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Question on semiotics and the theory of mind
May 31, 2013 3:01 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in trying to understand how our ability and inability to understand symbols in relation to their meanings binds people together as well as forming in- and out-groups. I have had a difficult time in finding works that go along with this premise and would be interested if anyone would know of good sources. What follows is a short explanation of what I think currently. Comments and criticisms are highly appreciated.

Here is a brief explanation of how I think we think and how symbols are related.

We have 5 senses. To my mind a symbol is the differentiation of signal among its component pieces across any of the senses. To each symbol is imparted on us a meaning which is the priming that that signal has with other symbols that are associated with it (fire-> pain, light, heat).

What I find interesting is that we are able to communicate by turning out meaning into symbols ourselves, however imperfectly. What this shows, to my mind, is that there is a degree of information loss in how we transform meaning into signal. There is a difference in "love", the word, and love the actual form of our meaning. The key to understanding group ties is that the loss of meaning can be bridged so that a form of mutual understanding arises that is greater than the universal understanding within the resident society. This happens through shared experience, trauma, or biology. We can predict within our in-group what the thoughts and feelings of our fellows are because of this shared, incommunicable, experience which means we are more likely to trust and rely on our in-group and be suspicious of the out-group.

What is further interesting to me, in this line of thinking, is that certain symbols and metaphor can be highly invested in this emotional ambiguous thinking versus other concrete symbols that have universal meaning. Whereas scientific discourse tries to bind together through concrete universal meaning this type of meaning would be its antithesis, binding smaller groups through in-jokes and ambiguity only decipherable through experience.

On what I've read so far.

I have read some things that strike of this line of inquiry. Jung is very good as is Sartre and I've enjoyed Joseph Campbell, from an anthropological point of view. I want to read some of Lacan, outside of the wikipedia page and the overview by Zizek, but I don't know where to start. What I have found frustrating in my reading so far is that a lot of what I have read has been about universal archetypes rather than how small groups use this emotional ambiguity to create their own meaning.


1) Is my idea sound or illogical? Questions or comments for me.
2) Has it been written about so far and if so where?
3) Where can I start with Lacan?
4) What are some other places I can read about this?
posted by ishrinkmajeans to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Start here: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on "meaning".

There's a lot of work on this (semantic theories, the problem of sensation) and it looks like you're over-applying "semiotics" into space where "semantics" might be more valuable.

I'll also note that by going to Continental philosophers first, you're going to miss a lot of the clarifying work from analytical philosophers. I enjoy a lot of Continental stuff's work on subjectivity and moral philosophy, but for questions like this, you'll benefit from the more rigorous approach of analytical philosophy.
posted by klangklangston at 3:41 PM on May 31, 2013

You might have already gone down this road, structural linguistics considers these things. Most continential philosophy works with an understanding of texts like Saussure's Course in General Linguistics and, later, Jakobson's The Functions of Language. This leads you to stuff like Chomsky, eventually -- etc.
posted by munyeca at 4:46 PM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are there any philosophers who take up the question of the intransmissibility of symbol and what it means? I will try and look up language theory but I'm a little wary of getting bogged down in the field going off on a tanget. Also, was there a specific analytic philosopher I should read?
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 6:05 PM on May 31, 2013

Also, I don't want to nitpick on the link you sent me, but it seems to me to be based on a false dichotomy. Words have the meaning they do because of the value we give them and the values we hold and the way we think is in part beholden to the symbol system we order our thoughts around. It's a reflexive system but they are one and the same. To say they aren't is to see two pennies on the ground and say they are different coins because one shows a heads and one tails.

I will try and read on because this seems to be the consensus view and I may have misunderstood something. But it's difficult when I have such a violent reaction at the very beginning.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 6:19 PM on May 31, 2013

I don't understand your objection as written, and that if you're interested in mental symbol systems, you're talking about Mental representation.

I'll also say that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is very good at providing a bibliography that is a reasonable survey of the current thought on any given issue. Any points below their summary, you generally have to read the papers or books to be able to judge the arguments.
posted by klangklangston at 6:58 PM on May 31, 2013

Ok sure. Maybe I'm just not fond of the author. On looking it over the second link seems to be more what I'm looking for, thanks.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 7:30 PM on May 31, 2013

Ah here we go.

Some philosophers have maintained that connectionism entails that there are no propositional attitudes. Ramsey, Stich and Garon (1990) have argued that if connectionist models of cognition are basically correct, then there are no discrete representational states as conceived in ordinary commonsense psychology and classical cognitive science. Others, however (e.g., Smolensky 1989), hold that certain types of higher-level patterns of activity in a neural network may be roughly identified with the representational states of commonsense psychology. Still others (e.g., Fodor & Pylyshyn 1988, Heil 1991, Horgan and Tienson 1996) argue that language-of-thought style representation is both necessary in general and realizable within connectionist architectures. (MacDonald & MacDonald 1995 collects the central contemporary papers in the classicist/connectionist debate, and provides useful introductory material as well. See also Von Eckardt 2005.)

