Ad hoc cognition and the Whorfian question: towards an experiential and situated model of language-thought interactions

Panos Athanasopoulos, Monique Flecken, Norbert Vanek

Barsalou (1983) introduced the notion of an ad hoc concept to refer to a novel category constructed on-the-go in order to achieve a goal relevant to the situation (e.g. constructing tourist activities to perform in Beijing while planning a vacation, Barsalou, 2010). Recently, Casasanto and Lupyan (2015) proposed that all concepts are ad hoc concepts. Under this ad hoc cognition framework, cognitive processing is dynamic by default, a constant interplay between an individual’s experiential history and the current context of operation. This makes ad hoc cognition an appealing explanatory framework for the idea that language affects cognitive processing of the perceived world, captured in Whorf’s (1956) linguistic relativity hypothesis (LRH). The LRH continues to generate vigorous debate and often highly contrasted views amongst academics. Much of the contention is rooted in disagreement over what kind of evidence ‘counts’ as an effect of language on cognition, which in itself is rooted in what one takes cognition, or cognitive representation, to be. For some scholars, the evidentiary hallmark of language shaping cognition is the fast modulation of behaviour in experimental designs where language is upregulated (e.g. by verbal priming, Boutonnet & Lupyan, 2015; by manipulating language context of operation, Athanasopoulos et al., 2015; or in novel category learning, Maier & Abdel Rahman, 2019) or down-regulated (e.g. by a concurrent verbal interference manipulation that disrupts online feedback between stimuli and their corresponding linguistic constructions, Winawer et al., 2007). For other scholars, however, such modulations of behaviour are taken as evidence that effects of language are transient and superficial, since they do not lead to reorganisation of the underlying conceptual space (e.g. Ünal & Papafragou, 2016; Barner et al. 2009). As Pinker (2007) puts it: “speakers of different languages tilt in different directions in a woolly task, rather than having differently structured minds” (p.148). But this criticism is only valid if we assume that there is an underlying fixed and static representational level. If one abandons the idea of fixed permanent concepts in the mind of the speaker, then what may seem like transient effects are actually a natural product of the ad hoc nature of conceptual representation. The current collection of papers brings together empirical evidence pointing to a model of language-thought interactions that places the fluid nature of the conceptual-perceptual system at its heart, as a predictive organism that interprets reality according to local context, task demands, and experiential priors.