How language creates the world, and the world structures cognition
School of Psychology, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Draft of a paper for a Conference on language origins, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, August 10-12, 2001
The burden of my contention is that the history of the universe, so far as we are able to read it, is one continuous story, every episode in which is, if one may so phrase it, logically correlated with other relevant episodes. I use the word logically in a broad sense as equivalent to intelligibly, with no finalistic implication. For reasons which I hope to render clear I avoid the terms mechanical or mechanistic, since there is much in the world-story which, though it should be interpreted as logically or intelligibly determinate, involves natural relationships with which neither mechanic nor mechanism, as such, has any concern. The world-story, then, is intelligible and, in that sense, has a logic which we may endeavour to understand. (Lloyd Morgan, 1912: vi).
I have come to the view that the Paris Linguistics Society had a point when, in 1866, it banned the discussion of the evolution of language from its proceedings. This is not to deny that we have come a long way since then. We have moved from proto-science and rhetorical advocacy to science in the sense of Chamberlin's (1890) formalisation of the method of multiple working hypotheses: for any given phenomenon, propose as many possible explanations as one can, and then procede to knock them off empirically by testing their predictions against the evidence.
However, I think we have a real problem that places a limit on what we can thus determine about the evolution of language. The problem is that the evidential base is inherently deficient, and recent work in unravelling the evolutionary history of current human populations just makes matters worse.
On the one hand, we have to contend with the archaeological fact-of-life that the further back in time one looks, then the less evidence there remains to be found. But now we face an even worse situation. The 'Out-of-Africa' scenario created one problem, in that we have an originatory point for modern humans, and one which excludes Neandertals, for example, as having anything to do with 'us'. In a sense, that is helpful, provided one has ways of dating a find and categorizing it as Neandertal or not. Because if we can do this, then we can look for differences between the evidence left by our ancestors versus our non-ancestors, and have a go at interpreting it, on the assumption that if it is sapiens-related evidence, we have something that bears on how 'our' behaviour was elaborated.
Recent claims, however, problematize this tactic. It is claimed that there is not just one window of opportunity that human evolution was filtered through - 'Eve' and a few others somwhere in north-east Africa some time back - but there have been a number of such windows subsequently, and that modern humans have descended from relatively few individuals who were the descendants of the original 'Eve'. Whether these scenarios reflect the true state of affairs or not, they certainly problematize the poor evidential base even further, for even if we are certain that such-and-such remains are the product of sapient humans, we have no idea whether those humans were our ancestors. We don't know what it was about certain mothers and fathers that enabled their progeny to out-compete the progeny of others.
And this, I think, really screws us with respect to many questions about the evolution of language. For example, we might, and often do, weave scenarios that suggest palaeolithic art indices the growth of the symbolic function. Yet art might be a complete dead-end in the evolutionary sense: in that none of the abilities that made for this activity gave the individuals who possessed them an edge over some other individuals who were into something else altogether, and we have almost nil chance of narrowing down what that 'something else' was, since the odds on finding relevant evidence are massively stacked against us. And consequently, there is a fair bit of sense in agreeing with those Parisian linguists of 150 years ago.
That said, I suggest we have two options: we either give up, or we rethink the problem. In what follows I offer some thoughts on rethinking the problem. I am unclear as to whether this rethinking will yield explicitly useful multiple hypotheses that have a better chance of being tested, yet I do feel a bit like Jackson Browne when he sang 'I may not have the answer, but I think I've got a plan'.
I want to suggest that while all this biology and genetic stuff is really interesting, it is looking in the wrong place. Where the action is is in the extrasomatic arena. The questions we need to be asking are: 'What are the things we talk about?'; 'Where did these things come from?'; and 'What consequence do these things have for how we subsequently think and talk?'.
In pursuing these questions I know I am going to come up with some unpalatable answers that could get me into a lot of hot water. For example, one thing that follows from my arguments is that all human languages are - gasp, horror - not equal. This is contentious, so I will try and be careful in stating what I mean by this. At the same time, however, I want to maintain as a working hypothesis that all human beings are effectively equal in their abilities to access any human language.
So, to preface the direction I am going in, a major plank in my argument is the view that much of what we call 'human cognition' does not go on inside our heads, but is constituted by, and conserved in, external objects and processes. To a large extent, what anyone brings from biology to the manipulation and use of these external 'things' is the same. The 'things' themselves, though, are very different in their temporal, and currently spatial, availability.
