gnot

I only post something here when i feel i have something important to say. But sometimes, before i post it, i notice that i’ve said it before. Or somebody else has, long ago. Why say it again?
If only I could say it as if it had never been said before! Or in a way that would make it feel new!

Had l unknown phrases
Sayings that are strange
Novel, untried words
Free of repetition
Not transmitted sayings
Spoken by the ancestors

I wring out my body for what it holds,
Sifting through all my words;
For what has been said is just repetition,
What has been said has been said …

— translated from the hieroglyphics of Khakheperre-seneb (Egyptian Middle Kingdom, 19th century BC), as quoted by Guy Deutscher (The Unfolding Of Language, p. 96).

Writers have been wringing like this for 4000 years. This is nothingnew.

Untitled

What kills all the living does not die. What gives birth to all the living is not born. It is something that sends all beings off and welcomes all beings in, destroys all and completes all. Its name is the Tranquility of Turmoil.

— Zhuangzi (tr. Ziporyn 2009, 44)

In the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, haloed be her eve, her singtime sung, her rill be run, unhemmed as it is uneven!

Her untitled mamafesta memorialising the Mosthighest has gone by many names at disjointed times.

Finnegans Wake 104

Of Course

The Course has a certain realness and reliability to it, but no deliberate activity and no definite form. It can be transmitted but not received, attained but not shown.

— Zhuangzi (tr. Ziporyn 2009, p. 43)

Say I trust the author implicitly to speak from experience. Trusting his testimony then means believing ‘that he had an experience which his words interpret. Nevertheless, impotent as I am to doubt his word, it is not what he tells me that I have experienced, but only the fact that he has told me so’ (Peirce, R 299:66-67[35-36]). I interpret his words by imagining an experience which I might interpret with those words if I were him. The only link between his experience and mine is the likeness of his bodymind and language to mine.

Do symbols grow?

Are you the same person you were when you were born?

If you answer No, most people would probably take that answer as testimony that you have changed over the years. On the other hand, any specific change that you (or others) can remember was a change in you. Even if you have no “essence” or “core identity” that has remained the same through your whole life, the changes are all yours because the changes were continuous: you have lived through each one, from moment to moment, one version of you taking over from the previous, more or less gradually, without any jump-cuts in the film of your life.

Does a word have a life like that? Take the English word grow. Can we say that a thousand years ago, this word was spelled differently, pronounced differently, used differently, and meant something different? This is in fact what the Oxford English Dictionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary tell us about the verb grow. We can dig still deeper into the history of the word by tracing it through all its continuous changes of pronunciation, spelling and meaning in a whole family of languages, back to prehistoric times. (There’s a detailed explanation of this linguistic archaeology in David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.) Due to the continuity of these changes, we can say that it was the same word now appearing in English as grow that went through all these changes over thousands of years.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, it all started with the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) verb *ghre- meaning “to grow, become green.” PIE was a spoken language, never written down; the asterisk before the word means that this form of the word is not attested in ancient documents but has been reconstructed by retracing over millennia the pronunciation changes which the word has undergone in several languages descended from PIE. For awhile, that word took the forms of Proto-Germanic *gro-, source of Old Norse groa “to grow” (of vegetation), Old Frisian groia, Dutch groeien, Old High German gruoen, and Old English growan, meaning “to flourish, increase, develop, get bigger.” The OED gives an Old English example dating back to 725 C.E., when the word meant “to manifest vigorous life; to put forth foliage, flourish, be green,” referring to the life of plants. (The English words green and grass are both descended from the same PIE root; the people who spoke the language now called PIE, say 4000 years ago, probably lived on Eurasian steppes or grasslands.)

As the English language developed, the verb outgrew its specific reference to the plant world, and was applied to animals (including humans), or to parts of them such as hair. Later its application was extended to ‘immaterial things’ (OED) such as rumors, reputations, empires, and in the 20th century, economies. This is one of the ways that words grow in meaning, metaphorical uses becoming habitual over time until they seem to be “literal” meanings of words – even when it is applied to increases much less natural and organic than the growth of plants. The more widely used a symbol is, the more likely it is to develop different applications in this way.

In the 18th century we started using the verb grow in a transitive sense, as when a gardener says that she “grows tomatoes.” This verbal innovation could be a shadow of the cultural shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture, as humans took more control of the growth process by determining which plants would be allowed or encouraged to grow. The plants still grow according to their own nature and environmental conditions, but now we say that people grow them as well as harvest them. This is one way that language unconsciously reflects a human urge to control or dominate nature which became a habit for some cultures, leading to the European invasion and colonization of other continents, and eventually to the global ecological crisis of today.

The role of language in the growth of such toxic concepts is often hidden from the speakers of the language. It may seem metaphorical to say, as Peirce did, that ‘Symbols grow’ (see previous post). But we can take this “growth” literally as a natural process not subject to human control, even though symbols grow in the medium of human languages. The languages we speak are mostly natural languages, meaning that they evolve without being deliberately designed by humans. The meanings of common words are conventional only in the sense that they are shared habits; no gathering was ever convened to legislate them. A word like grow still has its roots, so to speak, in the processes of nature, as do most of our core concepts. But the more we apply the word to more abstract and artificial things such as “the economy”, especially in the noun form growth, the more we forget that growing is part of a life cycle. As symbol systems evolve, new meanings spring up, but other meanings fall away and decay.

