27 April 2012

Review: Ray Jackendoff's User's Guide To Thought And Meaning

A User's Guide To Thought And Meaning


I just finished A User's Guide To Thought And Meaning by Ray Jackendoff, a linguist best known for X-bar theory.


I wasn't impressed with it. Although he starts off credibly if pedestrianly, the supporting arguments for his main thesis are fatally flawed. I found it annoying as I got further into the book to see him building on a foundation that I considered unproven and wrong.

His main thesis can be summarized by a quote from the last chapter:

What we experience as rational thinking consists of thoughts linked
to language.  The thoughts themselves aren't conscious.

A strange mistake

The foregoing quote leads me to the strangest assumption in the book. He says that our mental tools are exactly our language tools. He does allow at one or two points that visual thinking might qualify too.

That may be true of Ray, but I know for a fact that it's not true of me. I often have the experience of designing some piece of source code in my head, often when I'm either falling asleep or waking up. Then later I go to code it, and I realize that I have to think of good names for the various variables and functions. I hadn't used names before when I handled them mentally because I wasn't handling them by language (as we know it). I wasn't handling them by visual imagery either. Of course I was mentally handling them as concepts.

There are other indicators that we think in concepts: The tip-of-the-tongue experience and words like "Thingamajig" and "whatchamacallit". In the chapter Some phenomena that test the Unconscious Meaning Hypothesis, Ray mentions these but feels that his hypothesis survives them. It's not clear to me why he concludes that.

What is clear to me is that we (at least some of us) think with all sorts of mental tools and natural language is only one of them.

If he meant "language" in a broad sense that includes all possible mental tools, which he never says, it makes his thesis rather meaningless.

Shifting ground

Which brings me to a major problem of the book. Although he proposes that all meaning is unconscious, his support usually goes to show that some meaning (or mental activity) is unconscious. That's not good enough. It's not even surprising; of course foundational mental activity is unconscious.

To be fair, I will relate where he attempts to prove that all meaning is unconscious, from the chapter What's it Like To Be Thinking Rationally? He does this by quoting neuropsychologist Karl Lashey:

No activity of mind is ever conscious.  This sounds like a paradox but
it is nonetheless true.  There are order and arrangement, but there is
no experience of the creation of that order.  I could give numberless
examples, for there is no exception to the rule.  

Unfortunately, Lashey's quote fails to support this; again he gives examples and takes himself to have proven the general case. Aside from this, he simply pronounces his view repeatedly and forcefully. Jackendoff says "I think this observation is right on target" and he's off.

One is tempted to ask, what about:

  • Consciously deciding what to think about.
  • Introspection
  • Math and logic, where we derive a meaning by consciously manipulating symbols? Jackendoff had talked about what philosophers call the Regression Problem earlier in the chapter, and I think he takes himself to have proven that symbolic logic is unconscious too, but that's silly. He also talks about the other senses "all" being misleading in syllogisms, but that's a fact about natural language polysemy, not about consciousness.

None of this is asked, but one is left with the impression that all of these "don't count". It makes me want to ask, "What would count? If nothing counts as conscious thought, then you really haven't said anything."

One last thing

In an early chapter Some Uses of ~mean~ and ~meaning~, he tries to define meaning. Frustratingly, he seems unaware of the definition I consider best, which is generally accepted in semiotics:

X means Y just if X is a reliable indication of Y

Essentially all of the disparate examples he gives fall under this definition, either directly or metonymically.

Since the meaning of "meaning" is central to his book, failure to use find and use this definition gives one pause.


  1. That definition of "meaning" seems self-evidently wrong - how would it account for the fact that lies have a meaning?

    1. Lameen: First, I apologize deeply for the delay. I have no idea why Blogger flagged your comment. I only saw it waiting moderation just now when I went to post something.

      My answer ran a little long, so I am putting it into a new post.