Concepts and connections

The life of a concept is its function in a system of thought, a guidance system.

Vygotsky (1934) realized that the conceptual structures which inhabit meaning spaces must form an organic system from the beginning:

Concepts do not lie in the child’s mind like peas in a bag, without any bonds between them. If that were the case, no intellectual operation requiring coordination of thoughts would be possible, nor any general conception of the world. Not even separate concepts as such could exist: their very nature presupposes a system.

— Vygotsky (1934, 110-11)

Popper (1968) confirms this with respect to science, which builds consensus by means of repeated observations: ‘for logical reasons, there must always be a point of view – such as a system of expectations, anticipations, assumptions, or interests – before there can be any repetition’ (59). Without such a system of anticipations, no act or observation could be recognized as ‘the same’. This ‘repetition-for-us’ is ‘the result of our propensity to expect regularities and to search for them’ (60).

This system of anticipations is inhabited by concepts, each of which can be regarded as an iconic map of the relationships among interconnected feelings and ideas.

A concept is not a mere jumble of particulars,— that is only its crudest species. A concept is the living influence upon us of a diagram, or icon, with whose several parts are connected in thought an equal number of feelings or ideas. The law of mind is that feelings and ideas attach themselves in thought so as to form systems. But the icon is not always clearly apprehended. We may not know at all what it is; or we may have learned it by the observation of nature.

— Peirce, CP 7.467 (1893)

We are often guided by these ‘diagrams’ without being conscious of them, and usually without visualizing them; they function implicitly. Semiotically, though, we can learn to contemplate them.

New niches

As the e-mail habit spread in the late 20th century, the user often found his or her ‘inbox’ deluged with unwanted, intrusive and inane messages, usually sent by automated systems. A name was needed for this suddenly common phenomenon: a niche opened up in verbal meaning space.

The niche was filled by the word spam, which Jesper Hoffmeyer (2008, 137-8) traces back to a song in a Monty Python sketch (because its ‘endlessly repetitive lyrics suggest an endless repetition of worthless text, similar to what is contained within the e-mail variety of spam’). The word had been coined much earlier as a ‘telescope word’ for canned spiced ham (a disagreeable dish for many), but it must have been a memory of the Monty Python routine that triggered the association that plugged the word firmly into the niche it came to occupy. Certainly the original inventors of the word ‘Spam’ had no idea what it would later come to mean.

Many of our linguistic habits have similarly creative (spontaneous, accidental) origins, and this accounts for some of the polyversity we find in language. But Hoffmeyer’s point is that the same sort of thing happens in the biological realm, when an opening suddenly appears for unused (or differently used) genetic material to be plugged into a new sequence which adds something significant to the genetic resources of the organism.

The decisive cause of the birth of a new functional gene would be a lucky conjunction of two events: 1) an already existing nonfunctional gene might acquire a new meaning through integration into a functional (transcribed) part of the genome, and 2) the gene product would hit an unfilled gap in the semiotic needs of the cell or the embryo. In this way, a new gene becomes a scaffolding mechanism, supporting a new kind of interaction imbuing some kind of semiotic advantage upon its bearer.

— Hoffmeyer (2008, 138)

The somatic interpretant of the new gene may turn out to be a structural or behavioral change that confers some kind of pragmatic advantage upon the organism, filling a niche in practical meaning space: genetic polyversity pays off.

The Ship of Knowledge

In an illuminating metaphor, social scientist Otto Neurath compares humans as knowers to “sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.”

— Martin Benjamin, Philosophy & This Actual World, 59

Can any guidance system be perfected? Can a life reach a state of fulfillment so that no niche in meaning space is left unoccupied?

There is no conceivable fulfillment of any rational life except progress towards further fulfillment.

— Peirce, CN 3:124 (quoted in Cobley 2010, 90)

Systemic topologies

All of science, philosophy and religion begins by supposing that the universe is intelligible, that what happens around here makes some kind of sense to somebody, or at least would make sense to an omniscient being or an ideal reader with unlimited time and energy to read it. The confirmation of this is that our anticipations often turn out to be accurate – often enough that we are surprised when they turn out to be wrong. Surprises confirm that our models are both functional and imperfect.

Thus it is not surprising that what kind of sense the universe makes to you depends on what kind of system you are. And if you belong to a symbolic species, it depends on the dynamics of the symbol system (the language) which is integrated with your guidance system. As Terrence Deacon points out, these dynamics are shaped by the ‘semantic topology that determines the way symbols modify each other’s referential functions in different combinations.’

