke's distinction, which of the following are primary and which are secondary qualities?
my answer

While the distinction between primary and secondary qualities might seem rather 'academic', not so important to how we lead our lives, it is related to another one: a proposition can be either objective, i.e. only about the state of the world, or subjective, i.e. depend on someone's judgment.

Exercise 1.3.:
  1. Give further examples like the ones in this table:
    "He scored 125 on an IQ test." or "He always has high marks on tests.""He is intelligent."
    "She gained 57% on the Maths test.""She got 63% on her English Literature essay."
  2. Try to find examples of situations where there is a problem, because people mistake a subjective judgment for an objective statement of fact?
  3. Do you think a proposition like: "Hamlet is a great play" is objective or subjective? How about: "Stealing is wrong"?
What is meant by extra-sensory perception ('ESP') ? What arguments do you think there are for and against there being ESP ?
It might be thought, then, that our immediate perceptions are such that they give us certain knowledge, and that they can therefore serve as the basis of other knowledge. Necker Cube. 2kB

However, the example of the Necker cube shows that perception is an active process of interpreting the information we receive through our senses and of making sense of it. In general, when we look at something, we are unconsciously 'guessing' or forming hypotheses about what we can see. Most of the time we don't realise this, because there isn't any problem. But with the Necker cube, there are two equally likely hypotheses which we can hold, so we 'flip' between the two.

"Perception is not determined simply by stimulus patterns; rather it is a dynamic searching for the best interpretation of the available data ... perception involves going beyond the immediately given evidence of the senses" (Gregory, 1966.) Perception is "the process of assembling sensations into a useable mental representation of the world;" it "creates faces, melodies, works of art, illusions etc. out of the raw material of sensation" (Coon, 1983.)

Since perception, then, is a process which not simply records sense data but selects from them, draws inferences from them and organises them, it is a process which can go wrong.

Exercise 1.4.:
Look at the optical illusions below and discuss how they may arise. What, here, are the "overriding considerations to the contrary" why we do not accept the evidence of our senses?

  1. The Müller-Lyer illusion.
    Müller-L.. 1kB Traditional Zulus, who live in round houses and have circular arrangements to their villages, are not taken in by the illusion, it seems.
  2. The Ponzo illusion.
    Ponzo. 1kB Consider the following report: "When Colin Turnbull, an anthropologist, was studying pygmies in 1961, he took one of them, who had become a friend, out of the forest on a trip. The pygmies he was studying had spent their whole lives in the forest – they were known as the 'forest people' – so to go outside it and see for miles across the plains was a new experience. ... When he [the pygmy] saw a herd of buffalo in the distance, he thought they were ants and he refused to believe that they were buffalo because they looked so small" (Hayes and Orrell, Psychology, 1987, pp. 43f.)
  3. The horizontal-vertical illusion.
    "Two of the African tribes studied, the Batoro and the Banyankole, were at the top of the illusion scale, that is, they were most likely to see it. They both live in high, open country where you can see for miles without interference; ... A third tribe, the Bete, who live in a jungle environment, were at the bottom of the scale – they were least likely to see the illusion of all the groups. Europeans and Americans tended to come somewhere inbetween the three African tribes"  (Gross, Psychology, 1987, p. 127.)

An account of some ways in which our perceptions are automatically organised is given by Gestalt theory (from Ger. Gestalt, figure, shape,) which says that we tend to perceive things as wholes which are more than the sums of the given parts. Amongst the principles according to which our experience is organised are the following:

  1. Figure/ground:
    even a man who gained his sight at age 47, after having been blind since birth, immediately had figure/ground-perception, even though other things he had to slowly learn.
  2. Similarity and proximity:
    other things being equal, we group together things that are near each other, and similar things.
  3. Closure, continuity and symmetry:
    we tend to organise what we perceive into simple, complete wholes.
Exercise 1.5.:
Discuss the following perceptual situations in terms of the above three Gestalt principles.

  1. In the diagram on the left, below, can you see two different crosses in the square?
    Gestalt 1. 2kB Gestalt 2. 2kB
  2. In the diagram on the right, above, do you see the first figure as the two parts shown, or as a triangle and a horizontal line?

    Gestalt 3. 1kB

  3. Consider the two strings of letters on the right. How do you immediately parse the letters in each of the strings, into two groups or into three?
  4. The phi-phenomenon: If two adjacent lights are switched on and off alternately in quick succession, an observer instead of seeing the two lights, will tend to see just one light moving to and fro.

    Gestalt 4. 3kB

  5. Consider the two squares of letters on the right. How do you immediately perceive each of the squares, as rows or as columns?

But perception is affected by various extraneous factors as well, such as context and other situational variables (the 'perceptual set,') and motivation and emotion.

Exercise 1.6.:
  1. Each student is briefly shown two sets of 5 cards, one after the other, and should then try to write down what was written on the cards and where they were placed.
  2. Consider the following experiment: after a subject's right hand has been immersed for a while in cold water and the left hand in hot water, both hands are placed into lukewarm water. What do you expect the subject to experience?
    Try to invent other experiments to demonstrate this contrast-effect.
  3. Measure the time which different members of the group need to sort each of two packs of 15 cards according to the colour in which words are written on them. Try to explain the result, and suggest situations where the observed effect may have some significance.
    Two of the most powerful
    and effective of all human
    fears are the fear of failure
    and the fear of success.
  4. Read the sentence in the box on the right, on your own, and count the number of times that the lower-case letter "F" occurs in it. Compare your results.
    Anyone who counted fewer occurrences than someone else, should try again on their own. How long until everyone has agreed?
Apart from the principle of perceptual defence, which was demonstrated in Exercise 1.5.c., there is also the principle of perceptual accentuation/sensitisation, whereby things that are relevant or salient for us are perceived as larger, brighter, more attractive, etc.

Now, the kinds of errors and distortions described above can affect not only our perception of the physical world, but also the beliefs on which we base our judgments. This is something we must bear in mind when we make claims to knowledge, and when we critically assess such claims.

Exercise 1.7.:
Try to give examples of how ...
  1. a person's attitude, such as a racial prejudice or a preference for a make of car, might be based on some of the above errors and distortions.
  2. I may think I know something, when in fact my belief is wrong and is based on some mistaken or distorted perception.

The Nature-Nurture Debate:

In philosophy there are two schools of thought: rationalists such as Plato (427-347 B.C.) have held that our knowledge is based upon certain innate principles, which are "stamped upon the mind of man;" whereas empiricists such as John Locke have believed that at birth our minds are like a blank sheet of paper (a tabula rasa) and that all knowledge is empirical, i.e. based on sense experience of the outside world.

