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The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

THERE ARE TWO INTERESTING things about current approaches to consciousness as a subject of inquiry. One is that the two major approaches, the explanatory-psychological and the phenomenological, go their separate ways, contributing nothing to each other. They do not tend to converge upon or supplement each other as do, say, atomic theory and electromagnetic theory. One can either look upon consciousness as a public thing or event in the world like any other public thing or event and as such open to explanatory inquiry; or one can regard it as an absolutely privileged realm, that by which I know anything at all — including explanatory psychology. As exemplars of these two approaches, I shall refer in the sequel to the work of George H. Mead and Edmund Husserl. The other interesting thing is that both approaches encounter the same perennial difficulty, albeit each encounters it in its own characteristic way. This difficulty is the taking account of intersubjectivity, that meeting of minds by which two selves take each other’s meaning with reference to the same object beheld in common. As Schutz has pointed out, intersubjectivity is simply presupposed as the unclarified foundation of the explanatory-empirical sciences. A social behaviorist writes hundreds of papers setting forth the thesis that mind and consciousness are an affair of responses to signs or responses to responses; yet he unquestionably expects his colleagues to do more than respond to his paper; he also expects them to understand it, to take his meaning. As regards phenomenology, on the other hand, philosophers as different as James Collins and Jean-Paul Sartre have noticed that the chief difficulty which Husserl (not to mention Hegel and Heidegger) encounters is the allowing for the existence of other selves.

It is the purpose of this essay to suggest that these two chronic difficulties which have beset the study of consciousness have come about in part at least from a failure to appreciate the extraordinary role of the symbol, especially the language symbol, in man’s orientation to the world. I am frank to confess a prejudice in favor of Mead’s approach to consciousness as a phenomenon arising from the social matrix through language. It seems to me that the psychological approach possesses the saving virtue that it tends to be self-corrective, whereas in transcendental phenomenology everything is risked on a single methodological cast at the very outset, the famous epoché. But I wish to suggest first that positive psychology, in its allegiance to the sign-response as the basic schema of psychogenesis, has failed or refused to grasp the peculiar role of the language symbol. I would further suggest that an appreciation of this role will (1) confirm in an unexpected way Mead’s thesis of the social origin of consciousness, (2) reveal intersubjectivity as one of the prime relations of the symbol meaning-structure, (3) provide access to a phenomenology of consciousness, not as a transcendental idealism, but as a mode of being emerging from the interrelations of real organisms in the world.


I do not think it would be too far from the truth to say that the phenomenologist, having ruled out intersubjectivity in his reduction, has the greatest difficulty in reinstating it thereafter; and that the positive psychologist simply takes intersubjectivity for granted. It is one thing to be aware, as the phenomenologists are aware, that a fundamental connection with the other self must be seized, in Sartre’s words, at the very heart of consciousness. Whether such a connection is allowed by the rigor of the phenomenological reduction is something else again. It is also one thing to be aware, as Mead was aware, of the social origin of consciousness. Whether this connection between consciousness and the social matrix can be demonstrated in terms of a sign-response psychology is something else again. But there is this difference: If Mead’s social behaviorism is too narrow a theoretical base, it can be broadened without losing the posture from which Mead theorized, that of an observer confronting data which he can make some sense of and of which he can speak to other observers. For this reason I shall be chiefly concerned with the general approach of George Mead.

The most conspicuous divergence between Husserl’s and Mead’s approaches to consciousness is the opting of one for the individual cogito character of consciousness and of the other for its intrinsically social character. In the phenomenological reduction all belief in existents and in one’s theoretical attitude toward existents is suspended. What remains over as a residuum, as the subject matter of an apodictic science? Only consciousness itself, “a self-contained system of being, into which nothing can penetrate and from which nothing can escape; which cannot experience causality from anything nor exert causality upon anything….” Mead, on the other hand, is quite as emphatic in regarding mind and consciousness as developing within the social process, “within the empirical matrix of social interactions.” Let us suppose for the moment that Mead is right — I have not the space here to go into a critical comparison of Mead and Husserl on this point: I only wish to offer a suggestion from the objective-empirical point of view — let us suppose that we may study consciousness as we study anything else, and that, moreover, “it is absurd to look at the mind from the standpoint of the individual organism.” Let us also suppose that Mead, along with many others, is probably right in focusing upon language as a key to the mysteries of mind. “Out of language arises the field of the mind.” The question which must be asked is whether this seminal insight is confirmed by Mead’s behaviorism or whether Mead did not in fact fall short of his goal precisely because of his rigid commitment to the sign-response sequence and his consequent failure to grasp the denotative function of the language symbol. Mead, along with most other American psychogeneticists, has felt obliged to construe the symbol as a variety of sign, and symbolic meaning as a refinement of sign-response. Mead saw no other alternative and was frank to declare that, once you abandon social or biological response, there only remains “transcendentalism.”

