The Foundations Project – Origin of Meaning

to p., 16 ???


(An Inversion of…)


Harvey B.Sarles


The Mind Speaks to itself in Parables (Joubert)

#11 Nietzsche’s Wanderer and His Shadow

Origin of Human(s)

History of Meaning (and the Meaning of History)

Change and Permanence




The Birth of Reason



The Universe of Meaning

Language as an Organizing Mode

Hegel and Immediate Consciousness

Each Era a New Meaning?

Development is Progressive


A Tabula Rasa

Meaning and Existence


Language and Infinity

The Concept of Meaning

Meaning and Solitude

The Concept of Consciousness

Surreptitious Theories of Meaning


Basic (root) Meaning



If the Primitive…

The Simple

Language Minus Sound

Meaning and Words and Experience and…


The Attack upon Rationality

Other Species and Meaning

The Metaphysics of Sociality

The Question-Response System

Interaction and Knowledge

Redefinition of Consciousness


Language Development

What Should Linguists Do?

Why Some Retarded and Deaf Persons Sound…like Animals

Emotions and Meaning


Kinesics, Sign Language…Pragmatics

The Body


The Neurological Solution

Primitive –> Civilized

Feral Children





Pure Reason


Form and Substance

Style and Substance

Grammar and Grammaticality

Meaning of Life

Static vs. Changing World

Sign Language

#11: Nietzsche’s Wanderer and His Shadow


(An Inversion of…)


Harvey B. Sarles


The Mind Speaks to itself in Parables (Joubert)


Our ordinary inaccurate observation takes a group of phenomena as one and calls them a fact. Between this fact and another we imagine a vacuum, we isolate each fact. In reality, however, the sum of our actions and cognition is no series of facts and intervening vacua, but a continuous stream. Now the belief in free will is incompatible with the idea of a continuous, uniform, undivided, indivisible flow. The belief presupposes that every single action is isolated and indivisible; it is an atomic theory as regards volition and cognition. – We misunderstand facts as we misunderstand characters, speaking of similar characters and similar facts, whereas both are non-existent. Further, we bestow praise and blame only on this false hypothesis, that there are similar facts, that facts exist, corresponding to a graduated order of values. Thus we isolate not only the simple fact, but the groups of apparently equal facts (good, evil, compassion, envious actions, and so forth). In both cases we are wrong. — The word and the concept are the most obvious reason for our belief in this isolation of groups of actions. We do not merely thereby designate the things; the thought at the back of our minds is that by the word and the concept we can group the essence of the action. We are still constantly led astray by words and actions, and are induced to think of things as simpler than they are, as separate, indivisible, existing in the absolute. Language contains a hidden philosophical mythology, which however careful we may be, breaks out afresh at every moment. The belief in free will — that is to say, in similar facts and isolated facts — finds in language its continual apostle and advocate.

Nietzsche #11: Wanderer and His Shadow: Freedom of the Will and the Isolation of Facts.


Origin of Human(s):If meaning is regarded as uniquely human, then any discussion about some putative origin of meaning is related directly to a discussion about the origin of human(s).

A. Meaning: Humans only? –> a discussion of Human Nature

1. What is human?

a. What is not (non) human?

1) terrestrial: other species (animal/vegetable)

2) non (extra) terrestrial [Sagan] vs. the intelligent Martian

b. Is comparison possible (yes/no)?

c. Robots? – especially those which (seem/are) human.

d. Zombies (see W. Teed Rockwell).

B. What is non-human? –> animal/vegetable; spiritual; robotic; extra-terrestrial…


(And if meaning is not uniquely human?)


History of Meaning (and the Meaning of History): The question of who we humans are includes the questions of how we got here, from whence derived (or created). Did we evolve/change from something other (e.g., a smart ape)? When did meaning, how we think, understand the world and ourselves arise? Only with humans, as thinkers since Aristotle held and still hold? Or do we share a meaningful universe with (some?) other creatures, as comparativist (open) thinkers wonder: the ethological critique of language philosophy?

The observation spurring much of this rethinking is that other similar creatures to humans in some aspects of their anatomy/body or physiology, are also social: an aspect of humans held to be unique until the development of field observations of feral/wild animals in their natural habitats.

If, as some (fundamentalist) religious thinkers hold, we were created de novo, and given meaning by the creator/deity, what architectonic or theories did the creator have (in mind) for us? – a reopening or restoration of religious thought/theology?

If, as most others (rationalists, humanists,…) hold, we evolved from something other, some creature not yet human, how did this occur: some sequence of development (with/without purpose or telos); some relationship to our bodily forms (opposable thumbs, erect posture, brain anatomy, physiology, human faces, …)? If we evolved, does any of this sequence of development toward being/becoming human have continuing resonance within our own human/personal development (from nature to culture, as many still hold). Is there a beast within, some primitive, savage, mythical creature hovering and beating within our (self)conscious, rational selves: a species memory?

These issues raise, in some complicated sequences of self analysis and discovery, the questions of identity and being: whence I/we derive; where we may be going; how do we know…?


Change and Permanence: The (apparent) necessity of the change-permanence dialectic for considering the origin of meaning…

The inversion: continuity from the outside: derived/emergent from others. Change, flux: internal. The individual, a combination of who others say one is (I am), plus an intrinsic (independent?) self.

The important, continuous self: an image of who other(s) see one to be; the intrinsic self in flux (an inversion?).

Meaning: sensibility. The notion (only) gains sense in a social, interactional world.

Knowing the world takes place through knowing others. Especially (for infants), knowing is through a study of others; faces (talk — as an aspect of the face, facial interaction). The mechanical/material/physical individual does not know the world directly, but as others (significant adults/parents) already consider the world to be.

The individual: at first, a construction, a who, a person, whom others consider one to be: one’s being, face, destiny as seen and interpreted by parents, family…a person who is demanded by others, to be a proposer, a talker, an I – as well as…


Description: What is the world? What is in the world? How do I know? How do I tell others? How do they tell me? How is it that we understand one another…and the world? (Which is the appropriate order of analysis toward understanding: society –> world; world –> society?)

In the world conceptualized as peopled by individuals, each a unique, separate entity, this is a difficult problem to solve (deriving from the Aristotelian primary/originary notion of physics having precedence over me ta physics).

Often it seems impossible because those aspects of self which are unique and separate loom large (especially in eras of diminished meaning and crises in identity: now). Questions and theories of interaction and meaning reside often in a notion of predetermined universality, where each (normal) individual is claimed to be like all others, in some senses a priori.

Debate occurs around what is deemed to be universal, to be (as it were) necessary to account for what we seem to know, and how. The ultimate explanations, in this context, have pushed us towards neurology, to seek what is (in) the brain, what it is which is the same, what is human, rational-able, symbolic, etc.

Troubles and difficulties abound because the grounds for deciding what is humanly unique and what is universal are debatable/contested. Our directions toward solution depend greatly on our views about what is non-human (animals, intelligent machines, etc.); and why!

As the Foundations Project views the origin of meaning, we are not merely, only, or ever principally individuals; not merely unconsciousnesses seeking to articulate our private meanderings. We are, in some (large) part, actual embodiments of others’ views of us. Questions of knowing, of others, of self, of the world alter, in this theory, as we are not (purely, merely) sensors or perceivers. We are creatures who deal in the world via a construct of ourselves mediated by others, which we embody to a large degree (literally!).

Our continuity, our senses of time and of memory, are a construct of self derived from others’ construction of what and who we are. In this context the (so-called) individual relates to, is an aspect of others.

Our universality appears as a derivative of small-scale interactions; i.e., we are who we are, as others who are already like others, see and imagine us. People see others within the limits or contexts in which they have developed. It is in this sense that meaning is shared, in which mutual understanding is both possible and, to some extent, assured.

Description, then, must appeal to this notion of universality.

(This still leaves a great deal of room for an emergent individual.)


Universals: The idea (myth?) that all (normal!?) human beings are alike in some deeply essential manner (the transcendental pretense R. Solomon).

My story: that we(?) are all sufficiently alike to be able to experience and to think similarly enough for most purposes: why description must be experiential, entailing self-study and toward an anthropology of the ordinary.

Rejecting the use of mathematics/logic or of pseudo-math as a universal language representing some deeply essential, universal for humans (a partial truth).

Suggesting, requiring for description: the discovery, the laying-out of contexts, some common grounds, some maps or ways-through the grounds such that we (all!) work at constructing them.


Origin: Can we say that life is meaning in any non-trivial sense? Life is a building, a constructing from non-life, within a plan, or with respect to processes which work out such that they form objects which seem to have had some sense of plan, some moment within or through time and change (development, embryology,…originary, architectonic).

Debate about whether change and life is somehow within time, or whether life creates time somehow. Any meaning to history without life? The world as independent in any important or interesting senses? The reality which is human, the only one we know; the world as depicted, experienced, understood by humans: that’s all we have, so far. (Human is the measure…)

We only possess an anthropology, even of nature. Any biology is from human perspective. What does it mean: to begin? – rests upon our depiction and representation of nature. Accurate? Truthful? Change: nature? descriptions? experience? (Isn’t human also nature?)


The Birth of Reason: exists within the demand (presumption, forward

projection) by parents that the child begin to act as if it has a will; can construct ideas from the words for objects and motion which the child has gleaned from its personal world of interaction.

The concept of reason depends, too, on the notion that the child stands outside of him/her self (can construct the I appropriately, and begins to state its own existence (to others, to oneself), to speak willfully. This is the effective and actual-social birth of reason.

The necessity for the child to become propositional (in the terms of philosophers, logicians, will-seekers) is that she/he become trustable to take care of self and to become (eventually) a proper adult (a lens through which mothers/others see their children).

(The blurrings and boundaries between metaphysics and politics is located precisely here: where propositional meets independence and freedom in the power of exploring one’s being and identity.)


Meaning: exists already in the social world into which we come to exist; eggs to the universe of chickens (G.H. Mead). No origin of meaning! Does life itself equate with meaning? (Who, then, am I?)

Questions of the relation between inside (some notion of oneness, of individual, coherence, boundaries) and outside: others, the world.

Do we know the world directly/indirectly via (each) individual’s sensorium? Or do we know the world via knowing how others already designate the world? The latter: via the Question-Response Grammar.

(Why? Evidence from so-called retarded persons who do not/cannot read others because they’re so [bodily?] different!?)


Embryology: the organization of cells (proteins, fats, etc.) into some things – new organizations – blastopheres, etc. Memory of development? Each new organization, structure, a new sense of being, of meaning: emergent? By being; by being located in new contexts, having now multiple meanings? Some hierarchical notion of the self-analytic?

If meaning located, say, primarily or originally in each individual, how can it bootstrap itself? Can’t? Unlikely?

Development: gradual, emergent. When/how do two cells become an I?

In order to further explore the nature of meaning, we must study development. We need to realize how the question of the origin of meaning in the species (life?) and the question of the origin of meaning in our ontogenesis conflate, divide. That is, the question of how I got here has two (at least) radically different senses. (Is this a kind of paradox? – like form and content – or…?)


