My life-long research programme has been to use linguistics, broadly understood as including cognition and communication, as a method for the scientific study of cultural representations in their pragmatic and social context in a way sensitive to problems in philosophy, politics, literature and the other humanities. More abstractly, I inquire into the nature of representation within cognition, in the mind-brain, in non-verbal media, in actions and in language in all its varieties; from dialect to mysticism. This is a method of ‘reading the language itself’ using linguistics. It is the tool with which I approach both philosophical problems and literary texts. To the degree that linguistics is a science, this is a ‘naturalizing’ move. Underlying this inquiry is a passion to understand what a human being is and what kind of reality we inhabit. The best way to do this is not through natural science alone, but by understanding the nature of representation itself in all its uses.
This research is by its very nature ‘inter-disciplinary’. Instead of traditional ‘disciplines’ or institutional ‘subjects’, I use particular intellectual ‘lineages’ in grappling with each particular challenge. A lineage is the way a particular ‘line of inquiry’ in research can be traced as it spreads and develops through successive generations of scholars. Examples are the urban dialectology which originates with Labov, Chomsky’s generative tradition, Halliday’s systemic-functional linguistics, Johnson and Lakoff’s cognitive linguistics; the pragmatics of Grice and Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory, conversation analysis with its origins in ethnomethodology, and so on. The term “linguistics” covers a large number of such sub-disciplines and each sub-discipline bundles to-gether many lines of inquiry. Think of all the lineages that make up sub-disciplines like pragmatics, discourse analysis and text or corpus linguistics. Each line also has the sub-lines followed by each particular researcher. In fact, each person probably understands and uses the concepts differently. And each seminal figure mentioned above is also embedded in a complex historical context. For example, Halliday’s line originates in the London School thinking of J.R. Firth and the influence of Malinowski; Chomsky’s line in Harris’ descriptive linguistics, in the mathematical theory of automata and in the birth of cognitive psychology; Gricean pragmatics within logic and ordinary language philosophy. Consider also the many lineages in related disciplines which deal with language outside ‘linguistics’, from philosophy, critical theory, psychology and anthropology to information and computing (for example, DRT or discourse representation theory.) In studying language, there is no one normative methodology. Instead, there is a vast, branching, evolving, emergent cultural complexity. It is also very clear that we are inescapably 'of our time and place' and it's necessary to be self-critically aware of this.
In my research I have tried to be sensitive to the history and philosophy of linguistics. I try to bridge the cognitive and social sciences and the humanities. In doing this I reject the concept of ‘two cultures’ as over-simple when examined both philosophically and in history. It can and must be transcended.
My most recent book, Language and Religion: A Journey into the Human Mind was published in 2011 by Cambridge University Press. My earlier book, also published by Cambridge, is Language and Society (2 ed. 1998). Both books are about the emergence and social dissemination of representations of very different types through countless acts of communication. I have also written numerous articles and working papers on various aspects of culture as representation and communication, both verbal and non-verbal, from music to history, literature and religion, to architecture. But any research programme is constantly changing, as new influences and problems are brought into play. This website, therefore, will be evolving and changing too.