Ktismatics

15 September 2007

Beyond Structuralism in Linguistics

Filed under: First Lines, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 1:30 pm

Nothing could seem less remarkable than a one-year-old child requesting “More juice” or commenting “Doggie gone.” But the remarkable fact is that even these baby utterances differ from the communicative activities of other animal species in a number of fundamental ways. For example, other animals do not refer one another’s attention to outside entities such as juice, they do not make disinterested comments to one another about missing doggies or the like, and they do not combine communicatively significant elements to create new meanings…

Michael Tomasello begins his 2003 book Constructing a Language by highlighting the unique communicative capabilities of the human species. Noam Chomsky (yes that Noam Chomsky) was the first to move definitively beyond the mechanicistic behaviorism by which learning theorists had sought to explain language acquisition. Chomsky observed that humans are able not merely to imitate words and phrases they had heard before, but to construct entirely new verbalizations. Human communication isn’t just shaped by the linguistic environment in which we are immersed; rather, we are able to use language intentionally, constructing novel linguistic utterances on the fly. How is this possible? First, said Chomsky, language isn’t a static structure but a tool. Just as a carpenter can use boards, a saw, a hammer and nails to construct any number of wooden artifacts, so too we can use vocabulary, grammar and syntax to construct a limitless number of verbal artifacts. But how is it that only humans have this ability to use language, and that all humans share this same ability? Chomsky proposed that the architecture of the human brain is uniquely configured for the task: in an unprecedented break in the evolutionary continuum, the human genome generated just the right cortical configuration to handle the complexities of the universal deep structures of generative grammar.

…But from an ethological perspective, perhaps the most astounding fact is that something on the order of 80 percent of all Homo sapiens cannot understand these simple utterances at all. That is, whereas the individuals of all nonhuman species can communicate effectively with all of their conspecifics, human beings can communicate effectively only with other persons who have grown up in their same linguistic community — typically, in the same geographical region. Whatever may be the evolutionary reasons for this unique, indeed bizarre, situation, one immediate outcome is that, unlike most other animal species, human beings cannot be born with any specific set of communicative behaviors. Young children must learn during their individual ontogenies the set of linguistic conventions used by those around them, which for any given language consists of tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of individual words, expressions, and constructions…

Chomsky has devoted a great deal of attention to specifying the universal deep structure of all human language, which he believes maps onto a universal deep structure of the human brain. Here Tomasello reminds us of the other side of the coin: for humans, communication is far less universal, cognition far less rigidly structured, and social learning far more important to individual communicative ability than is the case with any other species.

What Tomasello wants to demonstrate is that the structural properties of language aren’t hard-wired into the human brain. For that matter, they aren’t even hard-wired into human language. Tomasello introduces his first chapter with a quote from Wittgenstein: The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing its work. The static structuralism of Saussureans and the generative structuralism with which Chomsky sought to displace it both place undue emphasis on structure. Instead, Tomasello and others argue, linguistic theory should be based on usage.

Children’s language acquisition isn’t the development of an isolated linguistic module of brain activity. Rather, the child’s linguistic competence emerges at the same time as other related abilities, of which two are most notable. The first is intention-reading, which includes the ability to attend to objects and events of mutual interest, to follow others’ attentional direction, actively to direct others’ attention, and to infer others’ intentions. Intention-reading skills are foundational to the symbolic and functional dimensions of linguistic communication, whereby the speaker uses words as pointers to direct the listener’s attention to specific features of the shared environment. It seems that humans are the only species able to read one another’s intentions — an ability that’s essential not only in linguistic communication but also in other distinctly human activities like tool use, pretend play and ritual.

Pattern-finding, the second broad area of cognitive competence that emerges in early childhood and that is essential for language acquisition, includes the ability to form categories for similar objects and events, to form schemas for recurrent patterns, and to create analogies. In ordert to understand language, a child must be able to extract patterns from adults’ streams of verbalization, constructing working vocabularies and grammatical conventions for assembling intelligible speech.