To understand 'human evolution' and 'language evolution' requires us to have an understanding of the character and history of these 'things', and our changing 'cognitive' relationship with them. And 'things' are best characterised by the number of implications sedimented into them. I will begin, then, by saying a bit about 'implications'.
Implication and evolution
Science is normally concerned with uncovering causal relations between phenomena. I want to look in a different direction, at the implicational relations that hold between phenomena, particularly with respect to the evolutionary consequences of these relations. Now,
A crucial difference between a cause-effect relationship (A causes B) and an implication (A implies B) is that the former involves logically independent phenomena, which must be shown empirically to succeed each other, whereas the latter involves logically dependent phenomena. Physical phenomena may be linked by a theory from which it follows that A leads to B. On the other hand, a mental phenomenon A in itself implies B, without any theory (emphasis added), Smedslund (1969: 8).
The slant I want to put on things is that evolutionary theory offers a description of how implications are made real (why things are able to evolve is clearly another matter).
What evolutionary theory describes is a system in which energy is exploited to maintain form. Forms are energy-capture devices, which, once they appear, constitute new potential energy sources. Hence, evolution never stops, because whenever something new comes into the system, it constitutes a new energy source. The direction it goes in is mapped out by the implications of the system at any particular point in time. And this is one of the interesting things about implications: they only gain form 'after the fact'; before that, they cannot be seen, even though they are 'there'. So think of it this way: an organic form is the biological expression of a previously existing implication.
Forms are interesting because they embody the implications of their niches into their structures. Niches, in fact, are implications of the forms as well, and in this temporal perspective, the distinction beween forms and niches becomes very blurred.
It is useful to distinguish two categories of evolutionary implications. The first I will term synplications and the second metaplications. Both refer to the future path of evolution from any particular point in time.
Synplications are those implications that make possible the future elaboration of a form into new variants of that form, such that future forms are all 'variants' of the original organisational form. Hence, once a plant-form evolves, its existence synplicates all sorts of possible variant plant-forms, which evolution can turn into real forms (or not).
Synplications are also characterized by their tending to narrow down the range of future implications available to the system at any point in time, and by being linearly-ordered with respect to the previous implications they subsume. For example, if we consider the co-evolutionary relations between bats and moths, then it is a synplicational one, since we are dealing with change that stays within particular forms of organization. At the same time, it is possible to see how synplications narrow down the possible implications for the next evolutionary move, so canalizing the process. In adapting to moths as an energy source, bats put a selection pressure upon moths, such that, at the same time, bats act to create a new environment that they have to adapt to - an environment in which moths are responding to the fact that bats prey on them. The evolutionary interplay between the two forms is very rich, but essentially, bats have evolved sonar so as to exploit an otherwise untapped nocturnal energy resource, the sonar taking over from vision which is less effective in the dark. Moths subsequently evolved organs that detect sonar; bats then upped the frequency of their sonar in a continuous attempt to make it undetectable. Moths evolved the ability to produce ultrasound so as to 'jam' sonar. Moths evolved escape behaviour patterns that are triggered when sonar is detected. Some bats have dropped sonar from their sensory resources and gone back to a reliance on vision, for while their gaze may be poor, it is undetectable. A long journey to get back to square one (but, of course, it's not square 'one' any more). And some bats gave up on moths as a food source altogether, shifting to fruit (which doesn't retaliate in quite the same ways as moths); to sucking blood; and in at least one case to flying over water with their feet dangling in it, and then flying back down the line of disturbance they have so created so as to catch the fish that have been attracted to it (Fenton and Fullard, 1982 et seq).
Metaplications, by contrast, are implications that go beyond
the currently realized form to establish a new form of life. Hence,
once a plant-form evolves, its existence metaplicates possible herbivourous
forms. Metaplications are characterized by two things: their
tendency to open up a much larger range of implications; and by being
hierarchically-ordered with respect the way in which they subsume previous
implications. I will give an example of metaplication from another domain
- behaviour - and also use an example from that domain to clarify of
the notion of subsumption I pulled in above. (I won't say much
more about linear versus hierarchical organization, however, mainly
because I can't specify them properly yet, and anyway, the point is
not necessary to my argument here.) Behaviour is even more interesting,
because it doesn't realize implications into forms, but into actions.
Consider the elaboration of courtship behaviour in Empis flies. Here the evolutionary sequence appears to be that in the originating activity the courting male runs a high risk of being eaten by the female. This risk is reduced in some species by the male catching a fly and presenting this to the female. In the next step, the fly is wrapped in a cocoon of silk strands, increasing the time that the female is thereby occupied with her 'gift'. Next, a cocoon containing an inedible object such as a leaf is presented. Then, an empty cocoon. In the final stage of the sequence the cocoon is not presented at all, but waved about by the male as a visual signal to attract females (Reuter, 1913; cited by Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1975, 145-6). It's almost symbolic, what?