It would perhaps not be too gross a simplification to observe that the phenomenologist starts with consciousness but never gets back to organisms and signs, and that the positive psychologist starts with organisms and signs but never arrives at consciousness. Mead’s problem, once he had limited himself to the response as the ground of consciousness, was to derive a set of conditions under which a stimulus evokes the same response from the organism who utters it as it does from the organism who hears it. This is accomplished through role-taking, when the speaking organism comes to respond to its own signs in the same way as the hearing organism. Consciousness is the response of the organism to its own responses. We cannot fail to be aware of the forced character of Mead’s response psychology in coping with human meaning when, for example, he is obliged to say that, when I ask you to get up and fetch the visitor a chair, I also arouse in myself the same tendency to get up and fetch the chair. This strained interpretation is fair warning, as Mrs. Langer has pointed out, that the most important feature of the material is being left out.

What is missing, of course, is the relation of denotation. It may be correct in a sense to say that a word “calls forth a response,” “announces an idea,” and so on. But more important, it names something.’

Now of course there is nothing new in this. Semioticists take due notice of the relation of denotation in semantics, which is that dimension of semiotic which has to do with the rules by which a symbol is said to denote its denotatum. What concerns us, however, is what one is to make of this relation from an objective-empirical point of view, rather than a logical one, as something which is actually taking place in the “data” before us, as assuredly it is taking place. To put the problem concretely: Given the phenomenon in which the normal child or the blind deaf-mute discovers that this stuff “is” water, what we wish to know (and what Mead always wished to know) is not the semantic “rule” by which Helen and Miss Sullivan agree to call the stuff water—this is a convention, not an explanation — what we wish to know is what happens. Certainly, whether we approve or disapprove, something very momentous has taken place when a sign which had been received as a signal — go fetch the water — is suddenly understood to “mean” the water, to denote something. Then what is it that happens? Semioticists dodge the issue by parceling out sign function to “behavioristics” and symbolic denotation to “semantics,” leaving the gap in limbo. Morris, for example, refuses to consider the symbol as anything other than a sign in behavioristics, allowing its denotative function only in semantics. Mead’s objective, however, was to bring all entities, mind, consciousness, sign, symbol, under the single gaze of the objective-empirical method. If, therefore, there is such a thing as denotation, naming, and if it does assuredly take place in the public realm we are studying, then what exactly happens and what relevance does this happening have for the phenomena of intersubjectivity and consciousness? How does it illumine these realities which no refinement of signification seems to get hold of? What would happen if instead of trying to get rid of denotation by calling it semantics, or by reducing it to a response sequence, we examined it as a real event among organisms?

I wish to call attention, without pretending to have determined their entire role in the act of consciousness, to two characteristics of the symbol meaning-relation, as they are empirically ascertainable, which distinguish it from the sign relation and which have the utmost relevance for the topics under consideration.

The first is a unique relation between the “organisms” involved in the symbolic meaning-structure, a relation which can only come about through a radical change in the relations which obtain in the sign-response. Signification is essentially and irreducibly a triadic meaning-relation, whereas symbolization is essentially and irreducibly a tetradic relation. The three terms of the sign-response are related physico-causally.* The schema, sign — organism — significatum, has so persistently recommended itself as the ground of meaning, human and subhuman, because it deals with physical structures and with causal relations and energy exchanges between these structures. Thus, no matter whether we are considering a solitary polar bear responding to the sound of splitting ice, or a bee responding to the honey dance of another bee, or a human responding to the cry of Fire! in a theater, each case is understandable as a sequential stimulus-response action acquired or inherited according to the exigencies of biological adaptation: sign → sound waves → sensory end-organ → afferent nerve impulse → cortical pattern → efferent nerve impulse → motor (or glandular) activity with reference to significatum. Whether we are trying to understand the behavior of a solitary organism in an inorganic environment (polar bear) or a society of organisms (bee hive), the behavior in each case is understood as a response of an organism to its environment. In one case the environment is inorganic (splitting ice), in the other case organic (other bees). But the central concept in both cases is that of an organism-in-an-environment responding and adapting through the mediation of signs.