By understanding language acquisition not as a separate module of brain activity but as one among several interrelated cognitive accomplishments of early childhood, advocates of “usage-based linguistics” intend to demonstrate that language structure emerges from language use. In other words, language is essentially a system of symbols by which the speaker directs the listener’s attention to features of the shared environment and the listener infers the speaker’s intention with respect to these features. Structural and grammatical rules for linking the symbols together, rather than being the universal architecture of language onto which the symbols are appended, prove to be quite idiosyncratic across human languages. Further, there is no clear distinction between core and periphery in linguistic rules. Says Tomasello:

If there is no clean break between the more rule-based and the more idiosyncratic items and structures of a language, then all constructions may be acquired with the same basic set of acquisitional processes — namely, those falling under the general headings of intention-reading and pattern-finding. If adult linguistic competence is based, to a much larger degree than previously supposed, on concrete pieces of language and straightforward generalizations across them — with many constructions remaining idiosyncratic and item-based into adulthood — then it’s possible that children’s early language is item-based and yet they can still construct an adult-like set of grammatical constructions originating with these baby constructions (given several years in which they hear several million adult utterances). If linguistic constructions are meaningful linguistic symbols in their own right, then children can use function or meaning to assist in their acquisition, just as they do in their acquisition of smaller linguistic constructions such as individual words.

In brief, usage-based linguistics asserts that children assemble language competency from the ground up, experientially, empirically, pragmatically. The symbolic use of language comes first, the specific links between signifiers and the signifieds, between words and the features of the world to which they direct the listener’s attention. Grammatical features of language — the rules by which symbols are strung together — are learned the same way as the symbols themselves: through repeated exposure and trial-and-error attempts to infer the speaker’s intent. There is no transcendent linkage between the universal structure of all human languages and the genetically-specialized universal structure of the human brain, whereby the language itself “speaks” and the brain passively receives. All of language is immanent, active, interpersonal.

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21 Comments »

  1. It is fairly typical of American pragmatism and enterprenurial spirit to always want to go forward, explore new frontiers, steal new colonies from the old Yerupeen empire. This is America’s triumph as well as its undoing. Neither Chomski’s nor Saussire’s grammar was static in the sense of your article, as both allowed for the possibility of endless permutation of a relatively small number of signs, as well as creativity. The point is elsewhere, I think, in the status of the subject, who is decentered – unable to control the laws of language, even as he or she channels them unwillingly. It is more of a slippage than a ”passivity” the way I see it. Because language is uncontrollable, yet powerful, the subject is at its mercy. Tomasselo further sounds as if he’s slipping into that old mistake of trapping himself in metaphor even as he wants to snatch it away from the Gods – he is very much spoken by his cognitive-behavioral terms (”trial and error”) and unprepared to discuss their STRUCTURES, Ktismatics.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 16 September 2007 @ 6:32 am

  2. Well we shall see — I’ve read only the first chapter and part of the second in Tomasello’s book. Certainly he focuses on the conscious and intentional use of language, which as you point out is central to American pragmatism. Tomasello is American, but he is a co-director of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, so presumably he’s attuned to continental concerns. Nonetheless he has incurred my resentment by not responding to an email I sent to him once, so I’m not fully committed to defending him. I do, however, remain an enthusiast for empirical methods of investigation which, while ideologically suspect, do enable investigators to throw serious doubt on unsubstantiated philosophizing. I’ve discussed this previously with respect to Lacan’s mirror stage, in which Lacan asserted that the infant comes to recognize himself in the mirror at an age before language acquisition. Empirically this assertion doesn’t turn out to be true.

    Tomasello, by emphasizing the child’s learning language through repeated verbal interaction with adults, supports the idea that the specific culture one is born into shapes one’s personal use of language. I believe this is fully compatible with a Lacanian view that the Big Other frames the way we use language to express ourselves. There is no personal Big Other; rather, language is a collective emergent phenomenon rather than something imposed unilaterally by one’s parents. But neither is the Big Linguistic Other a free-floating structure that hovers transcendentally above subjective thought or intersubjective conversation. Language has no existence apart from language-users.

