Lecture 22

The properties of symbol systems and their 'discovery'


The images used to mark the sections in this lecture come from the first modern army drill manual, published in 1607, illustrating the training methods developed by Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, and captain-general of Holland and Zeeland between 1585 and his death in 1625. Why think about drill? Here's one clue.

Piaget, in his comments regarding the development of Darwin's conceptualising of the evolutionary process, provides a useful orientation to the problem at hand in this lecture:

the two results which seem the most interesting to me are, first, the time that Darwin needed to become aware of ideas which were already implicit in his thought, and, second, the mysterious passage from the implicit to the explicit in the creation of new ideas ... One might have believed that this passage concerned only the relationship between thought and action, and that, on the level of thought itself, the passage from 'implicit' schemas ... to their reflective explication would be much more rapid. [But] ... even in a creator of the greatness of Darwin the passage is far from immediate. This delay establishes ... that making things explicit leads to the construction of a structure which is partially new, even though contained virtually in those structures which preceded it (Piaget, 1974: x).
If we put this into Vygotskian terms, we could say that the role of a zone of proximal development is to enable what Piaget calls here 'reflective explication'. The point that follows from this is that such possibilities as are inherent in our thinking and actions are difficult to 'grasp' without a predisposing 'zone of proximal development'. Mu argument here is that the properties of the symbol systems that mediate human thinking, and the the social practices within which they are deployed, can offer opportunities for making the implicit explicit: that there can be natural zopeds even when all the members of a social group live at the same 'level'.


Quite how symbols 'work' is not fully understood. A basic notion such as reference, that a word - a symbol - such as 'water' gets its meaning because it 'stands for' or 'refers to' something out there in the world has proved to be a very tricky thing for philosophers to pin down. With such a complicated situation, I'm going to take another of those simple-minded steps that I did with respect to consciousness back in Lecture 13, and not worry too much about all the difficulties. There are some simple things that can be said about symbols. People use them to make distinctions, and agree, in general, as to the rough edges of these distinctions - so that symbols constitute what Mead (Lecture 15) called 'significant gestures'. At the basic level, to make a distinction is to distinguish one 'thing' from everything else: thus, to say something is 'red' is to acknowledge, whether or not you have any other colour words, that there is another class of things that are 'not red'. Now, in this logical approach I am taking to how systems elaborate themselves over time, this aspect of making distnctions is quite important. I'll try and get at this importance through a 'thought experiment'.

Suppose you are an infant, and you manage to learn to say the word 'up' as a way of getting picked up. Quite likely, you will use this word to get yourself moved, and won't initially pay too much attention as to whether you want to be picked 'up' off the floor to get 'up' in your high-chair, or to get picked 'up' out of your high-chair so as to go 'down' to the floor. Up is a word for getting things done, to begin with, for yourself. But slowly, you will twig on to the way that adults use 'up' in a way that is close to what they call 'above'. And you might then start getting a handle on the notion of 'above' (and when you are little, most things are 'above' you], which you begin to apply to objects other than yourself (see Lecture 19 again), so that you can say of the sky that it is 'above' you, that it is 'up' there. And you might do all this without realising that this implies, because symbols make distinctions, that you are 'below' the sky, that you are 'down' here. And you might find, as developmental psychologists did back in the 1970's that, if you investigated what infants understood about the distinctions made by words that define relative spatial positions, that young children took a while to reliably distinguish between other spatial terms than 'up' and 'down', or 'above' and 'below' - such as 'in', 'on', and 'under'. But, 'in', 'on', and 'under' are all just sub-distinctions of 'up': they are possible distinctions that are implied by your initial induction into the distinction signalled by saying 'up'.

So, you ask? Well, the situation with using symbols is similar to the situation that I described with respect to how organisms evolve. When an organism evolves, it implies new possibilities that can be made into explicit forms. Here we are dealing with symbols, that come into being developmentally (and historically), and which imply all kinds of future distinctions that can be made. But these are not explicated as biological forms, but as 'mental' ones: they are marked by symbols that people come to agree on as being useful. Thus, symbol systems are a bit like organic systems, in that the first ones imply the possibilities down the track.