The Universe of Meaning: into which we develop is only one(!?) among many (or several among thousands). In order to mean, to be and have sensibility, one must share the same/almost the same outlook, the same meaning sphere with others; or one which is translatable by someone who has the will, the talent, the patience, to act as interlocutor. Without possessing, coming to possess, the same universe of meaning as our significant others, we do not exist as meaningful creatures. In this sense the origin of meaning has to do with the willingness and ability of others to translate what we do into the (reasonable) process of becoming sufficiently like them…for?? – interaction and sensible communication…

We are born-already-into a futurity which others (parents) have projected, imagined us to fit. The origin of meaning occurs as individuals fit into the mappings of their projected (by others) futurity. The person who anyone is, is largely determined by how (significant) mothers/others read personage and character into us: see us, interpret our being, understand, love,…grant us futurity; the idea of the future and our being within it.


Language as an organizing mode: Operationally, much of what we call language/languaging is a model of the world. It organizes itself into aspects, descriptions both of itself and of some externality. It is (thus, is the world in our thinking) intrinsically finite and internally infinite.

The notion of language as finite only appears clear if we begin from some rhetorical assumption: that language is for communicating, understanding, connection between persons. (A grammar which begins from the notion of individual, seems to push a notion of language whose infinite and creative aspects appear primary: the idea that it is the imagination, our symbolic propensities, which most defines the human – Parmenides!)

The problem of knowledge: how the finite (body) can operate as if it were (at once) infinite, or indefinite? (How is it that we imagine the future here and now beyond the present here and now?)


Hegel and Immediate Consciousness:

In my Phenomenology of Spirit, which on that account was at its publication described as the first part of the `System of Philosophy’, the method adopted was to begin with the first and simplest phase of mind, immediate consciousness, and to show how that stage gradually of necessity worked onward to the philosophical point of view, the necessity of that view being proved by the process. But in these circumstances it was impossible to restrict the quest to the mere form of consciousness. For the stage of philosophical knowledge is the richest in material and organization, and therefore, as it came before us in the shape of a result, it presupposed the existence of the concrete formations of consciousness, such as individuals and social morality, art and religion. Hegel, Logic (p.58)

Part 1 Encyclopedia


(To begin): a likely error – “The first and simplest phase of mind, immediate consciousness” —

What is immediate consciousness? Should I empty the contents of my mind? – right now? (An intellectual bulemia?)

When is right now, the immediate? Don’t immediates vary with mood, with context? (What do I do/know that I don’t count as immediate? Perorations of a violinist trying to deal with seemingly 20 ways of considering any particular note.)

Isn’t this another attempt to build a simplex-complex notion of (human) thought, needing to define the contents or to describe what is simple, thence the process by which simple becomes complex? But where do we derive the notion of what is simple – does simple equal few, early, primitive? Does simplex-complex, that is, entail a theory of history? (What is in my mind when I fiddle? How does it come to be there? What is suppressed, absent, gone? Of what am I aware, but not aware that I am aware? – rules of linguistic articulation, to begin.)

In this context, the quest for knowledge points to an examination or elaboration of what we mean by/is meant by…consciousness. An antidote to this is phonemic theory which shows that some aspects of the unconscious are rule and pattern related or generated; that these unconscious or out-of-awareness patterns are powerful in our being, at least with respect to language. For example, we take a particular phonemic-cognitive map into a new language and thus speak it with a particular, discernable accent: we hear it, speak it through the phonemic filter of our native languages. What else, what other of our being and knowing is out-of-awareness, that of which is knowledge which is not consciousness/not in consciousness? The process of language articulation/speaking is highly balletic, yet we do not usually include its knowing/doing in immediate consciousness. How much of our being is out-of-awareness (Keleman: Embodying Experience).


Each Era a New Meaning? Isn’t the experience of life such that meaning, i.e. the grounds on which we construct meaning, differs, varies: in place, in time, in different societies, different histories, different concepts of history? Isn’t this what the history of ideas tells us? (Lovejoy, Berlin)

The ongoing dialectic, the way in which ideas or meanings progress, is not the mere correct or logical resolution of conflicts, a discourse on what follows what, but what sells in any era, in the marketplace of ideas. And what sells has its own, often independent, rules and criteria; e.g., driven by economic woes, positive and progressive outlooks, its understanding of its history…: the Zeitgeist.

Thus the origin of meaning – as an idea – itself must alter in time and context, even if it may appear to remain the same! (But why would it appear to remain the same? And why in asking this question about the origin of meaning, seem to impute to history some power over our understanding of the ongoing present?)


Development is Progressive: The idea of development, of growing up from infancy (conception?) to adulthood, is a progressive notion (its study invented by Goethe?). Development is not merely preparation for a static (and senescent) adulthood, but a kind of guide or map toward futurity. It is a theory of time and history, which presumably informs. (And why we are enmeshed in the transcendental temptation…always.)

Parents (and society) assume progress toward adulthood (defined as being in many essential senses pretty much like them). So progress is no mere philosophical outlook; it is an aspect of life; toward the past, perhaps, as adults consider their own growing up (generation backward). But it is an aspect of our own being which is within our experience and may intrude upon us in all sorts of ways.

(Is the metaphysical attempt to halt time also an existential attempt to keep one’s youth from intruding upon the present; trying to keep forgotten what has been? Plato at play in our lives? What do we do when experienced/felt change exceeds some limit?)


Meaninglessness: If being is meaning, meaningful, then the notion of meaninglessness is, like the notion of zero, a dislocation from what there is to the concept of being-not, or not-being (Parmenides Frag. VIII).

Or it is a concept from death? Unless there is a (G)god, some extra-natural aspect to being, there is no meaning, and we are enmeshed in some sort of nihilism (Nietzsche: Introduction, Will to Power). There is, it can be claimed, no meaning which is inherent: the problem of life, of society, of…is to create meaning. But, is it enough, is it genuine, authentic, real…? The existential difficulty with this is that if life is not sufficiently self-sustaining, one tends toward desperation, toward fear, and despair, and will grasp at a (any?) solution which convinces, which keeps the fear managed. For the person-in-process, this is likely to be day-by-day, and who knows how tomorrow will be; and will feel? – Tomorrow? Future?…fades.


A Tabula Rasa: an argument concocted by Locke to beat down hereditary monarchy (Two Civil Treatises on Government). If true, then the origin of meaning problem is solved by positing some mechanism(s) – e.g. S->R to account for how to fill-in an empty vessel. For reasons I don’t yet understand, a most parsimonious approach is often considered best/convincing; and the same mechanism is taken to explain all of learning and development. (Psychology emulating mathematics emulating proof?) It seems clear that operation modes change significantly at various points in development, and that events which were one thing earlier, are of different kinds/arrangements later on. The process is directional, if not exactly progressive! (See: Context)

The opposed argument (Chomsky: Review of Skinner; Pinker: The Blank Slate) notes that children of four or five can understand and construct (create) sentences they have never heard before. That is, the tabula rasa theory presumes that living (social?) experience is everything; that unless the organism experiences new stimuli, associates objects with meaning with words, it does not/cannot develop knowledge (= meaning?).

The creative theory, in its zeal, seems to want to oppose the notion of experience within S-R theory, and posits some innate or in-built ability to each individual, by which it develops language: i.e., the origin of meaning took place only once, exactly/precisely at the moment of origin of the first human. (A corollary argument has to do with the status of humans vis-a-vis other species: all other species learn by S-R, only humans are creative.)

In creative theory only one sort of ability is posited to account for the entire human condition. Both of these theories seem to imply a rather simple notion of language. (Language = the set of all sentences (Creative), of the entire lexicon (S-R): i.e., these two theories argue past one another, and are not directly opposed and as contradictory as they often seem to be!)

The interactionist-emergence position claims that new infants are already (innately?) interactional: they exist in relation to mothers/others. They are students of the faces of the mothers who read personage into them: the mother of all constructivists?

The notion of meaning, I suppose – to whatever extent it is to come into the meaning construction of other (rational) humans – is to take the interactional relations, and to alter, extend, fill-in, using the abilities and propensities already in the interaction. (A corollary argument has to do with what is reality, and whether it is intrinsically individual or intrinsically social, or intrinsically some interactional mix. If, e.g., reality is intrinsic to each normal individual, then development is a story about a maturing individual, essentially irrespective of others’ input, or others’ construction of reality. Both the S-R and creative language theories seem to strongly believe in a logical reality which is intrinsically and universally human…whose locus is (in) each individual subject.

In this sense, there is no precise origin of meaning; our existence is already meaningful in several(?) ways different for the infant and the mother (who represents a socio-cultural view). The very notion of origin implies the picture of rational reality which also implies or presumes that only humans have language, rationality, reality (i.e., there is no origin of language problem, either!)

Thus, the origin of meaning is transformed, for me, into development of meaning as the adult world considers meaning to be. Adults (of whatever species?) who are successful agree and define reality. And it is this adultocentric definition of being which is the one which is meaningful, and which each infant must accept if it is to endure/survive as an also successful person. (There may be two, or ten, or thousands of other meaningful human realities, but this is essentially irrelevant in human – or other species’ – development! It is the parental view which [always?] wins.)


Meaning and Existence: I exist!

Whenever the notion of existence arises as seriously dubitable; whenever we are pulled into debate as to whether we exist, whether there is existence, whether you or I are here, or have ever been, then there is trouble! Serious trouble (Buber)! [Witness Wittgenstein's lament or plea: grant me the right hand and then...If he can't grant himself his right hand, who is doing the writing?]

The question of the origin of meaning can be related to problems of existence, rather to the problematics of existence, because it is meaning – in various senses – which is often offered as some kind of proof of existence. I think…therefore I am. What is thinking, what about: why is it convincing? proof? – for whom; when?

Or – God says that I am? Who am I to say that my notion of God says that I am? Was not God deceitful? Perhaps testing us? Perhaps I am not, perhaps this life/existence is no more than an illusion, some story I tell my self that I am!? “If,” the thinking goes, “God says that I am, then I am!” But, doesn’t the notion of God require my prior existence and knowledge…of the notion of God?…a paradox; a logical circle?

What if I say or think that I am, but really I am not? – then who is doing this writing, or this reading? Whom do I write for? – me, you, me-as-you or vice-versa? Don’t I need you, as least my notion of you to confirm that I am? You – the real you, just like I, am? (Think, I am?)

But why does doubt ever arise that I am; that I am and that there is meaning? Fright, guilt, fear of life, fear of death. But what is fear?..a bodily state, a loss of meaning, a sickness unto death? What sustains life? – meaning, a control(?) of fear, a balance between life and death? Some harmony of being? (Purpose, progress,…?)

Is life/existence what it is? Is it a set of paradoxes? Isn’t it (precisely?) these paradoxes which yield meaning, at least increase the power of the notion of meaning, because they raise questions: I am, vs. I am not; I am good, I am afraid that I am not good.

Doesn’t Western thought raise (what I think are) paradoxes as opposites to be resolved (Heraclitus), one way or the other? Legal, adversarial ways of thinking about life? Life as conflictions of opposites. Why did we go for oppositional thought? Because Heraclitus stated the problem of permanence vs. change, as one of stability vs. chaos. And, in lieu of chaos, he chose logos; the logic of our being as the true us, and the problem of meaning came down to specifying what is logic: truth vs. falsity – as if these hold for all of us in all times and places. Laws of nature constructed as if nature is primary, and we are some sort of after (meta) thought. I am not anti-logic, or anti-rational, but I am for broadening the concept of logic to include the sorts of truths, of meaning, which sustain life, both physically and physically-conceptually.