    The subject doesn’t control the laws of language, but at the same time the laws of language depend on the language-using collective for their existence. And, importantly for Tomasello, the laws vary by language and change over time based on use. I don’t control the laws of my computer or the internet either, but they too exist only by virtue of collective human invention. And they too change with use. There are things I cannot say on a computer: I must type these letters in one at a time, I cannot look at you face to face while I write this, and so on. Skill in tool use depends both on the user and on the tool. Am I channeling the computer’s communications unwittingly by typing in this string of words? I don’t believe I am. On the other hand, I am wittingly cooperating with the tool-using community, reinforcing its importance and its protocols by using it.

    Tomasello is willing to discuss the structures of language. He’s mostly concerned with showing, both theoretically and empirically, how these structures emerge from use rather than being transcendentally dropped down on us by the language speaking itself or pushed up from beneath by a prestructured linguistic brain. And he’s also committed to demonstrating that the signifiers, rather than floating free of the signifieds, rather than being defined by the structural interconnections within the structure of signifiers, begin by being linked pragmatically to the signifieds. We’ll see what evidence he brings to bear.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 16 September 2007 @ 7:17 am

  3. “Trial and error” was my term, not Tomasello’s. However, I don’t see what’s objectionable about it. The behavioral paradigm assumed that trial-and-error learning occurred through punishment and reward. The cognitive paradigm, on the other hand, proposes self-correcting feedback loops in the brain that are more generalizable and generative than conditioned responses, which remain locked into the specific characeristics of the stimulus. Cognitivists acknowledge active processing of information by the subject, which requires a powerful human brain, but the subject still must attune itself to the environment it lives in. That’s what learning is all about: trying out your knowledge and making adjustments based on environmental feedback about your successes and mistakes.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 16 September 2007 @ 7:27 am

  4. I was just reading a news item about African Gray Parrots. One with some exceptional language skills had recently died. The parrot had picked up language taught by traditional repetition methods but had also picked up the appropriate use of words by apparently observing the interactions of the staff in the lab where it was being trained and as the staff noticed this they in turn changed their teaching method into a more role played and interactive one. This was very successful and the bird learned a very high level of language skill – for a bird!

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    Comment by samlcarr — 16 September 2007 @ 10:21 am

  5. in which Lacan asserted that the infant comes to recognize himself in the mirror at an age before language acquisition.

    let me refresh your memory thóugh that ”recognition in the mirror” does not mean literally, recognition in the mirror, but recognition of your image in the gaze of the other (e.g. in the mother’s eyes). since this data is less testable by empirical means, and behaviorism doesn’t tolerate metaphor either, …

    Language has no existence apart from language-users.

    I am reminded of the recent skirmishes starring the Marxist Supernanny Antigramma, and my hero Shaviro saying that everything is, ultimately, experience. I quite agree. But on the other hand I don’t remember Lacan saying otherwise *De Saussire might have, though. Because psychoanalytic insight is derived not only from lived analytic experience, but also from the endlessly shifting dynamic between the destitutor and the destitutee, there’s no way you can claim that analysis denies the importance of experience. Cognitivism, on the other hand, does deny the Unconscious, castrating itself in a way.

    how these structures emerge from use rather than being transcendentally dropped down on us by the language speaking itself or pushed up from beneath by a prestructured linguistic brain

    Oh no the chicken vs egg debate! When faced with such dilemmas I always conclude that the truth is surely midway, and we must equally attend to the structures and the experience.

    We’ll see what evidence he brings to bear.

    Well enlighten me, but he better be good.

    That’s what learning is all about: trying out your knowledge and making adjustments based on environmental feedback about your successes and mistakes.

    What I was talking about is what I remember learning from a very good and bitchy behavioral psych professor I used to have, who was critiquing both the then-fashionable psychotherapy trends like transactional analysis or the Primal Scream therapy and psychoanalysis for its irresponsible attitude to language. For example, the transactional analysis used tropes from Greek mythology to compose psychodramatic interactions where the client was suddenly speaking the language of Greek myth – for example, an obsessive patient would speak of his girlfriend as a ”statue” which he ”breaks with a hammer”. While you could argue that this is an argument pro language generation, when you look closely the client is actually spoken by the transactional therapy’s metaphors. The spontaneity and creativity of his language is an illusion.

