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This webpage is the current version of rePatch ·14 (the reverse side of Chapter 14·) of Turning Signs, as of 3 August 2018. Each point is independent but some terms are hyperlinked to their definitions or to related contexts elsewhere. Tip: You can also search this page or the whole netbook or the gnoxic blog for any term.
The lexicon of the new language would reflect the composition of reality and in it every word should have a definite and univocal meaning, every content should be represented by one and only one expression, and the contents were not supposed to be the products of fancy, but should represent only every really existing thing, no more and no less.— Eco (1995, 216)
Peirce made a much more pragmatically realistic proposal in his ‘ethics of terminology’: in the vocabulary of any branch of science, ‘each word should have a single exact meaning’ (EP2:264) – but this requirement should not be applied too rigidly, even within the sciences, because words are symbols, and symbols grow.
As to the ideal to be aimed at, it is, in the first place, desirable for any branch of science that it should have a vocabulary furnishing a family of cognate words for each scientific conception, and that each word should have a single exact meaning, unless its different meanings apply to objects of different categories that can never be mistaken for one another. To be sure, this requisite might be understood in a sense which would make it utterly impossible. For every symbol is a living thing, in a very strict sense that is no mere figure of speech. The body of the symbol changes slowly, but its meaning inevitably grows, incorporates new elements and throws off old ones. But the effort of all should be to keep the essence of every scientific term unchanged and exact; although absolute exactitude is not so much as conceivable. Every symbol is, in its origin, either an image of the idea signified, or a reminiscence of some individual occurrence, person or thing, connected with its meaning, or is a metaphor. Terms of the first and third origins will inevitably be applied to different conceptions; but if the conceptions are strictly analogous in their principal suggestions, this is rather helpful than otherwise, provided always that the different meanings are remote from one another, both in themselves and in the occasions of their occurrence. Science is continually gaining new conceptions; and every new scientific conception should receive a new word, or better, a new family of cognate words. The duty of supplying this word naturally falls upon the person who introduces the new conception; but it is a duty not to be undertaken without a thorough knowledge of the principles and a large acquaintance with the details and history of the special terminology in which it is to take a place, nor without a sufficient comprehension of the principles of word-formation of the national language, nor without a proper study of the laws of symbols in general. That there should be two different terms of identical scientific value may or may not be an inconvenience, according to circumstances. Different systems of expression are often of the greatest advantage.We might say that ‘growth’ of meaning in a symbol system, like development of the brain, is a matter of progress toward optimal connectivity. Throwing off old elements is part of the growth of meaning, just as it is essential to ‘the plasticity of the child's mental habits’ (recalling Chapter 1). For a symbol, as for a population of neurons, too many connections would be counterproductive.
In logical terms, a word or other symbol ‘grows’ when either its breadth increases (thus revealing previously unknown relations among subjects) or its logical depth increases (so that the symbol is more intimately connected with the rest of the guidance system). Iconic and indexical signs, as opposed to symbols, may not be alive in themselves, but they provide the freedom and the forcefulness (respectively) necessary for the life of symbols in which they are involved.
Peirce's concept of the ‘perfect sign’ reflects the ‘living’ quality of symbols rather than the rigidity of a ‘perfect language’ as conceived by Comenius. ‘Such perfect sign is a quasi-mind. It is the sheet of assertion of Existential Graphs’ (EP2:545). A graph scribed on the sheet of assertion is a ‘Pheme,’ i.e. a proposition or Dicisign (CP 4.538). Stjernfelt (2014, 85) points out as a ‘central issue in Peircean logic that the reference of a Dicisign is taken to be relative to a selected universe of discourse—a model—consisting of a delimited set of objects and a delimited set of predicates, agreed upon by the reasoners or communicating parties, often only implicitly so.’ The plurality of universes is an aspect of polyversity, which avoids the ‘ineffability of truth’ which is entailed by treating logic as a single ‘universal language’:
In Peirce's doctrine of Dicisigns, the plurality of representations is evident in the fact that the same objects may be addressed using different semiotic tools, highlighting different aspects of them. … If you accept only one language, the question of the relation of this language to its object cannot be posed outside of this language—and truth becomes ineffable. If several different, parallel approaches to the same object are possible, you can discuss the properties of one language in another, and you may use the results of one semiotic tool to criticize or complement those of another. Even taking logic itself as the object, Peirce famously did this, developing several different logic formalisms (most notably the Algebra of Logic and the Existential Graphs), unproblematically discussing the pros and cons of these different representation systems.—Stjernfelt 2014, 85(fn)
Sincerity is incommunicable because it becomes insincere by being communicated. Communication presupposes the difference between information and utterance and the contingency of both.— Niklas Luhmann (1995, 150)
What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.— Emerson, quoted by Heiser (2003, 17)
One consequence of polyversity is that, as the ancient sage put it, ‘the name that can be named is not the eternal name’ (Tao Te Ching 1). Differences arise between presence and representation.
The pit of a peach or cherry has nothing to do with the kind of pit you can dig with a shovel. We can say then that these are two different words with respect to denotation, although they are the same with respect to both spoken and written form. Thus we can pit one kind of difference against another. Likewise, something moving fast is in rapid motion, but something stuck fast is not moving at all. To quicken something is to bring it to life, and thus make it ‘quicker,’ but to fasten something is to immobilize it, not to make it ‘faster’. And then there's the verb fast, which has yet another meaning, involving neither movement nor the lack of it.
Since the number of one-syllable sounds distinguishable in English (or any language) is finite, it is predictable that as the language develops, one sound will accidentally get attached to two or more different concepts. Then we have two words that happen to sound exactly the same: homonyms, as they are called in linguistics. Homonymy is different from polysemy, in which one word can have many ‘senses’ or ‘meanings’; yet ‘there is an extensive grey area between the concepts’ (McArthur 1992, 795).
Peirce by 1873 (W3:72-5, CP 7.351-3) had worked out a theory of mental causality based on the concept of consciousness as ‘something which takes up time.’ Since time is conceived as continuous (not as a series of discrete instants), we likewise conceive of consciousness as a continuous process.