Nihilism: The destruction of meaning! Nietzsche says, in the first part of Will to Power (Rise of European Nihilism) that the next historical periods will suffer heavily from nihilism – his interpretation of his declaration/diagnosis that Europeans believe that God is Dead.

Not having God is for such nihilists the loss of meaning; at its outermost, the loss of reason-for-being. To whomever each day is an engagement, a search for meaning, then each day is a kind of failure. And failure – in whatever terms – constitutes its own set of meanings; and needs to be dealt with lest it become a self-blaming and in turn generates a scapegoating, of whomever and whatever appears culpable and/or responsible – beyond what the self-blamed can handle; i.e., the number and degrees of failure.

(Is meaning experiential/existential or essential and structural? Am I/we…?)

The turn we see to fundamentalism – Christianity, Islam, Judaism,… – the need to have a most tangible God, a God who provides meaning, pervasive meaning: a God who tells us that we are, why we are, where we are, how we got here, where we are going, etc. This (concept of) God provides sustaining meaning, interprets pain, and holds out extraordinary incentives. (See: The Crisis in Meaning)

This new form, Scientific Creationism, is most interesting. Not only does it co-opt todays’ major metaphor for real-true knowledge, but it believes that it has (I think) proven, scientifically, really-truly, that God exists. At least, it does (it says) no worse than Scientific Evolutionism, and its truth is similar, and of the same order of magnitude. “If they are right, I am right,” the thinking goes. (And if Science underlies rationality underlies meaning?)

And if they are wrong?

The two visions of life – in the present clash: Life-as-having-survived (evolutionarily) vs. Life-as-Preparation-for-the-Hereafter (or the Everafter).

Note: Life-as-having survived means that (for Evolutionary Biologists) it is how we got here; the fact that we are here shows that we (our antecedents) survived – an important fact. The “experiential present” is not an obvious counter or fact within this theory. That is, Evolutionary Biologists are sorts of “historical” thinkers, and have a “weak” theory of the present (so called “ultimate” vs. “proximate” biology).


Language and Infinity: the question which has seemed of greatest import since Pythagoras has been: how can a finite creature (a human) have imagination – act as if it is limitless.

It has been the notion of the limitless which has then dominated the discussion of meaning, the nature of human nature, and so on. Ex: we are infinite “because” we have dual minds or being. The aspect of us which was declared the opposite of what is finite (the mind vs. the body) contained the (ability to be) limitless. If, e.g., time is limited, then the `absolute’ is limitless. Thence metaphysics and religions derived from this question and from the sorts of responses which seemed sensible (`solid’) in any era.

Language, in this sense, became a force for what is infinite about humans, and it is the attributes of language which seemed without limit; e.g., the Grammar: the set of all possible sentences…without number – likened to the set of all possible integers. (The fact that it seemed to offer a solution to the problem of death, or appeared to, was not unattractive, especially in declining times or other times of fear.)

This orientation explains(?) why and how the finite aspects of our lives have been pursued: why the experiential first `let in’ the experimental: objectivity, from the limitless world of objects, to the existential agreements among humans, about what we can observe/sense, how to pose questions of nature, as if “it” (Nature) is separable from us, from being; as if Nature is continuous always.


On Losing the Concept of Language: though trained principally as an Anthropological-Linguist, at some early point in my career I lost the concept of language per se, language-as-such in any well-bounded sense.

Language became, for me, a metaphor about what we consider to be human nature. It was a new illumination (for me) to discover that most of Western thought had developed as an analysis of language, considered per se. I began to understand that language was a formal definition of some aspects of verbal behavior which could be reduced to, or reproduced in writing; that the notion of an idea, of something actualizable, that could stand some test of truthfulness of a corresponding logic which grew implicitly upon the oblique and obverse side of language, could come to represent as well, what we used to explain ourselves, as well as what it was that we attempted to explain.

The origin of meaning, and the origin of language…as if language were sufficiently characteristic of human beingness, behavior and nature, that its examination would tell us both who we are and what nature is.


The Concept of Meaning: It seems to me that the notion of meaning, in any sense separable from experience, may well have had an origin. While I doubt that language or meaning had origins in any historical sense, the concept of meaning, of abstraction, may have arisen with increasing population, with agriculture-leisure, and with writing.

The concept of meaning may well have developed with the problems of scale, when people began to deal with one another as “types” – i.e., when there were too many so that one could not deal, in depth, with each person, and began to think of others in terms of categories. At this point, when persons become like (other) objects, then meaning is discovered as a concept. Perhaps it is this sense of origin which should be studied and discussed, rather than the origin of language in the sense of `progressive’ evolution in a direct, linear- historical sense.

(This seems also to apply to ontogenesis!)

P.S. The notion of – concept, an idea, separable from all else certainly becomes obvious with writing and history (themselves closely linked.) It is probably related to numbers of persons: when one cannot `know’ all others, there develops a `they’, a gathering notion which implies also a `we’ – a basis for the notion of a concept, in which the `abstract’ takes on some aspects of entity, of nouns, of reality. Once the notion of concept is `real’, then it soon appears obvious that the concept, not being continually tangible or demonstrable, can alter or be altered to fit (new) experience, reshaped by having a purpose, by getting new purposes, etc. (Lewis Carroll?) Peter Wilson, in his “Domestication of the Human Species,” suggests that this begins to occur with living in fixed settlements when we begin to think “geometrically,” and have “in” and “out” places, thence persons.

Also, in Western thinking, the move to make mathematics general and physics (objects) primary, creates the notion that humans are objects, and are themselves (our selves) composed of things, to be treated as objects, objectified, counted, and no more (nor less) `real’ than other objects: ultimately composed of numbers, enumerable…


Meaning and Solitude: Buber claims that the notion of solitude, of the deep realization that we (I) are alone in the universe, is what produces or drives an interest in the question of what is human, e.g. in a Philosophical Anthropology.

The realization – the notion that meaning, that existence is a deeply-felt issue – thus seeks an answer which solves or resolves that question. The posing of such a notion as the `origin of meaning’ implies ever more deeply, that the question is, itself, meaningful. Somehow the quest is to put some boundedness on the issue by seeking for some sense of creation, of origin, either of a causality, or of a sense even of the locus of the question. Where, indeed, does meaning, the inquiry into meaning, reside? In whatever we deem human (is human), in nature, in our minds, souls, etc?

If the quest is to solve our worries about solitude, then having a locus, a potential answer to the question about the `origin of meaning’, would presumably `handle’ solitude, and permit us to refocus elsewhere.

Buber’s Hasidic(?) solution is that we (two: I and Thou), together, certify God – who, in turn, certifies us. This, I guess, `works’ for some who feel this question deeply – the issue then being who I am, who Thou art, and how do we connect (our souls, our beings, our characters) in some genuine fashion (and what is authentic or genuine?).


The Concept of Consciousness: our stories and metaphors about what consciousness is, and how it developed throughout history, strongly inform how we go about thinking about meaning: the meaning of meaning and, for the real philosopher, the meaning of life.

It is as if being aware of being aware (…) is a really big deal; having happened only once in the nature of the universe. It smacks of arrogance and hubris much as of any attempt to understand, because we do not know about other creatures, dead or alive with us today upon this earth. It is as if we are so enamored of our importance that we have to proclaim our (self?) love over and over, rather than wondering how it may be, or what we have not yet thought about or have hidden to ourselves in our attempts to prove…


Surrreptitous Theories of Meaning: most theories of meaning seem to rest on assumptions, presumptions,…, beliefs, which are themselves akin to actually hidden theories of meaning. Metaphysics presumes that the objective world precedes our being, and has a particular form. When we analyze meaning, we “translate;” we do not create anything new. When we talk about ideas or grammaticality or `truth,’ we talk about the recognition of some process or entity which we have, or seek a method of classifying or of defining (e.g., resolve ambiguities). Rarely do we bother to look under to see our own habits of abstraction. Rather we are happy if we agree that something is or isn’t notable, or even imaginable. (Ex: Parmenides ruling out the non-Being as being `unimaginable,’ thus non-existing, leading to the invention of the idea of creation and eventually of some Creator! This notion of the `unimaginable’ – is already a theory of meaning.)

Instead, I think that theories of meaning come back to the human condition: what we are (physically-conceptually), how we persist and sustain. Most of our theories of meaning rely on some beliefs and partial observations about what we are not, and what we are (and what theories of meaning are). These seem, somehow, to reflect or lay claim to what is residual, or what we have, surreptitiously, already decided on hidden grounds, to be meaning.


Aphasia: informing from how we (e.g., R. Jacobson) think about persons whose languaging abilities are abnormal, imperfect, missing, etc., I conclude that we associate linguistic-speaking abilities with whatever is meaningful. Usually this is depicted as being fully human, rational, normal. Within this thinking,there is something deceptive or wrong with the less-than-normal. And what they are like (I infer) is toward the universe of other species who (we assume) do not possess language; i.e., we assume, do not possess meaning. Thus aphasic (and whatever else we deem, in our wisdom, to be less than normal; i.e. children) is like the inabilities of other species, and whatever we attribute to them, rather than being different or unusual humans – which is what they are.

We assume (though this trend is diminishing) that lack of speech is equivalent to lack of meaning and understanding. This battle has been forged well (by Stokoe et al) for deaf persons, and has been shown for some of those who are aphasic and deemed `retarded’ to be a lack of musculature or of coordination (or…); i.e., if they are taught sign language, they can indeed demonstrate ideation, mentation, and communication. Thus, they do not lack meaning but the means of expressing it in some ways we can understand and believe. Thus the trouble is somehow in their different physicality or their physical means of expression, and how we observe and classify; e.g., our habits of inferring from peculiar faces and behavior – to abnormal thus inferior minds.


Basic (root) meaning: a myth which claims that there is some meaning which is somehow bed-rock, that each (?) word reduces to, when we spot multiple meanings from what is `basically’ the same. Like Platonic theories of forms, this is the essentiality of the human condition; for which we futilely search. Having found it (in a future beyond time) then we will know what is truly human, who we are, I am…

Similar is the search for “Adamic” language, the originary language given by God to Adam: the real names of all the animals and things, which has by now been lost to change (from Babel to babble). If we recover the root words, then we will truly know who we are, and perhaps, salvation, or whatever we look for while we pay little attention to living (Hearne, Aarsleff).

But…all words have multiple meanings. Some basic or central meaning is a myth of favorite usage. What does `mother’ mean? What did it used to mean; what will it, in various futures? To be a mother, itself varies as experience – spoken as a father whose children are more-or-less adult, my daughter about to be married: a mother-to-be?

Meaning derives from and is read-into relationship, experience, interaction; not the other way around. We live in a chicken-egg universe, not one which is causally caused or self-caused.

The history of ideas, of thought, is so tortuous because words which have no tangible, object-directed meanings (which are themselves multiple), so-called abstract words, are argued over and over. The difficulties (at least some of them) reside in the fact that the experiences to which they refer, directly or usually indirectly, vary from person to person, place to place, time to time. Many of them “gain” meaning only within some gathering notions of context. (See: Context)

And we argue about these as if they can be purified and settled upon once and for all (e.g. good, evil, justice, etc.). American Law has, in fact, settled upon what `reasonable’ people think or believe, thus dodging the question in an interesting, but useable way. From Holmes (I think), it has become obvious that law (i.e. definitions and meanings of abstract words) evolves.


