Let us swop hats and excheck a few strong verbs weak oach eather yapyazzard abast the blooty creeks.

— FW 16

Thus begins the conversation between Mutt and Jute in the early pages of Finnegans Wake. It continues rather like a dialogue of the deaf:

Jute.— Yutah!
Mutt.— Mukk’s pleasurad.
Jute.— Are you jeff?
Mutt.— Somehards.
Jute.— But you are not jeffmute?
Mutt.— Noho. Only an utterer.
Jute.— Whoa? Whoat is the mutter with you?
Mutt.— I became a stun a stummer.
Jute.— What a hauhauhauhaudibble thing, to be cause! How, Mutt?
Mutt.— Aput the buttle, surd.

That last word is not often heard in everyday English, but it suits the story here, as the primal meaning of its Latin root surdus is “deaf.” But then the notion of “hard of hearing” slips over (by way of stuttering, stammering and muttering) into “hard to hear,” and thence to “unintelligible” or “irrational,” and thence to “meaningless.” This diversity was documented by C.S. Peirce in the Century Dictionary:

In his later work on logic as ‘the Basis of Pragmatism,’ Peirce used the word as a technical term applied to ‘the relation implied in duality,’ which ‘is essentially and purely a dyadic relation’ (EP2:382). A surd relation is the opposite of a dicible one. In less Latinate diction, you could say that a surd relation is “unsayable,” or perhaps “unreasonable.” It can be experienced but not really described.

For the only kind of relation which could be veritably described to a person who had no experience of it is a relation of reason. A relation of reason is not purely dyadic: it is a relation through a sign: that is why it is dicible. Consequently the relation involved in duality is not dicible, but surd …


Since all reasoning is in signs, a ‘relation of reason’ is triadic even if it seems to have only two correlates, two ‘subjects’ (like Mutt and Jute). It lacks the surdity of a ‘purely dyadic relation.’ But the only way our two ‘jeffmutes’ could enter into a purely dyadic relation would be to collide with each other, perhaps in a head-butting battle. The duality of their duel is clear enough ‘aput the buttle,’ but they do manage to swop hats and excheck a few verbs, thus making their relationship more triadic. If they both sound a bit “stunned,” maybe that’s just the effect of taking turns at the bottle.

Turning to genuine triadic relations, and thus to signs, we find that the Secondness of the dynamic relation between Sign and Object – or in communication, the duality between Utterer and Interpreter – must also be genuine, must be a ‘real’ relation, not a ‘relation of reason.’ As explained elsewhere, the element of Secondness or surdity must be involved in any honest attempt to understand, speak or hear the truth.

This may sound unsound or even absurd, but it is borne out by the twisted history of words themselves. If our language were entirely rational, for instance, the word absurd would mean “far from surd,” just as abnormal means “far from normal.” But in fact surd and absurd mean pretty much the same thing. Why? It’s hard to say, surd.

As Peirce remarked in the Century Dictionary, absurd is ‘a word of disputed origin’ – there is no dispute about what it actually means in everyday discourse, but a reasonable account of how it came to mean that has to choose between two possible significations of the prefix ab-. If it means “away from” (as in “absent” or “abnormal”), then combining it with the Latin root surd could not generate the usual meaning of absurd. Some say that the -surd part might come from a Sanskrit root that sounds similar but means “sound” (rather than “deaf”). Then absurd could have meant something like “inharmonious,” and thence “unsound” in the sense of “unreasonable.” The other side in the dispute say that the Latin and English surd is the root, but the prefix ab- acts as an ‘intensive’ rather than a negative (as it seems to do in “aboriginal”), thus making absurdity even more unreasonable or nonsensical than surdity.

The point is that, whether we can explain it or not, the common sense of the word absurd is “contrary to common sense” (CD), because that is how people actually use it. Likewise actual facts, no matter how well known, always carry a residue of unspeakable or inexplicable surdity. ‘Facts don’t do what I want them to,’ as Byrne and Eno put it. The element of Secondness in them keeps our knowledge real and our quest for Truth honest.

