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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

IT IS A MATTER for astonishment, when one comes to think of it, how little use linguistics and other sciences of language are to psychiatrists. When one considers that the psychiatrist spends most of his time listening and talking to patients, one might suppose that there would be such a thing as a basic science of listening-and-talking, as indispensable to psychiatrists as anatomy to surgeons. Surgeons traffic in body structures. Psychiatrists traffic in words. Didn’t Harry Stack Sullivan say that psychiatry properly concerns itself with transactions between people and that most of these transactions take the form of language? Yet if there exists a basic science of listening-and-talking I have not heard of it. What follows is a theory of language as behavior. It is not new. Its fundamentals were put forward by the American philosopher Charles Peirce three-quarters of a century ago. It shall be the contention of this article that, although Peirce is recognized as the founder of semiotic, the theory of signs, modern behavioral scientists have not been made aware of the radical character of his ideas about language. I also suspect that the state of the behavioral sciences vis-à-vis language is currently in such low spirits, not to say default, that Peirce’s time may have come.

If most psychiatrists were asked why they don’t pay much attention to the linguistic behavior, considered as such, of their patients, they might give two sorts of answers, both reasonable enough. One runs as follows: “Well, after all, I have to be more interested in what the patient is saying than in the words and syntax with which he says it. “ And if, like most of us, he has been exposed to the standard academic behavioral sciences, he might add, again reasonably enough: “Well, of course we know that conversation is a series of learned responses, but these are very subtle events, occurring mostly inside the head, and so there is not much we can say about them in the present state of knowledge.”

Both explanations are familiar, reasonable, and dispiriting. But what is chiefly remarkable about them is that they are contradictory. No one has ever explained how a psychiatrist can be said to be “responding” to a patient when he, the psychiatrist, listens to the patient tell a dream, understands what is said, and a year later writes a paper about it. To describe the psychiatrist’s behavior as a response is to use words loosely.

Charles Peirce was an unlucky man. His two most important ideas ran counter to the intellectual currents of his day, were embraced by his friends — and turned into something else. William James took one idea and turned it into a pragmatism which, whatever its value, is not the same thing as Peirce’s pragmaticism. Peirce’s triadic theory has been duly saluted by latter-day semioticists — and turned into a trivial instance of learning theory. Freud was lucky. The times were ready for him and he had good enemies. It is our friends we should beware of.

What follows does not pretend to offer the psychiatrist an adequate theory of language sprung whole and entire like Minerva from Jove’s head. It is offered as no more than a sample of another way of looking at things. I hope that it might either stimulate or irritate behavioral scientists toward the end that they will devise operational means of confirming or disconfirming these statements — or perhaps even launch more fruitful studies than this very tentative investigation. What follows is adapted freely from Peirce, with all credit to Peirce, and space will not be taken to set down what was originally Peirce and what are the adaptations. Here again Peirce was unlucky, in that his views on language were put forward as part of a metaphysic, i.e., a theory of reality, and in a language uncongenial to modern behavioral attitudes. To say so is not to put down Peirce’s metaphysic. But the problem here is to disentangle from the metaphysic those insights which are germane to a view of language as behavior.

First I shall give a brief statement of what I take to be Peirce’s theory of language considered as a natural phenomenon, i.e., not as a logic or a formal structure but as overt behavior open to scientific inquiry. There shall follow a loose list of postulates which I take to be implied by Peirce’s triadic theory of signs. These “postulates,” unlike the arbitrary postulates of a mathematical system, are empirical statements which are more or less self-evident. From them certain other statements can be deduced. Their value will depend both on the degree to which the postulates are open to confirmation and the usefulness of the deduced statements to such enterprises as the psychiatrist’s understanding of his own transactions with his patients.

Peirce believed that there are two kinds of natural phenomena. First there are those events which involve “dyadic relations,” such as obtain in the “physical forces…between pairs of particles.” The other kind of event entails “triadic relations”:

All dynamical action, or action of brute force, physical or psychical, either takes place between two subjects…or at any rate is a resultant of such action between pairs. But by “semiosis” I mean, on the contrary, an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs.

