Polythetic Entitation & Cultural Coordinators

Timothy Taylor has an interesting entry in this year’s “Edqe Question” idea-fest. It has the ungainly title, Polythetic Entitation. He attributes the idea to the late David Clarke:

Clarke argued that the world of wine glasses was different to the world of biology, where a simple binary key could lead to the identification of a living creature (Does it have a backbone? If so, it is a vertebrate. Is it warm blooded? If so, it is a mammal or bird. Does it produce milk? … and so on). A wine glass is a polythetic entity, which means that none of its attributes, without exception, is simultaneously sufficient and necessary for group membership. Most wine glasses are made of clear glass, with a stem and no handle, but there are flower vases with all these, so they are not definitionally-sufficient attributes; and a wine glass may have none of these attributes—they are not absolutely necessary. It is necessary that the wine glass be able to hold liquid and be of a shape and size suitable for drinking from, but this is also true of a teacup. If someone offered me a glass of wine, and then filled me a fine ceramic goblet, I would not complain.

Taylor is an archaeologist as was Clarke. They face the problem of how to identify cultural objects without knowing how they are used. An object’s physical characteristics generally do not speak unequivocally, hence the term polythetic (vs. monothetic). Thus:

Asking at the outset whether an object is made of glass takes us down a different avenue from first asking if it has a stem, or if it is designed to hold liquid. The first lumps the majority of wine glasses with window panes; the second groups most of them with vases and table lamps; and the third puts them all into a super-category that includes breast implants and Lake Mead, the Hoover dam reservoir. None of the distinctions provides a useful classificatory starting point. So grouping artefacts according to a kind of biological taxonomy will not do.

As a prehistoric archaeologist David Clarke knew this, and he also knew that he was continually bundling classes of artefacts into groups and sub-groups without knowing whether his classification would have been recognized emically, that is, in terms understandable to the people who created and used the artefacts. Although the answer is that probably they did have different functions, how might one work back from the purely formal, etic, variance—the measurable features or attributes of an artefact—to securely assign it to its proper category?

What matters for proper classification are the attributes with “cultural salience” (Taylor’s term).

Now cultural salience is how I define the genetic elements of culture, which I have taken to calling coordinators. Coordinators are the culturally salient properties of objects or processes. In a terminology originally promulgated by Kenneth Pike, they are emics (notice that Taylor uses this terminology as well).

One thing that became clear to me in Dan Everett’s Dark Matter of the Mind (see my review in 3 Quarks Daily) is that a culture covers or paints (other terms of art I am considering) their natural environment with coordinators. Thus Everett talks about how, even after he’d been among the Pirahã for a couple years he simply could not see the jungle as well as they did. They were born and raised in it; he was not. Features of the jungle – creatures and events – that were obvious to the Pirahã because they had learned to identify them, that were culturally salient to the Pirahã, were invisible to Everett. They may have been right in front of his (lying) eyes, but he couldn’t discern them. They were not culturally salient to him, for his mind/brain had developed in a very different physical environment.

The polythetic nature of cultural artfacts is closely related to what I have called abundance elsewhere. The phenomena of the world have many properties; they are abundant. Only some of those properties will even be perceptually available; after all, our ears cannot hear all sounds, our eyes cannot see all electromagnetic radiation, etc. Of the perceptually available properties, only some will be culturally salient. This is as true for natural objects as for cultural artifacts and activities.

Dan Everett’s Dark Matter @ 3QD

Consider these three words: gavagai, gabagaí, gabagool. If you’ve been binge watching episodes in the Star Trek franchise you might suspect them to be the equivalent of veni, vidi, vici, in the language of a space-faring race from the Gamma Quadrant. The truth, however, is even stranger.

The first is a made-up word that is well-known in certain philosophical circles. The second is not quite a word, but is from Pirahã, the Amazonian language brought to our attention by ex-missionary turned linguist, Daniel Everett, and can be translated as “frustrated initiation,” which is how Everett characterized his first field trip among the Pirahã. The third names an Italian cold cut that is likely spelled “capicola” or “capocolla” when written out and has various pronunciations depending on the local language. In New York and New Jersey, Tony Soprano country, it’s “gabagool”.

