2003-03-18: Patterns in the Mind

Patterns in the Mind

Language and Human Nature (1994)

by Ray Jackendoff (1945-)

This book is recommended by Steven Pinker. In addition Dennett reviewed this book and one of Pinker’s (The Language Instinct ?) in the same review. The writers have a lot in common. I won’t discuss Jackendoff’s discussion of language (most of the book) as it overlaps so much with Pinker. I just want to mention a couple of points he makes about social organization, and its basis in mental patterns.

His notion of a “social group” is a higher-order thing than my notion of memetic community. He says:

First consider that every society has lots of rituals and ceremonies, most of which involve an element of confirming group membership. I’m thinking not only of religious rituals, but also of club initiations, … This inevitable link between public occasions and a sense of group solidarity may be strange and “irrational,” but it’s present in any culture I’ve ever heard of.

The social group is also the unit over which we define codes of conduct. A code of conduct may be as informal as the fads practiced by a teenage clique or the sense of professional ethics in science; it may be as formal as a company’s bylaws or a nation’s legal system. In any case, a code of conduct specifies certain classes of behavior by members of the group as desirable or undesirable. The code gives the group (or its authority figures) the license to punish (or otherwise sanction) a group member who engages in undesirable or impermissible behavior. Part of the “social contract” is that if we admit to doing something wrong, we thereby acknowledge that it’s acceptable for the group to punish us. And one of the worst punishments that a group can impose is expulsion–evidently belonging to the group matters a lot. (Try this framework out with any social group you can think of.)

… The concept of a code of conduct associated with a group is another of these skeletal notions around which we structure our social existence.

I find this emphasis on codes, punishment, and acceptance a little peculiar, out of balance.

Very speculatively, what other “irrational” needs might we find inhuman nature–things that are essential if we are to thrive? One such need came up in Chapter 13 in connection with music: we seem to need to experience beauty. It isn’t just that we take pleasure in beautiful things; we actively seek them out. There isn’t a culture that doesn’t create all kinds of artistic artifacts–art, poetry, music, and dance. Why do we waste our time with all this? The “efficient” society would make do without, wouldn’t it? But in fact maybe it’s not a waste after all, at a deeper psychological level.

Perhaps our most fundamental need beyond food, shelter, sex, and social interaction is for a sense of dignity and self-esteem. Dignity and self-esteem can’t be seen or touched, but they are real to us nevertheless–just as real as virtual boundaries in visual perception (Argument for the Construction of Experience).

One way to achieve self-esteem is the “free-market” way: to achieve physical or social or economic dominance at the expense of others. But surely we can think of other ways. Think of the sense of self-esteem that comes from doing fulfilling work that exercises our creativity and craftsmanship. Or the feeling that comes from belonging to a group and feeling secure in it. Or–following the ethical traditions of all the great religions–from the exercise of selflessness as opposed to selfishness. And who knows what other routes there may be?

Again, these are “irrational” intuitions. For now, we have no idea how to characterize them scientifically. But the fact that they appear as enduring values of so many cultures suggests that they are rooted in the unconscious structure of human nature–something we should respect, even though we don’t “rationally” understand it.

Again, the emphasis seems a little peculiar. Still there is a kernel of an interesting notion that might deserve to be followed up in more depth. These passages are very near the end of the book, and Jackendoff might have been tired, and casting about for something to talk about besides language.


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