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Review of Language, Brain, and Cognitive Development
Dupoux, Emmanuel, ed. (2001) Language, Brain, and Cognitive Development: Essays in Honor of Jacques Mehler. MIT Press, hardback ISBN 0-262-04197-9, $55.00, A Bradford book.
Heather Bortfeld, Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University
Emmanuel Dupoux has edited an impressive collection of essays in honor of his mentor, Jacques Mehler. The essays are arranged topically, beginning with an introductory section that provides useful background on Mehler himself. This introduction is followed by four sections containing essays on topics central to the field and to Mehler's own research. These are: thought, language, development, and brain and biology. The book closes with a summary of Mehler's curriculum vitae, which is quite something to see in its entirety. Finally, there is a complete index that is useful for finding specific topics within the collection's twenty-eight chapters. A complete list of chapter titles and authors follows this review.
Emmanuel Dupoux has done a commendable job bringing together works by a number of scholars on a variety of topics, all of which have in some way been influenced by Jacques Mehler's career. This broad collection of essays, each devoted to Mehler, form a complete and informative four decades. Indeed, Mehler appears to have been intimately involved with almost every research program summarized across the book's chapters.
It is hard to imagine the intellectual atmosphere in the 1960s and the length to which Mehler had to go to pursue his interests as a young scientist. But even then, he was thinking hard about fundamental questions that still plague the field today. Early on, Mehler certainly didn't have the atmosphere of interdisciplinary collegiality that allows the pursuit of cognitive science to flourish as it does now. In light of the anti-cognitive Zeitgeist during his early career, the diversity of his interests and of his accomplishments is all the more astounding. Of course, that repressive atmosphere created the need for change, and Mehler was not alone in his frustration with the constraints on the field. The introductory chapters' overview of the mind melding (and sometimes clashing) that went on between Mehler and other great thinkers in those early years (Noam Chomsky, George Miller, and Jean Piaget play prominent roles) is pure pleasure. Overall, the essays included in this book constitute a who's-who of cognitive science. This is true both in terms of the authors themselves and in terms of their reviews of Mehler's early intellectual adventures.
The book is separated into the aforementioned introduction and four topical sections (on thought, language, development, and brain and biology). Focusing on the early years in Mehler's career, the two introductory essays (by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini and Tom Bever, Susana Franck, John Morton, and Steve Pinker) establish his substantial and lasting influence on the field of cognition. Piattelli-Palmarini's essay is a beautiful homage to Mehler that at the same time provides the reader with an understanding of the trajectory cognitive psychology has followed during its growth over the past thirty-five years. Piattelli-Palmarini accomplishes this by outlining his initial encounter with Mehler in Paris (in 1968--a crazy time, with or without the cognitive revolution). He follows this up with a summary of lessons-learned from Jacques across the course of both their dynamic careers. In the second introductory chapter, Bever, Franck, Morton, and Pinker review the history of the journal, Cognition, which was Mehler and Bever's brainchild. This provides a delightful view into an era that, given the current onslaught of all things electronic and instantaneously available, is hard to imagine. I, for one, had no idea of the grass-roots nature of the journal, which is still considered to be one of the best in the field. Certainly, starting a journal in the early throes of one's career, as Mehler and Bever did, is beyond most people's imagination. The fact that Cognition remains an important source for original, thought-provoking research attests to the very real need they had identified.
It is structurally appropriate that the introductory essays--and Luca Bonatti's introduction to the first topical section--set the facts straight about Mehler's background and his approach to science. It also proves to be quite helpful in guiding one's reading of the essays in this section, which happens to be on thought. Given that readers may only be familiar with Mehler's work in particular subfields, this section makes the breadth of influence his research has had on the field of cognition in general quite clear. It was particularly informative to read about the role he played in this core area of cognitive research (e.g., how his thinking was shaped and, likewise, how his thinking helped shape other areas). The beauty of Mehler's career has always been his ability to bridge areas (and continents, for that matter) filled with people who might normally not talk with one another. And so it went that I found myself reading essays by Dan Sperber, Zenon Pylyshyn, Phil Johnson-Laird, and Ned Block, researchers whose work is quite removed from my day-to-day concerns with infant and adult speech perception (during which I find plenty of occasion to read Mehler's writings).
And so I learned that the debate on mental imagery continues, apparently unabated (Pylyshyn, Chapter 4), and that massive modularity is one proposed solution to the challenges modularity faces (Sperber, Chapter 3). As should be apparent, these essays are a good brush-up on the state of the arguments on a variety of such topics. For many of these debates, things are in the same state that they were in many years ago (that is, at a stalemate). But there is now a much larger body of data to guide one's thinking about any one of them and these essays are a convenient way to get up to speed on more recent research and opinions on these topics. For those who fear that these familiar names will bring familiar arguments, I should note that things heat up considerably during the course of Block's essay (Chapter 6) on whether content of experience is the same as content of thought. His musings over bodily sensations (e.g., is the representational content of an orgasm the same as the phenomenal experience of orgasm?) give new meaning to the term ''mental masturbation'' (while perhaps also giving new ammunition to those who hold this opinion about the utility of ''classic cognition''). Regardless, I found Block's new way of framing old problems refreshing.