My contention is that this is true. When I say "hand" and when you say "hand" we mean the same universally true meaning, but each of our mental networks are primed differently because through different life experience our neuron hardware has been encoded differently. You may think back to holding someone's hand I may think back to cutting my hand. And each of those thoughts prime other networks themselves ad infinum in diminishing waves.

The point is that I believe that through this mechanism groups of people who have shared experience tend to think similarly, in a way that is beyond rationality, and defines ingroups and outgroups. This is because when actors' thought processes are predictive they engender a higher degree of ingroup trust. Further, it is not possible for two groups of people to trigger each others mental network in the same fashion as their own using universal symbols because of differences in a priori priming. Therefore some meaning can only be derived through common experience and is intransmissable as communication. That is very weird.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 7:58 PM on May 31, 2013

[This needs to stay a question about resources and not become a debate. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 8:01 PM on May 31, 2013

What you're talking about is related to so! much! work! that's out there, it's a little hard to narrow it down. I suggest looking more through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and maybe picking up some introductory books on the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language. It would be a good idea for you to start by trying to find key terms and ideas regularly used to discuss this topic, rather than focusing at the start on finding views you agree with -- it'll be easier for you to find your footing with the topic.

That said, some of what you're saying is close to the theory presented in the classic, Word and Object by Quine. That might be a reasonable jumping off point for you.
posted by meese at 8:04 PM on May 31, 2013

Hey thanks, I haven't heard of that guy before and it sounds from the comments that I really should look into him. Part of my problem is that I don't know where to necessarily dig because of the huge amount of stuff there is and I don't want to get sidetracked or read bunk. But that looks really good. I'll look through the database too.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 8:12 PM on May 31, 2013

Nothing cited on the SEP will be bunk. You can trust the citations there to lead you to good stuff. Getting sidetracked, (un)fortunately, is a real risk.
posted by meese at 8:31 PM on May 31, 2013

Yeah. My problem with the bunkedness tends to be reading philosophers who are foundational but aren't the current thinking in the field. I've been working my way through some of the oldies but goodies (Sartre, Camus, etc) but I don't know to what degree they've been critiqued. Don't know what I don't know.

Some famous philosophers also have political works out (Chomsky, Zizec) which I've glanced at and pondered over. Some of Zizec stuff has been a bit extreme, so I don't know if that influences his philosophy or vice versa.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 8:36 PM on May 31, 2013

An important part of Zizek's philosophy is about understanding this problem, and he talks about it in relation to the Lacanian concept of the master signifier, or quilting point. This is in many of his books, including Sublime Object of Ideology.

What you're saying sounds very much like what he (and Lacan) say about the topic, although maybe with some differences. For Zizek, the signifier and the signified (e.g. the word "love" and what it refers to) are quilted together by the master-signifier, a signifier which stops the endless sliding of meaning. What you describe sounds something like a master-signified, a real, non-linguistic experience which confers meaning and consistency on the signifier.

But in fact, your position is closer to Zizek than it might appear. The master-signifier is a word or concept, like God, Nation, democracy, "our way of life", "our culture", etc. which is highly ambiguous, never exactly defined. And ultimately, the master-signifier is empty: a meaningless word, a signifier without a signified. The group's shared experience creates the illusion that we are all collectively experiencing the true meaning of the master-signifier (although it still remains enigmatic and unknown.) In Lacanian theory, this experience is called jouissance, or enjoyment. So the IEP entry for Zizek says:
Zizek argues that subjects’ experiences of the events and practices wherein their political culture organises its specific relations to jouissance (in first world nations, for example, specific sports, types of alcohol or drugs, music, festivals, films) are as close as they will get to knowing the deeper Truth intimated for them by their regime’s master signifiers
To get started with Lacan, I recommend Bruce Fink's The Lacanian Subject, and Richard Boothby's mistitled book Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology After Lacan. I can also recommend Matthew Sharpe and Geoff Boucher's Zizek and Politics as an intro to Zizek.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:17 PM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks alsomike that clears a lot of things up. I was looking over Sublime Object yesterday I think I'll take another gander.

If what I'm reading from you is correct it's my position that the master-signifier is defined by experience and is never the same between any two people who's neuron network are not identical. But to the extent that they are similar this signifier is similar and they can have more "enjoyment". None of this is to say, from my position, that the mapping of their meaning to symbol has any counterpart with truth. As far as truth is concerned it is inaccessible because we can only encompass it in a relational framework with primings over which we have no control.

