Re: [xmca] PoTAYto and PoTAHto

From: Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch who-is-at>
Date: Wed Oct 08 2008 - 22:11:06 PDT

David (Ke),

Your discussion about icons, indexes and symbols is especially
interesting to me because it picks up on a thread on signs that I was
looking into but had to put aside as ISCAR approached.

Ana M-S and I had a discussion in xmca in August on her paper on play
and how meaning is mutually created, and she stumped me on a question
that came up, the difference between signal and symbol, which of
course are both signs. I was having trouble seeing a traffic signal
turned red as a signal rather than a symbol, despite her examples.

Ana referred me Suzanne Langer's bestseller at the time for this kind
of book, Philosophy in a New Key (1942). Langer, whose academic
background was in symbolic logic, writing An Introduction to Symbolic
Logic in 1937, was a delightful and refreshing writer who advocated
that the new key that she, and in her opinion, the times were striking
was the realization that human nature is first and foremost about
symbolization, spurred by a primal urge to create symbols. This isn't
a particularly good way to explain history as a whole for me, but that
wasn't her purpose, which was to investigate symbols, in language,
religious and magical rites, art, etc. She was an acute observer and
theoretician of symbolization. She offers clear answers to my
question, and several related ones, including how animals relate to
signals and symbols.

I have not yet had a chance to compare Langer's distinctions between
signal and symbol with Vygotsky's (or Peirce's for that matter), so in
thinking about her ideas I have only gotten as far as being impressed
with her logic and presentation, two pretty good indicators that she
is onto something, and wanting more critical discussion all around of
different kinds of signs. She also has some interesting comments on
words and and interesting distinction between concepts and conceptions
in the quotes below.

I am just going to quote her, and ask for thoughts from anyone
interested. (I promise to get to some of the readings Mike has been
encouraging us to read. That Alan Luke article, which I read not too
long ago, is an easy and thought-provoking read, btw.)

These passages from Philosophy in a New Key are all from my 1942
paperback version in the chapter The Logic of Signs and Symbol. Note
that in this book she uses the term "sign" for what she later calls a

"Symbols are not proxy for their objects, but are **vehicles for the
conception of objects**. To conceive a thing or a situation is not
the same thing as to "react toward it" overtly, or to be aware of its
presence. In talking **about** things we have conceptions of them,
not the things themselves; and **it is the conceptions, not the
things, that symbols directly "mean." Behavior toward conceptions is
what words normally evoke; this is the typical process of thinking.
[continuing ...]

"Of course a word can be used as a sign [signal], but that is not its
primary role. Its signific character has to be indicated by some
special modification - by a tone of voice, a gesture (such as pointing
or staring), or the location of a placard bearing the word. In it
itself it is a symbol, associated with the conception* [see her
footnote below], not directly with a public object or event. The
fundamental difference between signs and symbols is this difference of
association, and consequently of their **use** by the third party to
the meaning function, the subject; signs **announce** their objects to
him, whereas symbols **lead him to conceive** their objects. The fact
that the same item - say, the little mouthy noise we can a "word" -
may serve in either capacity, does not obliterate the cardinal
distinction between the two functions it may assume."

*[footnote]: "Note that I have called the terms of our thinking
conceptions, not concepts. Concepts are abstract forms embodied in
conceptions; their bare presentation may be approximated by so-called
"abstract thought," but in ordinary mental life they no more figure as
naked factors than skeletons that are seen walking the street.
Concepts, like decent living skeletons, are always embodied -
sometimes rather too much. I shall return to the topic of pure
concepts later on, in discussing communication." (pg 49)

Here is a another example of her delightful writing - our friend Hegel
among others could have used more of this in his - and her answer to
my question about animals and signals, and things like traffic lights
that are lit red.

"Now, just as in nature certain events are correlated, so that the
less important may be taken as signs of the more important [her
explanation for a correlation of two things in nature becoming a
signal is that one is more interesting than the other, but the other
more available, causing a subject to look at the latter for
information about the former], so we may also **produce** arbitrary
events purposely correlated with important ones that are to be their
meaning. A whistle means that the train is about to start. A gunshot
means that the sun is just setting. A crepe on the door means someone
has just died. These are artificial signs [as opposed to natural
signs, **symptoms** of states of affairs - sg], for they are not part
of a condition of which they naturally signify the remainder, or
something in the remainder. Their logical relation to their objects,
however, is the same as that of natural signs--a one-to-one
correspondence of sign and object, by virtue of which the
interpretant, who is interested in the latter and perceives the
former, may apprehend the existence of the term that interests him.
[continuing ...]

"The interpretation of signs is the basis of animal intelligence.
Animals presumably do not distinguish between natural signs and
artificial or fortuitous signs; but they use both kinds to guide their
practical activities. We do the same thing all day long. We answer
bells, watch the clock, obey warning signals, follow arrows, take off
the kettle when it whistles, come at the baby's cry, close the windows
when we hear thunder. The logical basis of all these interpretations,
the mere correlation of trivial events with important ones, is really
very simple and common; so much so that there is no limit to what a
sign may mean. This is even more obviously true of artificial signs
than of natural ones. A shot may mean the beginning of a race, the
rise of the sun, the sighting of danger, the commencement of a
parade. As for bells, the world is mad with their messages. Somebody
at the front door, the back door, the side door, the telephone - toast
is ready - typewriter line is ended - school begins, work begins,
church begins, church is over - street car starts - cashbox registers
- knife grinder passes - time for dinner, time to get up - fire in
town!" (pg 47)

More tidbits from this chapter.