In various areas of psychology, too, the question whether, or to what extent, certain of our abilities or characteristics are innate (hereditary) or whether they are acquired (i.e. due to the environment) has been hotly debated. In some cases the question is open to empirical investigation.

Exercise 1.8.:
Read the following summaries of experiments and decide whether they support the 'nativist' or the empiricist position.

  1. size of cube [cm]30309090
    distance [m]1313
    head-turns [%]98585422
    2- to 3-months old babies were taught to turn their head at the sight of a 30 cm cube at a distance of 1 m. When the stimulus was varied, the following results were obtained, showing the extent to which the babies generalised their response (Bower, 1966):

  2. Three chimps were reared, from birth until they were 7 months, under different conditions, and their visual abilities tested (Riesen.)

    • Debi, who had spent the whole time in darkness, had suffered retinal damage, but neither of the other two had.
    • Kova, who had spent 1-2 hours a day exposed to diffuse or unpatterned light by wearing translucent goggles and had spent the rest of the time in darkness, was noticeably retarded: receiving two electric shocks a day from a yellow and black striped disc, she needed six days of training before she even whimpered when the disc was shown, and she was very slow to follow a moving object just with her eyes.
    • Lad, who had been raised under normal lighting conditions, was no different from any other normally-reared chimp.
  3. When chicken are born they lack the ability to peck accurately, at pieces of grain, say. But after a month, chicks that have been reared with hoods over their heads until then peck no less accurately than others which have been raised normally.

  4. Kittens were reared in the dark, except for a period each day when they were placed in a 'vertical world' – an apparatus in which they were surrounded only by vertical lines (Blakemore and Cooper, 1966.) When eventually tested, these kittens had adapted their perception so that they had very good perception of vertical things, such as chair legs, but would not seem to see horizontal things, such as a rope stretched out in front of them.
The phrase "nature and nurture," for heredity and environment as influences on development, goes back to Karl Pearson (1857 -1936,) who not only laid the foundations of much of modern statistics, but applied its techniques to research in human genetics. (He also convinced the University of Cambridge to abolish the compulsory undergraduate classes in Christianity.) He believed that environment had little to do with the development of mental or emotional qualities, and felt that the high birth rate of the poor was a threat to civilisation. In his view, to eliminate tuberculosis, "£ 1,500,000 spent in encouraging healthy parentage would do more than the establishment of a sanatorium in every township." This is of course the kind of thing that eugenicists have believed.
Eugenics, [of which Pearson later was professor at London University ! ] ... was essentially a political movement, overwhelmingly confined to the members of the bourgeoisie or middle classes, urging upon governments a programme of positive or negative actions to improve the genetic condition of the human race. Extreme eugenicists believed that the condition of man and society could be ameliorated only by the genetic improvement of the human race – by concentrating on encouraging valuable human strains (usually identified with the bourgeoisie or with suitably tinted races, such as the 'Nordic'), and eliminating undesirable strains (usually identified with the poor, the colonized or unpopular strangers).
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875 -1914, 1987.
We are all aware of the consequences of such views being applied.

That certain human characteristics are not only inherited but are unevenly distributed amongst different races is one of the justifications used by racists to support their views: many people are convinced that blacks are inherently less intelligent and more violent than whites, say – but also that they have 'a much better sense of rhythm.'

Exercise 1.9.:
  1. Give other examples of human characteristics which have been associated with particular races – such as the Jews, or gypsies – and used to bolster racism.
  2. Suggest a few experiments to determine to what extent human intelligence is innate, and to what extent it is acquired. List some environmental factors on which intelligence may depend.
  3. Suggest ways in which intelligence tests may be culturally biased in such a way that members of certain groups will tend to be at a disadvantage and get worse results. (Such a bias is in many cases quite unintentional, but still ...)
Most present-day psychologists would consider themselves neither nativists nor empiricists, but 'interactionists': i.e. they hold that we may be born with capacities to perceive the world in certain ways but stimulation and environmental influences in general are crucial in determining how – and even whether – these capacities actually develop.

Some recent research, reported under the heading "Nurture strikes back," shows how the discussion is still going on:

Once upon a time, the only ideologically acceptable explanations of mental differences between men and women were cultural. ... Today, by contrast, biology tends to be an explanation of first resort in matters sexual.

... Success at spatial tasks like this often differs between the sexes (men are better at remembering and locating general landmarks; women are better at remembering and locating food), so the researchers were not surprised to discover a discrepancy between the two. The test asked people to identify an "odd man out" object in a briefly displayed field of two dozen otherwise identical objects. Men had a 68% success rate. Women had a 55% success rate.

... However, ... they asked some of their volunteers to spend ten hours playing an action-packed, shoot-'em-up video game ... As a control, other volunteers were asked to play a decidedly non-action-packed game ... for a similar amount of time. Both sets were then asked to do the odd-man-out test again.

Among the ... [second group], there was no change in the ability to pick out the unusual. Among those who had played ... [the action-packed video game], both sexes improved their performance.

That is not surprising, given the different natures of the games. However, the improvement in the women was greater than the improvement in the men – so much so that there was no longer a significant difference between the two. Morever, ... when the volunteers were tested again after five months, both the improvement and the lack of difference between the sexes remained. ...

That has several implications. ... And a third is that although genes are important, upbringing matters, too. In this instance, exactly which bit of upbringing remains unclear. Perhaps it has to do with the different games that boys and girls play.

The Economist, September 8th 2007, pp 94f.

2. Memory

Memory, defined as the retention of learning and experience, clearly is a prerequisite for at least a wide range of knowledge, and any problems affecting the reliability of this faculty must make us sceptical of the foundation on which certain kinds of knowledge are based.
Exercise 2.1.:
Memory has various aspects, and Ebbinghaus, (in 1885 already,) identified four things that can be called remembering:
  1. recall,
  2. recognition,
  3. reconstruction, and
  4. re-learning savings.

Just from these terms, try to give a more detailed description of what these involve and an example from your own experience of each of these.

Various theories, or models, of the working of memory have been put forward. While this is not the place to consider them in any detail, it does help to understand some of the processes involved. Thus, the processes of registration, storage and retrieval are subject to quite different problems, and have to be studied separately.

A distinction commonly made, (e.g. in the two-process model of Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968,) is that between sensory, short-term and long-term memory. While sensory memory gives us an accurate account of the environment as experienced by the sensory system, only a small fraction of all the information that impinges on our senses is stored long enough for us to use it, and only some of this is further processed and enters our long-term memory to be potentially retrievable in future. Short-term memory seems to have a capacity of only about seven (plus or minus two) bits of information, but 'chunking' can be used to expand that capacity; and information remains in short-term memory for only 15 to 30 seconds, but this can be extended through 'rehearsal' or repetition.

Diagram of the Model. 4kB

An alternative model (Craik and Lockhart, 1972) tries to account for apparent differences between the different kinds of memory in terms of 'levels of processing': how well something is remembered just depends on whether it has been processed

  1. at the structural or shallow level only:
    "What does it look like?"
  2. at the phonetic level as well:
    "What does it sound like?" or
  3. at the semantic level:
    "What does it mean?"

These different kind of processing can be seen at work when we try to remember a telephone number, say.

Exercise 2.2.:
Perform the following experiments and try to explain the results in terms of the theories of memory mentioned above.

  1. Carefully listen to the list of words (and names) that is read out and then write down as many of them as you can recall. For each of the items, count how many students in the class remembered it.

    Carefully listen to a second list of words that is read out, but write down as many of them as you can recall only after having counted backwards: 99, 96, 93, ..., 0. Again, count for each of the items how many students in the class remembered it.

  2. Briefly look at the arrangement of letters that will be shown and try to write down what you have seen. How many letters did the students in the class remember on average?

    Repeat the experiment for the second set of letters.

  3. Carefully listen to the list of words (and names) that is read out and then write down as many of them as you can remember. How many items did the students in the class remember on average?

    Repeat the experiment for the second list of words.

There are also different theories of 'forgetting.'
  1. Trace decay: forgetting is due to spontaneous fading or weakening of the neural memory trace over time.
  2. Displacement: in a short-term store of limited capacity, new items tend to displace old ones.
  3. Interference: forgetting increases with time solely because of increasing interference of competing memories; as the store of information grows, it becomes harder to identify or locate a particular item.
  4. Prevention of consolidation: once new information has entered long-term memory, a consolidation time is needed, during which changes need to occur in the nervous system, as a result of learning.
  5. Cue-dependent forgetting: retrievability of a memory may depend on cues or routes, which may be stored with the memory, and which can be psychological or physiological states or environmental or contextual variables.
  6. Repression: painful, disturbing or threatening thoughts or ideas are actively pushed out of the mind; (cf. Freud and psychoanalysis.)
Exercise 2.3.:
The above theories of forgetting need not be exclusive. For each of the following observations, decide which theory may be best suited to explain it.
  1. "In an early study of McGeoch and McDonald (1931) subjects learnt a list of words and then were given an interfering task before being tested on the first list – if they had to read jokes, recall was 43%, if they had to read a list of numbers it was 37%, nonsense syllables 26%, unrelated adjectives 22%, antonyms of the original list 18%, and synonyms of the original list 12%" (Gross, Psychology, 1987, pp. 166f.)
  2. "A study by Overton in 1972 showed how individuals who were under the influence of alcohol could remember things that had happened to them on similar occasions much more readily than when they had not been drinking. ... Other studies showed that this applied to other drugs too and it seems likely that it also happens when we are in particular emotional states" (Hayes and Orrell, Psychology, 1987, p.174.)
  3. "patients who have been the victims of concussion or brain injury or who have undergone brain 'surgery' or ECT commonly suffer from retrograde amnesia, that is, loss of memory of events which have occurred prior to the accident [...] Hudspeth et al. (1964) found that retention of a learnt response increases with increase in the interval between training and ECT; an hour's delay permits almost perfect retention" (Gross, Psychology, 1987, p. 168.)
  4. "Shallice (1967) found that although rapidly presented digits show less marked forgetting (suggesting trace decay), elapsed time was less important that the number of subsequent items in determining the probability of recall" (Gross, Psychology, 1987, p. 166.)
  5. It "is very difficult to demonstrate experimentally (although, of course, there is considerable clinical 'evidence'), for example, both Glucksberg and King (1967) and Bradley and Morris (1976) found that recall of words associated with electric shock is poorer that for words not associated with shock but the effect is only short lived"  (Gross, Psychology, 1987, p. 170.)
my answer

It can be shown that like perception, memory is an active process, not just a recording and replaying: how much and what one remembers is affected by such things as the content, certain internal processes and extraneous factors; and so we cannot unsceptically accept claims of knowledge based on memory, either.

For a start, it seems that memory is an 'imaginative reconstruction' of experience and that memory itself is transformed at the time of retrieval.

Another study of the effect of language on memory was performed by Loftus and Loftus, in 1975. They showed subjects a film of a traffic accident, and then asked them questions about what they had seen. After a week, the subjects were asked about the film again. Loftus found that the way in which the questions were asked had quite an effect on what the subjects remembered. For instance: one group of subjects was asked, immediately after seeing the film, "How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?" The other group of subjects was asked, "How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" When they were tested later, the subjects were asked if they had seen any broken glass in the film. (There hadn't been any.) Those subjects who had heard the word "smashed" remembered seeing broken glass scattered around after the accident. In fact, their memory of the accident was of much a more serious one than in the other subjects' memories, even though they had both seen the same film. So it seems that, when we are asking someone to remember something, we have to be very careful that we do not accidentally say things which will distort their memories. It is for this reason that people are concerned about 'leading questions' in court, or in the police questioning of witnesses.
Hayes and Orrell, Psychology, 1987, pp. 169 f.
Nor is our memory immune from the processes by which we continually try to make sense of what is around us – and if the information does not quite fit then we will alter it, without noticing, so that it does. This effect is now called 'effort after meaning,' and is well demonstrated in a study by Bartlett (1932):
In serial reproduction, one subject reproduces the original story etc., then a second subject has to reproduce the first reproduction and so on until six or seven reproductions have been made. The method was meant to duplicate, to some extent, the process by which rumours and gossip are spread or legends passed from generation to generation.

One of the best-known pieces of material Bartlett used was a North-American Indian folk-tale ..., which is difficult for non-Indian peoples because of its style and some of its unfamiliar content and underlying beliefs and conventions. ...

