Thursday, November 19, 2009

From there to here...

[Cf. an addendum here.]

Fourfold Semiotics:
Why We Say What We Say Even When What We Say Isn't What We're Really Saying

by Elliot Bougis

[I didn't intend this to become a "real essay," as it rather forced itself out of me late last night. But in retrospect, especially when I added the title as a coda, it seems substantive enough to join the growing heap of my "real essays," which I hope can make up a couple-three "real books" and earn me a little "real money." Scandalous thought!

Also, I have learned to add footnote links in my HTML. If you want to read the content of a footnote, click on the bracketed number and you will "jump" to the footnote. To go back in the body of the text, just click "back" on your web browser. I'm still working out the kinks.]

A tingle, then an ache. The corpus moves ever so slightly. Wakes. Something called hunger, but without the name. The corpus, now a moving animal, licks its fingers for some nourishment. Comes away empty. Its eyes range over the bush, looking for some nourishment. Looks down at the bare ground. It lets out a small grunt. Others of its kind glance at it. Return to their own morsels. It whimpers again, gazing at what they eat. They snuff in reply and munch on the remnants of roots, grubs, berries. Incipient speech goes begging.

Advance many eons. One of countless of that hungry animal's descendants (it found food after all) feels a tingle, than an ache. Hunger. And the words: "I'm hungry. I would love a steak." The corpus raises itself and exits to find nourishment, eyes awash in a cornucopia of choices. Recalls that steak is above his budget. Settles for soup. And the words: "I would like a bowl of soup and two pieces of bread, please." Satisfaction ensues, hunger disperses. Speech strikes gold. But steak will have to wait till his fate next Friday.

Advance a few generations. One of that man's countless descendants (his date was a success, after all!) feels a tingle, mumbles "I'm hungry" to his coworkers and heads off for some grub (how proud his ancient forebears would be!). He reaches into his duffel bag and wedges his headphones into his ears as he makes his way to the subway. He's learning Spanish with a Pimsleur audio course. "Tell me you're hungry," the voice says. "I'm hungry," he mutters, to no one in particular. Funny thing is, he really is hungry, so the lesson sticks that much better. "Tengo hambre. Yo tengo hambre." Speech flexes its muscles.

Advance an hour. Our man has eaten his fill and is back on the subway. He wants to review the lesson he was in when he sat down for lunch. Soon enough the voice says, "Tell me you're hungry." He smiles at the irony. "Tengo hambre. Yo tengo hambre." Only he doesn't; he just ate. But he still says he's hungry. Speech hallucinates.


This is a meditation on what I will provisionally call the fourfold structure of semiotics. I take it that virtually all sentient beings are also semiotic beings. That is, after all, basically what sensation is: responding to natural signs with natural signs. (For those interested in the esoteric machinations of my presentation here, my term of art for the Thomistotelian "animal nature," or "sensitive soul," is the semiotic capacity.) The objects of desire, as well as the mere objects among which we always find ourselves, with or without a desire or repulsion towards them, are "first-order signs." They are signs waited to be "answered" by second-order signs like gestures, glances, grunts, and so forth.

In the first vignette, a primal ancestor lacked the verbal wherewithal to express his hunger, much less name it for himself. He was stuck at the first level of semiotic competence, namely, grunting and gesturing. Certainly this kind of semiotic skill is a form of "expressing" himself, but it lacks a key aspect of advanced semiotic ability, namely, the ability to refer to things outside the immediate semiotic environment. That ancestor was stuck in what Walker Percy (following Charles S. Peirce) calls a dyadic form of existence. Without an immediate semiotic impulse, the creature was unable to generate signs that transported it beyond its immediate semiotic Umwelt. Even with semiotic input, the creature could only respond in kind: two sign-makers responding dyadically, im-mediately. This is the first level of semiotic ability.

By the second vignette, a hominid descendant had ascended to a marvelous level of semiotic ability: representational verbal speech. Such a man could not only respond dyadically to its immediate semiotic Umwelt (hunger pangs, billboards, smells of cooking food, etc.), but could also go beyond that Umwelt by way of speech. He could, in other words (!), respond mediately to a range of signs beyond his immediate dyadic engagement with the world. He could so to speak (!) put verbal signs between himself and unseen realities; language could function as a bridge from one semiotic realm to the next. This introduces what Percy (à la Peirce) calls a "triadic" existence. The words he uses to navigate immediate and mediate signs can be completely detached from his dyadic responses. This is why he said he wanted a steak, even though it was a mere fancy. As a triadic semiotic creature, the hungry man can juggle his own interior "signs" (hunger, etc.), a range of mediate and immediate signs (the fanciful steak in the sky or the steaming soup behind the counter, etc.), and his own words about all of it ("hungry, steak, soup, etc."). This is the second level of semiotic ability.

