Words as Tools and the Problem of Abstract Word Meanings


This paper proposes an extension of existing embodied views of cognition in order to account for the linguistic experience and its complexity. We claim that embodied views should be extended in order to consider not only language grounding but the social and normative aspects of language as well. Motor resonance mechanisms based on mirror neurons are a necessary but not sufficient component of this. We will argue that words cannot be conceived of as mere signals of something but also as tools that allows us to operate in the world. On this basis, we formulate a theoretical proposal that addresses one of the critical problems embodied views face: the problem of the so called “abstract concepts”. Our proposal extends embodied views assuming two simultaneous cognitive sources for word meanings; an individual one, the embodied individual experience, and a socially embodied one. While for words having a concrete referent labels are “attached” to concepts formed on the basis of sensorimotor individual experience, the same situation does not hold in the case of meanings of abstract words. In the latter case the cognitive source is still embodied, but primarily in the use of the social word/tool. Thus abstract words represent a means to collect a variety of sparse bodily and situational experiences.

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