Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Book Chapter 1985

Remarks and Questions Concerning Ecological Boundaries in Mentality and Language



31 / 42KB  Last revised 98.11.01

In: H. Seiler & G. Brettschneider (Eds., 1985) Language invariants and mental operations. Tübingen, Narr. Pp. 107-114.

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

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Thesis about language and mentality

Some examples

Sketchy theory



It is assumed by the UNITYP group that language operations and language dimensions (as constructed by the linguist) reflect mental structures and processes ("mentality", for short) of a species specific nature which are implemented in a culturally and individually specific manner in any given speaker or listener. One of the important problems to solve is to understand the kind and extent of the correlation between mentality and language.

Our present knowledge of language is more advanced than our knowledge of mentality. And since we are dealing with the problem by using language as the primary medium of operation, we run the risk of overlooking characteristics of mentality when they are an inherent feature of the medium (circularity argument).

Considering this risk and trying to look at language starting from the mentality point of view (if this is at all possible), I advance the following thesis (and I hasten to add that I propose it primarily as heuristic, for lack of corroborating evidence): Symbols are more unitary than their referents. Or, linguistic signs are more distinct than their mental referents; and the latter, being also influenced by linguistic structures, are still more distinct than their concrete referents.

At first this seems trivial. In a functionalist perspective you might say that there is an essential reason for language to exist, because you can deal much more easily with a chunked world than with realities where everything is not a thing but just part of a context. To prevent misunderstanding I should add that I speak here of language primarily as a medium of social exchange; the preconditions of an utterance in a speaker as well as the eventual effect in a listener might be, and probably are, in most cases of a somewhat less unitary nature.

However, unitariness of linguistic units not only as symbols but also as representations of something else is probably an important prerequisite for dealing with symbols of symbols, and therefore a necessary precondition of human language, natural and especially formal language. In addition the thesis might be more readily applicable to lexical rather than to syntactic or pragmatic features of language, and you might even consider syntactics and pragmatics as attempts to "repair" the undesirable effects of chunking or to reinstate some of what was lost and to recreate some further connectedness or relatedness. Yet there are at least some syntactic structures that obviously reinforce boundaries, e.g. agent vs. patient.

I am unaware of who, but I am sure somebody has already formulated this idea in more elegant terms. But do not confound my thesis with HUMBOLDTIAN or SAPIR-WHORFIAN relativity; my thesis refers to language in general, variations in extent, stricter or looser chunking, notwithstanding.

On a more subtle level, my thesis, at least to me, is intriguing and even alarming. A corollary of the thesis might be stated as follows: Linguistic units tend to create arbitrary boundaries between parts of the world. Or, in other words, there is some discrepancy between the chunking of the linguistic symbolic representation of the world and the organisation or articulation of units both in nonlinguistic mental representations and probably also in the "real world". Or, in brief, linguistic operations are nonrepresentative chunkers.

Perhaps a somewhat milder form of this hypothesis might be to say that linguistic unit formation is apt to be overselective and thus make us believe that one particular way of symbolic chunking of the world is the single and only way of organisation of things. Or, in brief, linguistic operations are selective chunkers.

It probably will not be surprising now, when I confess my belief, that psychology (among other sciences, probably) has indeed tumbled into that trap. That means, by uncritically taking over linguistic partitioning of the world, psychology has created (and so far not solved) a lot of pseudo-questions, and at the same time has failed to become engaged in asking some of the questions that really pertain to human existence and action. Indeed, there is no human existing or acting except in an environment. And yet, psychology is, as one likes to joke, either only soul or without soul. Some psychologists address themselves exclusively to the person - and they are indeed a bit "spiritual"; they usually resort to metaphoric thinking, e.g. by saying the person to be stratified, etc. Others try to explain the person exclusively in terms of physical stimuli and responses - and they live well on earth, but they loose the person on their way, dealing with him or her quite as with any piece of wood.

