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.

Conscycles

And they leap so looply, looply, as they link to light.

Finnegans Wake 226

Symbols (and even natural or non-symbolic dicisigns as self-representing signs) are the semiotic equivalent, or mental manifestation, of the brain processes that appear as consciousness. This self-representation is a feedforward-feedback cycle like the meaning cycle. Thomas Metzinger explains:

In conscious visual processing, for example, high-level information is dynamically mapped back to low-level information, but it all refers to the same retinal image. Each time your eyes land on a scene (remember, your eye makes about three saccades per second), there is a feedforward-feedback cycle about the current image, and that cycle gives you the detailed conscious percept of that scene. You continuously make conscious snapshots of the world via these feedforward-feedback cycles. In a more general sense, the principle is that the almost continuous feedback-loops from higher to lower areas create an ongoing cycle, a circular nested flow of information, in which what happened a few milliseconds ago is dynamically mapped back to what is coming in right now. In this way, the immediate past continuously creates a context for the present— it filters what can be experienced right now. We see how an old philosophical idea is refined and spelled out by modern neuroscience on the nuts-and-bolts level. A standing context-loop is created. And this may be a deeper insight into the essence of the world-creating function of conscious experience: Conscious information seems to be integrated and unified precisely because the underlying physical process is mapped back onto itself and becomes its own context. If we apply this idea not to single representations, such as the visual experience of an apple in your hand, but to the brain’s unified portrait of the world as a whole, then the dynamic flow of conscious experience appears as the result of a continuous large-scale application of the brain’s prior knowledge to the current situation. If you are conscious, the overall process of perceiving, learning, and living creates a context for itself— and that is how your reality turns into a lived reality.

— Metzinger 2009, 31-32

Holocenoscopy

My wife Pam and i recently visited the Art Gallery of Ontario to take in the Anthropocene exhibit. Anthropocene is the name proposed for the geological epoch in which we are now living, and though it has not yet been officially adopted by the international commission which has the power to do so, it’s becoming a household word. I’ve posted about it twice in the past year (you can use the search box on this blog to find those posts), but words can’t evoke the feeling of the Anthropocene as powerfully as the images in the exhibit and the feature film bearing the name. In this post i’ll focus on the name.

Infographic by Barr Gilmore, AGO: Anthropocene, p.39

The graphic above, taken from the book published by the AGO to document the exhibit, shows the Anthropocene as the epoch following the Holocene. But some sources use it as another name for the Holocene, or a subdivision of it. This makes a kind of sense because the Holocene is defined as beginning about 11,700 years ago, with the retreat of the glaciers from the last ice age, which was also around the time when humanity began to make its mark on the biosphere, especially with the new technology called agriculture. But why was this most recent geological epoch called the Holocene? It’s hard to see anything “holistic” about it, with all these humans messing up the planet.

According to Wikipedia, ‘the name Holocene comes from the Ancient Greek words ὅλος (holos, whole or entire) and καινός (kainos, new), meaning “entirely recent.”’ So the concept of “wholeness” is applied here adverbially, to modify the ‘-cene’ suffix which (with its Latinized Greek root) is etymologically related to recent. The habit of adding that suffix to the names of ‘recent’ geological periods was introduced by Sir Charles Lyell, who called the preceding epoch the Pleistocene, from the Greek superlative pleistos meaning ‘most.’ But when you have an epoch named ‘most recent,’ how do you name one that is even more recent? Lyell’s choice was Holocene, or ‘entirely recent.’

That pretty well exhausts the possibilities for naming a new geological period according to how recent it is. Anthropocene (‘humanly recent’?) is more informative than Holocene because it names the current epoch after its most remarkable characteristic: the collective impact of humans on their home planet. The idea is that geologists (of whatever species) studying the rock strata of the Earth hundreds of thousands of years hence will find a layer full of ‘technofossils’ and other traces of the human rearrangements of nature we are now making.