    Psychoanalysis does have the problem that it is not yet an empirical science, though, and criticism may be extended to that end as long as it’s informed criticism, and not this sort of half-baked cognitive yelping, Ktismatics!

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    Comment by parodycenter — 16 September 2007 @ 10:30 am

  6. Parrots are impressive creatures. It seems that they can do more than just, er, parrot what they hear — they can associate words with objects (e.g., food preferences) and behaviors (get, eat). That it’s possible to train even a bird brain in rudimentary symbolic manipulation supports the broader notion that specialized brain structures aren’t essential for language processing. The case is even stronger with apes, from which humans differentiated themselves genetically only very recently and whose brain structures aren’t all that different. Also, humans probably were pretty nearly fully human genetically long before they started using symbolic communication, suggesting that culture and learning rather than brain structure are the big differentiators. Still, human children can learn several new words a day, whereas chimps take a long time to learn each new word. And non-human species never seem to use symbolic communication in the wild. They might have distinct calls for specific kinds of predators, say, but these seem entirely genetic, since individuals raised in the absence of a particular predator will still emit the proper call the first time they see one.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 16 September 2007 @ 12:38 pm

  7. “”recognition in the mirror” does not mean literally, recognition in the mirror, but recognition of your image in the gaze of the other (e.g. in the mother’s eyes).”

    I’m almost certain that when Lacan first wrote about mirror recognition he was being literal. He may have had the idea of the idealized self-image in mind a priori and was looking for an empirical finding on which to hang it. When the new studies by Piaget et al. didn’t support earlier contentions by J.M. Baldwin about the 6-month-old’s ability to recognize himself, Lacan went figurative. It was more important to him to retain the clinical insight than to change it in light of data, and to propose the imaginary as a structural feature of the self rather than a developmentally-acquired skill.

    “Cognitivism, on the other hand, does deny the Unconscious, castrating itself in a way.”

    Cognitive scientists focus mostly on brain function and on consciousness, but they also investigate the processes by which conscious thought takes shape. If thought is a skill that the individual uses for generating new ideas, then nearly all our cognitive capability is unconscious. Contrast that with the idea of consciousness as a reservoir of structured thoughts, concepts, interrelationships, etc. which the individual dips into to produce thought. So there’s a rejection of the idea that the unconscious is structured like a language; rather, language and thought are regarded more as skills for making structured assemblies on the fly out of very loosely and multiply connected information distributed across the neurocortex.

    “when you look closely the client is actually spoken by the transactional therapy’s metaphors. The spontaneity and creativity of his language is an illusion.”

    I think people are very vulnerable to suggestion, and also to adopting new meaning systems for making sense of experience. This I think reflects the amazing plasticity of human cognition. In all likelihood people who are immersed in Lacanian constructs can apply them to new situations with ease, whereas for those not so well indoctrinated these ideas might seem incredibly far-fetched. Lacanian thinking too is a language-based skill by which a person can give shape to loosely-structured experience and memories.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 16 September 2007 @ 1:40 pm

  8. I’m almost certain that when Lacan first wrote about mirror recognition he was being literal.

    Until you provide hard evidence, I don’t believe you. The way I was taught he didn’t mean it literally. Why is it so important for anal cognitivists to prove that there’s no structure?

    If thought is a skill that the individual uses for generating new ideas, then nearly all our cognitive capability is unconscious.

    I don’t see how this follows logically.

    Lacanian thinking too is a language-based skill by which a person can give shape to loosely-structured experience and memories.

    on what do you base this observation?

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    Comment by parodycenter — 17 September 2007 @ 9:59 am

  9. “Until you provide hard evidence, I don’t believe you.”

