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FIFTY YEARS AGO IN ETC.

The Social Genesis of language makes possible (as George H. Mead has shown in Mind, Self, and Society) a complex type of experience which he has called "taking the role of the other." Through language one can symbolize times and places other than the here and now of the speaker, and persons and things other than the speaker himself. Further, one can signify oneself as being those persons and things at other times and places, and thus call out in oneself the tendency to act as they would act. Through such role-taking one can even react back upon oneself from the standpoint of another; it is in this way, Mead argued, that one becomes conscious of oneself as an object. For our purposes, however, the point to be stressed is that in this socially derived process of role-taking one can become symbolically an object other than the self of the here and now; one can symbolically be at a remote past before the present state of the world appeared and almost simultaneously be at a remote future when the present state of the world will have passed away; one can symbolically roam the widest distances in space, can symbolically be a sun, a stone, a flower, a beetle, a drop of water, and the sea. And yet, all along, existentially one remains oneself, in one's own here and now.

Such complex role-taking processes seem to be essential to the mystical experience. To be sure, no one of them taken singly need have this quality: to imagine oneself on the moon looking down upon oneself on the earth may be interesting, but it is hardly mystical. Suppose, however, that the interpretants of these various symbolic processes are aroused simultaneously or nearly simultaneously. If the interpretants of signs are (or involve) neural processes, then (as Kenneth Burke has noticed in The Rhetoric of Motives) there is no reason why the interpretants of contradictory signs cannot be aroused simultaneously, though the corresponding reactions could not simultaneously be performed. In this way one can be symbolically both here and not here, in the past and in the future, can be both the fish that swims and the gull that dives. It is suggested that this simultaneous, or nearly simultaneous, arousal of the complex and often contradictory role-taking processes made possible by language constitutes an essent ial part of the mystical experience.

This does not mean that at the time of the experience the mystic is talking out loud -- or even to himself. Here the notion of the post-language symbol comes into account. For, as in the perception of a star, an event within the body, a sound or gesture or posture, an object in the environment can become invested with the signification of these complex linguistic role-taking processes. The techniques of Yoga, the repetition of sounds such as Aum or Namu-amida-butsu, meditation before an image, are examples of the ways in which these post-language signs may be built up. When built up these signs tend to arouse the interpretants of a whole host of designative, appraisive, and prescriptive linguistic utterances which have occurred in their presence. Talking is necessary for their development but not for their subsequent operation. When talking ceases the post-language signs reverberate the meanings which language conferred upon them in their formation.

The Secondary Language of Mysticism

The mystic, having had his experience and "returned to himself," usually continues to talk. And the words which he utters bear the imprint both of his experience and the conceptualizations dominant in the culture or the tradition in which he lives.

In so far as the mystic's words are wrung out of him by his experience they constitute what may be called the primary language of mysticism. This is very much the same from culture to culture and from age to age. It everywhere employs a language of paradox and contradiction. If the symbolic interpretation which has been given of the mystical experience is at all correct, then this is the "natural" language to express and to evoke this experience. For if contradictory interpretants are aroused, they of course tend to call out their corresponding contradictory signs. And if one desires to evoke an experience involving contradictory interpretants, nothing is as effective as the use of contradictory signs. It is as appropriate for the mystic to talk the way he does as it is for a hungry man to think of food or for a scientist to seek to give his data quantitative form.

The secondary language of mysticism arises from the mystic's attempt to explicate for himself and for others his experience and his primary signs. And here the trouble begins. For the explication must be made in terms of some conceptual system, and this will vary from culture to culture and tradition to tradition. It is one of the unique merits of Zen to have recognized the relativity of these conceptual systems, and to refuse to commit itself finally to any one of them. Zen, when most fully itself, has no doctrine and no authoritative text.

Suzuki's writings are examples of the secondary language of mysticism and of Zen's freedom in the use of symbols at this level. In his earlier books he did not use terms from the Christian or Vedantist traditions; in Living by Zen symbols from both of these traditions are prominent. Suzuki is here true to words I once heard him utter: "When we recognize the inadequacy of all symbols -- then we are free to use all symbols." This must be granted. But it should not cause us to forget the distinction between the primary language of mysticism and the various secondary languages used to discuss the primary language and its underlying experience.

General semantics sharply distinguishes between the word as symbol, and what the word symbolizes. "The word is not the object" that it labels. The structure of language as we commonly use it, which evolved from very old, pre-scientific notions about the universe, including ourselves, does not correspond to the structure of the universe as we know it today through advancing scientific discovery. We think in words and work through the medium of language; so, unless we are vigilantly aware of these discrepancies as we use language, we are apt to manufacture verbal fictions to a greater extent than we observe and make use of non-verbal facts.

A word is a symbol or label. But a single word stands for a whole class of objects that are similar in some respects but different in others. Think, for example, how widely different from each other are all the objects which we label chair. And automobile. No two of them are exactly alike even when you have two of the same make, model, year and paint job, and the same mileage, or even -- no mileage at all.

Then we group together chairs, tables, sofas, etc., and label them all by the categorical term, furniture, or if they happen to be objects which a merchant offers for sale, we call them by the more general term, merchandise. The more general and categorical the term, the greater the differences in the objects which it labels.

Scientific evaluation of credit data requires constant distinction between symbols and what they stand for. And scientific analysis of a balance sheet demands awareness of and vigilant searching for the many specific differences that lie behind its categorical labels such as merchandise, accounts receivable, notes receivable, fixtures, accounts payable, accruals, etc.

