Re: [xmca] PoTAYto and PoTAHto

From: Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch who-is-at>
Date: Thu Oct 09 2008 - 00:40:55 PDT

For my part, I am uncertain of the distinction between signal and
symbol, that is, which system I want to commit to, if any, so I am
learning and thinking about this question. Ana suggested Langer, who
went in a different direction than Peirce (although in saying that I
am not that clear on Peirce's system). I'd like to see Langer's ideas
contrasted with Vygotsky, Peirce, others that have incorporated a
theory of signs and distinctions between types of signs into their
approach to human activity.

As for your specific question, in Langer's system, while all
**symbols** are artificial and require a conscious creator,
**signals** come in two varieties, artificial and natural. As far as
the recipient of a signal is concerned, higher animal or human, both
of these kinds signals function in the same way, a one-to-one
correspondence between the recipient and a certain kind of
relationship between things or situations. In the case of artificial
signal, the creation of a signal would be a conscious act. But in the
case of a natural signal, according to Langer, it can be any
relationship in nature where the object of interest is less available
than some other object of lesser interest, and where the former is
more available than the latter. In her system, the same relationship
is the case in artificial signals - a red traffic signal, using Ana's
example, itself is not necessarily very interesting, but it is visible
and available, while the cross traffic is very interesting because
there could be a collision, but it is not necessarily visible. An
example of a natural signal might be the adage "red sun in the
morning, sailor take warning" - the red sun itself may not have much
interest to a sailor, but its correlation with upcoming bad weather
does, and so becomes a natural signal. Natural signals are not
created consciously in Langer's system.

In a nutshell, paraphrasing, Langer, signals, both artificial and
natural, **announce** their object, whereas symbols lead the subject
(the recipient) to **conceive** of the object.

What is your take on this system?

- Steve

On Oct 8, 2008, at 11:27 PM, Andy Blunden wrote:

> 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?
> Andy
> 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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Received on Thu Oct 9 00:45 PDT 2008

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