Growth and youth are characteristic of the springtime and the early part of the life cycle, which leads to the “flourishing” of maturity. Maybe this accounts for its emotional appeal when applied to such abstractions as “economic growth.” We overlook the fact that there are natural limits to quantitative growth, just as we tend to overlook the fact that we decline and die as all complex organisms do – and that now whole species are being driven to extinction at an unprecedented rate by the exponential growth in human population and consumption.

When Peirce said that ‘Symbols grow,’ meaning that meanings change, he must have had in mind an organic kind of growth. He gave examples of words whose meanings have changed since the time of ‘our barbarous ancestors’, but didn’t say in what sense those symbols have grown. Viewing linguistic evolution from our 21st-Century vantage point, I don’t think we can say that words mean more now than they did 4,000 years ago. Growth of concepts and increases of information occur within the meaning cycle, but as new meanings for a symbol develop, old ones fall away and die, memories of them ever more deeply buried in the historical record.

Meaning is a systemic function of a language, and as language systems develop, they “prune” the connections between their conceptual “cells” just as developing brains do. The global ecosystem does the same thing as it evolves, new species branching off from their ancestors while old ones die off because they no longer “fit” into the ecosystems inhabited by the survivors. Meanings consist in habitual connections between thoughts, deeds and perceptions. What humanity needs now is to take the well-being of the whole biosphere into account as we evaluate our own habits, pruning some so that the better ones can have room to grow. As Gregory Bateson said, ‘The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.’ Can humanity muster the self-control to participate fully in nature instead of trying to dominate it, and dominate each other?

Growing

Among the bad habits of humanity (see previous post) which now threaten the biosphere, two of the worst are population growth and economic growth. The first is easy enough to understand: in my own lifetime, the human population of the world has tripled from 2.5 billion to 7.7 billion, and this explosive growth continues to this day. It’s bad news for the many life forms who have been displaced by human settlement (and human travel!), because living space is limited on this planet. Even if every human lived economically, i.e. lived “within their means” by making more efficient use of energy and resources, humanity would run out of Earthroom sooner or later – and not before driving most of our wild neighbors to extinction.

But the growth of “the economy,” as measured in most countries by GDP (Gross Domestic Product), makes the situation far worse, and this is not as obvious. GDP measures the amount of money in circulation, and thus it grows with every oil spill, every war, and every case of cancer, because these cost money to deal with. It also grows when people consume energy and resources they don’t need, when the rich get richer, and when working people are well paid for doing jobs that pollute the earth and steal resources from future generations. What does this have to do with the real economy or with human well-being? Why are we so addicted to economic growth when there are healthier ways to run an economy?

Maybe the very concept of growth has something to do with our addiction. That concept is a symbol, and so is the word we use to invoke the concept. According to C.S. Peirce, Symbols grow. What did he mean by that? Certainly those of us connected to the Internet have more access to information than anyone did in Peirce’s time, but how is that fact related to the kind of growth he had in mind? Just what is that kind of growth, and how is it related to the growth of living things? Concerning situations like climate change, is it part of the problem, or part of the solution, or both?

First let’s have a look at how Peirce developed the idea. The following is taken from a book chapter he wrote in 1894:

Symbols grow. They come into being by development out of other signs, particularly from likenesses or from mixed signs partaking of the nature of likenesses and symbols. We think only in signs. These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts. If a man makes a new symbol, it is by thoughts involving concepts. So it is only out of symbols that a new symbol can grow. Omne symbolum de symbolo. A symbol, once in being, spreads among the peoples. In use and in experience, its meaning grows. Such words as force, law, wealth, marriage, bear for us very different meanings from those they bore to our barbarous ancestors. The symbol may, with Emerson’s sphynx, say to man,

Of thine eye I am eyebeam.

— Peirce, EP2:10

The difference between symbols and other signs is introduced in Chapter 3 of Turning Signs, and Emerson’s sphynx makes an appearance in rePatch ·12.) For now, let us focus on Peirce’s vague remark about what happens when a symbol ‘spreads among the peoples’: ‘In use and in experience, its meaning grows.’ Surely there must be more to the growth of meaning than mere increase in the number of people using the symbol. Peirce gives examples of words which ‘bear for us very different meanings from those they bore to our barbarous ancestors.’ Does he mean that concepts have changed while the words naming them have remained the same? If so, why should we think that the concepts are growing rather than changing in some other way?

