Category Archives: Philosophy

Real Life Applications of Cognitive Linguistics

Shopping's Goat...

Image by ImAges ImprObables via Flickr

I have said it before and I will say it again: ANYTHING that requires thought benefits from a cognitive linguistic perspective.

We use language to help in making sense of the world, this goes for broad and general topics as well as specific expert domains; language is the medium of meaning, wherever that meaning occurs.

The idea I use in my professional life as an organizational culture planner is to use cognitive science to make sense out of the systems of thought expressed in the routine tasks of the organization and to see how they are described through culture in the form of business practices and personnel behaviors.  If I can see how thought and culture relate via language structures (i.e., conceptual metaphors, conceptual blends, force-dynamics, attention, figure-ground relations, et cetera), then I can help grow organizational culture from an informed perspective.


If you take the communication produced in an average business meeting, break it up into sections that identify the underlying conceptual metaphors, see who communicates what message, and trace the outcomes of the meeting, you can start to get a feel for what drives the organization.


Because design is an artifact of human creativity, it reflects the processes of perception.  Pick up any art criticism, architecture and landscape writing, or pulp design magazine, and you will see a range of conceptual structures at play in the terms of the movement of a visual scene, the oscillation of figure and ground (which in many cases roughly correlate to grammatical subject and object), the directing of attention, and the general semiotic structure of the actual design or the commentary; each aspect of the design reflects conception and perception.


Since technology is used in every aspect of life, we can start to see how it becomes a part of culture and cognition; in fact, technology in many respects helps us to distribute our cognitive load across a piece of technology. Pieces of technology are like material anchors that helps us escape from merely thinking with our minds and instead enable us to think with our environment.  This is a matter of conceptual blending, and it plays out in the decisions we make using thought and language, since technology is a tool that helps us learn, decide, and act on collected knowledge.  This is as relevant for super-computers as it is for using a wooden ruler; technology of all forms enables us to actually have something to say about the sensed environment.


When people want to relate to each other, they use language and other models of symbolization to communicate.  One of the most frustrating and most interesting aspects of communication situations is knowing whether communication is actually happening, or if it is in fact failing.  A lot of this depends on negotiating the common ground to see what each party shares.  Since the language we use for communicating relies so heavily on metaphors, it is often interesting to look at which metaphors people use to communicate, and whether or not those metaphors are understood by the other conversation partners. This holds true for relationship counseling, for customer service relations, and for friendships.  Any time people get together, they use meaningful structures to communicate, and cognitive science offers a suite of tools to analyze that communication.

The idea I use in my work is to exploit the nuances in language and behavior to gain insight into what problems the organization is facing.  I use a three-pronged approach to collect, analyze, and present that data.  I then help the organization to see how to use the results in a meaningful way to produce actionable solutions.  What this does for me is invaluable; I get to have a good time working on different problems, and I get to see how different people work together to help me find solutions that work for them.

I welcome opportunities to participate in translating ideas into cultural practices and love to engage in productive collaboration with people who are open and curious.

Let me know if you want to talk. DM me: @SportLinguist, or leave a comment on the contact page.

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Maple Keys remind me of a Taxonomy chart

Silver Maple. Seeds.

Image via Wikipedia

I was thinking about maple keys recently.

The maple key is an interesting schema of a taxonomy; the kernel is like a category node – the top-level domain.  Each vein in the wing of the seed branching away from the node is a trace of the path along which the line of membership in the category emerges as an [instance] of a membership [type].

On a slightly more abstract note, the veins also forecast a resemblance of the future roots and branches of the eventual tree, and in a way alluding to the further growth of category membership as each tree root eventually supports the life of the tree so that each tree branch can ultimately produce more seeds so that it might perpetuate, exponentially, the life of this tree of knowledge.


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Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere

Dandelion seeds (achenes) can be carried long ...

Image via Wikipedia

The Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere is a unpublished model of cognition that I began developing in the late ninety’s and early years of 2000 as a result of my training in linguistics and anthropology.  I worked on it before I knew what Cognitive Linguistics actually was and, in fact, it was part of my conversion to CogLing.  With a nod to remix culture and assemblage theory, this model tried to blend together several validated models of discourse and culture in a super feeble attempt to bridge the epistemological gulf between realism and relativism and explain the complete communication picture in a systematic and procedurally elegant way (read: quasi-arbitrary).  This was the early days of my interest in systems theory, but I was really naive about the complexity of complexity.  Basically, the more that I worked on the model the more I came to see that Cognitive Linguistics already had working solutions to a lot of the questions I was addressing.  In fact, when I read back through my notes now, I see that it is actually a model of attention and dynamic construal.  I won’t tell you anything more about the mechanics right now, but I expect that one day I will pull it back off the shelf and show it to the world; in the mean time, here is an analogy from my original manuscript (part of which is in this book) for you to chew on:

“Pick the white puff of seeds on a dandelion clock, pick the stem and hold it in your hand, and meticulously and decidedly, remove every single floating seed, one-by-one until there is only one remaining.  This is what the first thought does when it moves to the second thought.  You have deselected every seed, ignored them all but one, the one you highlighted, the one you lit up – the one you selected.  This, the lone seed on the stem, a sphere at the base, the rod line of the seed body, and the end of the seed a circle of tiny white hairs that extend radially from the stem in many many directions, this seed is a snapshot. You are holding in your hand the most natural visible representation of how your thoughts live and travel.  Now put that last seed up to your mouth and do the wind’s job and send that seed floating.  Where it lands it either develops or dies, just like your thought.”

“If you can take a line of thought and follow it to every dead-end, out every open door and window, to every destination – and catch it resting – you will see simply and plain how lawless and unruly even simple thoughts are in their brief lives.”