Now here we have a metaplicational process. The 'gift' changes its level (rather than elaborates its level) at particular points in the chain of implications. A synplicational sequence might have involved males developing a concoction that anaesthetised the female to allow him to increase his chance of surviving copulation, and their following a chain of events variously elaborating this theme (or think of the elaboration of beaks in Darwin finches). But here we have a much less constrained state of affairs in which events really build on each other, such that the end point is only explainable because it subsumes its previous implications, and the end point has become arbitrary. For example, we might go looking for Empis flies where the female eats the male and lays her eggs in the cocoon he has presented to her as a now newly-constituted parental investment in his offspring.
C. Perception: giving value to a thing in perception
Implications do their psychological work by being structured into an organism's perceptual field or Umwelt. The complexity of an object in perception is indexed by the number of implications subsumed in its perceptual value. Things can also differ in their subsumption of space and time, and as these spatial and temporal dimensions of perceptual things increase their range, so more and more implications become available for potential subsumption. So many implications become available, in fact, that they can only be subsumed by new levels of cognitive functioning becoming available to deal with them, and hence constitute new and richer 'things' in perception. These new levels come in all shapes and sizes. Amodality is one. Categorical perception is another. Forming a concept would be another. Using symbols is another.
1. Pre-linguistic communication in human infancy.Let me begin pre-symbolically with the implicational structure of early infant communication. What the infant demonstrates in the first three months of life is an ability to subsume the implications of its situation into its repertoire of control and into the perceptual value of the things it perceives. For example, Piaget (1951: 58-60) provides this example at around the beginning of the third month of age:
Lucienne at 0;3(12) stops crying when she sees her mother unfastening her dress for the meal.
Prior to this, infants appear to cry out of discomfort, implying they do not want the state
of distress they find themselves in, but unable to control the implication that goes with
this state of affairs - what it is that they do want. By three months the infant can do this,
but it is not until they are 9-10 months old that they provide evidence that they have
subsumed the next implication into their repertoire. That is, if I want that, then you have
to act, as evidenced by the emergence around this age of 'gaze-checking', etc:
At 40 weeks, Tracey's mother became an acknowledged participant in actions. Tracey repeatedly looked up at her mother's face when receiving an object, pausing as if to acknowledge receipt. She also looked up to her mother at breaks in her play, giving an indication of willingness to share experiences as she had never done before (Trevarthen and Hubley, 1978: 200).
While this - controlling the implication that others are agents - is a complex achievement, it is not unique to humans, in that it is likely that the higher apes, and sheep dogs at least, can do it 'in the wild' (e.g., Plooij, 1978, and Figure below).
Neither is the next human communicative development - of deploying gestures - unique to humans, nor the eventually sophisticated combination of separate gestures, either sequentially or simultaneously. At a simple level of combination, another's attention can be attracted and directed with gestures. For example, Plooij (1978: 125) reports for chimpanzees:
Compare this with Figure 2, which illustrates a pre-linguistic human 12 month infant attracting and directing her mothers attention.
What also begins around the age of one year is the use of objects as communicative props.
This is again not unique, as testified by many anecdotes of dogs spontaneously bringing their leads so as to go for walks, or bowls so as to get fed, and so on.
2. Towards language
meaning can be described, accounted for, or stated in terms of symbols or language at its highest and most complex stage of development (the stage it reaches in human experience), but language simply lifts out of the social process a situation which is logically or implicitly there already (Mead, 1934: 79).
The steps taken at the beginning of the second year of life in this process of developmentally explicating meanings are both profound and complex. What occurs is both the construction of the symbolic domain from the previously established functional communicative one; and the construction of a propositional frame within which these symbols are handled. These constructions feed into each other, but follow separate courses.
By the beginning of the second year, a human child has an elaborated way of making demands. They have controlled ways of expressively communicating relationships that hold between themselves and objects in the world. They can engage another's agency in bringing about certain changes in those relations. They are able to deictically delineate objects in the environment, particularly by pointing towards them. But, these abilities are not propositional. That is, they do not explicitly 'state' anything about the relationship between objects out there in the world. Rather, they convey relationships between objects and the implied point of perspective of the infant's perceptual world. Structurally, these early communications convey the relation between an implied self and a real object.