    Do you have a copy of Lacan’s Ecrits? In it there’s an essay from 1936 called “The Mirror Stage,” in which he takes the self-reflective task quite literally. I wrote a post about it here. Why does it matter? I don’t know; maybe it doesn’t. What’s strange is that Lacan describes a 6-month-old contemplating his literal image in a literal mirror with such detail it sounds like he’s observed the behavior himself. It makes one wonder how many of his other clinical observations were also fictions.

    “I don’t see how this follows logically.”

    The idea that all thought is unconscious is discussed in detail in Donnell Stern’s book, which I also posted on previously here. We never have very much in conscious awareness at any given time — mostly just what we’re currently attending to. Everything else is unconscious by definition, isn’t it? Even if we draw on our knowledge and skills to construct perfectly rational ideas and sentences, or to play a piece on the oboe, or to drive to the library, these capabilities remain tacit, beneath the threshold of conscious awareness or use, until we need them.

    “on what do you base this observation?”

    I was generalizing from your observation about T.A. tropes. Certainly one can learn to use Lacanian tropes in the same way without their necessarily being spontaneously generated insights. You say that the client “is spoken by” the metaphors of the T.A. conceptual system; I say the client learns to use this metaphorical language to describe and to make sense of phenomena. Similarly a client can use to apply the Lacanian metaphors to everyday life, or perhaps to be spoken by these metaphors, without their necessarily being spontaneous constructions or retrievals from the unconscious.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 10:35 am

  10. Am I channeling the computer’s communications unwittingly by typing in this string of words? I don’t believe I am. On the other hand, I am wittingly cooperating with the tool-using community, reinforcing its importance and its protocols by using it.

    But you are channeling through the computer’s very FORM, which IS part of the message being communicated…whether unwitingly or not.

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 11:19 am

  11. Oh you McLuhanite you. So is English language also part of the message? Sure it is, but I don’t see how it helps to say that English is speaking itself through us, or that the computer is transmitting is media-ness through us. One cannot communicate without a medium or a language, just like one cannot play a piano concerto without a piano? Is the piano playing you while you are playing it?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 12:17 pm

  12. That the piano is playing you while you are playing it was, I thought, one of the basic ideas of structuralism. And I think its something McLuhan says explicitly.

    But yes…I’d say it is, in a sense. McLuhan would say that the sense in which the computer is “speaking itself to us” is the sense in which the computer (or piano) actually changes who we are…changes the scale, speed and character of human activity.

    So the way that would relate to structuralism…I guess…would be to notice how the very formation of self in relation to the language we speak effects our very identity…our activities, experiences and character…and the character of the world in which we do those things. Like in your “It Just Sounds Right” post.

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 12:27 pm

  13. I agree that environment affects us behaviorally, cognitively, linguistically, etc.; that we humans are some kind of dynamic vector or arc or membrane between our biochemistry and the environment. In part the issue is one of intent and agency: does it make sense to refer to an artifact like a language, a computer or a piano as “speaking” us? To whom is it speaking? Does it know what it’s saying? There’s a kind of transcendental, trans-personal gnosticism in the idea of language speaking us, implying either a conscious or unconscious collective entity that act with something like intentionality. That language “speaks” us or the piano “plays” us I would regard as metaphorical use of language — another thing humans are good at.

    I think you could make a better case for language speaking its users if language really had a universal structure that mapped onto a special and universal brain structure. Then it could be argued that language operates as an instinct, hard-wird in the evolutionary interplay between subpersonal genes and transpersonal environment, with the individual human being more of an intermediary or a medium. This is where the usage-based linguistics paradigm kicks in. Language structures aren’t universal; there is no language-dedicated brain architecture. Language usage is possible in all its diversity because of human cognitive flexibility and intentional learning — which supports the idea that the individual human subject is the primary agency of language transmission rather than the genes or the language itself. On the other hand, the individual’s agency operates within parameters preset by the language, the piano, and other hardware and software, both natural and man-made, that comprise our environment.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 1:12 pm

  14. We’re beyond my knowledge now of linguistics and psychology. But I don’t think you have to speak of an intention of the piano or language to speak of its impressing its form (and/or grammer) onto us.

