| Von Glasersfeld's answers - August 2006  |

 
 
 


QUESTION:
Dear Prof. von Glasersfeld,
 
first of all I would like to express my deepest admiration for your
intellectual work and to thank you for giving people the fantastic
possibility to communicate with you.
I am a student of German (linguistics) and also of cultural studies and
psychology in Münster, Germany. You may already have guessed that -
through lectures by Prof. Schmidt, I came across the theory of
constructivism, which fascinated me from the beginning - especially its
implications for language. Questions of constructivist view on language
were only touched upon in the lectures, but I made my conclusions.
As a speaker of two languages (German and Polish), with native-speaker
competence in both, I always thought that meaning is something very
language-specific, anything universal, anything that can simply be
transferred from one system to another (which is being claimed by some
linguists, e.g. Pinker). Translation, of course, is possible to a certain
degree, if we don't expect the subtleties to be rendered. I am also
convinced that knowing more than one language widens our horizons in the
sense that we get to know a really different view of the world, at least
some concepts that we didn't know before, because they didn't exist in our
language. And even concepts, which are supposed to exist in both
languages, appear to be slightly different (I remember your discussion of
"to hit" with possible renderings in German - this is an everyday
experience, when you "live" in two or more languages).
Recently, planning my MA-thesis, which will be about a genuine linguistic
topic (idiomaticity) I decided to explore more deeply, what constructivism
has to say about meaning. I didn't find a view on meaning that would
satisfy me in linguistic theories - neither in structural, nor pragmatic,
let alone generative linguistics. Cognitive linguistics - maybe I didn't
get deep enough into it, but I had the feeling that they ignore the
findings of 50 years of cognitive science (in the tradition of
constructivism). The notion of mental concept as representation - I'm not
sure, if it isn't another reference theory. But at least cognitive
semanticists like George Lakoff place the meaning inside the mind of the
individual - not in the material sign. However, my problem with cognitive
semantics is the simplification and speculative dimension of the "mental
representation" concept. I don't think that it takes into consideration
the neurobiological findings which had influence on Radical
Constructivism, and which should be essential to anyone thinking about
meaning and cognition.
Looking for literature about language and constructivism, of course, I
"ran into" your publications, dear Prof. von Glasersfeld. Among others, I
read the beautiful "Wie wir uns erfinden", your conversations with Heinz
von Foerster. It is delightful and amusing. Thank you very much for that!
The theses on meaning you put forward were exactly what I was looking for
(I was familiar with Radical Constructivism before, so I roughly knew what
I could expect).
In my MA-thesis I would like to discuss the notion of idiomaticity. In
tradtitional semantics there is this opinion, that idioms are non-
compositional. They are considered to be anomalous, semantically and
sometimes syntactically, and therefore stored and processed holistically.
In one of your articles ("Zeichen - Kommunikation - Sprache", in Wissen,
Sprache und Wirklichkeit, p. 62) you are referring to Hockett and saying
with him that signs are being combined, according to some rules, to form
new, complex meanings. This reminds me of the compositionality principle,
which is said to have been formulated by Gottlob Frege. Some authors say
that the compositionality principle is implicitly or explicitly
preconditioned in traditional grammars and also in semantics. The speaker
of a language must be able to rely on the stable meanings of the speech
elements, and their possible relations, otherwise an understanding would
be impossible. This is the normal case of language use. But prototypical
idioms like "kick the bucket"are supposed to be different: semantically
opaque, unmotivated and having a special meaning that is not derivable
from its parts. However, there are also idioms that are less opaque and
can be more or less easily motivated by the speaker (sometimes, of course,
it results in "folk etymolgy").
In my view, semantics is too orthodox on this point. It denies the literal
level of interpretation which evokes the picture, considering only the
holistic meaning an idiom has ("kick the bucket" for "to die"). In this
way idioms are being treated like single words. It is being denied, that
all idioms have been motivated by the time of their emergence. As time
passes, idioms can become opaque, because the living conditions of the
speakers using the lexicalized expression change (e.g. the circumstances
of killing pigs are no longer part of "common knowledge", so "kick the
bucket" and "to die" cannot be connected on basis of knowledge). What
remains is a rather unmotivated sign. But this is only partly true.
Speakers try to remotivate idioms (perhaps because they don't like using
word combinations that don't make sense for them - I could report on a
great example of remotivation which I came across in Polish recently).
Idiomatic expressions, interpreted literally, evoke mental pictures, and
this is in my opinion, why semantics avoids this literal level of idiom
meaning. A constructivist view, on the contrary, should be able to explain
that such an internal picture can be generated by the speaker, hearer or
reader, and that it can be part of the meaning of an expression. The both
levels of meaning somehow interact, this is the idiomaticity. Of course,
in everyday communication, probably the more communicative (pragmatic,
holistic) meaning of idiomatic expressions will be more important, but
there are cases, where the literal level is being activated on purpose
("idiom-breaking" in newspaper texts, for example).
What I would like to know, is whether the views on idioms I presented here
are in accordance with the constructivist viewpoint. I would be very
happy, if you, dear Prof. Glasersfeld, could comment on this.
Thank you very much and all the best to you
 
Martina Jagielski

 

ANSWER:
 
Dear Ms. Jagielski,
 
That a student, who may be almost seventy years younger
than I am, is interested in finding out more about my work
gives me more pleasure than anything else, and I thank you
from the bottom of my heart. The satisfaction is even greater,
because you seem intent upon enlarging the area covered by
my writings.
I am also particularly pleased by what you say about your
experiences with the meanings in the two native languages you
have. Most monolinguals think that I have made all that up,
when they hear it from me or read it.
I do not remember ever having dealt with idioms directly; but in two
articles I fairly recently wrote on metaphor you may find observations
which may be relevant.* I do believe that most idioms arise from an
analogy between situations (or things), which someone sees and
expresses, and which leads the listener (or reader) to make new
connection that seems so apt that it repeated.
I, for instance, had no idea that "kicking the bucket" could be
connected to killing pigs. It made sense to me because I saw a
bucket being kicked, turning over, and spilling whatever it
contained.
Anyway, I fully agree with what you say. What is called
"cognitive science" in the United States is, in my view, little
more than another form of behaviorism. Most of the people
who generated it never thought about epistemology or
repressed what questions about it arose in them. They never
make clear that "representations" cannot be images of a "real"
world but are always and inevitable re-presentations of the
particular subject's sensory or conceptual experiences.
The "compositionality principle" may have been mentioned by a
lot of authors, but I never came across one that tried to analyze
specific meanings that were generated by the composition of words. And
as the relational meanings of prepositions and conjunctions were never
considered as a part of Syntax, practically nothing was ever done
about them. One of my first papers was about that topic and if you are
interested I could send you a copy..
Thank you once more for your letter!
 
Best wishes,
Ernst von Glasersfeld
 
* The first was published in "Eine Rose ist eine Rose..." Hrsg.
Hans-Rudi Fischer, Carl Auer Verlag, 2005; the second has
not yet been published, but I could send you a copy by e-mail.
 

 

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