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In a collaborative approach, William Starr merges psychology, linguistics, and computer science as he unravels the meaning of language—and of meaning.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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“You can’t really understand how language works or how it provides us with information about the world without understanding how the mind is mediating the whole process.”
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter

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The collaboration of philosophers who frame issues and specify arguments, and linguists and psychologists who design experiments for uncovering empirical facts is mutually invaluable to these disciplines.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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“Right now I’m co-teaching a seminar with a linguist, and we have students from psychology, linguistics, and philosophy, from all over,” referring to how Cornell’s distinction of collaborative research also applies to teaching.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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“There are lots of different accounts of what philosophy is and what it’s good for. My opinion is that we…integrate ideas from lots of different disciplines…It’s constantly reinventing itself.”
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

The Philosophy of Language

by Caitlin Hayes

Imagine two computers talking to each other, sending a program back and forth. As new information is received, the state of the machine changes. According to William B. Starr, Philosophy, it’s similar to what happens to people in conversation.

“But what I think is exciting and powerful is how humans and modern computers are different,” he says. “We have such rich connections with each other and the world. Language can be plugged into our lives and actions in much more complicated ways.”

Starr argues, for instance, that language is not merely an exact representation of the world. Rather, language represents the world indirectly through the way it influences our mental representations. “You can’t really understand how language works or how it provides us with information about the world,” he explains, “without understanding how the mind is mediating the whole process.”

Language and Meaning, Mediated by How Our Minds Represent the World

Starr’s primary area is philosophy of language, but he collaborates across disciplines to study bits of language and types of sentences that show the mind’s meddling. Starr says, “My inspiration comes from work in psychology, linguistics, and computer science, and I bring that to bear on big, traditional philosophical questions: What’s communication? What’s meaning?”

In artificial intelligence, it’s called the frame problem. You can program a robot with lots of information about the world, but every time they act, they change the world. Once the world is changed, the robot needs to update all of that information. “That’s really complicated,” Starr says. “It’d be much better if the robot could get by with a minimal representation of the world, because it would have less to adjust.”

Starr argues that the human mind has a similar strategy in place to narrow down the options when it comes to counterfactuals—“what if” statements or statements of alternative possibilities. “A very concrete example would be the light switch in this room,” Starr says, pointing. “Right now, the overhead lights are off, and the switch is down; but you can say, ‘If the switch were up, the lights would be on.’ We all interpret statements like that every day, and they seem easy. But think about how many different alternative possibilities there are where that switch is up.”

The switch could be up, but construction could have cut power to the building; or the bulb in the overhead light could be out. “What’s to say that the other possibilities are more distant? The statement is more about our concerns. When we cognitively represent alternative possibilities, we make the smallest changes possible because otherwise we’d have to have this all-encompassing representation of the world, and it’s just too much.”

Starr continues, “We can’t just talk about how these sentences picture reality. They are mediated by the way our minds represent the world.”

A Nontraditional Collaboration—Philosophy, Psychology, and Artificial Intelligence

Starr’s approach is unique in how he draws inspiration from various disciplines. On the one hand, collaborations serve a practical purpose for both sides.

“Philosophers are good at framing the issues, specifying the arguments, and seeing how to address the big questions,” Starr says. “But we don’t always have the tools to design an experiment, to find empirical facts to use as the premises of our arguments. Linguists and psychologists are excellent and well trained in doing that, and I feel like they really want to think about the big issues, but the demands of their disciplines don’t always afford them the time. That mutual benefit really gives these collaborations value.”

“Philosophers are good at framing the issues, specifying the arguments, and seeing how to address the big questions.”

The collaborations also allow Starr to approach old questions in new ways. From psychology, he takes the idea of the mind filling an ecological niche—where the mind’s processes are a series of survival mechanisms. He uses this idea to challenge the notion that language is the primary tool of the rational mind.

“When explaining language use, it’s tempting to impute superhuman rationality to people. This is, in part, because rationality and language set us apart from other creatures,” he explains. “At the same time, our rationality only comes in doses. It only applies in certain domains for certain reasons. In other cases, it fails us. I think psychology has been quite good and thorough in showing where it fails us, where we can rely on it and where we can’t.”

In some areas of psychology and artificial intelligence, Starr says, there’s a movement towards the idea of a bounded rationality to better describe the human mind and to create its artificial counterpart. “This takes the reasonable idea that there’s large energy and computation costs to really abstract logical reasoning,” Starr says. “If you can get by in a given domain without doing that, it’s easier to do massive, analogical, metaphorical thinking that gets the job done most of the time and quickly in ways that are useful to us.”

Eschewing rationality in philosophy, even partially, makes Starr a kind of heretic, however. “The tradition that I’m working in is very steeped in the belief in human rationality, and the power of rationality. So I’ve been trying to make use of this work in psychology and A.I. to temper the enthusiasm of my own discipline,” he laughs.

Innovative Interdisciplinary Thinking in the Humanities  

Pulling inspiration from and collaborating with multiple academic disciplines is not standard practice in most fields in the humanities. A unique set of opportunities led Starr to work in this way. “It started early on for me, at Amherst College,” he says. “It’s a liberal arts college, and there’s no core curriculum, which is certainly a privilege that can be abused. But for me it meant that I was able to take courses in any subject area I was interested in. It really empowered me to continue doing research in this way.”

Starr chose Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, for his PhD, partly because of an interdisciplinary cognitive science center that encouraged collaboration between linguists, psychologists, and philosophers. “I think it was both of those kinds of educational experiences—having the right kind of institutional infrastructure to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration,” Starr says.

Now, at Cornell, Starr appreciates the opportunity to bring this research ethic to other departments on campus and to his teaching. “It’s extraordinarily beneficial to be at a university that has a strong arts and sciences school in general, not just a strength in one department or other,” Starr says. “Being able to pursue that kind of collaborative research, in a way that’s supported by the university, is really helpful. And Cornell is very supportive of collaborative teaching, too. Right now I’m co-teaching a seminar with a linguist, and we have students from psychology, linguistics, and philosophy, from all over.”

Starr continues, “There are lots of different accounts of what philosophy is and what it’s good for. My opinion is that we get to be kind of speculative scientists who integrate ideas from lots of different disciplines. I don’t think of philosophy as having some distinctive subject matter. It’s constantly reinventing itself.”