Horizons of the word: Words and tools in perception and action

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 19 (5):905-932 (2020)
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In this paper I develop a novel account of the phenomenality of language by focusing on characteristics of perceived speech. I explore the extent to which the spoken word can be said to have a horizonal structure similar to that of spatiotemporal objects: our perception of each is informed by habitual associations and expectations formed through past experiences of the object or word and other associated objects and experiences. Specifically, the horizonal structure of speech in use can fruitfully be compared to that of a tool in use. The comparison suggests an account of our linguistic faculty as continuous with more foundational faculties of perception and action. I provide empirical corroboration of this account by drawing on recent neuroimaging studies of the multimodal, sensorimotor bases of speech comprehension. I then discuss how such an understanding of our linguistic ability helps advocates of embodied, non-representationalist accounts of cognition respond to a common objection. Critics grant that embodied approaches may be adequate to account for lower-level, online modes of cognition, such as perception and action, which directly engage their object. But they question whether such approaches can “scale up” to higher modes of cognition, such as imagination, memory, thought, and language, which can entertain absent, non-existent, or abstract objects. By providing a plausible account of the continuity of lower cognition and language-involving cognition, my approach responds to this objection, at least where language is concerned.

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Hayden Kee
Chinese University of Hong Kong


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