Daniel Dor, The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology

Daniel Dor, The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015) 280 pp. £56 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-19-025662-3

For anyone interested in language and how it works in modern day society, Dor offers a compelling account of competing positions in discourse linguistics. This text offers a socio-linguistic perspective on the functional specificity of what it means to have ‘good conversation’. The work of Dor is powerful in that it offers an alternative theoretical position that some may associate with a postmodern take on language as a socially constructed communication technology.

What does language do as a socially constructed communication technology? What is its functional specificity? These are two key questions posed by Dor who highlights the importance of thinking about language, referring to the classical texts including the work of Chomsky and his depiction of the cognitive linguistic viewpoint (16). Dor recognises the significance of Chomsky’s work, confirming the general view that it is grounded in an account of cognition. Whilst Dor attempts to return to Chomsky's original set of ideas, he argues that a study of language must involve assembly of the components Chomsky identfies, and so he attempts to examine language as a socially constructed communication technology, rather than approaching it purely through its cognitive capacity (11). His aim is to frame language as an object of study by trying to gain an understanding of what it actually does, essentially by seeking a theoretical characterisation of its function as a socially constructed tool of communication (13). Furthermore, he insists that we must not confuse the questions first of what language does and second what we as communicators do with it.

Dor sets out his arguments in ten succinct chapters through which he develops his social-technological theory. He draws on contemporary linguistics in the introductory chapter in which he highlights classical theory by Chomsky and identifies two familiar trains of thought typically associated with linguistics, which are known as 'cognitive' and 'functionalist'.

In Chapter One, the ‘socio-technological theory’ of linguistics is introduced which leads on to three specific aims: firstly to use the theory to reimagine current issues in linguistics, secondly to demonstrate that it provides a unified outlook on human language and finally to find an alternative lens for positioning and theorizing linguistics in the modern day (6).  Chapter Two recognises the need in communication for humans to connect with others and their experiences. For Dor, communication in this sense is not linguistic as this would not enable humans to sense the real meaning of how their peers are feeling, which they can only do through ‘imagination’ and ‘experience’. This is a remarkable and far reaching vision and some may argue quite unrealistic, on the grounds that Ianguage is the means which allows for one to experience and imagine other people's feelings.

Chapter Three introduces the notion of ‘experiential mutual-identification for language’ which is identified as a claim about the essence of the social construction of language (34). Dor claims that his theory of language as a technology for the instruction of imagination is the first to accept the fragility of language into its theoretical core (57). Whilst the first three chapters examine the definitional foundations of the theory, Chapter Four attempts to focus on words and their meanings. More specifically, the focus is on exploring lexical meaning, an area in which the scholarly literature is vast, raising issues both numerous and complex. Overall, up to this point Dor examines how aspects of private experience are conveyed through mutual identification into the linguistic fabric of socially constructed meaning, and also how the interaction and friction between the normative meanings of language and the private world of experiential meanings help explain the functional logic of language and some properties of its signs (86). Chapter Five goes on to raise the question of linguistic relativity in relation to language as a private experience, pointing out that the modern empirical investigation of linguistic relativity has developed from within a much older philosophical and ideological tradition (86). Based on this account, language is said to reach the peak of its influence on private experience where it manages to replace direct experiencing and build an entire experiential world purely on imagination (102).

Chapter Six introduces the relevant steps involved in using the technologies of language, including firstly to decide, secondly to specify, and thirdly to complete. In the first stage of message construction, the speaker is required to make the most radical act of translation:  to abstract away from the analogue complexities of his or her experiential intent, and translate it and reduce it into what is known as a kernel of meaning (the message kernal) (106). The second stage of message construction is where the speaker is presented with a closed set of extensions (i.e. obligatory and optional) to the eventuality chosen for the message-kernel (107). The final stage of message construction involves the speaker developing the basic message into what is referred to as a ‘complete message’. These three processes are then codified and analysed further.

Chapter Seven introduces a discussion on the notion of syntax. The theory of language as a communication technology for the instruction of imagination does not just demote syntax from this position, it denies the existence of hierarchical syntax as a level of representation (123). Overall, the argument about syntactic complexity has commonly been associated with a meta-observation which intends to highlight the importance of relevant empirical facts for the overall theory of language. Interestingly, Dor highlights how in an individual’s regular life as a speaker, all the sentences that are communicated for grammaticality judgement are produced by speakers who intend to say something (145). This leads on to the discussion of two types of ungrammaticality, ie firstly, speakers who intend to follow the conventions of grammatical rules and fail to do so, and secondly, those speakers who intentionally break grammatical conventions in order to communicate something different. In Chapter Eight, Dor's emphasis on the universality of diversity is directed against Chomsky’s universal grammar, and argues that abandoning the concept of universal grammar necessitates a return to first principles.

Chapter Nine returns to the key claim for language as a social entity as opposed to a cognitive one. It is said that the theory of language as a socially constructed communication technology paves the way toward a new hypotheses: language acquisition may not be an individual project in the first instance (164). Dor develops the argument in this chapter by drawing on the views of Bates et al (1988, 1995) and Levinson (2012) by suggesting that we need to recognise the variability within different experiences of language acquisition, using the example of a child for illustration. Dor concludes by suggesting that children are capable of much more than merely acquiring an existing language; they can construct it for themselves (182). Chapter Ten traces the evolution of language and its speakers, once again returning to the views put forward by Chomsky, who argues that language is inherent and cognitive in all its capacity, being universal and non-functional. Dor questions this position by pointing out how the theory put forward by Chomsky is unable to advance an evolutionary explanation for these characteristics.

In the concluding chapter, titled ‘Reassembling the Puzzle’, Dor emphasizes that the most important aspect of this new theory is its potential to form a scientific discipline. By this, Dor means that researchers from all disciplines interested in language, should be able to begin to see that they are examining the same phenomena (216). One of the final points made by Dor summarises linguistic discourse as a ‘double-edged sword’ in the sense that whilst language may serve to bring our minds together, we are actually quite different from each other.

Overall, Dor's book has the potential to establish a new foundation for a communicative socially-based linguistic theory. Dor offers a framework for bringing together the two sides of linguistics which typically form psycholinguistics and socio-linguistics, and the book is about unpacking the tensions across the cognitive-social divide that can be said to be at play in trying to theorize new constructs. To return to the two questions posed in the introductory section, language can play an instrumental role in providing a lens for theorizing new and emerging technologies, such as the internet. Although communication technologies such as the internet are not recent innovations, Dor attempts to frame experience as individual and non-linguistic. For Dor, humans are able to understand each other through imagination and it is language that serves to instruct imagination through socially-constructed forms. In terms of functionality then, Dor suggests that language allows us to feed the imagination in connecting with social constructions of one reality.

Gurpinder Lalli, University of Wolverhampton


Bates, E., Bretherton, I., Snyder, L. (1988) 'Perceptual Symbol Systems,' Behavioural and Brain Sciences 22, 577–660

Bates, E., Dale, P. S., Thal, D. (1995) 'Individual Differences and their Implications for Theories of Language Development', in Fletcher, P. and MacWhinney, B. (eds.) Handbook of Child Language, 96–151 (Oxford: Blackwell)

Levinson, S. C. (2012) 'The Original Sin of Cognitive Science', Topics in Cognitive Science 4, 396 – 403