  1. The story becomes noticeably shorter; e.g. Bartlett found that after 6 or 7 reproductions, it shrank from 330 to 180 words.
  2. Despite it becoming shorter, and details becoming omitted, the story becomes more coherent; no matter how distorted it might become, it remains a story because subjects are interpreting the story as a whole, both listening to it and retelling it.
  3. It also becomes more conventional, that is, it retains only those details which can be easily assimilated to the shared past experience and cultural background of the subjects.
  4. It becomes more clichéd, that is, any particular or individual interpretations tend to be dropped.
Gross, Psychology, 1987, pp. 175 f.
Exercise 2.4.:
After listening to the list of about ten words that will be read out, write down all those you can remember.
It should not come as a surprise that our emotions too may influence what we remember, as a study by Bower shows:
In a study in 1981, he asked subjects to keep a diary for a week and to note down all the things which happened to them which were either pleasant or unpleasant. When the week was over, the subjects were put into a weak hypnotic trance and asked to remember that week. Before that, how-ever, it was suggested to them either that they were in a good mood or that they were in a bad mood. The subjects who were in a good mood remembered far more of the pleasant things that had happened to them that week, while the subjects who were in a bad mood remembered far more of the bad things.
Hayes and Orrell, Psychology, 1987, p. 172.
And again, these effects are not just theoretical, a matter for psychologists to investigate, they are of immediate relevance to our every-day beliefs and everyone's prejudices, as the following report on an experiment shows.
The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology ... reported an experiment with people known to be either strongly pro- or anti-Democratic [-- relating to one of the two main parties in the US.] All heard a ten-minute speech on national affairs. Half of the material was carefully slanted to be pro-Democratic, and half slanted to be anti-Democratic. The people were told they were being tested on their memory. Twenty-one days later they were tested on the material. It was found that people's memories were 'significantly better' in recalling material that harmonized with their own political viewpoint or 'frame of reference'. There was a clear tendency for them to forget the material that did not harmonize with their own preconceived notions.
Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957, p. 152.
Exercise 2.5.:
Again, try to give examples of how someone may think they know something, when in fact their belief is wrong and is based on 'selective memory' or 'selective forgetting'.
There are different techniques which have been suggested for increasing how much one can remember:
  1. Method of places: imagine you are walking along a familiar road, say, and associate, in a specific odd image, each item to be remembered with a house.
  2. Invent a sensible story in which the various unrelated items appear.
  3. Use rhyme and rhythm: e.g. "Thirty days hath September, ..."
  4. Pigeonhole technique: numbers are associated with objects with rhyming names (one – bun, two – shoe, ...) and the items to be remembered are then associated, in a specific odd image, with these rhyming objects.

3. Language

When asked to justify claims of knowledge, we need in most cases to refer to things perceived and remembered. Usually we take the 'proper' working of these foundations of knowledge, perception and memory, for granted, but as we have now seen, we need to be very critical of what they tell us.

The same applies to language, which at first sight is merely a 'harmless' tool for expressing and communicating knowledge. However, on further investigation it becomes clear that the language we use not only serves to express our thoughts but may affect or limit them as well.

Thus, our language, though it appears to be a 'transparent' means by which we can express more or less precisely what we want to say, always carries implicit meanings and expresses some values as well – be they ours, or those of society at large. Most of the time we are not at all aware of this hidden content. So when we discuss what our knowledge is based on, we must always ask critically about what is implied but not stated.

Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange if ideas.
Toni Morrison, "Nobel Lecture," 1993.
A perhaps less serious example of this are what Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) called "emotive conjugations," such as
Ihave reconsidered, Weare firm,
you have changed your mind,youare obstinate,
hehas gone back on his word.they are pig-headed.
-- in each case the same situation is described, but our way of putting it depends on who is talking to whom, and the implications are quite different.

A rather more obvious example of the value-ladenness of language comes from the time of the Gulf war, when one newspaper published the following comparison of how the participants on the two sides and the events of the war had been described in the British press in the previous week.

We have ...
reporting guidelines
press briefings
We ...
take out, suppress
eliminate, neutralise, decapitate
dig in
We launch ...
first strikes
Our men are ...
boys, lads
Our boys are ...
desert rats
Our boys are motivated by ...
an old-fashioned sense of duty
Israeli non-retaliation is ...
an act of great statesmanship
Our missiles cause ...
collateral damage
Our planes ...
suffer a high rate of attrition
fail to return from missions
They have ...
They ...
cower in their foxholes
They launch ...
sneak missile attacks
without provocation
Their men are ...
troops, hordes
Theirs are ...
paper tigers
cannon fodder
blindly obedient
mad dogs
Their boys are motivated by ...
fear of Saddam
Iraqi non-retaliation is ...
Their missiles cause ...
civilian casualties
Their planes ...
are shot out of the sky
are zapped
The Guardian, 24.01.1991.
Exercise 3.1.:
  1. Make up some examples, relating to your own lives, of Bertrand Russell's "emotive conjugations."
  2. Think of a present political situation where two different vocabularies are in use to describe the same persons or actions or events, depending on who is talking and about whom; give examples.
Furthermore, language is so closely tied up with thought, that the language we use may well affect the way in which we perceive the world, the way we relate with others, and so on. Even if we do not go as far as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951,) whose early view was that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world," (i.e. that we could not think about anything for which we did not have a word,) we must bear in mind that the world we live in is structured for us partly through the language we use to talk about it.

In its strong version, the hypothesis of linguistic relativity states that for somebody to be able to think of something, his language has to contain the words for it. However, a considerable amount of cross-cultural work has shown that this is not so. For example, members of the Dani-tribe, whose language has only two colour-words, were no less good at making colour distinctions than people with 11 words for different colours in their language.

The weaker version of the hypothesis is rather more acceptable: it states that having certain words available in one's language, and a certain grammar, predisposes one to make sense of one's experiences in a certain way. Having 24 different words for snow in their language, the Lapps will be better at perceiving fine differences between different conditions in winter than I. (According to Steven Pinker, in The Language Instinct, 1994, that number is vastly exaggerated, the result of 'inflation,' as original reports were cited and re-cited by later writers.)

Thus, the MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, talking about 'artificial life', or life simulated by computer programs, points out that

Calling a game Life does not make it alive. Calling a computational object an organism or a robotics device a creature does not make them alive either. Yet the use of such terms is seductive.

The language we use to describe a science frames its objects and experiments, and, in a certain sense, tells us what to think of them. Sometimes we invent the language after we have the objects and have done the experiments. In the case of artificial life, the language existed before the birth of the discipline.

