[KB] "The Symbol Concept"

Ronald Soetaert Ronald.Soetaert at UGent.be
Fri Sep 19 03:49:02 EDT 2014

Op 16-sep.-2014, om 19:08 heeft Edward C Appel <edwardcappel at frontier.com<mailto:edwardcappel at frontier.com>> het volgende geschreven:


       Thanks, Bob, for your response on Burke, rhetoric, and “repetition.”  I hope to get back on that one later.

       I posted a few weeks ago on Terrence W. Deacon’s book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter.  I said, in effect, and sought to briefly summarize how, Deacon’s philosophy of language part supports, part enhances, and part challenges Burke’s dramatism/logology.  Ronald Soetaert of Ghent U. seconded that take on Deacon’s relevance to our enterprise.

I woud like to add (as I already mentioned) that I was inspired to read Deacon by the work of Richard Van Oort. A few references:

Cognitive Science and the Problem of Representation

The problem is essentially one of how to define the human in terms of its most unique trait: the capacity for symbolic representation. After a review of how cognitivism misinterprets this question as a gradually evolved genetic adaptation of the nervous system, I turn to the theory of representation proposed by the neuroscientist and anthropological researcher Terrence Deacon in The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (1997). Deacon stands out among cognitive scientists for his conclusion that language—symbolic reference—is an“ evolutionary anomaly,” that is, inassimilable to the mechanism of gene replication. By understanding the exact nature of this evolutionary anomaly, we are in a much better position to assess the skepticism that is routinely directed toward those who use cognitive science to interpret literature. More precisely, I argue that the originary function of the symbolic sign is the deferral of lower-level indexical reference strategies. This originary anthropological function is most clearly evident in literature, art, and religion.


(and there is a lot more…)

As so often… I was surprised Richard Van Oort did not mention the work of Kenneth Burk so I contacted Richard (he knew Burke’s work as a Shakespearian and wrote a review on that subject). That was the reason we invited him for our panel at the Burke conference.

One of "the good things" that happened to me is the fact that I combined the work of Burke and Deacon for a presentation at Ghent University (because I received an award) and I wanted to defend the importance of the humanities for a public that for a great part came for the hard sciences in general and biology in particular. The perspective of Deacon stimulated the dialogue. Burke was right: You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his" (55).

Greetings and thanks to Ed for this stimulating discussion. We (Kris and I) feel very lonely in Ghent….  I was wondering: why don’t rhetoricians in general and Burkeans in particular do not find this fascinating? I was wrong….   Thanks God.


       Since then, I’ve been in further dialogue with Professor Deacon.  He sent me three of his published articles, then later, a fourth, later still an essay now in press.  Two of these pieces have to do with his mentor, Gregory Bateson, whose work I referred to in at least one of my posts as being a clear precursor of Deacon’s semiotics.  The other of those first three, an encyclopedia chapter entitled “The Symbol Concept,” I’d like to summarize in this post and maybe one or two more.  The chapter appears in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution (Oxford University Press, 2011).  If you’re interested, please read on.

       (And as you read, do keep in mind that Incomplete Nature has made a profound impact, judging from multiple reviews easily accessed on the internet.)

       First, Deacon’s confirmation of Burke, formerly unbeknownst to Deacon, as I noted: Deacon’s in anthropology and neuroscience, not communication and literature, the prime sources of Burkean interest and scholarship.  From the perspective of Incomplete Nature, I pointed out how Deacon’s critique of the commonplace “scientific lens,” maybe epitomized by behaviorism’s notion of the human mind, any “mind,” as a “black box” we ought to prescind from our motivational calculations, is faulty and inadequate.  Input and output, neural stimulus and response, reduction of mind to biology, then to chemistry, then to physics, are the requisite foci for useful data and explanation, so much of hard science, at least, seems to suggest.  Deacon says no, we have to factor in, indeed highlight, a necessary “absential feature”(similar to Burke’s negative) that becomes the basis for human purpose, trial and error---we can genuinely label it all the
aspects of “action,” expressive of a chosen “preference,” that cuts across “spontaneous” causes in nature and orients persons toward “work” that limits, organizes, directs life outcomes.

       “The Symbol Concept” further underscores the dramatistic relevance of Deacon’s thought.  Deacon once again takes issue with regnant scientific/technological terminologies that confuse what a “symbol” actually is.  A symbol is not, Deacon claims, mere “code,” “sign,” “icon,” or number, that is, symbols are not mere pointers , markers, gauges, or portraits of the kind so often denominated “symbols.”  Actual “symbols” refer, abstractly and generally, “irrespective of any natural affinities.”  In other words, as per Burke, symbols synthesize, synthetically, disparate beings, entities, or events for seemingly pragmatic, culturally-conditioned purposes that transcend mere appearance of similarity.  Contra Saussure (with the exception of proper nouns), symbolic reference cannot be “mapped.”  To the extent that a common word or symbol “maps” anything, it “maps” a position in a given lexicon in relation to other
terminologies in that symbol system.

