Anthony Pym


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Review of Gauker

Thinking Out Loud. An Essay on the Relation between Thought and Language, Christopher Gauker (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994). x + 327 pp., $35.00, cloth.


Christopher Gauker's wide-ranging and stimulating book is firstly a sustained critique of the position (called "Lockean") that "communication takes place when a hearer grasps some sort of mental object, distinct from the speaker's words, that the speaker's words express". Gauker castes doubt on numerous developments of that position (theories of mental content, conceptual development, psychological laws, reference and validity), showing that the "Lockean theory" cannot adequately explain the general nature of the concepts that words are supposed to express. He posits that, on the contrary, "spoken languages are the very medium of a certain kind of thought" or, more carefully, that "the sort of thought that one might have believed speech merely to express is only an internal form of that very sort of speech" (25).

The second half of the book presents an alternative, non-behaviourist account of "how language makes things happen", based on a theory of communication as a process whose purpose is to enable social cooperation. Gauker's approach is to build up a series of abstract languages, starting from a simple language of commands and assertions then working in further features until, he claims, the model can provide a satisfactory account of most linguistic problems without assuming the expression of prior thought. The subject able to master these abstract languages requires only the ability to make similarity judgements and a type of causal judgement. Gauker's constructive enterprise includes valuably precise notions of relevance, contexts and interpretation as belief-attribution, all without the assumption that language expresses prior thoughts.

The sheer range of the issues covered makes the book an impressive and sometimes entertaining survey of current issues in the field. This virtue is further enhanced by the restriction of logical notation to just one of the fourteen chapters, leaving almost all the arguments to develop through a series of anecdotal thought experiments. The general impression, especially in the opening critical arguments, is of a rapier-like undoing of a monstrously misleading ideology. As the chapters proceed, however, the skirmishes become rather messier. A series of concessions are made and some of the minor arguments take on a life of their own. Gauker ultimately looks like a warrior with both feet bound together, wanting to run further than his non-Lockean principles will allow him to. In all, despite triumphant claims such as "the Lockean theory of ideas is a disaster" (23), any victory must be accorded on points rather than any fatal wound.

Such a reading is prompted by Gauker's apparent penchant to seek enemies, not all of whom are fairly identified by blunt proper names. Locke is not altogether a satisfactory reference, since few of the writers Gauker takes on have explicitly made use of him, and his name could be cited in defence of several other positions. Thus, to describe Donald Davidson as "Lockean" (23) sounds peculiar, since there is much else in Davidson (as in Locke) and the epithet seems mainly to refer to a certain reading of Davidson's theory of translation. As a theorist of cooperation, Gauker is not always cooperative in his relations with other scholars.

On the positive side, there can be little doubt that Gauker lays bare many of the shortcomings in the theories he opposes. He is also good on parts of the constructive side, particularly with respect to definitions of appropriateness (drawing on Grice's cooperative principle), relevance and contexts. Further, he could become good on side-line issues like psychological explanation and the division of epistemic labour in society, but these arguments roll by with indecent haste.

Gauker is rather less convincing in his critique of "narrow content" theories and indeed his entire chapter on "mental content", which passes through a strategic reductio ad absurdum whose point is not clear, at least not to this reader. More worrying, he ignores the possible status of Gricean maxims and the principle of charity as ethical recommendations; he confuses descriptive and orientational stances. When dealing with interlingual translation, however, Gauker's approach is overtly to offer orientational "guidelines" that are sadly unsupported by any satisfactory description of varieties of translation. Indeed, it is hard to see how an approach that wilfully ignores "the extent to which different cultures may have different styles of thinking due to the peculiarities of their languages" (8) can seriously risk opining about interlinguistic translation at all.

These misgivings mainly concern the ambitious scope of the book. If, as Gauker states at one point, "the issue is not the nature of linguistic meaning but the nature of linguistic communication" (28), the arguments could surely have begun with the communicative situation, without labouring through all the consequences of the "Lockean" position. In the end, the length of the book does not produce a corresponding harvest of clearly articulated concepts. Had there been enough space beyond the sometimes claustrophobic critical arguments, general appeals to concepts like "cooperation" might have been refined by more interdisciplinary discussion with pragmatics, action theory, negotiation theory or even deconstruction (Gauker ignores even the most material fact of written language). Yet these areas seem not to form the desired battlefield; the Lockean opponents are to be fought single-handedly, head-on and with many of their own weapons. As a result, the constructive arguments may lose force for want of interdisciplinary allies.

The focus on cooperation is a general position with which this reviewer has great sympathy. As it stands, however, Gauker does not use it solve convincingly all the problems he tackles. Yet he could stimulate scholars from many fields to take a new critical look at the relation between thought and language.


© Anthony Pym 1998


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