You can view images from my portfolio that were inspired through this process at:

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On walking and mediated embodied experience in ethnographic map making

Girl walking in a beach. Porto Covo, Portugal.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve been thinking about my spatial experience of my contextual environment and about what I have learned over the years in consciously encountering space as a user of space, a creator of space, and a participant in community through space.  I am thinking about this as I am getting ready to do some tutoring on domain mapping in ethnographic research.  Here is a summary of my spatial experience.

As a child most of my experience with space was either moving through it on foot or by being driven around in a car.  Toss in the stroller, occasional plane ride, boating, crutches, sledding, riding a bicycle, but by and large WALKING and RIDING dominated my childhood experience of space.

As an adult I would live in cities like Chicago and Honolulu, places where the infrastructure encouraged walking.  This changed my understanding of terrain, and walking became my primary vantage point for my movement through space, although each place did have new modes of movement; Chicago had a train, Honolulu had surf boards.

Doing fieldwork in West Africa I would never drive; I saw most of sub-Saharan Africa in a van, or a Volkswagen, or a Renault, but I was always the passenger.  At least I could stare out the window and imagine what it was like at a walking pace.

Where I live now has a walkability score of 25 out of 100.  Where I lived in Chicago had a score of 98, Hawai’i had a score of 78; clearly my current 25 is pitiful in comparison.

To be fair, where I live now there are some residents with a score of 82, so, it is not like walking is precluded by living here, just that it is not easy for everyone (like me).  I walked home from work once and it took me three hours.

This has restricted my daily routine movement to driving.  These days I experience my landscape from a vehicle (much like my Africa passenger days), but this time I don’t even get to look around and pay attention to what zooms past my face; no, I only pay attention to that which is necessary to avoid collisions.

Driving has seriously hindered my sense of place.  I used to spend a lot of time walking, exploring, noticing things at street level, at a pace that let me participate and observe; being a car driver has forced me to give up participation with a place in favor of being a consumer of that place, the road is just a conduit.

Instead of participating with the place I now participate with my driving peers as we consume the street on our way to our various destinations.  The interactive dynamic is not with the people who reside in a place, but with people who routinely pass through the place.  This is like the boat that is moored to the riverbank, the boat might not move but the river has certainly changed.

Compared to the speed with which I now drive through my neighborhoods, walking is practically standing still.  Walking is being the boat moored to the bank; driving is the rushing river.  And the places I drive through do not really change either, but I have nothing to do with the neighborhoods which I zoom through, not the shops, not the landscape, not the people.

I need to stop driving so much.

I need to learn to walk, again.

I need to experience the physical crust of earth and to encounter a place with my feet, unmediated by round rubber tires and a gas pedal.

Being a driver has abstracted my encounter with a place by removing the minutia and patient tiny details made visible to the walking man.  I say “man” because I speak of myself; I was a walking man, like James Taylor, but now, where I live, if you walk expect to be stared at, honked at, yelled at by crazy fun-loving child-drivers, and occasionally the target of someone’s empty sodacan/coffeecup/waterbottle hurled out the window with an insult.  I am serious; walking is stigmatizing, and dangerous.

This is partly why I drive places.

My level of attention to place as a driver does not decompose into lower level experiences with place like it does on a stroll where those small experiences gradiently build up to become a walking journey, instead I pay more attention to how many red lights have impeded my progress.

Walking for me does more than serve the function of travel between places; I walk to know a place.

When I move somewhere new (or even visit from out of town), the first thing I do is walk around a place, in an ever widening gyre, a scroll stroll uncurling through a city emanating away from my apartment or hotel room.  I walk around and I get a feel for what surrounds me.  I don’t even look at a map until I have learned the map through my feet.  By doing this I start to learn my place in the broader context, and this is where you encounter the joys of a place, its people, its vitality, its curiosities; by walking you learn the identity of a place.

This afternoon I thought about how walking is natural for me as an ethnographer; in fact, walking is essential.  And one of the reasons it is so important is that it helps in making maps of a place, in mapping the domains and the various spatial relations found in that place.  Sure, you can sit somewhere and draw a map of everything you see, but I promise you, if you walk around a place and look first with your feet, your map will be more detailed, more accurate, and more relevant as you come to capture the reality which each participant experiences as they use that space.

I might have seen a lot of sub-Saharan West Africa, but it doesn’t mean too much to me, and I certainly could only attempt to map it out from an approximation of the various landmarks I happened to have noticed from the window.  This is because the dynamic and progressive movement of a vehicle is that your sense of figure-ground organization is constantly shifting, and it goes as fast as the driver feels is necessary.  But when you walk around, if something becomes figural in your field of vision, and you feel it is important, you get to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what you have seen.  This kind of intentional embodied experience is vital for making sense of a place.

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A Layered Approach to a Common Ground Reading

I just posted another paper on the Social Science Research Network, it is an analysis of a multi-layered communication situation using Herbert Clark’s notion of the Common Ground.  Here is the abstract:

In a January 27, 2011 interview on the National Public Radio radio show Fresh Air (hosted by Terry Gross), guest Robert Spitzer made this comment: “Brazil doesn’t have a second amendment in their constitution.” However, as of May 2010 the Citizen Constitution (Brazil’s constitution since 1988) has been amended 64 times, which necessarily includes a second instance of an amendment being made. This fact renders a literal reading of Spitzer’s remark to be infelicitous. Instead, it is argued that Spitzer’s remark utilized the architecture of the situation to engage participants in a joint activity of maximizing the common ground.

