Tim Rohrer

"Pragmatism, Ideology and Embodiment: William James and the philosophical foundations of cognitive linguistics"

What others call an "ideology" of cognitive linguistics (CL), I prefer to old-fashionedly call its philosophical foundations and commitments. In this presentation I review several of the different senses of the way the word 'embodiment' is currently used in CL, and argue for a broad theoretic framework which ties CL to the larger enterprise of cognitive science. I take as my primary topic of analysis research on spatial frames of reference because it is important to show that embodied cognitive linguistics is much more than simply a set of hypotheses in one of its most prominent theories, conceptual metaphor. I trace that topic through the multiple levels of investigation implicit in the conception of cognitive science as a multi-disciplinary enterprise which ranges from anthropology all the way to neuroanatomy.

I begin this talk with a short explanation why the philosopher William James was an early cognitive linguist. In his second lecture on Pragmatism, James introduces the pragmatic method as settling a metaphysical dispute about the meaning of the English phrase "to go round the squirrel." There are, James notes, two possible spatial frames of reference: an absolute frame of reference, in which it is possible to go around the squirrel with reference to the four cardinal directions; and a relative frame of reference, in which it is possible to go around the squirrel with reference to its front, left side, back and right side. This second spatial reference involves a projecting the relations of left/right and front/back with respect to the speaker's body onto the squirrel's body for use as the directional landmark.

Resolving possible spatial frames of reference has recently become a productive topic for both cognitive linguistics and cognitive science more generally. In cross-cultural studies of languages, Sotaro Kita, Eric Pedersen, Steven Levinson and other collaborators have linguistic, gestural and non-linguistic experimental evidence suggesting that the relative/absolute frames of reference dichotomy reflects differing underlying cognitive systems. Lakoff, Brugman and other collaborators have argued that a Mayan language, Mixtec, indicates spatial relations with the projection of body-part terms, reflects a metaphoric conceptualization system in which the body is systematically mapped onto the world. However, in several related child language acquisition studies, Lopez de Jensen and Sinha have recently argued that for a closely related Mayan language, the so called body part terms are not acquired first as body part terms and then projected to spatial relations, but instead seem to be acquired independently. From a different perspective, Edwin Hutchins has presented evidence that some errors in complex distributed cognitive tasks, such as maritime navigation, are also produced by frame of reference problems.

Like James however, I only raise these examples from the frames of reference literature as a springboard to investigate foundational philosophical issues for an emerging new picture of cognitive science. In particular, I argue for a broad-based theoretic framework of embodied cognitive science that ties together levels of investigation ranging from the cognitive neurosciences through the computer sciences and psychology to anthropology. I show how this theoretic framework can be usefully applied to organize the exploding literature on frames of reference, and how these studies hang together as embodied cognitive science.

What emerges is a philosophy of cognitive science that is pragmatic, patient and problem centered, rather than one centered on symbol manipulation. I call this philosophical account of the new generation of cognitive science a PCP account, for a Patient-, Problem- and Pragmatically-Centered-Philosophy of cognitive science, and I end by contrasting it with the PSS (Physical Symbol System) philosophy of the previous generations of cognitive science.