by Carrie Sun

Nature of meaning has historically been planted in the field of philosophy, with good reason: up until couple decades ago, science limped behind philosophy in understanding matters of the mind. It wasn’t until advances in neuroimaging technology reached the functional stage, allowing for visually arresting images of our brains while we think and do and idle, that we started harvesting scientific evidence for some of the most complex theories about the way our brain works, about the how we come to perceive the world, acquire knowledge, and communicate with one another. Hayden Kee, a PhD candidate at Fordham University, wonders: can we turn to the science of language to help us get to a theory of meaning? 

At the 33rd meeting of the Consciousness Club on Wednesday, April 18, 2018, Mr. Kee presented his research on a phenomenological approach to language, suggesting that linguistic meaning is interwoven in myriad ways with bodily expression in gesture and action as we directly, intentionally engage with our lifeworld. 

To say that language is fundamental to our human experience is akin to saying that the Earth is round—a known truism offering no gifts to our inquisitions on the nature of experience and the roots of consciousness. Language, Mr. Kee said, shapes experience and understanding, both of our external world and, ultimately, of ourselves. Philosophy has acted (albeit accidentally) as a diversion at times in these goals, but the science of language, especially with accelerating advances in cognitive technologies, bears ever ripening fruit for our desire to flesh out the role of language in our lives. 

Mr. Kee asked the room: what is the meaning of a word? Silence. No tenders. Either the question was too broad, or too easy, or too profound, probably an admixture of all three as most questions worth investigating are. 

He continued, saying that he had soccer on his mind, so: what does the word ball mean? Do word meanings equal the things? The word ball can certainly mean the ball—spanning all flavors of soccer and non-soccer balls—and have an incredibly broad scope, making for a one-dimensional theory of meaning, but could there be more? 

Beyond soccer, we saw how Mr. Kee had superheroes on his mind, as he put up a slide with Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, the real name for the character of Catwoman, Batman’s love interest. Next to her was … herself, only she had on her Catwoman suit. Both names Selina Kyle and Catwoman (i.e. signs) functionally refer to the same entity—Batman can use either name to pick out the same thing (i.e. referent)—but there are different ways of thinking of them, of accessing this same referent (i.e. sense).  

This is philosophy of language up to about 125 years ago. 

You might think the next logical step would be for philosophers to exploit sense, to fiddle around with ways of accessing the same thing, but no. They took sense out of Batman’s head, Mr. Kee said, and into the abstract. The linguistic turn in the 20th century resulted in the dominant view that words have abstract meanings, but wherefrom arises intentionality of language? 

Mr. Kee looked to science. He looked at brain scans of individuals during various speeches and gestures and found that there is significant overlap in neural networks involved in processing of both speech and gesture; that engaging our bodies helps us access words; that incorporating gesture enhances foreign language learning and fluency. 

The way to do this, Mr. Kee said, is to make sure you’re speaking the word while performing the gesture, the gesture necessarily corresponding to the appropriate motor activity. Mr. Kee, displaying an oft-forgotten ability to make philosophy both entertaining and relevant, put up a slide of the current POTUS gesticulating with magnificent force (so much force, in fact, that it was enough to play a make-believe accordion), further noting that the President must be a great orator because he knows how to speak with his hands. 

Mr. Kee then offered his tips on learning foreign languages: Immerse yourself! Have a drink! Be silly!—all time-tested and proven methods by the philosopher-scientist himself. (Seriously. But please note that the scientific studies for alcohol improving fluency were capped at one drink.) 

Returning to neuroimaging, Mr. Kee exhibited a slide of “your brain on words,” showing how brain activities from movements of the foot, finger, and tongue correspond to brain activities from passive reading of action words related to the leg, arm, and face. Put differently, action words activate corresponding premotor regions of the brain, and these correspondences are somatotopic. Scientists originally thought that language was parked in closed off modules, but now it is clear that these same modules for language are also used for bodily gesture, making language part of several intricate hubs like the middle temporal gyrus (MTG) and the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). (Here, Mr. Kee mentioned that it’s not just action words exhibiting this speech-gesture phenomenon; nouns associated with manipulable tools also active the corresponding premotor regions the brain, as do words associated with odors and sounds.) 

So, all this commotion about words, but what exactly is in the word? 

It has been shown that imagining actions or perceptions creates similar patterns of cortical activation to actually performing or experiencing those actions or perceptions. Perhaps, then, understanding the meaning of a word is akin to imaginatively reenacting the related perception or action, Mr. Kee proposed, and maybe this kind of imaginative understanding plays a role in determining the meaning of words. 