In addition, most infants can use the deictic gesture of pointing within a shared indicative frame. Both the nature of this ability and how it is accomplished are still quite mysterious: but the ability to mark and co-ordinate shared attention upon a feature in a shared intersubjective world from a significant perspective appears to be a hallmark of being human. Structurally, pointing conveys something like 'look at that'. But it is soon co-opted into the 'naming game' where it constitutes reference and conveys identity. In its early stages naming would appear to have two characteristics First, it 'asserts' identity (That thing I am pointing at/looking at is an X). Second, it does so neutrally with respect to any relationship between the infant and the object (for example, 'that' object is not in any marked relationship - such as +/- want - with respect to the infant). Once naming games are started, they expand into new territory, because some of these neutral relations are not equally 'neutral'
A 'fire', for example, is not apprehended by the mythical, detached, reflective and disembodied subject of the Cartesian tradition, but by a real embodied infant who 'knows' the object viscerally as well as visually. Put an infant in the 'original word game' with a picture book, and a 'word' such as 'dog' might identify a picture. Put an infant in front of a fire and while the word 'hot' might identify the object, it is also a quality - hot - which is felt when in front of a fire. The same could be said with respect to other apparently 'neutral' relations: if a child says 'on' when pointing at a light, is he or she 'naming' the object or potentially predicating a state to it?
A similar situation holds in the case of early demands. The 12 month old infant clearly has an implicit grasp of another's agency. As such, a demand is a pivotal point between the infant's non-propositional ability to 'state' a relationship between his or her implied self and an object or event - (I) want that - and predicating the object into a relationship with another person - where 'that' is implicitly qualified by (you do), i.e., (you do that).
A third such case is when infants 'say things' about what they do, such as 'up' and 'down' when they get up and/or down from something. In the context of their other capabilities there is nothing particularly difficult to comprehend in their being able to do this, for the word is being used in relation to their implied self and what they are actually doing. And, in common with other 'words', 'up' and 'down' come to be used in demands. This can happen because the child already has a structural demand frame via which to relate the world to the implied self: words are co-opted into demands.
In the same way, objects that are acted on come to be announced: 'truck', perhaps, when picking a truck up: the object can be talked about in relation to the implied self because the frame is available. And, conversely, 'motion' words are used in cases where the infant is the actor and object of the change being 'announced' is the recipient of the infant's actions: 'down' may be said as the truck is put down. Here, words have come to be used in a situation where the child had already established some articulable conception of changes in position (from their commenting on their own changes in position); some articulable grasp of the object's identity; and the situation bears a relation to the implied self through its being the locus of the action.
What are being articulated here are very small bootstrapping steps from one ability to another: an explication of previously implied possibilities. And the point which has been reached in the above description is, I suggest, a momentous one, for given the explicit establishment of these abilities, then all the components are in place for a new implication to be made explicit and thereby constitute the propositional frame. That is, these particular early word uses are transitional between egocentrically-rooted predication and allocentrically-rooted predication.
Once this transitional point has been reached, then these developments are sufficient in concert to open up the new possibility of action being anchored around objects per se - independently of the child's involvement with them: sufficient for changes in his or her framing of action to occur. That possibility enables the perception of both the changes in state and position they experience, and those they cause an object to undergo as instances of an equivalent event. In other words, the original ability implies a propositional one - the child's doing something to an object (non-propositional) implies the object is having something done to it (propositional). In Piagetian terminology, the child demonstrates a very early form of transitive inference: if I am putting A down, then A is going down. The child may now be expected to begin naming objects that are being acted on irrespective of the actor, and similarly also the actions of agents (or implicit selves) other than themselves.
I am not going to say much more about these issues here, since I have done so at length elsewhere (e.g., Lock, 1980, 1997). The point I want to emphasize for present purposes, though, is that what we are dealing with is a decontextualisation of the signification process, whereby what was previously made meaningful by appeal to contextual support is now meaningful by having 'subsumed' that context into the symbolic tokens of communication.
A few other points to note here, as 'hypotheses' to explore on another occasion, perhaps,
but to convey here a 'flavour' of this way of approaching the problem of language
evolution. Note that at this point these hypotheses are not well honed.
This is going to take a bit of unpacking so as to make sense as an hypothesis prior to even looking for consilient evidence. I shall thus take a detour here before returning to it.
E. The implicit properties of symbol systems
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 (1972) 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).
It is this perspective that Popper (op.cit.) uses to show how particular symbol systems contain their future elaboration. 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. And one might eventually come to apprehend these distinctions, yet still 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 metaplied distinctions which could be made explicit.
