Grounding meaning in experience: A broad perspective on embodied language


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Abstract

HighlightsInternalism maintains that the meaning of words and sentences depends on subject's experiences, and not on external entities.For the embodied approach to language, meaning stems form basic sensorimotor experiences.Neuroscientific data suggest that sensory, motor and emotional systems play a causal role in attributing meaning to words.Recent linguistic theories claim that linguistic signs (e.g. words) point to experiential clusters.This paper offers an interdisciplinary view of language embodiment and its wider implications.This work reviews key behavioural, neurophysiological and neuroimaging data on the neural substrates for processing the meaning of linguistic material, and tries to articulate the picture emerging from those findings with the notion of meaning coming from specific approaches in philosophy of language (the “internalist” view) and linguistics (words point at experiential clusters).The reviewed findings provide evidence in favour of a causal role of brain neural structures responsible for sensory, motor and even emotional experiences in attributing meaning to words expressing those experiences and, consequently, lend substantial support to an embodied and “internalist” conception of linguistic meaning. Key evidence concern verbs, nouns and adjectives with a concrete content, but the challenge that abstract domains pose to the embodied approach to language is also discussed. This work finally suggests that the most fundamental role of embodiment might be that of establishing commonalities among individual experiences of different members of a linguistic community, and that those experiences ground shared linguistic meanings.

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