But that's only my working understanding at the moment. I'll have to read a bit more and see if I can get a little bit farther. Great post, thanks.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 11:52 PM on May 31, 2013

Check out Lycan's Philosophy of Language and Cummins' Meaning and Mental Representation.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 3:46 AM on June 1, 2013

This is not a short project. You should make it your goal to map out the basic terrain before you go much farther: consider holding your own views in abeyance for long enough to see how others have addressed this question, so that you can get a sense for the lay of the land.

Three questions: how do our minds represent the world of our senses, i.e. in memory, in other forms of cognition? What is the relationship between those mental representations and linguistic representations? Is there a relationship, or not, between the way a computer processes and a mind thinks?

I think you can get a lot of clarity from the ways that other English-language thinkers have approached this question, and I suspect that Lacan is only meaningful after you've had a really solid grounding. To my mind, going to Lacan without a very clearly formulated question is just begging to get lost down his particularly idiosyncratic rabbit hole. A better place to start is the analytic philosopher Jerry Fodor. Maybe check him out and take a look at some of his papers or the books on The Language of Thought.

Other folks to look at: Donald Davidson, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, WVO Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, John McDowell, Rebecca Kukla, and Robert Brandom. I also happen to think Hannah Arendt's last book, The Life of the Mind, has some interesting things to say on these topics, but this is not a standard recommendation.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:25 AM on June 1, 2013


Read On Quin (Nelson, Nelson) a short monograph covering some of the man's works. Thank you to the people who suggested him. Much of what I was talking about focuses on the indeterminancy of truth which is covered in chapter 7 and which Quin covers in Pursuit of Truth (which together with Word and Object looks very promising).

From Nelson, Nelson;

The inscrutability of reference, or what we will refer to as weak indeterminancy of translation, would then seem to be the thesis that a stimulus-response analysis of linguistic usage is insufficient to reveal ontological commitments. p73

That is to say from Quin's point of view if "rabbit" is spoken in and around rabbits and is rewarded by stimulus response by listeners we would not know whether the stimulus response is due to rabbit parts, rabbit fur, or any other part of the rabbit that is codetermined by the rabbit. Interestingly Quin is using this meaning in terms of reference to some truth which is to be determined between two different observers about a facet of reality. In my view of the indeterminancy of love I am talking about the indeterminancy of a concept between two individuals due to the priming of past experience. When one person talks about love they may have a stimulus-response by another person, but it is not known, and perhaps not knowable, how the past experience of the listener aligns with the talker with respect to an internal concept of love.

Strikingly, Quin does not seem to be a phenomenologist,

Quin's notion of sensory experience is thus physicalist, not phenomenological, and experience so understood is the basis for whatever empirical content sentences and theories have.p15

It's my belief that when presented with symbols we must, each individually, incorporate them into our minds as a basis of whatever priming they are associated with. To the extent that this differs among people our concepts of symbols will differ, which leads to the indeterminancy of experience I was speaking about earlier. The more universal the experience the less the phenomenologically derived indeterminancy exists leading to ingroup/outgroup formation. For example (pain->bad) would have less indeterminancy than (red->beauty).

Finally, the authors attribute the following to Quin.

Whatever this reconstituted notion of experience is, it will not be a phenomenological notion. Quin rejects ideas as the meanings of words (i.e. he rejects non-linguistic word meaning as a viable notion). His objection to ideas is not that they cannot, in principle, be explicated, but rather that they have not been explicated - we lack identity conditions for them - and that they serve no useful purpose. Words will do as well, and sentences will do better than words, and theories better than sentences, as the bearers of meaning (empirical content).p41

I reject this notion. We have all had the experience of creating art and doing so in order to evoke a feeling. Subsequently when looking at the poor art we have made we realize that we have not managed to evoke for an audience (our selves on reflection) the feeling we had had. What Quin here is stating is that sentences are the only basis for meaning, but I would take it that they are the only basis for universal meaning - that is meaning that is shared among groups through symbolic communication. I believe that since the bandwidth of our senses, most especially sight, is of a higher order than our ability to communicate (through speech or often art) we are loaded with meaning which we can feel but cannot transfer to third parties except as reference to common experience. I think that Quin is focusing on the empirical rational side of meaning without considering the irrational, incommunicable, meaning we have.

I also take his idea of Holism to be a little wonky, but that is for another time I think.

Anywho, just wanted to share and let you all know that your comments were much appreciated and I am in the process of thinking deep(er) thoughts. I also got Zizeks' Sublime Object of Ideology and another of his where he compares Lacan to cinema which looks cool.

Thank you everyone for your help!
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 7:45 PM on June 1, 2013

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