       The airy, diaphanous character of Burke’s equivalent notion of symbolic action/reference finds peak expression in his chapter, “What Are the Signs of What?---A Theory of Entitlement.” in LASA.  There Burke maintains what he said in the Grammar about how common symbols refer to “nothing” in the real world, only here he follows up with how “reference” is reversed, in terms of customary suppositions: “Things are the signs of words,” rather than vice versa.  In so “latching on” to the symbol’s concept, so to speak, tangible entities and “objects” “materialize” the “spirit” of the symbol, participate in its “pageantry” (pp. 361, 379).

       But---and here’s where Deacon gets into semiotic and semiological issues foreign to Burke’s dramatism, i.e., the “enhancement” I mentioned---“sign”-age, “signal”-ing, “code”deciphering, the whole gamut of concepts related to computer algorithms and “encryption,” come to bear in undergirding the higher-order cognitive process we call human symbolic communication.  Like love and marriage (for the traditionally minded, anyway), you can’t have one without the other.  The symbols of human language are fashioned out of sounds and written or printed characters the roots of which are presymbolic, and prehuman, for that matter.  Such “iconic” and “indexical” sources of communication are evident in the activites of nonsymbolic animals, as well as in the “symbolic actions” of you and me.  Thus, add “iconism” and “indexicality” to Deacon’s “absential feature” and Bateson’s “difference that makes a
difference” (that results from some pre-ethical sense of negation, and occasions a form of “trial and error” in the service of a kind of “preference,” a capacity for which all living things show signs of possessing and utilizing).

       In explaining this “hierarchy” of notions he uses in explaining how human symbolic action works, Deacon borrows from the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce.  Peirce coined the term “legisign” to refer to iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs in general.  The locution “sinsign” refers to a specific instance of an iconic or lexical sign (there can be no such thing, actually, as a “symbolic sinsign,” as will become clear, I hope.  “Natural affinities” characterize sinsigns; not so, anything that attains the level of “symbolic,” based on, as Burke and Deacon say, arbitrary, conventional, culturally reflective origins of reference.)  A stick figure drawing on a restroom door is an iconic legisign.  It “portrays” in general.  A picture of a famous person is an iconic sinsign.  It portrays in particular.  A smoke alarm sound is an indexical legisign, as is the position of a needle on a pressure gauge.  They “point” or orient
toward an action in the large.  A particular smell of smoke is an indexical sinsign.  Spoken or written words, in a syntactical context or not, are symbolic legisigns.  The reference is to “a general concept or type of object.”

       Proper names might seem to be a bit like symbolic sinsigns, but they are not.  Their reference can be mapped, one-to-one Saussure-like, but “the sign-vehicle is a conventional form.”  Therefore Peirce would call them “indexical legisigns.”  “Dolphin signature whistles are indexical sinsigns” (Deacon, e-mail message, 9/9/14).  Symbolic signs of the most abstract or merely potential kind of reference Peirce calls “qualisigns.”

       Symbolic reference, then, functions like this: “A written word [for instance] is first recognized as an iconic sinsign (an instance of a familiar form), then an indexical legisign (a type of sign vehicle contiguous with other related types), and then as a symbolic legisign (a conventional type of sign referring to a conventional type of reference).

       Deacon employs the text message “smiley face” and Aristotle’s take on how a “signet ring” functions in communication as examples of this hierarchal progression in the production of meaning for symbol-users, one of Deacon’s most salient points being: This “dependency of symbolic reference on indexical reference [and iconic reference]” mirrors the dependency of human symbolic action/communication on the “genetic,” even “phylogenetic,” capacities for iconic and indexical communication of a sort in “living organisms” in general, a theme of Deacon’s (and Bateson’s) I emphasized in my previous posts on Incomplete Nature.

       So, for further review and/or comment:

       What do Deacon’s semiotic distinctions, and especially unifications, mean for Burke’s signature “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” dichotomy  (1978/2003)?  Is some sort of modification in order along the lines of Jim Chesebro’s complaint that Burke did not pay enough attention to nonsymbolic motive s (Burke panel at the ECA Convention, 1992)?

       Does Deacon’s critique of Chomsky’s Universal Generative Grammar as the innate “constraint” on syntactical linguistic relationships in human communication, in favor instead of “indexical” constraints, tend to support Burke’s notion of the negative as “the engine of intentionality” and the very dawn of human symbolism (1952/1953/1966)?

       Maybe something on those issues later.



KB mailing list
KB at kbjournal.org<mailto:KB at kbjournal.org>

Prof. dr. Ronald Soetaert
Ghent University
Department of Educational Studies
H. Dunantlaan 2
B9000 Gent – Belgium
Tel +32 (0)9 2646257
Website: http://www.cultureeducation.ugent.be/

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://kbjournal.org/pipermail/kb_kbjournal.org/attachments/20140919/af8a234d/attachment-0002.html>

More information about the KB mailing list