June 24, 2011
I had the pleasure of hosting Stephen Cowley, a philosophopically-inclined developmental psychology professor from England, last evening at the East Side Institute. Stephen was in NYC for a conference on “biosemiotics” at Rockefeller University and enthusiastically accepted my offer to visit and have a more informal setting for conversation about his work. I invited a small mixed grouping of colleagues who I thought would be interested in talking about “why languaging makes us special (for each other).”
Stephen is a proponent of the distributed language view and, in fact, started The Distributed Language Group, an international “geographically distributed” association of scholars from diverse fields (some of whom I got to know in 2006 when invited to one of their conferences in Norway). Here is a brief statement from the website on what challenge to psychology distributed language makes:
This distributed view challenges the assumption that language-behaviour depends on a language faculty. In such approaches, the ‘use’ of language is assumed to centre on what an individual or brain allegedly knows. Debate thus pits theories that posit disembodied cognitivism against ones which, rejecting formalism, invoke cognitive embodiment. While one group focus on manipulating and processing forms, the other traces linguistic knowledge to an embodied mind. In both cases a single brain or person is the locus of linguistic control. The distributed language group reject all forms of cognitive centralism.
Last night, Stephen shared some of the roots and features of the distributed language orientation as an alternative to the dominant view that language is a system that human beings put to use. That language is distributed means that it is not in our heads, but rather is in the world—it’s ecological, dialogical and non-local, according to Stephen. Nearly everyone was unfamiliar with Stephen’s biological and systems discourse, and he did a lovely job playing with it and finding ways to make it accessible to everyone, all the while engaging tough questions about modern science, postmodernism, history, culture, activity, Vygotsky and Wittgenstein. I greatly admire his work as good modernist science that supports my postmodern cultural-performatory approach to these issues and aspects of human live-as-lived.
Stephen’s current research centers around health and changing our understanding of it as located in bodies. How bodies work needs to be studied in consort with studying the distributed nature of human interaction and cognition (and language) as part of the process of transforming health care practice.