Under the heading of merchandise, for instance, an accountant may or may not have included merchandise in transit. Or the figure may include merchandise on consignment from others. And some of the merchandise may have been in stock two days, some two weeks, two months, two years. It may include fashion items already out of date; or perishable items already perished. Only to the extent that we go behind the general term merchandise to an understanding of its specific items can ratios such as "merchandise to sales" "merchandise to working capital," etc., have meaning.

By careless accounting technique accounts receivable might include accounts that did not originate from the sale of merchandise (advances to employees, miscellaneous loans, advances to vendors, goods returned to vendors for credit, etc.). Yet how often have we not been guilty of plunging into comparison of credit sales with accounts receivable to determine "age of accounts receivable," or "collection period," without investigating this possibility, or at least qualifying our conclusions with the reservation that we may have compared figures not validly comparable?

Categories are not groups of things that are alike. They are things grouped together under one label because they have at least one point in common -- perhaps only one; in all other respects they may be quite different. But the tendency to lapse into comfortable, pigeonholing, unquestioning responses to categorical terms is stronger than we realize until we set about deliberately to catch ourselves doing it.

Practice in asking, "What do you mean?" leads to a sharpened sense of discrimination with respect to the various meanings of "meaning." The child's appreciation of the differences among these meanings is basic to his capacity for recognizing and judging the meanings of his own words, gestures, and other symbolic reactions. If a child is to ask, "What do you mean?" in ways that are fruitful and constructive, it would seem essential that he become aware of at least the following different possible kinds of answers for which he might be asking:

1. Extensional. This sort of meaning is non-verbal. As an instance, to give an extensional definition of the word "good" is to point to examples of the sorts of behavior it stands for. Such a definition is strictly non-verbal. In this sense, when a child asks, "What do you mean?" when you have told him to be good, he is requesting a demonstration of what you mean by "good." If he knows this is what he is requesting, he will have a basis for recognizing whether his question is reasonable under the circumstances -- and for recognizing a reasonable answer when and if he gets one.

2. Operational. An operational definition of "good," for example, consists essentially of a description of what one does in demonstrating goodness. When you tell a child to be good and he asks, "What do you mean?" he could be asking you to describe in words just what he is to do, the operations he is to perform, in order to be good. If he knows, and only if he knows, whether or not he is asking for this kind of information, will he be able to know whether or not his question has been reasonably answered.

3. Classification. The question, "What do you mean?" could be equivalent to the question, "How do you classify what you are talking about?" When you have told a child to be good, and he asks, "What do you mean?" it is possible that the answer he wants might be something like this: "By 'good' I mean 'a desirable way of behaving.'" In fact, he could be asking only for a synonym, such as "obedient," or "quiet," or "respectful," etc. The important thing is that he know whether this is the sort of answer he wants.

4. Implication. Meaning can be recognized in what is implied with respect to antecedents and consequences. "Be good!" might mean, "If you'll be good I'll give you a cookie," or, "If you are not good, you'll go to your room again without supper the way you did last night!"

A youngster who knows at least these few different meanings of meaning is able to ask, "What do you mean?" with a sense of discrimination concerning the kinds of answers he might receive, and with a clear notion of the particular kind he wants. It is of special importance that he is prepared in such a case to monitor his own meanings, and hence the discriminations and judgments that depend on them. And to the degree that these discriminations and judgments determine his personal and social adjustments, he is free -- not necessarily bound, but free -- to regulate accordingly the pattern of his personality development.

One of the primary pedagogical emphases in semantics should be on the techniques by which symbols are correctly applied to the observed world. Much of the emphasis of general semantics has been directed on this problem, but, in my opinion, general semantics has adopted both insufficient and misleading criteria for such applications. With very few exceptions it is agreed by scholars that everyday discourse and scientific discourse do not differ in kind, but only in degree. I think it can be cogently main-tamed that lessons learned in the past few decades from the analysis of exact semantic methods in the factual sciences and in logic and mathematics form the "ideals" of rational discourse for any level of discourse where criticism, meaning, consistency, and other formal criteria are needed and valued. To maintain a contrary position is to argue for a discontinuity between everyday discourse and more exact discourse in science, a position which in itself is contrary to any position held by acknowledged authori ties in these matters. Further, to maintain such a position would make it impossible for general semanticists to give any operational (extensional) meaning to the term "critical" and I could cite innumerable statements which indicate that general semanticists do want to educate critical individuals. The thesis of continuity is essential to the general semanticist's own thesis.

It seems correct to maintain psychologically that individuals can learn to perform many fairly skilled activities without need of verbalization (i.e. without use of symbolic controls such as self-talking, thinking, etc.). But there is no sense of the term "critical" in which this can be done. The instant the individual engages in thinking (as the manipulation of symbols of whatever kind) or engages in criticism of any kind, then he can proceed in only one way, by possession and use of critical canons. And it is not possible to show that these canons are any other than logical canons. Logic in both of its functions provides us, whether we are aware of using logic or not, with the concepts in terms of which logical analyses of meanings of evidential confirmations of reports, of the relations between informative sentences, of the consistency of arguments, are made. The common failing is to maintain that logic refers always to precise, exact formulations, but in applied logic this is not the case. There are alwa ys degrees of vagueness in the application of the canons. However, and this seems truistic, insofar as the individual fails to use these canons adequately, the efficacy of his criticism in self- and social adjustments is impaired.
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Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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