Friday, May 12, 2017


Why Semiotics?

Richard Dawkins is among those who propose something called universal Darwinism, which purports first of all that mathematically demonstrable scientific discovery constitutes an ultimate truth claim; that is, it can explain everything. Everything. Universal Darwinists, however, violate their own stated principle by jumping to the non-mathematically-demonstrable conclusion that both nature and society can be explained using nothing but their “Darwinist” triad, i.e., adaptation (evolution) through variation, selection of the “fit,” and retention (through heredity).[1] They have taken an overly general account of natural selection and attempted a further generalization of that account to everything else: economics, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. Linguistics, for our discussion, falls within the scope of semiotics—the study of signs—and we will show why universal Darwinism is inadequate to the task of understanding any of these things.
The linguistics—or study of language—of the universal Darwinists, whose obsessive motivating purpose seems to be proving a negative—that there is no God[2]—is called, unsurprisingly, “evolutionary linguistics.” In evolutionary linguistics, the basic assumption is that a word or phrase, for example, is selected in the same way that nature selects for long necks on giraffes, through a process of variation (different lengths of neck), selection of the “fit” (longer necks get more food and live longer to reproduce more); and retention (the trait is stored genetically and passed on through reproduction of the “fit”).[3]
What is assumed in this worldview is a clockwork materialism, or the assumption of the material as an account of all being, including human culture. This is an aspect of the dualism we discussed earlier. The subject is unreliable, but the object contains the only discernable truth, discoverable through strict observation that is disciplined with mathematics. The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1865—1925) explained how this was an attempt to break being into time and space (instead of time-space), separate them and making space the dominant partner.
The concept of matter arose only because of a very misguided concept of time. The general belief is that the world would evaporate into a mere apparition without being if we did not anchor the totality of fleeting events in a permanent, immutable reality that endures in time while its various individual configurations change. But time is not a container within which changes occur. Time does not exist before things or outside of them. It is the tangible expression of the fact that events—because of their specific nature—form sequential interrelationships.[4]

For Darwin, as well as Newton, whose mechanical ideas Darwin adopted, and for Dawkins with his posse of God-phobic materialists, the separation of time and space, and time’s subordination to space (materiality that “holds still” for observation), were necessary to reduce all reality to a sequence of simple, mechanical causes-and-effects, what Aristotle called “efficient causation.”[5] The other three types of causation (see footnote) made them dizzy. The reduction of all phenomena to efficient causes is an attempt at control (an obsession most often associated with anxiety). If time is not a thing but an expression of shifting relations, then it, too, is wild. It needs to be domesticated by the material, locked into plots on a map. French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), who analyzed the phenomenon of cinema, compared this attempt by materialists, to domesticate time, to films—which, though they appear to flow continuously, can be broken down into frames where all that disorienting motion can be frozen into the apparent three dimensions of space—height, width, depth—an illusion cast on a two-dimensional surface.
Such is the contrivance of the cinematograph. And such is also that of our knowledge. Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially. We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality . . . We may therefore sum up . . . that the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is of a cinematographical kind.[6]
This materialist notion of language, then, not only cannot account for Taussig’s Bolivian peasant-miners baptizing money, it cannot account for the immense complexity of a simple conversation between two Western metropolitan persons about a novel they both read. What is required is an expansive and inclusive, not a reductive and exclusive, approach to language that allows for context. When Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951) formulated his ideas about language, which he compared to games, he pointed out that language can mean “giving orders, and obeying them, describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements, constructing an object from a description (a drawing), reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams, making up a story; and reading it, play-acting, singing, guessing riddles, making a joke or telling it, solving a problem in practical arithmetic, translating from one language into another, asking, thinking, cursing, greeting, and praying.”[7]
The universal Darwinists, in trying to break everything in the universe down to its evolutionary utility, evade these problems by claiming that they simply haven’t yet identified the whole train of cause-and-effect. In other words, their theory is correct even though it hasn’t yet been scientifically demonstrated to be so, because it is correct. Then they castigate faith as a form of unfounded belief without the least sense of irony.
More to the point, when they speak of evolution as if it were reducible to their vary-adapt-retain triad, they fail to have noticed that human beings—with language in particular—have evolved to be “biologically determined not to be biologically determined”;[8] in other words, we are by our very nature “constructed” by culture, which cannot, as the dualists would have it, be separated from nature any more than time can be separated from matter and space, nor can our semiosphere be deconstructed within the adapted framework of Newtonian (mechanical) physics.
Wittgenstein’s theory of language games can be instructive on several accounts when applied to semiotic discussion. Indeed, any interaction with signs, production of signs, or attribution of meaning owes its existence to its status as a move in a language game—that is, a conceptual architecture, a grammar, that we must uncover. . . Consider the Augustinian definition of the sign: something put in the place of something else (to which it is imperative to add: in a relation of meaning or representation). Wittgenstein tells us that of the elements that make up the semiotic relation (sign, modes of representation or signifying, the sign’s referent, etc.), none exists outside a language game. In an interpretive act, nothing is “intrinsically” a sign: the grammar of the language game is what makes it possible to identify the sign, its way of being a sign and what it is a sign of.[9]