Recall here one of Vygotsky's concepts: semiotic potential. What he was pointing at was the possibilities that are often contained in the symbolic systems we use, possibilities that are often undiscovered for long periods of time. We looked at this issue in an earlier lecture (Lecture 18) with respect to mathematics and literacy.

In this vein, Sir Karl Popper (1972) has pointed out very clearly how particular symbol systems contain their future elaboration. For example, the sequence of symbols that denote natural numbers is a human construction. Now, it is possible to do some quite complex tasks without any abstract conception of number: by 'tallying', for example, a shepherd can keep track of his or her flock - mark them out in the morning and tick them home in the evening. Similarly, many 4 year olds can count, after a fashion, from 1 to 10. But, they do so in complete ignorance of the properties of the numbers they are using. If, by any chance, one abstracted numbers out of this practice and expressed them on base 10 with Arabic numerals, then one would get the sequence 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9. One could use these numbers in quite a few ways without ever becoming aware of the distinctions between, and the properties of, odd and even, perfect and prime numbers. One might come to apprehend these distinctions, but then be oblivious to such properties as Goldbach's conjecture: that every even number is the sum of two primes (this conjecture fits every known case, but no proof of it has yet been formulated). Hence, there is built into the system a whole new order of distinctions which could be made explicit.

Three points should be noted with respect to this example. First, Popper (1972: 18) characterizes these properties of numerical systems as 'unintended and unavoidable properties of our creation ... [there] ... for us to discover'. Second, there is a logic to the order in which these unintended properties might be discovered: that is, Goldbach could only formulate his conjecture about the properties of even numbers once even numbers had been 'elucidated' - that is, explicitly distinguished from odd numbers. Third, it follows that we could essay an evolutionary account of mathematics if we could establish the conditions under which such discoveries were made.

Making these things explicit, discovering - making explicit - the implications of the number system, is not necessarily easy. First, the way in which numbers come to be represented or symbolised can affect the likelihood of these implicit properties being 'discovered'. Basic mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, division and multiplication are made more or less easy depending on how the number system is 'notated': the Arabic system is better suited to this than the Roman one; and an abacus is better still.

Second, similar views have been put forward for alphabetic literacy. Writing functions to abstract the events it deals with from their ongoing context, and so helps foster abstract thinking is one such view (e.g., Goody, 1968). But the empirical evidence suggests that coming to exploit this possibility of writing, to use the written medium as a way of inspecting different accounts for their logical consistency, for example, is not a guaranteed outcome of being able to read and write. Rather, the social practices that writing is used for differentially predispose readers and writers to discover (or not) the possibilities made available by the system they have (e.g., Scribner and Cole, 1981). Their conclusion was that literacy certainly has possibilities to enable new skills, but these didn't just happen spontaneously once you learned to read. Rather, the social practices one used literacy for more or less helped or hindered the realisation of these possibilities. Hence, the social practices could in themselves act as a zone of proximal development. Further, the nature of the system of representing language - logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, for example - may similarly compound the potential for this natural 'zone of proximal development' to do its work as more or less easy or difficult, in the same way as different systems of mathematical notation do (although the empirical evidence to warrant this claim has been very difficult to establish).

What this means is that a zone of proximal development can be created between individuals who are at the same level of ability, rather than just between two who are at different levels and who can thus function as teacher and pupil.

Or, put it another way, before our higher psychological abilities can become established at an intramental level, they are first elaborated in the social relations that hold between us and those whom we interact with, at the intermental level.

Third, environments can be changed by the actions of organisms so as to bring into being entirely new objects that were never intended nor would have existed otherwise. Popper (op. cit) uses the creation of a path through vegetation as an example of this. Paths come into existence through animals initially moving along the lines of least resistance, which are determined jointly by the contours of the terrain with its vegetation and the predispositions of the animals that move across that terrain.