Indeed, how do we know what those words meant to our ancestors in the first place? Who were these ‘barbarous’ ancestors, anyway? The English root word “barbar-” is derived from a Greek word which originally referred to people who didn’t speak Greek but some other language which sounded ‘barbarous,’ meaning uncivilized, to Greek ears. But if our barbarous ancestors didn’t speak English, what could it mean to say that they meant something by an English word which bears a different meaning for us? Probably Peirce didn’t mean that at all; rather he meant, by the word ‘word’, something that takes different forms in different languages, and yet differs in meaning only to the extent that children differ from their parents and more distant ancestors.

It seems that in order to understand how meanings grow over generations and centuries and millennia of word usage, we should take a closer look at how languages evolve. In my next post or two, I propose to start doing this by tracing the history of the verb grow back about 5000 years to the time of our ‘our barbarous ancestors’ who spoke a Proto-Indo-European language.

Maybe, eventually, we’ll be able to look the sphynx in the eyebeam.

Breaking news on breaking habits

I see that the Green Party of Canada has taken over the title of my previous blog post (minus the question mark) for the Green Cimate Action Plan (www.greenparty.ca/en/mission-possible). Of course I signed on right away, and if you’re wondering what practical measures can be taken in response to the climate emergency, I recommend considering the 20 specific steps outlined in it as viable components of humanity’s collective mission, or at least of a “Green New Deal.”

I hope this blog can contribute to that mission by carrying forward the inquiry into Turning Signs. Since I started posting about the Anthropocene crisis over a year ago, I’ve been trying to look at the situation in its longer-term context. This netbook has always been about ‘ecologies of meaning’, and now Jeremy Lent’s book on The Patterning Instinct has inspired me to dig into the archaeologies of meaning, to coin another phrase. This involves studying how cultures co-evolve with their languages and lexicons.

I’m doing this because I’m reasonably sure that the current ecological crisis is rooted in the bad habits of humanity. Therefore we need to know, at both personal and cultural levels, why we have taken on these habits and how we can drop them or transform them into habits more harmonious with Nature’s habits. This includes cognitive habits: some of the worst are core concepts of the globally dominant culture which is mainly responsible for the ongoing mass extinction and climate-change catastrophes. Jeremy Lent identifies two of these toxic concepts as pervasive metaphors: Conquering Nature and Nature as Machine. George Monbiot, in a recent blog post, says that the problem is captitalism, because in its current form it requires constant growth, meaning ever-increasing consumption of the Earth’s resources coupled with an ever-growing gap between the rich and poor.

My next blog post will begin to probe the concept of growth itself, not only in the economic sense but also in biological, psychological and semiotic senses. What do they have in common, and how does the core concept shape our habits? That question might take awhile to answer …

Mission Possible?

Sometimes you have to rest in silence for awhile before you can start again with something to say.

When I describe Turning Signs as a ‘philosophical essay,’ this is what I have in mind:

Philosophy is systematic reflection on our existence, seeking to answer questions like “What is our place in the cosmos?” or “How should we best live our lives?” For many philosophers – very much including the Greeks who stood at the beginnings of western philosophy – the asking and answering of such questions was part of a philosophical way of life: that is, philosophy is not confined to abstract, intellectual pursuits but is implemented in one’s daily life.

— Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (2017, Kindle location 407)

This is also what I had in mind when I started Chapter 1 of Turning Signs:

Suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission.

Supposing means imagining a certain situation in order to see what follows from it. It doesn’t commit us to believing that you really are in that situation. You are free to imagine other possible situations. Maybe you have no ‘mission’ in life, no specific “role” to play in the world drama, no “destiny” or destination pulling you in any particular direction. Maybe ‘missions’ are nothing but figments of the human imagination. Or maybe you do have a ‘mission’ but it’s no secret: you know exactly what it is and you could spell it out in 25 words or less. Maybe you were born to do exactly what you are doing to “make a living,” as we say. But I didn’t invite the reader to suppose either of those situations, because they don’t seem to generate the kind of philosophical questions that Angle and Tiwald refer to above, the questions that seem most real to me (and, I suppose, to any reader likely to get very far in Turning Signs).

When I ask you to suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission, I am not asking you to believe that any person or agency (divine or human or corporate) selected you for your ‘mission’ or your ‘mission’ for you. You might have selected it yourself, consciously or not, or your situation might result from a process of natural selection. Of course, being a user of language (and probably other symbolic media), your mission is also rooted in cultural selection. But a culture is itself an outgrowth of nature. Cultural systems evolve just as biological and ecological systems do, following the same natural principles – with the addition of an emergent level of consciousness that enables deliberate choices to be made. A crucial part of that cultural selection process is supposing that imagined possibilities can be “realized” and anticipating the consequences that would follow.

Another crucial part of the cultural selection process, especially for those of us living the time of the 21st Century, is reflection on how our cultures have developed the forms and core concepts which are now dominant on this planet, and how those core concepts might need to change in order to avoid the collapse of the natural systems that sustain us all. This kind of reflection is implicit in Turning Signs, but I’ve just been reading another book which addresses the question more explicitly: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent. It’s inspired me to reflect on some of the core concepts of Turning Signs in future blog posts. Maybe it won’t make a difference to the future of humanity, but maybe that’s not my mission anyway.