Thursday, January 22, 2015

[yourdiscipline] is really just [mydiscipline]

if you’re involved in any discipline concerned with the nature of language and mind, this line probably sounds familiar. If you’ve been in the scene for essentially any length of time, a thick, bony cartilage has probably developed around any part of your psyche that may have ever taken such pronouncements (which are re-issued virtually every year in some form or another) at face value. 

Internal to linguistics, something like this sort of logic usually concerns the passing of particular phenomenon between (e.g.) syntax, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics. (I recall a number of students at the 2013 Linguistic Institute who were thoroughly scandalized by Sam Epstein's observation that word order is evidence about articulation, not syntax. Alternatively, I’ve got at least a couple of phonologists in my circles that are always trying to explain to me how this, that, and the other syntactic process is really just derivative of prosodic considerations). This kind of topic-shuffling can be highly productive and much of the time it is an indicator that the field still has a pulse. However, too often it is a reflection of flash-in-the-pan trends and academic politics.

External to linguistics, something like this sort of logic concerns the division of labour between neuroscientific and psychological inquiry.

Today, we’re posting our interview with one computational neuroscientist that seems to make both sides of the aisle sit a little easier, all the while maintaining a substantive proposal for integrating linguistics and neuroscience. Most refreshingly, he's challenging the [yourdiscipline] is really just [mydiscipline] rhetoric that's been so pervasive in the neuroscience of language. Below is a chat we recorded with David Poeppel back in December 2014.

A couple of things to note:
  • You can find more Poeppel & Co. over at the spectacular blog, talkingbrains
  • Poeppel argues that the right level of abstraction for the basic unit of computation is the neural circuit (see for instance his Towards a Computational(ist) Neurobiology of Language); This would seem to be, at least prima facie, in contradiction to Gallistel's recent sermons in which he argues that the basic unit of computation is intraneuronal. Perhaps there's no contraction for these two researchers and these differently sized units of computation are complementary -- however I didn't catch this difference in time for the interview. Perhaps you have some thoughts on this? 

Notes, Admissions, Qualifications, and Apologies: 
  1. the title of this post is lifted from Laura Howes tweet under the briefly (but thoroughly) trendy hashtag #ruinadatewithanacademicinfivewords
  2. I have no idea whether I am pronouncing "Poeppel" correctly, having neglected to confirm that during the interview. If I've screwed it up entirely, all apologies.
  3. I mispronounce the word "incommensurable" for the first third of the interview. I can live with it.