Thursday, May 08, 2003

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

I know this is more Scott "Pedantry" Martens' territory, but I can't resist posting a few quotes and quips from a book I've been flipping through the past few evenings, The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain (by Terrence Deacon). In contrast to, say, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Noam Chomsky, who both understand language to be a static or fixed structure / program, Deacon makes a pretty reasonable (to me, a self-pronounced novice in this area of study) case that languages function in a way closely resembling something I do know a little something about, self-organizing systems.

Symbols cannot be understood as an unstructured collection of tokens that map to a collection of referents because symbols don't just represent things in the world, they also represent each other. Because symbols do not directly refer to things in the world, but indirectly refer to them by virtue of referring to other symbols, they are implicitly combinatorial entities whose referential powers are derived by viture of occupying determinate positions in an organized system of other symbols. Both their initial acquisition and their later use require a combinatorial analysis. The structure of the whole system has a definte semantic topology that determines the ways symbols modify each other's referential functions in different combinations. Because of this systematic relational basis of symbolic reference, no collection of signs can function symbolically unless the entire collection conforms to certain overall principles of organization." (p. 99)

Wow . . . Schleiermacher couldn't have said it better! Though, well, I guess he did, since he said the same thing back around 1812. Funny how theory continually has its work cut out for itself just to keep up with itself. Lest we think Deacon is completely derivative of the dead German I've been reading recently, he unpacks some concepts that my Teutonic friend was at a disadvantage to articulate:

The world's languages evolved spontaneously. They were not designed. If we conceive of them as though they were invented systems of rules and symbols, intentionally assembled to form logical systems, then we are apt either to assign utlility and purpose where there is none, or else to interpret as idiosyncratic or inelegant that for which we cannot recognize a design principle. But languages are far m ore like living organisms than like mathematical proofs. The most basic principle guiding their design is not communicative utility but reproduction -- theirs and ours. So, the proper tool for analyzing language structure may not be to discover how best to model them as axiomatic rule systems but rather to study them the way we study organism structure: in evolutionary terms. Languages are social and cultural entities that have evolved with respect to the forces of selection imposed by human users. (p. 110)

In a move that hearkens so much early German Idealism that I'm at this point quaking, Deacon goes on to argue that humanity, especially children, 'are the vehicle by which language gets reproduced'; or, provocatively, languages need people more than people need language. Instead of humanity evolving in ways that enable it to use language, language adapts to the people who use it.

Languages have had to adapt to children's spontaneous assumptions about communication, learning, social interaction, and even symbolic reference, because children are the only game in town." (p. 109)

To emphasize his point here, and in a decidedly non-Schleiermachian move, I must admit (much closer to William Burroughs), he uses the metaphor of a virus.

Now, if language is like a virus, then language and the minds and brains it inhabits are joined in a parasite/host relationship. As my pomo friends love to point out, quite correctly, parasite and host form an undecidable relation in which each functions simultaneously as itself and the other. For instance, in this case, languages are parasites, which depend on their human hosts, and human beings are parasitic upon the linguistic host, which, in some odd, freaky, icky sense, makes them human. Since neither can exist apart from the other, languages and humanity must coadapt and thus coevolve. Deacon again:

By imagining language as a parastic organism, we can come to appreciate the potential for conflicting reproductive interests, where some language features might occur at the expense of the host's adaptations, and the possibility that many features may have more to do with getting passed on from generation to generation than with conveying information." (p. 112)

And, thus, enter Richard Dawkin's meme. From Fichte (the father of Idealism) to Schelling (one of the primary influence on Schleiermacher) to Schleiermacher (who I've not quoted, so you'll just have to take my word for it, for now, that there's a connection) to (my present representative of contemporary cognitive science) Deacon -- one would almost think that the champions of interdisciplinarity are right after all.