There seem to be three possible fields of application (or testing, if indeed it has some empirical meaning, as I believe it does) of my hypothesis. I do not want to deal here (1) with the problems of unit formation in general (which would presuppose a lot of good psychology of perception) nor (2) with category formation or classification (which would have to rely on a better psychology of cognition and many other things). Rather I want to focus on (3) the problem of, as I call it, ecological boundaries, i.e. the problem of distinction between something and its surroundings. To strive for clarity, there are two ecological boundary problems: (a) what are the boundaries "around" the ecological unit to be considered, and (b) what are the boundaries within an ecological unit between the parts of this unit that are found to transact on (upon, with, among, between?) each other? Again I am neglecting the exo-boundary problem: problem (a) here is a special case of problem (1) above. Instead I am focussing on intra-boundaries, i.e. the question of delimiting between the principal ecological subunits, the agent and his environment.

In psychological terms we are confronted with the problem of the person in his environment and of the process of transaction between them. In linguistic terms this is the problem of the relationship between the agent and the patient. I am not sure to what extent the two terminologies are equivalent.

To state it in the form of a program then, the point I want to make is the proposal to soften the usually fixed delimitations between these two parts of the world, which always occur together when our interest is of a human acting or being, and to look at this boundary and at the events occurring there in a fresh way, not overly determined by linguistic routines.

It is perhaps useful here to make explicit a more general philosophy of science credo: my present theorizing is a construction from an arbitrary perspective, viz. my own, which I hope can be coordinated with that of some fellow scientists and citizens by means of somewhat common operations both in a somewhat common language and a common world. In other words, I am not so much interested in how things really are, but rather in how we can and do deal with them. By "ecological unit" I then understand something that we can delimit, something that we perceive as internally structured, and something that we think has an inherently developmental character. Autochthonous or self-organisation within outside constraints seems to be an essential feature. But it is the observer or conceiver who says what he wants to look at as an ecological unit and as its subunits.

As a psychologist of perception I am tempted to say that basically this is a problem of perception, viz. a figure-ground problem. For a given individual in a given situation usually one single figure-ground organisation prevails. This functionally most important achievement of our perceptual system might have been transferred into linguistic chunking. But this does not help much.

So much for the generalities--now some details. First I shall try to convey my thinking by a bundle of examples. After that I shall attempt some sketchy theorizing and also review an old theoretical statement by Kurt LEWIN which is related to my problem. And finally I hope to formulate some questions directed primarily at linguists: about t} ecological boundaries as manifest in various languages of the world, and perhaps about suggestion for the understanding of ecological unitariness vs. separateness as another linguistic dimension, in the sense of the UNITYP-group.


Some examples:

(1) All languages of the world seem to have forms that point to the agent, although these forms are different in various languages of the world. Different in what respect --common in what respect? I should like to have available a comprehensive review on the question. It might help to look at "agenthood" through eyeglasses not tinted by foregone conclusions.

Seen from the mental and the concrete side of the matter, what exactly is the agent? Both in terms of an observable from the viewpoint of a third party, or as experienced i private by the agent himself? Or for that matter as experienced by some patient in the case of this also being a person? For the moment I restrict myself to situations where an an mate being acts upon a surrounding, animate or not. Strangely enough, psychology has not created a singular and unique term of its own to denote the acting part of an ecologic; unit. I can understand my colleagues' raised eyebrows, whenever I try to use the term "agent" for that purpose. However, the connotations, and worse yet, the scientific surplus denotations of more genuinely psychological terms, like "individual", "organism", "person", "actor", "ego", "self", "subject" (Versuchsperson), "observer" etc. are apt to let their user feel that the ecological boundary problem is no problem at all or that in any case it is well resolved.

Is this just a difficulty of my ambivalently revered discipline of psychology? Or is the perhaps a specially salient manifestation of an intriguingly general difficulty which result from linguistic chunking? In languages, "agenthood" always has (is that so?) simple an routine forms which cover what in fact is never quite clear: who or what is really acting o whom or what.

