In the previous post we completed the summary of a text about how we come to understand concrete and abstract concepts. In this post we do some Yes, No, Not Given practice as the writer goes on to describe three theories relating to this kind of mental processing.
All academics agree about how abstract concepts are formed.
‘Grounded cognition’ involves experiencing things like bananas ’emotionally’.
‘Symbolic cognition’ involves combining other pieces of abstract information.
Our understanding of concrete things gained through physical experience can be influenced by language.
Humans are superior to animals because we have language.
A great academic debate revolves around this topic. There are two main schools of thought: what is termed “grounded cognition” and then what we call “symbolic cognition”. Both views assume that we understand and represent all concepts according to the same underlying principles, be they concrete or abstract. The difference, they argue, may lie in the type of information that these concepts convey.
The grounded cognition camp predicts that when we hear the word “banana”, we automatically activate information about colour, taste, texture and so on in our mind, derived from our previous experiences with bananas. For “freedom”, they argue that we would still activate instances or situations in which we experienced “freedom”, but the focus would now be on the emotions that such experiences triggered, and on the dynamics between the elements that populate such situations, rather than on the perceptual properties of the entities involved.
The symbolic cognition camp, on the other hand, suggests that concepts are represented in our mind through symbols that are not tied to our experiences. According to this view, when we hear “banana”, we do not simulate anything that derives from our previous experiences. Instead, we understand its meaning by aggregating bits of information via abstract symbols (such as the zeroes and the ones inside a computer). According to this view, the mind operates on mental symbols like a bodyless computer, without reenacting every time previous experiences with these concepts. This would be the case for both concrete and abstract concepts.
There’s a problem with both of these approaches though. Given the vast differences between concrete and abstract concepts, as we saw above, surely it shouldn’t be surprising if they were processed in different ways in our mind.
My recent research suggests that the meanings of “banana” and “freedom” may consist of blends of information that we retrieve from different channels. In particular, while perceptual experiences constitute the main ingredient of the meaning of “banana”, language is the main ingredient to bake up the meaning of “freedom”. And language is a powerful tool that can be used to bend, invent and change experiences.
As humans, we construct meaning using language. Words are not just labels that we attach to concepts and ideas that are manipulated and combined at a deeper cognitive level. Words construct meaning and allow us to form, combine and elaborate complex thoughts that would otherwise be impossible to handle.
While concrete concepts are mainly made of information derived from perceptual experience, abstract concepts are mainly made of language. And as such, abstract concepts represent the highest and most sophisticated achievement in the evolution of language, and probably a major turning point in the evolution of humankind.