Everett discusses first two in his wide-ranging new book, Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious (2016), which I review at 3 Quarks Daily. As for gabagool, good things come in threes, no?

Why gavagai? Willard van Orman Quine coined the word for a thought experiment that points up the problem of word meaning. He broaches the issue by considering the problem of radical translation, “translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people” (Word and Object 1960, 28). He asks us to consider a “linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out to penetrate and translate a language hitherto unknown. All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native’s surfaces and the observable behavior, focal and otherwise, of the native.” That is to say, he has no direct access to what is going on inside the native’s head, but utterances are available to him. Quine then asks us to imagine that “a rabbit scurries by, the native says ‘Gavagai’, and the linguist notes down the sentence ‘Rabbit’ (of ‘Lo, a rabbit’) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases” (p. 29).

Quine goes on to argue that, in thus proposing that initial translation, the linguist is making illegitimate assumptions. He begins his argument by nothing that the native might, in fact, mean “white” or “animal” and later on offers more exotic possibilities, the sort of things only a philosopher would think of. Quine also notes that whatever gestures and utterances the native offers as the linguist attempts to clarify and verify will be subject to the same problem.

As Everett notes, however, in his chapter on translation (266):

On the side of mistakes never made, however, Quine’s gavagai problem is one. In my field research on more than twenty languages—many of which involved monolingual situations …, whenever I pointed at an object or asked “What’s that?” I always got an answer for an entire object. Seeing me point at a bird, no one ever responded “feathers.” When asked about a manatee, no one ever answered “manatee soul.” On inquiring about a child, I always got “child,” “boy,” or “girl,” never “short hair.”


I believe that the absence of these Quinean answers results from the fact that when one person points toward a thing, all people (that I have worked with, at least) assume that what is being asked is the name of the entire object. In fact, over the years, as I have conducted many “monolingual demonstrations,” I have never encountered the gavagai problem. Objects have a relative salience… This is perhaps the result of evolved perception.

Frankly, I forget how I reacted to Quine’s thought experiment when I first read it as an undergraduate back in the 1960s. I probably found it a bit puzzling, and perhaps I even half-believed it. But that was a long time ago. When I read Everett’s comments on it I was not surprised to find that the gavagai problem doesn’t arise in the real world and find his suspected explanation, evolved perception, convincing.

As one might expect, Everett devotes quite a bit of attention to recursion, with fascinating examples from Pirahã concerning evidentials, but I deliberately did not bring that up in my review. Why, given that everyone and their Aunt Sally seem to be all a-twitter about the issue, didn’t I discuss it? That’s why, I’m tired of it and think that, at this point, it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. I understand well enough why it’s an important issue, but it’s time to move on.

The important issue is to shift the focus of linguistic theory away from disembodied and decontextualized sentences and toward conversational interaction. That’s been going on for some time now and Everett has played a role in that shift. While the generative grammarians use merge as a term for syntactic recursion it could just as well be used to characterize how partners assimilate what they’re hearing with what they’re thinking. Perhaps that’s what syntax is for and why it arose, to make conversation more efficient–and I seem to think that Everett has a suggestion to that effect in his discussion of the role of gestures in linguistic interaction.

Anyhow, if these and related matters interest you, read my review and read Everett’s book.

Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts

I’ve just checked in at Academica.edu and was alerted to this article:

Stephen G. Nichols, Mutable Stability, a Medieval Paradox: The Case of Le Roman de la Rose, Queste 23 (2016) 2, pp. 71-103.