A case in point is the term "organism", not introduced into psychology but certainly heavily publicized by SKINNER's book "The behavior of organisms" (1938). If this term can make any sense at all, then certainly as a biological concept. It has to my knowledge never been formally defined within psychology except by operational fiat for ad hoc purposes. And if you try to do it, I am sure you are in for trouble. If it is just taken over from biology, why, for heavens sake, should the organism coincide with that reality that the subject of actions? Cut some finger or leg or ear or an appendix or a kidney or even some parts of the brain off, and the remainders certainly are still capable of being the agent; in some cases the defectiveness of the organism is just irrelevant, in other cases it even confers some special meaning to the resulting agent. On the other hand, add a tool, screwdriver, a pair of pliers, or even a car to the organism, and what you get is a new set of boundaries for the agent. Although it is mainly of a phenomenological nature, there is some evidence as to the point of contact of the agent with the surrounding world not being at the boundary between organism and tool, but rather at the transition between tool and external world acted upon by means of the tool. You feel the softness or stiffness of some material at the front end of the gauge, not in your finger tips; thus the gauge becomes a part of your sensory system. Interestingly enough, if you have enough practise wearing gloves, you can touch the outside world quite as if without.

So the effective boundaries of the agent vary with the circumstances - lexical units referring to agent and patient seem to be invariant. Much of this is a bit dependent on extensive experience: but it is hard to avoid assuming some universality, the basic facts being quite general. So much for perceptive and executive contacts of the agent with the outside world.

(1a) As an aside and addendum: can the organism be delimited unambiguously within a biological science? I believe not. Do the dead cells of a tree stem belong to the organism or to its environment (invironment, I should say, when seen from the living cells around it)? And what about making new trees from offshoots and by grafting? Everybody seems to agree that the fetus in the mothers womb is a separate organism; but what about the placenta? Some say it is a prototype environment for the young infant; and yet genetically it is a part of the emerging new individual.

(2) Let me now go a further step in psychological man-environment-systems, this one at the level of the "individual" or "person". I suggest that there are quite a lot of "things" in the ecological units of living beings that are better accounted for in terms of the agent than in terms of the surroundings, if one wants to understand the transactions between the two. Or, better yet, one has to construct new concepts to come to grips with, concepts that include something of the agent as well as of the surroundings. I will pick out two areas, where a minimum of research is available: clothes and residences.

Taking away one's clothes is an extremely harsh procedure of taking away one's identity. Wearing somebody else's clothes is of import not only on the stage, in theatre and in life, but if forced upon one, it is a means of subjugation of long standing. Think also of the contribution of clothing to one's social and personal identity and to the acquisition there of. Imagine the bishop without mitre and crosier or the king without the throne.

A similar line of thought might be advanced as to the role of many aspects of our physical environment, especially our personal things and places of residence. On the one hand, things, rooms, houses, neighborhoods, and even regions of the world, or objects and places to use a collective term, are concrete things existing independently of the agents acting upon or within them. That's the way ordinary language has it in its arrogant selectivity. But on the other hand, it is also obvious that a lot, if not most, of our actions are object oriented and place dependent in the sense that with any given object or at any given place only a subset of our repertory of actions is emitted or emittable. Have you ever tried to stand on your hands in church or to earnestly sing hymns in your backyard on an ordinary summer evening? Many of our cultural objects are made explicitly for a set of suitable actions; the limits of suitability are somewhat flexible, and yet there are limits. You can stand on a chair or you can use it for a vehicle in play (emulation, it is called), but basically it is something for sitting. Linguistically all this is at best implicit; and people try hard to jot it down in dictionaries, thesauri, grammars etc. In addition, this pervasive "synomorphy" of actions and things or places, as Roger BARKER (1968) called it, is quite variable with the relationship between the actor and the thing or place. In private you act differently than in public; with things in your possession it's different than with things belonging to somebody else or to nobody. But I don't think possession, although important, is all that is relevant. I have many questions here, and it is not easy to formulate them. I am working on a psychological theory of residential activity ("wohnen", there is no good English term); the central assumption is that built structures are an external (esp. social) form of memory.

