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Review of  Pattern and Process: A Whiteheadian Perspective On Linguistics


Reviewer: ' ' [' ']
Book Title: Pattern and Process: A Whiteheadian Perspective On Linguistics
Book Author: Michael Fortescue
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Book Announcement: 12.2570

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Fortescue, Michael (2001) Pattern and Process: A Whiteheadian
Perspective on Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing Company,
hardback ISBN: 1-58811-070-2, vii+312pp, $86.00, Human
Cognitive Processing 6.

Michael Fortescue, an Eskimologist at the University
of Copenhagen and the author of several texts on
Eskimo-Aleut and Palaeosiberian languages (such as
West Greenlandic, Chukchi, and Yukaghir), has written
a book devoted to the ideas of Alfred Whitehead, the
less well-known member of the famous Russell-Whitehead
pair who wrote the _Principia Mathematica_. Mr
Fortescue believes that Whitehead's 'philosophy of
organism' has much to offer to current linguistics,
and, unlike most of us armchair
linguist-cum-philosophers, has taken the bother of
writing three hundred pages to prove it.

I must say from the start that I found this book
incomprehensible. Either (a) Whitehead's philosophy is
obscure to the point of unintelligibility, or (b)
Fortescue fails miserably to convey a clear idea of
Whitehead's philosophical ideas. (Personally, I think
both answers apply. Although, of course, there remains
the third possibility of my own incompetence as a
reader).

The book contains nine chapters, as well as two
appendixes and forty-four pages of notes.

CHAPTER 1. WHY WHITEHEAD?
This chapter is intended to present Whitehead's
philosophical ideas -- quite justifiedly, one would
think, as the rest of the book is devoted to show
their relevance to present-day linguistics. The
trouble is that it is impossible to get a clear
picture of Whitehead's thought from Fortescue's text.
Which seems a pity, as Fortescue is rather
enthusiastic about its applicability to the cognitive
sciences:

"... Whitehead's 'philosophy of organism' is uniquely
suited to the 'emergent' view of language and of
mental activity in general -- regardless of whether
one's approach to cognition is via the 'nativist'
route or the 'functionalist' route. It embodies a
cell-theory of actuality, whose self-creating 'quanta'
are relatable to neurology and can be applied to
network models embodying feed-back and feed-forward
architectures, for example, although, being emergent,
it is not reducible to such things. It represents,
moreover, a bridge over the age-old dichotomy between
the empiricist and the rationalist views of 'the way
things are' -- the tendencies to reduce all form to
matter (non-repeatable actualities) or the reverse
(reducing all actuality to repeatables -- i.e. forms or
universals)."

Whitehead, it appears, very rarely dealt with
language-related questions in the course of his
career, and so this book must be seen as an
interpretation (in cognitive terms), rather than as an
exposition of his thought. That being the case, it
must be however admitted that Whitehead has found in
Fortescue a loyal and tireless, if ultimately
unconvincing, exegete. As such, Fortescue attempts to
gloss Whitehead's baroque terminology -- and it is at
this point that what seemed at first to be a fairly
straightforward, if slightly bizarre, thread of
argument gets hopelessly tangled, in the event, quite
irreversibly. Despite Fortescue's gallant attempts,
little light is shed on what to me seems the sheer
murk of Whitehead's system. However, I will try to
recount what little I think I have grasped of
Whitehead's system (in Fortescue's version) myself.

There are the 'actual occasions' (or 'entities'),
'experiential 'atoms'' which are the basic elements of
reality. Each actual occasion consists of a process of
'concrescence', by which multiple 'objective data' are
absorbed through 'prehensions' (or 'feelings') and
'successively integrated' according to a 'subjective
aim'. This aim is partly determined by 'the occasion's
perspective on relevant 'eternal objects'' (more on
these later) and partly by 'the inherited data itself
[sic]'. Subjective aims strive towards the
'satisfaction' of the occasion, which consists in 'the
achievement of maximal unity and intensity of
integration of its prehensions'. As well as a
subjective form, every prehension has an inherent
'subjective form', 'conscious or unconscious', which
can be complex ('e.g. contain an element of belief as
well as of wishing'). The 'subject' of a concrescence
is an actual occasion itself -- concrescences create
their own subjects. An actual occasion is in fact a
concrescence of prehensions, a process, 'not an
Aristotelian substance'.
There are also 'nexes' (the plural for 'nexus'
used rather oddly by Whitehead -- surely 'nexuses' or
'nexi' would have done better?). In Fortescue's terms,

'What we see as enduring 'things' and 'states of
affairs', then, are not individual actual occasions
but species of nexus, an organic unity of actual
occasions all affecting -- and reflected in -- each
other (...) They are 'public matters of fact' and
'historical routes of occasions'. Persons, enduring
objects, events and societies are all types of nexus.'
'Eternal objects' are 'general forms of
potentiality -- relations, universals, classes,
principles, patterns, types of qualities and
intentions, etc. -- abstracted from the prehensions (=
feelings) of actual occasions and corresponding in
part to the natural 'seams' in the real world'.
Eternal objects, warns Fortescue, ought not to be
confused with ultimate realia (by what Whitehead, with
his knack for catchwords, called 'misplaced
concreteness'). Any concept which does not require
reference to any physical entity can be safely dubbed
an eternal object, it seems.
Finally, Whitehead distinguishes two modes of
perception, 'presentational immediacy' and 'causal
efficacy', both applied to data inherited from the
subject's immediate past. Apparently, presentational
immediacy consists in the assignation of secondary
qualities to spatial regions, whereas causal efficacy
is 'causality directly felt in terms of emotionally
charged appropriation an resistance' -- whatever that
means.