It will easily be seen that when this conception is once grasped the process of the determination of one idea by another becomes explicable. What is present to the mind during the whole of an interval of time is something generally consisting of what there was in common in what was present to the mind during the parts of that interval. And this may be the same with what is present to the mind during any interval of time; or if not the same, at least similar — that is, the two may be such that they have much in common. These two thoughts which are similar may be followed by others that are similar and according to a general law by which every thought similar to either of these is followed by another similar to those by which they are followed. … There is besides this a causation running through our consciousness by which the thought of any one moment determines the thought of the next moment no matter how minute these moments may be. And this causation is necessarily of the nature of a reproduction; because if a thought of a certain kind continues for a certain length of time as it must do to come into consciousness the immediate effect produced by this causality must also be present during the whole time, so that it is a part of that thought. Therefore when this thought ceases, that which continues after it by virtue of this action is a part of the thought itself. In addition to this there must be an effect produced by the following of one idea after a different idea; otherwise there would be no process of inference except that of the reproduction of the premises.This anticipates Peirce's later statements to the effect that the antecedent-consequent relation is the essential concept for explaining the process of determination. But does this concept at the heart of inference also explain causality in the physical realm? Peirce addressed this question under the rubric of ‘the logic of events’ in his Cambridge Conferences lecture series of 1898.
In his sixth lecture, on ‘Causation and Force’ (RLT 197-217), Peirce took pains to show that in physics as well as philosophy, different and incompatible concepts of causation have prevailed as times have changed. He also argued (RLT 198), in opposition to Mill, that causation must be regarded as a relation between facts, not between events. As he put it in 1904,
That which is caused, the causatum, is, not the entire event, but such abstracted element of an event as is expressible in a proposition, or what we call a “fact.” The cause is another “fact.”In the Cambridge lecture, Peirce outlined what we might call a “common-sense” concept of causation, as follows:EP2:315
the grand principle of causation which is generally held to be the most certain of all truths and literally beyond the possibility of doubt … involves three propositions to which I beg your particular attention. The first is, that the state of things at any one instant is completely and exactly determined by the state of things at one other instant. The second is that the cause, or determining state of things, precedes the effect or determined state of things in time. The third is that no fact determines a fact preceding it in time in the same sense in which it determines a fact following it in time.Peirce went on to show that this ‘principle of causation’ is ‘in flat contradiction to the science of mechanics,’ i.e. to ‘the dominant mechanical philosophy,’ which deals only with ‘particles of matter with their masses, their relative positions in space at different instants of time, and the immutable laws of the relations of those three elements of space, time, and matter.’ According to the mathematical models of Newtonian physics, ‘the positions of the masses at any one instant are not determined by their positions at any other single instant, even with the aid of the laws. On the contrary, that which is determined is an acceleration. Now an acceleration is the relation of the position at one instant not to the position at another instant, but to the positions at a second and a third instant’ (RLT 199). This contradicts the first proposition of the three given above by Peirce as ‘the grand principle of causation’; and the ‘mechanical philosophy’ also contradicts the other two, because it represents causation as reversible, so that ‘the future determines the past in precisely the same way in which the past determines the future’ (RLT 201). Thus the principle of causation in the physical domain of the Law of Energy is ‘in flat contradiction’ to ‘the grand principle of causation’ as stated above.RLT 198-9
But when from the world of physical force we turn to the psychical world all is entirely different. Here we find no evident trace of any state of mind depending in opposite ways upon two previous states of mind. Every state of mind, acting under an overruling association, produces another state of mind.… I come down in the morning; and the sight of the newspaper makes me think of the Maine, the breakfast is brought in, and the sight of something I like puts me into a state of cheerful appetite; and so it goes all day long. Moreover, the effect is not simultaneous with the cause. I do not think of the explosion of the Maine simultaneously with seeing the newspaper, but after seeing it, though the interval be but a thirtieth of a second. Furthermore, the relations of the present to the past and to the future, instead of being the same, as in the domain of the Law of Energy, are utterly unlike. I remember the past, but I have absolutely no slightest approach to such knowledge of the future. On the other hand I have considerable power over the future, but nobody except the Parisian mob imagines that he can change the past by much or by little. Thus all three propositions of the law of causation are here fully borne out.This account of psychical or mental causation is similar to Peirce's 1873 theory in its focus on the irreversibility of determination in time, and it does bear out the proposition that the state of things (or state of mind) at one time is determined by the state of things at one other time (and not two). We might question whether it ‘fully bears out’ the proposition ‘that the state of things at any one instant is completely and exactly determined by the state of things at one other instant,’ because in semiosis, determination is never ‘complete’ or ‘exact.’ But this oversimplification may result from the fact that ‘instants,’ ‘states of things’ and ‘facts’ are abstractions from the flow of experience, which we deploy as ideal entities in our mathematical models of causality – including physical or ‘dynamic’ causality.RLT 201-2, CP 6.69-70
A state of things is an abstract constituent part of reality, of such a nature that a proposition is needed to represent it. There is but one individual, or completely determinate, state of things, namely, the all of reality. A fact is so highly a prescissively abstract state of things, that it can be wholly represented in a simple proposition, and the term “simple,” here, has no absolute meaning, but is merely a comparative expression.EP2:378, 1906
Besides, Peirce's ‘logic of events’ (or ‘objective logic’) regarded the present state of the universe as evolving from an original state of things in which there was ‘no compulsion and no law’ (CP 6.217), and thus the rationale of its evolution was not limited to deductive logic, the only kind of inference that can be exact. This, said Peirce, is
the prime difference between my objective logic and that of Hegel. He says, if there is any sense in philosophy at all, the whole universe and every feature of it, however minute, is rational, and was constrained to be as it is by the logic of events, so that there is no principle of action in the universe but reason. But I reply, this line of thought, though it begins rightly, is not exact. A logical slip is committed; and the conclusion reached is manifestly at variance with observation. It is true that the whole universe and every feature of it must be regarded as rational, that is as brought about by the logic of events. But it does not follow that it is constrained to be as it is by the logic of events; for the logic of evolution and of life need not be supposed to be of that wooden kind that absolutely constrains a given conclusion. The logic may be that of the inductive or hypothetic inference.Even dynamic causation ‘must be regarded as rational’ in order to be intelligible, and ‘exact logical analysis shows dynamic causation (if every element of it be considered) is more than the mere brute force, the dyadic action, that it appears to superficial thinkers to be. For it is governed by law’ (CP 6.329, c.1909) – governed, but not completely determined in every respect.CP 6.218 (1898)
All our knowledge, all our thought, is in signs – including our knowledge of what happens ‘whenever one thing acts upon another.’ That action may be essentially dyadic, but our cognition of it must be the triadic action of semiosis; only semiotic determination can render physical causation intelligible.