If A throws B away and B hits C in the eye, this event may be understood in terms of two dyadic relations, one between A and B, the other between B and C. But if A gives B to C, a genuine triadic relation exists. “Every genuine triadic relation involves meaning.” An index sign is part of a dyadic relation. An index refers to the object it denotes by virtue of really being affected by that object. Examples of indexes: a low barometer as an index of rain, the cry of warning of a driver to a pedestrian. A symbol, however, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. “The index is physically connected with its object…but the symbol is connected with its object by virtue of…the symbol-using mind.”

Dyadic events are, presumably, those energy exchanges conventionally studied by the natural sciences: subatomic particles colliding, chemical reactions, actions of force-fields on bodies, physical and chemical transactions across biological membranes, neuron discharges, etc.

Triadic events, on the other hand, characteristically involve symbols and symbol users. Moreover, a genuine triadic relation cannot be reduced to a series of dyadic relations. Peirce seems to be saying that when a symbol user receives a symbol as “meaning” such and such an object, we may not understand this event as a sequence of dyadic events or energy exchanges even though dyadic events and energy exchanges are involved: sound waves in air, excitation of sensory end-organ, afferent nerve impulse, electro colloidal synaptic event, efferent nerve impulse, muscle contraction, or glandular secretion.

Peirce’s distinction between dyadic and triadic behavior has been noted before, but so pervasive has been the influence of what might be called dyadic behaviorism that Peirce’s “triadic relation” has been recognized only to the degree that it can be set forth as a congeries of dyads. Morris, for example, interprets Peirce’s triad as implying that in addition to response and stimulus there is a third factor, a “reinforcing” state of affairs. This is like saying that Einstein’s special theory will be accepted only to the degree that it can be verified by Newtonian mechanics. Like Newtonian mechanics, dyadic theory can account for perhaps 98 per cent of natural phenomena. Unfortunately the phenomenon of talking-and-listening falls in the remaining 2 per cent.

What would happen if we took Peirce seriously? That is to say, if we retain the posture of behavioral science which interests itself only in the overt behavior of other organisms, what are we to make of observable behavior which cannot be understood as a series of dyadic energy transactions? What has happened in the past is that we have admitted of course that there is such a thing as symbol-mongering, as naming things, as uttering sentences which are true or false, as “rules” by which names are assigned and sentences formed. We have admitted that such activity is a natural phenomenon and as such is open to scientific investigation. But what kind of scientific investigation? We have gotten around the difficulty by treating the products of symbol-mongering formally, by what Carnap calls the formal sciences (logic, mathematics, syntax), while assigning the activity itself to a factual science, in this case learning theory, which has not, however, been able to give an account of it. It is no secret that learning theorists will have no truck with symbols and meaning. Most textbooks of psychology do not list the word symbol in their indexes. Indeed, how can learning theory, as we know it, give an account of symbolic activity? If we are to believe Peirce, it cannot. For the empirical laws of learning theory are formulations of dyadic events of the form R =f(O), in which R = response variables and O = stimulus variables.*

The question must arise then: If triadic activity is overt behavior and as such is the proper object of investigation of a factual behavioral science and is not formulable by the postulates and laws of conventional behaviorism, what manner of “postulates” and “laws,” if any, would be suitable for such a science? Or is the game worth the candle? For, as George Miller says, whenever the behavioral scientist confronts language as behavior, he is generally nagged by the suspicion that the rule-governed normative behavior of naming, of uttering true and false sentences, may somehow be beyond the scope of natural science. Shall we as behavioral scientists accordingly surrender all claim to language as a kind of behavior and yield the field to formalists, logicians, and transformational linguists? Have we not indeed already settled for a kind of tacit admission that there exists a behavior for which there is no behavioral science?

To give some simple examples:

Two events occurred in Helen Keller’s childhood. One can be reasonably well understood by learning theory. The other cannot.

Helen, we know from Miss Sullivan, learned to respond to the word cake spelled in her hand by searching for a piece of cake.

Even though we were not present and could not have seen the events inside Helen’s head if we had been, we nevertheless feel confident that learning theory can give a fairly adequate account of the kind of events which occurred. B.F. Skinner would have no difficulty explaining what happened and most of us would find his explanation useful.

But a second event occurred. One day Helen learned in great excitement that the word water spelled in one hand was the name of the liquid flowing over the other hand. She then wanted to know the names of other things.


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