Translation: Translation, especially translation machines, founded on the fact that all words have multiple meanings (and multiples of multiples because of their occurrences embedded in cross-cutting logics, experiences, contexts, etc.). So, to translate literally, word-for-word `works’ for a very little distance, but soon falls apart, because neither our minds, nor language, functions in this manner actually.

(See Question-Response system for a direction for solution to this.)

But the problems of basic meaning, of translation, symbolic solutions, religions, and so on, depend (in Western thought) on where we believe language, thought, consciousness “reside.” The Western solution is to claim that these all reside, are reducible to some facts, about the individual.

The social (Marxist, etc.) attack upon this, is (so far) to obscure the individual.

The activity of human life is much more like a dialogue (Buber, Feuerbach), an interaction. This alters radically, I believe, what we mean by an individual, where meaning, translation, etc., reside and derive. Human living is much more complicated than has been assumed and believed (because, I think, we have been assumed to be humanly unique as a residual non-animal creature).


Arbitrariness: since Saussure at least, language, words and especially meaning, have been claimed to be arbitrary. One could call a table – mesa – or 1,000 different words. There was/is no direct attachment or relationship between a bounded stream of sound we call a word, and what it refers to. On the other side of the coin, the `same’ word can, in different times and settings, refer to quite different things or experiences.

Whether this sense of arbitrariness is used as an argument for relativism (“any word is as `good’ as any others”), or for freedom (the ability to choose, to have choice), the fact is that there is freedom in human expression, but it is pretty tightly delimited in its structurations, and in many senses it is constricted and very non-arbitrary.

So while the notion of arbitrary is correct in the context of what is human and different from language to language and in varying settings, the fact is that there is little which is arbitrary in our actual, personal lives, or outlooks. This is not in any psychological or personal sense free of `parole’ as opposed to a rule-governed `langue’, but how we talk to others, and, in my experience, quite probably in how we think. In my English, a table is a table, and in talking or thinking, I use this `word’ to describe or refer to it. There is not much `choice’ in using this word to refer to a specific `table.’ The so-called “arbitrariness” is not within anyone’s (English) usage, but applies across languages. (This is not to say that there is little freedom in the human condition: but that language is not its locus: See: meditations on…Next Places).

How, for example, am I going to complete this…sentence, idea? Maybe there are five or ten words, several phrases, but they are neither infinite nor arbitrary. There are a limited, possibly bounded is better, number or sorts of ways to say something, to somebody. Context often “determines” or delimits precisely which word – but context doesn’t directly equate with arbitrary.

I may use a word in another language to convey a different sort of meaning, or a shade of meaning, but this is not arbitrary in any unlimited sense: the Yiddish word for the human `behind’, is more `affectionate’ than the word (or concept) in English. So I use it, because I enjoy the human anatomy, including its rear view. But the company in which I use it, knows what I mean.

Knowledge would not be possible if language were arbitrary in the wide sense of that term. (The sceptic may claim that this is true, but how would he know what I was talking about, unless he knew…?) We might say, then that language is – at once – fixed and arbitrary, and begin to study the conditions and/or contexts in which this may be true. (That is, the locus for the study of arbitrariness has been so far miscast).


If the Primitive: if humans developed as our scientific myths usually claim, from simple to complex, from stimulus-bound to rational, from thoughtless to rational, which schemes for the `origin’ of language and meaning, might help to account for how we developed historically?

The Jungian notion of `archteype’ is exactly this sort of claim, and is a direct Cartesian scheme. What is civilized: language, conceptualization is all a gloss on our true, ancient selves which we still retain deep within us. Maclean’s notion of the tri-partite brain also propounds this view in which bodily functions are assumed to be `primitive’, with increasing complexity having to do with rational thought, or whatever we believe happens in the `unique’ cerebral cortex. Here we observe animals with `lesser’ brains, see what they are like, and attribute the differences in brain, to what we’re like. (The description usually seem to confirm what has been already been decided on other grounds.)

The linguistic attempts, historically, have tended to show that it is language, with currently complex grammars, all the way back; i.e., language gets no more primitive, there was no such simplex-complex development, at least with these methods. And from extant literature, there have been extensive changes in language over the past several millennia. But these tend, if anything, more toward certain simplifications, rather than toward complexity.

Morris Swadesh, postulating some sort of `root’ or `basic’ vocabulary, tried to show that through change at some sort of constant rate (of change) – if we get the right data – we can infer some human beginnings: “glottochronology.” As I recall now, it was fairly obviously circular.

Berlin and Kay’s schema of the development of color words (words for color) presumes that there has been a simple-complex sensory development, which had an accompanying development of words for newly perceived colors. Thus we might find, perhaps now on earth, examples of primitive and complex languages, and figure out somehow what primitive means.

The general argument against this, is that even moderns perceive or experience a great deal for which we have no words (or certain `languages’ have gone-in-for certain areas of experience, and have developed vocabulary extensively, and others have not, for whatever reasons: e.g., Eskimo snow.) Their scheme assumes that vocabulary follows experience in some pretty direct sense. Apparently these vocabulary schemes derive from Aristotle (rather than from Plato – where the notion of development devolves upon ideas rather than words), and is the one word in the New Testament (John I: “In the beginning was the word”), and the Old Testament in Genesis, where all the species were named.

But, basically, any scheme which propounds some process of development (Prague school oppositions), or of a simpler Urspache (say, 1 to 3 basic vowels; a stop consonant) will generate a developmental scheme which will `account’ for what we have today. Which is right? – or whether such was indeed the history of human development, remains moot within the larger contexts of present thinking.

It remains to be shown either that human development went some other routes (e.g., not simplex-to-complex) by some way of `really’ understanding other species; or that the history was one way or another; there were a variety of routes, etc. Or we must revise our thinking, especially about `progressive’ evolution in general, and about the nature of language, in particular (See: Ethological Critique).


The Simple: most arguments about origins include or follow from some notion of what is simple, primitive. This assumes in all things involving life processes, that there is a simple; that by analyzing, dividing, reducing, we can decide what that is.

But whatever is life may, in fact, all be complex; in some senses equivalent. We may be dealing with varieties of complexity.

Perhaps it helps to point some questions which have led to notions of simplicity, in attempting to show that similar questions will lead as well to life-as-complexity: The driving questions are those of objects and description, the: what is it? Once we have decided (but – on what grounds) what anything is, then we can say what all such things are, and of what they are composed.

The study of human anatomy has, for example, been like this until very recently. It has been essentially the anatomy of the cadaver; the anatomy of process, movement, upright posture, development, all being issues which were by-passed, and literally left unnoticed (unnoted). Further, the fact (for me) that other humans enter deeply into the formulations of our substantive being, has remained unnoticed, because we decided that the thing, the object and subject of human behavior, is the individual. This has been erroneous in explaining even the material appearance of the human. So the simplex-complex notion which has guided thinking and observation has trapped us in at least two senses: the development of embryo to adult; and the notion that the object is the individual.


Language Minus Sound: confused, bewildered, amused I am. I just read a book on language, cognition, meaning, etc. Nowhere could I find in some 300 pages of well-written text and analysis, any mention that language or meaning has any thing whatsoever to do with sound. Not one reference, no passing commentary; not even a mere dismissal. Language is syntax, a set of `forms’ which exist, I guess, abstracted and independent from the facts of their existing within whatever is language, as sound in process, in complex relationships with silence, to and from persons. The notion of sound as a telegraph device which transmits or carries language, but which has no effects, no importance, no…

Now this book on most-modern linguistics, criticizes Chomskyan approaches as not taking into account anything in the non-linguistic environment, the notion being that semantics is not studiable, meaning not understandable within the context of independent language; language per se. And it, like other such approaches, depends on a (series of?) surreptitious theories of meaning to explain meaning. Somehow this field moves in slow-motion back to broader questions of human interaction and existence. (…and its takes itself so seriously!)


Meaning and Words and Experience and…: some belief that words `possess’ meaning – either primitive, `root-words’, or more general, or within various idea nets or `spaces’…But that meaning inheres in the words, somehow. This is a good example of what I mean by `locating’ a problem, or issue, incorrectly. Meaning is not located in words: words are located within some `larger’ gathering/organizing principle; e.g. sets of responses to question words. (See Q>R System: my Language & Human Nature: Chap. 9-11)

Or, since (it is believed) meaning inheres in words (shades of Pythagoras), and words have no ultimates, then meaning is located in agreements, usage, pragmatics of language. Again, these are all half-truths, but their thorough analysis will not (I believe) tell us much about the nature of meaning or `how it works’, because these all by-pass the processual, phenomenological, (social-) existential in life.

Beginnings, rethinkings, would include inquiry into why meaning could possibily be problematic in the human condition (and it’s not because of possible ambiguities, the rare, which is supposed to outline the ordinary – a view from pathology?)!


Ambiguity: there is a view rampant in the world that the study of ambiguity has much to teach us. This is, to me, much like other fields which presume (unexamined) an `ideal-normal’ notion of what is, the reality which can be illuminated or specified by `curing’ the abnormal. There may well be no particular insight into the ordinary here. If medicine, modern allopathy, provides lessons, we are learning that is possesses no theory of wellness, of health. Modern medicine operates `from pathology’ toward the relief of symptoms. Without pathology, medicine is in trouble. It presumes to specify what is normal, healthy, and how to remain so; but it is becoming obvious, that its models of health and wellness are weak, at best. The view of language, of meaning from ambiguity strikes me as essentially a view from pathology.

In others terms, it is a view from the exotic, the extraordinary; a view which specifies some sort of truths; but what sort, how large, how extensive – remains moot, unknown. (But most of us like to extend these partial truths and methods into the widest, engrossing imperium.)


The Attack upon Rationality: the question of the Origin of Meaning arises presently during an era of attack upon the notion of human rationality. This attack, which may or may not be a singular sort of social movement, comes from several directions and takes such diverse forms that they may not be seen for what they are; or, at least, that they have in-common this anti-rationalism.

Probably the current phase is driven by a sense of pessimism, the threat of nuclear holocaust, global famine, the loss of progress, of hope, the worry of some “lesser” peoples taking over either by war or by reproductive fecundity, the approach of the second millennium: the fear of a necessity for a global totalitarianism in lieu of all these other possible eventualities (See: Crisis in Meaning).

The attack comes from religion – the rebirth and revitalization of fundamentalism; from some biologists – the inability of humans to “think” themselves out of this dilemma; the same from behaviorist psychology and the sociologists and economists who have stripped the notion of “will” from the human condition; from some “therapeutic humanists” who want to manage our moods and improve our feelings about ourselves; from the occult which is more entranced with the thrills of the “invisible” than with what there seems to actually be; from the intellectual humanists who think literature is more real, at least more valid, than life and living; from the neurologists, mechanistic reductionists who believe in rationality, but believe it is a simpler overarching motivation: namely, “greed”; from philosophers-logicians who have made logic and rationality into a technique over which they have proprietorship; from anthropological and other “structuralists” who do not distinguish substance from form, but “believe” in form; from curriculists who have removed the necessity for teachers and have taken the necessity for living, away from life. Probably there are some others: marketeers,…


Other Species and Meaning: The myth: wandering alone, individually, in the primeval jungle, no concept of time because they are stimulus-bound, no past/present/future – only a right-now, externally motivated by what stimulates their nervous systems. No mind, no sense of will, of what tomorrow may bring, or of tomorrow. Incomplete, small brain, not upright, no prehensile hands.