Peirce argues (EP2:392) that the best way of ‘determining the precise sense which we are to attach to the term determination’ is to realize that a sign whose meaning was completely determinate would leave “no latitude of interpretation” at all, ‘either for the interpreter or for the utterer.’ This makes the definition of determination ‘turn upon the interpretation’ (EP2:393). This way of defining determination applies to ‘anything capable of indeterminacy’ (EP2:392) – but if ‘everything indeterminate is of the nature of a sign’ (as Peirce argues, EP2:392 fn), then the processes of determination and semiosis are inseparable from one another.
In 1906, Peirce went on to argue – based on the analysis represented by his Existential Graphs – that semiosis at any level of complexity amounts to a mutual determination of signs, paradigmatically of Antecedent and Consequent:
It thus appears that the difference between the Term, the Proposition, and the Argument, is by no means a difference of complexity, and does not so much consist in structure as in the services they are severally intended to perform.But of course the argument does not end here; this is only a set of ‘Prolegomena to an Apology for Pragmaticism.’
For that reason, the ways in which Terms and Arguments can be compounded cannot differ greatly from the ways in which Propositions can be compounded. A mystery, or paradox, has always overhung the question of the Composition of Concepts. Namely, if two concepts, A and B, are to be compounded, their composition would seem to be necessarily a third ingredient, Concept C, and the same difficulty will arise as to the Composition of A and C. But the Method of Existential Graphs solves this riddle instantly by showing that, as far as propositions go, and it must evidently be the same with Terms and Arguments, there is but one general way in which their Composition can possibly take place; namely, each component must be indeterminate in some respect or another; and in their composition each determines the other. On the recto this is obvious: “Some man is rich” is composed of “Something is a man” and “something is rich,” and the two somethings merely explain each other's vagueness in a measure. Two simultaneous independent assertions are still connected in the same manner; for each is in itself vague as to the Universe or the “Province” in which its truth lies, and the two somewhat define each other in this respect. The composition of a Conditional Proposition is to be explained in the same way. The Antecedent is a Sign which is Indefinite as to its Interpretant; the Consequent is a Sign which is Indefinite as to its Object. They supply each the other's lack.CP 4.572
From the human side, Farley Mowat communicated with wolves by pissing around his territory. But could he say anything to them about, say, astronomy? As a member of a symbolic species, he could even talk about things and situations that don't exist, and about whether they could or should exist (modality). Whether this actually raises the level of conversation is debatable – but only in symbols.
Is a symbol system a “code”? That depends on how we use the word “code.”
Our highly developed and highly discriminating abilities to think about situations that we are not observing are developments of powers that we share with other animals. But, at the same time, one must not make the mistake of supposing that language is merely a “code” that we use to transcribe thoughts we could perfectly well have without the “code”. This is a mistake, not only because the simplest thought is altered (e.g., rendered far more determinate) by being expressed in language but because language alters the range of experiences we can have. But the fact remains that our power of imagining, remembering, expecting what is not the case here and now is a part of our nature.— Hilary Putnam (1999, 48)
Avoiding simplistic notions of ‘code’ turns out to be important in other contexts as well; but writers who point this out often omit mention of more cogent usages, and thus appear to be rejecting any and all use of the term. For example, Fauconnier and Turner (2002, 360) refer to the
falsity of the general view that conceptual structure is “encoded” by the speaker into a linguistic structure, and that the linguistic structure is “decoded” by the hearer back into a conceptual structure. An expression provides only sparse and efficient prompts for constructing a conceptual structure.
The authors object to calling the ‘constructing’ process a ‘decoding’ process if (or because) it would imply that the actual (felt) meaning of a properly decoded message is the same as the speaker's felt meaning that was coded in the message. But the determination of a meaning, or an interpretant, is not reversible; there is no “decoding” of a sign into the object or the prior sign that determined it; interpreting is another determination process. Yet there has to be some connection between the speaker's experience and the hearer's; to deny this is to deny that communication is possible, which is hardly a useful assumption. Fauconnier and Turner assume that such a connection exists in their very next sentence: ‘The problem, then, is to find the relations between formally integrated linguistic structure on the one hand and conceptually integrated structures built by the speaker or retrieved by the hearer on the other.’ In speaking of conceptual structures ‘retrieved’ by the hearer, the authors clearly imply a link between speaker's meaning and hearer's meaning.
One way of expressing the link is to use a container metaphor: the concept is in some sense taken out of (or retrieved from) the message by the hearer. But we have no way to place experiences or conceptual structures side by side and see how well they match, because neither party in the exchange (nor any third party) has access to those concepts, except through the medium of the expression. This seems to be the point made by Fauconnier and Turner – but it also seems to be the point encapsulated in Bateson's statement that all messages are coded. The objection raised by Fauconnier and Turner is a useful caveat for users of words in the code family, not a valid reason for avoiding those terms altogether.
Edelman and Tononi (2000, pp. 93-94) raise a similar objection to the use of “code” terminology, referring not to linguistic processes but to those of memory “storage” and “retrieval.”
