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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