Humanoids, big brained, upright, hands-thumbs, one day “discovered they are smart.” Worrying about the future, dwelling in the past. Bad vibrations and they ask: Why? …Now we are human.

But this myth of other species leaves out some possible facts: 1) they are social, thus presumably communicate; meet each others’ minds, if only “by example”. But they change, apparently learn to be like the adults; or like the adults “think” they should be: 2) they are, in some senses, moral. They can “read” one another, are not reactive in any simple stimulus-bound sense. These two notions of the other species being social and moral seem to raise issues in a new way about human sociality and morality. These, in turn, heavily affect what we mean by meaning.

Questions of how and what other species know, what they perceive, how they transform perceptions into cognition into knowledge; how they “understand” their own species and others.


The Metaphysics of Sociality: if it is in any deep sense true that the continuity of being is provided by others’ believing that you are, proclaiming that you are, then the field (arena) of metaphysics alters drastically, and all that that might entail: theories of being, personal psychology, theo-politics, possibly even economics.


The Question-Response Grammar: the issue of how we humans come to have meaning, to be sensible, is addressable if we consider that language is part of a system of interpersonal interaction. Words, statements, concepts have no “meaning” in any deep sense abstractly; i.e., outside of what other social-adults consider to be meaningful.

The ontogenetic problem – conceived from the perspective of the developing child – is to come into the universe of meaning and discourse, in which she finds herself; into the world as-if, as constructed by those around her.

The Q-R grammar assumes no particular test of logic abstracted from the human condition (e.g., of numbers or of forms), no test of truth/falsity except that of how sensible-meaningful adults construe the world. It is that universe of sensibility and meaning in which the origin of meaning takes place – has taken place – for each of us in our actual lives.

While this suggestion does not deny truth-tests (because adults live in a world of truth in logical [and other] senses), it does suggest that children come to their broader categories of meaning, and to the very notion of meaning, principally by what Bloomfield called “substitution sets”. Such sets are gatherings of words and phrases, and the gatherings imply some (cultural/meaning) commonalities in which the developing child infers some meanings. The infant does not have (to have) any concept of space or of time or of number, but can “discover” that a particular set – which she knows is a set – has actual reference.

The principle by which these items gather into a set, I believe are acoustical, in the first instance. They are “responses” (and I believe we are inherently responding- interacting creatures) to a set of “noise-dynamics-words” which are “questions” and which, in any interaction, stimulate fairly particular responses; possibly they are imitative, like “smile” responses, or opening a mouth when the parent/feeder opens his or hers.

The words in a set are acoustically similar to each other (I think) and particularly as responses to particular “question words”. For example, a question “Where?”, stimulates a set of responses – intially, irrespective of meaning and reference. The child, now knowing a set membership, with some experience, can infer the notion of space-place, moving between the response set, the question word, and experience. Gradually the child develops a notion of concept of the meaning of place (as the adults mean place). The same, I think, is true of other adjectives, then of nouns, etc.

Thus I think the origin of meaning is, early on, inferential: having sets of responses to question words, the members of these sets begin to gain some reference; the ideas of representations are spread to the sets (and to other members of the set), the sets become “meaningful”, the child possesses meaning. Each response set is indefinitely large, thus solving the ancient problem of how a finite creature can simultaneously be non-finite.

Talk, propositions, sentences – in Q-R grammar – are not merely responses to putative questions, but an organized, syntactic selection of a member from each set (sometimes null), placed together to form an idea (how many, what color, what) – a red book. Or: Surface Structure has a variable semantic load; perhaps it changes at different points in ontogenesis.


Interaction and Knowledge: Do we “know” the world directly, or do we come to know via studying how others (our parents) know the world? Isn’t the infants’ study primarily of the face of the infants’ mother? Isn’t it she who provides the means by which meaning “originates?”

Was it when humans began to instantiate one another primarily as faces, that the origin of meaning occurred historically? Since the early statuary of Easter Island and the east coast of Mexico are not yet clearly “faced”, this may well have occurred in “recent” times; perhaps when we became sufficiently upright. (J)


Redefinition of Consciousness: Instead of consciousness and awareness being the primary, the beginning of all of knowledge, it seems clear (if not obvious) that consciousness is a much more problematic notion in the context of the idea that continuity “derives” from extrinsics than from “inside”. In other words, we need to rethink, to redefine consciousness. (What we think/realize to be consciousness must be a sort of story we tell our selves about what we imagine consciousness to be. Consciousness, as notion or as truth, remains obscure.)

Interactionally, consciousness has to do with the ability to speak sensibly and understandably to others; i.e., to be able to enter their world of sense in a situationally congruent and meaningful way (Heraclitus’ notion of “in common-sense). It is at least as much an entering their consciousness as it is a reflection of ours. Intelligibility, mutual understanding, demand this.

The problem of the “content” of individual/personal conciousness remains moot; not denied, but something we must infer, rather than something which is privately obvious or even evident (self-evident).

Consciousness is what is “in-common sense.” One’s internal or “private” knowing remains peculiarly unavailable to direct analysis (Joubert’s notion of the mind’s dialogue being in parable or there being a number of dialogues going on – all “at the same time” or…?)


Motoric-Cognitive: attempts (e.g. by McNeil) to say what is cognition, derived from the dualistic scheme which assumes that motoric-body is the more animalistic, the more primitive-natural, and that conceptual thought is somehow a translation, transduction, transfer from body-mind; or in speaking, from mind to body: how a conceptual/imaginary scheme becomes actualized.

The mistake (a mistake?) is to believe that this is entirely “self-confined”: that the schemata are all “internal”. Certainly this is true, in a sense, but in which senses? And how powerful, how exhaustive is this as an accounting? It depends, ultimately, on what we think schemata are, and are like: and this is where we differ, strongly, the psycho-linguist and the interactionist.


Language Development: ontogenetically we seem to phrase the problem as the infant coming to do (be) something he couldn’t do (be) earlier; or, the development from (pure) body toward the development of mind; or… Somehow, we have decided – too strongly, I think – what language consists in. We seem to miss, or to dismiss, the feats of bodily development which precede and accompany the “beginnings” of language, as if they are not aspects of language; but, especially, as if they are inconsequential to this development; as if, even in the infant, language is an essentially independent process/entity.

Well, we don’t really know what is consequential or causal to language. We tend to forget or dismiss as “biological” (as opposed to mental) that language is bodily-muscular. Study those who don’t get to talk (“retarded”, “autistic”) and you will see that their bodies are quite different from those of us who are “normal”, and that they learn better in other gravities (e.g., water), to begin to realize that language development is an aspect of body, at least not separable from it.

Language development should not be merely the study of first words, or early sentence-like phrases, but of a more general notion of language-as-communication, of parents getting the infant to share their world-view, and to come to articulate that vision, understandably.

I sense that language development, conceived as the progressive movement from pure body to (pure) reason, must invoke a number of mystical causes to explain how mind, reason and language can emerge from such brute stuff as muscles and cartilage, or else attribute it to some inexplicable, inherent features of human nature.


What Should Linguists Do: within this arena of the origin of meaning and of language, there are a number of “confusions” concerning the nature and “location” of the subject matter, and what the students (linguists, semanticists, semioticians, etc.) think they are doing, ought to study, etc.

If it were truly clear what language consists of, then, e.g., developmental psychologists could study (as they claim) the development of language and meaning. But it is not clear, that newborn infants are “devoid” of meaning, and that learning, say, words/sentences is clearly or primarily what learning language consists of.

We linguists take for granted that we know, in some senses deeply, what is language. But it is the parents who determine it for each child; it is their view, their correctives, their observations and determinations which move development of language in some directions rather than others. Shouldn’t we be studying (shouldn’t it be our study) how parents (the parental “class” or generation) realize and actualize the origin of meaning, rather than the study of infants through the “stages” of learning what we linguists accept to be mature language?

The implications of these two modes of conceptualizing the task have great differences, not only in what we do, but in how to think about education, the nature of these subject areas (what predominates, e.g., language or meaning, or…?), what is an individual, what do we mean by history (phylogenetic/ontogentic), the nature of experience,etc.


Why Some `Retarded’ and Deaf Persons Sound Like “Animals”: because those who don’t/cannot talk do not articulate (well) with their tongue tips; but all of them (who I’ve met and tried to engage in imitation, and they all do), articulate with the velar tongue, using the back of the mouth (laryngeal) muscles. So they sound “guttural” – like “growling” – and we infer they are “animal-like”.

(What would “retarded” animals sound like?)

The `reason’ why (I think) the `retarded’ do not use tongue tips as articulators has also to do with the fact that they have little control over external facial muscles, and somehow do not `know’ where their lips and faces are, in relation to the tongue. (Derived from observing 21-trisomy Downs Syndrome children with tongues hanging out.)


Emotions and Meaning: in the evolutionary myths of the origin of (human) language, it is presumed that our bodies and our passions/emotions are somehow similar to and derived from other species. The phonetic articulation of the emotions was transformed somehow into `actual’ language: the `aha’, or groan or pain theories. Somehow (we assume) these internal events were externalized as speech and developed into language.

Within these theories there is already assumed a meaning-relation between the emotions and the expression in speech. A groan (?) designates or reflects or tells about pain. I know of no deep explanation of why, in other species (or in pre-human) there should be some reason to articulate the `emotions’ – other than interpersonal, communicative ones. Breathing, muscular tension release, etc., are bound up with speech, and perhaps it is somehow obvious why, in these theories, they are `spoken.’ But I don’t think it is obvious. In any case, within such theories, the origin of meaning is connected with the emotions, and the study of the origin of meaning should be directed here, probably as well as into the questions of why we think our bodies/emotions are akin to or derived from other species.

In infant humans we associate `crying’ with the confirmation of life. And in the ontogenesis of meaning it is important to note that we adults already come to the observation of newborn infants with pervasive interpretative (semiotic) frameworks.

Whether the expulsion of air, the general excitation of an infant, has much if any meaning to the infant, we adults believe and act as if it has; not only for ourselves, but impute this also to the infant. (Likewise we `read’ and interpret `character’ in[to] newborn infants’ faces). That is, we believe that these creatures are inherently meaningful: that their speech-making, articulation of `cries’ is reflective of something about their internal states. There are (or soon develop) cries of pain, hunger, and so on. We assume – in ordinary human social contexts that these infants are meaningful merely (!) by virtue of their being (physical beings).

A serious student might, at this point, ask two sorts of questions: 1) does the infant possess an intrinsic/inherent theory of meaning, or does she merely expel air, exercise muscles which `feel good’ (i.e., the infant possesses some theory of `pleasure’); 2) if the infant (if we assume) has a theory of meaning, is it `like’ ours, the adult observers’?

