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Some biographical data, next to what is written in TRIBUTE (below).


-full name Netta Frederika Koene, born in Heemstede Netherlands.
-graduated in Dutch literature and linguistics at VU - University Amsterdam.

-studied philosophy at University of Amsterdam, dissertation 1984 ( prof. R. Bartsch ) .

-married, two daughters. Living in Amsterdam.

 

 

THE SHAPE OF INFORMATION

how language gets hold of the world (2007).

My latest book has a long history. It took years for the questions adressed in it to crystallize, and years again to search for answers; in the process, the questions sharpened, calling up new questions. Looking back, in the course of the years a number of publications in different areas of research have had serious impact; I would like to pay tribute here to their authors. To be seen as my intellectual biography.

 

 

TRIBUTE

 

The first on the list definitely has to be Karl Popper; having come from an environment where thoughts were not free, the reading of The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), Conjectures and Refutations (1963) and Objective Knowledge (1972) changed my world. What especially struck me was this idea that all knowledge of what is there, including knowledge from observation, is theory-impregnated, and that empirical science tries to come nearer and nearer to the truth by critically going back and forth between conjectures and data. When I read other literature on philosophy of science, this reinforced this idea that nothing should be taken for granted, especially not the obvious.

However, I did not have the faintest idea how to apply all this to language, which was my subject. So when I read Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957), it came as an eye-opener that language has a system, that we can conjecture what this system is like, and check the conjecture against the data of language. Still, for myself I had no sense of direction, and soon enough I was rather discouraged by the fact that Deep Structure fails to represent meaning.

So, despite passing all the exams, and graduating in Dutch language and literature, I had no idea how to be a linguist. Highly frustrated with my own inability even to find a question to work on, I continued to study philosophy to learn more about philosophy of science, but when I started my studies at Amsterdam University, I plunged right into the middle of discussions on philosophy of language and truth-conditional semantics, discussions on Frege (1892), the Russell (1905)-Strawson (1950) debate, modal logic, Montague seminars, etc. I thought I knew one or two things about language, but this completely different way of looking at it quite confused me, and it took some time for things to reshuffle in my mind. With hindsight, I can distinguish three major influences:

The first thing I picked up was that semantics should explain the relationship between language and world, where the world could be represented in a model. This idea was new to me. Before I got any further knowledge of formal model theoretic semantics, I self-evidently took this to be an empirical question about what actually is the case, and it seemed only reasonable to me to look for the answer where language and world in fact meet, that is, at the point where a hearer makes sense of a speaker’s words, and recognizes the real thing. The fact is that as a rule a hearer just instantly understands a speaker’s verbal information, and, self-evidently, the question for me was: how does it work. This question has kept me fascinated ever since. Intuitively, I rephrased this question into: how does a hearer turn the speaker’s forms of language into a mental model of what the speaker talks about. Soon enough, I found out that this was hardly the aim, and hardly the kind of model of formal semantics, but still I think that without model theoretic semantics the empirical  question would never have occurred to me. Anyhow, for a very brief period of time, I had the naïve idea that for me as a linguist it would not be that difficult to explain what as a hearer I just instantly understood.

But if I had hoped that going from phrases of language to the hearer’s mental picture of the world to the world itself would be easy, philosophy of language and formal semantics soon enough opened my eyes: not only do the noun phrases of language seem to have very different logical properties, depending on whether they are proper names, indefinite descriptions, definite descriptions, mass terms, etc., but also often enough the same sentence seems to have different readings; there is ‘scope  ambiguity’ of negative sentences; also, there are the ‘generic’ readings next to the ‘non generic’ ones. And it was phrasing the connections between these forms of language and the world in terms of truth conditions that made it absolutely clear that there is no way of reasoning these facts away. So if I wanted to answer my empirical  question, I had to deal with them. The fact is that a speaker can use what seems to be the same form to send quite different messages, and still the hearer just instantly gets the meaning intended. It works. The question remained: how does it work. And the answer still had to be found in what actually happens.

Then the third influence has been a negative one: fruitful as logical analyses are in pinpointing the problems, they cannot possibly be part of a solution. To the ear of the hearer, a logical analysis, or any formal or informal re-phrasing, is a never completely successful effort to capture the content of the already instantly and effortlessly understood original forms of language. They are Procrustes’ beds, and useless in an explanation of the original’s understanding. Worse, discussing the problems in terms of quantifiers, logical operators, scope , truth, truth conditions, etc., blocks one’s view of the question that matters: how do forms as they are work as they do.