In his penultimate slide, Mr. Kee asked: where is the meaning?  

Are meanings “in the head”? No, he said, language needs to be enacted in order to be maintained because neuroimaging studies show neural correlates of language habits, espousing an interpretation of a “use it or lose it” view of language. Are meanings in the signs? In the things? Or in the patterns of interaction?  

Finally, we came to the pinnacle of Mr. Kee’s research. He nominated a theory of meaning wherein learning to speak equates to creating language, whereby linguistic meaning involves habitual patterns of interaction between self, other, and world—in other words, a dynamic view of linguistic meaning. In adults, these patterns are comparatively fixed and established; in children, they are in the process of being made.  

For all the diversity supposedly manifest in the world’s seven-thousand languages, perhaps language is simply the beautifully varied expressions and extrapolations of bodily gesture, and meaning in language flowers from the very act of you and I using the words, thereupon engaging with and participating in the world. 

At the conclusion of Mr. Kee’s formal presentation, he fielded a flurry of questions from the audience.  

A man inquired, at what age does the neural linkage between words and location in the brain develop? Mr. Kee emphasized the ongoing, processual nature of acquisition, and how kids start to form neural traits before birth; how infants are slightly better at recognizing stories read to them while still in the womb; how a newborn baby’s cries already reflect patterns of inflection of their parents’ native language. 

A woman asked to see more slides and for Mr. Kee to elaborate on his PhD research. Mr. Kee said his primary fields of study are phenomenology and the philosophy of language, investigating more basic levels of intentionality. He believes that perception and action bring us into direct contact with the world, whereas language is an indirect way of such, and that language exists only by us putting it into play. Even abstract language must be understood in reference to a more concrete basis in action, perception, and the body. Language itself is an open project, as children continuously introduce shifts into language, and we use perception and action to build into a language. 

A man invited Mr. Kee to share his thoughts on Benjamin Whorf, specifically the hypothesis that the structure of language affects its speaker’s cognition and experience of the world. Mr. Kee reminded the audience of the provocative nature of this thought, a thought which has received a considerable amount of criticism upon its introduction. Mr. Kee doesn’t think the hypothesis is entirely nonsensical, but he would take a weaker position than Whorf. He believes the primacy of meaning lies in our world and our interactions with it, not in language. Whatever meaning we get from language has to be based in the real world. The sense in which other people—your loved ones—are meaningful to you shares the same basis as meaning in language; it is only because you are able to make out the meanings in the world that they, the meanings, come to be. 

There was additional back and forth about how phenomenologists needn’t be skeptical about shared consciousness and the technologies enabling such, because a shared world is the foundation of language and experiences don’t need to be brain bound; how there needs to be an embodiment of an artificial intelligence, an ability for it to be mobile in an environment, for it to even possibly reach genuine linguistic understanding and for it to mean, and that this issue is actually two-fold: ontological (is this thing really experiencing?) and technological (can we make the thing that produces the results?); how children born congenitally blind display slightly slower acquisition of language, but that ultimately imagination isn’t limited to vision and can be cashed out in any sense. 

Mr. Kee, with his talk of language and meaning and perception, commingled with real world examples plucked from pop culture and politics (though the most laughter-inducing comical interlude was an anthropomorphized cartoon brain, smiling, sweating, doing arm raises with tiny weights), provided an engrossing couple hours of science and philosophy fun. His research, refreshing some of the basic tenets in phenomenology with the help of recent empirical, scientific studies on language acquisition and cognitive development in infants, will have deep and wide implications beyond phenomenology and philosophy of language—like, say, in critical theory. 

David Foster Wallace, who was one of the most insightful, influential, and sharply observant essayists/novelists/thinkers ever, wrote in his essay, Greatly Exaggerated, that “you have to recognize the difference between a writer — the person whose choices and actions account for a text’s features — and an author — the entity whose intentions are taken to be responsible for a text’s meaning.” If monkeys can sit at a typewriter (or MacBook like I am) and be able to account for the entirety of a text's features all the same, well then, maybe “authors are monkeys who mean.” How bleak. 

But fear not, my friends, because whether monkeys can write Shakespeare, verily they could not have meant it, for they cannot speak it, nor can they imaginatively reenact the corresponding perception or action, like smelling the sweetness of that which we call a rose, no matter the name.