Blogging Epic – Deconstructing Deacon 1

Deacon is interested with the interplay between the brain and language in our evolutionary pathway. The key break that he makes with the nativist tradition is that he includes the development of language in the developmental process of the brain, rather than seeing it as a later adaptation. Through this, language is afforded a evolutionary equivalence with brain development that the nativist tradition has always rejected. The other key point he makes is his assertion that it is our capacity for symbolic representation that distinguishes us from other animals, not our capacity for recursive grammar.

So lets begin by looking at Deacon’s take on the semiotics of language. He begins by arguing that there is something special about symbolic language that animals cannot produce. In Deacon’s argument, language is not something that needs to be seen as a higher replacement for all other systems of communication, rather it evolved alongside and in conjunction with these other forms. However there is something in this niche that is different. Most animals can be taught to use arbitrary signs but there is “something more” that humans do with signs which “constitutes our symbolic competence” (p68).

He surveys the many different historical approaches to the difficulties with categorizing signs and concludes that the one common feature of effective approaches is an understanding that signs are more complicated than the simple Saussurian model would have us believe. Symbols aren’t simple – symbols are hierarchical and interdependent, signs work in hierarchies, and there are different grades of signs with concurrent interwoven hierarchies. “The difference in different modes of reference can be understood in terms of levels of interpretation.” (p73) Therefore there is a difference in the depth to which humans can use signs when compared to, say, a dog obeying a command.

Like a lot of the other effective attempts to include semiotics in evolutionary linguistics, Deacon uses Pierce’s categories of Icon, Index and Symbol to separate different forms of sign. He applies this system of categorization to the idea that signs are hierarchical, to declare that “Iconic reference is the default” (p76) and indexical and symbolic signs represent complications of the relationship between signifier and signified: The interpretive process that generates iconic reference is the fairly universal system we call representation. Indexical systems are not much more complex either, as they consist of iconic representations that then take on a relationship with each other. The example he uses is how smoke can come to indexically symbolise fire through the separate iconic representations being linked in the experience of the the viewer.

Deacon then looks at what he titles ‘the symbolic threshold’. Here he makes a break with a common model of symbolic meaning, that symbols are also just relationships between signifiers and signifieds, albeit with abstract relationships. Deacon is keen to stress that this relationship is not only more complex to produce but that the complexity makes it a far more evolutionarily significant relationship than the other layers. The emergence of symbolism should be valued with far more incredulity than the other two.

the relationship that a lexigram has to an object is a function of the relationship it has to other lexigrams, not just a function of the correlated appearance of both lexigram and object. This is the essence of a symbolic relationship”

So Deacons sees symbols as complex products of an interaction between direct object-symbol association, and the relationship that symbol has with other symbols in the system. This presents a higher value for the symbolic layer because it represents a massive complication in the learning process, and requires a leap into a different mode of learning

The learning problem associated with symbolic reference is a consequence of the fact that what determines the pairing between a symbol.. and some object or event is not their probability of co-occurrence, but rather some complex function of the relationship that the symbol has to other symbols.”


So symbolic meaning is such an incredibly advanced skill because it requires a simultaneous tracking of the simple iconic relationship between signifiers and signifieds, but also then the abstract system of relationships between these icons and the knowledge that their positions within these systems give leave to form a novel level of meaning. Symbolic understanding allows us to look at problems in a more complex way because it allows us deeper insight into the world in front of us. A combinatorial puzzle requires an understanding of the interaction of different parts of the system that simple iconic representation cannot quickly express. Only symbolic meaning permits combinatorial problem solving, and this may in turn be adaptive.

So what value does this new form of learning and representing meaning have? Deacon argues that symbolic meaning allows us to condense the storage of information and references. It permits us to use finite mental resources to track and use a wider range of symbolic relationships, and for those relationships to encode more information about the world. Symbols can’t be learnt one at a time, there has to be an understanding of a logically consistent system before new signs can be learnt. This means that symbolic learning makes a real break with the mechanisms of iconic and indexical representation. Learning symbolic relationships also isn’t just a case of learning rules, but of unlearning some as well. Without the ability to reduce some meanings the system would just expand consistently and become too dense to use.

So to summarise Deacon’s main points:

  • Symbolic systems are hierarchical
  • There is something about human symbol use that is significantly more difficult and complex than that employed by other species
  • Symbols are more complicated that semiotics has tradtionally acknowledged and they are at the top of the hierachy of symbols
  • Symbolic relationships have traditionally been seen as being simply between singifier and signified, however in reality they relate to other signs in the system as well. For a symbol to be understood the viewer must know both its real world and symbolic relationships
  • Symbols’ evolutionary value is that they allow an individual to store more complex information more simply. This information allows a more detailed and successful interaction with the world that the symbols have been representing.

Stay tuned for chapters 3 onwards.


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