But there is another side to this ‘human epoch’: the same technology that is causing mass extinction of other species is giving us more, and more useful, information about our planet, its history, and its predictable future than we’ve ever had. With this predictability comes a new sense of responsibility. Now that we are aware of the unintended consequences of our past actions, it’s our global mission to revise our intentions and observe more carefully what happens when we try to carry them out. This is the only way we can harmonize and integrate anthropomorphic systems with the more inclusive natural systems of the planet.

The challenge is not so much technological as political, even spiritual. For instance, we have the technology to halt or possibly even reverse anthropogenic climate change, but so far lack the global common sense to make it a priority. It seems we’d rather put our energy into petty squabbles and paranoid schemes, judging from the leaders we’ve following lately. But if we could overcome this tendency and unify human practices for the common good of all life on Earth, maybe the Holocene could turn more holistic after all.

Speaking of the common, there is another Greek root Latinized as -cen- which is highly relevant in the Anthropocene. This one is derived not from καινός (“new”) but from κοινός (“common”). It’s the root idea of Cenoscopy, which bases itself on experiences common to all, and is closely allied to what Peirce called ‘critical common-sensism.’ Common sense in our time sees that philosophy, and even religion, ought to be working hand in hand with globally-based sciences such as ecology and climate science. Ironically, it’s the so-called “populist” politicians of our time, with their hate speech and antiscientific disinformation, who are working against the common sense that could save us from ourselves.

Ordination

… and animals, both wild and tame, feeding in the air or on the earth or in the water, all are born and come to their prime and decay in obedience to the ordinances of God; for, in the words of Heraclitus, ‘every creeping thing grazes at the blow of God’s goad’.

— Pseudo-Aristotle, De Mundo (Περὶ Κόσμου), tr. E.S. Forster (Oxford, 1914)

In the original Greek of Heraclitus, as quoted here by the author of On the Cosmos, there is no “God” and no “goad”. A more literal translation of πᾶν ἑρπετὸν πληγῇ νέμεται would be “All beasts [πᾶν ἑρπετὸν] are driven [νέμεται] by blows [πληγῇ].” But the verb νέμεται was ordinarily used with reference to herdsmen “tending” their flocks or herds; driving the beasts to a pasture where they could ‘graze’ was a regular part of this “tending,” and this was often done with a stick like the one in the picture.

This explains the grazing and the ‘goad’ in Forster’s translation. But the Greek does not specify who is delivering these benevolent ‘blows’ to the beasts. The context indicates that the class of “creeping things” includes not only domestic cattle but all animals throughout their life cycles, including wild and human animals as well (Kahn 1979, 194). Who or what drives the deer to their pasture? What kind of “blows” compel us to carry our own lives forward?

“Pseudo-Aristotle” tells us that all life cycles proceed according to ‘the ordinances of God,’ who is metaphorically the “pastor” driving us all to “pasture.” Others might substitute for those ordinances the laws of nature, governing everything impersonally. But if all animals are guided from within and powered by their own metabolism, it would seem that we are driven by internal “blows” or “motivations” rather than external forces, whether divine or natural. We are “driven” to dinner by the same “force” that drives the deer to their pasture, namely hunger.

But this is not the whole story either. We are all shaped, physically and mentally, by the same sacred laws of nature that formed the worlds we inhabit and the habits that inform our relations with the world and one another. These Laws have made us all anticipatory systems, and the “blows” driving us are the blows of experience, which happens to us as some kind of collision between our guidance systems and our circumstances. An experience feels real here and now because of the difference, the Secondness, between our own needs and the necessities of external world. But what really determines the kind of experience that strikes us at the moment is the Laws in their Thirdness.

For reality is compulsive. But the compulsiveness is absolutely hic et nunc. It is for an instant and it is gone. Let it be no more and it is absolutely nothing. The reality only exists as an element of the regularity. And the regularity is the symbol. Reality, therefore, can only be regarded as the limit of the endless series of symbols.