This essay explores the role of a shared common ground in layered communication situations which enables participants to understand speaker construals. This falls within the domain of joint attention and pragmatic analysis of communication situations. Clark’s (1996) notion of Common Ground will be used to analyze the situation and untangle the communication layers to question what each participant needs to understand in order to orient on the intended meaning of the speaker. Using attested data from a radio interview, this paper explores three layers of communication and identifies the various aspects of a common ground that are required for a proper reading of a speaker’s intended meaning. This common ground is argued to be essential in the process of the negotiation of meaning. What follows is an initial exposition of the methodological process in this analysis, followed by a situating of the context for the data, and finally the application of the analytical method to the data with appropriate conclusions.

Attention Hot Heads (of any stripe): I want to be clear about this, I am analyzing the structure and content of someone’s statements about the Second Amendment; I am not making any kind of evaluation (positive, negative, or neutral) of the content of the surrounding political discourse about gun laws.  I will not debate in the comments about any aspect of this political discourse, but I will debate aspects of my analysis and of Clark’s notion of the common ground.

Download my paper here:

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Why I Care About Ontology

Staircase perspective.

Image via Wikipedia

In a broad sense of the term, any particular ontology serves as a framework against which we interpret information; think of it like an organized perspective that we use as a lens to view and understand the world.

When you study a culture you are concerned with figuring out how they understand the world and how they make sense of the world.  This study of sense-making follows the concept that people do what seems logical and rational to their perspective.  I am interested in mapping these sense-making resources and translating them into a format that reveals the internal consistency and relationships between the rationale and the external context and stimuli.

If you look back through the histories of science & philosophy you will see the pendulum swing between two extremes in regard to ontology, one extreme believes that there is a unified and complete ontological structure to the world, the other extreme believes that there are many unified and complete ontological structures.  This is the debate between whether we can know truth objectively, or whether it is known as a perspective.

In my work I explore how we construct global formal ontologies as well as how we generate idiosyncratic folk-ontologies; this is the both/and response – I want to know how we engage in thinking when it is shaped by public beliefs and private beliefs and what it takes to reconcile the disjunctions.

One of the ideas that has kept my attention the longest is that the structure of a thought represents the choices that have been made to arrive at that thought, and that structure also shows us what has been ignored as the thought is being formed.  I want to know how the external world interacts with the internal world.  I want to know how it directs our thinking.  This is the foundational riddle that makes me want to do linguistics.

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How Inception Helps Me Edit Papers

Inception: Alternative Poster

When I am writing a paper that has a page limit I use the first draft to make sure that I have a complete thought, I do not worry about exceeding the page limit.

For the first round of editing I read through the entire paper once. I then reread the paper section by section.

I open a new document for sections which I want to edit and conduct all of my editing in the new window so that I can preserve the original thought while I carve up its copy.

During that new window editing, I will then take paragraphs from the section and open new windows for each of them before using the cut copy paste “kick” to move it back through the layers of the document.

When I make it back to the original layer, what I am left with is a concise, coherent, and consistent paper. In a way, for each paragraph I have gone three layers deep to plant my idea.

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On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
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Primitive Modals in Child Language (Hafta, Wanna, Gonna) As Functionally Equivalent to Auxiliary Modals

Modals represent a perspective of force in relation to the participatory elements of a construction.  In fact, they represent an encoding of force in the relation between subject, verb, and object.

Children acquire modals by way of constructions that employ notions of speaker attitudes like intention, volition, and compulsion (245, Tomasello: 2003), and the constructions that they use are form-meaning pairings of these attitudes to a class of non-modal verbs including: want, have, need, among others.  Through use of these constructions, children begin to use reduced forms to communicate their understanding of internal volition (wanna), external compulsion (hafta), internal compulsion (needta) where the verb is coupled with a reduced form of “to” (indicating direction toward) (246, Tomasello: 2003).

These quasi-modal constructions are aligned functionally with auxiliary modals which direct degrees of compulsion and force of purpose.  This is seen in the deontic modal function of hafta which equates with must (Tomasello, 262).  In a way, these can both be understood to represent a requirement on the part of the grammatical subject.


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An Emergentist vs. Universalist view of Language and Cognition

Distributed cognition

Image by Lisa Brewster via Flickr

I wanted to present a list that outlines some of the main differences in thought about language between Emergentist and Universalist perspectives.  This is important I think because it shows how only certain kinds of programmers and mathematicians can work successfully within a Cognitive framework.

Consider these characteristics of an Emergentist (Cognitive) view:

  1. Singular Mind (General Cognitive Abilities)
  2. Distributed Cognition
  3. Neo-Empiricist
  4. The Complex System IS the primitive
  5. Prototypes
  6. Online and Dynamic Processing
  7. Usage Based View of Language
  8. Falsifiable
  9. The Appropriate Level of Granularity is the Form-Meaning Pair (i.e., constructions)

Now, compare that list with this Universalist (usually Generative) view on the same issues:

  1. Modular Mind
  2. Localization in Neuroscience
  3. Innate
  4. Atomistic, Reduce!
  5. Feature based categories & Atomistic Set Theory
  6. Stable Structures and “Switches” that enable cognition
  7. Competence Based View of Language
  8. Language is the de facto expected product of the mind
  9. Reductionism refines phenomena out of existence

Can some middle perspective be taken that combines both extremes?  What are your thoughts?

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Intention Directing, Self-Reporting, and the Transitive Constructions in Early Childhood Grammar (preschool, 2-5 years old)

Group of children in a primary school in Paris

Image via Wikipedia

Since constructions are learned through usage, constructions are accumulated as individual entities that begin to form collections and these collections of constructions begin to exhibit type frequency.  I think that this type frequency represents an aspect of the nature of child conceptualization, and indeed, it enables the communication of conceptualization in relational behavior from early ages.  This post explores a little about my extension of Tomasello’s analysis of the abstract transitive construction from his book Constructing a Language.