The point of this chapter seems to be that, according
to Whitehead, things are to be perceived as processes
taking place in time, rather than as material, spatial
objects. The author claims that Whitehead's thought
bridges the great divide that cleaves philosophy (and
by extension, linguistics) into Rationalism vs
Empiricism, Generativism vs Functionalism, Plato vs
Aristotle. Whitehead, argues Fortescue, managed to
achieve a synthesis of both traditions by viewing the
function of language as the 'systematization of
expression', 'shaping complex, largely indeterminate
content into determinate, socially shareable form'.
According to Fortescue, this approach harmonizes
Russell's formal model-theoretic logic with cognitive
and/or discourse-based semantics.

CHAPTER 2. A WHITEHEADIAN APPROACH TO NATURAL DIALOGUE
In this chapter, the Whiteheadian notions of
'concrescence', 'actual occasion', and 'subjective
aim' are applied to processes involved in the
attainment of specific communicative processes, which
are analysed in terms of sequences of discrete
'prehensions'.

CHAPTER 3. THE LANGUAGE SYSTEM. LANGUAGE AS
SYSTEMATIZED EXPRESSION
In this chapter, the author connects the Structuralist
notion of the linguistic sign with Whitehead's
emphasis on the systematic nature of linguistic code,
distinguishing between pattern ('eternal objects') and
process ('prehensions').

CHAPTER 4. THE CONTENT SIDE OF LANGUAGE
This chapter deals with 'causal efficiency', that is,
with the meaning of linguistic symbols expressed by
signs in the perceptual mode of 'presentational
immediacy'.

CHAPTER 5. LANGUAGE PROCESSING AND THE MIND/BRAIN
This chapter is an attempt to define a
'non-reductionist, complementary' relationship between
mind and brain inspired in Whitehead's view of
language as process.

CHAPTER 6. UNDERSTANDING WRITTEN TEXTS. IMAGINARY
WORLDS
This chapter argues that literary texts can be taken
as 'sequences of instructions for creating, altering
and enjoying imaginary worlds-within-worlds.'


CHAPTER 7. THE HISTORICAL TRANSMISSION OF LANGUAGE
In this chapter, Fortescue argues for a view of
language acquisition that is emergent and does not
entail innateness, that is, a view which considers the
language faculty as latent but not predetermined.

CHAPTER 8. LANGUAGE AS ORGANISM OR ETERNAL LANGUAGE
In this chapter, the author reinterprets Whitehead's
teleological approach to philosophy in terms of the
context of language, relating it to linguistic
typology.

CHAPTER 9. WHITEHEAD AND LINGUISTIC METATHEORY
This chapter argues that Whiteheadian notions can
serve to clarify certain aspects of the much-cited but
ill-defined linguistic notion of a Universal Grammar.

APPENDIX 1. WHITEHEAD'S POSITION WITHIN MODERN
PHILOSOPHY
This appendix gives an historical overview of modern
philosophy, situating Whitehead's thought within it.
It contrasts Whitehead's career with that of his more
famous partner, Russell: they both started out as
representatives of the 'New Realism' current which
arose in Britain at the beginning of the century as a
reaction against the excesses of Continental Idealism.
In _Principia Mathematica_, both Russell's and
Whitehead's main concern was to discover 'the
universal logical basis behind mathematics, the
principal theoretical tool of science, now being
stretched far beyond the limits of direct
conceptualisation.' But whereas Russell remained true
to the analytical, scientific character of British
philosophy, going on to develop his own brand of
Logical Positivism, 'logical atomism', and shifting
eventually from a rationalist to an empiricist
position, Whitehead, Fortescue claims, synthesized
both approaches.
Also, this chapter compares Whitehead's ideas with
those of the empiricist psychologist William James,
whose notion of the unitary 'experience' as the basic
unit of reality is identified as a main influence
leading to Whitehead's concept of the actual occasion.
Other influences noted by Fortescue are those of
Bergson (who conceived the universe as a perpetual
Heraclitean flux), Husserl and the phenomenologists
(who rejected the limitation of experience to
perception, seeking to approach the nature of 'things
in themselves' via 'intellectual intuition'), and
Whitehead's fellow New Realist Samuel Alexander.
Fortescue also suggests affinities between
Whitehead's social nexes/eternal object
distinction and Itkonen's distinction between causal
and non-causal perspectives on languages.

APPENDIX 2. THE CONCRESCENCE OF AN ENGLISH UTTERANCE
This appendix exemplifies the notion of concrescence
by means of a schematic representation of the
production ('decision') of the utterance 'I wouldn't
have thought it was possible'.


Asunci�n �lvarez is a Linguistics graduate and a Ph.D.
student of Cognitive Science at the Universidad
Complutense de Madrid (Spain). Her research interests
include philosophy of language, philosophy of mind,
and the relationship between linguistic and
psychoanalytic thought.


 
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