The problem the brain confronts is that signals from the world do not generally represent a coded input. Instead, they are potentially ambiguous, are context-dependent, and are not necessarily adorned by prior judgement of their significance.Again, the point here in saying that input to the brain is generally not coded is essentially the same point Bateson raised by saying that it is coded: namely that actual meaning is constructed by the brain and only mediately determined by ‘input’ from the external world. Edelman and Tononi are objecting to the misconception that such ‘input’ is represented in or by the brain as stored information in such a way that the input could be restored or retrieved from the brain or its processes. And again, they are not denying a connection between what happens in the world and what happens in the brain, only that the former could be reconstructed from the latter, or that anyone could be in a position to judge the accuracy of the “reconstruction.” Yes, the terms code and representation can be misleading – if the reader fails to decode them appropriately! But if we try to avoid all terms which can be misleading, we will soon have to give up all attempts at communication.
Confusion of “code” with cipher also causes problems in discourse about the ‘genetic code.’
In fact, the image of genes ‘coding for’ physical features is often quite misleading. Rather, genes code for possible physical features, in ways that depend heavily on a variety of environmental factors which affect their expression.(See Marcus 2004 for a fuller explanation.) Here the reading of the ‘coded’ message is a recursive process taking place in an environment (the body) which is itself under development. Each gene may specify a chain of amino acids, which then fold into a protein, and so on … but by the time the ‘meaning’ of the genome is fully expressed (decoded), there is generally no way to trace a specific bodily or behavioral feature back to a single gene. And needless to say, none of the coding or decoding involved here is done consciously.— Clark (1997, 93)
Human verbal communication is not a code-deciphering operation. Every utterance is compatible with many different interpretations, and a listener's task (or rather the listener's brain's task) is to infer an optimal interpretation, via a description of what the speaker intended.Boyer is quite right that no ‘deciphering’ is going on, because the decoding involved in communication is not a one-to-one mapping between speaker's intention and listener's interpretation. So Boyer's point is virtually the same as Bateson's point in saying that all messages are coded; only his usage of ‘code’ is different from Bateson's.
The crude notion of ‘code’ implied by Boyer could have been derived from Sperber and Wilson (1995), who in their first chapter present an equally crude notion of ‘decoding,’ and of ‘semiotics’ as well. According to them, ‘semiotics’ is an attempt at ‘discovering an underlying code in the strict sense: that is, a system of signal-message pairs which would explain how myths and literary works succeed in communicating … ’ (1995, 8). In other words, a ‘code’ is essentially a cipher and semiotics a search for such a ‘code.’ Whatever ‘semiotics’ they are referring to, it bears no resemblance to Peircean semiotics, or even to that outlined in Eco's Theory of Semiotics (1976).
As is clearly maintained in Theory (2.15), the standard communication model proposed by information theorists (Sender, Message, Addressee – in which the message is decoded on the basis of a Code shared by both the virtual poles of the chain) does not describe the actual functioning of communicative intercourses. The existence of various codes and subcodes, the variety of sociocultural circumstances in which a message is emitted (where the codes of the addressee can be different from those of the sender), and the rate of initiative displayed by the addressee in making presuppositions and abductions – all result in making a message (insofar as it is received and transformed into the content of an expression) an empty form to which various possible senses can be attributed. Moreover, what one calls ‘message’ is usually a text, that is, a network of different messages depending on different codes and working at different levels of signification.— Eco (1979, 5)
Eco himself, especially in his early work such as Theory, has been accused of what Deacon calls ‘the code fallacy,’ a legacy of Saussure's ‘semiology.’
The father of 20th-century linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, described language reference as a mapping between a signifier and a signified (see Saussure 1983). Many have described this as the linguistic code. Over the past century this approach has led to remarkable insights concerning the systematicity of language properties.However, it has also distracted some semioticians from the fully triadic nature of symbolic signs as used in language.— Deacon 2012, 394-5
A code is constituted by a one-to-one mapping between conventionally determined sign vehicles in two languages. Most familiar computer languages consist of terms and characters borrowed from English and mathematics. In order to control computer operations that lack the logical organization of a language, what amounts to a translation step is necessary. Software programs called interpreters and compilers substitute machine commands for certain terms and characters of programming language. A string of machine commands directly corresponds to operations to be performed. Computation is often described as ‘symbol processing.’ Of course, the only symbolic interpretation occurs in the minds of human users. Otherwise there is no more symbolic reference in a computer than in an internal combustion engine. That alphanumeric characters are not intrinsically symbolic becomes obvious when they begin to spontaneously appear on the screen due to computer malfunction. We interpret these as indices of an underlying functional problem, not symbolic of anything.In a natural language, one-to-one mapping between elements of language and objects in the world is only characteristic of proper names (though the phonological mapping of letters to sounds in alphabetic writing systems offers an imprecise parallel). If a language consisted only of one-to-one correspondence relationships, it would consist entirely of something analogous to proper nouns. This could never produce anything other than lists. So clearly something is missing in this simplified account.— Deacon 2012, 395
Based on their crude understanding of “code” terminology, Sperber and Wilson (1995, 7) accuse ‘the semiotic programme’ of ‘failure’ and ‘intellectual bankruptcy.’ Since they want theirs to be considered the standard theory of communication, they try to drive out the competition for that niche by arguing for its unfitness. In order to do this they have to draw a caricature of ‘the semiotic programme’ rather than describe accurately the actual semiotic work of Peirce, Eco etc. Weighed down by their analytical/computational approach, Sperber and Wilson have gone to laborious lengths to say things about communication that are really rather obvious. Hence the attempt to inflate their own reputation by deflating that of the competition – a common feature of academic politics.
Semioticians can play the same game. In one paean of praise for the discipline, Thomas Sebeok takes time to pour scorn on ‘such fatiguing twentieth-century experiments in obfuscation and chaos, pomposity or trivial pursuits, as existentialism, structuralism … ’ and a long list of others (Sebeok 2001b, 6). But Sebeok could just as well have looked in the mirror for examples of pompous obfuscation. Witness his insistence that ‘language’ is unique to humans, even though semiosis and communication pervade the biosphere. Sebeok defines language as ‘humankind's peculiar secondary modeling device … which is based on inborn neural circuitry underlying universal syntactic structures’ (Sebeok 2001b, 16). This Chomskyan concept of ‘language’ is not as rigorous as it pretends to be, given the lack of evidence for the existence of these ‘universal syntactic structures’ or the ‘inborn neural circuitry’ they are supposed to be based on.
This concept of ‘language’ is legitimate enough if used consistently; Sebeok has as much right as anyone to define his terms as he likes. But he denies that right to others, while his own usage is inconsistent. He derides the idea that any form of communication between nonhuman animals can be called ‘language’ or even that studies of ‘animal communications shed any light on language’ (2001b, xx); yet he does not object to talk of the genetic code as a ‘language,’ and quotes approvingly the remark that a protein ‘speaks in a language to which genes, cells, tissue and organs all respond’ (2001b, 2). Clearly it's not the ethics of terminology but the contingencies of an academic turf war that lead Sebeok to claim ‘language’ for genes and proteins while denying it to our primate cousins. (For a more reasonable discussion and a summary of the evidence concerning of the ‘animal language’ question, see Rumbaugh, Beran and Savage-Rumbaugh in Maestripieri 2003, 395-423; for more on both sides of the ape-language debate, see Terrace and Metcalfe 2005, Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin 1994.)
Howard Odum describes a version of the meaning cycle operating on a global level:
Because information has to be carried by structures, it is lost when the carriers disperse (second energy law). Therefore, emergy is required to maintain information.… So in the long run, maintaining information requires a population operating an information copy and selection circle …. The information copies must be tested for their utility. Variation occurs in application and use because of local differences and errors. Then the alternatives that perform best are selected, and the information of the selected systems is extracted again. Many copies are made so that the information is broadly shared and used again, completing the loop. In the process, errors are eliminated, and improvements may be added in response to the adaptation to local variations.The information process, which is the ‘application and use’ of “stored” or potential information to actually inform the guidance system, is the crucial part of this copy and selection circle; ‘the ability to retrieve and use information is rapidly diluted as the number of stored information items increases. To accumulate information without selection is to lose its use’ (Odum 2007, 241).— H.T. Odum (2007, 88)
A clear-cut example is seen in the genetic code. The code is made up of triplets of nucleotide bases, of which there are four kinds: G, C, A, and T. Each triplet, or codon, specifies one of the twenty different amino acids that make up a protein. Since there are sixty-four different possible codons – actually sixty-one, if we leave out three stop codons – which makes a total of more than one per amino acid, the code words are degenerate. For example, the third position of many triplet codons can contain any one of the four letters or bases without changing their coding specificity. If it takes a sequence of three hundred codons to specify a sequence of one hundred amino acids in a protein, then a large number of different base sequences in messages (approximately 3100) can specify the same amino-acid sequence. Despite their different structures at the level of nucleotides, these degenerate messages yield the same protein.This biological usage of the term degenerate is quite different from the mathematical sense used by Peirce (polyversity strikes again!); here degeneracy refers to the ability of different structures to serve the same systemic function. As Ernst Mayr (1988, 141) points out, this complicates evolutionary theory because it means that mutations consisting of base-pair substitutions can be ‘neutral’ with respect to selection. But this inconvenience is not one we could dispense with, as Edelman goes on to explain:— Edelman (2004, 43-4)
Degeneracy is a ubiquitous biological property. It requires a certain degree of complexity, not only at the genetic level as I have illustrated above, but also at cellular, organismal, and population levels. Indeed, degeneracy is necessary for natural selection to operate and it is a central feature of immune responses. Even identical twins who have similar immune responses to a foreign agent, for example, do not generally use identical combinations of antibodies to react to that agent. This is because there are many structurally different antibodies with similar specificities that can be selected in the immune response to a given foreign molecule.What Edelman calls degeneracy is called ‘multiple realizability’ by Deacon (2011, 29), who gives the example of oxygen transport in circulatory systems. This is realized by hemoglobin in humans and other mammals, but by other molecules in (for instance) clams and insects.
For us humans, degeneracy is perhaps most interesting for its role in generating conscious experience. Neural processes related to the experience of having a world can be analyzed in terms of ‘maps,’ and the relations among these maps turn out to be degenerate. Visual experience alone may involve dozens of them, cooperating (in Edelman's theory) by means of
mutual reentrant interactions that, for a time, link various neuronal groups in each map to those of others to form a functioning circuit.… But in the next time period, different neurons and neuronal groups may form a structurally different circuit, which nevertheless has the same output. And again, in the succeeding time period, a new circuit is formed using some of the same neurons, as well as completely new ones in different groups. These different circuits are degenerate – they are different in structure but they yield similar outputs …— Edelman (2004, 44-5)
By its very nature, the conscious process embeds representation in a degenerate, context-dependent web: there are many ways in which individual neural circuits, synaptic populations, varying environmental signals, and previous history can lead to the same meaning.— Edelman (2004, 105)
Even within a given context, there are many ways for implicit guidance to become explicit. So naturally different texts can yield the same meaning, and different verbal expressions of belief can yield the same practice.