It is not planned - it is an unintended consequence of the need for easy or swift movement. This is how a path is originally made - perhaps even by men - and how language and any other institutions which are useful may arise .... In this way, a whole new universe of possibilities or potentialities may arise... (Popper, op. cit: 119).
What I want to emphasise here is that, unlike the possibilities that are implicit in counting systems, what has been constructed in this instance is immediately available to the organism: the path is as 'real' in the organism's experience as the vegetation through which it runs.

a path in my frontpaddock made by piglets

The issue here thus becomes clearer. Can we find ways in which social practices can act to create the analogues of 'paths' in human perception, such that those paths not only establish new possibilities and potentialities for a physiological system (the brain) to use, but simultaneously provide the 'notational' system that eases the 'discovery' of those things that are implicit in them? If we can, then we have delineated a self-constituted 'zone of proximal development' that can bootstrap the elaboration of those symbolic cognitive technologies that it is we need to elucidate in accounting for the evolutionary amplification of human abilities.

Some concrete examples of 'discovery-making'

1. Colour-term differentiation and social structure

Ember (1978) has suggested that one factor in the elaboration of domains of reference is 'societal complexity'. Armstrong and Katz (1981) pursued this claim for one domain. They found that the number of colour terms given for the language of a society by Berlin and Kay (1969) was found to be correlated with the index of societal differentiation calculated according to Marsh's (1967) criteria. This confirms the hypothesis of Berlin and Kay (1969: 104) that color lexicons with few terms tend to occur in association with relatively simple cultures and simple technologies, while color lexicons with many terms tend to occur in association with complex cultures and complex technologies. For this particular referential domain, then, 'this is also a confirmation of the hypothesis that referential systems become more elaborate as societies become more complex (Armstrong and Katz, op. cit.: 337).

However, Esther Goody reports (personal communication) that this is not the case for most West African languages. In these, the number of colour terms relates not to societal complexity, but to the length of a society's trade network. This suggests that it is not societal complexity per se which relates to the elaboration of linguistic structures, but the level of shared presuppositional knowledge between speakers: for one needs be more specific with a supplier several hundred miles away. It is quite obvious, though, that levels of shared knowledge between individuals relate to societal complexity in a quite direct way. Shared, presuppositional knowledge is, by definition, unarticulated and hence not explicit.

2. Bernstein's conception of language codes

This notion of shared presuppositionality is central to the theorisation of language, communication and social structure by Basil Bernstein, whose work I discussed in the previous lecture (Lecture 21). Recall that in his later publications (i.e., after 1962), Bernstein introduced the concept of communication code, identifying two types which he labels restricted and elaborated. These codes are not in themselves varieties of language, but principles of structuration which underpin linguistic and social forms, their variation and their reproduction (Atkinson, 1985: 66). These codes also control the form of semiotic systems other than language, for example: rule systems of clothing; food; ritual; and body adornment. Codes provide the principles of cultural transmission in all channels, and thereby regulate the transmission and reproduction of cosmologies and the very social structure itself (ibid: 68).

The segregation of codes between different social strata is not random, but related to the requirements of each class. The division of labour and the differentiation of large scale societies has resulted in specialization of small groups of people into numerous disparate disciplines, each of which has evolved its own specialized vocabulary. Amongst the middle-class controllers of material or symbolic goods, who had to co-ordinate networks of communication between discrete professions, there arose a "metalanguage" of universalistic terms and abstract notions characteristic of elaborated code.

One thrust of Bernstein's argument, then, is that social structure is the ground against which meaningful communication is established. In simple societies, that structure does not itself become a topic of the discourse practices it affords. In a manner of speaking, cognition remains embedded in discourse. But in more complex societies, cognition is lifted out of discourse, allowing the perception of the social structure within which it was constituted. Cognition is disembedded from discourse and reconstituted symbolically, then becoming re-embedded within the constraints of the symbol system by which it functions. Thus, elaborated code is seen as emerging out of restricted code as social structure becomes more complex and lowers the shared level of presuppositionality amongst speakers. This transformation occurs in tandem with societal complexification.