Note that the 'cognitive technologies' that mediate our thinking are variable in their 'fitness-for-purpose'. That is, some symbol systems are better fitted to easing the explicit formulation of the implications within them. For example, it is easier to do mathematical operations with the Arabic rather than Roman numeral system (and an abacus is even better). The same with orthographies. Italian has a fairly literal spelling system, with 33 graphemes representing 25 phonemes. By contrast, English has 1120 ways of using graphemes to form 40 phonemes. The result is that it is easier to learn to read Italian than English.
Thus, symbol systems both contain implications, representationally sediment these implications, and vary in the ease with which they make that sedimentation possible in the first place, and the ease of cultural maintenance or transmission of these sedimentations in the second place.
Additionally, there is now a large body of work that points to the role of social practices in enabling the discovery of implications. For example, Scribner and Cole (1981) found in the study of literacy that it is not a 'magic bullet'. They conclude that On this basis, take the view that
in order to identify the consequences of literacy, we need to consider the specific characteristics of specific practices. And, in order to conduct such an analysis, we need to understand the larger social system that generates certain kinds of practices (and not others) and poses particualr tasks for these practices (and not others). From this perspective, inquiries into the cognitive consequences of literacy are inquiries into the impact of of socially organized practices in other domains (trade, agriculture) on practices involving writing (keeping lists of sales, exchanging goods by letter) (Scribner and Cole, 1981: 237.In that case, we can go on to ask how social practices can arise and transform our skills.
F. Social practice and implication
In fact, we can ask this question in a slightly different way that is more useful if we think of social practices as constituting, in combination with the cognitive technologies they have, more or less effective 'zones of proximal development' (Vygotsky, 1978) de novo and sui generis. It is more useful because in doing this we get a very neat portrayal of how a cultural bootstrapping system might work.
Now the usual tactic in psychology is to think at the level of the individual. Piaget was very good at doing this. Here is something consonant with the way of thinking I am pursuing here that Piaget said regarding the development of Darwin's conceptualising of an evolutionary process:
If, though, we move to a different, social perspective on cognition, we can formulate an explanation for why this 'reflective explication' proved so difficult. In Vygotskian terms, the role of a 'zone of proximal development' (=zoped) is to enable what Piaget calls here 'reflective explication'. Zopeds occur between people as a way of making implications sediment into developing cognitive technologies. In the case of working out something really new, as in Darwin's case, then such implications as are inherent in our thinking are difficult to 'grasp' without a predisposing 'zone of proximal development'.
However, remember Scribner and Cole's investigations (1981 above) of the claim that alphabetic literacy transforms human thinking, and their conclusion from their experimental work 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. The social practices could in themselves act as a zone of proximal development.
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, as Vygotsky does, 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. And not forgetting that the intermental level is buttressed by the resources that mediate social practices.
Let me give another example of 'individual genius' from this perspective. How come it was Archimedes who discovered his principle, and not somebody else? I suggest, first, that he lived in a relatively complex society that provided him with a number of resources that enabled him to think in a fairly abstract way. Second, the complexity of his society enabled him to take a warm bath in a situation conducive to relaxed contemplation such that he could notice changes in water levels rather than having to keep an eye out for predators who could otherwise take advantage of his exposed situation (lounging in water-holes on the savannah is an iffy proposition, and anyway, you can't see the water levels changing so well as in a small bath). Third, the society he lived in was dominated by hydraulic technical problems, such as the very urban problem of how you get clean water into a bath and dispose of effluent water in such a way that you don't increase the risk of edpidemics that is already high when people live at urban population densities. Fourth, you could say that Archimedes had 'water on the brain', since Greek thought at that time was saturated with hyraulic metaphors: their psychological models were based on the flow of fluids and humours, for example (just as our own recentl psychological models have been dominated by our 'technology of the day' - the computer and the information processing paradigm).
All in all, Archimedes' cultural situation and resources created a natural zoped that increased the liklihood of him or one of his neighbours squeezing the implications out of the situation, since they were made more salient to them by their social situation than they would be to an Inuit.
