Conceptual Structure and Modularity

On the relation of semantic fields, conceptual primitives, and domain-specificity
Last updated October 18, 1996

Cognitive science makes a number of divergent claims about the structure of cognition. Some of this divergence can be traced to philosophical or "metaphysical" predilections--which at times correlate well with core modes of contrual. Some stem from different methodologies or investigative practices: for instance, a linguist looking at patterns in semantics is not usually thinking in terms of informationally encapsulated modules, domain-specific adaptations, or the way in which these patterns may be instantiated in the neural organization of the brain.

Given that the mind operates in several modalities, however, the question of how these modalities are connected remains a central problem in several approaches. How is it, for instance, that we can speak about what we see? Visual information is of a very different kind from verbal information, and a computational model of the mind is faced with the question of how these two modalities are able to interface. Is there a lingua franca of the brain in which the various modalities--such as the visual, the aural, the verbal, and the kinaesthetic--can communicate and exchange information? If so, what is the relation of this "mentalese" to language?

The lingua franca of the mind is generally thought to be inaccessible to conscious awareness; however, a case can also be made for consciousness being precisely the site at which the modalities talk to each other. In this case, the forms of consciousness would be those that are comprehensible to a wide variety of cognitive domains. (For a discussion of this proposal, see my "clearing-house" model of consciousness.)

Jackendoff (1987) reasons that mentalese is likely to consist in a set of conceptual structures into which the various modalities of information can get translated and become available to the other modalities. He explores the possibility that the use of the same words across several semantic fields is an indication of such conceptual structures, or primitives.

Three examples of semantic fields

Conceptual primitives GO, BE, and STAY across semantic fields

A. Spacial position

B. Possession

C. Predication / Ascription

Jackendoff's cross-field generalization is that "the three major concepts GO, BE, and STAY apply to three semantic fields that a priori have nothing to do with each other" (156). They are thus candidates for constituent conceptual structures of mentalese.

This move raises a number of questions. On the one hand, are cross-field generalizations a genuine indication of conceptual structures, or are they an artifact of the investigator's own creative act of categorization? On the other hand, if we grant the significans of the cross-field generalizations, how do these map onto modularity theory?

Here is one model that proposes how conceptual structures allow modular output to be shared:

Semantic Fields
Conceptual Primitives
flew over
lay on
remained in
gave to


In this view, conceptual structures arise from a higher-level perception of patterns (similarities and differences) in domain-specific output. Such patterns are mapped onto three independent dimensions of meaning: conceptual primitives (similarities between domains), semantic fields (contextual and relational information), and cognitive domain (the relevant inference engine).

Conceptual structure and language

In the case of literature, which may be considered a deliberate and excessive exploration of the tacit and implicit dimensions of ordinary language (Turner 20), this final result is of general significance. It suggests that any surface meaning encodes (in the sense of containing subtle pointers to) at least three dimensions of implicit meaning: conceptual primitives that derive from similarities between domains, semantic fields that represent contextual and relational information, and the inference characteristic of the domain the phenomenon has been placed in.


Object categorization and core faculties

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© 1996 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles