On the Challenge of Polysemy in Contemporary Cognitive Research: What Is Conscious and What Is Unconscious

By Zabotkina, Vera I.; Boyarskaya, Elena L. | Psychology in Russia, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

On the Challenge of Polysemy in Contemporary Cognitive Research: What Is Conscious and What Is Unconscious


Zabotkina, Vera I., Boyarskaya, Elena L., Psychology in Russia


Introduction

The problem of polysemy has attracted scholars’ attention since antiquity, and the interest in this phenomenon, “the wild world of polysemy … its apparent semantic chaos” (Pinker, 2007, pp. 112-113), never lessens. Despite a new emphasis on the cognitive aspects of polysemy, little in the way of an integrated approach to the study of this language phenomenon has been done. This work intends to contribute to such an integrated theory. The very term polysemy suggests that one may achieve a much better understanding of what the meaning of a word really is, by the search for answers to the following questions: a) what is the primary meaning of a polysemous word and how is it acquired? b) is there a difference in the mechanisms of acquisition of the primary and secondary word meanings? с) is there a difference in the mechanisms of acquisition of word meanings in adults and children? d) what aspects of polysemy may be conscious, and what unconscious?

Questions about the nature of meaning present fundamental challenges, not only for linguistics, but also, when integrated into an interdisciplinary research paradigm, for philosophy, psychology, and artificial intelligence. There are various types of integrated knowledge that emerge as а result of interaction among the different sciences constituting cognitive science: integrated methodological knowledge, integrated empirical knowledge, and integrated theoretical knowledge. Cognitive semantics is the epitome of this integrative approach, the integration of integrations (Zabotkina, 2016).

It is cognitive semantics, often referred to as conceptual semantics, that allows researchers to break the gridlock in three trends in linguistic research – linguistic determinism, nativism, and radical pragmatism. Linguistic determinism assumes that language and its structure predetermine the nature and character of basic cognitive processes – categorization, perception, etc. – and impose certain limits on the learning process as such. Hence it follows that representatives of different cultures think differently. L. Wittgenstein believed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein, 2016). Proponents of nativism think that the human conceptual system, mental processes, and structures are congenital in nature. Radical pragmatics, on the contrary, postulates that the word can mean almost anything depending on the context in which it is used. There is a certain rationale in each of the three schools of thought, but each of them contradicts the other two. The difference between languages – the main argument used by determinists – does not fit into the framework of nativism. Neither does polysemy, the main object of research for radical pragmatists, fit into the mold of determinism. Only cognitive semantics provides a way out of this impasse.

According to the latest research, the semantic system is organized into intricate patterns that seem to be consistent across individuals. Most areas within the semantic system represent information about specific semantic domains, or groups of related concepts. Researchers used a new generative model to create a detailed semantic atlas, the Brain Dictionary, showing which domains are represented in each area of the brain (Huth, de Heer, Griffiths, Theunissen, & Gallant, 2016). This study convincingly demonstrates that data-driven methods provide a powerful and efficient means for mapping functional representations in the brain.

However, cognitive linguistics and cognitive semantics rely on both experimental and empirical methods of research, which are of equal value. The skilled intuition of cognitive linguists is useful in studying specific influences of thought and embodied experience. Cognitive linguists need not become experimental psychologists or computer scientists for their work and ideas to be seen as legitimate, with considerable theoretical implications (see Gibbs, 2006, pp. …

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