In the study of complex systems, many researchers have recognized the critical formative influence of what might be described as topological universals. Boundary conditions of various sorts – spatial constraints, temporal parameters, connectedness of graphs and networks, recursive or re-entrant, causal or representational geometries, and mere finiteness of systems – can determine the characteristic patterns and stable attractor configurations of dynamical systems. Semiotic constraints affect the evolution of language in much the same way that boundary conditions affect the dynamics of physical systems.

— Deacon 2003, 103

This system of relationships between symbols determines a definite and distinctive topology that all operations involving those symbols must respect in order to retain referential power. The structure implicit in the symbol-symbol mapping is not present before symbolic reference, but comes into being and affects symbol combinations from the moment it is first constructed. The rules of combination that are implicit in this structure are discovered as novel combinations are progressively sampled. As a result, new rules may be discovered to be emergent requirements of encountering novel combinatorial problems, in much the same way as new mathematical laws are discovered to be implicit in novel manipulations of known operations.

Symbols do not, then, get accumulated into unstructured collections that can be arbitrarily shuffled into different combinations. The system of representational relationships, which develops between symbols as symbol systems grow, comprises an ever more complex matrix. In abstract terms, this is a kind of tangled hierarchic network of nodes and connections that defines a vast and constantly changing semantic space. … Whatever the logic of this network of symbol-symbol relationships, it is inevitable that it will be reflected in the patterns of symbol-symbol combinations in communication.… the symbolic use of tokens is constrained both by each token’s use and by the use of other tokens with respect to which it is defined. Strings of symbols used to communicate and to accomplish certain ends must inherit both the intrinsic constraints of symbol-symbol reference and the constraints imposed by external reference.… Because symbolic reference is inherently systemic, there can be no symbolization without systematic relationships.

— Deacon (1997, 99-100)

Meaning what you read

Facts or beliefs, once formulated, are in the public domain; but their actual meanings cannot be made public.

Only you personally can mean, at the moment, the sign you are reading. You can do that by investing in it your own experience of the object of the sign. That is the water of life which can revive the dry bones of a published text. But that’s a third-person view. From your point of view as reader, what you do is to let the text speak from experience. Without this ‘letting it mean’, the text is just a bag of tricks and traps – canned information, facts, opinions, stories and so forth. Reading those things into the text, rather than ‘letting it mean,’ is another kind of trap, though. For a maxim that might avoid both traps, try this: Let your body mean the text.

Real learning can occur only in dialogue with one’s body.

— Gendlin (1981, 160)

Gendlin’s ‘focusing’ technique requires the practitioner to let the answers to her questions come from her body, rather than getting caught in a repetitive verbal routine. The body, then – rather than some external authority figure, or some ‘visionary’ projection – is trusted as the source of revelation which can turn into new guidance. Once this has been grounded in the practice of attending to the immediately felt body, then the habitual boundaries we draw around what can be felt as ‘body’ can fall away. Perhaps it is only when the whole earth is your body that you can really learn from scientific inquiry. And only when precepts are realized in the practice of interaction with other earthlings can you really learn what they mean.

Reading behind the words

Word meanings evolve. As Deacon (1997) points out, languages have adapted to human use. ‘The brain has co-evolved with respect to language, but languages have done most of the adapting’ (122).

If meaning spaces are more or less isomorphic, the etymologies and histories of words should give us some sense of the relationships between various concepts whose current names can be traced back to the same root. For instance, dear reader (in French, lecteur), you might consider how reading is conceptually related to both selection and intelligence, based on this etymology given by the OED:

Intelligent: from Latin inter (between, within) and legere (to bring together, gather, pick out, choose, catch up, catch with the eye, read).

(‘Catch up’ is used here in the sense of ‘pick up,’ not in the more recent idiomatic sense, as in ‘Slow down so I can catch up with you.’) This etymology gives us a broader sense of what is implicit in the act of reading, and how it is related to the processes of learning and evolution, which are also selective. The prefix inter- also suggests a connection with dialogue.

Of course the study of etymology, like any other, has its pitfalls. Some changes in the evolution of a linguistic form may have nothing to do with its meaning – for instance the historical accident by which the -leg- root changed to -lig- in some combinations (which is why you are intelligent rather than intellegent). A pun may be a revealer of hidden connections, or it may be funny because an apparent connection is illusory. (The root of illusion is ‘play.’) The Latin verb legere can be traced back to the Greek lego, which has (according to LSG) two distinct meanings: one is about speaking, conversing, meaning and so on, and comes into English in words like ‘dialect’; the other is about choosing (as in English ‘selection,’ ‘election’ and so on). What motivated the selection of a single verb for these two different families of concepts? Are they related in some hidden way? Or was it just an accident? And what about the connection between lego and logos, dialogue and dialectic?

Questions like these can only be resolved pragmatically: catch up the idea (it’s an abduction!) and run with it, and see where it takes your reading of the Word.