Tomasello divides a list of verbs used in the transitive constructions into four categories: Having Objects, Moving or Transforming Objects, Acting on Objects, and Psychological Activities (150, Tomasello: 2003).  These are not productive constructions until around 3,5; at which point children begin to use the transitive construction with verbs outside of the list presented by Tomasello.  Children use the verbs to indicate Agent and Patient roles in the [Trans-SUBJ Trans-VERB Trans-OBJ] transitive construction.  Looking through the list of verbs presented in Tomasello’s text it is easy to see that children have subjective conceptualizations and are able to begin articulating these ideas.  Verbs like: mean, know, like, help, need, and want represent a complex internal awareness of the interface between the physical/objective world and the mental/subjective world.  This understanding of the descriptive functions of the transitive construction enable the child to foray into relational transactions that involve intention-directing and launch the child into participation in the social world with the means to assert their identity as communicative entities in conversation.  These constructions allow self-reporting of internal states and an articulation of desire that transcends the physical environment.  The child can now make declarations, but also utter imperatives regarding subjective concepts to effect changes in the concrete world.

Interestingly, the early abstract transitive constructions allow the child to place varying degrees of focus on the elements used in the construction.  This is a salience-determining skill that allows the child to manipulate meaning in relation to the Agent and Patient roles, which may be a precursor to learning other constructions like the Passive construction.  Additionally, the emergence of this ability may represent the manifestation of figure-ground distinctions in early child grammar.

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Inherent Narratives in Ad Hoc Collections

Part of my portfolio includes this project called Weaving Narratives: Possessions = Autobiographies, it is an exploration into how any ad hoc grouping of objects has some kind of inherent narrative, albeit a selected and limited narrative; but it is a narrative nonetheless.

When I was a boy I remember my father keeping a box of items that meant a lot to him.  I keep a box like this too.  The Italian blacksmith that I apprenticed under also kept boxes of items, but on a different scale; when he died I got one of those boxes: we call it a storage unit in American English. Continue reading

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Sample Sentences Using Spradley’s Nine Semantic Relations from The Ethnographic Interview

Cover of "The Ethnographic Interview"

Cover of The Ethnographic Interview

I love James Spradley’s work on ethnographic interviews, componential analysis, taxonomic analysis, and participant observation, but Spradley’s work on semantic analysis has been the most thought-provoking for me theoretically.  Here I list out his nine semantic relationships and give some sample descriptive sentences to show you how the semantic relation describes the two elements in the relationship.  I have to say, however, that none of these sentences are very natural in a natural language kind of way.  In fact, the one concern that I have with Spradley’s view of semantics (from my usage-based cognitive view of language) is that it does not adequately lend itself to a straightforward modeling of the semantics of a natural language sentence.  Instead, if you want to use this for natural language, it has to be on a propositional level.

These semantics are best for modeling culture and the dynamics of a culture.  After all, they were drawn up in a methodology for ethnography.  In the sentences I present below you will find that they have a rigid and non-human sound to them; in fact, I think (and this is my opinion), that if you want to use Spradley’s semantics for anything other than modeling culture, that they are best used in formal system modeling, such as an expert system. Continue reading

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Reflexivity and Recursion in Soulwax’s “Part of the Weekend Never Dies”

Cover of "Nite Versions"

Cover of Nite Versions

Since I am posting a lot about Soulwax this month, I thought I should include this clarifying snippet about the differences between the various acts which the Dewaele brothers lead.  In “Part of the Weekend Never Dies” Stephen explains these acts to a Mexican female presenter who is interviewing him about the show:

[00:03:50] Presenter: “First of all, what’s the, can you tell the audience like what’s the difference between 2ManyDJs, Soulwax, or Radio Soulwax?” Continue reading

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What does Soulwax’s website, DJing, & Construction Grammar have in common?

Soulwax’s website extends an invitation for viewers to participate in DJing as they explore the website.  From my first exposure this has been an amazing experience.  The intuitive guided navigation doubles as a loading of the clips so that your browser cache holds the clip for later manipulation in the mixing.  If you patiently experience each of the clips instead of navigating away from the site, you will get the chance to mix the video loops and beats by clicking your mouse. Continue reading

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Why I Believe in Cut & Paste as a Design Strategy


Image via Wikipedia

Cut & Paste is not just a keyboard function.  In fact, R.G. Collingwood coined the term in the mid 1940’s in his book The Idea of History, but being a more formal speaker of a more formal ancestor of colloquial English he called it the “scissors and paste” method and was critical of it as a tool in historical method (33, Collingwood: 1946).

Nonetheless he did use the term and since then it has come to be used rather frequently as a tool in questionable secondary research, or as a way to validate and situate a claim in a historical context.  I think Collingwood’s problem with scissors and paste was that it was just a patchwork manipulation of existing work by people who were not historical eyewitnesses, and therefore outside of the bounds of science.  In essence, what was cut out and pasted lacked appropriate context and proper lineage, in fact, that has become a problem: it is called plagiarism. Continue reading

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Guest Post: The Digital Polis – Nicholas Carson Miller

I invited Nicholas Carson Miller to guest post on the shape of a particular internet culture…I hope you enjoy his work -SportLinguist

I. The New Prehistory

We can’t go ask ancient peoples what was going on when they decided to get together and start building cities. Frustratingly, none of the folks involved in the development of prehistoric communities are still around to ask and weren’t kind enough to leave detailed ethnographic and historical accounts of their experiences. Shame on them. We can, however, connect to the internet and observe the development of a new kind of community.

