CEPA eprint 1351 (EVG-061)

Review of: After metaphysics: Toward a grammar of interaction and discourse

Glasersfeld E. von (1980) Review of: After metaphysics: Toward a grammar of interaction and discourse. American Anthropologist 82(2): 409–410. Available at http://cepa.info/1351
Review of: After Metaphysics: Toward a Grammar of Interaction and Discourse, by Harvey Sarles. Studies in Semiotics, 13. Lisse: Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies, Indiana University and Peter de Ridder Press, 1977. (Distributed in the U.S. by Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.) 286 pp. $21.75 (paper).
The collection of essays Sarles has published under this intriguing title ends with the sentence: “A critical reading of modern linguistic theory will reveal, I believe, that sound is as incidental to language as bodies are to minds!” (p. 250). He thus summarizes two of his three main complaints that pervade the text as an almost obsessive reiteration.
First, phonologists, linguists, and language analysts in general have, in Sarles’s view, joined in a conspiracy to eliminate the experiential social context of communication. Second, philosophers and philosophically contaminated social scientists (even behavioral biologists) have obscured the most important issue – “life-as-interaction” – “by construing the problem of human knowledge within a framework of dualist thought” (p. 231). Third (as a result of one and two) there is the widespread and seemingly ineradicable belief in the uniqueness of man, “based less on fact and evidence and more on a western theological assertion that man alone has a mind or soul” (p. 90) and “as we are able to conceptualize minds without bodies, we are able to construct verbal behavior as an attribute of mind” (p. 91).
Many of those who, like Sarles, have spent “an appreciable apprenticeship in traditional linguistics” (p. 226) are as disenchanted as he is with the presuppositions, the methods, and the goals that constitute the dogma of that discipline. But Sarles writes as though he were a solitary apostate. “Children, in my view, do not produce or generate phrases and sentences and then somehow learn semantics” (p. 102). Even taking into account that the particular essay was written five years ago, it does seem that the author has lost touch with his contemporaries. Developmental semantics and pragmatics, as well as the study of adult meaning, were quite flourishing then and the conception of language as a biological phenomenon that arises in a consensual domain of interactions had been floated half a decade earlier. But Sarles has an idiosyncratic point of view. He continues the above statement by saying: “The mother-child relationship is a dialogue of questions and responses through which the parental picture of the world is constantly imparted to the developing child” (pp. 102-103). It remains wholly obscure how such a process of imparting pictures of the world might take place. Sarles criticizes traditional phonemics for having “left out any notion of meaning,” but then goes on to say that “everyone knows that words mean something; they refer to objects, tell us about things” and notes that “animal-behaviorists do not consider … animal sounds as independent of meaning – i.e. animal ‘calls’ are considered directly meaningful to animals” (p. 44, emphasis in original). He does not seem to realize that any theory of reference that attributes ontological reality to the objects or things language refers to leads from a Cartesian or “rationalist” metaphysics (which Sarles is arguing against) to a “realist” position that is just as metaphysical. Plato’s allegory of the cave, cited by Sarles to discourage the use of hypothetical constructs concerning mind (p. 16), was intended to illustrate the unreliability of the senses and the illusoriness of all objects of perception and observation.
Sarles’s argumentation turns on, and continually returns to, “the fact that speakers have and use their faces and bodies” (p. 103), that “the human form has a lot to do with human language, cognition, logic and rationality” (p. 104), and that “human bodies as perception devices are the sorts of things which resonate (in an almost literal sense) to sounds” (p. 234). Who would disagree? And who would not concede that these physical phenomena of interaction are involved in many uses of language? But Sarles would have us believe that they are “language” and that they are “speech.” “Interestingly, linguists have shared the fiction that speech comes out of mouths, because they’ve never done a ‘visual phonetics’ “ (p. 218). It is bad enough if the communicatory functions of gestures, movements, and facial expressions are called “language”; when they are called “speech,” the situation becomes impossible. For most speakers of English “speech” will remain an acoustic phenomenon, and since the acoustic signals we have chosen as a vehicle for linguistic communication have to be broadcast into the speaker’s environment through some orifice, I think it is fortunate that we can make them come out of our mouths.
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