Re: [xmca] PoTAYto and PoTAHto

From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at>
Date: Wed Oct 08 2008 - 23:27:33 PDT

Just an instant reaction Steve: as soon as you mention
"icons, indexes and symbols" together, as a group of three,
you are making an allusion to Charles Sanders Peirce's
categorisation of signs according to how the sign indicates
its object (by resemblance, material connection or
convention). Peirce had a whole multiplicity of such
categorisations of signs according to different criteria, so
the meanings of all these words is very definite within his
system, to the extent he had to invent a whole bunch of
neologs. If you introduce a distinction between symbol and
signal, then we really need to know which system of meanings
you are alluding to. It seems on the face of it that unlike
Peirce's conception of semiosis, "signal" belongs to a
conception which gives an active role to a conscious creator
of the sign. Is that right?


Steve Gabosch wrote:
> 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
> signal.
> "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 do:
> "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 thoughts?
> - 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
>> _______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
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> xmca mailing list

Andy Blunden +61 3 9380 9435 
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Received on Wed Oct 8 23:28 PDT 2008

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