Now here's where dyadic and triadic semiotics diverge. If the hungry man had a dog, he could easily train it to respond not only to the sound of a can opener at feeding time (or the tap of a spoon on the bowl, etc.), but also to human speech (e.g., "cookie, dinner, Let's eat, hungry?, etc."). Yet, could the man anywhere near as easily train his dog not to respond dyadically to such cues? Could he, in other words (…), train the dog to ponder "cookie" rather than to look up hopefully, begin drooling, amble over, sit patiently, etc.? It seems he could not. For the only reason he bothered to teach his dog those verbal cues, was so that they were entirely cues for action. Moreover, what means would the owner use to train his dog to dissociate dyadic stimuli from dyadic responses if not dyadic stimuli themselves? Again, dyadic productions are but "second-order signs" linked to "first-order signs."

If, to cite one of Percy's examples, I am with a two-year-old boy and I point to a red balloon, the lad will probably reach out for it in a typical dyadic response. If I then point at the balloon and say "balloon" a few times, I can teach him how to say "balloon" when I point at it, or, in little more time, to reach for the balloon when I merely say "balloon" without pointing. But could I then teach the child to simply reflect on the word in isolation from the immediate semiotic context? If I pointed at the balloon, could I expect him to do anything else than say "balloon" and reach for it? If I said the word "balloon," could I expect him to do anything but mimic the word and look at the balloon for his next cue? If you've ever played with children that small, you know the answer is no. Children at that age, like dogs at any age, are stuck in a dyadic world. The sole function of dyadic speech is to signal desires and trigger responses from hearers.

Now perhaps someone will interject that "baby talk" manifests a crude form of triadic speech, since when babies babble, they are not doing so (dyadically) in response to or in pursuit of objects. Yet, I deny baby talk even belongs to lower-level dyadic semiotics, precisely because baby talk is incoherent for the infants themselves, and still less for procuring certain wants. Indeed, bare howling and crying are superior to babbling as dyadic speech. The whole point of triadic semiotics is to elevate dyadic semiotics into its own self-subsistent world of signing, in which verbal signs can be signs about dyadic signs about first-order signs. This is why infant babbling can't count as triadic signing, though it can count as nascent triadic signing precisely insofar as human infants develop into third-order signers: we know what the baby is "doing"––signing triadically in the enclosure of language itself––even if the baby doesn't, and even if it isn't successful. As far as I know, baby talk is just the overflow of intense neural wiring going on inside young brains as synaptic connections and well formed speech modules are forged. At most, babbling is a floating bridge between a baby's natural aptitude to sign dyadically and its human aptitude to master triadic signing.

Indeed, far from showing the seamless continuity of babbling as a supposed form of triadic semiotics and lower-level dyadic semiotics, baby talk highlights their discontinuity. If there is too much ambiguity about the second-order signs a child (or a dog) produces, she risks not attaining the first-order signs she is after. If, for instance, a verbally precocious toddler kept chanting "not hungry, not hungry" while his mother tried to feed him, he would risk not eating when his body needed nourishment. Because the toddler displays only an incompetent production of third-order verbalism, there is a "disconnect" between what his mother receives as a meaningful dyadic refusal and what his brain produces as inadvertent third-order signing. His brain, in other words, is producing irrelevant third-order signs ("not hungry"), irrelevant because detached from his actual dyadic needs. This hapless play-acting will last only as long as his dyadic system allows. Once he gets hungry enough, the toddler will naturally manifest its genuine dyadic desires by a rumbling stomach, confused moaning, automatic glances at the food, and so on. Thus, far from being an "automatic transition" from dyadic to triadic signing, baby talk is a threat to both dyadic signing and mature triadic signing if the child is not granted "citizenship" in the properly triadic world as a whole.

