Monday, February 26, 2007

Bertrand Russell's Chicken: Sign Experience and the Human Mind

In a discussion of the foundations and limitations of inductive reasoning, the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell presented one of my favorite philosophical anecdotes (1959:63):

"Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who usually feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken…The mere fact that something has happened a certain number of times causes animals and men to expect that it will happen again. Thus our instincts certainly cause us to believe that the sun will rise to-morrow, but we may be in no better a position than the chicken which unexpectedly has its neck wrung."

Certainly we humans engage more often than we would care to think in such chicken-headed thinking. There is much in common in the conceptual process between humans and other animals. There is also much that is different. Russell’s anecdote provides a useful analogy to introduce students to the concept and limitations of inductive reasoning, but unless I misjudge my chickens, this is not actually induction but instead a different sign experience, or semiosis, with limitations that are analogous to the limitations of induction. More on that later. Here instead I raise the question, what is it that makes human thought distinct?

Anthropologists since at least Leslie White (1949; 1959) have focused on the symbol and symbolic thought as the thing which distinguishes humans from other animals, including chimps and other non-human primates. This is not a bad first approximation. There is no evidence to date of chimpanzees or bonobos using symbols or clearly engaging in symbolic thought in the wild. Laboratory experiments are another story, however. There is evidence in ape language experiments of great apes sometimes using symbols and even arranging them in combination in basic syntactic combinations. Further, there is contentious evidence that some extinct hominids, such as Neandertals, may have used some symbols some of the time. We are not the only creatures with the capacity for symbolic thought, though we do seem to be the only ones whose social contexts are pervaded by symbol and language use.

In order to proceed to a more sophisticated analysis of the situation, we need a more subtle instrument than simply the distinction between symbol and sign – and this for two sorts of reasons. First, symbolic anthropologists, including first order scholars like Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner, have often lumped as “symbols” signs which are more properly iconic or indexical (see the discussion in Daniel 1984 on this point). Second, and more to the point here, if it is not symbol use per se which distinguishes us, but certain sorts of symbolic thought, then we need a more elaborate classificatory system in order to make such distinctions.

Here, the work of the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce is helpful in providing a fuller typology than other semiotic schemes. For Peirce, the sign is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (1992: 11). Unlike the Sausserean conception of the sign as dyadic – comprised of signifier and signified, the Peircean sign is tryadic (something which has certain advantages that are beyond the scope the present discussion), comprised of the sign/representamen – the sign vehicle which stands for something else, the object – which is not a material object in the world, but the idea of an object (corresponding more or less to paradigmatic meaning), and the interpretant – the syntagmatic or contextual interpretation of the object by somebody or something.

Peirce further classified signs into three trichotomies: first on the basis of type of sign or representamen, that is the form of the sign vehicle itself (qualisign, sinsign, and legisign); second on the basis of the relationship between representamen and object (icon, index, and symbol); and third on the basis of the relationship between representamen and interpretant (rheme, dicent, and argument). Any given sign can be classified simultaneously on the basis of all three trichotomies. This yields a system which is frankly over-elaborate for most purposes, but particular elements of it are useful and even essential for certain analyses.

The distinction that has been most useful to scholars and is probably most familiar is that between icon, index, and symbol. The icon is a sign which signifies through some sort of systematic relationship or similarity to the object signified. This can include straightforward cases such as pictographic representation, or more complex cases such as diagrams or metaphor. The index is a sign which signifies through calling attention to the object signified, through pointing or contiguity, including straightforward cases such as the index finger pointing to an object and less straightforward cases such as metonymy. The symbol is a sign which signifies purely through convention. Though symbolic anthropology has tended to focus on highly complex symbols in ritual context, a more mundane (and quantitatively significant) example of symbolic use would be the words we use so habitually, all of which signify by convention.