But this is not the place for a detailed sketch of a not-yet-existing psychology of objects or man-object-relations. But let me just list the approaches that have been proposed so far: Ownership or possessive relation has, to my knowledge been considered under three aspects:

In addition the psychoanalytic conception of "object relations" doesn't really refer to objects but rather to persons and person substitutes. Interesting as these approaches are, I find them insufficient in the light of the above mentioned variations in the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of agents and objects. Only recently have psychologists begun to conceive of objects possessed by a person as an extension of the self (FURBY, 1978).

(3) Social psychology deals with the special case of the environment of an actor being another human (or a cultural object or event). As a discipline it seems split into two disciplines, viz. sociology and psychology, both with their respective "artificial" basic units, individual or group. Let me try to argue by way of example that you need to look simultaneously at the agent and the other if you want to understand social exchange. We have known for only a few years that it is not the mother that socializes her baby to a fully functioning human, nor that it is the baby that imitates the mother, as older theorizing had it. But rather, if and only if you look at and analyse the mother-child-unit as a whole with subunits, you see that they are prepared for each other and "socialize each other", so to speak, and develop together. It seems quite parallel to phonemic competence of speaker and listener.

(4) This insight, that you need to analyse comprehensive units, is only gradually spreading and taking hold in methodology. It is even more important and also more neglected in developmental psychology. Some time ago I tried to show that you cannot hope to arrive at a valid theory of ontogenesis except by looking at ecological units (LANG 1981). A human being and his environment are always developing together, and this, naturally, involves changes in their mutual relation as well as in their common ecological boundary. By necessity, a developmental theory must be ecological. I shall elaborate on this developmental theme implicitly in the following.


Sketchy theorizing:

So far there is some empirical evidence, however limited, to support my attempts to redefine ecological boundaries. By way of conjecture, I would like to advance a step by questioning the generally assumed unidirectionality of influence between actor and material surroundings. First, I take an example by Lars LERUP, a Univ. of California at Berkeley architect, who has applied a similar line of thinking to cities, towns and neighborhoods; but it is simpler to demonstrate it with one of his invented examples, the man and the stairs. Lerup distinguishes five perspectives of understanding the relationship between this couple, or, as I would prefer to call it, to understand this ecological unit, in addition to the traditional view of objects.

Traditional architecture has the stair determine the person's behavior; he sees the height difference, he lifts one leg after the other etc. So you can say, the stairs make the person look, lift legs etc. Obviously this is as crude as saying that man determines his own behavior with no influence from the stairs. The traditional view is myopic or at least one-sided, as exemplified by Renaissance perspective. It presupposes an Archimedian point of view. It leads to that haunting hunt for truth. But it disregards some provocative facts about people and things.

So, LERUP (1977) proposes to move the point of view around a bit:

(a) First, you can refocus by placing yourself in the place of the man-stairs couple. No Olympian position, you are part of the world, you must enter on stage in time and space. - There might be action, but no knowledge, which presupposes a tertium comparationis.

(b) Secondly, you can place yourself in the position of the man. Not really, because you do not have his perceptual and cognitive system at your disposal; how he "constructs" the stairs for himself.

(c) Thirdly, take the place of the stairs themselves, merge "with folded elevation and occupy its steady footing on the floor" (LERUP, 1977 p. 155).--Interesting, but it makes you silent.

(d) Fourthly, the contradiction inherent in position 3 and 4 can be dialectically overcome: suspension in between people and things - paralyzed.

(e) The solution is action. Take time in. Man is acting upon the stairs and the stairs are acting on the man. We shape things and things shape us. Chicken and egg in circles. Refer back to section (4) above.

Lerup gives wonderful examples of transactions between persons and places: the Swedish fishing village, a Spanish colonial city, and Mrs. Ivy's lot within a block of urbanising Berkeley,Ca. My students and I have so far tried to look at young people growing up in highrise apartments (their personal room, the family rooms, the house, the neighbourhood, the city) and at families in transition, planning their new houses or building additions to their houses. So far we are still on the hunt to "capture" the ecological unit in its ontogenetic beginning: the baby in its environment.

