Thursday, January 20, 2011

The semiosis of semiosis…

"First of all," writes John Deely on page 5 of What Distinguishes Human Understanding? (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press. 2002), "it is no longer possible to participate intelligently in this discussion [i.e. the question of animal cognition and human understanding] without taking account of the fact that there are qualitative differences in the communication systems of all biological species or forms." All species have species-specific modes of semiosis, so the question of "whether humans are unique" is a red herring. We might as well ask whether gold finches are unique. Clearly they are––they are gold finches, not golden retrievers. "Every cognitive organism belongs to one or another species," continues Deely, "and every cognitive species is distinguished by apprehensive modalities peculiar to itself" (loc. cit.).

I have written before about these matters, and my most sustained effort to distinguish human semiosis from 'mere' animal cognition involved a "fourfold" conception of semiosis.

The idea of a square: human semiosis differs from general animal cognition as qualititatively as squares differ from triangles, lines, and points, yet not at the exclusion of points, lines and tri-angle-arity.

Human semiosis transcendentally includes lower forms of semiosis: it manifests those forms but is not reducible to them.

While reading Deely's book I pondered a simpler way to explain the distinction: Only humans can cognize about the semiotic cognition of other species.

This thesis grants that non-human animals do cognize. Pace Descartes, animals are not just elaborate clockworks. They have emotions, desires, goals, fears, etc. They are robust semiotic cognizers.

Yet, interestingly, members of a species concern themselves with semiotic exchanges relevant only to their mutual interaction. Sparrows recognize wolf cries, and some animals can mimic the calls of other animals. But it seems that only humans make signs about the sign-making of other species. We not only manipulate our own species-intelligible signs qua signs (viz. for personal gain, social function, etc.) but also manipulate signs as signs for cognizing the signs made by other animals. Call the former β-cognition and the latter δ-cognition. I choose δ to note human semiosis in deference to Walker Percy's idea of the Delta Factor. I should also note that my notion of fourfold semiotics also stems from my reading of Percy's The Message in the Bottle.

Generative anthropology, another field of inquiry of which I only recently became aware, bears striking resemblances to Percy's thesis. According to (sigh) the Wikipedia entry,

Generative Anthropology is a field of study based on the theory that the origin of human language was a singular event and that the history of human culture is a genetic or "generative" development stemming from the development of language. …

Generative Anthropology originated with Professor Eric Gans of UCLA who developed his ideas in a series of books and articles beginning with The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation (1981). which builds on the ideas of René Girard, notably that of mimetic desire. However, in establishing the theory of Generative Anthropology, Gans departs from and goes beyond Girard's work in many ways. Generative Anthropology is therefore an independent and original way of understanding the human species, its origin, culture, history, and development. …

The central hypothesis of Generative Anthropology is that the origin of language was a singular event. Human language is radically different from animal communication systems. It possesses syntax, allowing for unlimited new combinations and content; it is symbolic, and it possesses a capacity for history. Thus it is hypothesized that the origin of language must have been a singular event, and the principle of parsimony requires that it originated only once.

Language makes possible new forms of social organization radically different from animal "pecking order" hierarchies dominated by an alpha male. Thus, the development of language allowed for a new stage in human evolution - the beginning of culture, including religion, art, desire, and the sacred. As language provides memory and history via a record of its own history, language itself can be defined via a hypothesis of its origin based on our knowledge of human culture. As with any scientific hypothesis, its value is in its ability to account for the known facts of human history and culture.

So there's yet another tract of knowledge over which I can cast the seemingly endless seeds of my ignorance.

Where was I? Right: fourfold semiosis, δ-cognition. Damn. Sorry. My 'simplified' epiphany was a lot clearer when I had it reading Deely than it looks while writing here. I'll just cite Deely again:

"Of all living things we can say that they are semiosic creatures, creatures which grow and develop through the manipulation of sign-vehicles and the involvement in sign-processes, semiosis. What distinguishes the human being among the animals is quite simple, yet was never fully grasped before modern times had reached the state of Latin times in the age of Galileo. Every animal of necessity makes use of signs, yet signs themselves consist in relations, and every relation (real or unreal as such) is invisible to sense and can be understood in its difference from related objects or things but never perceived as such. What distinguishes the human being from the other animals is that only human animals come to realize that there are signs distinct from and superordinate to every particular thing that serves to constitute an individual in its distinctness from its surroundings."

–– John Deely, "The Semiotic Animal: A postmodern definition of human being superseding the modern definition ‘res cogitans’", p. 10.

Reading Deely is for merather like flirting with a gorgeous woman. She's very attractive to me and I make attempts to win her over, but she is also daunting and baffling in her feminine exaltation. Likewise, though I am immensely attracted to the wisdom Deely has to offer, I often find his prose florid and stilted. This is probably due both to the influence of Peirce and Heidegger, neither writer which lacked in byzantine prose, on Deely's thought and his fluency in Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, and Italian: he writes like a Peirce born during the Renaissance.


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