The other two trichotomies are less familiar and perhaps more difficult. With the first, a qualisign is an individual quality taken as a sign of an object. As quality, it can only be experienced and function as sign in the actual manifestation (which could be physical or mental) of the quality, which is to say that qualisigns only ever function as such in manifestations of themselves alongside other qualisigns which together form an individual instance of something which might itself function as a sign of something (perhaps itself). This individual instance of something which is comprised of bundled qualities or qualisigns and which functions as a sign is the sinsign. As individual instance, the sinsign may function as a sign of a unique object, or more likely, it may be an individual token of a general type or law. This sign of general type or law is the legisign. A sinsign which is a token of a legisign will partake of or manifest the law-like or typic aspects of the legisign of which it is a token, while at the same time being itself comprised of multiple qualisigns. Here it should be noted that all symbols, as conventional and law-like, are legisigns. Thus, the third trichotomy will be of greater concern for our purposes here.

The rheme is one which signifies merely qualitative possibility to the interpreter, that is, the interpretant is one of qualitative possibility. The dicent, or dicisign, signifies actual existence or entails some sort of proposition about the relation of the object signified to the surrounding world, which is to say that the dicent enmeshes the object within a basic syntax relating it to other objects. The argument, as Peirce puts it, “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth” (1992: 27). Or, as Peirce puts it elsewhere, and as E. Valentine Daniel (1984) echoes, the argument is a sign of reason, building upon propositions, or dicents, to enact overarching logical systems, which is to say that the argument involves theorization broadly understood, and is always comprised of symbols.

The combination of trichotomies yields three types of symbol: the rhematic symbol, dicent symbol and argument. A rhematic symbol “is a sign connected with its object by an association of general ideas in such a way that its replica calls up an image in the mind, which image, owing to certain habits or dispositions of that mind, tends to produce a general concept” (Peirce 1992: 26). Peirce’s example is a common noun, but words in general, as well as other linguistic paradigmatic units (that is, morphemes), fit the bill as well, so long as it is understood that the rhematic symbol is the word or morpheme as such, and not its use within a specific context.

A dicent symbol, which Peirce also refers to as an ordinary proposition, “is a sign connected with its object by an association of general ideas, and acting like a rhematic symbol, except that its intended interpretant represents the dicent symbol as being, in respect to what it signifies, really affected by its object, so that the existence or law which it calls to mind must be actually connected with the indicated object” (1992: 26-27). Thus, to the extent that the dicent symbol, where good examples would be ordinary propositions, sentences and other syntagmatic units in language, is seen as meaningful about the world, it is a special sort of dicent indexical legisign insofar as it points to those aspects of the world to which it corresponds, though doing so through conventional signs, that is, symbols. This echoes the correspondence theory of truth in the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922), though as Wittgenstein later concluded (1958), there is more to language than mere correspondence to the world, and so we find with the argument.

Again, an argument “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” This building upon premises (which are themselves dicent symbols) to the construction of conclusions and truth systems can take several different forms, including those concatenations of propositions producing conclusions referred to in the vernacular of philosophy as “arguments,” and which work through the logical principles of deduction, induction, or abduction. Arguments can also take such forms as mathematical formulae or myth structure.

Chimps and other apes show themselves capable of using rhematic and dicent symbols in laboratory experiments when they combine basic word-signs to form rudimentary propositions. The formation of arguments – deductive syllogisms, inductive generalizations, or any other combination of premises to build generalizable frameworks for interacting with the world – seems, at least on current evidence, to be the province of humans alone.

This brings us to culture, which I would argue is not only the learned and shared lifeways of minimalist definitions but also an all encompassing mesh of symbols, premises, and arguments, where cultural arguments are built up of rhematic and dicent symbols. The argument, for human culture, is akin to what Sherry Ortner calls key scenarios or cultural schemas (1973; 1989). She defines these “as preorganized schemes of action, symbolic programs for the staging and playing out of standard interactions in a particular culture” (1989: 60).

In her own analysis of Sherpa Buddhism, Ortner identifies such a cultural schema, Rivalry, Acquisition of a Protector, Defeat of the Enemy, Departure of the Loser (1989: 72-73), which recurs in Sherpa myth and ritual and which provides a prototype for culturally typical interaction situations – which is to say, using Geertz’s terminology (1973), such schemas provide models of and models for cultural action. Further examples from the ethnographic literature and cited by Ortner include Edward Schieffelin’s identification of a recurring and orienting cultural scenario of opposition and reciprocity among the New Guinea Highland Kaluli (1976), or the work of Geertz in Negara (1980) or Marshall Sahlins in Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981), where (Ortner 1989: 60):

"One finds the notion that there are cultural patterns of action, cultural dramas or scenarios, that reappear over time and that seem to order the ways in which people play out both conventional and historically novel social encounters. In Negara, Geertz talks of the reconstruction of forms and the 'transcriptions of a fixed ideal.'"