Discussing pictures of things: "... **the picture is essentially a
symbol, not a duplicate, of which it represents." (pg 55). Referring
to pictures and words and all symbols: "**That which all adequate
conceptions of an object must have in common, is the concept of the
object**." (pg 58).

An interesting comment on words:

"Another recommendation for words is that they have no value except as
symbols (or signs); in themselves they are completely trivial. This
is a greater advantage than philosophers of language generally
realize. A symbol which interests us **also** as an object is
distracting. It does not convey its meaning without obstruction. For
instance, if the word "plenty" were replaced by a succulent, ripe,
real peach, few people would attend entirely to the mere concept
**quite enough** when confronted with such a symbol. The more barren
and indifferent the symbol, the greater is its semantic power.
Peaches are too good to act as words; we are too much interested in
peaches themselves. But little noises are ideal conveyors of
concepts, for they give us nothing but their meaning. That is the
source of the "transparency" of language, on which several scholars
have remarked. Vocables in themselves are so worthless that we cease
to be aware of their physical presence at all, and become aware only
of their connotations, denotations, or other meanings. Our conceptual
activity seems to flow **through** them, rather than merely to
accompany them, as it accompanies other experiences that we endow with
significance. They fail to impress us as "experiences" in their own
right, unless we have difficult in using them as words, as we do with
a foreign language or a technical jargon until we have mastered
it." (pg 62)

Back to me: the above point, if I may add, is an elegant explanation
for why it is difficult to fully grasp another's words when they are
expressed with distracting emotions.

Finally - this last quote is too much fun, I have to share it - Langer
wittily touches on her thoughts on Peirce's parsings, whose categories
icon, index and symbol do not get even honorable mention. Well, icons

"Charles Peirce, who was probably the first person to concern himself
seriously with semantics, began by making an inventory of all "symbol-
situations," in the hope that when all possible meanings of "meaning"
were herded together, they would show empirical differentiae whereby
one could divide the sheep from the goats. But the obstreperous
flock, instead of falling neatly into a few classes, each according to
its kind, divided into the most terrifying order of icons, qualisigns,
legisigns, semes, phemes, and delomes, and there is but cold comfort
in his assurance that his original 59,049 types can really be boiled
down to a mere sixty-six." (pg 43).

So there are some thoughts from Suzanne Langer. Thoughts on her

- Steve

On Oct 8, 2008, at 5:21 PM, David Kellogg wrote:

> I'm reading a wonderful but rather puzzling paper about the
> development of ostension (that is, the "showing" part of "show and
> tell") in infancy and early childhood (that is, seven to thirteen
> months).
> Moro and Rodriguez point out that ostension is polysemic: it can be
> declarative, but it can also be interrogative. It can be a sign to
> others ("Look at this!") but it can also be a sign to yourself ("Now
> I wonder what the devil this thing is?"). That's what makes it
> possible for adults and kids to use the same set of signs and mean
> utterly different things.
> But Paula points out this is true of ALL language, else adults and
> children could not communicate, and communication could not develop:
> Today, you say poTAYto and I say poTAHto; you say a concept and I
> say a complex. Tomorrow, I will say po-TAH-to and I will mean a
> concept.
> So what's unique about ostension? Well, Moro and Rodriguez make the
> following rather inelegant comment:
> "Ostension is a sign that is rarely studied by psychologists for
> itself and which (sic) is geenrally considered as (sic) an indexical
> sign, which it is not."
> (Production of Signs and Meaning Making Process in Triadic
> Interaction at the Prelinguistic Level, in Abbey and Diriwachter,
> eds. Innovating Genesis: Microgenesis and the constructive mind in
> action. Charlotte: Information Age Press. p. 210.)
> That's it. No explanation. OK--so according to Peirce, an icon is
> something that stands for itself, but an index is something that
> stands for something else, and a symbol is something that stands for
> something else by virtue of a rule.
> So if I'm seven months old an I hold up a block, the block's an
> icon. It just stands for the block as far as I'm concerned. But for
> my Mommy, the holding of the block stands for "What the devil is
> this?" and requires a (symbolic) explanation that I won't
> understand, but she'll point to the block and then to a hole in the
> back of my toy truck and I might understand what that means or I
> might not, depending on my ability to handle indexical meanings.
> But doesn't that mean that, microgenetically, the whole ostensive
> episode contains an icon AND an index AND a symbolic mode of meaning
> making too? And isn't this true of ALL language?
> A word like "potato" has a "sonic envelope" (translated, very
> confusingly, as "phasal" in Minick's version of "Thinking and
> Speech", p. 223). Like Grape Nuts, sound is what it is. It also has
> intonation, which suggests what it does. And of course, it has a
> symbolic meaning which we can, if we like, define in a dictionary.
> What we CAN'T do is pretend that any one of these elements excludes
> the others: that would be like suggesting that language is
> pronunciation without vocabulary or grammar, or vocabulary without
> pronunciation and grammar, or grammar without vocabulary or
> pronunciation. Some of my dear colleagues behave that way sometimes,
> but we all know better or we couldn't actually talk to our students.
> A potato chip does not stop being a potato. Why should ostension
> stop being an index?
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
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Received on Wed Oct 8 22:18 PDT 2008

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