Lecturer's Précis - Montgomery (2002)

"Mental Verbs and Semantic Development"


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First published online 09:00 GMT 19th March 2007, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [HT.1 - transfer of copyright] dated 12:00 13th January 2010

Although this paper is reasonably self-contained, it is primarily designed to be read as a subordinate file to the entry for "mental verbs" in our Psycholinguistics Glossary. Readers unfamiliar with the notions of "concept" and "lexicon", or with the distinction between "content words" and "function words", may prefer to read up on them before proceeding (alternatively, use the [glossary] links and indented editorial as and when you come to them).


About the Author: Dr. Derek E. Montgomery is a lecturer in children's cognitive development with the Department of Psychology, Bradley University, Peoria, IL. His research interests include children's attributions of intention, and the role of "line of regard" in the development of theory of mind. [About Derek E. Montgomery]


1 - Introduction

"Mental verbs" are a small subset of verbs describing "expressions of desire (e.g. want), belief (e.g. know), and intention (e.g. gonna)" (p357; italics original), and Montgomery began his paper by arguing their importance in the study of cognitive and social development. His point, put simply, was that mental verbs do not just provide us with another dozen or so verbs to play with, but seem to play a critical part in our conceptualisation of self and in our simultaneous mastery of effective higher cognition during social interaction. Montgomery's supporting argument then proceeded in three distinct stages. Firstly the notion of mental verbs was analysed from the theoretical standpoint of "ostension" [Psycholinguistics Glossary], secondly that initial analysis was criticised from the theoretical standpoint provided by the philosophical writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) [selected Internet biography], and finally an attempt at a synthesis of these two positions was attempted. These three stages are now summarised in Sections 2 to 4 respectively.  


2 - The Ostension Paradigm

The acquisition of meaning during vocabulary learning is conventionally regarded as "a problem of reference" (p358), that is to say, as a problem of "figuring out which concept a word maps onto" (p358) .....


ASIDE - SEMANTIC NETWORKS IN PSYCHOLINGUISTICS: The idea that our minds contain two fundamentally different categories of idea - conceptual things and their verbal names - is not new, having been axiomatic in the early psycholinguistic flow models drawn up by 19th century neurologists such as Kussmaul (1878) and Freud (1891), and having remained at the heart of the succession of late 20th century models reviewed in our e-paper on "The History of the Psycholinguistic Flow Model". The core proposition is that when we understand a thing - what it is, what it does, why it matters to us, etc. - we can do this WITHOUT necessarily being able to name it [just show your dog it's lead!]. Somehow we know the thing itself, because somehow it has acquired the status of "concept" [Memory Glossary]. Somehow it has acquired a representation in an inner mental world, and that representation has been placed as a "node" in what, by adulthood, will have grown into a vast "semantic network" [Memory Glossary]. The fact that we can access that representation by name as well as by intrinsic excitation is icing on the mental cake, for it enables us (a) to manipulate our ideas internally (thinking), and (b) to receive ideas from, and to transmit them to, others (communication). Our semantic network, in other words, can be "indexed" - concept by concept - by the word nodes available in a closely associated "lexical" network. [Here are some suggestions on where to go next to find out more on this subject: For introductory notes on semantic memory in general and the "Associationist" tradition of philosophy, see our Memory Glossary. For a history of the semantic network concept and its simulations, see Section 4.1 of our e-paper on "Short-Term Memory Subtypes in Computing and Artificial Intelligence (Part 4)" and Section 1.9 of our e-paper on "Short-Term Memory Subtypes in Computing and Artificial Intelligence (Part 5)".


..... however, for successful concept-to-word mapping to happen, both the learner and the teacher-at-the-time must be attending to the same external object, person, or phenomenon. If they are not, the learner risks applying the offered name to the wrong referent. Fortunately, our focal attention skills prevent "ostension errors" of this sort taking place too often. Our powers of "figure-ground" judgement are usually so good at isolating the target entity in an array of confusing sensory input that the child's direction of gaze alone is often a good enough clue to the focus of its attention. Because the explanatory package described above is based on the processes of ostension, Montgomery refers to it as the "ostension paradigm" of vocabulary acquisition, and the theoretical issue which he then wanted to address was whether the ostension paradigm also applied to the development of mental verbs, where there is no clear exterior referent.


3 - Problems with the Ostension Paradigm

The ostension paradigm of vocabulary acquisition copes reasonably well with everyday concrete vocabulary, where the words which are acquired first are typically "content words" [Psycholinguistics Glossary], that is to say, names for the common objects and qualities of the external world. For young children, this early vocabulary would include commonly seen classes of people (policemen, shop assistants, etc.), commonly seen animals (cat, dog, bird, etc.), commonly seen actions (eating, drinking, running, smiling, sneezing, etc.), commonly seen events and natural phenomena (mealtimes, walks, thunder, rainbows, etc.), and the like.


But what then of things which cannot be seen? What of abstract concepts, for example, or mental states like "believing", "knowing", or "intending"?  To help answer this question, Montgomery identifies a parallel class of "non-referential" uses, which the ostension paradigm has problems explaining. To help make progress, he invokes Wittgenstein's (1958) analysis of "private interpretation" (p363). The point at issue here is that when a child says: "I <intention_word> to do X," the listener cannot see the referent in question to see if the intention word has been used correctly. The problem is then that of "Wittgenstein's 'Beetle'" .....


"Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a 'beetle'. No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something quite different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. But suppose the word 'beetle' had a use in these people's language? If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty." (Montgomery, 2002, p364; originally Wittgenstein, 1958, para 293.)


Montgomery describes this type of usage as "contrastive" [Psycholinguistics Glossary], adopting Bartsch and Wellman's (1995) definition, as follows .....


"Contrastive uses constitute a relatively small subset (less than 20%) of all those uses coded as 'genuine references' to desires and beliefs. They are important to the ostension paradigm, nevertheless, because they provide 'especially convincing evidence of a genuine understanding of beliefs and desires as intentional psychological states' (Bartsch and Wellma, 1995, p32)." (Montgomery, 2002, p360.)


4 - "Contextual Views" of Semantic Development

Finally, Montgomery argues that to clarify the meaning of a mental verb requires knowledge of the context within which it is being used. He sees the problem of conceptualising the referent [see inset above] as only the first part of the problem, for you have then to decide "the basis on which the label should be extended to subsequent matches of the exemplar" (p361). Again following Wittgenstein (1958. para 489), he sees a mental verb's meaning as residing in the full richness of the occasions in which it is used. The point is that the referent has to be abstracted from the context in which the word is used by using the processes of inference [Psycholinguistics Glossary]. Montgomery calls this orientation the "contextual now". He quotes Hacker (1996, p637) .....


"Reflect on how one might teach a child the use of 'I intend' or 'I was going to' ... The child does not have to learn to identify a mental state, event, or phenomenon 'within himself'. Rather, he must learn to utter such words before going on to do what is specified in the uttered sentence. He must learn that to use the words 'I'll V' and then not V is, other things being equal, a fault." (cited in Montgomery, 2002, p369; italics original.) 


5 - The Author's Conclusions

Montgomery's central conclusion was that the acquisition of mental verbs was "better characterised as a process of learning how to use a word rather than a process of learning to label a referent" (p376). Meaning is not, as he puts it, "defined 'in the head' of the word learner", but rather "embedded in the social practices responsible for framing the purpose a word serves" (p376). 


6 - Evaluation

Here are the key arguments put forward in this paper, in revision point format .....



7 - References

See the Master References List