Sahlins writes of a scripted cosmological drama (1981: 17; quoted in Orter 1989: 61):

"At the great annual Makahiki festival, the concept of political usurpation is set in the context of a cosmological drama. The lost god-chief Lono returns to renew the fertility of the land, reclaiming its own, to be superceded again by the ruling chief and the sacrificial cult of Ku. Now Captain Cook’s second visit to the Islands coincided with the annual return of Lono, and the treatment of Hawaiians accorded him to the prescribed sequence of ritual events in the Makahiki Festival."

Of course, here Gananath Obeyesekere (1992) critiques Sahlins (as well as Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America [1984]) as falling into a western cultural schema through which is attributed to “natives” a tendency to perceive Westerners as divine. Sahlins (1995) counter-critiques Obeyesekere, arguing first that Obeyesekere is wrong about Sahlins’ work. But the fact that Obeyesekere might be wrong about Sahlins or Todorov in particular does not mean that he has not noticed something significant about western cultural arguments. Sahlins presents another sort of counter-argument as well, arguing that many times post-colonial scholars like Obeyesekere or Edward Said (1979) operate within something like a cultural schema of their own – which is not to say that they’re wrong about western “Orientalism” per se, but that their arguments are framed as part of a schema with certain (often unstated) premises about the nature of “natives” and western academic discourse. What all of this amounts to is that culture never consists of a single overarching argument, but a patchwork of arguments or schemas, some contradictory, which altogether pervade nearly all aspects of human life in any given context.

But what of Bertrand Russell’s wrung-neck chicken? I argued above that the chicken was not really engaging in induction or argument. That is, Russell’s chicken was not engaged in inductive generalization or argument based on dicent symbols (propositions, premises) in turn based on rhematic symbols (words). Instead, like Pavlov’s dog, after continued contiguity between farmer and feed, the chicken was conditioned to perceive farmer as indexing feed – and not a wrung neck. But before we get too big for our britches, we should remember that though argument might be what distinguishes us and even pervades our social contexts, much of what we do semiotically is quite similar to zoosemiosis. Even in our habitual use of symbols of all types, we use words in ways that are also largely metaphoric or metonymic. In fact, we depend on this. To the extent that we encounter our arguments or cultural schemas as grounded in the world, it is through their simultaneous functioning to index and connect us to the world. Further, though words are symbols because they are conventional signs, our use of them and especially learning of them is largely through conditioned association, which is to say that though we are clearly distinct in some ways from other animals, we can still be pretty chicken-headed.

Daniel, E. Valentine
1984 Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Geertz, Clifford
1973 Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
1980 Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath
1992 The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ortner, Sherry
1973 On Key Symbols. American Anthropologist. 75: 1338-1346.
1989 High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Peirce, Charles S.
1992 Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs. In Introducing Semiotics: An Anthology of Readings. Marcel Danesi and Donato Santeramo, eds. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Russell, Bertrand
1959 The Problems of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall
1981 Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Island Kingdom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
1995 How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Said, Edward
1979 Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Schieffelin, Edward
1976 The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Todorov, Tzvetan
1984 The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. New York: Harper and Row.

White, Leslie
1949 The Science of Culture. New York: Grove Press.
1959 The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. New York: McGraw Hill.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig
1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York: Routledge.
1958 Philosophical Investigations. Third Edition. New York: Macmillan.


Unknown said...

Robert, Thanks for your elegant summary...I'm still unpacking rhemes, dicents, sinsigns et al., but your comments on the argument are already helping me in my paper for the SSA. In particular, the notion of myth as a form of argument is intriguing with respect to our contradictory responses to human vulnerability and the denial thereof in the face of disaster and catastrophe. It seems our lives and culture are bundles of contradiction: we know we are frail, fragile, breakable, and we do many things to mitigate this reality, but we also act as though we are invincible! As human chickens, we sort of expect hurricanes and tsunami, but what will we do when the big asteroid hits in 2036?

Anonymous said...

Bertrand Russell is one of the greatest minds of the last century and his work on favor of world peace is something I will always admire! Great post
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