Another way of saying what I mean is by PlAGETian terminology. The essence of Piaget's constructionism could be stated as follows: The epistemic subject is able to conceive of only that which he has acted upon before and of which, in the course of this action, he has acquired schemata which at the same time make or are the agent and his construction of the world. Obviously this is a great step from traditional subject-object separation. However, seen this way, the subject or agent is, for what he is, completely at the mercy of the surrounding world. To a Piagetian subject, you could, if you wanted, in principle present any world, provided you start from scratch; and thus you could construct any individual to your desire. This is in contradiction to what we observe. All living matter is a highly selective subset of structures and enjoys a certain degree of resistability to outside influence.

So you have to introduce a sort of reciprocity. You might assume, that the world by itself is also acting on the individual in question. And this action is not arbitrary, but it conforms to some "knowledge" of the world about that individual. And by this very action it is constructing and accommodating schemata of this individual, i.e. "knowing" more about this individual. And these "schemata", in any stage of their accommodation, serve an assimilating function, so that this world can deal appropriately with that individual. And so on.

All this is an expression of the individual being not a completely independent entity but being somehow a part of the rest of the world or at least of some hard to delimit ecological unit. Linguistic habit has made us believe, we are completely separate.

We have come to think that the meaning of things is something conferred to them by cognitive processes in their perceivers and conceivers. The reconsideration of ecological boundaries I am proposing would accept some "ability of an object to convey meaning through its own inherent qualities", to use a phrase of CSIKSZENTMIHALYI & ROCHBERG-HALTON (1981, p. 43). But I am only partially happy with this phrase; I prefer to say that the meaning arises from the transaction between the two parts of such a unit.

Now this sounds all very strange indeed. At least as long as you confer agenthood to humans only and perhaps to some limited extent to some animals, but not to the material world. It sounds strange as long as you believe linguistic chunking is representative of the bits and pieces of the world. When children or people outside of our civilisation know better, we usually bring in some ad hoc construction, such as "animistic" or "magic thinking", which seems to be little more than a formula for lack of understanding. I should add that it does not sound all that strange in a genetic perspective, be that evolutionary or ontogenetic or historic tradition (see also BOESCH, 1983).

So I would like to add a few words about the genetic existence of "things". This is based on thinking by Kurt LEWIN, viz. his not well known book of 1922, "Der Begriff der Genese". My purpose in bringing up this old stuff is to hopefully elicit some insight into different possibilities of chunking. In all the sciences we are used to taking the existence of things for granted, we concentrate on their essence; our interest is with how things are, not that they are. Lewin has convincingly demonstrated that different sciences by implication assume quite different ways of existence of the objects they deal with. But beware, I do not speak of ontological differences. The question is not whether things are or are not, but rather, what the sciences imply as to how they exist. This is empirical (as opposed to normative) philosophy of science.

Lewin proposes to look at temporal relatedness. We are used to assuming that spatially separated things are different things, however temporally separated "things", provided the gap is not too large, tend to be conceived as one and the same. This is probably the result of quite intriguing qualities of our perceptual systems, a sort of spatio-temporal relativity (as manifest in phenomenal causality or a number of sensory location discrepancies such as the tau-phenomenon or sensory saltation). Speaking in terms of Lewin's example, it goes without saying that a stone in our hand is considered to be the same in successive moments in time. And also, say, a fly on our arm is considered to be the same in successive moments in time. I do not want to call that in question. However, the interesting thing Lewin points out is that if you construe a relation connecting the successive moments of existence of each of these two things, this relation is conceived quite differently by the physical sciences for the stone and by the biological sciences for the fly. Lewin names this relation "genidentity". The physical sciences deal with objects whose genidentity constructs series of "things" which issue one from the other without rest or addition, the series is open at both ends, it is time-symmetrical, and none of its cross-sections are distinguished among all others (except, in the last respect, the "dissipative structures" of Prigogine). On the other hand, biological sciences construe their objects in genidentity series which have a first and a last cross-section (conception/birth and death), and they cannot formulate time-symmetrical laws (life is directional). In addition there is a distinguished cross-section, i.e. the present, from which you could, if you knew all the pertinent laws, infer the series of sections backwards, i.e. the past, but not forwards into the future, because you do not know what will happen to your object unless you completely control its environment. This is because biological objects are open systems; for their very existence, they depend on metabolism with their environment.