To answer this question, it is essential to start where the hearer starts: the sound waves that enter his ears. Now as soon as I focused on what I heard, it was clear that it would be impossible to ignore intonation: it is there, and it makes all the difference. To this day, it strikes me as irrational to on the one hand ignore informative forms that are audibly there, and invent on the other, forms, logical forms, or whatever other forms, that are nowhere to be seen or heard.

Hearers very early in life learn to recognize what is relevant in all the vocal sounds that enter their ears, including prosodic forms. So I should get hold of all those forms. Now, alphabetic writing  gives linguists an enormous head start: over the centuries writing systems succeeded increasingly better in representing those aspects of sound that are relevant; writing as it is now can be considered a rather successful early theory of language. But obviously, it largely misses out on prosodic form, and it has been far from easy for me as a linguist to pinpoint what it is that as a hearer I just picked out. Fortunately, there were the ‘Dutch School ’ investigations: Cohen & ‘t Hart (1967), ‘t Hart & Cohen (1973), ‘t Hart & Collier (1975), Collier & ‘t Hart (1981), etc., with their elegant notational system. Following a well-thought-through method, the authors had found out what exactly it is in the (Dutch) intonation contour that is perceptually relevant to the hearer (leaving aside the possible questions of intonational meaning), that is, which changes in pitch make the contour sound different to the ear, which characteristics cause a pitch movement to be heard as a pitch accent , etc. This, in my opinion, is a textbook case of good, solid, useful research. Although my hypotheses on basic prosodic forms and their information are independent of the particular notational system used to write down complete contours, I do not know whether I would have found my way in intonation without the accurate visualization of pitch this research made possible.

Focusing on what, ignoring prosody, seemed to be ambiguous forms of language, including prosody, I found an elegant system: a speaker can use a noun phrase, whether definite, indefinite, or material , whether the sentence is positive or negative, in four different ways, differentiating the form with a minimal  pair in pitch and a minimal pair in rhythm, both located in the final syllable of the noun phrase. Intuitively, this simple system covered a whole range of seemingly problematic and seemingly different phenomena, including ‘scope  ambiguity’ and ‘generic ’ readings. I wrote my dissertation De eigen semantische systematiek van de natuurlijke taal (1984), Form and Interpretation, a One to Four Relation (1987) and Ambiguity: Syntactic and Prosodic Form in Empirical Semantics (1989).

Given these conjectured informative prosodic forms, the inevitable next question was exactly what they each contribute to the hearer’s mental picture under construction of the world talked about. That is, assuming that my intuition was right that understanding is drawing a mental picture of the world talked about. Unfortunately, at the time and place where I was, this was not done, either because it should not be done for methodological or philosophical reasons, or because it could not be done for practical reasons. However, as I did not see what else would bridge the gap between the real thing and the incongruous forms of language, I did not see a way around mental pictures, elusive or not. So I had my question, I had my problems, I had some hypotheses, and I had a sense of direction, but I was on my own.

I read what I could find that had any relevance to my questions. I wrote a book that did not get published: Understanding negative sentences (1994). It contains some rather extensive discussions and a matching bibliography, among which Ladd’s The Structure of Intonational Meaning (1980), and Horn’s A Natural History of Negation (1989).

Still, my theory, from a strong start in the forms of language, kept ending in the middle of nowhere. I needed to get hold of those mental pictures in a methodologically satisfactory way. I found Johnson-Laird’s Mental Models (1983) very inspiring, I studied Johnson-Laird’s The Computer and the Mind (1988), I studied Kosslyn’s Image and Brain (1994), but still I was at a loss about how to bring things together.