I’ve not yet read it, but a quick skim makes it clear that it speaks to a current debate in cultural evolution concerning the high-fidelity transmission of “memes” (Dan Dennett) vs. the variable transmission of objects as guided by “factors of attraction” (Dan Sperber). I’ve not yet read it, but here’s some tell-tale passages. This is from the beginning (p. 71):

Yet even those who argue, to the contrary, that ‘transmission errors’ often represent creative ‘participation’ by a talented scribe, must recognize the attraction of a stable work.After all, despite an extraordinary record of innovation, invention, and discovery, the Middle Ages are an era that resisted change in and for itself. And yet this same veneration of conservative values underlies a fascinating paradox of medieval culture: its delicate and seemingly contradictory balance between stability, on the one hand, and transformation, on the other. It may be that only an era that saw no contradiction in promulgating an omnipotent, unchanging divinity, which was at the same time a dynamic principle of construction and transformation, could have managed the paradox of what I want to call ‘mutable stability’.

Here’s Dawkins in the 2nd chapter of The Selfish Gene:

Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms.


Back to Nichols, a bit later in the article (p. 77):

In this case, however, it’s one that allows us to understand the paradox of medieval narrative forms whose ‘stability’ over time – in some cases over several centuries – depends on what I call the generative – or regenerative – force of transmission. Why ‘regenerative’ if transmission involves reproducing the ‘same’ work from one representation to another? The answer to that question involves recognizing the complex forces at play in the transmission of me- dieval texts, beginning with concepts like ‘the same’ and ‘seeing’ or ‘perspective’. After all, in a culture where the technology of transmission depends on copying each text by hand, what the scribe sees, or thinks she or he sees, must be factored into our definition of ‘sameness’ when comparing original and copy.

In the event, ‘sameness’, for the medieval mind had a very different connotation from our modern senses of the term. Indeed, it even involves a different process of perception and imagination. Whereas in our age of mechanical and digital reproduction, we are used to standards of ‘exactness’ for things we recognize as identical, me- dieval people had neither the means nor the expectation to make ‘same’ and ‘exact imitation’ synonymous. Indeed, one may even question the existence at that time of such a concept as ‘exact imitation’, at least as we understand it. Continue reading “Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts”

Ontology and Cultural Evolution: “Spirit” or “Geist” and some of its measures

This post is about terminology, but also about things – in particular, an abstract thing – and measurements of those things. The things and measurements arise in the study of cultural evolution.

Let us start with a thing. What is this?


If you are a regular reader here at New Savanna you might reply: Oh, that’s the whatchamacallit from Jocker’s Macroanalysis. Well, yes, it’s an illustration from Macroanalysis. But that’s not quite the answer I was looking for. But let’s call that answer a citation and set it aside.

Let’s ask the same question, but of a different object: What’s this?


I can imagine two answers, both correct, each it its own way:

1. It’s a photo of the moon.

2. The moon.

Strictly speaking, the first is correct and the second is not. It IS a photograph, not the moon itself. But the second answer is well within standard usage.

Notice that the photo does not depict the moon in full (whatever that might mean), no photograph could. That doesn’t change the fact that it is the moon that is depicted, not the sun, or Jupiter, or Alpha Centauri, or, for that matter, Mickey Mouse. We do not generally expect that representations of things should exhaust those things.

Now let us return to the first image and once again ask: What is this? I want two answers, one to correspond with each of our answers about the moon photo. I’m looking for something of the form:

1. A representation of X.

2. X.

Let us start with X. Jockers was analyzing a corpus of roughly 3300 19th century Anglophone novels. To do that he evaluated each of them on each of 600 features. Since those evaluations can be expressed numerically Jockers was able to create a 600-dimensional space in which teach text occupies a single point. He then joined all those points representing texts that are relatively close to one another. Those texts are highly similar with respect to the 600 features that define the space.

The result is a directed graph having 3300 nodes in 600 dimensions. So, perhaps we can say that X is a corpus similarity graph. However, we cannot see in 600 dimensions so there is no way we can directly examine that graph. It exists only as an abstract object in a computer. What we can do, and what Jockers did, is project a 600D object into two dimensions. That’s what we see in the image.