Put alternatively in a Vygotskian perspective (Lecture 21), the argument would be that knowledge is reproduced in interactive situations. Those situations may not only supply explicit symbols, but are also structured in ways that provide already delineated 'things to be articulated'. If this is the case, then 'knowledge' will more readily make the transition from the implicit, tacit, intermental realm to explicit intramental ones in social structures that contain more differentiated positions. Conversely, where interactions do not exhibit such a structure, knowledge will remain implicitly coded, and its explicit intramental coding is less likely to be facilitated for those to whom the world is so presented.

3. Social structures, language and cognition

The above point is extended and reframed in Fischer's work (1965; 1966; 1973) on the relation between Truk and Ponape language and social structure. Both the languages and cultures of Truk (Melanesia), a complex of small islands within a large lagoon, and Ponape, a more remote, larger single land mass some 400 miles away, are historically related. They have shown a separate development for perhaps 2000 years (Fischer, 1966:168). Fischer's claim is that 'the differences which have arisen in the two related languages are produced by certain long-standing differences in general features of the social structure of the two speech communities' (ibid:168). Ponapean social structure is more differentiated than Trukese social structure, possessing a greater variety of significantly different roles.

Fischer's (1966, see also 1973) theoretical perspective illustrates other facets of the concept of shared presuppositionality: how this varies among speakers in different social systems; the effects this has upon language; and the consequence this has for the elaboration of conceptual processes within the social or cultural group. Fischer's reasoning is as follows. Small, simple, homogeneous societies do not put a pressure on meaning to be coded in context-independent terms. Further, their characteristics tend to lower the need for the exercise of abstract problem-solving skills. That is, lacking skilled specialists,

every member of the society ... must have the most useful and time-tested answers to all the most frequent problems of daily living in his own head

Essentially, then, members of such a culture may rely more on traditional knowledge, rule-of-thumb common sense solutions from which general algorithms or principles need not have been formally abstracted. Further, it is argued that many everyday practices have not been subjected to analysis for why they work, nor does everyday life throw up many situations which require analysis for their solution. An important implication here is that such everyday practices may be acquired by imitation. You might like to go back here to Lecture 4 and re-read the account of rice growing practices in Bali.

Fischer presents data on the relation between the phonological systems (1965) and the grammatical systems (1966) of Trukese and Ponapean in relation to the social structures of the two cultures that are quite technical, and I won't discuss them in detail here. The main claim is that in Ponapean, both systems show structural characteristics that reflect a greater emphasis on precision both in speech, and in the conveyance of the meanings being spoken. By contrast, Trukese phonology is commensurate with greater fluency, and its grammatical system is less adapted in use to context-independent precision in meaning. In addition, for technical reasons of phrase construction, a Trukese speaker is more liable to be interrupted, but since within its simple social structure there is a high degree of shared presuppositionality, this creates no great barrier to the communication task. Trukese speech is claimed to be relatively stimulus-directed, being treated more as a response to an earlier utterance or to something in the non-linguistic situation than as a purposeful attempt to influence the listener in accordance with a preconceived goal of the speaker (ibid, 179). By contrast, the tighter Ponapean construction offers less encouragement to interruption. It suggests that the speaker has a definite idea in mind which must be communicated in full as a unit to the listener. It suggests further that the speaker assumes the listener to be perhaps quite different from himself and liable to misinterpret fragments of the full proposition (ibid, 179).

This sort of speech Fischer sees as relatively more serviceable in the formulation and pursuit of goals. Relating language and thought is beset with difficulties: all I want to point to here is the link between coding meanings explicitly and the lack of presuppositionality that follows as a society becomes more structurally differentiated and thus loses common knowledge.

4. The sociogenesis of 'civilized' occidental human conduct

Norbert Elias's study (1978, 1982) of the elaboration of western etiquette adds more information to the general point being developed in this and the last few lectures. Elias studied European etiquette manuals dating back over the last 700 years. His work can be read as revealing that the processes of social interaction have unintended consequences, that they 'create' 'things' that are only subsequently capable of description (or discoverable) as 'things'; and that the 'things' that result from this 'social construction' have an intrinsic ordering to them that constrains the order in which we come to 'apprehend' them.