— Peirce, EP2:323

Our lack of control over existing things and actual events, their way of forcing themselves on our attention, is what makes them real to us at the moment. But the laws governing these things are equally real – or more real, considering that they will continue to determine what form the future will take long after the immediate past and present are gone. To the extent that we have self-control – that is, control over the form and the enforcement of our inner “laws” or habits – we can participate in this determination of the future. We never break the laws of nature, but we have ways of co-operating with it to realize imagined possibilities; and these may include our ways of responding to the “blows” of experience.

Life cycles, like meaning cycles, are governed by the reciprocity of practice and perception. They are driven by the “blows” of experience just as inquiries are set in motion by surprises. This is a law of nature which we can only symbolize in some kind of diagram. We can’t make a photograph of it as we can an existing ‘goad’ or an actual ‘blow.’ The image of ‘God’s goad’ confuses the regularity of law with the the force of law. A law (natural, human or divine) has a general form but can’t be adequately represented by any specific image – unless that image is read as a metaphor. Metaphors, in their aspiration to the generality of symbols, reveal those realities which images conceal by their very presence to our sense perception. Only symbols can express the Law turning the wheel of life.

to be continued

EarthTypes

Some time ago I included here a couple of quotes from David Grinspoon’s book Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future. Since then it’s become even more obvious that we (humans) are faced with the ‘fundamental Anthropocene dilemma … that we have achieved global impact but have no mechanisms for global self-control’ (Grinspoon). Is global self-control even possible for us? Can we even manage to compensate for some of the damage we’ve already done? What would it take to achieve that?

I think humanity as a whole would have to start thinking like a planet, becoming an instrument by which planet Earth can achieve a measure of its own self-control. This means learning to recognize the patterns which govern the life of the planet, and conforming the habits of our species to the habits of nature.


Like Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature (1979), Turning Signs is an attempt to delineate some of the ‘patterns that connect’ our thoughts with those of Nature – or of the Creator, the animating spirit of the universe. One of those patterns I call the ‘meaning cycle’. Sometimes the evolution of meaning of a single word follows this pattern. Take the word type. (For a concise view of its etymology, see the Online Etymological Dictionary.)

The ancient Greek word τύπος, in its earliest uses, referred to a “blow,” such as a sword against a shield. Later it referred to the dent or impression made by such a blow, or an imprint such as a footprint. Plato used it in reference to a mark on something, such as a letter written on a page. It could also refer to “anything wrought of metal or stone,” or more generally, a “figure, image or statue” (LSG) – a definite or static form made on or in some relatively permanent medium. Still more generally, it could mean the “general form or character of a thing” (LSG). These later senses migrated to Latin typus: “figure, image, form, kind.”

Already there is an ambiguity here, which we also find in English uses of the word. Most of us would agree that a bird is a type of animal. In other words, we recognize the class of animals as a very broad one which includes among its subclasses one called birds; but we also recognize that there are many subclasses or types of birds. So there is a hierarchy of generality, and animal is a more general term than bird. Yet bird is still a general term: it applies to all existing birds (as well as imaginary ones). As a type, or “form”, bird does not exist. That type is real, because it is really true to say that all existing birds are birds and not something else. There is a real connection between the existing individual being and the real form we call bird. But there is a crucial difference between the reality of types and the reality of existing things. This difference can create ambiguity whenever we use a general term.

Now suppose I ask you to imagine or visualize a bird. The image that comes to mind will probably (though vaguely) resemble whatever species of birds are most common in your everyday environment; and probably it will not resemble an ostrich or a penguin. We don’t think of these as typical birds, although they certainly belong to that biological class. Your concept of bird, then, is not an exact location in meaning space but a region with a centre and a periphery – both vaguely defined, but some birds appear closer to the centre than others. So your image (or “impression”) of a typical bird is more specific than the class of birds.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first meaning given under type is ‘that by which something is symbolized or figured; a symbol, emblem.’ In 19th-century English, the word “type” often referred to a specific image which seemed typical of something, or an individual specimen belonging to a class which served as a “model” for the whole class.

