Miller will mostly be remembered in my profession for the "Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two", which is (quite wrongly) believed to be a psycholinguistic limit on vocabulary acquisition. But Vygotsky shows how this is really just a biological limit, and it can easily be overcome by cultural means (what Binet calls, disapprovingly, "simulation"). For example, when you learn the alphabet, a sequence of twenty six units of information, you just learn it as a single unit (try saying it backwards, and you will see what I mean!)
But what I remember Miller most for was the BRILLIANT intro he wrote to Zipf's nutty book "The Psychobiology of Language". Zipf had discovered that the most frequent word in any language occurs exactly twice as frequently as the second most frequent word, and exactly three times as frequently as the third most frequent word, etc. This apparently banal observation appears, at first glance, to have incredibly exciting applications.
For example, it can explain why, in English, there are a small number of given names, and tend to be rather short, but a large number of family names, and they tend to be rather long, whereas in Korean, there are a small number of family names which are VERY short and a large number of somewhat longer given names. The reason is frequency--the more frequent a word is, the shorter it has to be.
Now, if Miller's essay had JUST showed all these exciting applications, it would have been more than enough to keep you awake at night and fill a few of your breakfasts with something more filling than cornflakes. But Miller went beyond the exciting applications and showed that underneath them all was something profoundly superficial.
Zipf's law holds true of language, but also of telephone numbers, street names, and just about anything else where the assignment of a sign is more or less arbitrary and thus begins by assigning short names and only then tends to longer ones. And as a result it has almost no explanatory power. It just has to do with what happens when you have a system that can generate an infinite number of names. Eventually, you run out of things to name first.
I guess I feel the same way about chaos complexity theory and language. But, to return to Richardson, I ALSO feel this way about spiritualistic explanations of consciousness (and I note that novelists who write about consciousness as a shadow don't write very good novels). There's a good reason why Vygotsky is hostile to James' idea that it is only thanks to the grace of God that you can lift your arm whenever "you" want to. It's actually the same reason why he doesn't like to consider intelligence as being automatically or painlessly or inevitably "emergent" from non-intelligence. It is, but only in ways that are deeply banal and uninteresting, because they only give us the FORMS and not the content of intelligence.
In his essay on Zipf, Miller really thought that one through, and the more he thought about it, the less he thought of it.
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
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Princeton University - George Miller,Princeton psychology professor and cognitive pioneer,dies.webarchive
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