Elias's rationale for interpreting the material he presents rests on two points. First, if a manual explicitly proscribes a form of behaviour, then we may assume that those people to whom the advice is targeted would otherwise do what they are being told not to. Second, if over the course of centuries particular advice drops out of these manuals, this does not reflect a change in fashion, but that people no longer need to be told such niceties of behaviour, for they have been 'socialised' not to perform in these ways. [Thus at Massey University, for example, we were sent a memo a few years back informing us of the correct title of address for the then current Minister of Education in New Zealand - whether he is the Honourable Dr. Lockwood Smith or Dr. the Honourable Lockwood Smith, a difficult decision - so as not to cause offence if we met him. But we were not told not to spit, fart, pick our noses, belch or scratch or expose our 'private' parts if we met him. One can assume people would not do these things, even if they work in an originally agricultural institution.]

Among other things, Elias establishes the historical course of elaborating western practices for dealing with the assorted accumulations of material that periodically inhabit the human nasal passages. At the root of the changes Elias documents in what is considered polite is a hierarchy of actions: blowing the nose; hiding the blowing of it by using a handkerchief; hiding the blowing of it into a handkerchief. But, most importantly, embarrassment is being invented. Embarrassment is a (metacognitive) emotional state created by the explication into discourse of this hierarchy: for it to be realised, a self-censorious ability has to be established. People have to become able to reflect on their own behaviour - that is, on how they act in company - where previously they had not done so.

Over all the activities he considers - how to eat and drink in company, control bodily functions, etc. - there emerges from Elias's study the strong implication that a self-reflective ability was unavailable for any activity among western people around 700 years ago. People generally did not reflect on what they were doing. Hence, they did not, for example, provide the necessary conditions that would enable them to feel embarrassed. In Elias's view, the kind of change in interpersonal behaviour that that was required for people to achieve such reflection

does not involve solely changes of 'knowledge', transformations of 'ideologies', in short, alterations of the content of consciousness, but changes in the whole human make-up, within which ideas and habits of thought are only a single sector (Elias, 1982: 284)
These changes reflect a reorganization and transformation of
the whole personality throughout all its zones, from the steering of the individual by himself at the more flexible level of consciousness and reflection to that at the more automatic and rigid level of drives and affects. (Elias, 1982: 284)

Elias predicates these changes in personality structure on structural changes in society brought about by the expansion of trade, the diffusion of money, the monopolization of power and physical force by a central 'state', and the growing stabilization of the central organs of society. In sum, 'as the social fabric grows more intricate, the sociogenic apparatus of individual self-control also becomes more differentiated, more allround and more stable' (Elias, 1982: 234). He offers the following explanation as to why there is this relationship:

From the earliest period of the history of the Occident to the present, social functions have become more and more differentiated under the pressure of competition. The more differentiated they become, the larger grows the number of functions and thus of people on whom the individual constantly depends in all his actions, from the simplest and most commonplace to the more complex and uncommon. As more and more people must attune their conduct to that of others, the web of actions must be organized more and more strictly and accurately, if each individual action is to fulfil its social function. The individual is compelled to regulate his conduct in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner. (Elias, 1982: 232)

Elias considers that it is the relationship between the psychological functions controlling an individual's actions that changes during historical time; that it is

these relationships within man between the drives and affects controlled and the built-in controlling agencies, whose structure changes in the course of a civilizing process, in accordance with the changing structure of the relationships between individual human beings, in society at large (Elias, 1982: 286).
And again, we are back to that Vygotskian point, that higher psychological abilities originate in the relationships that come to hold between people, and these become internalized.

Here, then, are the main points in Elias's argument. First, we need to remember that the changes in conduct that Elias charts are occurring against a background of a diversifying society. Travel was becoming easier, leading to more and different people meeting each other. Cities were emerging in a contrastive role to the countryside, resulting in trade and trade specialization, the establishment of a merchant class, and so on. In general, people were becoming less socially homogeneous, roles were becoming specialized, and so people were sharing less common knowledge among themselves; they had fewer common presuppositions. This had obvious repercussions on the process of communication between fellows. Essentially, it became much harder to make oneself understood.