Only once a child is old enough––perhaps six years old––can she step back from the frenzy of dyadic semiotics and the neural acrobatics of babbling, and reflect on language itself as higher order of stimulus. The words themselves become semiotic objects. Children below a certain threshold constantly ask, "What's that?" (as apparently I did all the time as a toddler), but once they know a thing's name they don't go on to ask, "What does _____ mean?" Above a certain threshold, however, a child will not only ask "What's that?" but will also proceed to ask, for example, "But what does fire hydrant mean? Why is a fire hydrant called a 'fire hydrant'? Why do we use that word for that thing?" Entry into the world of triadic semiotic ability entails positing words themselves as "mediaries" between one's self and one's dyadic objects. In the triadic world of human speech, words themselves become objects of semiotic engagement, which is why we so easily "argue about words." We are not satisfied to refer to things by mere gestures or even by articulate sounds (as plenty of other species can do); we insist on saying things well, being accurate, not being obscure, and so on. In fact, we can't move onto a dyadic course of action until we first agree, on a triadic level, about what we are saying. Neurologically, poetry and song may just be exalted forms of baby talk (i.e., ways of reinforcing synaptic complexity), but they are certainly more than neural babbling insofar as they are forms of conscious enjoyment of words themselves among triadic agents. (As I stressed above, precisely because baby talk is sheer babbling, it is eo ipso not triadic, whereas poetry and song are triadic babbling, and eo ipso include the intentionality-referentiality of triadic semiotics.) We don't heed baby talk, since it neither refers to a baby's dyadic interests nor demonstrates verbal excellence on her part. By contrast, we heed artistic verbal performances, not because they direct us to dyadic objects, but because they bring us to dwell on words themselves as uniquely human "toys." Once a semiotic creature masters how to navigate between dyadic signing and sheer triadic signing, it no longer (or at least very seldom [1]) risks failing to obtain its first-order objects of desire.

Just now I mentioned being obscure, and now I want to expand on the feature of language which motivate objections to obscurity, namely, deceit. Deceit brings us to the third facet of semiotic ability. (Notice that I do not refer to this as the third level of semiotics, since I am still not sure whether deceit is properly considered a form of triadic semiotics. I'm inclined to say that deceit is a form of semiotic behavior that can be done dyadically or triadically, as I will explain presently.) With deceit, semiotic creatures can use their own signs as diversions from other signs. A mother bird's mimicry of being wounded so as to divert a predator from her nest is dyadically deceitful. All she is doing is giving the predator a more enticing dyadic stimulus so as to draw it away from her brood. Humans can do the same thing (such as faking an upset stomach so onlookers ignore an accomplice breaking into a car, pretending to notice something remarkable over someone's shoulder so you can grab the last oyster at a soirée, etc.) on a dyadic level, but can also use articulate verbalization to mask their intentions. As I said, though, verbal prevarication seems to be only a very ornate kind of dyadic deceit, since it puts a verbal "smokescreen" in front of the contested dyadic objects. It reduces triadic signs to diversionary second-order signs.

At the same time, though, I admit prevarication––verbal deception––may just be normal triadic semiotics taken to grotesque levels. For while triadic semiotics inserts words between agents and objects as objects of reflection in their own right, prevarication does so crucially detached from the reality of its referents. In other words (…), the reason we bicker over words is to ensure that the speaker is not misleading us about the referents of speech. There really is no way to prevaricate dyadically, since to so would just be to replace one sign with another (as in the case of the mother bird feigning a broken wing to draw the predator away), and thus no longer count as triadic signing. The threat of prevarication is however endemic to triadic semiotics, since the validity of the "third-order signs" (viz., words) depends on those terms actually referring to the dyadic objects in question.[2]

In any case, let me proceed to the fourth level––and I do mean level––of semiotic ability. This is what the young office worker was doing on the subway while learning Spanish. Clearly he wasn't using Spanish for dyadic gains. Even if he happened to be hungry when he said "yo tengo hambre," his uttering those words had nothing to do with his the procurement of food. Nor was his response to the Pimsleur narrator a properly triadic form of signing, not the least because the narrator could not respond to the man's "yo tengo hambre." What the man was doing was something which I think is truly unique to human beings: he was using language in a purely fictitious way, yet without being deceitful.

When the Pimsleur narrator said, "Tell me you're hungry," the listener did not respond deceitfully. He didn't say, "Tengo hambre" in order to procure or obscure a dyadic object, nor did he utter the words as mere verbal play. It is one thing to respond dyadically to a dyadic sign, such as when a dog whines for scraps from the table or nudges its bowl to prompt its owner to feed it. It something else to respond triadically to a dyadic sign, such as when we see a Ferrari on the street and say, "Man, I'd love to drive that baby." But in the case of the man on the subway, there seems to be a wholly new level of semiotic performance involved. Dyadically, the man showed his hunger by saying, "I'm hungry" and by heading for food. Triadically, he could sign his hunger by being asked, "Are you hungry?", answering "Yes, I'm hungry," and then consulting his coworkers about what he should eat ("What do you mean by a 'good cheap burger'? etc."). But as he listened to the Pimsleur course he was told, triadically, to pretend to say he was hungry, which suggests that he was being deceitful about being deceitful. It would be easy enough for the man to tell his friend he's hungry, when in fact he isn't, so as to get a chance to speak in private over lunch, but something wholly novel and recursive––and I would say uniquely human––occurs as he plays along with the Pimsleur prompts. It is an exercise in what I will call honest deceit.

