Dan Dennett on Words in Cultural Evolution

I’ve been reading around in Dan Dennett’s papers and found this one, The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools (Cold Spring Harbor Symp Quant Biol, Vol. LXXIV, August, 2009). To be sure, I disagree with his use of the meme concept. To be sure, his use is pretty standard and Dennett, in the standard way, claims more for it than can be justified by the current state of our knowledge and theorizing, but this paper is excellent despite that problem.

As the title indicates, Dennett focuses his attention on words and does so in a way that usefully brings their mystery, if you will, though mystery is rather low on Dennett’s intellectual agenda.

What then are words? Do they even exist? This might seem to be a fatuous philosophical question, composed as it is of the very items it asks about, but it is, in fact, exactly as serious and contentious as the claim that genes do or do not really exist. Yes, of course, there are sequences of nucleotides on DNA molecules, but does the concept of a gene actually succeed (in any of its rival formulations) in finding a perspicuous rendering of the important patterns amidst all that molecular complexity? If so, there are genes; if not, then genes will in due course get thrown on the trash heap of science along with phlogiston and the ether, no matter how robust and obviously existing they seem to us today.

For what it’s worth, I have it on good authority that there are languages which lack a word corresponding to our concept of word, though they generally have a word roughly corresponding to our concept of utterance (you can find this observation in, e.g., Alfred Lord, The Singer of Tales). That doesn’t bear directly on the point Dennett is making in those words as lacking a word for this is that really existing phenomenon is common enough, but it does indicate that words do have a rather diffuse or abstract character that makes it difficult to understand what they are and how they operate.

A bit later Dennett continues:

A promise or a libel or a poem is identified by the words that compose it, not by the trails of ink or bursts of sound that secure the occurrence of those words. Words themselves have physical “tokens” (composed of uttered or heard phonemes, seen in trails of ink or glass tubes of excited neon or grooves carved in marble), and so do genes, but these tokens are a relatively superficial part or aspect of these remarkable information structures, capable of being replicated, combined into elaborate semantic complexes known as sentences, and capable in turn of provoking cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses of tremendous power and subtly.

I particularly like his phrase in that first sentence, “the trails of ink or bursts of sound that secure the occurrence of those words.” That secure the occurence, that’s nice. “Anchor” might also work, that anchor the occurence of those words in an utterance or a written text, as though the ink or sound were a tether holding the airy nothings of meaning and syntax to the ground. Continue reading “Dan Dennett on Words in Cultural Evolution”