Continue reading “Ontology and Cultural Evolution: “Spirit” or “Geist” and some of its measures”

Monkey vocal tracts are speech-ready

A new paper in Science Advances (Fitch, de Boer, Mathur & Ghazanfar, 2016) uses models informed by x-rays of macaque vocal tracts to claim that monkeys have the tools neccessary to make enough speech sounds to create a productive spoken language. This means that the evolution of speech is likely to be primarily dependent on cognitive adaptation, rather than adaptation of the vocal tract.

Abstract here:

For four decades, the inability of nonhuman primates to produce human speech sounds has been claimed to stem from limitations in their vocal tract anatomy, a conclusion based on plaster casts made from the vocal tract of a monkey cadaver. We used x-ray videos to quantify vocal tract dynamics in living macaques during vocalization, facial displays, and feeding. We demonstrate that the macaque vocal tract could easily produce an adequate range of speech sounds to support spoken language, showing that previous techniques based on postmortem samples drastically underestimated primate vocal capabilities. Our findings imply that the evolution of human speech capabilities required neural changes rather than modifications of vocal anatomy. Macaques have a speech-ready vocal tract but lack a speech-ready brain to control it.

Mint journal club over at ICCI

Since finishing my PhD I’ve been lucky enough to get a position at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Specifically, I’m working at the Minds and Traditions research group (the Mint), where we focus on one key aspect of cultural transmission: the evolution of graphic codes.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because the Mint is currently running a journal club over at the (recently revamped) International Cognition & Culture Institute (ICCI). This month we’re reading Franke & Jäger’s paper on Probabilistic pragmatics, or why Bayes’ rule is probably important for pragmatics (click here for open access version). The journal club is open to everyone, and not just Mint members, so feel free to pop over, read the paper, and leave a comment.

ABACUS symposium: speech from an evolutionary perspective

Advancing Behavioral And Cognitive Understanding of Speech (ABACUS) Symposium 
Jan 14, 2017
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen
Attendance is free, but registration is required. You can register here: http://www.mpi.nl/events/abacus/registration 
Registration deadline: December 15th 2016
The ABACUS symposium presents a series of lectures by invited speakers from a wide range of disciplines, and aims to discuss how we can further advance the study of speech from an evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary perspective entails trying to understand how linguistic signals, as well as the cognitive and anatomical machinery to use them, came to be the way they are. The symposium is held in the context of the end of the ERC project ABACUS led by Prof. Bart de Boer.
Dan Dediu – Language & Genetics (MPI Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
Tecumseh Fitch – Cognitive Biology (University of Vienna, Austria)
Marco Gamba – Primatology & Bioacoustics (University of Turin, Italy)
Odette Scharenborg -Human and automatic speech processing (Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands)
Marieke Schouwstra – Simulating conventionalization in the lab (University of Edinburgh, UK)
Tessa Verhoef – Evolution of linguistic structure (UC San Diego, USA)
Anne Warlaumont – Emergence of communication (UC Merced, USA)
Andy Wedel – Language change (University of Arizona, USA)
Sabine van der Ham, sabine@ai.vub.ac.be

Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature

I’ve uploaded another document: Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature. You can download it from Academia.edu:


It’s considerably revised from a text I’d uploaded a month ago: Form, Event, and Text in an Age of Computation. You might also look at my post, Obama’s Affective Trajectory in His Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, which could have been included in the article, but I’m up against a maximum word count as I am submitting the article for publication. You might also look at the post, Words, Binding, and Conversation as Computation, which figured heavily in my rethinking.

Here’s the abstract of the new article, followed by the TOC and the introduction:


It is by virtue of its form that a literary work constrains meaning so that it can be a vehicle for sharing experience. Form is thus an intermediary in Latour’s sense, while meaning is a mediator. Using fragments of a cognitive network model for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 we can distinguish between (1) the mind/brain cognitive system, (2) the text considered merely as a string of signifiers, and (3) the path one computes through (1) under constraints imposed by (2). As a text, Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney is a ring-composition; as a performance, the central section is clearly marked by audience response. Recent work on synchronization of movement and neural activity across communicating individuals affords insight into the physical substrate of intersubjectivity. The ring-form description is juxtaposed to the performative meaning identified by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter.