The remaining three sections each contain seven essays, not including the introductory comments to each (though these could also stand alone). This should provide some indication of the amount of information contained in this collection. Though the subsequent essays are more specifically focused (consistent with the trajectory research has followed since the broad-reaching debates in those early issues of Cognition), they are no less informative about where things stand in their particular subfields. Each section contains clear, concise essays by luminaries in that field. The section on language focuses on adult speech processing questions, while the section on development allows some insight into Mehler's involvement in the word of infant studies. Finally, the section on brain and biology attests to Mehler's remarkable ability to stay current, up to and including cognitive neuroscience. This volume provides a beautiful overview of the field of cognition, while at the same time staying true to Mehler's actual research interests. Dupoux must be commended for his thoughtful arrangement of authors and titles here. This volume would be an ideal text for an entry level graduate course of cognition. As a fitting commentary on Jacques Mehler's career, the simultaneous provision of overview and insight that this collection offers would be hard to find anywhere else.
Table of Contents
Part I: Introduction
Chapter 1 Portrait of a ''classical'' cognitive scientist: What I have learned from Jacques Mehler (Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini)
Chapter 2 Cognition--some personal histories (with Pinker's appendix of the fifty most cited articles from Cognition, 1971-2000) (Thomas Bever, Susana Franck, John Morton, and Steven Pinker)
Part II: Thought
Introduction: Representations, psychological reality, and beyond (Luca Bonatti)
Chapter 3 In defense of massive modularity (Dan Sperber)
Chapter 4 Is the imagery debate over? If so, what was it about? (Zenon Pylyshyn)
Chapter 5 Mental models and human reasoning (Philip Johnson-Laird)
Chapter 6 Is the content of experience the same as the content of thought? (Ned Block)
Part III: Language
Introduction (Christophe Pallier and Anne-Catherine Bachoud-Levi)
Chapter 7 About parameters, prominence, and bootstrapping (Marina Nespor)
Chapter 8 Some sentences on our consciousness of sentences (Thomas Bever and David Townsend)
Chapter 9 Four decades of rules and associations, or Whatever happened to the past tense debate? (Steve Pinker)
Chapter 10 The roll of the silly ball (Anne Cutler, James McQueen, Dennis Norris, and A. Somejuan)
Chapter 11 Phonotactic constraints shape speech perception: Implications for sublexical and lexical processing (Juan Sequi, Ulricht Frauenfelder, and Pierre Halle)
Chapter 12 A crosslinguistic investigation of determiner production (Alfonso Caramazza, Michele Miozzo, Albert Costa, Niels Schiller, and F.-Xavier Alario)
Chapter 13 Now you see it, now you don't: Frequency effects in language production (Merrill Garrett)
Chapter 14 Relations between speech production and speech perception: Some behavioral and neurological observations (Willem Levelt)
Introduction: How to study development (Anne Christophe)
Chapter 15 Why we need cognition: Cause and developmental disorder (John Morton and Uta Frith)
Chapter 16 Counting in animals and humans (Rochel Gelman and Sara Cordes)
Chapter 17 On the very possibility of discontinuities in conceptual development (Susan Carey)
Chapter 18 Continuity, competence, and the object concept (Elizabeth Spelke and Susan Hespos)
Chapter 19 Infants' physical knowledge: Of acquired expectations and core principles (Renee Baillargeon)
Chapter 20 Learning language: What infants know about it, and what we don't know about that (Peter Jusczyk)
Chapter 21 On becoming and being bilingual (Nuria Sebastian-Galles and Laura Bosch)
Part V: Brain and Biology
Introduction On language, biology, and reductionism (Stanislaus Dehaene, Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, and Laurent Cohen)
Chapter 22 Cognitive neuroscience: The synthesis of mind and brain (Michael Posner)
Chapter 23 What's so special about speech? (Marc Hauser)
Chapter 24 The biological foundations of music (Isabelle Peretz)
Chapter 25 Brain and sounds: Lessons from ''dyslexic'' rodents (Albert Galaburda)
Chapter 26 The literate mind and the universal human mind (Jose Morais and Regine Kolinsky)
Chapter 27 Critical thinking about critical periods: Perspectives on a critical period for language acquisition (Elissa Newport, Daphne Bavelier, and Helen Neville)
Chapter 28 Cognition and neuroscience: Where were we? (John Marshall)
Appendix: Short Biography of Jacques Mehler
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Heather Bortfeld is currently an Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Texas A&M University. She received her doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, after which she was a postdoctoral fellow and research professor in the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences at Brown University. Her research focuses on how the speech that infants, young children, and adult non-native speakers hear affects their subsequent language development. Three broad questions characterize this work: 1) How do preverbal infants begin to parse fluent speech?, 2) What do young children know about the relationship between the form of a sentence and its meaning in the world?, and 3) How does the interactive nature of communication influence language use and comprehension?