[xmca] The Chinese Room

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Mon May 14 2007 - 19:35:56 PDT

There's a beautiful moment in Chapter Four of Thinking and Speech when Vygotsky tries to say exactly what it is that separates human communication from animal communication.
  The usual (and persistent) answer to this question is grammar. Even Wray argues that it's the ability to deconstrue formulaic expressions (which have no internal structure) and reconstrue them as novel utterances that sets us apart. (She argues that this not only sets children apart from animals, it sets them apart from adults, because adults really LOSE the ability to ask in what sense "running a business" is about running.)
  Now why should GRAMMAR be the dividing line? There's certainly no Chinese wall (if you'll pardon the expression) between vocabulary and grammar, any more than there is a Rubicon between gesture and vocabulary. Some languages don't even recognize the distinction between a big word and a small sentence (including English: "Look! Listen!")
  Besides, grammar is more easily recoverable from the physical environment than vocabulary. A gesture has a natural, VISUAL, Subject-Verb-Object structure ("I threw spear", "Spear killed auroch").
  So what about stories? Neppur! A narrative has a natural Subject-Object-Verb structure, and even a natural Speaker-Spoken structure. When Chinese parents are pestered for stories by their children, they respond:
  "Once upon a time there was a mountain.
  On the mountain was a temple.
  In the temple was a monk.
  The monk was telling a story.
  The story went:
  '''Once upon a time there was a mountain...."'
  So many grammatical structures, unlike lexical ones, have a structure that is directly recoverable from material experience. As soon as we accept that, there's no reason to think that grammar is uniquely human.
  Sure enough, Savage-Rumbaugh et al. show that chimpanzees raised in tandem with humans can easily do this, and even understand and obey complex and counter-intuitive phrases like "give the potato a shot with a syringe and then take it outside and put it in the potty".
  So what is human about human language? Vygotsky's answer (lifted from Stern) is that kids go around ASKING for the names of things and ASKING for words. That is what actually causes the vocabulary spurt around 24 months of age, and it's from this point on that children begin to organize vocabularies around grammatical lines (as parts of speech).
  That means that what sets children apart from animals (and what sets the man in the Chinese room apart from the computer) is, as you say, volition. What Stern does NOT tell us is where the volition comes from.
  Bruner claims that Vygotsky doesn't answer this one either, but I think he does; Bruner just doesn't like the answer.
  "A basic, indisputable, and decisive fact emerges here: thinking depends on speech, on the means of thinking, and on the child's sociocultural experience. The development of inner speech is defined from the outside." (Thinking and Speech, p. 120).
  To a non-Marxist mind, this suggests a negation of free will. But once the development of inner speech IS defined from the outside, the child is perfectly free to go around asking...and asking...and asking.....
  "Once upon a time there was a mountain..."
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Mon May 14 20:37 PDT 2007

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