Then, in the special issue on imagery of Consciousness and Cognition (1996), Hubbard’s article The Importance of a Consideration of Qualia to Imagery and Cognition took me by surprise. He claims the importance of ‘qualia ’, both in perception and imaging: qualities of reality as it shows up in our awareness , the colour, feel, texture, sound, smell, taste of the world. He argues that when we know the world by experience, there is something really important that escapes phrasing in words. Hubbard’s claim struck me as more than right: indeed we cannot ignore how the world takes phenomenal shape, that is, we cannot ignore how we are aware of what is there (Searle is right that we cannot separate ‘qualia ’ from consciousness, from our awareness  of something; The Mystery of Consciousness, 1997, p. 9). The important point to me is not so much that we cannot communicate phenomenal knowledge—we cannot—but that it is conscious experience that gives us first knowledge: if physical reality would not appear to us in colour, texture, sound, smell, etc., we would not have a world at all for us to describe in words. And these words of natural language do not label Objective Nature, but its human version, nature as it shows up to each of us; for instance the word red does not label a thing’s quality to reflect light on a certain wavelength, it labels, for each of us privately, the colour that shows up in our awareness  of that thing, the ‘quale red’ if you like. Now how would I be able to explain the connection between (speaker’s) words and (hearer’s) reality if I ignored what the basic words of language refer to?

This forced me to rethink the whole question of what happens in the process of understanding language and recognizing the real thing. Not only mental pictures are difficult to get hold of, the world itself is at least as problematic. And then, we cannot take the forms of language for granted either: what on earth is their way of existence? Reading Hubbard made me realize that all of it depends on what we privately are able to be aware of. If I really wanted to explain this process, I could not ignore what we are aware of. And what we privately are able to be aware of, the world we experience around us, the words we hear, the pictures in our mind, it all depends on the machinery and activity of the individual brain. I learned a lot from Scientific American’s Special Issue on the brain (September 1992); it has leading scientists in the field explain their well-established results; it gives non-specialists enough food for thought, and it is as relevant today as it was at the time of its first publication.

What stuck with me when I was reading Crick & Koch: The Problem of Consciousness, and subsequently Crick: The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994), is the fact that a person’s consciousness depends on the presence of a special although as yet not identified kind of activity in this person’s brain. This does not solve the hard brain-mind problem how neural firing can cause subjective experience (I agree with Searle 1997 again, for instance p.28), but still, it seems to be a pretty hard fact that it does, and this fact is the basis for the mind-brain equation  I defined in chapter 2.

What stuck with me when I was reading Zeki: The Visual Image in Mind and Brain is the fact that what we see is an invention of the brain: it results from a complex division of labour over specialized areas of the brain, cooperating in presenting a unified picture of the world. This fact is the basis for my representation of what is there in people’s world as unifications of features. Kandel & Hawkins’ paper The Biological Basis of Learning and Individuality is about the neuronal mechanisms of learning; it seems that short-term memory consists of the change of strength of existing synaptic connections, and long-term memory consists of the growing of new neural connections at the same site. Subsequently, I read and re-read Fuster: Memory in the Cerebral Cortex (1995): the cortical networks of perception and memory coincide (for instance p. 114), perception and memory are inseparable.

Damasio & Damasio’s Brain and Language is about the brain’s external objects, its language, and the mechanisms that connect the two (Damasio et al. 1996 in fact trace some connections). It is fascinating. As they say, the brain uses the same machinery for language as it does for other entities. It is their notion of ‘record’ that put me on the right track to get hold of mental images: the brain does not hold permanent ‘pictorial’ representations of objects, etc., but it holds a record of the neural activity during interaction with that object, in the form of a pattern of synaptic connections (similar to Fuster’s networks of neurons). I believe this notion of ‘record’ replaces the generally used but questionable and confusing notion of ‘representation’ with a notion that works: an experience of something does not store its representation, not something that can stand-in for the real thing in its absence, but it records the combination of neurons to activate to have it (re)appear, and it is this reappearance that, in the physical absence of the real thing, can represent it, stand-in for it (as for imaging, see for instance Damasio 1994, p. 101).

In all publications, neuropathological evidence plays a large part. There is overwhelming evidence that damage in one of the specialized areas of the brain may literally make the corresponding part of the person’s world vanish: it is the very mechanism evolved to call it into existence that is damaged.

At this point, at last I had my questions together from start to finish, and I could really set to work. Which took another decade.

The references given above therefore reflect a very personal journey. As a bibliography, the list is seriously incomplete in two ways. Firstly, there are the many publications I read over the past decades but did not mention here; they must have had their influence, and I may have borrowed ideas that I cannot trace back to their origin anymore; I can only hope that I did not forget anyone. Secondly, there is the virtual and virtually infinite list of publications that I have not read but should have read had I had another lifetime.