13 Nov 2018

On the integration of linguistics and cognitive science

William Matchin has had a couple of good posts on the Faculty of Language blog discussing the prospects for generative theory being realized within cognitive science. In response to the second, I shared some thoughts on why generative theory is itself responsible for some of the lack of good feeling towards it and I thought I'd collect the main points here:

One thing I'd add is that Chomsky's revolution was essentially a revolution in philosophy of mind and there's no doubt that his mentalist project has been sidelined by people using [the tools of generative grammar (GG)] only for language description, but I think this is only half the story, in that the basic methodology of GG is in some ways responsible for the disregard for the mind that we're talking about.

If you look at Berwick et al.'s 2011 'PoS Revisited' paper, for example, you get a very clear statement of the idea that generative linguistics is all about describing attained adult competence with a view to determining the nature of its computational component, all theories of acquisition, development, cognition and evolution being interesting but methodologically 'secondary'.

Setting aside the epistemic issue of whether it's actually possible to have a theory of what's attained without a theory of how it's implemented, if you take this approach, you legitimize ignoring everything except language description because, in describing language, you are describing the mind, so long as you've paid lip service to Plato's Problem.

I think this makes the linguist/languist distinction* a little problematic because, so long as language description is held to be a cognitive project in its own right, we can argue about people's motivations, but there is essentially nothing besides exposition that distinguishes GG linguistics from languistics. Yes, GG at heart says that you should describe languages with a more ultimate cognitive aim, but it also says that you can achieve this aim while doing nothing but describing languages.

Thus, we do get some languists who rehearse Plato's Problem (PP) and Darwin's Problem (DP) only as a kind of ritualistic invocation, but at the same time, other linguists rehearse PP and DP because they're serious about linguistic nativism, yet the importance of these problems has been recognized for decades and GG has done basically nothing with them—its only contribution to the theory of acquisition is still its suggestion of what is not learned, and its only contribution to the theory of language evolution is its suggestion of what is not evolved by bread and butter natural selection.

Now, one response to this pessimistic picture is that I'm being unfair because we're dealing with different levels of description and it's too much to demand that people target the computational system and its implementation in one go. Thus, you end up with the Ian Roberts position that it is viable to have a 'platonic' linguistics [i.e. one that only talks about languages in the abstract without getting into their cognitive substance].

But let's be honest, for a start. This isn't any genuine philosophical Platonism—we're working on a theory founded upon an interest in the mind, bounded by conditions on what the mind can contain—'Platonism' here is just a polite word for having no interest in cognitive science because it's all brain stuff and stats.

I do think that avoiding interdisciplinarity is just fine, taken so far—it has after all been our strategy for many years and we have managed to get a lot right in GG—but taking an essentially metaphysical approach to what must be recognized as a psychological project has given us a theory that is, I think, absolutely rife with metaphors for things that go on in the brain, many of which may be quite misleading in ways that we don't yet realise.

[More specifically, this is because generative theory's standard fare is to give computational descriptions of language use, yet there is no guarantee that these descriptions hold in any non-trivial way of computations that are mentally represented. Or, to put it in blunter terms, you can't just give a syntax tree to a piece of performance data and say that I-language is this but in between the ears. The theory supposes that there is nothing problematic about how it transposes descriptions of E-language onto a model of I-language but all it has here is supposition.]

Crucially, I think this means in the end that we're kidding ourselves if we think that GG is simply describing reality at an abstract level in a way that we are not yet ready to reduce to the physicality of wetware and so on. Rather, I think we fundamentally do not know how to make GG into a theory that is fit for reduction, regardless of when it will be possible, because we haven't put in the necessary theoretical work—never mind any of the brain stuff—and this is largely because it's a basic principle of GG that it's always someone else's problem.

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*This is a generally helpful dichotomy coined by Norbert Hornstein on his blog to distinguish those interested in language as a cognitive faculty (i.e. the linguists) from those interested in languages as social constructs (i.e. the 'languists').

22 Jan 2018

Ways of Listening

There are some pieces of music that must be listened to in certain ways to appreciate them fully. Well, that’s true of all music, but some pieces seem less robust to circumstance than others. One is Sibelius's The Swan of Tuonela, which I this week saw performed by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO (I was glad to see her here in Newcastle after having seen her magnificent BBC Proms debut last year). One way to listen to Tuonela might be by a kind of sensory deprivation, if listening at home. It should be quiet and dark; you should be motionless and utterly attentive, lying down, eyes closed. Or, you could go to a concert.

