One last word on Peirce - signs minds & other implicated systems -- LONNNG

From: Judy Diamondstone (
Date: Sun Jan 30 2005 - 08:15:36 PST

Still catching up on 2 (3?) months of xmca - sorry to have missed it & to
pop up anachronistically like this. When I was in Berkeley, I met Terry
Deacon at the Bateson conference, whom some on this list already know, I'm
sure. Those interested in the discussion of last month's MCA article should
definitely check out his book "The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of
Language and the Brain," in which he draws on Pierce to crack the
evolutionary riddle of human language. He brings materialism, end of 20th
century, to Pierce, making his overall argument through critical review of /
key findings from research in diverse disciplines of the hard and softer

For instance, he reviews debates about reference in studies of animal
communication (vervet monkey calls, for instance, do refer - different calls
distinguish among predators), and concludes that reference is not unique to
language, but different kinds of reference must be recognized. His
discussion of early chimp studies (Rumbaugh & Rumbaugh's work with Sherman &
Austin) offers a particularly helpful response to the questions raised by
Ana & Peter.

Deacon argues that brain size was the cart, not the horse, of human
evolution (he devotes a full chapter to brain size & encephalization). Even
the simplest symbolic system, as would characterize human proto-language,
would require "a radical re-engineering of the brain." It is the nature of
this re-engineering that is the object of his interdisciplinary
investigations. How / why did the hierarchical nature of symbolic reference
emerge suddenly in the billions of years of evolution of life &
intra-species communication systems?

While demonstrating how iconic interpretation is the necessary basis of
indexical, both of which are the necessary basis of symbolic interpretation,
Deacon correlates iconic interpretants with perception and indexical
interpretants with learned associations - but he notes that the semiotic and
psychological terms are not interchangeable, because the interpretative
processes that construe a sign-object relation implicate neural processes
that pertain beyond the moment ---they are not just mechanisms but
affordances for relating sign-object relations to past, future, or imaginary
things.) Symbolic interpretants involve a relationship that is not mere
correlation. The key is that symbols have dual reference, not only to
objects but also to other symbols, which are systematically related. This
part of the argument has already been covered on xmca.

But Deacon gives close attention to the nature of reference, learning, &
brain organization/memory in non-human species. We know that chimps Sherman
& Austin learned to communicate symbolically, but their learning depended on
experiments strategically structured by humans. Kanzi, however, a Bonobo
whose mother was the subject of language learning experiments, apparently
learned enough indirectly from interaction between human experimenters and
his mother to perform tasks that she could not do - essentially, to
categorize kinds of tokens, not simply to associate tokens to things. Deacon
reasons that Kanzi crossed the symbolic threshold with relative ease,
because of his immaturity. As for human children, the limitations imposed by
immaturity -- incapacity to remember detail, to sustain attention for long -
made it possible for "the relevant large scale logic of language [to pop
out] of a background of other details too variable. to follow." (p. 135).
(Still, Kanzi faces phylogenetic limitations on his symbolic abilities.).

The point is that, as Chomsky has claimed, the rules of a natural language
grammar can't be inductively discovered - can't be learned as a result of
trial & error, but contrary to Chomsky's conclusion that they must be built
into human minds, Deacon argues that "symbolic reference is a function of
the whole web of referential relationships and the whole network of users"
[i.e., of culture]. Deacon details how language & the brain co-evolved, once
the symbolic threshold was crossed in human communication, but the
implication is that culture is very much a part of the process. In his final
chapter, he cites Vygotsky, referring to the inherently social nature of
human psychological processes. While the majority of human modes of thought
are not unique to human brains, internal conversations probably are. Thus,
"symbolic representation, while not the origin of consciousness, has
produced an unprecedented MEDIUM for consciousness."

In his conclusion, Deacon discusses the implications of the "mind virus"
that we host (language is the virus that has bred itself in the human brain,
through the "bottleneck" of human infancy - our minds are overdesigned to
ensure that symbols get discovered). "We inevitably imagine ourselves as
symbols, as the tokens of a deeper discourse of the world. But symbols are
subject to being rendered meaningless by contradiction, and this makes
alternative models of the world direct threats to existence." P. 437

(Which leads us back into xmca, on a note about the semiotic nature of
identities & ideologies....)

Although he doesn't directly address questions raised by Activity Theory,
Deacon is a great source for a material understanding of semioitics! And
although I missed the great conversation, I'm grateful to xmca for inviting
this retelling! Yeaaay, xmca.

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