Early humans, tiring of wandering and hunting alone, began living around one another, trying their hands at farming, trading necessities and surpluses, and finding increasingly productive and complex ways to protect and govern the communities that developed. Early internet users logged on alone, visiting web pages and sending limited communications—but then a need for specialized communal activities lead to email lists, chat rooms, social networks, and, most interestingly, forums.

These internet communities, especially certain infamous and influential forums such as 4chan, Gaia Online, and Something Awful, are beginning to exhibit fascinating cultural trends that are to me reminiscent of early city-states. The development of the culture of these communities should be taken as a possible reflection of the development of real-world communities and is conveniently occurring right before our eyes at a highly accelerated rate. Continue reading

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Weaving Narratives: Possessions = Autobiographies

I recently created a short interview about my art project “Weaving Narratives” where I describe the process of reading objects that people own.  I hope you check it out and let me know what you think in the comment section [click the picture to view the film].

Also, weave your own narrative using the photo-documentation for this project [a free download to use in your own creative process].

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Your Language Constrains How You Can Think & Speak

When a specialist tries to talk about their specialist view of the world with a non-specialist it rarely ever goes smoothly.  In fact, usually, the specialist either talks at too specific a level for the non-specialist to comprehend, let alone understand, or the specialist talks at too general a level to do the subject any justice.

The same thing happens whenever you take any two people who belong to two different generations, disciplines, or subculture.  In fact, this same type of miscommunication happens whenever you take two very similar people and try to get them to relate, there are gross miscalculations in the process of decoding each other’s meaning. Continue reading

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My Top 10 All-Time-Favorite Formal Linguistics Books

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Occasionally I read a good Generative book to balance my thinking in linguistic theory…I am drawn to the ideas of formalism, usually when I am thinking about how to develop anthropological linguistic approaches for Cognitive Linguistics field work in Non-Indo-European languages, but also because I like the feel of generative thought a little.

Here are some of the generative books that I love the best:

  1. Lexical Categories – Baker
  2. Optimality Theory – Kager
  3. Phonology in Generative Grammar – Kenstowicz
  4. Tools for Analyzing the World’s Languages – Bickford
  5. Introduction to Typology – Whaley
  6. Language Form and Language Function – Newmeyer

And then there are a class of books that are in accord with generative thought (i.e., modular mind) that I find to be classic inspiration for the study of conceptualization:

  1. The Society of Mind – Minsky
  2. What Is Thought – Baum
  3. Consciousness and the Computational Mind – Jackendoff
  4. A Prosodic Model of Sign Language Phonology – Brentari

If you are a Cognitive Linguist and you are wondering for some good places to start studying Generative/Transformational/Formal Linguistics this list should be a good primer for you.  It covers all of the modules: the lexicon, phonology, syntax, morphology, meaning/semantics; as well as touching on topics like: theory of mind, compositionality, categorization, typology, rewrite rules, distribution and word order, signed languages, development, and gesture.  Enjoy!

If you are a Generative Linguist stumbling across this post and wonder where to begin reading about Cognitive Linguistics, please go to the menu of this page and select “CogLing 100 Book List” which will get you going in the right direction.  Bon Chance!

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Overcoming Self-Consciousness Around Linguists

[NB: I have told this story before, but this time I have a better understanding that I think is worth sharing.]

I had an experience a few years ago, a woman stood in my kitchen and told me that I didn’t know how to pronounce “adjective” correctly.

She insisted that my pronunciation was incorrect, in fact, she became quasi-belligerent trying to display how my pronunciation of adjective was so ludicrous that it was inconceivable that I would try to assert that I knew how to pronounce it. Continue reading

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CONTAINER Is an Ontological Metaphor

Ontological Metaphors are metaphors that give shape to abstract concepts and even contribute to the structure of Primary Metaphors.  CONTAINER is one of those metaphors. Continue reading

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On the Second Law of Thermodynamics: a quote from one of my favorite books

“Sometimes initial conditions can exert such an all-pervasive influence that they create the impression that a new type of law is acting. The most familiar case is that of the so-called “second law of thermodynamics” which stipulates that the entropy, or level of disorder, of a confined physical system cannot decrease with the passage of time. Thus, we see coffee cups breaking accidentally into pieces, but we never see a cup re-form from the fragments. Our desks naturally degenerate from order to disorder but never vice versa. However, the laws of mechanics that govern the manner in which changes can occur allow the time-reverse of each of these combinations. Thus a world in which china fragments coalesce into Staffordshire china cups and untidy desks evolve steadily into tidy ones violates no law of Nature. The reason that things are invariably seen to proceed from bad to worse in closed systems is because the starting conditions necessary to manifest order-increase are fantastically unusual and the probability that they arise in practice is tiny. The fragments of china would all need to be moving at precisely the right speeds and in just the right directions so as to convene to form a cup. In practice there are vastly more ways for a desk to go from order to disorder than from disorder to order. Thus, it is the high probability of realizing the rather “typical” conditions from which disorder is more likely to ensue that is responsible for the illusion of a disorder-creating law of Nature.”