Obviously, I speak for myself in this, but my point is that some music has the capital-b Brass to whisk you along even if you have it on thoughtlessly in the background, while other music demands more deliberate focus. I can put on Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and think nothing of its programme, caring only for its honking great melodies, but to listen to Tuonela, at least for the first time you must mindfully consent to enter the otherworld that it depicts.

In part, this is because ethereal, mournful, contemplative music inevitably suffers when listening distracted, but in part it is because Tuonela is of that class of music whose effects are profoundly influenced by its physicality. In its opening bars, for example, a chord moves like a mist through the orchestra, leftwards and upwards, through cellos to violas to violins, the gesture every bit felt as heard; the chord itself a miniature overture to the description of the swan that follows. If I heard this on a recording without absolute concentration, I would skip thoughtlessly to the next track; hearing it live, I gave myself over to it immediately.

When I think at one and the same time of birds and the oboe (or the cor anglais, which is the swan of Tuonela), I cannot help but think of ducks, which don't have quite the same grace, thanks to Peter and the Wolf. But this combination, the tragic and the turgid, worked unexpectedly well for conjuring a mythological creature that floats weightlessly through the afterlife. The effect was also unharmed by my mistaken belief during the concert, before reading about the piece more closely, that it was about some bleak Scandinavian landscape a scene from ‘Frozen Planet’, perhaps; a swan holding itself stoically against bitter winter winds rolled out by distant timpani.

Also on the programme was Brahms’s Violin Concerto. It’s a piece I have now loved too much to be moved by, and I have been additionally spoilt by Isabelle Faust’s recording, on which she plays the giddy Busoni cadenza all the endless Joachims are now disappointments. Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear the pace that Mirga set for the second movement. It seems already that a good tempo for Mirga is a good tempo for me, which is to say, it is probably too fast for some. Her BBC Proms performance of the overture to Die Zauberflöte was particularly blistering other orchestras would have blustered at the same speed - and though she didn't undo the sweet lyricism of the violin concerto, she let it move with confidence, making it sound more like a chorale than a searching lament.

Hearing it this way, and noting the wind instrumentation, it struck me as similar in temperament to the Saint Anthony Chorale that Brahms took as the theme for his earlier Op. 56 variations a piece that I now try to listen to as little as possible so that I can still be in love with it when I need to be. Altogether, the orchestra played the concerto extremely well; beyond that, there was nothing quite so memorable.

30 May 2015

'Orfeo', Then and Now

I'm pleased to say that I was a finalist in this year's BBC Radio 3 and NCEM Young Composers Award, for which I had the extraordinary privilege of having a short work performed by the Dunedin Consort (one of the best period ensembles in the UK; their recording of the Mozart Requiem is the best I've ever heard).

The composition task was to set a text for the ensemble that had previously been used by Monteverdi and I opted for an English translation of a scene from his 1607 L'Orfeo, in which Proserpine pleads with Pluto to let Eurydice leave the underworld. This is a description of the piece that I gave for the programme:
This scene from Act IV of Orfeo was tempting to set because its events are so central: Proserpine pleads with Pluto to let Orfeo rescue his love and Pluto sets the terms on which we know Orfeo will fail. As such, I wanted to write the music so that it could be played in isolation while also suggesting that we find ourselves in the midst of a bigger story. However, I was particularly drawn by the opportunity to see the plight of Eurydice reflected in Proserpine's circumstances, who otherwise has quite a marginal role.

Before the events of this tale, Proserpine becomes Pluto's wife only after he forcibly abducts her (and although Eurydice canonically enters the underworld after being bitten by a snake, in the Middle English Sir Orfeo, she, too, is abducted), yet Proserpine speaks to Pluto with respect and admiration. She is rather like the Eurydice of Rainer Maria Rilke's striking retelling, where she is so "filled with her vast death" that she has forgotten her earlier life and when Hermes sorrowfully tells her that Orfeo has looked back, all she can say is, "who?" Like Rilke's Eurydice, the familiar Proserpine has forgotten her original self and seems satisfied with a living death.

In this setting, however, I strove to invert that image: here, both women yearn for life back in the world above, and while Proserpine's subjection by the dominating Pluto means that she could never admit to him that she would rather not have been stolen after all, the music hints at a subtextual nostalgia and longing. When she pleads with Pluto to allow Eurydice to return to the "joys of waking days", the implication is that she would return to those joys herself if only there was someone to rescue her.