Second, we need to think about the consequences of these changes with respect to the sort of knowledge a person would need in order to act effectively in such a changing world. Because it was much more difficult to get a message across to another, communication failure could occur much more frequently, making the individual aware of the communication process itself. Further, it would provide the individual with many more perspectives on the presentation of his or her self.

Third, language began to code new concepts and to be used more explicitly. On the one hand, the loss of presuppositionality in discourse will force an increasingly elaborated and explicit linguistic coding of communication: people would have been required to make explicit information they had previously left implicit. On the other hand, an increasingly complex society can create all sorts of new situations and experiences among the people whose actions bring it into being: these may come to be expressed in language.

Hence, information concerning the presentation of the self would have been available directly to an individual. A society with differentiated roles might well force an awareness upon an individual of the aspects of individuality that those roles are simultaneously constructing. It may eventually provide linguistic concepts for rendering these explicitly. The main point here is that the socially constructed facets of personality will increase, through the explicit realisation in discourse, of the number of different perspectives an individual can formulate of his or her self, while at the same time increasing the individual's ability to transcend his or her presupposed, unreflective, non-meta-awareness of his or her self through a richer fabric of communication and concept.

Fourth, Luria and Yudovich (1971) have noted that words have a profound affect on individual psychological functioning:

When he acquires a word, which isolates a particular thing and serves as a signal to a particular action, the child, as he carries out an adult's verbal instruction, is subordinated to this word.... By subordinating himself to the adult's verbal orders the child acquires a system of these verbal instructions and gradually begins to utilize them for the regulation of his own behaviour (Luria and Yudovich, 1971: 13-14).

In this view, through the medium of language, one of the major transitions noted by Elias -- from external control of behaviour by threat of punishment to internal control via the self-reflexive censors of shame and guilt--can be effected; and through these particularly social forms of emotional cognition 'people become ... sensitive to distinctions which previously scarcely entered consciousness' (Elias, 1982: 298).

Elias's essential point, then, is that our personalities, our conceptions of ourselves and others, our emotional experiences and our views of the world are explicated from phenomena whose existence is created beyond us in our social worlds. Human beings and their conceptual systems are explicated renderings into mental form of their social discourses. This is the social constructionist's credo.

This process of explication is contributed to by the potentialities of the various symbol systems that humans use, as well as the nature and structure of the human practices within which these are sustained. It is becoming clearer that (1) the properties of particular symbol systems and (2) the conditions under which they are employed affect the ease with which humans can use them for particular purposes.

So, the line that emerges is that the structure of relations between people and the properties of the discourses and practices they engaged in constituted the conditions that made possible their discovery of the unintended properties of the systems of symbols, social relations and discourse practices their modes of life constituted. These discoveries then constitute the phenomena that have been subsumed under the term: the evolution of human abilities.

We have from these four examples a clear picture of:
(1) how social relations can engender implications and make them salient;
(2) how symbol systems can contain implications of their own; and
(3) how social practices can make certain implications of the present state of affairs more or less ripe for explication at any particular point in time. We have the essentials that allow us to see how, sui generis, a 'zone of proximal development' can arise spontaneously within social life itself. We also have the point that
(4) the properties of particular symbol systems contribute to the ease with which certain implications can be constructively discovered.
Finally, implicit in these examples is the claim that
(5) the structuring of cognitive abilities and their temporal elaboration are inherently social practices. In a sense, then, there is a structure available in the interactive environment that is more or less accessible to the perceiver depending on the extent to which that structure is demonstrated or 'perspicuously-articulated' in the structure itself (cf. Wittgenstein, 1953). A similar point has been stated by Foucault (1991: 58) that discourse is 'a space of differentiated subject positions and subject functions'. The spaces are 'there', pregnantly metaplied within the bustle of everyday life. Giving a symbolic form to them is not easy, but that form is already largely specified, and is amplified as it latches into the abstractive abilities of the human cognitive substrate that is fed by the symbolic resources already explicated.