Another aspect of this degeneracy is that different theories may articulate the same implicit models: for example, Edelman's ‘theory of neuronal group selection’ appears to have the same significance as Bateson's theory of ‘the great stochastic processes’: in each case evolution and learning are processes which differ only in time scale. ‘In this theory,’ says Edelman,
the variance and individuality of brains are not noise. Instead, they are necessary contributors to neuronal repertoires made up of variant neuronal groups. Spatiotemporal coordination and synchrony are provided by reentrant interactions among these repertoires, the composition of which is determined by developmental and experiential selection.The necessity of ‘variance and individuality’ is not confined to brains. ‘The biologist is constantly confronted with a multiplicity of detailed mechanisms for particular functions, some of which are unbelievably simple, but others of which resemble the baroque creations of Rube Goldberg’ (Lewontin 2001, 100). Degeneracy rules – and not only in a figurative sense, for it plays a crucial role in ‘the control hierarchy which is the distinguishing characteristic of life’ (Pattee 1973, 75). This differs from the hierarchy of scale in that it ‘implies an active authority relation of the upper level over the elements of the lower levels’ (75-6). This relation is also known as ‘supervenience’ or ‘downward causality’ (Pattee 1995), which is part of Freeman's ‘circular causality’, as it ‘amounts to a feedback path between levels’ (Pattee 1973, 77). The development process in a multicellular organism offers an example. Each cell carries a copy of the entire genome in its nucleus; how does it manage to differentiate into a liver cell, or a blood cell, or a specific type of neuron? It receives ‘chemical messages from the collections of cells that constrain the detailed genetic expression of individual cells that make up the collection.’ Like all messages, these are coded, but the coding/decoding function is not to be found in the structure of the molecules carrying the message, whether they be enzymes, hormones or DNA. Likewise the control function is not found in any special qualities of those elements of the system which appear to be in ‘control’: rather it is found at ‘the hierarchical interface between levels’ (Pattee 1973, 79). The control function is degenerate in that the choice of particular elements to exercise control is to some degree arbitrary, and a different choice does not make a significant difference in the control itself.— Edelman (2004, 114)
Of course, this is also the general nature of social control hierarchies. As isolated individuals we behave in certain patterns, but when we live in a group we find that additional constraints are imposed on us as individuals by some ‘authority.’ It may appear that this constraining authority is just one ordinary individual of the group to whom we give a title, such as admiral, president, or policeman, but tracing the origin of this authority reveals that these are more accurately said to be group constraints that are executed by an individual holding an ‘office’ established by a collective hierarchical organization.— Pattee 1973, 79
The control function is not a property of, and does not belong to, the individual who executes it. When someone tries to appropriate that function for himself, we call him a tyrant – a person who tries to control others for his own sake instead of serving the higher level of organization.
The polysemy of the term hierarchy is rooted in that of the Greek ἀρχη, which can mean either ‘a beginning, origin’ or ‘power, dominion, command’ (LSG). In English, first has a similar ambiguity: it can denote either one end of a time-ordered series or the ‘top’ spot in a ranking order.
In speaking of ‘control functions,’ we often need to distinguish between two kinds of ‘law’ or ‘rule,’ which we may call logos and nomos. The logos (or ‘logic’) of a system is its self-organizing function, while nomos is ‘assigned’ (LSG) artificially rather than arising naturally. Nomos is the kind of law which is formulated and ‘ordered’ so that it can be obeyed or ‘observed,’ while the ‘laws of nature’ are formulated (by science) in order to explain why the universe does what it is observed to be doing already. The distinction is denied by creationists, for whom nature itself is artificial (having been intentionally designed and manufactured by a God whose existence is prior to it), and perhaps by some who consider every formulation of science to be a disguised assertion of power. And the distinction is indeed problematic, because nomos in Greek can mean ‘usage’ or ‘custom’ as well as ‘law’ and ‘ordinance’ (LSG again). Are the ‘rules’ of a ‘natural’ language nomoi or logoi? I would say that the deepest grammatical rules are examples of logos, while the more ephemeral standards of usage are much more arbitrary, and therefore examples of nomos, even before they are formalized. But the boundary between them is fuzzy. You could put the question this way: How natural is human nature?
The I Ching includes many layers of text, interpretation and commentary, but its basic framework is a system of 64 signs, called hexagrams because they consist of six lines. Each line can be either whole or divided, so the basic ‘alphabet’ of the system is binary; since each ‘word’ is made of six ‘letters’ arranged vertically, the number of possible ‘words’ is 26 = 64. For a more detailed reading, each hexagram can be considered as an ordered pair of trigrams, and each line can take on more specific meaning in its context. To consult this oracle is to first pose a question about a given situation, and then determine which of the 64 hexagrams answers the question when applied to the situation. The determination process bypasses conscious control by introducing a random element (or, as some would prefer to say, by allowing divine or cosmic forces to determine the result).
The fact that the sign obtained can be read as relevant to the question (to any well-formed question) implies that the code ‘carves’ the universe of possible situations into 64 types. Since 64 is a very small number of pieces to carve the whole world into, we could refer to them as archetypes. Any of these archetypal situations could be actualized (or replicated, as Peirce might say) in an indefinitely large number of specific instances, and an archetype can be read into almost any situation. By focussing on one archetype and crossing it with the actual situation indicated by the question, we can derive a pragmatically useful comment on the situation in ordinary (and vague) language, perhaps with some help from the Chinese text of the I Ching. The advantage of this for the questioner is that it brings a new perspective to the problem that she could not have anticipated, but which is guaranteed relevant by the ubiquity of the 64 archetypal situations. There is no need to posit anything mysterious or supernatural going on here, though it may help the reader of the oracle to take it as a revelation, just as it may help the reader of any text to believe that it communicates the intention of its author.
The same technique of carving up the universe of discourse into a relatively small number of archetypal parts also operates in astrology with its signs of the zodiac, the Tarot deck with its correspondences to the ‘paths’ of the Kabbalistic ‘Tree of Life,’ and so on. In each case, the ability to read highly generic forms into complicated matters – or to lift the archetypal out of the mundane – can induce a feeling of equanimity while simplifying the decision-making process. Of course the results are not testable in the scientific sense, because one's personal intentions are inseparable from the ‘experimental’ situation. And of course these methods can be abused; but then so can more “scientific” methods.
In this context, let's try a reading of the Heraclitus fragment: ‘the lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives signs.’ For the Delphic oracle to ‘speak’ could mean that it offers a statement at the level of articulation which is normal for natural human languages. To ‘conceal’ could be to intend a statement at that level of articulation, but to encrypt it into a code which only the priest can decode back into human language. But Heraclitus says that the ‘lord’ does neither of these things, but rather produces a sign (whose meaning is highly indeterminate). Any interpretation or ‘translation’ of that sign into more precise language clarifies its pragmatic meaning, but loses the vagueness which makes the oracular language archetypal. Consequently a vast number of more or less valid statements can be generated by the interpretive process.