For a more visual presentation of all this, I’ve created a slideshow which you can view as a PDF here. But to continue verbally with the evolution of “type”:

In the early 18th century, type came into use for blocks of metal or wood with letters or characters carved on their faces for use in the printing process. So the meaning had moved from the striking of a blow to the impression made by the blow to the thing that made the impression, on paper or some other material. If you’re old enough to have used a typewriter, you remember using a keyboard to strike blows on paper and print letters on it. Nowadays keyboarding makes letterforms on a screen, but we still call those forms “typefaces” or “fonts,” both terms that originated in the printing process.

In an 1843 book on logic, John Stuart Mill wrote that

when we see a creature resembling an animal, we compare it with our general conception of an animal; and if it agrees with that general conception, we include it in the class. The conception becomes the type of comparison.

Since then, most uses of the word type have become pretty much synonymous with “kind” or “class,” and we no longer use it in reference to a typical but existing member of the class. We can no longer say that a robin is “the type” of all birds, although we can say that a robin is a prototypical example of the concept bird. So “type” now refers to a general rather than a specific “something.”

A common noun or adjective is always general to some degree, meaning that it can be applied to a range of individuals (who may differ in other respects but share the named character). In that sense every common noun is the name of a type. But here again there is ambiguity, because a general sign may be used collectively (referring to the type or class as a whole), or distributively (so that it refers to every individual of that type).


Charles S. Peirce used the word ‘type’ in most of the senses above, but he also adapted it for use as a technical term in semiotics for a different kind of generality. Here is his explanation (also given in Chapter 2 of Turning Signs):

A common mode of estimating the amount of matter in a MS. or printed book is to count the number of words. There will ordinarily be about twenty the’s on a page, and of course they count as twenty words. In another sense of the word “word,” however, there is but one word “the” in the English language; and it is impossible that this word should lie visibly on a page or be heard in any voice, for the reason that it is not a Single thing or Single event. It does not exist; it only determines things that do exist. Such a definitely significant Form, I propose to term a Type. A Single event which happens once and whose identity is limited to that one happening or a Single object or thing which is in some single place at any one instant of time, such event or thing being significant only as occurring just when and where it does, such as this or that word on a single line of a single page of a single copy of a book, I will venture to call a Token.

Peirce, CP 4.537 (1906)

By clearly distinguishing it from a Token, which is an existing thing or actual event, Peirce brought another dimension of generality to the meaning of the word Type. It is not only a class-name but ‘a definitely significant Form’ which does not exist as an individual, or even as a singular collection, but ‘determines things that do exist.’ Taking his example of the word “the,” each existing imprint or Token of that word on a printed page is determined by its Type to take the visible form which makes it an instance of that significant Form. A Type which can really determine things that do exist even though it does not exist is another kind of reality. If we can understand how Types determine Tokens, we can clearly see that there is more to reality than existence.

Applying this to human language, we can say with Wittgenstein that what makes the Form of a Type significant is its use in the language. For instance, the language-user’s syntactic habits may determine that the Form is required as part of a given statement; then another semiotic habit determines what sound the speaker will produce at that point in her utterance – or yet another habit which associates that Form with certain visible shapes on the printed page determines what will appear in that part of the printed sentence. The shapes of the letters will be still more precisely determined by the choice of font or typeface in which the text is printed. But the word, as far as its meaning is concerned, is the same word regardless of typeface, and likewise regardless of whether it is printed or spoken. In other words, that word is a real Type in Peirce’s exact sense of the word.

The habits which govern our acts of meaning are partly artificial and partly natural. The natural habits of meaning are also habits of the Earth, embodied in the actual behavior of earthlings like us. Those are the habits which make it possible to learn from experience, while our conventional linguistic habits make it possible to symbolize what we learn, so that we can take some control of our own habits. If we can somehow synchronize our collective habits with the habits of the Earth (or of Gaia, if you like), then eventually the Earth can use us to develop a measure of self-control, to better determine its own future. This is the challenge of the Anthropocene. Turning Signs is one attempt to show how such a challenge might be met at the the individual, cultural, ecological and planetary levels. It all depends on recognizing the Types, the “patterns that connect” reality with imagination, as the habits of the Earth.