The most detailed analysis of how changing social relationships between people create zopeds that bootstrap the cognitive and discursive resources available to us to remediate our experience is to be found in Elias's (1978) analysis of the historical elaboration of Occidental etiquette. 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, there emerges from Elias's study the strong implication that this ability was not just lacking in the area of nose-blowing, but that it was unavailable for any activity: people generally did not reflect on what they were doing. Hence, they did not provide the necessary conditions that would enable them to feel embarrassed. In Elias's view, the kind of change in interpersonal behaviour that such advice reflects is not one of fashion; further,
These changes reflect a reorganisation and transformation of
Elias predicates these changes in personality structure on structural changes in society brought about by the expansion of trade, the diffusion of money, the monopolisation of power and physical force by a central 'state', and the growing stabilisation 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 all round and more stable' (Elias, 1982: 234). He offers the following explanation as to why there is this relationship:
Elias considers that it is the relationship between the psychological functions controlling an individual's actions that changes during historical time; that it is
How do we relate these changes in Western psychological structure to discourse? Elias's argument is subtle. 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:
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).
Thus, his essential point 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.
G. Communication, language and making implications explicitly available as 'cognitive resources'.
I know of no way in which intelligence or mind could arise or could have arisen, other than through the internalization by the individual of social processes of experience and behavior .... And if mind or thought has arisen in this way, then there neither can be nor could have been any mind or thought without language; and the early stages of the development of language must have been prior to the development of mind and thought (Mead, 1934: 191-2).
1. Colour-term differentiation and social structureEmber (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. In his later publications (i.e., after 1962), Bernstein introduces 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. Lock (1983: 255) puts this 'boot-strapping' concept thus:
there is an historical incorporation of the contexts of time A into the discourse of time B. Discourse at time B is thus conducted in a context that will later be transcended to be incorporated in the later discourse of time C, and so on ... That is, contextually-mediated meanings become linguistically-mediated ones.This transformation occurs in tandem with societal complexification.
Put alternatively in a Vygotskian perspective, 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. 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 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.
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 so details must be sought in the original papers. 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.
H. Interim summary
Before I go on, let me list some of the points that come out of the above:
With respect to the evolutionary construction of symbol systems as 'cognitive amplifiers'
I. Material objects as potential implicational indices
What I want to propose here is that everyday objects are physical instantions of their 'implicational histories', and as such are indices of the 'cognitive' resources available to us in our everyday lives. My point is akin to the notion of 'distributed intelligence' models of cognition, for example:
'advanced cognition depends crucially on our abilities to dissipate reasoning ... Our brains make the world smart so we can be dumb in peace' Clark (1997: 180)In the perspective offered here, I take Clark's phrase 'making the world smart' as meaning 'having things in the world embody more implications'. Hence, I suggest that we have a way out of the 'evidential impasse' with respect to language evolution that I noted at the outset, since (1) we should be able to index the implicational complexity of material objects in the archaeological record (quite how we might do this is an issue I turn to later), and (2) this tells us something about the symbol systems, and thus the 'cognitive abilities', of the makers of those objects.
This all sounds very abstract, so let me give you a concrete example of how complicated a simple object can be. This example was put together by one of my students a few years ago, Yvonne Watt. Her task was to track the path by which an object ended up on our table as part of a meal. Yvonne looked at the wine we were having:
A Bottle of Red Wine
1. The Bottle of Wine
This is a lovely wine, what sort is it?
Really? There is actually a lot of work that goes into producing a bottle of wine isn't there?
2. The Cork
I've never really thought about corks...can you tell me about them?
What are the trees like that corks come from?
How are the corks harvested?
Then what happens to them?
The cork must be boiled to make it more pliable and to ensure the air in the cells is expanded to create a tight, uniform cell structure. After boiling, the cork is dried to 20% moisture content when it is ready to be worked. The cork is then inspected for quality (winemakers demand top quality). It is then sorted by quality, thickness and size where it gets boiled again for sterilisation and to moisten the cork wood so that it can be punched. After punching, the corks are then washed with chemicals and dried. Moisture control is critical with moisture content ideal at 8% so that no mold can grow. It is kept at that level for the rest of the cork's life. The corks are then graded again, either by humans (see left) or computer. They receive a final coating of paraffin and silicon to help seal the bottle and to aid removal. Many more human processes go into the corks still in relation to quality assurance testing (sampling for checks of length, diameter, moisture level, density, recovery properties, chemical neutrality, treatment evaluations and microbiological tests). Corks are printed with the winery's logo and put into bags of 1000 where they are sterilised with SO2 gas to prevent mold. They are kept in climate controlled rooms until they are needed (see right).
Where do you think the cork on this Australian bottle of wine come from?
What else do you know about corks of interest?
How do you open the bottle of wine?
1) removing the foil
2) inserting the worm
3) extracting the cork from the bottle
4) removing the cork from the corkscrew
When extracting the cork (which is compressed when put in the bottle and so expands to grip the bottle) it requires a pull equivalent of lifting about 100 pounds. Corkscrews have mechanisms, designed since over three centuries, that reduce the amount of force needed!