Without going deeply into mechanisms of development, it is worth suggesting that – whatever the infants’ actual nature, and this is still not well-understood – the infant is dealt with as if she has (a) theory of meaning, and the problem of ontogenesis is to come to possess the same essential theory as the adult population.

If it is the case that the infant possesses no such theory, the question of the origin of meaning becomes one of much greater interest and wonder. Puzzles in this area have led us to study retarded and autistic children at some great length, to attempt to see how they are peculiar; whether this has to do with `incapacity’ for meaning, or whatever. (Gerald Timian).

I am confident, in the case of visually obvious Downs’ infants, for example, that the parents see little of `meaning’ in their childrens’ faces, do not know how and are tempted to abandon interpreting meaning in faces which are, for them, not very informative. We seem to infer from peculiar facial expressions to peculiar mental capabilities? Why? Is this correct?

If we are, as observers, creatures who impute meaning to our own infants, what sorts of observers-interpreters are we, already, of other species? Is what we see in them aspects of ourselves, of the behavior of other species? If we already see them as much simpler than humans do we not impute meaning to them (or `give’ them very simple theories of meaning `fixes’ to a stimulus-bound mentality)?

Is this about them, or about us?

A metaphor: Could a Non-Human observing us (say, an intelligent Martian) determine that we have theories of meaning? Why? – Why not? (especially before we became civilized, yet had already well-developed languages, as far as we now know! See: Language and H-Nature – Chap.2)


Paralanguage: somehow we believe we know in some objective way just what language is. It is clear to those who observe the speech of humans that the stuff which emerges from our…mouths includes many noises which are clearly not language (by almost any definition) and many which seem to be `commentary’ upon language. These noises or aspects of sound affect messages, quite probably, but do not seem to change – like phonemes – the meaning of words. Tone-of-voice, paralanguage, voice quality,… is not minimally contrastive, yet it has to do with meaning in some still unelaborated senses.

To whatever extent we believe that paralanguage has to do with emotions we may consider that this is the arena of speech in which the origin of meaning (has) occurs. And, in any case, to whatever extent meaning is bound with tone-of-voice, the origin of meaning must consider paralanguage seriously.

The “status” of paralanguage (David Crystal) has not yet been developed or even thought through with any comprehensive intellectual and empirical discipline, having been relegated to its epiphemonenal position with respect to whatever is (currently) considered to be `language’. It is, however, necessary to point out that language does not occur in any sense unembedded in what are usually considered to be paralinguistic variables. Language does not occur in any “neutral” (not too loud, too soft) sense, except with respect to potential contrasts; language does not occur outside of actual contexts, even though we try to examine language “in isolation” as if this is both possible and revealing.

Is paralanguage 5%, 35%, 95% of the stream of speech? I tend to opt for the 95% idea because it aids me in considering how to think about what is heard in speech. The “loudest” aspects of the speech signal in ordinary communicative language seem to have to do with the “distance” (literal, physical) between speaker-interactors. What does an infant hear in listening to parental talk? – something about how far away her parents are from her, or from each other? How does the infant come to know what is what; language, paralanguage,…? What do we hear when we record the speech (paralanguage?…language!) of other species? – mostly distance, social variables, “the message?”

Is there (still) a “universal” para-language; an Ursprache? Can we tell who is talking to one another, what is the nature of their relationships, something about context, merely from the paralanguage? Apparently, yes – Gail Benjamin. Is meaning “located” here, first, then to be more specified in sophisticated language development ontogenetically?

Is there any way to decipher the paralanguage of other species (discounting their bodily/resonant chamber shapes) to compare “how” they talk, with how we talk? Does thinking about this help to illuminate the origin of meaning? (See: HS – Search for Comparative Variables – ms)


Kinesics, Sign Language,…: Much of the problem of the origin of meaning comes back to the human body. However, to use the notion of “body” within the usual frameworks of discussion of meaning and of language already constricts and directs our thinking about the body either to something constued to be in opposition to the meaning and the mind, or to something which is biological and “pre-human”. To consider the body as a meaningful, conceptual “instrument” – as the person I am – is a task which requires both re-thinking and an experiential re-doing, especially within the framework of Western thought.

Some metaphors: 1) “deaf persons” (formerly “deaf and dumb”) seem to do very well in generating interpersonal meaning, in communicating and mutual understanding without verbal language as a medium. Sign language is seen clearly as a vehicle for interpreting one mind/person to another. Thought/mentation processes are translatable into sign language which is then interpretable-as-intended by other persons. Here it becomes clear that “language” in the ordinary phonetically articulated senses is not a necessary aspect of understanding and meaning. (This is not to downplay the fact that the human world is linguistic; but to wonder about what it is that language is and does, without a mere acceptance of traditional views.)

2) Some “retarded” persons who have not spoken in their lives have been taught sign-language in the past decade. Some of them have learned hundreds of signs in very little time and are able to communicate effectively (if somehow in limited fashions – for a variety of reasons). Minds which were thought to be “poor”, even “empty”, are much richer and normal then we had thought. The lessons to be studied in this example have to do with how we ordinarily judge such “retarded” persons: how we think about what they are, and can be. The fact is that we have inferred much from peculiar (“stupid looking/acting”) bodies to inferior minds.

Somehow, in our thinking, we already connect bodies to mental processes, in complicated fashions. In my experience, we have inferred from animal bodies to their lack of or poverty of meaning in similar ways: from “bestial” bodies to inferior minds. Thus the origin of meaning problem, it seems to me, must be rethought in terms of how we Western thinkers already have determined it to be, because we assume/infer that animals possess no meaning. Perhaps, like the deaf, like some persons thought to be “retarded”, they merely cannot talk. That doesn’t necessarily mean/imply/entail that they cannot think.

It is my view that bodies are “thoughtful”; it is our previous conceptualization of bodies which has prevented our seeing and understanding this. Toward a retrieval of Platonism at the moment when Plato banished the body from knowledge: Phaedo.

Especially, we have been limited, I believe in observation because we believe the universe of meaning begins from each individual, rather than the individual being cast within complicated social dialogues – which, even anatomically, are interactional.


The Body: to most of those concerned with “language” the human body seems like an anchor of biological foundations. The “body” seems fixed, predetermined, a thing in and of itself whose material construction is obvious and well-known. Ha!

Within the discovery that the anatomy, the actual bony structure of the body, its form and substance, are more like a viscous fluid in equilibrium than like the hard, bony remains of the skeleton of history, this foundation is no more secure than the fludity of a language spoken in particular place and time (i.e., muscle tension `molds’ bone!) [Enlow, Oyen]

It is, perhaps, comforting, and a way to shift some responsibility for knowledge, to think that the study of “the body” is referable to some groups of “biologists” who “know” what it is and how it works.

It is, in fact, likely that this new “functional, dynamic anatomy” will have a powerful effect on how we think about the human (and other species) condition.

Understanding, studying, language and the body, need thought and discussion within some context of thinking about common issues. It is not (yet) obvious where putative boundaries between “body and mind,” or body and language might reside; or whether this dualistic outlook makes sense in the further understanding of meaning in the living world.


Anthropomorphism: has, I believe, to be rethought. The realization that how we think about other species has a powerful influence about how we think about humans, ought to give us some pause.

It is useful to review why this is important – this juxtaposition with other species – in our theories of meaning, language, human nature. How did (why did) we begin to think of the differences between humans and other species as having to do with “mental” aspects of being, rather than with their bodies (which is directly how we know and recognize other species)? At various places within this notion of the comparative enterprise, I find contradictions and paradoxes.

To think, for example, that so-called “retarded” humans are more like other species, “intermediate” forms, is to already have a theory of human progress and “intelligence” which seems, to me, to prejudge what there is to find. As Donald Griffin queries repeatedly, if other species were intelligent, had awareness, would we be able to see it in them? I think we would not, and suggest that a great deal of our own thinking about language and meaning is bound-up in this inability or unwillingness (or…fear?, or…) to observe what might be there; to devise critical methods to see anew, rather than elaborate differences and denials to justify what we have decided already (on what grounds?).

In order to rethink what is anthropomorphic, we must consider what worries us: can we no longer treat other species as expendable; edible; to be locked up in zoos? Is there a secret, sacred arena here? No doubt we have some sorts of hierarchies, of Great Chains of Being, in our ordinary judgments of life’s creatures. No doubt this arena is linked with social philosophy and politics in the very broadest senses: religion, morals, government…

Why is it so difficult to admit to ourselves what we really do not know or understand in the comparison between humans and other species? What precisely is at stake?


The Neurological Solution: humans are more intelligent, have meaning, etc., because we possess a “cerebral cortex”. There is a tri-partite brain with the mid and hind brain dealing with more “vital”,”biological”, “animalistic” functions. [McLean]

This might be true in some senses, but the argument is quite circular, so it’s very difficult to separate argument from content. We believe (assume) we possess language, meaning, and so on (left parietal area…), and we also believe other species do not. The mode of (pseudo) comparison is to account for the assumed differences in ability and function by stating what is different between the human brain and others: a circular argument, mostly used to justify what we believe or assume on other grounds.

The human brain is “enclosed” in a human cranium and may well “take its shape” from the cranium. There is a general myth that the CNS is what humans “really” are – i.e., the CNS is “independent” of the human body, its form, etc. The body, within this thinking, is the mere locus for the nerve end organs. Again, this is peculiar reasoning, and is based on the assumption that neurology is the bed-rock of being. Our human shapes are much more interesting (to us, at any rate), than the “neurological solution” implies. The neurological solution begins from assumed differences, and looks for mechanisms and/or anatomical correlates to account for what it assumes already to be true. (I prefer to think of the CNS as like a telephone interchange system rather than the seat of a homunculus! The problem of how `flesh and blood’ can `think’, can possess imagination beyond bounds, is not addressed seriously within the “neurological solution”).

It is much more productive to ask why we look like we do, what are our shapes, how do (we) grow up and out? The muscles for talking and for facial appearance are the same and/or overlapping: this is why speech/language and facial appearances are similar; i.e., why non-speaking `retarded’ persons appear `retarded’. How other species appear (to us; to them) is deeply problematic, and we have to begin to query our habits of observation to begin to be able to see what and how other species see (cf., Mark Johnson: “The Body in the Mind”).

If we are to do productive comparison, we must begin from similarities, not from differences; or we will be doomed to circularity of reasoning, and possibly `new’ packaging and mechandising of the same old ideas in today’s styles. The origin of meaning is mostly a problem in methods of comparison (See: Comparative Thought).

(This is neither to claim that the CNS of different species is the same or different, but to state that we shouldn’t assume what we do not [yet] know). (See: John Searle: NYRB April 1982, In Human Nature)


Primitive –> Civilized: all the `primitive’ people in the world now (increasingly urban/bureaucratic) speak language much as we. The work of Boas et al in the 1920′s was calculated to show that the `savages’ and `primitives’ of our lives were (are), in fact, thinkers and talkers much as we are. What has changed since primitive times, the archaic past when we had no tools, few tools, etc? What sorts of conceptual changes might have recurred, in the human (or the pre-human to human) condition?

First, the instantiation of humans as faces, coming with erect posture; also some shaping of sound (we, no doubt, `hear’ differently than other creatures, due in part to our bodily and facial structure; bodily in lower tones).