Charles Pierce (1839-1914), the semiotician, developed a classification system for signs—any signal that refers to something and is received by an interpreter. Human signs, he said, signify three kinds of phenomena: facts, qualities, and conventions. I point to a can of paint and I say, “I want that paint.” The term “paint” signifies the actual existing thing called paint, a fact. When I browse through the swatch booklet for various paint colors, and I find the one I want in a paint, I point to the swatch, and say, “I want this one.” In this case, the sign—the swatch—is not paint, but a way to specify one quality of the paint, its color. When Harriet Tubman wrote, “Mrs. Stowe’s pen hasn’t begun to paint what slavery is,” she wasn’t referring to paint or the quality of paint, but to a more complex social issue, using certain speech conventions, like irony and metaphor. Or in another case, we read an oral thermometer at 101 degrees Fahrenheit, and that sign—by convention—tells us someone has a fever, a fact. These categories—fact, quality, convention—are what Peirce called sign “elements.”
These elements then appoint classifications to signs. These classifications he called index, icon, and symbol. Index signs refer to natural things. Icon refers to representative things. Symbol relies on a socially shared understanding. An actual face is indexical. A portrait photo is iconic. A yellow happy-face emoticon is symbolic. And we can see that these categories, from index through icon to symbol become ever more abstract. Peirce called this “firstness,” “secondness” and “thirdness.”
The first is that whose being is simply in itself, not referring to anything or lying beyond anything. The second is that which is what it is owing to something to which it is second. The third is that which is what it is owing to things between which it mediates and which it brings into relation to each other.[10]

[1] Von Sydow, “Sociobiology, Universal Darwinism, and Their Transcendence.”
[2] There is a truism in logic that says, “You cannot prove a negative”; but this is not absolutely true. The exceptions are “proof of impossibility” (2 plus 2 cannot equal 5) and “evidence of absence” (There is no coffee in that cup). In this case, however, the claim “There is no God,” falls outside of either exception, because God—at least as understood from the perspective of Christian philosophers like Aquinas—is prior to and transcendent of the Being within which we, as Being’s time-space-matter captives, establish these kinds of evidentiary proofs.
[3] Campbell, “Bayesian Methods and Universal Darwinism.”
[4] Selg, Rudolf Steiner’s Life and Work, 174.
[5] Aristotle defined four types of causation: material, formal, efficient, and final. Material causation was what made up something—this book is made of paper and ink. Formal causation is how something is formed—a daisy is a daisy and not a rose because of their specific and differentiated forms. Efficient causation is a sequence leading to a phenomenon—billiard ball moves, hits another billiard ball, energy is transferred, second ball moves. Final causation is a purpose or goal, what an action is aimed at—I am writing now for the purpose of “causing” a post.
[6] Bergson, Creative Evolution, 332.
[7] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para. 23.
[8] Goff, Borderline, 30.
[9] Xanthos, “Wittgenstein’s Language Games,” Signo, (2.4), 2006.
[10] Peirce, quoted in Hornborg, Power of the Machine, 165.