3. The Capsule
Do you know anything about the foil that covers the cork at the top of the bottle?
4. The Wine
How would you introduce wine?
All wine basically is is fermented grape juice (where sugar is turned into alcohol). If the alcohol level is relatively low, the result is wine, if it is high, the result is distilled liquor. Fermentation cannot increase alcohol content past 16% because the yeast then dies and ends fermentation. Higher alcohol levels are achieved through distillation. The colour of the skins mixing with the juice in the early stages of wine making determine the colour of the wine. Red grapes can make white wine but white grapes cannot make red wine.
So what is the basic process in making wine?
What else do you know about this wine we are drinking?
Can you explain to me some of the tasting jargon?
We can describe this wine in that it has a vibrant purple-red colour. The bouquet is a complex amalgam of spice, plum, lifted violets and mulberry fruit, typical of ripe Merlot and Malbec which dominate the blend, with skilfully handled French oak. The palate is generous and round with spicy, cinnamon fruit flavours superbly balanced by cedary, vanillin oak and fine tannins. The wine has a rich, velvety soft front and middle-palate with very good length.
5. The Bottle
This wine bottle is made of green glass, how is glass made?
Glass is made up of crushed white sand, crushed limestone and sodium carbonate. These materials are heated at a temperature of 2500 degrees farenheit for as long as 24 hours. Glass never wears out but can be recycled forever.
What makes the glass green?
What is the history of glass?
6. The Label
What can you tell me about the label?
It's pretty amazing isn't it, the amount of human activity and other human processes involved in what seems like a simple bottle of wine...
It is impossible to physically try and find out about every related thing. In fact it is incomprehensible to even think about doing it! It is like a network of networks or a world wide web. Yes!, the situation can be compared to the world wide web or the internet. For example, if you look up one web page, it has links to other web pages, which have links to other web pages, which have links to other web pages ......and so on and so on and so on..... This latest age of technology may be the only single place where many of the above answers can be found or queried (that is if you have a million lifetimes and an ongoing stream of money to do it). But once you have found those answers, you will have discovered many more questions. It is a never ending quest to follow everything up and makes you wonder why anyone would even want to do it!
Consider now this functionally-equivalent Phoenician object, dating from around the 6th Century BC.
While it is functionally-equivalent, it is implicationally-simpler than the previous object, as well as being fabricated by a less complex set of processes. And this distinction - between implicational properties and technological processes - is an important one, given it is quite clear that there are many modern objects that are quite simple to make, but are implicationally very complex: just visit any TradeAid shop for an example. Similarly, many simple non-utilitarian objects, such as items of jewellery, can also be implicationally complex.
We clearly need a way of indexing the implicational properties of objects. I do not have a satisfactory one at the moment. However, I suspect that two key components of such an index will link us into technologies of transport and technologies of communication with respect to their temporal and spatial properties. There is a clear trend in the human record of an increase in the distances over which materials and information can be conveyed, along with a decrease in the time required for conveyance. In addition, there is a similar increase in 'payload', the amount of material and information that can be moved per unit time.
I suggest that such an index will be more useful to us than previous measures such as 'political complexity' or 'energy consumption', in that it more directly relates to the nature of the relations that hold between people. It is important to be able to get at that if you buy into the perspective I am outlining here. And that is because of the Vygotskyean pedigree of this perspective: that 'cognitive abilities' arise intermentally in the social relations between people, and once made explicit are sedimented into the material productions of a culture, which then serve as conservers of and scaffolds for the conduct of cognition, as well as 'zones of proximal development' for the realisation of further implications.
My argument has been that we can find ways in which social practices act to create the analogues of Popper's '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. I have delineated a self-constituting 'zone of proximal development' that can bootstrap the elaboration of those symbolic cognitive technologies that it is our task to elucidate in accounting for the evolutionary amplification of human abilities. I have argued that we can consider the elaboration of symbol systems as a process of making explicit the implications that become available to us via our social practices and discursive resources. I have pointed out how we may index this process by elucidating the implicational properties of the material record, since implications are sedimented into that record. I have been doing this by dumping a lot of our intelligence and cognition back into the environment. I want to close by considering a few issues that follow from this line of thinking.