Heraclitus was and is famous for the seemingly cryptic quality of his own statements, an effect enhanced by the fragmentary nature of his works as we now have them. His intent in the fragment quoted above may have been ‘to justify his own oracular and obscure style’ (Kirk and Raven 1957, 212). But this style is common to many scriptural texts, such as the Tao Te Ching or the Gospel of Thomas; the seedlike quality that renders them inexhaustible is precisely their vagueness.
The Tao is elusive and intangible.
Oh, it is intangible and elusive, and yet within is image.
Oh, it is intangible and elusive, and yet within is form.
Oh, it is dim and dark, and yet within is essence.— Tao Te Ching 21 (Feng/English)
Nobody can doubt that we know laws upon which we can base predictions to which actual events still in the womb of the future will conform to a marked extent, if not perfectly. To deny reality to such laws is to quibble about words. Many philosophers say they are ‘mere symbols.’ Take away the word mere, and this is true. They are symbols; and symbols being the only things in the universe that have any importance, the word ‘mere’ is a great impertinence.Peirce does not say that symbols are the only realities – quite the contrary. He says that they alone have importance, which implies significance, or meaning; which in turn implies that reality is their Object.— Peirce (EP2:269)
If someone points to a text that is transparent for you and asks you ‘What does this mean?,’ your first impulse may be to say that it means exactly what it says. But then you realize that such a response is not helpful for someone to whom the text is opaque; and only someone in such a predicament would ask such a question. In order to deal with this predicament you have to raise the decoding (meaning) process into consciousness somehow. And in doing this, you sacrifice the transparency of the text. This sacrifice is motivated by compassion. (And so is any genuine question about the meaning of the text – for the one asking the question is motivated by trust that the text is meaningful although it is still opaque to him.)
Even a text which has been transparent may lose its transparency if the reader notices an ambiguity in it. Perceiving an ambiguity entails having to make a conscious choice, and thus makes us conscious of the text as coded. If you manage to recover the transparency of the text without losing its ambiguity, the text has gained for you an added dimension of meaning. Thus the ‘fall’ from ambiguity into opacity is ‘redeemed’ by a deeper, richer transparency.
The consequence is that Mill is obliged to define the cause as the totality of all the circumstances attending the event. This is, strictly speaking, the Universe of being in its totality. But any event, just as it exists, in its entirety, is nothing else but the same Universe of being in its totality.Peirce mentions this merely to explain why Mill's usage of the word ‘cause’ renders it a useless concept with no pragmatic value. Yet the same idea (at least, we may use this language) was developed and explained at great length in several classic texts of the Hua-Yen school of Buddhist philosophy.— Peirce (EP2:315)
The Hua-Yen doctrine shows the entire cosmos as one single nexus of conditions in which everything simultaneously depends on, and is depended on by, everything else. Seen in this light, then, everything affects and is affected by, more or less immediately or remotely, everything else; just as this is true of every system of relationships, so is it true of the totality of existence. In seeking to understand individuals and groups, therefore, Hua-yen thought considers the manifold as an integral part of the unit and the unit as an integral part of the manifold; one individual is considered in terms of relationships to other individuals as well as to the whole nexus, while the whole nexus is considered in terms of its relation to each individual as well as to all individuals. The accord of this view with the experience of modern science is obvious, and it seems to be an appropriate basis upon which the question of the relation of science and bioethics—an issue of contemporary concern—may be resolved.Cleary's reference to ‘the experience of modern science’ is vague, but no doubt represents statements such as this one: ‘All evolution is coevolution, since the species of an ecosystem are all interdependent’ (Morowitz 2002, 93). But the more specific an inquiry into causation, the more sharply it focuses on facts abstracted from events rather than ‘the whole nexus.’— Cleary (1983, 532)
Meaning is formed in the interaction between felt experiencing and something that functions symbolically. Feeling without symbolization is blind; symbolization without feeling is empty.Gendlin's second sentence closely resembles a famous Kantian statement, quoted as follows by Cassirer (1944, 56): ‘Concepts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.’ Is Gendlin then repeating something already said by Kant? That depends on whether ‘intuitions’ are equivalent to ‘feeling’ and ‘concepts’ to ‘symbolization.’— Gendlin (1962/1997, 5)
A niche in a meaning space is a type of meaning. A niche in a symbolic meaning space can only be occupied by a Legisign, ‘a law that is a Sign.… Every conventional sign is a legisign. It is not a single object, but a general type which, it has been agreed, shall be significant’ (Peirce, EP2:291).If we consider a language (such as English or Greek) as a semantic or meaning space, we might say that a niche in that space is occupied by a word. But we might say instead that a word, being a legisign or type and not a single object, is the meaning space, which is ‘occupied’ in actual linguistic practice by tokens of that type or instances of that word, as Peirce says (CP 4.537, 1906).
On the other hand, Peirce also says that ‘Man, homo, ἄνθρωπος are the same sign’ (MS 9), although we would not usually say that they are the same word. This would imply a cross-linguistic meaning space in which different words are instances of the same sign. This would still be a symbolic space, but we might call it a semiotic meaning space, as it is more inclusive than a linguistic one (constituted by a single language). Likewise in his fifth Harvard Lecture of 1903:
Take, for example, any proverb. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” Every time this is written or spoken in English, Greek, or any other language, and every time it is thought of it is one and the same representamen. It is the same with a diagram or picture. It is the same with a physical sign or symptom. If two weathercocks are different signs, it is only in so far as they refer to different parts of the air. … “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθʼ ὁμιλίαι κακαί are one and the same representamen. They are so, however, only so far as they are represented as being so; and it is one thing to say that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and quite a different thing to say that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθʼ ὁμιλίαι κακαί are two expressions of the same proverb.The distinction in that last sentence is essentially the distinction between a language and a metalanguage, or between use and mention – or between semiosis and semiotics.EP2:203
While a sign is functioning symbolically within your act of meaning – i.e. while it is in actual use – you can't pay attention to, or even mention, its function.
