Re: Meaning generation

Scott DeLancey (
Tue, 22 Jul 1997 14:47:23 -0700 (PDT)

Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 14:47:23 -0700 (PDT)
From: Scott DeLancey <>
Subject: Re: Meaning generation
In-Reply-To: <>

On Tue, 22 Jul 1997, Robert G. Grimes wrote:

> Perhaps some of this ground been gone over in previous work, i.e., to
> name a few: Chomsky's Universal Grammar (1988), Newmeyer, Grammatical
> Theory: Its Limits And Possibilities (1983), and Pinker, The Language
> Instinct (1994); Harnad, S. (1987) Psychophysical and cognitive aspects
> of categorical perception: A critical overview. Chapter 1 of: Harnad, S.
> (ed.) (1987) Categorical Perception: The Groundwork of Cognition. New
> York: Cambridge University Press.

Harnard's concern with the symbol grounding problem is relevant to
the issue here. I, myself, don't see the usefulness of Chomsky's work,
or that of people who think in the Chomskyan framework like Newmeyer and
Pinker. Generally speaking that tradition is not particularly concerned
with the problem of symbolic behavior per se, i.e. with the relation
between linguistic representations and cognitive categories.

> It would seem to many of us that the meme is "distinct" from the
> biological tendency to "categorize," to "parse phonemes," or to "project
> structure" in the external world in accordance with the evolutionary
> development of our own subjective perceptive systems and/or filters?

"Distinct", yes, in the same sense that genetic inheritance is,
in a clear and useful sense, distinct from molecular biology.
Humans have a biological tendency to categorize; that is innate behavior,
genetic not memetic. The categories that humans devise are memetic, but
it is a biological endowment which does the categorizing.

A lot of work in the cognitive sciences over the last
generation--Chomskyan linguistics is perhaps the most conspicuous example,
and is sometimes credited with inspiring the rest of it--is devoted to
trying to attribute as much as possible of human behavior and cognition to
genetic as opposed to memetic factors. There can't be much doubt that,
like the impulse to categorize, the impulse to acquire language is driven
by something in the genetic endowment of the species. Chomskyan research
is generally directed toward trying to explain as much as possible of
the structure of human language (and thus, necessarily, of each
language, and of the speech of each individual) in terms of innate
structures, that is, to maximize the genetic and minimize the memetic
contribution to language.

> The meme concept, to me, is a subsequent phenomena but one which
> reflects the prior biological development and our evolutionary

I assume you don't mean "the meme concept" (which is itself a meme,
obviously), but the phenomenon of memetic transmission, of a species
much of whose behavior is governed by patterns learned from conspecifics
(i.e. memes) rather than by innate mechanisms plus learning from

> that the different, inborn, language handling constructs have certain
> tendencies or "susceptibilities" to certain perceived language
> constructs, which tend to reproduce (replicate) themselves, perhaps
> because of their impact or stimulus to our cognitive milieu, i.e.,
> resulting in neurotransmitters, hormones, pheromones, combinations of
> these, etc.

I'm not sure I understand this, or the analogy which follows.

Scott DeLancey
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403, USA

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