Sunday, May 05, 2013

Per Linell: Interactivity and Intersubjectivity

Professor Per Linell is known for his influential work within linguistics including the books "Rethinking Language, Mind and World Dialogically: Interactional and contextual theories of human sense-making" and "The Written Language Bias in Linguistics: Its Nature, Origins and Transformations". On Friday, 3rd of May, Linell gave an invited talk entitled "Interactivity and intersubjectivity: Dialogical perspectives" in a seminar series organized by the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research on Intersubjectivity in Interaction.

Linell started by citing and discussing William F. Hanks' book "Language form and communicative practices": "These [...] questions arise from a series of contradictions in language: It is both an abstract system system and an intimate part of our daily experience, and individual capacity and a social fact, a form and an activity." He pointed out that Noam Chomsky took a narrow view on linguistic theory formation assuming ideal speaker-listeners who know language perfectly and are unaffected by such irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors. Linell reminded that Chomsky's assumption moves aside most of language use, or languaging, and was formulated only to save the notion of one underlying abstract language system.

As an opposing or complementary view to Chomsky, Linell presented interactionism: The sense-making ability of humans is rooted in social interaction; the mind is interactive, dialogical, social, shared, extended, distributed, etc. He discussed in detail the relation between an individual and the social level of reality, and concluded that both points of view are necessary and can be brought together. The mind lives in/through the ecosocial world, referring to works on "interactive mind" (Schegloff, 1991; Trognon & Batt, 2010), "social mind" (Valsiner & van der Veer, 2000), "shared mind" (Zlatev et al. 2008), "extended mind" (Clark & Chalmers, 1998), "enactive mind" (Thompson, 2007), "distributed mind" (Cowley, 2011) and "dialogical mind (Linell, 2009, and others). In Finland, related work within education science has been conducted by professor Kai Hakkarainen with his colleagues who have published a book on "Communities of networked expertise: Professional and educational perspectives" (2004). Linell reminded that even though individuals have their own bodies and have personal biographies and conceptions of self, they are also partly constituted in/through self-other relations. People have dialogical emotions such as shame, guilt, compassion, empathy and conscience.

Intersubjectivity was a theme that Linell discussed in detail and only some aspects can be reported here. He considered intersubjectivity to be an alternative or intermediate position to subjectivity and objectivity. He comprised some of the main points of dialogical theories. First, participants in interactivities produce and understand real actions and utterances in the world. Second, one moves away from a single individual towards an individual in interaction with others. These interactions are situated and form situation-transcending sociocultural practices. Linell concluded by stating that individualism and collectivism are both insufficient for solving the conceptual problem in the theory of language. Rather than preserving the Cartesian dichotomy, one can start out from the dialogical foundation of both individuals and communities, i.e. the interactivity between self and others.

The talk was also very interesting from the point of view that in computational modelling of cognition and language related parallel developments have taken place. In 1980s it was commonplace to develop rule-based systems for language processing with an idea that they could capture the linguistic skills of a generalized language speaker. The knowledge acquisition bottleneck was recognized as well as the practical conclusion that "all grammars leak".

One serious line of research that has tried to alleviate these problems in computational modelling of language is based on (statistical) machine learning. The basic idea is to device systems that learn language based on large corpora rather than trying to formulate linguistic rules manually. A nowadays commonplace practice is to collect statistics of morphemes, words or expressions appearing in contexts and use some suitable method to model the relationship between these elements using the context data. In an early study, the self-organizing map algorithm was used to create a map of words in Grimm brothers' fairy tales. The result included emergent implicit categories of nouns, verbs and some subcategories within them including animate and inanimate nouns. As attempt to build a bridge between the individual and social dimensions, simulation models have been developed in which communities of artificial agents converge towards a shared symbol set in a number of interactions. The context can also be multimodal, for instance, in formulating a mapping between words and expressions that describe human movement and the corresponding complex visual movement patterns. Moreover, Grounded Intersubjective Concept Analysis (GICA) method has been developed as a attempt to quantify semantic variation. In essence, GICA aims to measure the degree of intersubjectivity.

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