Introduction: Speculative Engineering 2
Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour 3
Computational Semantics: Network and Text 6
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text 10
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance 13
Meaning, History, and Attachment 18
Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text 20

Introduction: Speculative Engineering

The conjunction of computation and literature is not so strange as it once was, not in this era of digital humanities. But my sense of the conjunction is differs from that of computational critics. They regard computation as a reservoir of tools to be employed in investigating texts, typically a large corpus of texts. That is fine [1].

Digital critics, however, have little interest in computation as a process one enacts while reading a text, the sense that interests me. As the psychologist Ulric Neisser pointed out four decades ago, it was computation that drove the so-called cognitive revolution [2]. Much of the work in cognitive science is conducted in a vocabulary derived computing and, in many cases, involves computer simulations. Prior to the computer metaphor we populated the mind with sensations, perceptions, concepts, ideas, feelings, drives, desires, signs, Freudian hydraulics, and so forth, but we had no explicit accounts of how these things worked, of how perceptions gave way to concepts, or how desire led to action. The computer metaphor gave us conceptual tools for constructing models with differentiated components and processes meshing like, well, clockwork. Moreover, so far as I know, computation of one kind or another provides the only working models we have for language processes.

My purpose in this essay is to recover the concept of computation for thinking about literary processes. For this purpose it is unnecessary either to believe or to deny that the brain (with its mind) is a digital computer. There is an obvious sense in which it is not a digital computer: brains are parts of living organisms; digital computers are not. Beyond that, the issue is a philosophical quagmire. I propose only that the idea of computation is a useful heuristic: it helps us think about and systematically describe literary form in ways we haven’t done before.

Though it might appear that I advocate a scientific approach to literary criticism, that is misleading. Speculative engineering is a better characterization. Engineering is about design and construction, perhaps even Latourian composition [3]. Think of it as reverse-engineering: we’ve got the finished result (a performance, a script) and we examine it to determine how it was made [4]. It is speculative because it must be; our ignorance is too great. The speculative engineer builds a bridge from here to there and only then can we find out if the bridge is able to support sustained investigation.

Caveat emptor: This bridge is of complex construction. I start with form, move to computation, with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 as my example, and then to President Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. After describing its structure (ring-composition) I consider the performance situation in which Obama delivered it, arguing that those present constituted a single physical system in which for sharing experience. I conclude by discussing meaning, history, and attachment.


[1] William Benzon, “The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age,” 3 Quarks Daily, May 5, 2014, http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/05/the-only-game-in-town-digital-criticism-comes-of-age.html

[2] Ulric Neisser, Cognition and Reality: Principles and Implications of Cognitive Psychology (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1976), 5-6.

[3] Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’,” New Literary History 41 (2010), 471-490.

[4] For example, see Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton & company, Inc., 1997), 21 ff.

Special session on language evolution at CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing

The 30th CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing will take place March 30 – April 1, 2017 at MIT, Cambridge MA. The theme of the Special Session is Language processing and language evolution.

Abstracts for papers and posters are due December 12, 2016.

Invited Speakers

Michael Dunn, Uppsala University, Sweden
Maryia Fedzechkina, University of Arizona
Susan Goldin-Meadow, University of Chicago
Adele Goldberg, Princeton University
Simon Kirby, University of Edinburgh
Stephen Levinson, Max Planck Institute, Holland
Emily Morgan, Tufts University
Kaius Sinnemäki, University of Helsinki

Organizing Committee

Edward Gibson
Evelina Fedorenko
Richard Futrell
Melissa Kline

Contact e-mail: cuny2017.mit@gmail.com

Online Experiment on Language Evolution

A forthcoming exhibition in  Dresden, Germany entitled “LANGUAGE: THE WORLD OF WORDS, SIGNS, AND GESTURES” will feature an interesting language evolution experiment.

In the experiment, conducted by Dr Christine Cuskley at the University of Edinburgh, you learn an alien language called Ferro. Since the more participants the merrier, you can also learn Ferro from your computer at home!

So if you want to learn Ferro and participate in language evolution research you can do so here!