You can't have your use and mention it too.— Hofstadter (1985, 9)
We cannot look at our standards in the process of using them, for we cannot attend focally to elements that are used subsidiarily for the purpose of shaping the present focus of attention.In scientific practice, you can't make your measurement (observation) and describe your measuring device at the same time:— Michael Polanyi (1962, 183)
even though any constraint like a measuring device, M, can in principle be described by more detailed universal laws, the fact is that if you choose to do so you will lose the function of M as a measuring device. This demonstrates that laws cannot describe the pragmatic function of measurement even if they can correctly and completely describe the detailed dynamics of the measuring constraints.Likewise in the realm of cognition or experiencing, of which science is the public expression: if the creative or forming power could emerge visibly from behind the forms which are its expression, then it could not be seen as a form; the seer would instead be ‘blinded by the light.’ As we have already heard from Thomas 83: ‘The light of the Father will reveal itself, but his image is hidden by his light.’ Or as Moses Cordovero put it, ‘revealing is the cause of concealment and concealment is the cause of revealing’ (Scholem 1974, 402).— Pattee (2001)
Looking at language itself is like looking at a mirror rather than at the reflection in a mirror, or looking at a window rather than through it: the phenomenon of language ceases to be transparent and we focus on its dynamics rather than those of “the world.” This can raise its automatic functions into consciousness and restore the immediacy of the habits we have taken for granted.
For instance, we can look at familiar idioms which we normally use automatically, and try to trace their peculiar logic back to the root. Consider the English expression “back and forth”: why is it not “forth and back”? Do we normally imagine that kind of motion as beginning with the return? Maybe we do: perhaps an irreversible “going forth” is the default kind of motion, as it were, and only when this is interrupted by a “coming back” do we notice a distinctive pattern – which we then call “back-and-forth.”
But then why do we say that someone tumbles “head over heels”? Taken “literally,” this expression would be equivalent to “upside up”; “upside down” (or “downside up”) would be better expressed as “heels over head.” Well, maybe the idiom is dominated by the dynamic (rather than the static positional) sense of over – as in “fall over,” “turn over” etc. – and we simply ignore the order of the nouns.
There's an element of chance in any evolutionary process, including historical changes of word meaning; idiomatic and conventional expressions are full of ‘frozen accidents.’ Some accidents are more likely, more ‘motivated,’ than others (Lakoff 1987, Sweetser 1990), but all are unruly to some degree, as is life itself.
Consider for instance Ray Jackendoff's (1992) essay on ‘The Problem of Reality,’ which explains why ‘constructivist’ psychology is a more viable model of our relationship to external reality than analytical philosophy which tries to base meaning on ‘truth-conditions.’ (He does not consider the Peircean alternative that the sense of reality is grounded in a ‘dyadic consciousness.’) Toward the end of the essay he takes up an objection to the constructivist view, stated as a more or less rhetorical question:
If reality is observer-relative, how is it that we manage to understand one another? (This objection is essentially Quine's (1960) ‘indeterminacy of radical translation,’ now applied at the level of the single individual.)Jackendoff gives two answers to this. Translating the first into my own terms: assuming that ‘we’ are both human, our common biological nature makes it a good bet that our meaning spaces are similar. (Jackendoff uses ‘combinatorial space’ where i use ‘meaning space.’)— Jackendoff (1992, 173)
The second answer to this objection is that we don't always understand each other, even when we think we do. This is particularly evident in the case of abstract concepts. Quine's indeterminacy of radical translation in a sense does apply when we are dealing with world views in areas like politics, religion, aesthetics, science, and, I guess, semantics. These are domains of discourse in which the construction of a combinatorial space of concepts is underdetermined by linguistic and sensory evidence, and innateness does not rush in to the rescue.Since we are now at work in one of those domains of discourse, it is possible that Jackendoff's ‘combinatorial space’ is more different from my ‘meaning space’ than i think it is. Investigating that possibility would involve exploring the context of each usage more fully, always guided by Peirce's ‘maxim of pragmatism.’
For example, take Chapter 62 of the Tao Te Ching. Waley gives us ‘Tao in the universe is like the south-west corner in the house,’ which he informs us in a footnote is ‘Where family worship was carried on; the pivotal point round which the household centred.’ Chan, on the other hand, renders the verse ‘Tao is the storehouse of all things,’ noting that the southwest corner of the house is ‘where treasures were stored.’ These two different understandings of ‘the southwest corner’ are perhaps reconciled in the English/Feng translation: ‘Tao is the source of the ten thousand things.’ But this translation loses the specificity of ‘the south-west corner.’
Even if we believe that there is such a thing as a ‘correct’ translation of a verse, we have no way of identifying it in any specific case. To do that would require a ‘God's-eye view’ that could take in not only both languages in the relevant historical context, but also the intent of both author and reader, as shaped by their respective cultures and experiences. Thus the notion of a ‘correct translation’ is of little pragmatic use.
“Progress,” as a noun, puts a positive spin on the idea of a progression, i.e. a forward motion: we generally use it in reference to a sequence in which later points (or states) are improvements over earlier points in the sequence. The same happens with “success”: it generally refers to a positive outcome of a succession of acts.
We see the same pattern in the evolution of “happy” in English. Things happen; if the outcome is positive for us, if our luck is good, then the events are “happy” or “lucky”; and we describe our own resulting state in the same terms. (In English, the usage of “happy” as referring to events rather than emotional states has almost disappeared, but we still use “lucky” both ways.) Similarly “fortune” can be kind or unkind, and someone who “tells your fortune” may bring good news or bad news, but if you are “fortunate,” that means the news is good.
Other words have gone in the opposite direction. “Fate” usually has ominous overtones, probably because it is beyond our control, and a “fatal” event, in current usage, is about as negative as anything can be.
A successful translation from one language into another would translate the spin of each phrase as well as its more “objective” reference – but the shifting relationships between sense and spin are rarely parallel across languages, and even differ between people. This is yet another reason why a perfectly “successful” translation is an ideal that can hardly be realized.
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