[52-53, John D. Barrow – Theories of Everything ]

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Think Like a Bacterium: OSMOS, Naïve Quorum Sensing, & the iPad

I was recently sucked into playing OSMOS on my iPad.  I never play video games (usually I am too busy: wife, art, school, work) but I did happen to spend four hours straight playing this game over winter break.  This game synthesizes math, physics, biology, conceptualization and human enhancement.   Continue reading

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HighLevel Issues in EthnoBotany; Interdisciplinary Cross-Pollination

My Shrunken Head - 2008 -

I started getting interested in botany during my undergraduate years when I wanted to complement the technical linguistics training with a tempered understanding of some practical skills.  I have always planned on doing anthropological linguistics and in most locations people grow their own food; learning about botany and horticulture would be good for my survival.  And since talking with people about plants is a great way to collect data I wanted to at least have the competency to grow plants and have some familiarity with the lives of plants.  I took a job working summers and breaks at a 100-year-old tropical aquatics greenhouse where I learned to cultivate Lotus, Victoria Regina, Water lilies, marginal plants, and how to raise fish and maintain healthy ecological systems.  This got me interested in algae, protists, lichens, mosses, ferns, et cetera…

Even earlier in life, during primary school I took part in a Naturalist Aid program which taught me about the medicinal uses of plants, biodiversity, and ecology.  I guess my first encounters with plants was really from a pedagogical perspective on ethnobotany. Continue reading

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Preludes for Memnon – Aiken, Consciousness, and Ontology

I have a new link in my sidebar and I wanted to tell you a little about it.  One of my three favorite poets is Conrad Aiken, a sincere and highly lucid poet of consciousness.  Currently I am working on a paper about the metaphors of trees in ontologies (expect a post mid February) and a segment of Aiken’s Preludes for Memnon are included in a section using cognitive poetics to extract the conceptualization structures in his work.

Anyway, check out this site dedicated to Aiken’s work:


SWEET! My paper made a Top Ten Download List!

I checked my email this morning and received a message telling me that my recently distributed paper “Figure-Ground Organization in Attention and Construal” made it on a top ten list for downloads yesterday from both the Cognition & the Arts eJournal and the Cognitive Linguistics: Cognition, Language, Gesture eJournal…Awesome!

I hope you check it out!


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How I know it is finals week around the world

I have been laughing to myself each time that I go into the dashboard for this blog because I am noticing some fantastic trends.

Over this past week the viewing patterns for particular posts has been fascinating.

These are so noticeable to me because typically (the default/ground) these particular posts do not get viewed, so when they are viewed, it is a marked instance, and the page load becomes figural in the figure-ground distinction sense.  The page load is attended to as figure.

For instance:

  • I have received about 25 hits from the same city in India all of which came through a Google query for something like: “symbolic function of language” and they all view the same blog post about the communicative and symbolic functions of language.
  • I have received a handful of hits from another city in the United States, (again, all from the same city) looking for “Dialogue in Stoppard” which takes them to my page on “Ground-before-Figure in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia”.
  • Et cetera…

This is the benefit of good SEO…but that is not my point.

My point is that I know that students around the world are doing their homework and are Googling topics that they find in the questions hoping to get an answer from the web; hopefully I get credit in their bibliographies.

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The First Shall Be Last: A shift from First Person to Third Person in the Scientific Enterprise

I was reading this article by Ray Kurzweil and immediately connected with an idea that he expressed which I have been trying to articulate over the past year or so. He said that basically, in science there is no first person, there is only the third person. Continue reading

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Post-Colonial Thought in Literature, Ethics, and Project Design

I wanted to let you know about an online ejournal about Post-Colonial Literature and Culture, here it is:

Post-Colonial Studies in Literature & Culture eJournal

Having formerly worked in two former colonies (one in Africa and the other in the South Pacific), and having lived in Hawai’i which was also colonized, I am interested pragmatically in the ideas of Post-Colonialism.

While I am on the topic, I want to address post-colonial thought not only in literature, but also in project design for development and similar enterprises.

Furthermore, I am interested in how this model informs the ethics of project design and local ownership in situations of development.

I think it is great that development has gained currency with non-development workers, but I don’t want to see industries like micro-finance become another tool of Colonialism for the lay-person.  Avoiding a ‘savior complex’ is part of ensuring the stability of a project in a post-colonial context.

More to come….

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Why Linguists Can Always Have an Intelligent Comment on EVERYTHING.

If you are a linguist you already know this.

What is “this”?

I’ve not said yet.

Here it is: “Linguists have the ability to make an informed comment about anything.

Disagree?  Care to comment?  You will probably be articulating your disagreement using words strung together coherently, which falls in the domain of linguistic analysis.

What is more, conceptualization of reality informs the structure of meaning, so, as cognitive linguists we have the right to try to figure out what it is in the situated context that evoked meaning and enabled your coherence, which again, falls within the domain of our expertise as linguists.

Language pervades everything that anyone can conceive, it crosses domains in all forms of industry, the entire range of emotions, cultures, beliefs, procedures, and since humans operate in a world described and controlled by language, linguists have keys to understanding that exist on another level all together.

If it exists outside of the utility of language, in our feebleness as lesser beings we can still attempt to describe it using language; which again, is in our range of expertise.

This is not arrogance; this is the nature of being a student of conceptualization.

A Brief Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Summary…

A reasonable summary of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its tractable form is that different cultures interpret the same world differently and this has an impact on how they both think and construct meaning in language; in fact, language shapes or influences thought to some degree.  The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis combines linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism.  Adherents of the hypothesis follow these two principles to varying degrees producing gradient interpretations from weak to strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.  Cognitive linguists are among the only linguists to take this “mentalist” position seriously, and most linguists of any orientation reject a strong version of the hypothesis.  Continue reading

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MUST: Polysemous Network for a Closed Class Lexical Item

Here is another network diagram…double click to enlarge…the diagram is an interpretation of the sense variation for the semantics of the modal auxiliary “Must”.  [NB: I included a few obsolete usages that are not necessarily polysemy, but are definitely fun; these are notated with the dotted line].


There are two levels of membership that stem from the central MUST sense, the third level is actually just how I chose to represent the instances of the Must[x] sense.  I know that this does not reflect a good hierarchy since for example Must[Permission] only has one child (in my representation) rather than two or more children.  NB: I am not trying to show a level decomposition past the Must[x] sense level.

Also, I added three uses of Must that are obsolete or rare.  They are not actually related to the must in a polysemous way, they are homophones.  The OED listed them and I felt like I should at least acknowledge them.


