#PLENK2010 Is There “Meaning” in Connectionism?

In the comparison between connectivism and constructivism I’m searching for a different approach and more clarity.  The topic I will begin with is the place of mind, meaning, and interpretation as it’s found within the cognitive revolution and philosophy; and how these topics relates to connectionism.  Don’t think of this as established thought, but rather as an intellectual expedition trying to follow in the footsteps of some old textual mentors.

Meaning: The Basis of the Cognitive Revolution

Meaning and mind were listed as the central purpose behind the cognitive revolution in an account given by Jerome Bruner in the opening to his book, Acts of Meaning.

That (cognitive) revolution was intended to bring “mind” back into the human sciences after a long cold winter of objectivism” (p. 1).  “Its’ aim was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created  out of their encounters with the world . . . to prompt psychology to join forces with its’ sister interpretive disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (p. 2).  . . . And so today one finds flourishing centers of cultural psychology, cognitive and interpretive anthropology, cognitive linguistics, and above all, a thriving worldwide enterprise that occupies itself as never before since Kant with the philosophy of mind and science (p. 3).

He goes on to explain his disappointment with computational models of cognition that were becoming ascendant because he saw them as replacing the construction of meaning with the processing of information, what he calls profoundly different matters.  He even laments the distributed, “bottom up connectionist networks” of his day (1980s) because he saw them as falling into the same sort of problems as the stimulus response models that had no place for mind and meaning.

The Construction of Meaning; not of Knowledge

To be clear, the constructing of knowledge is not the central concern in this version of constructivism, but instead it is with the construction of meaning in dialogical processes that occur within the interactions between people.  Knowledge, like it’s component words, can be thought of as fluid, and can change according to the context.  It was clarified by John Shotter who said in his book Cultural politics of Everyday Life:

The trouble is, in science as in logic (as also in psychology), because we mistakenly “compare the use of words with games and calculi which have fixed rules” (Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus, 1953, no. 81), we always think that words must have stable, unequivocal, already determined meanings.  But in the openness of ordinary everyday life, in comparison with the closed world of logic, this is precisely not the case.

To state now explicitly the well-known Wittgensteinian slogan: in everyday life, words do not in themselves have a meaning, but a use, and furthermore, a use only in a context; they are best thought of not as having already determined meanings, but as means, as tools, or as instruments for use in the making of meanings – think of words as instruments for use in the ‘making’ of meanings. . . .  (p.78-79).

Two additional points:

  1. This account is dialogic, but I don’t think it would require representations (Something I believe Stephen strongly does not believe in representation somewhere in the mind).  It draws on prior instrumental learning, but not as representation (as analogous to hard drive storage).  Instead it is instrumental and draws on conversational tools as habits or ways of acting.  It could be thought of in this way – our acting and (dialogical) thinking are becoming more complex, and this results in an increase in knowledge complexity as a byproduct of our thinking and acting.  (I pair dialogue and thinking because most thinking is language dependent and language is always directed toward someone even in the soliloquy of our inner speach.)
  2. It is in this sense that negotiation, as I primarily use it in constructivism, is a negotiation of meaning, not of knowledge or definition.  I think it’s better to think not of an argument or a competition, more as a method of discovery of meaning that occurs in a dialogue between people.  I think of this in two ways.
    1. First, the way in which language is used (acted out) is critical to the establishment of it’s meaning.  Bakhtin used a quote from Dostoevsky to illustrate this where the actors in a dialogue are limited to the same one curse word, but used six times where each word, as is uttered, takes on a different meaning; six different meanings for the same word.  Similar to what Shotter said, the meaning is not in the word but in it’s usage.
    2. Second, in dialogue, once we have spoken, we have to wait to see how our utterance is interpreted by our counter-party before we can go on.  We can speak, but it’s like the meaning is in the hands of our dialogic partner.  I think it’s what Wittgenstein meant when he said that we don’t reach for certainty, but rather for the ability to go on and continue the dialogue.  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

These textual friends are talking about everyday life, not science.  I think their point is that everyday life is the real world and science has its place only in supporting that everyday world.  Too often we try to elevate science beyond its instrumental purpose and think of it as the real world rather than the abstract shadow that it is.

A Temporary Conclusion

So. . . I think maybe that this idea of a meaningful psychology or a meaningful education is compatible with the  type of connectionism we are discussing, but it’s not for me to say, at least not on my own.  If it is, maybe it should prevail over constructionism because it can help us to leave constructionism’s baggage in the past and make a new start.  Anyway looking forward to more conversation next week.

6 thoughts on “#PLENK2010 Is There “Meaning” in Connectionism?

  1. “I pair dialogue and thinking because most thinking is language dependent and language is always directed toward someone even in the soliloquy of our inner speech.”

    I really connected with this insight, Howard. I do think that learning to think “dialogically” is what reflection and reflexivity are all about. These don’t come naturally though and one of the true bottlenecks of my teaching is to learn how to encourage grad students to learn to think reflectively and reflexive. “Slow thinking” or writing is a good way to encourage this kind of meaning-making.

    Also really appreciated your reference to Wittgenstein’s argument that “we don’t reach for certainty, but rather for the ability to go on and continue the dialogue.” Maybe that’s one of the values of blogging.

    Thanks for the connections.

  2. Thanks for your comments Cris! I think your pedagogical idea of slow thinking is also right on the mark. I remember a course titled Narrative Inquiry, where the instructor would lead the class through a process of research and class dialogue on a topic. Just when you felt that you really had something to say, he would tell us to go home and sleep on it. To this day I still often “walk away” and let my unconscious processes work though my thoughts before writing. It’s also similar to what Steven Johnson referred to as the slow hunch. His 17 min TED talk is here: http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from.html

  3. I love your story about processing subconsciously. Actually remember a study by a creativity researcher who found a strong correlation between creative ideas and water — in the shower, on a boat, etc. Hey, maybe that’s where the “Liquid Network” comes in 😉 Really enjoyed Steven Johnson’s TED speech. Any relation?

  4. No relation – and too bad – It’s my only chance for an invitation to TED.
    Water – wow – My only though is that water is often a symbol for the vast enhance of humanity past and present – certainly a good source for inspiration.

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