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 17 September 2007 @ 3:40 pm

  15. I agree that we adapt to a lot of stuff without consciously being aware of it, and that a lot of this stuff has structure, including languages and pianos and the internet and family relationships and so on. So we’re in accord.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 17 September 2007 @ 4:36 pm

  16. Being beyond, what kind of topia is that? extratopia?
    That the piano has a tune of its own may not be necessary to know, but to play with this knowledge makes the difference.

    Vive la différence!

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    Comment by Odile — 18 September 2007 @ 9:46 am

  17. Extratopia? Perhaps. Like an “exurb” is place beyond the urban and beyond the suburban.

    One cannot force a piano to bend to your will; you must become attuned to it, cooperate with it, understand it, perhaps coax it a little. This goes beyond skill into artistry.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 18 September 2007 @ 12:38 pm

  18. Instead, Tomasello and others argue, linguistic theory should be based on usage.
    and
    All of language is immanent, active, interpersonal.

    This is definitely in line with the later Wittgenstein: Only in the stream of life do words have meaning. (Zettel)

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    Comment by Erdman — 23 September 2007 @ 6:41 pm

  19. Right — Tomasello introduces each chapter with a quote from Wittgenstein. Here is a convergence between philosophy and empirical science — it’s one of the things that makes it really interesting. And there’s a clear contrast being tested between the use-based and the structuralist approaches, which means it’s one of those paradigm shifts that Kuhn talks about but that doesn’t really happen very often.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 23 September 2007 @ 7:53 pm

  20. You say that the client “is spoken by” the metaphors of the T.A. conceptual system; I say the client learns to use this metaphorical language to describe and to make sense of phenomena.

    But Ktismatics when you say ”clients learn to use this metaphorical language”,you are pre=assuming the clients as solely conscious, cognitive agents, and my example was to illustrate that the obsessive in question was unconsciously adopting his therapist’s language and in this way being formed, altered by it, so apparently language has that power beyond individual intent. I am telling you that cognitivism goes into a kind of a denial which psychoanalysis does not perpetrate because it doesn’t annul the conscious in the same way.But on the other hand I am not telling you that we must dismiss cognitivism uberhaupt, I am rather in favor of combinations and mixages. If there weren’t any bad Hollywood movies, the avant garde would have nothing to be avant garde against.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 23 September 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  21. You’re not really skilled at something unless you can do it without consciously thinking about it. A child adopts the language of his culture without consciously choosing to; nonetheless, the child acquires competency as language user only by using it — by trying to understand and trying to make himself understood. Similarly, someone exposed repeatedly to T.A. lingo would gradually pick it up, eventually learning to use it spontaneously in conversation as a way of making sense of his experiences. I’ve learned various technical language systems: in playing music, in academic psychology, in business, etc. The better I got at these language systems, the easier and the more spontaneously I was able to use them in novel applications, even in contexts where they weren’t the usual way of conceptualizing things.

    Now I suppose if the T.A. client can’t help using the lingo, against his will or obsessively you might say, then you’ve got a different situation. I can wash my hands skillfully without thinking about it, but when I repeatedly wash my hands over and over I’ve moved into different territory. The compulsive hand-washer might be even more consciously aware of his behavior than someone who washes hands only when they’re dirty. Maybe someone who uses particular words compulsively is also more consciously aware than one whose word choice is more spontaneous, more unconscious if you will. What’s strange is that, even if the person is conscious of doing the behavior, he can’t stop it. I’d agree that there’s something outside of this person’s conscious awareness that’s driving the compulsion. But the unconscious is also where the competence for performing ordinary routinized and skilled behavior resides. Consciousness assembles thought using unconsiously stored symbols and skills, regardless of whether it’s skilled automated thought, intentional thought, or obsessive-compulsive thought. Thought that’s uncontrollable even with conscious intent is where we enter the analytic realm, and there is where you get the sense of some outside force controlling the person’s mind and behavior.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 23 September 2007 @ 10:45 pm


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