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Purple Finch vs Bird

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) Purple finc...

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Today I experienced one of those classic text-book cases of construing a category member at varying levels of categorization for different purposes.

I was walking down the hall in my office today and I noticed a small purple bird sitting in a puddle of water in the rain.  It looked injured.  I looked at it for a while and thought that it might be a purple finch.  I went upstairs and found a shoe box in a cabinet and went outside to collect the bird.  I then took it to a nature center down in the forest preserve that has a wildlife rescue clinic, and this is where my construal takes place:

I walk in the door holding a shoe box. Continue reading

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Mashing Ray Jackendoff’s Ontological Categories with James Spradley’s Cultural Dimensions & Wh- Question Words

While I don’t necessarily agree with Jackendoff’s use of the semantic primitives, and while I recognize that this comes from a book that is from the early 80’s, I still want to present these ontological categories because they represent one way that the world is sliced, and they have interesting correlations to wh– question words.

Frankly, they are a little too close to Aristotalian categories for me to have much use for them in the stuff I am doing, but still, this represents an interesting perspective that ties in with ethnographic inquiry [specifically James Spradley’s work in Participant Observation].

Jackendoff proposes categories like THING, PLACE, DIRECTION, ACTION, EVENT, MANNER, AMOUNT and proposes a correlate question word which would access this category.

Spradley talks about 9 cultural dimensions: SPACE, OBJECT, ACT, ACTIVITY, EVENT, TIME, ACTOR, GOAL, FEELING, and looking at these nine dimensions in a matrix provides an ethnographer with 81 questions to keep their observations focused. But Jackendoff is more interested in seeing how these types of categories are manifest in linguistic structure, and less interested in modeling culture. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #17

Reading Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar has been a dense pleasure.  I am currently reading part of it in a volume edited by Dirk Geeraerts called Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings (Mouton de Gruyter).  Consider these words about the networked meaning of a lexical item:

Most lexical items have a considerable array of interrelated senses, which define the range of their conventionally sanctioned usage.  These alternate senses are conveniently represented in network form…The nodes and categorizing relationships in such a network differ in their degree of entrenchment and cognitive salience…The precise configuration of such a network is less important than recognizing the inadequacy of any reductionist description of lexical meaning. A speaker’s knowledge of the conventional value of a lexical item cannot in general be reduced to a single structure, such as a prototype or the highest-level schema.  For one thing, not every lexical category has a single, clearly determined prototype, nor can we invariably assume a high-level schema fully compatible with the specifications of every node in the network.

[Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar, 31, Geeraerts] (emphasis mine)

This is amazing, it basically asserts that lexical meaning resides in the total package of lexical knowledge and the relationship between points in the network.  In my understanding, this is the basis for grounding a strict reliance on encyclopedic knowledge in sense-making activities.


Geeraerts, D. editor. (2006) Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings, Mouton de Gruyter

Langacker, R.W. (1990). Introduction in Concept, Image, and Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar, Mouton de Gruyter (Reprint of ‘An introduction to cognitive grammar’. Cognitive Science 10(1):1-40, 1986.)

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How Spiders Conceptualize Reality

I found this spider in West Africa...outside my house.

I was working through a homework assignment about developing a language that captures the conceptualization patterns that a spider would have (given the boundaries of its embodied experience), this was a fun experiment, very much like Thomas Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat? (1974).  Anyway, here are some of the ways I cut up the problem:

If I am a spider, these are things that I cannot do:

  • pick stuff up and hold it in my hands
  • juggle
  • flick stuff
  • jump up and down vertically (rather than forward)
  • throw
  • kick
  • dance Continue reading
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Disambiguate Me! #19 [Perspectives on Hierarchy in Society – Ongka’s Big Moka]

Coat of arms of Papua New Guinea

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Perspectives on Hierarchy in Society

There are societies which organize hierarchically, in which dominance may be held over an individual for a variety of reasons that relate to social status.  There are also many societies in which one individual may not dominate another individual.  These two approaches affect the way that we interpret identity and membership.

I recently viewed an ethnographic film called Ongka’s Big Moka that tells the story of a man called Ongka from the Kwelka people group in the highlands of Papua New Guinea where reciprocity and giving fill the role that social hierarchy fills in my own people group in my part of America.

Reciprocity enables social order. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #15

Schema for cognitive differenciation between c...

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Ronald Langacker is considered one of the founding fathers of the Cognitive Linguistics enterprise, his seminal work in Cognitive Grammar has influenced pretty much everyone who does anything at all in Cognitive Linguistics.  Anyway, here is a quote that talks about the conventional meaning of a lexical item, this grounds the notion of encyclopedic knowledge: Continue reading

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I have finally found a used bookstore that actually has a cognitive linguistics section!

Check it out:

City Books, Inc.  1111 E. Carson Street, Pittsburgh

This store is neatly organized, the bookshelves are fantastic…they specialize in general and scholarly hardback books in the humanities, social science, and fine arts…AMAZING!

I recently visited and purchased a book I have been wanting for five years…Leonard Talmy’s Toward a Cognitive Semantics Vol. II Typology and Process in Concept Structuring, MIT

Confession: I read part of this book at my school in England & photocopied a chapter with the intent of eventually purchasing it… I am so happy to have my own copy!

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Ethnocentrism in Parenting

I just started reading an ethnomusicology book and I was struck by this definition of ethnocentrism.  Being an anthropologist I am conscious of the dangers of ethnocentrism in my practice and I can look at members in their context and not force my own values onto those members in my evaluation.  But still the clarity of this quote haunted me a little.