Life on the Screen, 1995, p. 156.
Exercise 3.2.:
Give examples to show how the speakers of a language other than English may experience and structure the world quite differently from the way native English-speakers do.
Carefully read the following texts:
  1. The excerpts below Language, Thought and Reality – Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, 1956. MIT Press, pp. 134-159.
  2. "Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak," in George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1948.
  3. The excerpt from an article from The Economist, August 21st, 2004.
Write a 'mini-essay,' of between 200 and 300 words:
"Say in your own words what it is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states, drawing on the three readings for examples."
Text a.:
"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. ... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation."  Edward Sapir
There will probably be general assent to the proposition that an accepted pattern of using words is often prior to certain lines of thinking and forms of behavior, but he who assents often sees in such a statement nothing more than a platitudinous recognition of the hypnotic power of philosophical and learned terminology on the one hand or of catchwords, slogans and rallying cries on the other. To see only thus far is to miss the point of one of the most important interconnections which Sapir saw between language, culture and psychology, and succinctly expressed in the introductory quotation. It is not so much in these special cases of language as in its constant ways of arranging data and its most ordinary everyday analysis of phenomena that we need to recognize the influence it has on other activities, cultural and personal.
The Name of the Situation as Affecting Behavior
I came in touch with an aspect of this problem before I had studied under Dr. Sapir, and in a field usually considered remote from linguistics. It was in the course of my professional work for a fire insurance company, in which I undertook the task of analyzing many hundreds of reports of circumstances surrounding the start of fires, and in some cases, of explosions. My analysis was directed towards purely physical conditions, such as defective wiring, presence or lack of air spaces between metal flues and woodwork, etc., and the results were presented in these terms. Indeed it was undertaken with no thought that any other significances would or could be revealed. But in due course it became evident that not only a physical situation qua physics, but the meaning of that situation to people, was sometimes a factor, through the behavior of the people, in the start of the fire. And this factor of meaning was clearest when it was a linguistic meaning, residing in the name or the linguistic description commonly applied to the situation. Thus, around a storage of what are called "gasoline drums," behavior will tend to a certain type, that is great care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called "empty gasoline drums," it will tend to be different – careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the "empty" drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor. Physically the situation is hazardous, but the linguistic analysis according to regular analogy must employ the word 'empty,' which inevitably implies lack of hazard. The word 'empty' is used in two linguistic patterns: (1) as a virtual synonym for 'null and void, negative, inert,' (2) applied in analysis of physical situations without regard to, e.g., vapor, liquid vestiges, or stray rubbish, in the container. The situation is named in one pattern (2) and the name is then "acted out" or "lived up to" in another (1), this being a general formula for the linguistic conditioning of behavior into hazardous forms.

In a wood distillation plant the metal stills were insulated with a composition prepared from limestone and called at the plant "spun limestone." No attempt was made to protect this covering from excessive heat or the contact of flame. After a period of use, the fire below one of the stills spread to the "limestone," which to everyone's great surprise burned vigorously. Exposure to acetic acid fumes from the stills had converted part of the limestone (calcium carbonate) to calcium acetate. This when heated in a fire decomposes, forming inflammable acetone. Behavior that tolerated fire close to the covering was induced by use of the name "limestone," which because it ends in "-stone" implies non-combustibility. ...

An electric glow heater on the wall was little used, and for one workman had the meaning of a convenient coathanger. At night a watchman entered and snapped a switch, which action he verbalized as 'turning on the light.' No light appeared, and this result he verbalized as 'light is burned out.' He could not see the glow of the heater because of the old coat hung on it. Soon the heater ignited the coat, which set fire to the building. ...

A drying room for hides was arranged with a blower at one end to make a current of air along the room and thence outdoors through a vent at the other end. Fire started at a hot bearing on the blower, which blew the flames directly into the hides and fanned them along the room, destroying the entire stock. This hazardous setup followed naturally from the term 'blower' with its linguistic equivalence to 'that which blows,' implying that its function necessarily is to 'blow.' Also its function is verbalized as 'blowing air for drying,' overlooking that it can blow other things, e.g., flames and sparks. In reality, a blower simply makes a current of air and can exhaust as well as blow. It should have been installed at the vent end to draw the air over the hides, then through the hazard (its own casing and bearings), and thence outdoors. ...

Such examples, which could be greatly multiplied, will suffice to show how the cue to a certain line of behavior is often given by the analogies of the linguistic formula in which the situation is spoken of, and by which to some degree it is analyzed, classified, and allotted its place in that world which is "to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group." And we always assume that the linguistic analysis made by our group reflects reality better than it does.

Grammatical Patterns as Interpretations of Experience
The linguistic material in the above examples is limited to single words, phrases, and patterns of limited range. One cannot study the behavioral compulsiveness of such material without suspecting a much more far-reaching compulsion from large-scale patterning of grammatical categories, such as plurality, gender and similar classifications (animate, inanimate, etc.), tenses, voices and other verb forms, classifications of the type of "parts of speech," and the matter of whether a given experience is denoted by a unit morpheme, an inflected word, or a syntactical combination. A category such as number (singular vs. plural) is an attempted interpretation of a whole large order of experience, virtually of the world or of nature; it attempts to say how experience is to be segmented, what experience is to be called "one" and what "several." But the difficulty of appraising such a far-reaching influence is great because of its background character, because of the difficulty of standing aside form our own language, which is a habit and a cultural non est disputandum, and scrutinizing it objectively. And if we take a very dissimilar language, this language becomes a part of nature, and we even do to it what we have already done to nature. We tend to think in our own language in order to examine the exotic language. Or we find the task of unraveling the purely morphological intricacies so gigantic, that it seems to absorb all else. Yet the problem, though difficult, is feasible; and the best approach is through an exotic language, for in its study we are at long last pushed willy-nilly out of our ruts. Then we find that the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own.

In my study of the Hopi language, what I now see as an opportunity to work on this problem was first thrust upon me before I was clearly aware of the problem. The seemingly endless task of describing the morphology did finally end. Yet it was evident, especially in the light of Sapir's lectures on Navaho, that the description of the language was far from complete. I knew for example the morphological formation of plurals, but not how to use plurals. It was evident that the category of plural in Hopi was not the same thing as in English, French, or German. Certain things that were plural in these languages were singular in Hopi. The phase of investigation which now began consumed nearly two more years.

The work began to assume the character of a comparison between Hopi and western European languages. It also became evident that even the grammar of Hopi bore a relation to Hopi culture, and the grammar of European tongues to our own "Western" or "European" culture. And it appeared that the interrelation brought in those large subsummations of experience by language, such as our own terms 'time,' 'space,' 'substance,' and 'matter.' Since, with respect to the traits concerned, there is little difference between English, French, German, or other European languages, with the possible (but doubtful) exception of Balto-Slavonic and non-Indo-European, I have lumped these languages into one group called SAE, or "Standard Average European."

That portion of the whole investigation here to be reported may be summed up in two questions: (1) Are our own concepts of 'time,' 'space,' and 'matter' given in substantially the same form by experience to all men, or are they in part conditioned by the structure of particular languages? (2) Are there traceable affinities between (a) cultural and behavioral norms and (b) large-scale linguistic patterns? (I should be the last to pretend that there is anything so definite as "a correlation" between culture and language, and especially between ethnological rubrics such as 'agricultural, hunting,' etc., and linguistic ones like 'inflected,' 'synthetic,' or 'isolating.') When I began the study, the problem was by no means so clearly formulated, and I had little notion that the answers would turn out as they did.