The domestication (living in fixed-built settlements) may well (P. Wilson) have led to our thinking becoming “geometrized.” the powerfully delimits and places boundaries on our being, creating maps based on our being creatures of particular places; and having others who are not; setting up social hierarchies; spaces for gardens, home, heaven and hell; and empeopling the world as the partials whom we now know as belonging to someplace other, being other, and finally wondering who we might then be.

The depiction of life – learning how to abstract life into two dimensions (for the power of visualization and depiction of modern ideas, see work of I. Cohen – Harvard). Each depiction perhaps an entire way of rethinking existence.

Writing created the idea of a temporality/history very different from that otherwise imaginable. It has led, for example, to being able to conceptualize notions like origins of meaning or of language; probably (via Parmenides) of notions like “forever” and “instantaneity”; causality and a creator-deity.

Possibly most important, the size of one’s interactive cohort: the crucial point being, perhaps, when there were too many individuals to know each person in the “depth of actuality” and we began to call and sort others (and our selves). Isn’t this the major difference between primitive and civilized?


Feral Children: That children (human) raised by other species will teach us something about the origin of…, seems wonderful but very unlikely. If, as is claimed, such children can survive, they become humans raised by some other species, and…what is there to be learned?

Fascination with this possibility seems to presume some abyss between us and other species, which feral children would have bridged, somehow. If they survive, they will have learned to communicate with another species, it is thought. But we already, in limited senses, communicate with some other species, and this should be studied in detail to see what common grounds there are between us and domestic and other trained animals. We should study development of other species with respect to their species development, as well as the sign-language and other experiments which enable communication.

The feral children story seems to have held out such prizes that we have limited our imagination about how to study cross-and other-species communication. [Besides, the issue of survival entails humans raising infants to be human in their own terms; entailing speaking to, TLC, touch. All infants are essentially lethal without other humans; how do they become human, is an important problematic.]


Archetypes: the story, propagated in modern currency by Jung, presumes some essential ancient originary human beingness, whose features can/will be revealed if we learn to see us properly or appropriately. An origin of meaning story (or several) can be developed or detected here, because it follows easily from archetypical thinking, that there is some (Adamic) Ursprache which is human and pure (or one could, with sufficient imagination, posit a language/meaning system which is, say, pan hominid, or pan-mammalian, or pan-life!). If we `refine’ our analysis, we will gain insight into what we are like (and what `I’ am) in some more `real,’ Platonic sense.

I am not opposed to such analysis, but feel that there are an infinite number of schemes we might follow – derived from language or sounds or behavior or… – which will lead us back to different notions of archetype. Most of these seem to be dualisms in which one side is the `primitive’ (body, ususally) and then there is a long-term scholastic debate over what is mental, what is pure, and so on. Often these are moral-religious. My general critique is that they lead away from experience in the present, and do not seem to receive any factual basis for their persuasion. Then they mostly seem circular, and it is difficult to say whether any particular scheme is any better, truer than any other (or any worse; less true). [Any myth/metaphor in a storm!?)

Having spent a good deal of thought on this issue, its theories and implications, I have been pushed to consider notions of `what history means’, and suggest reading the pre-Socratics to see how the current ideas of history were `invented’ or otherwise came to be. Clearly the notion of the `origin’ of meaning takes on different perspectives if we conclude that (probably Paramenides: Fragment VIII, particularly) the notion of creation (and a creator) was a human discovery or invention. My personal experience with a variety of historical thinkers (including evolutionary biologists and historians per se) is that they have `weak’ theories of the present, and are likely to opt or push for causal explanations of a very different sort, than for the exixstential and `process’ persons among us (e.g., how did we get here?; not, what are we doing here?).

These questions can be raised and studied in the socialization process, where we see parents observing and interacting with their children, applying observation, theories of history, of the moment, etc., with respect to their children’s behavior. I believe that there is a viable comparative study of development, as well, which will help inform us concerning what the notion of meaning might mean, on a broader basis than it is presently constructed. Parents (of whatever species) raise their offspring to become essentially as they are and see themselves being!


Meta-physics: a good deal of thought about the nature of meaning rests on the presumption that the `real’ is primarily the physical objects in the universe, and that human `being’ is derived from or made up of this material. The human condition is `meta’- or `after’ physics. In some senses this notion of what is human is a `residual’ idea; not merely meta- or after-, but there is also a sense of `leftover’, sometimes a `more than’; a material universe compacted into a body, accompanied or enlivened by an `elan vital’, a force which gives life to this `inert’ body.

This thinking which pervades not only Western thought, but can be found thoughout Asia in various forms (the `humors’) has some peculiar consequences for the question of the origin of meaning. One is that the particular form of the human body is not very consequential to human being, and it calls attention away from the body; e.g., in development. Thus we get studies of cognitive development (McNeil) which do not relate the beginning of talking {e.g.} to the beginning of walking. Maybe they are unrelated, but it seems to me likely that the interrelation of bodily and cognitive development are powerful, and are even more likely a oneness rather than a duality. But this illustrates that physics (body) and metaphysics(?) distinction is still very alive in our thinking.

Why I am critical of this, and why I think it interesting and possibly important, is that we tend to think about “objectivity” in ways which already mirror the physics-metaphysics organization (we presume) of the universe. In fact what we have is a human physics, a human biology, a humanly derived reading of everything. While we tend to believe that what works, what generalizes is a derivative of or attribute of the material world (which it is in some senses, I’m sure), it is not a human truth, but a formal truth which would apply everywhere. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI – Sagan) reflects this orientation. (Other species, with other sorts of bodies, might possibly have other or alternative physics to ours. I am not a solipsist, and am not trying to deny physical reality; but am saying that all we possess – so far – is a physics which is undeniably human – not necessarily “untruthful” but certainly not “all the truth.”)

Another example of the thinking of which this formulation of metaphysics seems to persuade us, is about so-called “retarded” persons. Why we infer from a `strange’ body to a defective mind, always puzzles me. Interestingly the nature of the retardates’ bodies is very poorly described. In my work with them (with G. Timian), I have discovered that they are very different sorts of beings than we have perceived them to be. And the errors we have made about what is wrong with them is very illustrative of the way we think about normality. In fact, the `retarded’ and `austistic-like’ are quite informative arenas in which to ponder questions about the origin of meaning. What we see as `retarded’, and what the `retarded’ are actually like, are very different (e.g., their bodies are quite different from what we see as “normal,” especially they deal with their gravity by wanting to “preserve” it – not to move – much more than others.


Lastly, the orientation of physics-then-metaphysics, has persuaded us of the centrality of the individual in the human condition. A good bit of the reason for why metaphysics seems always to be a replay of Plato, is, I believe, located in this formulation of reality and objectivity. Without denying the `real’, we should remind ourselves that we are social creatures to our very marrow, and the `origin of meaning’ is not to be conceptualized outside of a serious consideration of sociality.


Juxtaposition Theory: in Western thought, we have seen humans and animals as different in important and interesting ways, but within a framework in which they have important commonalities. They are, in other words, in some logic(s) of juxtaposition with one another: alike in some ways but different in others (alike in body, humans have unique minds: but this is so bizarre!).


In general, and thoughout most of our history, the differences have been kept pretty constant. It has been assumed that humans and animals are alike in body (=”biology”) but distinct with respect to mental processes of the sort that we think of as having meaning, intelligence, logic, rationality, morality, the ability to think new, creative thoughts, and so on. (see: M. Adler, “The Difference of Man…”). This theory, as it has developed at least from Plato (Protagoras) onward, also considers the social nature of humans as distinct, and related to our human ability to be “objective” – to know the world, to know others, to know ourselves as others know us…

In such a juxtaposition theory – as long as the framework holds – any change on one side will/may have an effect on the other. If we think, say, of animals differently than we used to, then we are likely to alter our views about humans, in some (related!) way.

Exactly this has happened. We now see “wild” animals not as beastly individuals stalking the primeval forests and jungles, but as feral and social. This “fact” is apparently forcing a change in thinking about humans, especially as our theories about language, logics, etc., have derived from a presumption that the unique differences between humans and others, were located in this intellectual arena. Some of the ideas being proposed about animals which have an effect, are that sociality implies communicative abilities and/or competence. Thus, other species “must” have some kind of knowing, understanding, mentation of a different sort than we had imagined and possibly much greater, possibly more like ours.

This notion implies, among other things, that the “origins” of language, the “origin” of meaning, is not – as it was formerly considered – at the moment of historical development or emergence or creation of humans, but is somehow already present in (some?) non-human species.

In the present context what this is doing is causing us to rethink what we think is unique to humans, and why we have thought as we have, as well as what is language, what is thought, knowledge; and it has important resonance in the related fields of morality, religion and politics – as evidenced by a strong concern, particularly by Scientific Creationists and other fundamentalists in the U.S., and by the “animal rights” movement.

This shift in knowledge and/or outlook about other species may have a fundamental and powerful affect about how we think about human nature. It is my view that the shifts in the ways we teach and consider a variety of handicapped persons in the U.S., has been pushed by changes in thinking about other species. I even go so far as to suggest that “juxtaposition theory”, along with current insights into the Sociology of Knowledge and the History of Ideas, will push us to consider seriously what we mean by history, causality, etc., and is at least partly responsible for raising concerns about language and meaning and human nature in the present era.


Bio-linguistics: it really isn’t obvious what “biology” is or means, what its limits are (if any), or that any aspects of language or meaning can assuredly be said to be biological or not. In a dualistic construction of being, it is generally assumable what is one or the other of, say, mind and body, but the present era should cause us to ask whether this dualistic thinking has anything further to illuminate with respect to language or meaning. (One current argument is – within a dualism of nature and culture – that we have moved far away from nature, so that our biology is not very meaningful at all – countered by the biopolitical argument that culture and language have obscured our true nature from ourselves.)

It has permitted us to obscure the complexitites of the human condition by suggesting that language is a set of isolable phenomena which can be analyzed in each/any individual, essentially independently of other persons; but especially it has obscured the fact that meaning and communication occur within social matrices, which are themselves causal and caused, and not considered seriously by thinkers about semantics.

The biology of behavior (ethology) and the biology of society forces us to reject them with some thoughtful seriousness rather than merely out of hand, as pertaining to some domains in which the study of meaning has no possible interest. Mere rejection is to presume various sorts of knowledge, where, in fact, little or none exists. Or it is to cede the power of intellectuality to a form of biological “determinism” which is at least as political as intellectual, and which will be more than a little pleased to tell the rest of us what meaning means, cast – I suspect – within a notion of being in which reason, will, personal freedom, are highly circumscribed. Or:biology is too important to be left to “biologists”.


Texts: a good deal of semantic analysis is the analysis of texts. While I read and study (most primary) texts a great deal, I am wary of entering into the origin and study of meaning via textual analysis. It seems both useful and a kind of important reduction to central problems to pursue the study of being human as it is lived and experienced, rather/before than how it is discussed, written about, described, etc. (Reading: as phenomenon, or phenomenal)

If we study texts, here, we ought to ask:”Why does this text `work’; “Why is this a good/poor movie?” What lessons to be drawn – the relation between context and text: in that order. Texts seem, to this compulsive scholar, to be too easy, a kind of `good news’ approach to the meaning of meaning. (If it were this obvious, the question of semantics would not arise, unresolved, at least once per generation!). Texts are, and are good or masterpieces, because they strike at something about life and living, not merely because they are in a particular tradition, or break out of another, or are transparently beautiful language. It is because they still do something to us: teach us, scintillate us, upset us, scandalize us, blind us, make us laugh, take our breath away, overwhelm us, … us.