When the commonsense perspective dominates the attitude of anyone confronting new and strange experiences, it becomes ethnocentrism.  Ethnocentrism is the common tendency to view all human behavior from the value system of one’s own society, often including the tendency to consider other practices inferior and misguided.  The scholar must therefore avoid the commonsense perspective of his or her own society, and seek to understand other people’s practices from their point of view. Every society has its own commonsense perspective, and part of the task of understanding music in other societies is to understand the commonsense perspective commonly held in those societies.

[2-3, Kaemmer, 1993]

When I read this passage it reminded me of my own fears of ethnocentrism in my life.  My fear is that one day I will have a child who values a different type of creativity than I value.  Actually, it is not necessarily a different type of creativity as much as it is a preference for a different aesthetic in my child’s progression into self-expression.  I am embarrassed to even admit that fear. Continue reading

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Recursion, Björk, Mise en Abyme, Abstraction & the Ontological Metaphor ‘CONTAINER’

Abstraction takes an instance of something and edits out the redundancy and unnecessary elements to leave the basic pattern in a less detailed, but more succinct manner.

Abstraction in art seems to be something of a catch-all bin for art that is not realistic, at least in the common vernacular of the non-art historian/non-art critic.  This is not a healthy conceptualization of abstraction, and it may distort the understanding of abstraction.  I know for me, my view of abstraction was not clear for a very long time because I only associated the term with contemporary art.

What are some of the senses of abstraction?

  • Abstract vs. Concrete
  • Abstract vs. Body Content
  • Abstract vs. Realistic (similar to concrete)

I am interested in the abstraction that has the effect of zooming out, blurring the edges, pixilating the resolution, blocking smaller patterns into larger patterns; this kind of abstraction is of the summarization kind. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #9(a)

This passage covers a discussion of the conceptual domains of space and time while introducing the quantities of each domain and their instantiation in reality.  I like this passage because it differentiates basic concepts in matter and action; since these are the components of productive creativity I feel that this clear exposition of these concepts enables me to be more creative with my art.

The quantity that exists in the domain of SPACE is matter, which may be either continuous or discrete.  We return to these terms directly, but for the time being we can think of ‘continuous’ matter as having no inherent ‘segmentation’ in its composition; this type of matter is mass, illustrated by AIR. Continue reading

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Overcome Writer’s Block With Semiotics [Free Download]

I just posted a free download of an excerpt of my semiotics project which will be available as a paperback in September.  I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think about it.

Most of the textual content is absent; I wanted this excerpt to be visceral and intuitive.

The backbone of the project actually came out of an art piece that I made a few years ago that was intended to question identity and the formulation of identity out of memories and possessions [You will read about it in the Disambiguate Me! series on this blog].

As I developed the art project I realized that it could stand in place for a generic narrative that depends on the ways in which the objects are combined and recombined along a plot line that suggestively emerges from the set of objects as a whole. Continue reading

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Cognitive Mindfulness #7

Portrait photograph of Jack London

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Take this advice from Jack London:

“When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped.  To those who have the protean faculty of adaptability, the novelty of such change may even be a source of pleasure; but to those who happen to be hardened to the ruts in which they were created, the pressure of the altered environment is unbearable, and they chafe in body and in spirit under the new restrictions which they do not understand.  This chafing is bound to act and react, producing divers evils and leading to various misfortunes.  It were better for the man who cannot fit himself to the new groove to return to his own country; if he delay too long, he will surely die.” [21]

London, J. (1982). To build a fire and other stories, Bantam Books (reprinted from Novels and Stories by Jack London)

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Lady Gaga Is Her Own Black Box

Sorry about the obtuse title, I don’t know how to name this odd post that integrates multiple concepts that tangentially relate.  Hopefully the ambiguity of description entices you to read.

It seems to me, that because Cognitive Semantics is constructional rather than compositional, it is suited for integration with Object Oriented Philosophy.

This statement might get some negative reactions, but I am learning, so, bring on the criticism.

Here is why I think Constructions are better suited for OOO than a strict Compositional approach: at the level of a relation between two hierarchies, concepts which construct do not need to regard the hierarchical levels as boundaries which must be maintained, in other words, a hierarchical element on level 5 in hierarchy A does not have to match across hierarchies to another hierarchical element on level 5 in hierarchy B. Continue reading

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Cognitive Science & Engineering by Deductive Reasoning

Flywheel from old factory

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Here is a brief passage from my book The Art of War Against Boredom.  I wrote this passage around 8 years ago, and while it is influenced by my background in descriptive linguistics as opposed to strict cognitive linguistics, I still feel that it has something to say about the cognitive enterprise.  For example, in cognitive linguistics the actual language in use reflects the mental processing which produced that actual language.  In this passage below, the designed object reflects the mathematical processes which drove the production of the designed object.  I recognize that this can be interpreted through a generative lens too, but the passage isn’t meant to illustrate linguistic theory, it is a folk-methodology for problem solving.  Anyway, the designed object reflects the process of production. Continue reading

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Apparent Classical Categories In A Cognitive Textbook!

I feel like I have a good vantage point for recognizing problems with cognitive linguistics, especially since I have a descriptive linguistics background and I know a lot of generative linguistics.  I know both sides of the arguments, that should give me a good perspective on the questions those arguments try to answer.  For instance, generative arguments against cognitive strategies of categorization say that classical categories have rigid boundaries that contain members which all share a set of characteristics, and that cognitive dynamic categorization fails to adequately account for these fixed strategies of containment and description.  But, not all cognitive approaches reject rigid boundaries, as I will describe momentarily.  This little argument about rigidity in categories came to mind today when I was reading Evans & Green (2006), and I happened upon a list of rigid characteristics for category membership which seemed very very objectivist and a little out-of-place in the cognitive framework. Continue reading