Plurality and Numeration in SAE and Hopi
In our language, that is SAE, plurality and cardinal numbers are applied in two ways: to real plurals and to imaginary plurals. Or more exactly, if less tersely: perceptible spatial aggregates and metaphorical aggregates. We say 'ten men' and also 'ten days.' Ten men either are or could be objectively perceived as ten, ten in one group perception – ten men on a street corner, for instance. But 'ten days' cannot be objectively experienced. We experience only one day, today; the other nine (or even all ten) are something conjured up from memory or imagination. If 'ten days' be regarded as a group it must be as an "imaginary," mentally constructed group. Whence comes this mental pattern? Just as in the case of the fire-causing errors, from the fact that our language confuses the two different situations, has but one pattern for both. ...

... A 'length of time' is envisioned as a row of similar units, like a row of bottles.

In Hopi there is a different linguistic situation. Plurals and cardinals are used only for entities that form or can form an objective group. There are no imaginary plurals, but instead ordinals used with singulars. Such an expression as 'ten days' is not used. The equivalent statement is an operational one that reaches one day by a suitable count. 'They stayed ten days' becomes 'they stayed until the eleventh day' or 'they left after the tenth day.' 'Ten days is greater than nine days' becomes 'the tenth day is later than the ninth.' Our "length of time" is not regarded as a length but as a relation between two events in lateness. Instead of our linguistically promoted objectification of that datum of consciousness we call 'time,' the Hopi language has not laid down any pattern that would cloak the subjective "becoming later" that is the essence of time. ...

Some Impresses of Linguistic Habit in Western Civilization
... Our objectified view of time is, however, favorable to historicity and to everything connected with the keeping of records, while the Hopi view is unfavorable thereto. The latter is too subtle, complex, and everdeveloping, supplying no ready-made answer to the question of when "one" event ends and "another" begins. When it is implicit that everything that ever happened still is, but is in a necessarily different form from what memory or record reports, there is less incentive to study the past. As for the present, the incentive would be not to record it but to treat it as "preparing." But our objectified time puts before imagination something like a ribbon or scroll marked off into equal blank spaces, suggesting that each be filled with an entry. Writing has no doubt helped toward our linguistic treatment of time, even as the linguistic treatment has guided the uses of writing. Through this give-and-take between language and the whole culture we get, for instance:

  1. Records, diaries, bookkeeping, accounting, mathematics stimulated by accounting.
  2. Interest in exact sequence, dating, calendars, chronology, clocks, time wages, time graphs, time as used in physics.
  3. Annals, histories, the historical attitude, interest in the past, archaeology, attitudes of introjection toward past periods, ...

It is clear how the emphasis on "saving time" which goes with all the above and is a very obvious objectification of time, leads to a high valuation of "speed," which shows itself a great deal in our behavior ...

Historical Implications
How does such a network of language, culture, and behavior come about historically? Which was first: the language patterns or the cultural norms? In the main they may have grown up together, constantly influencing each other. But in this partnership the nature of the language is the factor that limits free plasticity and rigidifies channels of development in the more autocratic way. This is so, because language is a system, not just an assemblage of norms. Large systematic outlines can change to something really new only very slowly, while many other cultural innovations are made with comparative quickness. Language thus represents the mass-mind; it is affected by inventions and innovations, but affected little and slowly, whereas to inventors and innovators it legislates with the degree immediate.
from Benjamin Lee Whorf, "The Relation of Habitual
Thought and Behavior to Language," 1941.

Text c.:

The Pirahã, a group of hunter-gatherers who live along the banks of the Maici River in Brazil, use a system of counting called "one-two-many". In this, the word for "one" translates to "roughly one" (similar to "one or two" in English), the word for "two" means "a slightly larger amount than one" (similar to "a few" in English), and the word for "many" means "a much larger amount". In a paper just published in Science, Peter Gordon of Columbia University uses his study of the Pirahã and their counting system to try to answer a tricky linguistic question.

This question was posed by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. Whorf studied Hopi, an Amerindian language very different from the Eurasian languages that had hitherto been the subject of academic linguistics. His work led him to suggest that language not only influences thought but, more strongly, that it determines thought.

While there is no dispute that language influences what people think about, evidence suggesting it determines thought is inconclusive. For example, in 1972, Eleanor Rosch and Karl Heider investigated the colour-naming abilities of the Dani people of Indonesia. The Dani have words for only two colours: black and white. But Dr Rosch and Dr Heider found that, even so, Dani could distinguish and comprehend other colours. That does not support the deterministic version of the Whorf hypothesis.

While recognising that there are such things as colours for which you have no name is certainly a cognitive leap, it may not be a good test of Whorf's ideas. Colours, after all, are out there everywhere. Numbers, by contrast, are abstract, so may be a better test. Dr Gordon therefore spent a month with the Pirahã and elicited the help of seven of them to see how far their grasp of numbers extended.

Using objects with which the participants were familiar (sticks, nuts and – perhaps surprisingly – small batteries), he asked his subjects to perform a variety of tasks designed to measure their ability to count. Most of these tests involved the participant matching the number and layout of a group of objects that Dr Gordon had arranged on a table.

The tests began simply, with a row of, say, seven evenly spaced batteries. Gradually, they got more complicated. The more complicated tests included tasks such as matching numbers of unevenly spaced objects, replicating the number of objects from memory, and copying a number of straight lines from a drawing.

In the tests that involved matching the number and layout of objects they could see, participants were pretty good when faced with two or three items, but found it harder to cope as the number of items rose. Once it was beyond eight, they were getting it right only three-quarters of the time. The only exception was in those tests that used unevenly spaced objects – an arrangement that can be perceived as a group of clusters. Here, performance fell off when the number of objects was six, but shot up again when it was between seven and ten. Dr Gordon suggests that the participants used a "chunking" strategy, counting the clusters and the numbers of objects within each cluster separately.

Things were worse when the participants had to remember the number of objects in a layout and replicate it "blind", rather than matching a layout they could see. In this case the success rate dropped to zero when the number of items became, in terms of their language, "many". And line drawing produced the worst results of all – though that could have had as much to do with the fact that drawing is not part of Pirahã culture as it did with the difficulties of numerical abstraction. Indeed, Dr Gordon described the task of reproducing straight lines as being accomplished only with "heavy sighs and groans".

from "Language Barriers," The Economist,
August 21st 2004.

'Green' Readings :

[13c; from Lat. lingua, tongue.]

The words, intonations and gestures we use to communicate our experiences, ideas and needs to each other. Language is not neutral; it is the way each of us constructs our reality according to our individual perceptions. "Language is a means of classifying and ordering the world: our means of manipulating reality. In its structure and in its use we bring our world into realization, and if it is inherently inaccurate, then we are misled. If the rules which underlie our language system, our symbolic order, are invalid, then we are daily deceived" (Dale Spender, 1890.)