To search for meaning in texts, before (instead of) we have searched life and living, seems a mistake. Narration over living; another form of essence over existence as Plato wanders in us saying, Tsk.


Pure Reason: always we have to make the world and experience “fuzzy”, translucent, if we posit some deeply essential character to human reason. Life, is then, form and structure; and true meaning remains somehow (way?) below the surface. The methodological problem, that which would reveal meaning, is in the hands of those who control the definitions of “purity” and of “reason”. They tell us what “the” problems are, how to locate them, how to circumscribe them, and what is a solution. They also deem certain issues to be possible or capable of solution, and others not possible or not capable of solution; others, they seem to hide or to obscure, finding them useful surreptitiously and upon occasion.

Again, wary that those who gain control over the definition of, e.g., grammar, creativity, logic,… have entered the study of meaning with surreptitious theories of meaning hidden in their hip pockets. One must join the tribe, pay dues to philosophy or to linguistics or to…, then s/he can pursue problems of reason, of meaning. Part of the dues are, in my experience, that one must accept the surreptitious meaning theories in order to demonstrate competence as a proprietor of definitions. This is to say that the origin of meaning remains obscured by battles defined within disciplinary proprietary boundaries; problems of turf and territoriality.

Again, wary, that others who enter this fray are fellow teachers of those whose claim to owning definitions bolsters their own audacity and arrogance and hubris. Here, I wonder about Anthropologists or Psychologists who “discover” Philosophy or Linguistics or…, that they are mere translators or otherwise derivative, rather than critical thinkers. Wary, I am, that we all tend to be scholastics rather than scholar-observers, arguing forever about the nature of the definitions we find appealing, rather than check what we find appealing with its occurrences in the world and in our own impulses to be pleased.


Context: There is a debate between using “context” as a residual category which “decides” certain questions of meaning, and the notion of context in the sense of studying how people locate themselves in the world.

With respect to the origin of meaning, questions concerning the very nature of context: its forms, how “it” operates, whether it changes, whether and how it applies and when (also [meta]problems of context). The difficulty is that it is tempting – too early – to posit some bed-rock phenomenon or notion which will tell us how to proceed in each next place. Within an existential-Anthropological/ Biology, this appears futile.

We might begin to ask instead: why does the world seem very stable usually, and very changeable occasionally? (consider a bureaucracy); what difference does “scale” make in how we “mean” – e.g., when we cannot know everyone, how do we treat and conceptualize persons as types or sorts; in what senses do we define ourselves, are defined by others; how are the limits of imagination set for us, by us?, …, etc.

Why does context seem so complex a notion, whereas we usually locate ourselves fairly easily in our everyday worlds? Because it is so “ordinary” that it seems unproblematic?

The problem of the origin of meaning seems locked into whatever is meant by context, else we carry some hidden notion of what decides meaning or where meaning is located, while we attempt to specify some notions, features, or attributes of what meaning is. (See: Context)


Form and Substance: if it is true that ontogensis is in many senses an “increase” in meaning, some sense of progressiveness in development, then a child’s perspective on form and substance is surely interesting.

It has seemed to me that form and substance (by any names) change in meaning, in use, fashions, during development. Form is a “gathering notion” at some points in development (to bring together different terms which mean the same), and then it is/becomes something `other’ than what it was formerly. Once the form is possessed it is used to “refer” to the world. But before it was possessed, it was a form; a form, simply, or at least in some other sense.

Example: the plural morpheme in English is a form (actually several forms to be collapsed into one) which has, at first no meaning to the infant. At some point it seems to “harden”, to be used everywhere. It gathers the notion of plural objects, and begins (the “origin of plurality”) to represent them. What was meaningful and substantial now becomes formal. Thus, ontogenetically, the notions of form and substance change considerably, and may even reverse “roles” – from the perspective of the child: the process? – form–>content–>form in bootstrapping ways.

A metaphor in lieu of an example: how does a 3-1/2 year old become an (appropriate) 4 year old? Is it purely a problem in developmental stages, or does the 3-1/2 year old study what it means to be the “next” stage? What is the nature of this study and analysis? And then one becomes a (proper) 4 year old.


Style and Substance: I have the same sense that “style” is also in some kind of interaction or reciprocity with substance; that a child sees the world in a progressive, developmental sense, as stylistics. Once what was stylistic is taken into the child’s life, it has become substance. (I think this is true in the teaching art as well: that students see stylistics and respond to this by wanting to “please” the teacher, not yet being good, critical judges of what the course substance is. I think “curing” operates in a similar fashion.)

Thus to study style (or form) or substance as if they are something, or located in life’s experience as one entity or another, is to misrepresent how these elements actually operate in life – and we end up battling forever over scholastic definitions, as if, for example, such notions as form, style, substance were/are what we claim they are, remote from the experiencing of them.


Grammar and Grammaticality: These are good examples of what I mean by surreptitious theories of meaning. To posit, say, that all “normal” humans know inherently what is grammatical, is simply to dismiss the question of meaning; or to place it mystically within the human condition as somehow “inherent” – to be studied by ” someone else” (Who?), or to be argued about in discussions of “Human Nature;” or to be “assumed”. [Chomsky]

It is also to open this arena to (bio)politics and to (theo)politics because “hidden” arenas can be utilized by those who want power for power’s sake, to claim whatever they want. (My personal example is the study of the human face, which remains poorly understood: it is then easy to claim certain sorts of faces or noses or… represents high quality, others stupidity or whatever. All those who want to believe or already believe in a social hierarchy will find these claims useful to bolster their beliefs, and can use “facial” descriptions as a basis for discrimination. Lack of systematic study means that any claim is as [in]valid as any other.).

I hold that the human condition, vis-a-vis meaning and development is a quite fragile process; that whatever is normal, grammatical, etc., is in some dynamic equilibrium; in need of (constant) restating, and open to change of all sorts. As extreme examples, I suggest that the very “retarded” are neither well-described nor well-understood, because our usual judgments about them presume they are inherently and permanently “defective”. Careful observation shows that they are not as they “appear”, and will show that our notion of “normal”, of grammar, and of what is human nature are bound up in complicated assumptions and beliefs about the human condition, which must be rethought before we can shed new light on what is meaning.

On the other hand, I do not deny that grammar and grammaticality are us, in some deep senses. My objection is to those who by-pass fundamental questions about grammar by claiming they are somehow inherent to the human condition!


Meaning of Life: in various existential senses, life is a constant grappling with meaning whose origin seems to have sprung anew each day.

Where am I, what am I doing, Why, Towards What, How did I get here?- each day requires some answer, some sense of satisfaction, some way of pushing the quest for meaning once again below the threshold of action.

My “solution,” more a leaning in a direction, is to quest for becoming; moving the questions of meaning, each day, toward a more meaningful tomorrow -shared with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. It is, perhaps, the search for where to go next, needing a meaningful now, in order to become, then. (See: “meditations on…Next Places)

To and for others I propose a pedagogy, in which I, – the teacher – pose the questions, in which my intellectual aesthetic is translated into a sense of meaningful futurity for students. My “contract” as teacher is somehow to be an instance of themselves as an older, still thoughtful, critical, grappling persona. In this sense it is teachers who create meaning, direction, hope, a sense of future in which the students will become (including parents as teachers). See: Teaching as Dialogue.


Static vs. Changing World: the question of meaning arises mildly or blandly in a static world, where the institutional structures are seen as permanent, and there is presumed to be a “place” for everyone, or a “Way” throughout life.

Where the world is perceived to be changing, the question of meaning is continually problematic: questions of existence, of time, of history, of origin seem sensible and occupy our attention. It is not clear to me whether they seek “solution”; whether they want discussion, temporary resolution; whether the voices which ask such questions perennially are heard in such eras. (W. Benjamin on history).


Sign Language: (after being a “Critic” at a Gallaudet College for the Deaf – Conference on Sociology of Deaf). There is a certain “stuckness” among the promoters of Sign Language use in deaf communication. They have been very successful in using earlier ideas from Anthropological Linguistics: teach in “native language,” how to “read” – then switch to second language, if the second language is the pervasive, national, commercial…etc., language.

And deaf children are now being taught via sign language, moving them along conceptually toward fully thinking and communicating adults. This seems to “work” best from the deaf persons’ perspective.

But: the promoters of sign language, instead of trying to bridge problems of sign-to-oral, problems of interpreters and interpretation, are trying still to placate the proprietors of language as an “oral” phenomenon, by trying still to demonstrate that Sign Language either is (a) Language, or is the (moral?) equivalent of Language.

I think this effort is misplaced or misdirected since it does not further the examination of human communication in any sense bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing experience: vehicles for helping the deaf live fully within society. Rather, it is fighting a kind of battle for equality using a metaphor. It should take on the battle straight-forwardly, showing that “language” is already an aspect of the body. It is the body which is uniquely human, and it is communication toward understanding and mutual understanding which is important in life.

Linguistics and the defenders of language as what is humanly unique, are trying still to stave off what they perceive as threats to…rationality, to logic, to morality?

Trying to demonstrate that Sign is like “real language” is silly because the owners of the concept of “language” are not willing to examine the grounds of their claims to defining Language, and have no “rational” way of responding to what they perceive as a threat: except or only within their terms of what is language.

Within the problems of the origin of meaning and the origin of language, the question of deafness becomes particularly poignant and instructive.

To deny conceptual abilities to the deaf is to deny that sign language is like “real” oral language. More importantly, it is to not take the time or care to communicate with some deaf persons on their terms: or mutually, through an interpreter.


#11 Nietzsche’s “Wanderer and His Shadow:


“Our ordinary inaccurate observation takes a group of phenomena as one and calls them a fact. Between this fact and another we imagine a vacuum, we isolate each fact. In reality, however, the sum of our actions and cognition is no series of facts and intervening vacua, but a continuous stream. Now the belief in free will is incompatible with the idea of a continuous, uniform, undivided, indivisible flow. The belief presupposes that every single action is isolated and indivisible; it is an atomic theory as regards volition and cognition. – We misunderstand facts as we misunderstand characters, speaking of similar characters and similar facts, whereas both are non-existent. Further, we bestow praise and blame only on this false hypothesis, that there are similar facts, that facts exist, corresponding to a graduated order of values. Thus we isolate not only the simple fact, but the groups of apparently equal facts (good, evil, compassion, envious actions, and so forth). In both cases we are wrong. — The word and the concept are the most obvious reason for our belief in this isolation of groups of actions. We do not merely thereby designate the things; the thought at the back of our minds is that by the word and the concept we can group the essence of the action. We are still constantly led astray by words and actions, and are induced to think of things as simpler than they are, as separate, indivisible, existing in the absolute. Language contains a hidden philosophical mythology, which however careful we may be, breaks out afresh at every moment. The belief in free will — that is to say, in similar facts and isolated facts — finds in language its continual apostle and advocate.”