The symbol meaning-relation is radically and generically different. It is a tetradic relation in which the presence of the two organisms is not merely required as an irreducible minimum but in which the two are themselves co-related in an unprecedented fashion. Denotation, the act of naming, requires the two, namer and hearer. My calling this thing a chair is another way of saying that it “is” a chair for you and me. (Mead’s “conversation of gestures” between two boxers or two dogs would seem also to require the two. However, the boxer or the dog responding to his opponent’s gestures is not generically different from the polar bear responding to splitting ice.) It is inconceivable that a human being raised apart from other humans should ever discover symbolization. For there is no way I can know this “is” a chair unless you tell me so. But not only are the two a genetic requirement of symbolization — as the presence of two is a genetic requirement of fertilization—it is its enduring condition. Even Robinson Crusoe writing in his journal after twenty years alone on his island is performing a through-and-through social act. Every symbolic formulation, whether it be language, art, or even thought, requires a real or posited someone else for whom the symbol is intended as meaningful. Denotation is an exercise in intersubjectivity. The two are suddenly no longer related as organisms in a nexus of interaction but as a namer and hearer of a name, an I and a Thou, co-conceivers and co-celebrants of the object beheld under the auspices of a common symbol.

It is something of a fool’s errand to attempt to derive intersubjectivity by theorizing about interactions among organisms, responses to responses. Physico-causal theory is formed entirely within the intersubjective milieu and cannot of its very nature transcend it. A physical function, a = f (b), is a saying of one scientist to another, an I to a Thou, that such and such a quantifiable relation obtains among the data before them. It does not say anything about the behavior of the scientists themselves because they are practicing intersubjectivity in their uttering and understanding of their causal function. They are co-knowers and co-affirmers of the function a =f (b), but their co-knowing and co-affirming cannot itself be grasped by this particular instrument which they have devised between them. If we wish to study the knowers themselves, the I-Thou relation, we must use some other instrument, speak some other language, perhaps an ontological one rather than a physico-causal.*

Symbolization can only occur by a radical shift in the elements of the old meaning structure of sign-organism-significatum. I do not know whether it is more proper or fruitful to speak of this new state of affairs as a social emergent or as a mode of being, but in any case there has come into existence a relation which transcends the physico-causal relations obtaining among data. This relation is intersubjectivity. It is a reality which can no longer be understood in the instrumental terms of biological adaptation.* The “organisms” implicated are no longer oriented pragmatically toward their environment but ontologically as its co-knowers and co-celebrants. Intersubjectivity may not be construed as an interaction. It requires instead a suitable phenomenology which takes due notice of its most characteristic property, a polarity of authenticity-unauthenticity. Here a normative terminology is unavoidable. One must take account of the authentic I-Thou relation and the deteriorated I–It of Buber. The problem is how such a phenomenology may be related to the great corpus of objective-empirical science. I believe that an impartial empirical analysis of the extraordinary act of symbolization will bridge the gap between the behavioristics of Mead and the existentialia of Marcel.