While we might speak of our 'mother-tongue' (and children do receive most of their early language skills from their mothers,) the arbiters of 'correct' language are mostly highly-educated white men: "Every language reflects the prejudices of the society in which it evolved. Since English, through most of its history, evolved in a white, Anglo-Saxon patriarchal society, no one should be surprised that its vocabulary and grammar frequently reflect attitudes that exclude or demean minorities and women. But we are surprised"  (Casey Miller and Kate Swift, 1981.)

In acknowledgment of the importance of an awareness of this inbuilt linguistic bias and the need to reconstruct parts of our language without losing its spontaneity and accessibility, several sets of guidelines for non-oppressive language have been written, particularly in the area of non-sexist language. Not surprisingly there has been resistance to and scorn for such changes, but such usages as "he or she," or "humanity" instead of "mankind," are rapidly gaining ground. ... Other oppressive bias in language has received less attention, but the absolute correctness of correct English in the face of perfectly acceptable alternatives is in question: "Ain nothin in a long time lit up the English teaching profession like the current hassle over Black English" (Geneva Smitherman, Black Scholar, 1973.)

A relatively recent addition to the ways in which we receive language are the mass media which, while at least tacitly purporting to relate the truth, often simplify and distort language at the same time as introducing bias and disinformation. "Mass communication communicates massively: its language lacks precise articulation and avoids demanding terms; it argues for the kind of behaviour in life which will make a 'good programme' ... Television writes our scripts and it thus gives us back our language in a verisimilitudinous recension, docked of amateurish or embarrassing passions or obsessions which might cause our audience to switch off. If, lacking TV, you want a phrasebook of the prevailing television cant, why not simply turn on a friend?" (Frederic Raphael, in Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks (ed,) 1980.) ... Green-thinkers have vital things to say, and the way we say them is crucial to our cause: "The need today, as always, is to be in command of language, not used by it, and so the challenge is to find clear, convincing, graceful ways to say accurately what we want to say" (Casey Miller and Kate Swift, 1981.)

[1923; from Lat. medius, middle.]

"Media" started life as "mass medium" (singular) and "mass media" (plural,) describing a channel or channels of communication reaching a large audience; now commonly used in the plural (often with a singular verb,) to describe all such methods of communication. "The industrial revolution, bringing with it the enormous elaboration of the mass media, thus alters radically the nature of the messages received by the ordinary individual. In addition to receiving uncoded messages from the environment, and coded but casual messages from the people around ..., the individual now begins to receive a growing number of coded but pre-engineered messages as well. ... The waves of coded information turn into violent breakers and come at a faster and faster clip, pounding at us, seeking entry, as it were, to our nervous system" (Alvin Toffler, 1970,) ... creating what Marshall McLuhan (1963) called the "global village," in which "the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium ... result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves or by any new technology"  (Marshall McLuhan, 1965.) Increasing 'coverage' of world events is seen as progress by most people, and an appropriate technology of the media is difficult to pin down. Should Indian villagers really be subjected to episodes of Dallas, even if they and everyone with a vested interest in its wider distribution want it? A vital question in relation to media is: who controls it? ...
John Button, A Dictionary of Green Ideas, 1988.

Teaching Notes :

The main aim of this section is to make the student critical of what we base claims of knowledge on, things normally taken for granted: perception, memory and language are not 'transparent' as we often suppose them to be.

The 'experiments' that are suggested should be considered as a learning activity for the whole class, and good experimental practice should be discussed, such as that when there are two tasks, half of the students should have one task first, the others the other task.

1. Sense Experiences and Perception :
This may be the point to introduce Occam's razor, the principle that "in explaining something, entities/assumptions must not be needlessly multiplied." (William of Occam, - ?1349, was one of the 'models' on which William of Baskerville, a character in Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, 1980, is based – the other being Sherlock Holmes, of course.)

More could be said about the necessary process of selection of sensations required for perception, which then gives rise to knowledge.

If a sense organ is like a speedometer which shows the speed of a car in analogue form, and a sensation is a particular reading, then perception is like a process which converts the information into one of four tones, depending on which of four ranges the speed is in. (E.g. speed from 0 to 127 km/h: 7 bits of information; whether 0 to 31 km/h, 32 to 63 km/h, etc.: only 2 bits.)

If my knowledge that the blue ball is between the red and the yellow ball is based on sensation, I must know more, viz. on which sides the red and the yellow balls are. (This lends itself to a demonstration, where only one student can see an arrangement behind a screen – he will always know more than he can describe to the others, though there may be nothing he cannot tell.)

"There is a limit to the rate at which human subjects can process information ... [and] to how much information we can extract from our sensory experience ... Our sensory experience is informationally rich and profuse in a way that our cognitive utilization of it is not. ... It is this fact that makes the sensory representation more like a picture of, and the consequent belief a statement about, the source" (Dretske, "Sensation and Perception," 1982, pp. 157f, 160.)

Exercise 1.4.:

The explanation of the illusions should probably be in such terms as the following:
  1. we live in a 'carpentered' world, "in which straight lines abound and in which perhaps ninety percent of the acute and obtuse angles formed on our retina by straight lines in our visual field are realistically interpretable as right angles extended in space" (Segall et al., 1963,)
  2. our perception of depth is based on the apparent size of objects, while the 'forest people' have not learnt to use such depth cues, and
  3. for the Batoro and the Banyankole, "vertical objects, such as trees or mountains, become important focal points and are used to estimate distances."

Exercise 1.6.:
  1. One set of cards should have five letters on it, the other set of cards five numbers, as follows:
    Exp. Stimulus 1. 1kB
    where the physical stimulus for "B" and "13" is the same but will be perceived differently, depending on the context in which it is seen.

    Asking for the positions of the five cards in each set to be recorded only serves to provide an ostensible objective for the experiment.

  2. According to the principle of perceptual defence, things that are threatening or anxiety-provoking in some way are more difficult to perceive at the conscious level. The two sets of cards should look as follows, with five words in each of the three colours:
    I:   II:
    seat, farming, whale, segment, UWC
    flow, drain, banquet, dance, dolphin
    fast, plane, glue, border, prevented
    sex, failing, whore, suicide, AIDS
    fuck, death, bastard, drugs, dentist
    fart, penis, guts, bloody, perverted

  3. The letter "F" appears in fact six times – many people only count three, because they miss it in the word "of"; this is not a matter of intelligence.

    The reason may be that the letter has a different sound in the word "of", and that what we see is affected by our quietly reading the sentence to ourselves.

