How Language Enables Abstraction: A Study in Computational Cultural Psychology

  • Yair Neuman
  • Peter Turney
  • Yohai Cohen
Regular Article


The idea that language mediates our thoughts and enables abstract cognition has been a key idea in socio-cultural psychology. However, it is not clear what mechanisms support this process of abstraction. Peirce argued that one mechanism by which language enables abstract thought is hypostatic abstraction, the process through which a predicate (e.g., dark) turns into an object (e.g., darkness). By using novel computational tools we tested Peirce’s idea. Analysis of the data provides empirical support for Peirce’s mechanism and evidence of the way the use of signs enables abstraction. These conclusions are supported by the in-depth analysis of two case studies concerning the abstraction of sweet and dark. The paper concludes by discussing the findings from a broad and integrative theoretical perspective and by pointing to computational cultural psychology as a promising perspective for addressing long-lasting questions of the field.


Thought and language Abstraction Hypostatic abstraction Computational cultural psychology 



The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.


  1. Barsalou, L. W. (2005). Continuity of the conceptual system across species. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 309–311.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Büttcher, S., & Clarke, C. (2005). Efficiency vs. effectiveness in terabyte-scale information retrieval. Proceedings of the 14th Text REtrieval Conference (TREC 2005), Gaithersburg, MD.Google Scholar
  3. Caron, J. (2001). Experiments with LSA scoring: Optimal rank and basis. Proceedings of the SIAM Computational Information Retrieval Workshop (pp. 157–169). Raleigh, NC.Google Scholar
  4. Church, K. W., & Hanks, P. (1989). Word association norms, mutual information and lexicography. Proceedings of the 27th Annual Conference of the Association of Computational Linguistics (pp. 76–83). Association for Computational Linguistics, New Brunswick, NJ.Google Scholar
  5. Clark, A. (2006). Language, embodiment, and the cognitive niche. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 370–374.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce [CP] (Vols. 1–8). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Vols. 1–6, C. Hartshorne & P. Weiss, Eds.; Vols. 7–8, A. W. Burks, Ed.).Google Scholar
  7. Coltheart, M. (1981). The MRC psycholinguistic database. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 33A(4), 497–505.Google Scholar
  8. Danesi, M. (2003). Metaphorical “networks” and verbal communication: a semiotic perspective on human discourse. Sign Systems Studies, 31, 341–363.Google Scholar
  9. Davies, M. (2008). The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): 410+ million words, 1990-present. Retrieved from
  10. de Saussure, F. (1973). Course in General Linguistics (R. Harris, Trans.). London: Duckworth.Google Scholar
  11. Deutscher, G. (2010). Does your language shape how you think? The New York Times, 29 August 2010.Google Scholar
  12. Landauer, T. K., & Dumais, S. T. (1997). A solution to Plato’s problem: the latent semantic analysis theory of the acquisition, induction, and representation of knowledge. Psychological Review, 104, 211–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lawrence, J. A., & Valsiner, J. (1993). Conceptual roots of internalization: from transmission to transformation. Human Development, 36, 150–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lee, P. (1996). The Whorf theory complex. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  15. Luria, R. A., & Vygotsky, L. S. (1930). Ape, primitive man and child. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Google Scholar
  16. Michel, J.-B., Shen, Y. K., Aiden, A. P., Veres, A., Gray, M. K., Aiden, E. L. (2010). Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. Science [ 10.1126/science.1199644].
  17. Neuman, Y. (2003). Processes and boundaries of the mind: Extending the limit line. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  18. Neuman, Y. (2008). Reviving the living: Meaning making in living systems. Oxford: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  19. Neuman, Y. (2009). On love, hate and knowledge. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 90, 697–712.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Neuman, Y., & Nave, O. (2009). Metaphor-based meaning excavation. Information Sciences, 179, 2719–2728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Neuman, Y., & Nave, O. (2010). Why the brain needs language in order to be self-conscious. New Ideas in Psychology, 28, 37–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Pennebaker, J. W., & Francis, M. E. (2001). Linguistic inquiry and word count. USA: LEA.Google Scholar
  23. Pezzulo, G., & Castelfranchi, C. (2007). The symbol detachment problem. Cognitive Processes, 8, 115–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Rapp, R. (2003). Word sense discovery based on sense descriptor dissimilarity. Proceedings of the Ninth Machine Translation Summit (pp. 315–322). New Orleans.Google Scholar
  25. Salvatore, S., & Venuleo, C. (2008). Understanding the role of emotion in sense making: a semiotic psychoanalytic oriented perspective. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 42(1), 32–46.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Tausczik, Y. R., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2010). The psychological meaning of words: LIWC and computerized text analysis method. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29, 24–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Tobin, Y. (1990). Semiotics and linguistics. London: Longman Publishing Group.Google Scholar
  28. Turney, P. D., & Littman, M. L. (2003). Measuring praise and criticism: Inference of semantic orientation from association. ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS), 21(4), 315–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Turney, P. D., & Pantel, P. (2010). From frequency to meaning: vector space models of semantics. Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research (JAIR), 37, 141–188.Google Scholar
  30. Valsiner, J. (2007). Culture in minds and societies. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  31. Vauclair, J. (2003). Would humans without language be apes? In J. Valsiner & A. Toomela (Eds.), Cultural guidance in the development of the human mind. Vol 7. Advances in child development within culturally structured environment (pp. 9–26). Greenwich: Ablex Publishing Corporation.Google Scholar
  32. Volosinov, V. (1986). Marxism and the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Harvard UP.Google Scholar
  33. Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Harvard, MA: The MIT Press. Electronic source: Thinking and speaking

Copyright information

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EducationBen-Gurion University of the NegevBeer-ShevaIsrael
  2. 2.National Research Council CanadaOttawaCanada
  3. 3.Gilasio Coding. Ltd.Tel-AvivIsrael

Personalised recommendations