J. The Evolution of Perspectives and UmweltsIn his Philosophy of the Act book (1938), Mead seeks to outline a 'Perspective theory of perception' (pp. 103-24): that as biological beings, organisms have a given perspective on the world, one that contributes a value perspective for them from which implications necessarily follow. This 'value perspective' is based in the foundational constitution of the biological realm: that an energy source is required so as to sustain organisation in the face of entropy: 'The objects that are there in independence of the organism imply the organism. That is, the organism is not independent of them.... The process by which the organism has arisen is, however, one in which the organism has determined its field by its susceptibilities and responses. There is a mutual interdependence of the two. This is expressed in the term "perspective"' (Mead, 1938:163-4).
Mead then goes on:
The first question that suggests itself with reference to the perspective is how does it appear as such in experience? The perspective is the world in its relationship to the individual and the individual in his relationship to the world. The most unambiguous instance of the perspective is the biological form and its environment or habitat (ibid: 115).However, while Mead goes on to say a lot of interesting things thereafter, he never really gets to grips with that first question of how perspectives appear in experience. We have to turn to von Uexkull (1934/1957) and his notion of an organism's Umwelt or effective environment for a useful answer.
The top figure here (from von Uexkull, 1957: 351) represents the environment of a bee.
The lower figure represents the Umwelt of the same bee, that is, the world as it appears to the bee via the structure of the bee's perceptual system. The notion is that organisms are built to perceive objects that are meaningful for them. It is conjectural, yes, but based on a thorough delineation of the perceptual cues bees respond to. Bees land on figures that exhibit broken forms, such as stars and crosses, and avoid compact forms, such as circles and squares. The figure,
which was designed on this basis, contrasts a bee's environment with its Umwelt. The bee is seen in its environment, a blooming field, in which blossoming flowers alternate with buds. If we put ourselves in the bee's place and look at the field from the point of view of its Umwelt, the blossoms are changed to stars or crosses according to their form, and the buds assume the unbroken shape of circles. The biological significance of this newly discovered quality in bees is evident. Only blossoming flowers have a meaning for them; buds do not (1957: 350-1, emphasis added).The essential point is that organisms are constructed such that objects that have meaning for them, a meaning constructed by their perspective (in Mead's sense (op. cit)), and it is those meanings which are revealed to them directly in the perceptual worlds. The meaning is constituted in the interaction of the organism and the environment, and over evolutionary time the structure and function of the organism's perceptual systems have been fine-tuned to make these meanings salient. Generally, we think of meaning as being something that is stored in an organism, either as the result of evolution or learning. But once we begin to think of cognitive processes, such as perception, as distributed between organism and environment, and once we categorise environments as environments and Umwelts, then I think there is available a more useful way of dealing with meaning in this sense. That is, that the meanings of objects are directly perceived because of the organism's perspective on them. And if that perspective changes, so does our perception of the object.
Here are a few analogical examples of what I 'mean' by this.
This detour, I suggest, gets us to the heart of language evolution. Symbolically-mediated social systems, as they become more complex in terms of their spatio-temporal range, create new, implicit 'objects' beyond their present range of 'lived-in' life. These 'objects' are difficult to bring into 'focus', just as impossible ones are in the visual modality. But they become more and more possible for us as our social practices make it more and more apparent that they are 'there'. And once we have a symbol system that combines with our social practices to enable the articulation of these objects - to create the necessary perspective - then these 'objects' will become real; will become symbolised; will become part of the structure of our cognition; and likely will require, on occasion, reworkings of our syntactical proclivities to keep track of them when we talk. If they didn't, then what I am saying is just noise - or, if you are reading this, just marks on a medium.
In conclusionI have cast my net quite widely here, because I am not just wanting to review 'the evidence', but to reconstruct the evidence. I have been advancing a different interpretive framework that reconstitutes what it is that we are trying to explain when we pursue questions about the evolution of language. I began by pointing out that we are somewhat hampered by the very nature of the material database we have. We cannot infer from it any particular point in time at which we could say that the individuals who created the objects in this record possessed 'language as we know it'. Because of this, while we might construct many scenarios, these are somewhat doomed to remaining just that: scenarios.
My argument has been, however, that if we change our way of approaching the problem, then there is a way forward. The change we need to make is to view language as a symbol system that evolves by making explicitly available to its users the implications of the symbols and the practices in which they are used. I have only scratched the surface of this change, and thus leave a lot of questions to be pursued further. My proposals may turn out to be yet another dead end. However, it appears to me that they have one point in their favour: they provide a possible framework for indexing the material record in more useful ways than we currently have. This is because implications are sedimented into material objects, and thus objects can reveal to us the changing nature of the implications human cognition was explicitly required to handle so as to construct those objects, implications that are only available to cognition through the mediating system we term 'language'.