Going on again: Discipline and Punishment

Do you like having your photograph taken? Standing there under the glinting gaze of the camera's lens? Have you ever felt embarrassed when you thought you were doing something in private, only to discover someone was watching you? Did you start blushing? Two things at least have to have happened for us to have these reactions. First, the private has had to be distinguished from the public, along with a mastery of what is appropriate behaviour in each situation. And second, a self-centred censor has to have been created that structures our emotional expression. How might this have occurred?

The following material is by Andy Wood of San Jose State University [with one addition from me].

The Panopticon

The means by which the abstract space of the machine and the social space of the garden might be reconciled represents a unifying theme of utopian spatial organization. English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham struggled for decades to promote his vision of how this reconciliation might be accomplished through the construction of his architectural and social experiment, the panopticon ('all-seeing place'). Bentham introduced this concept in 1791 as a progressive and humane penitentiary. In a series of letters, Bentham (1962) proposed that the building would be circular with cells lining the perimeter. Each cell would be separated by walls on either side, so that the prisoners are 'secluded from all communication with each other' (p. 40). A window on the wall facing the building's exterior and an iron grating facing the building's interior would allow light to pass through the cell. This light would ensure constant surveillance over the activities of each individual by an inspector who was located in a tower at the center of the panopticon. This surveillance was unidirectional, however. Bentham proposed that a set of blinders covering the windows in the inspector's tower would prevent prisoners from watching their captors.

The isolation of individuals that resulted from this architectural design ensured physical security and promoted moral reform. After all, as Bentham (1962) noted, 'overpowering the guard requires an [sic] union of hands, and a concert among minds. But what union, or what concert, can there be among persons, no one of whom will have set eyes on any other from the first moment of his entrance?' (p. 46). From this modern form of imprisonment, individuals would have no recourse but to consider ways to improve their lot in life. Further, the ability to view large numbers of inmates in a single glance reduced the number of observers necessary to maintain control and allowed public inspection of the panopticon's operations. This emphasis emerged from Bentham's philosophy of utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In the Panopticon, few would be subject to the risks and unpleasantness of the inspection role, while many would benefit from the concept's enlightened means of management. Through public inspection, citizens would be free to discover for themselves the security for all bought by the tyranny over a few.

The most important benefit of Bentham's design was that his panopticon concept could be integrated into many social functions, including hospitals, schools, and military barracks. In his text Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (1979) extends Bentham's concept further to serve as a metaphor for the modernist disciplinary society. In this state, control need not be secured by physical dominance over the body -- it is maintained though a process of isolation. The organisation of our private spaces, essential mechanisms to maintaining the power relation, 'are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible' (Foucault, 1979, p. 200). Like the prisoner in the panoptiscopic penitentiary, the citizen 'is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication' (Foucault, 1979, p. 200).

Here, it must be emphasised that gaze is merely the means by which the end, individualisation, is accomplished.

Also see: City of Bits Electronic Panopticon.

Discipline and Drill

Behavioural control in western societies entered a new era with the formulation of discipline through drill by Maurice of Nassau in Holland in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Previously recruits had been given some basic training. Maurice, however, was the first to follow the invention of mechanised weaponry with mechanised and coordinated behaviours. For example, he analysed the rather complicated task of reloading and firing a matchlock rifle into 42 separate movements, each with a name and command associated with it. His soldiers could then be taught to make each move in unison on command. Since they all moved simultaneously in rhythm, all were ready to fire at the same time. This reduced the possibility of mistakes, and the simultaneous discharge of all guns together created a lethal volley.

He also devised marching drills that enabled columns to form rows and vice versa with precision, as well as turning in co-ordination. His most important manoeuvre was the countermarch, which is most often seen today performed by military bands when the front rank turns together and marches back through the ranks, which continue forward to the point of the first rank's turn before doing the same. Allied to his reloading drill, it became possible, with the right number of ranks, for a company of men to sustain a continual round of volleys through firing, retiring to the rear, reloading, etc., in sequence. The 'automation' that continued practice brought to these group actions minimised the possibility of the breakdown of the tactic.