Exercise 1.8.:
For each experiment one could ask the students to complete the following sentence: "The experiment investigates whether the ability to ... is innate or learnt, and the evidence suggests that it is ... ."
  1. supports the nativist position: since the babies react least to the stimulus whose representation on the retina is the same as the original one, they must be able to perceive distance and size already.
  2. supports the empiricist position, since even basic recognition of visual stimuli requires learning.
  3. supports the nativist position: the ability of grown chicken to peck accurately is not the result of learning but of post-natal maturation.
  4. Seems to support the empiricist position, but leads on to the interactionist view: there are different nerve cells and brain cells reacting to lines at different angles, and "about 90% of the cells seemed to be able to change their function, if the animal had restricted stimulation throughout the early period of life. about 10% of the cells seemed to be fixed in their functions, but the others could change in response to environmental stimuli" (Hayes and Orrell, Psychology, 1987, p. 42.)

Innate Knowledge:

In the nature-nurture debate one needs to consider that if knowledge is innate it may take the form of certain concrete faculties.

For instance, like other species, man is capable of a mental representation of outside reality: e.g. bats do not use their sonar to orientate themselves in their usual territory because they have such a representation of it, and so they can actually fly into small obstacles that have not been there before. This ability to represent reality in some way is presumably the result of evolution, and such as to serve the individuals of the species well.

In the case of man, one aspect of this may be to distinguish in all perceptions a foreground and a background. Whether or not we can say on this basis that we have some knowledge (for instance of the existence of concrete objects) that we are born with may be a matter for discussion.

It has been argued, following Chomsky's lead, that man's ability to learn a language is innate, and even that there is an instinct, operating up to about age ten, to use certain perceptions, viz. of the speech of others, to build up a mental grammar, vocabulary and phonology of one's mothertongue. This seems to be the only way to account for a wide range of observations, notably the ability of children to learn a language 'fully', despite the very limited input they have, especially if the previous generation only speaks a pidgin-language, say. This does not mean that any particular language is innate. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994.)

2. Memory :
Exercise 2.2.:
  1. The two lists should each contain 20 ordinary words and names. It should turn out that items at the beginning and at the end are remembered better: primacy effect and recency effect, reflecting use of long- and short-term memory. The latter effect should disappear when recall is delayed by 30 seconds, say, and rehearsal is prevented by the counting task.
  2. The first set of letters should consist of similar-sounding (though not similar-looking) ones, while the second should consist of different-sounding letters, as follows:
    The second set should be recalled better, because short-term memory works phonetically; (we say a 'phone-number to ourselves after looking it up before dialling.)
  3. One list should contain 4 words from each of 5 categories in random order, and the other 4 words from each of 5 different categories arranged y category. The semantic processing in the latter case should improve the rate of recall. E.g.
    I: chicken, John, trumpet, France, red, Charles, Japan, zebra, Mike, cow, green, piano, Australia, brown, Steven, whale, orange, guitar, Canada, cello.
    II:  Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, physics, art, maths, history, hammer, saw, screwdriver, axe, soccer, tennis, rugby, chess, boat, car, plane lorry.)

Exercise 2.4.:
The list of words should be something like: "night, awake, slumber, bed, dream, rest, drowsy, tired, nightmare."

Many people's list will include the word "sleep", which was not actually read out: 'effort after meaning.'

3. Language :
Toni Morrison is a black American author; her novels include The Beloved and Jazz. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. Her lecture continues:
... There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; ... stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. ... there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.
Below is the full list of juxtapositions in the article from The Guardian:
We have ...
Army, Navy and Air Force
reporting guidelines
press briefings
We ...
take out
neutralise or decapitate
dig in
We launch ...
first strikes
Our men are ...
Our boys are ...
young knights of the skies
desert rats
Our boys are motivated by ...
an old-fashioned sense of duty
Israeli non-retaliation is ...
an act of great statesmanship
Our missiles cause ...
collateral damage
Our PoWs are ...
gallant boys
George Bush is ...
at peace with himself
Our planes ...
suffer a high rate of attrition
fail to return from missions
They have ...
a war machine
They ...
cower in their foxholes
They launch ...
sneak missile attacks
without provocation
Their men are ...
Theirs are ...
paper tigers
cannon fodder
bastards of Baghdad
blindly obedient
mad dogs
Their boys are motivated by ...
fear of Saddam
Iraqi non-retaliation is ...
Their missiles cause ...
civilian casualties
Their PoWs are ...
overgrown school children
Saddam Hussein ...
an evil monster
Their planes ...
are shot out of the sky
are zapped

Exercise 3.2.:

An example might be the strong distinction of levels in Japanese society, which is 'fixed' by different grammatical levels of politeness. Thus, from a letter from an ex-student:
Do you believe if I say that language can make a person different? What I mean is this. Now I can speak Japanese and English. When I was mainly speaking Japanese, I did not express myself much to other people. It can be because of the circumstance I had or the culture I have. Then I started speaking English and learnt how to express myself, and came to know who I was, what I was aiming for in the future ... Now I'm back in Japan and my mind has started thinking in Japanese. Again, I seem to stop expressing myself. If I tell you which part of mine I like better, I prefer me speaking in English even though my Japanese is far better than my English.
The need we all have, but perhaps poets in particular, for words to express ourselves, was expressed by the German poet Stefan George in a poem entitled "Das Wort", which a friend of mine has set to music.

For the self-study, the students may need to be given a couple of lessons off. The mini-essay, which should probably not 'count' for anything, is a useful practice for the assessment essays, and a chance to give them feedback on style etc.

Since many students find the latter sections of Whorf's passage rather difficult, one might suggest to them to read only as far as the heading "Grammatical Patterns ..."

The first and last paragraphs of the article from The Economist:

Can a concept exist without words to describe it?

Take heart, those of you who struggled with maths at school. It seems that words for exact numbers do not exist in all languages. And if someone has no word for a number, he may have no notion of what that number means.

The Pirahã are a people who have steadfastly resisted assimilation into mainstream Brazilian culture. Their commerce takes the form of barter, with no need to exchange money. Exact numbers do not exist in their language simply because there is no need for them. And in this case, what you do not need, you do not have. At least in the field of maths, it seems, Whorf was right.

Reading :
F. Dretske, "Sensation and Perception," 1981, in Jonathan Dancy (ed.), Perceptual Knowledge, 1988. Oxford University Press.

Richard D. Gross, Psychology – The Science of Mind and Behaviour, 1987. Hodder and Stoughton. Chapters 4-6.

Nicky Hayes and Sue Orrell, Psychology – An Introduction, 1987. Longman. Chapters 4, 11, 12.

Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge, 1990. Routledge. Chapter 3.