Linguistics Seminar: With the body in mind – School of Literature, Art and Media Linguistics Seminar: With the body in mind – School of Literature, Art and Media

Linguistics Seminar: With the body in mind

With the body in mind: the ‘drift’ of contemporary brain sciences and the meaning potential of systemic functional theory
David Butt, from Macquarie University


This is an outsider’s report on certain recent developments in brain sciences and the ways in which we, as linguists and semioticians, may derive new potential from these developments for theorizing systems of meaning. To those who lived through the decades of the cognitive revolution (viz. in artificial intelligence, and in linguistics), the current emphases in studies of human development suggest a dramatic ‘swerve’ away from the metaphors of computation and brain modularity, away from simplistic determinism in genetics, and away from the preoccupation with abstract disembodied notions of ‘thinking’. By contrast, topics such as the personalization of the brain; mammalian sociality; tool use in animals with hemispheric brains; neuronal plasticity; epigenetics; the significance of movement and prosodic musicality; network theories of learning; the evolution of the polyvagal system, and ‘security of feeling’ are receiving considerable emphasis in the literature pertaining to human development. Yet, such topics are not novel. Research under these and related descriptors has roots going back to the 19th century – to the medical theories of the brain and consciousness by Hughlings Jackson (1835-1911); Ribot (1839-1916); Janet (1869-1947); and even to Darwin’s reflections in the ‘Descent of Man’ (1987/4) and in his later study of emotions.

Works by Halliday and Hasan and by many of the contributors to Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) have consistently held to the “biological value” of interpersonal meaning, including its role as intra-personal discourse; that is, as the index of consciousness in the growth of the child’s mind. As a reader therefore, you may feel justified in claiming that ‘cognitivism’, and even brain sciences, are “late to the party”. Many proponents of SFL are familiar with the idea of “interpersonal first” among the metafunctions. But to leave recent literature of the brain and evolutionary sciences in the background constitutes a missed opportunity for functional theory. As to exactly what kind of opportunity, I am unsure. The aim of the talk is to invite the discussion of the potential.

Certainly, in the priorities of current brain sciences, there are new ways of us seeing human development, and new chances for extending collaborations across disciplines. I will make a number of suggestions organized by metafunction; by stratum; by system; and by relevance to theory from eg. Halliday-Matthiesen; Bernstein-Hasan; Martin-White; Halliday-Painter; Kress-van Leeuwen- O’Toole.

Authors whose views I wish to cite in the discussion include: S. Porges on the poly-vagal system; I.McGilchristy on hemispheric brains; J. Pankseep on emotions; S. Malloch & C. Trevarthen on communicative musicality; E. Goldberg on frontal lobes; J. Shapiro on evolutionary biology; M. Arbib on language origins; R. Meares on ‘play’ and creativity; A. Damasio on biological ‘value;’; and S. Dehaene on ‘broadcasting’ circuits in the brain [Reading list to be handed out on the day].


Room 209,
Mills Building,
The University of Sydney NSW 2006


Sep 06 2019


4:00 pm - 5:30 pm



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