With such a behavioural technology, he was also able to divide his army into smaller units that could be effectively commanded in the model today referred to in business circles as 'line management'. Individual prowess, of the kind demonstrated by warriors of the 'heroic' sagas, scarcely mattered:

Military units became a specialized sort of community, within which new, standardized face-to-face relationships provided a passable substitute for the customary patterns of traditional social groupings - the very groupings that were everywhere dissolving or were at least called into question by the spread of impersonal market relations. Hence, the artificial community of well-drilled platoons and companies could and did very swiftly replace the customary hierarchies of prowess and status that had given European society its form . . . in the days when knighthood had been in power . . . Drill swiftly and dependably transformed obedience and deference defined by custom into obedience and deference defined by regulations . . . Conformity to rules laid down from above became normal, not only because men feared harsh punishments for infractions of discipline, but also because . . . prideful esprit de corps became a palpable reality for hundreds of thousands of human beings who had little else to be proud of. Human flotsam and jetsam found an honourable refuge from a world in which buying and selling had become so pervasive as to handicap severely those who lacked the necessary pecuniary restraint, cunning, and foresight . . . The new psychic character of European armies made sharp class divisions within civil society fully compatible with domestic peace and order (McNeill 1982: 129-139).

'Drill', then, is an important component in the entire 'Civilising Process' that Elias has been at pains to elucidate.

And the point is?

What does all this mean for an understanding of human nature? We are certainly quite a way removed from the evolutionary orientation we started out with. We come in as organisms with an evolutionary history in biology; we end up as transformed by the resources we discover and invent as our social relations change, and lead us into symbol systems that mediate and amplify our abilities.

Optional Assignment 5

This account puts creativity in its social situation, suggesting that there would be few acts of individual genius or discovery that have occured in a vacuum, where the end product was a pure invention rather than the almost inevitable discovery of 'what was already waiting there to be noticed'. Archimedes, for example, is reputed to have come up with his principle in his bath, when he made the connection between volume and density by noticing how the water went up when he sat down. But just think of the factors that contributed to this discovery. Taking a bath in prehistoric Africa was not a good idea - lots of animals come to water holes that could eat you. Doing it in the Arctic would not be too much fun either. But Archimedes lived in a city, where wild animals don't roam, and with a differentiating urban society, there were guards and nightwatchmen to make the place safer. One of the problems of urban life is getting rid of effluent - if one doesn't, disease develops. The ancient Greeks had devised very efficient systems for getting effluent out of cities - a sewerage system - and getting water in from reservoirs. Hydraulics was the cutting-edge science of the day. Archimedes could be said to have had water on the brain. He also inherited an alphabetic system of literacy, which fosters analytic skills, and an emerging mathematics that could deal with quite sophisticated problems, particularly in geometry. It was almost inevitable that if he hadn't come up with his principle, somebody else in the same time and place would have.

For this optional assignment I want you to choose any invention - abstract (such as the concept of 'zero', for example) or technological, and briefly unpack the social and cultural factors that could have prompted the 'discovery' to have been made when and where it was.


The reading by Benzon and Hayes adds a third strand to the topics covered in this and the previous Lecture. They introduce the notion of 'cognitive rank', arguing that cognitive rank 'is about the conceptual tools a culture has for the elaboration of abstract thought', and that at different times and places, different cultures not only provided different conceptual tools, but that there is an inevitable historical ordering, or ranking, in which these tools are elaborated. Note that they explicitly state that 'The concept of conceptual rank tells us nothing about why culture evolves, nor about why one society evolves and another doesn't, but it does allow us to conceptualize the difference between a more or a less evolved culture. It allows us to see how the difference is constructed, without telling us why that difference was constructed'. They do allude to a possible 'why?' explanation, but I don't think you will find very convincing given the material you have looked at in this course to date. Formulating a better explanation as you read this paper in conjunction with the course lectures will put you in a good position to think about both the optional assignment 5 described above, and the compulsory assignment you are required to complete (details can be found in Lecture 27).