Engelland, Chad. Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind

By Bowler, Michael | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Engelland, Chad. Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind


Bowler, Michael, The Review of Metaphysics


ENGELLAND, Chad. Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2014. xxix + 305 pp. Cloth, $40.00--Although ostension is the primary title of this book, ostension is simply the phenomenon that unifies an extended and wonderfully insightful and engaging philosophical analysis of fundamental issues in the philosophy of language, action, mind, and nature. Readers of varied philosophical persuasions will find the book of interest as the author engages with and weaves together ideas and insights from empirical science, Continental and analytic philosophers, and the history of philosophy. There are extended treatments of the science of joint attention as well as the views of Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Augustine, and Aristotle. The author then builds on these scientific and historical treatments in order to articulate his own unique phenomenological approach to the issues raised, and he discusses the metaphysical and epistemological implications of his approach as well as its import on our philosophical understanding of the mind, including the problem of other minds. In the available space I can provide only a bare summary of the author's central argument, which only scratches the surface of the detailed and in-depth philosophical analyses one will find in the book.

The author begins by noting that philosophers have recognized and that empirical science has confirmed that joint attention is required if a child is to learn new words through ostension, which the author argues requires no prior linguistic resources or competency. That is, word learning by means of ostension requires the joint attention of learner and speaker toward what is ostended. The author marshals experiments showing that a child will not learn a new word ostensively if the speaker or what is ostended is not present, for instance, if the object is present but the child only hears an absent voice, or if the speaker is pointing to an object that is hidden from the view of the child. The first key insight motivating the author's approach is Augustine's recognition that children learn words even when the speaker is not intentionally and explicitly trying to teach the child a new word. Children leant new words simply by observing others speaking about an object while engaging with it. In this respect the author criticizes Wittgenstein for presupposing the Western model of word learning that suggests that children learn new words only by being explicitly taught. Because of this, joint attention is not sufficient to account for word learning.

On the contrary, the author argues that joint presence is required, namely, that word learning occurs when the child, speaker, and object are present to one another. …

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