Monthly Archives: April 2009

CompOnt Tenet 3: Human Ontologies are Built out of Symbols

Sym­bols — from core sym­bols like the Vir­gin of Guadalupe to abstract ones like the white­ness of Melville’s whale — fix and gen­er­ate onto­log­i­cal cat­e­gories.  How and why this hap­pens is a ques­tion of deep inter­est to me, but that it is true seems obvi­ous and well estab­lished.  Human beings cre­ate sym­bols like plants pro­duce oxy­gen, and sym­bol for­ma­tion is inex­tri­ca­bly bound to a defin­ing trait of human beings — rich, dis­cur­sive, and always already metacog­ni­tive  lan­guage (human beings have always talked about talk­ing, a prac­tice that must be regard­ed as intrin­sic to human lan­guage).  Lin­guis­tics up to now, wed­ded as it has been to a Chom­skyian Carte­sian­ism, has missed this role, although philoso­phers have not lost sight of it.  As Ricoeur wrote, “the sym­bol gives rise to thought.”

The rela­tion­ship between lan­guage and sym­bol­ism is com­plex and (still) not well under­stood.  My own view is close to that of the (admit­ted­ly dis­cred­it­ed in its orig­i­nal form) gen­er­a­tive seman­tics school, asso­ci­at­ed with George Lakoff.  I believe that cat­e­gories and rules are in some way gen­er­at­ed by the trans­duc­tion of mean­ing that takes place between neur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of con­crete objects.  Dis­cur­sive lan­guage — not “deep gram­mar” — tries to fix these mean­ings in propo­si­tion­al form, but the sym­bol­ic sub­strate has a dynam­ic qual­i­ty, in no small mea­sure do to its adap­tive nature in response to what Mer­leu-Pon­ty called the “pri­ma­cy of per­cep­tion.”

With writ­ing and then print­ing, and the monop­o­liza­tion of explic­it knowl­edge, in the form of writ­ten records, ref­er­ence works, etc., by gov­ern­ments, uni­ver­si­ties, etc., the rela­tion­ship between dis­cur­sive fix­a­tion and embod­ied sym­bols becomes ten­u­ous and con­test­ed, result­ing in a mind/body prob­lem unfa­mil­iar to rit­u­al soci­eties.

In any case, a num­ber of prac­ti­cal obser­va­tions fol­low from this tenet, which I will quick­ly enu­mer­ate, and hope­ful­ly take up lat­er:

  1. Human ontolo­gies are not plans.
  2. Human ontolo­gies are overde­ter­mined.  That is, there is always more than one way to express an ontol­ogy  The fix­ing of mean­ings will always fail if the goal is to cre­ate non-over­lap­ping, non-redun­dant descrip­tions.
  3. Human ontolo­gies are rhi­zom­ic.  In their nat­ur­al form, ontolo­gies are not hier­ar­chi­cal.  Rather, the hier­ar­chi­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion is one form of seri­al­iza­tion that works well because of its anal­o­gy to kin­ship (see Durkheim and Mauss, Prim­i­tive Clas­si­fi­ca­tion).
  4. Human ontolo­gies are local and sit­u­at­ed.
  5. Human ontolo­gies evolve.