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.

Here it is

There is nowhere the knowledge of the enlightened does not reach. Why? There is not a single sentient being who is not fully endowed with the knowledge of the enlightened; it is just that because of deluded notions, erroneous thinking, and attachments, they are unable to realize it. If they would get rid of deluded notions, then universal knowledge, spontaneous knowledge, and unobstructed knowledge would become manifest. It is as if there were a great scripture, equal in extent to a billion-world universe, in which are written all the things of the universe.… Though this scripture is equal in measure to a billion-world universe, yet it rests entirely in a single atom; and as this is so of one atom, it is also true of all atoms. Then suppose someone with clear and comprehensive knowledge, who has fully developed the celestial eye, sees these scriptures inside atoms, not benefiting sentient beings at all, and with this thought— ‘I should, by energetic power, break open those atoms and release those scriptures so that they can benefit all sentient beings’— then employs appropriate means to break open the atoms and release the great scriptures, to enable all sentient beings to benefit greatly. Similarly, the knowledge of the enlightened, infinite and unobstructed, universally able to benefit all, is fully inherent in the bodies of sentient beings; but the ignorant, because of clinging to deluded notions, do not know of it, are not aware of it, and so do not benefit from it. Then the Buddha, with the unimpeded pure clear eye of knowledge, observes all sentient beings in the cosmos and says, ‘How strange! How is it that these sentient beings have the knowledge of the enlightened, but in their folly and confusion do not know it or perceive it? I should teach them the way of the sages and cause them to shed deluded notions and attachments, so that they can see in their own bodies the vast knowledge of the enlightened.’

The Flower Ornament Scripture (Avatamsaka-Sutra), Book XXXVII (Cleary 1993, 190)

One sound preaching the Dharma is the arrival of the time.

— Dogen, ‘Bussho’ (Waddell and Abe 2002, 96)

Primal flow

The sacred text is what the sacred river is currently reading, the streambed of consciousness.

(Stoop), if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop) in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all.

The Restored Finnegans Wake, 14

Drawing nearer to take our slant at it (since after all it has met with misfortune while all underground), let us see all there may remain to be seen.

The act of meaning the sacred text involves collision and collusion with the limits of language.

Beware lest ye be hindered by the veils of glory from partaking of the crystal waters of this living Fountain.

Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas ¶50

But give glad tidings to those who believe and work righteousness, that their portion is Gardens, beneath which rivers flow. Every time they are fed with fruits therefrom, they say: “Why, this is what we were fed with before,” for they are given things in similitude; and they have therein companions pure (and holy); and they abide therein (for ever).

Qur’án 2:25 (Yusuf Ali)

Divinely inspired

Divine revelation is always human at the point of delivery.

— Anthony Freeman (2001, 15)

No messenger is ever sent save with the tongue of his own people.

Qur’án 14:4 (Cragg 1994, 55)

All inspired matter has been subject to human distortion or coloring. Besides we cannot penetrate the counsels of the most High, or lay down anything as a principle that would govern his conduct. We do not know his inscrutable purposes, nor can we comprehend his plans. We cannot tell but he might see fit to inspire his servants with errors. In the third place, a truth which rests on the authority of inspiration only is of a somewhat incomprehensible nature; and we never can be sure that we rightly comprehend it. As there is no way of evading these difficulties, I say that revelation, far from affording us any certainty, gives results less certain than other sources of information. This would be so even if revelation were much plainer than it is.

— Peirce (CP 1.143, c. 1897)