The selective and intentional character of consciousness has been stressed by empiricists and phenomenologists alike. The conscious act is always intentional: One is never simply conscious, but conscious of this or that. Consciousness is, in fact, defined by the phenomenologist as noematic intentionality in general.† But quite as essential to the act of consciousness is its symbolic character. Every conscious perception is of the nature of a recognition, a pairing, which is to say that the object is recognized as being what it is. To amend the phenomenologist: It is not enough to say that one is conscious of something; one is also conscious of something as being something. There is a difference between the apprehension of a gestalt (a chicken perceives the Jastrow effect as well as a human) and the grasping of it under its symbolic vehicle.* As I gaze about the room, I am aware of a series of almost effortless acts of matching: seeing an object and then knowing it for what it is. If my eye falls upon an unfamiliar something, I am immediately aware that one term of the match is missing. I ask what it is — an exceedingly mysterious question. Marcel has observed that when I see an unfamiliar flower and ask what it is, I am more satisfied to be given a name than a scientific classification, even though the name may mean nothing to me. May this satisfaction be dismissed as a residue of name-magic, or is there a radical epistemological need of a something of comparable ontological weight (the sensuous symbol) to lay alongside the object in order that the latter be known? It is the pairing in the act of perception which must not be overlooked. It is a relation, moreover, which goes far deeper than the attaching of a label to something already known, as the semanticists suggest. Rather is it the pairing or formulation itself, as Cassirer has said, which comprises the act of knowing.† Each conscious recognition may be regarded as an approximation, a cast of one thing toward another toward the end of a fit. Thus, if I see an object at some distance and do not quite recognize it, I may see it, actually see it, as a succession of different things, each rejected by the criterion of fit as I come closer, until one is positively certified. A patch of sunlight in a field I may actually see as a rabbit — a seeing which goes much further than the guess that it may be a rabbit; no, the perceptual gestalt is so construed, actually stamped by the essence of rabbitness: I could have sworn it was a rabbit. On coming closer, the sunlight pattern changes enough so that the rabbit-cast is disallowed. The rabbit vanishes and I make another cast: It is a paper bag. And so on.* But most significant of all, even the last, the “correct” recognition is quite as mediate an apprehension as the incorrect ones; it is also a cast, a pairing, an approximation. And let us note in passing that even though it is correct, even though it is borne out by all indices, it may operate quite as effectively to conceal as to discover. When I recognize a strange bird as a sparrow, I tend to dispose of the bird under its appropriate formulation: It is only a sparrow (cf. Marcel’s “simulacrum”).

Awareness is thus not only intentional in character; it is also symbolic. The phenomenologist tells only half the story. I am not only conscious of something; I am conscious of it as being what it is for you and me. If there is a wisdom in etymologies, the word consciousness is surely a case in point; for consciousness, one suddenly realizes, means a knowing-with! In truth it could not be otherwise. The act of consciousness is the intending of the object as being what it is for both of us under the auspices of the symbol.

It does not, of course, solve the problem of consciousness to say that it is an exercise in intersubjectivity. I only wish to suggest that the conviction of the phenomenologists that intersubjectivity must somehow be constituted at the very heart of consciousness, a consummation devoutly to be desired but evidently not forthcoming under the phenomenological reduction, is illuminated and confirmed by the empirical method, a method which takes account of natural existences, organisms and symbols and objects, and real relations in the world. But I would also suggest that a recognition of the denotative function of the symbol, as a real property, yields the intersubjectivity which is not forthcoming from Mead’s sign-response psychology. Consciousness and intersubjectivity are seen to be inextricably related; they are in fact aspects of the same new orientation toward the world, the symbolic orientation.

This empirical insight into the intersubjective constitution of consciousness suggests an important corrective for the transcendental reduction. Is the phenomenologist’s stronghold of the absolute priority of the individual consciousness so invulnerable after all? Is there in fact such a thing as the “purified transcendental consciousness” or is it a chimera from the very outset? Is it a construct masquerading as an empirical reality? If my every act of consciousness, not merely genetically speaking my first act of consciousness, but each succeeding act, is a through-and-through social participation, then it is a contradiction in terms to speak of an aboriginal ego-consciousness. There may be such a thing as an isolated ego-consciousness, but far from being the apodictic take-off point of a presuppositionless science, it would seem to correspond to Buber’s term of deterioration, the decay of the I-Thou relation into the objectivization of the I–It. It would appear that the transcendental phenomenologist is seizing upon a social emergent, consciousness, abstracting it from its social matrix, and erecting a philosophy upon this pseudo-private derivative. But the organism does not so begin. The I think is only made possible by a prior mutuality: we name.

Sartre’s even more radical revision of the transcendental consciousness falls that much shorter of the mark. Declaring that the Cartesian cogito is insufficiently radical, that it is a derived condition of consciousness in which consciousness intends itself as an object, Sartre probes back to the “prereflective cogito.” This fundamental reality is a nonposited, nonobjectified, prereflective consciousness. But is there such a thing? Or is it not the very nature of the search that the most radical backtracking into consciousness cannot carry us beyond what Marcel calls the “intersubjective milieu,” by which he means the prime and irreducible character of intersubjectivity?


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