Research Articles

Horizons of the Word: Thoughts on the Experience of Speech

What is the meaning of a word or sentence? Every foundational theory in the philosophy of language must address this question. But I think many scientists and philosophers have been too quick to adopt abstract, theoretical conceptions of meaning. Before we come up with a general theory, I suggest, we should give a detailed descriptive account of our conscious experience of language. And we should carefully study empirical evidence about how the brain and body produce and process language. To elucidate the conscious, experiential aspect of language, I applied the concept of a horizon of experience. A horizon of experience includes the associated content that is dimly activated in experience, such as the perceptual experience of an object. When I see a soccer ball, it stimulates associated content bound up with my past experiences and habitual expectations about interacting with the ball: bodily sensations and motor imagery, or memories and imaginings of playing or watching the beautiful game. My original proposal in this paper is to suggest that a word does something similar: the word “ball” excites offline perceptual and motor anticipations of what it would be like to perceive or interact with a ball. This phenomenological account is corroborated by recent neuro- and behavioral linguistic research on language processing, which reveals the multimodal foundation of language in the brain. Hearing the word “ball,” we now know, differentially activates sensorimotor areas of the brain associated with interacting with a ball.

In addition to providing a phenomenological and empirical foundation for a general theory of meaning, this work is of interest to advocates of embodied and enactive approaches in the cognitive sciences. Some critics admit that embodied approaches provide compelling accounts of basic modes of cognition, such as perception and action. However, they object that such accounts don’t “scale up” to deal with higher modes of cognition, such as imagination, thought, and language use. By showing the foundations of language experience and processing in more basic modes of cognition, my account provides a partial response to such objections.

Read this paper online at the publisher’s site, or at my page.

See also my paper on experience and language in chimpanzees and humans. I have also recently brought the phenomenology of language experience into contact with insights into language from yogic mantra meditation (click here for more on that project).

Click here to return to the main research page.

“Horizons of the Word: Words and Tools in Perception and Action.” 2020. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. DOI: 10.1007/s11097-020-09655-5

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