Lewin developed the above arguments in view of organismic biology. They are valid as well for psychological existence. Psychological systems are definitely open into their environment, and they are as dependent on some kind of exchange - for want of a better term it might be called "information" exchange - with that environment as are biological systems on energy and matter exchange.

What is my point in bringing up these perhaps weird and hard to understand philosophical thoughts of a great psychologist? (They have never been received by the scientific community, although (or perhaps because?) they convincingly refute reductionism.) I think they show that similar-looking entities with similar names and perhaps even similar characters can be quite differently conceived of in an existence perspective. I like to apply that to the ecological unit, considering a man-object couple. Obviously in the light of the Lewinian differences of existence, the two terms of the couple, as we deal with them in our common terminology, have two different existences, belong to two different realms. And thus it is very risky to deal with them scientifically using one single language.

A possible solution might be to create a conceptual system and terminology which refers to the higher-order unit, i.e. the man-environment-system. That is what I am programmatically proposing, although I am quite helpless if asked to give the specifics.

On the other hand, I find it helpful to discuss these ecological boundary problems with people who know various languages of the world. My expectation is that such considerations might have found some expression in linguistic forms, perhaps simply as a kind of "softening" or relativity of the opposition between agent and patient for different kinds of ecological units, and perhaps more than that. What I am suggesting is the eventual construction of a UNITY continuum on the ecological boundary problem. The problem must be universal; the odds are that one finds some variability in the definitiveness that agent and patient are separated in the languages (and cultures) of the world. Ours is a culture with a rather sharp and constant boundary. This might be the reason for our neglect of the problem. Once armed with the conception, we might see more than we dared hope.

By way of summary, I have questioned the common exclusive opposition, i.e. separateness, of agent and patient. To understand the relation between man and his environment it seems necessary to describe them as a higher-order man-environment-system or ecological unit. I suggest to investigate ecological boundary relativity in mentality and in language in parallel. If mental functions show some indefiniteness in the boundary between agent and patient -- and a number of examples are given as a demonstration for this -- then this can be expected to find its form in linguistic structures. Ecological boundary relativity might refer to a linguistic universal in need of both its construction and its typology.



Barker, R. Ecological psychology. Stanford Univ. Press, 1968.

Boesch, E.E. Das Magische und das Schöne: zur Symbolik von Objekten und Handlungen. Stuttgart, Frommann-Holzboog, 1983.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rochberg-Halton, E. The meaning of things -- domestic symbols and the self. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981.

Furby, L. Possessions: toward a theory of their meaning and function throughout the life cyde. Pp. 297-336 in: Baltes P. B. (Ed.): Life-span development and behavior, Vol. 1. Academic Press, 1978.

Lang, A. Vom Nachteil und Nutzen der Gestaltpsychologie für eine Theorie der psychischen Entwicklung. Pp. 154-173 in: Foppa, K. & Groner, R. (Eds.): Kognitive Strukturen und ihre Entwicklung. Bem, Huber 1981.

Lerup, L. Building the Unifinished: Architecture and human action. Beverly Hills, Sage, 1977.

Lewin, K. Der Begriff der Genese in Physik, Biologie und Entwicklungsgeschichte: eine Untersuchung zur vergleichenden Wissenschaftslehre. Berlin, Springer, 1922 (Nachdruck in Kurt-Lewin-Werkausgabe, Bern/Stuttgart, Huber/Kldt-Cotta, Band 2, 1984).

Mehrabian, A. Public places and private spaces: the psychology of work, play, and living environments. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976.

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