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SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

cognitive science, meaning, and text interpretation

Mukesh J. Patel


The major aim of Herbert Simon's paper is to show that the notion of meaning within the field of cognitive science is sufficiently well understood (albeit, as a process) to throw some light on the interminable debate that literary critics conduct regarding appropriate interpretations of texts. Simultaneously a more general purpose is to provide a good illustration of how science can contribute to humanities (and even vice versa). In attempting to do so the paper covers a lot of ground, making detailed assertions, many of which are open to debate. However, most of what follows is confined to a more general evaluation of key issues related to the above two aims.

Does cognitive science provide an account of the nature of meaning that is necessary and sufficient for contributing to the resolution of differences between various schools of literary criticism? Simon argues that this is the case and claims to provide an "explication" of the nature (or meaning) of meaning. However, neither of these claims is sustainable in light of the content of the paper. What we are given is a description of one possible account (contrary to the implication there is little consensus on this topic among cognitive scientists) of important parameters that may determine meaning evocation. Though comprehensive (and perhaps even realistic), this account does little more than suggest that meaning is dependent on a (varying) context, and also often on the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the intention of the writer/speaker and interpretation of the reader/listener. Hence, it is a complicated process in which the notion of normative meaning is not a particularly reliable guide for predicting meaning evocation in a specific context. However, the evidence presented to help explain how specific meanings are evoked is inadequate.

Admitting the pivotal role of varying context as the major determinant of a meaning (text or speech) is a major advance on theories that are concerned solely with meaning as a context-free abstraction. Ironically, such limited accounts also include the "Hard Symbol Systems Hypothesis" (HSSP) which is briefly described though it is not clear how this can be regarded as supporting evidence. The basic motivation of HSSP is that there is something essentially unchanging and unambiguous about meaning evocation (and intelligence) which is not affected by context, (and certainly there is no role for a notion of context as potentially ambiguous and dynamic as outlined by Simon). This is partly

because of the consequent increase in complexity of the model, but mostly because of fundamental reasons which reflect the belief that syntactic form (regularities of pattern) and rules (logical or computable) are sufficient to capture the "essence" of thought or intelligence. Further, when augmented with semantics (usually no more than the interpretation assigned by the user of AI implementations), it is claimed that such models "simulate thinking," though this conclusion is highly controversial (see for example, Searle, 1980; Harnad, 1990; Patel, 1994).

The counter claim that such simulations simply model possible (computable) accounts of cognitive processes devoid of meaning or intentionality or intelligence (all dependent to varying degrees on context) has yet to be adequately refuted. To do so would require far more interesting and realistic models than, for example, ISAAC (Novak, 1977) which fails to model just the sort of richness and ambiguity in meaning evocation that is being offered to literary critics as a contribution to solving their differences over what meaning a particular text evokes. In particular, it provides no account of the variety and flexibility (even illogicality) of meaning evocation in a dynamic context influenced by the unpredictable nature of writers' intention and readers' interpretations. Further, as regards the role of intention and interpretation in meaning evocation, it is far from clear why this would be received by literary critics as novel insight (from cognitive science); it surely cannot be the case that the entire debate about ownership of text and an acceptable or normative interpretation can take place without at least an implicit acknowledgement that interpretation is dependent to varying degrees on the reader?

Thus, contrary to Simon's claim, meaning evocation is not particularly well understood in cognitive science. The presented account certainly does not provide an explanation of how the actual process works in such a way that the potential ambiguity and multiplicity of possible evocations are reduced to one specific interpretation in a given context. There are some very good working hypotheses (often far more realistic than those entertained by researchers in AI) which take into account the role of various determiners of the process of meaning assignment but this is a long way away from actually being able to say how the process works (AI "simulations of thinking," notwithstanding). But even if cognitive science can give an adequate account of the nature of evocation of meaning, it is not at all obvious how this would help literary critics to resolve their disputes. All that it can accomplish is to illustrate how a complicated mixture of writer intention or perceived intention and reader interpretation in some context (reflecting partial or relevant knowledge or some obscure perspective) may determine meaning evocation. As such it simply restates the very reasons for the numerous schisms in that field of literary criticism: It would be reasonable to assume that most literary critics are aware that meaning is, and can be, very elusive and context dependent (and therefore ipso facto relative to the reader/writer interpretation/intention). Finally, the whole approach seems to have omitted from consideration the notion that a large part of the debate and difference among literary critics has to do with the social, cultural, ethical, and political implications of the interpretation of the text; the debate is not merely confined to differences of opinion on the correct or acceptable reading of a text. The wider implication of evoked meanings matter, and on that cognitive science can only remain mute.

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