Humpty Dumpty, before and after the fall

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William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890:

[A]ny number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind WHICH HAS NOT YET EXPERIENCED THEM SEPARATELY, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must. […] Although they separate easier if they come in through distinct nerves, yet distinct nerves are not an unconditional ground of their discrimination, as we shall presently see. The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space. [emphasis original]

Eleanor Rosch et al., "Basic objects in natural categories", Cognitive Psychology 1976:

The world consists of a virtually infinite number of discriminably different stimuli. One of the most basic functions of all organisms is the cutting up of the environment into classifications by which nonidentical stimuli can be treated as equivalent. Yet there has been little explicit attempt to determine the principles by which humans divide up the world in the way that they do. On the contrary, it has been the tendency both in psychology and anthropology to treat that segmentation of the world as originally arbitrary and to focus on such matters as how categories, once given, are learned or the effects of having a label for some segment.

For some related proto- and neo-Whorfian resonances, see "No words, or too many", 1/30/2009.

[h/t Michael Ramscar]


  1. Ø said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    What is proto-Wharfian in the James quote? I don't see any claim that is explicitly about language. Does he get there later?

  2. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 8:45 am

    I suppose that this represented progress, of sorts. James, and the rest of psychology until recently and all of philosophy assumed blithely that essential characteristics of human cognition were available through nothing more than introspection. Rosch represents an attempt at empiricism, assuming that certain regularities in (some) language reliably reveal essential characteristics in human cognition.

    Frankly, cognitive science in all its historical variations has suffered from the same problem that linguistics has — everyone has language and so everyone believes that their facility and familiarity with language is adequate for discovering its nature and how it works. Just so with minds.

    And the pop-whorfian snow folklore is so appealing because of precisely its combination of affirming the correctness of the impressions that basically everyone has when they encounter another language and that it's a bit of cocktail chatter, illustrating an esoteric scientific "truth" while simultaneously demonstrating the folk-teller's intellectual acumen.

    I've been interested in urban folklore for about twenty years and particularly in scientific urban folklore as a subcategory. This sort of science folklore has some of the same characteristics that urban folklore in general has — the things that Jan Harold Brunvand discussed many years go. But scientific urban folklore, aside from merely being about something related to science, has a particular flavor — not so much about affirming or denying or otherwise implicitly dealing with contemporary social phobias, but very strongly about the thrill of esoterica, of being among the select few who've peeked behind the curtain.

    All these — that glass is a liquid and can be seen to have flowed downward in old windows or that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow or that humans only use 10% of our brains or that the Great Wall of China is the only manmade feature visible from orbit(*) — simultaneously seem to impart something very significant, even wise, about the the natural world (and/or humans) while being immediately comprehensible, totally without requiring any additional context, without any supporting facts. They are like little revelations.

    In these ways science urban folklore is trivially like any other bit in the psychosocial medium of esteem exchange. More interestingly, though, they also reveal quite a bit about the pop culture/lay view of what science is, how it works, what it means to know something about the world via science. That they're like, as I said, "little revelations" is significant.

    Likewise, related things such as the diagnosis of narcissism from first-person singular pronouns in speech are revealing about how people commonly comprehend science. This sort of thing is pretty much exactly comparable to cargo cultism. It has the superficial appearance of both psychology and linguistics without any of, well, anything. (Often, not even basic arithmetic!)

    (* All four are false, although urban folklore need not be false to be urban folklore. Thought it often is.)

  3. Mr Punch said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    Well, we have a word "explosion," and I'd argue that it often reflects our immediate experience, even though the event may be analyzed in terms of sound, vision, physical impact, etc.

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    Tangentially, this is an excellent discussion of the flowing glass myth from UC Riverside.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    I'm in the market for a pop-Whorfian urban-science-myth along the lines of "Language X has a staggering Y separate words for different varieties of 'blooming, buzzing confusion,' which obviously tells us Z about the worldview of X-speakers."

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    @Keith M Ellis: assumed blithely that essential characteristics of human cognition were available through nothing more than introspection

    These fields certainly seem to me to have missed, staggeringly, most of the vast package of cognitive errors to which we're now known (though not widely enough known) to be subject – at most, they assumed that just making an effort to be rational was enough.

  7. KevinM said,

    February 25, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

    James loved him some German Idealism, which may have been the ultimate inspiration for this "scientific" statement. See, e.g.,
    Kant Dictionary
    [A77/B102] Before they are synthesized, various given intuitions form a manifold, by being successively "received" by the "a priori manifold" of the forms of sensibility (time and space); namely, the intuitions form the manifold of intuition, which then undergoes various pure and empirical synthesis before being experienced. Thus, the manifold (Short for the manifold of intuition) is the material for synthesis, is the manifold of "given" representations (as opposed to the "imposed" representations of the understanding, concepts)

  8. Ken Brown said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

    Why is it called "urban" folklore?

    Those who reproduce it are not exclusively, possibly not even mainly, urban.

  9. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 26, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

    Well, here's Wikipedia on urban folklore/urban legend about the origin of the term:

    The term “urban legend,” as used by folklorists, has appeared in print since at least 1968. Jan Harold Brunvand, professor of English at the University of Utah, introduced the term to the general public in a series of popular books published beginning in 1981. Brunvand used his collection of legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings (1981) to make two points: first, that legends and folklore do not occur exclusively in so-called primitive or traditional societies, and second, that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such tales.

    …and what the entry says about urban:

    Despite its name, an urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban area. Rather, the term is used to differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore in pre-industrial times. For this reason, sociologists and folklorists prefer the term contemporary legend.

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