The point I am trying to convey is quite subtle and came to me in a flash of intuition under circumstances very similar to those of the man on the subway, so I'm sorry if I'm being obscure (!). Let me just try to blurt out my point and see what sticks: we can imagine a dog responding to the word "hungry" by running to its bowl, and we can (I suppose for the sake of argument) imagine the same dog "acting hungry" so as to draw his owner into the kitchen for some other purpose––but can we possibly imagine a dog being signaled to "act hungry" and then "playing along" without being hungry at all? Again, while dogs and other animals commonly respond to verbal cues like "cookie, cookie," and while they commonly generate signals to obtain cookie-cookie, I know of no non-human behavior which simultaneously and consciously responds to hunger-cues with hunger-signals as a sheer exercise in signaling.[3] This––the utter gratuity of human language learning––seems to be a wholly unique semiotic capacity of human beings. Like all animals, we can respond to and produce signals relevant to our dyadic ends. Perhaps, also, some species of animals can revel in their form of communication as we do in poetry and song (such as whales and their whale songs). But I know of no other species which emits signals for the sole purpose of generating signals which themselves can be dyadic, triadic, poetic, and ironic all at once.

The whales might sing a certain song to signal a desire for plankton elsewhere in the sea; the whales might also sing songs to mislead other whales about water currents, salinity, a bounty of plankton, etc.; the whales might also sing songs just to elicit harmonic responses from other whales. The whales might––and probably do––perform all these semiotic feats, but I know of no whale behavior in which a song is generated in order to evoke a song which sounds exactly like a dyadic signal for, say, food, but is simultaneously evoked as a false signal for food.[4] I would say this bizarre stricture, found only at the fourth level of semiotics, applies to all non-human animals.

Lastly, let me say that my reflections in this post are not motivated to establish a unique aspect of human-being. Yet I think my considerations do indicate a unique dimension of human existence. Aside from my fourfold schematization and my fumbling over the fourth semiotic level, my considerations herein are not original with me. Mortimer Adler, Stanley Jaki, Dennis Bonnette, Walker Percy, Charles S. Peirce, Adrian Reimers, et al., have helped me see just how "mysterious" human language is a genuinely biological phenomenon. I hope you can see some of the mystery too.

[1] Even very competent third-order signing can backfire at times, such as when verbal irony is taken to be literal. "That's what you said!" –– "Yes, but you should have known that's not what I meant!" And so on. I experienced a similar backfire once when I worked in a restaurant. The customer ordered a pizza and nonchalantly asked for "everything on it." But that restaurant charged per item, so I asked the customer at least twice, "Are you sure you want everything on it? All these toppings?" He insisted on "the works," whereupon I tapped every single key we had for toppings, until the pizza came out to about $30. The customer was incensed and accused me of overcharging him. So I had to call out my manager to explain that each of "all the toppings" was anywhere from $.25 to $1. He found this absurd, but then settled for a handful of toppings.

[2] Obviously, I'm not settled on how to classify deceit in an ascending model of "the fourfold structure of semiotics," but I will say this: If we imagine the four dimensions of semiotics which I am proposing as steel plates, dyadic signing is the first level of semiotics, triadic signing is the second level, and deceit is a column of steel running through both. So I guess my proposal looks like one side of a vertical barbell with weights stacked on it!

[3] A possible objection might be that "gratuitous signaling" is just an elaborate form of neural exercise, like baby talk and poetry (at one level). I grant that just as poetry has a neural-boosting dimension but still is something else at a higher level, so the "pure signaling" of some human semiotics both includes and surpasses mere neural calisthenics. The pure signaling of someone responding to a Pimsleur course is, as I have said, a strange blend of neural calisthenics, dyadic training (e.g., to obtain food if one is ever hungry in Spain), triadic engagement (i.e., with the narrator and native speakers in the Pimsleur course), and something else, which I have called "honest deceit." Perhaps my analysis is just another way of talking about Wittgensteinian "language games," but I think the difference is that my account is literally about language games as a uniquely human form of semiotics. Certainly other animals play games, and some might even "play with 'words'" (à la whale songs), but does any other animal besides man play with playing with words? It seems not, and that is my point, even if neural calisthenics enter into the picture.

[4] Just imagine it: "Hey, Lenny, I want you to sing that song, you know, the plankton song." –– "Why, Mac? You need plankton?" –– "Nope." –– "You love its melody?" –– "Nope." –– "Well, then, why?" –– "Just to hear you say it when I ask you." –– "You're friggin' weird."



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