Multiple perspectives

… the world is richer than it is possible to express in any single language. Music is not exhausted by its successive stylization from Bach to Schoenberg. Similarly, we cannot condense into a single description the various aspects of our experience. We must call upon numerous descriptions, irreducible one to the other, but connected to each other by precise rules of translation (technically called transformations).

Prigogine, From Being to Becoming, 51

Another side of learning

Learning is a natural process of pursuing personally meaningful goals, and it is active, volitional, and internally mediated; it is a process of discovering and constructing meaning from information and experience, filtered through the learner’s unique perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.

— American Psychological Association, 1993 (in McCombs and Whisler 1997, 5)

When we consider learning as a constructive process, we think of experience and information as the material inputs to the process. But the other side of the learning coin is a process of integrated differentiation, like the development of a bodymind from a single cell. In this process we learn by making distinctions within the phaneron; and the ‘bits’ of information which appear as inputs in the construction model are really products of the analysis which we do in order to describe the process.

Can we coordinate?

The history of human society shows that population growth has tended to foster subordination rather than coordination in social guidance systems.

With the advent of agriculture, ‘high population density led to centralized authority and stratified societies, and a new mode of social organization emerged’ (Morowitz 2002, 168). Christopher Boehm (in Katz 2000) argues that the earliest human communities were egalitarian, morality being enforced by the group as a whole rather than specialized ‘police forces.’ As they grew bigger, especially after agriculture became established, need arose for central leadership, and it could no longer be controlled by group consensus; so the leadership became the controlling (governing) agency, with or without the consent of the governed. Religious and political groupings were indistinguishable in this respect until very recently. David Sloan Wilson (2002) gives a similar analysis.

Stuart Kauffman traces a similar development in biological terms, in ‘An Emerging Global Civilization,’ the final chapter of his (1995) book At Home in the Universe. Drawing upon work by Brian Goodwin and Gerry Webster, he begins with Kant, who

writing in the late eighteenth century, thought of organisms as autopoietic wholes in which each part existed for and by means of the whole, while the whole existed for and by means of the parts. [Goodwin and Webster] noted that the idea of an organism as an autopoietic whole had been replaced by the idea of the organism as an expression of a ‘central directing agency.’ The famous biologist August Weismann, at the end of the nineteenth century, developed the view that the organism is created by the growth and development of specialized cells, the ‘germ line,’ which contains microscopic molecular structures, a central directing agency, determining growth and development. In turn, Weismann’s molecular structures became the chromosomes, became the genetic code, became the ‘developmental program’ controlling ontogeny. … In this trajectory, we have lost an earlier image of cells and organisms as self-creating wholes.

— Kauffman (1995, 274)

Thus we have managed to conjure up ‘central control’ both above and below the scale of human bodymind. Some of the conflict between ‘science and religion’ in the twentieth century was really a struggle between partisans of these competing control agencies. But these conflicts can only distract us from the real question: Can humanity as a moral (guiding) agency self-organize, replacing subordination with coordination? Or will it take a central agency (religious or political) to unify humanity by imposing a ‘new world order’ upon it?

Wilson (2002) poses a related question. It seems that religions have evolved their current forms by competing with one another and with other social structures. But the next major transition would require them to give up the competition that has made them what they are. Can they do this? In political terms, can a community or a nation open itself to cooperation with others instead of closing itself off from others and trying to dominate them?

The same goes for science. In order for a truly comprehensive model to appear, must one of the competing paradigms win? Or can a new level of modelling emerge from dialog itself (without the partners to the dialog necessarily being conscious of that level)?

… in the depth of social reality each decision brings unexpected consequences, and man responds to these surprises by inventions which transform the problem.

— Merleau-Ponty (1964, 205)

Can we reinvent ourselves?