Enaction

The term “enaction” was coined by Francisco Varela et al (1991), in the domain of cognitive science, to express the view that cognition is basically a feature of living organisms; and that living organisms inhabit a world that is not uniquely, objectively pre-defined, but is rather continually enacted – brought forth, produced, constructed – by a process that the organisms themselves participate in. The concept is thus grounded in biology: more precisely, in a theory of living organisms as accomplishing autopoïesis (qv). According to this theory (Maturana & Varela 1992), living organisms are not so much “things” as dynamic processes, continual processes of producing and renewing the components and relations between these components that constitute them. At a basic level, living organisms are dissipative structures, fuelled by a continual flow of matter and energy. However, unlike the simplest dissipative structures such as whirlpools which are relatively passive, autopoïetic organisms also actively adjust their functioning in relation to their environment so as to maintain themselves indefinitely.
^ Umwelt
The concept of Enaction is thus grounded in the biology of living organisms. In fact the first biologist to note that every animal lives in a specific “Umwelt” that is brought about by its own actions was the German ethologist von Uexküll (1909, 1992). The prime example is the case of the “world of the tick.” The tick is a tiny animal that lives by sucking the blood of mammals. How can such a tiny animal, blind, deaf and which is blind and deaf and can only crawl slowly, manage to find its prey? The answer lies in the chaining of three sensory-motor cycles. Firstly, the tick climbs to the end of the branch of a bush, and… waits (up to ten years if necessary). If the tick senses butyric acid, which it can do thanks to a specific olfactory organ, it lets itself drop. In context, this makes sense when we know that butyric acid is given off by the sweat-glands of mammals, and in the natural context this is the only source of butyric acid. If the tick falls onto a hairy surface, it crawls until it finds a smooth surface: in context, this will be an area of bare skin. The tick then plunges its proboscis under the surface, and if it finds a liquid at 37°C (in context, this will be the blood of the mammal) it drinks its full. Von Uexküll writes: “Out of the vast world which surrounds the tick, three stimuli shine forth from the dark like beacons, and serve as goals to lead her unerringly to her goal.” It is important to note that the Umwelt is constituted not just by the sensory stimuli, but by the sensation-action cycles: it is essential that the organism engage with the world through its actions, and the actions that are triggered must be appropriate and lead to the situation when the next sensory stimulus can occur.
Of course, the enaction of “lived worlds” is by no means limited to relatively simple animals such as the tick; on the contrary, the richness and diversity of these “lived worlds” increases dramatically throughout evolution. One way of linking the basic enaction of an Umwelt by simple animals, to the enaction by humans which is a particular concern of Varela, is to follow the successive stages which have occurred through evolution.
^ Multicellular organisms
About 600 Myr ago, there occurred what is arguably the most momentous event in the whole of biological evolution after the origin of life itself; this event is known as the “Cambrian explosion” (Gould 1989). Until that time, all living organisms were unicellular and macroscopic – bacteria, amoebae, and the like. Then, within a mere geological instant, a whole range of macroscopic multicellular animals made their appearance. All present-day animals belong to one of seven major orders, each characterized by a specific Bauplan or bodily architecture (with either radial or bilateral symmetry). These orders are sponges; corals; coelentera (jellyfish and so on); molluscs, echinoderms; arthropods (crustaceans, insects, and so on); and chordates (notably vertebrates). One might have thought that sponges and jellyfish are “primitive,” and vertebrates (including ourselves) are “advanced,” but the fact is that these seven orders all appeared at the time of the Cambrian explosion. Not only that, but there were also an equal number of other Bauplans, some of which appear to us touchingly bizarre, that subsequently disappeared without leaving any evolutionary descendants. It is to be noted that no new Bauplans have been invented since that time. According to Darwinian theory, evolution results from the combination of variation and selection. It follows, logically, that selection can only operate on the variation that is there in the first place to be selected; and hence that the course of evolution will depend, crucially, on the variation that can arise. The evolutionary significance of multicellular organisms with an ontogeny is that they can vary not just in terms of metabolism and cell physiology, but in terms of the developmental process. As a graphic illustration of the fantastic variation that can be produced in this way, consider the incredible variety of life-forms and life-strategies of multicellular animals, plants and fungi that exist today – from mice to oak trees, elephants to crabs to daffodils, bats and whales and eagles and sparrows to bees and spiders, from snails and worms and squids and sea urchins to corals and toadstools. Correlatively, of course, the richness and variety of “worlds” that can be enacted expands also. Compared to this, unicellular organisms are inevitably monotonous. Basically, the only thing they do is to feed themselves so as to maintain their own metabolism and cellular autopoiesis. This is, of course, already a tremendous achievement, and we are still far from understanding scientifically how it is possible, but the hard fact remains that there are not so many different ways of doing it, and so variation in the life-forms and life-strategies of single-celled organisms is inevitably very restricted. With the advent of multicellular organisms, the rate and indeed the very nature of biological evolution changed dramatically because of an explosion in the variety of organisms that could arise.
^ The nervous system
The very first individual neurons to appear in evolution seem to have arisen in jellyfish-like creatures, linking a stimulus (a relatively nonspecific irritation) to an action (contraction of all the muscles which produces fleeing behavior). The situation is not so different in the giant axons of the squid that were put to such good use by Hodgkin and Huxley. Thus, right from the start, neurons were involved in establishing sensorimotor dynamics; as we have seen, this is the key to the constitution of an Umwelt. Studies with robots show that artificial neuronal networks of even a modest size can participate in the generation of complex behaviours.
The other strand in “enactive” neuroscience has to do with the development of central nervous systems. In phylogenetic terms, admittedly focusing on vertebrates, there was first the emergence of a spinal column, present even in lampreys and hagfish; and then, very progressively, the development of a brain (reptile brain, limbic brain, cortical brain). The functional definition of a central nervous system is that the number of “interneurones” having synaptic connections only to only other neurons is large compared to sensory and motor interface neurons. Varela et al (1991) remark that if part A of a brain has connections to part B, then empirically B has reciprocal connections going back to A. The result of this is that a brain can exhibit self-engendered activity even in the absence of any particular sensorimotor connection with the world. Because of this, Maturana & Varela (1980) insisted on the “operational closure” of the nervous system; as a dynamic system, the nervous system defines its own set of “attractors,” and interaction with the environment will not define what these attractors are, but rather “trigger” the switch from one dynamic attractor to another. Varela used to say, on this basis, that the brain does not have “feature detectors” – the classical view according to which “reality” is predefined, and the role of the brain is to detect preexisting features. Rather, the brain – or should we say the brain in a living body in an ecological niche? – is a “feature specifier,” because the central theme of enaction is that organisms bring forth their own world, and the function of the brain is to be understood in this sense.
There is room for debate on the correct way to articulate these two strands, which can appear as contradictory: on the one hand, we have the radical dependence of the nervous system on its insertion in the context of sensorimotor dynamics; on the other, there is the apparent “autonomy” and operational closure of the central nervous system.
^ Communication
Maturana and Varela define “communication” as follows. In the context of sensorimotor coupling between an organism and its world, the range of actions can be enlarged to include the emission of signals that will affect the actions of other organisms (usually, but not necessarily, of the same species); conversely, the reception of signals emitted by other organisms will modulate the actions of the organism in question. We can say that there is “communication” if and only if the signal-mediated interactions between the organisms result in a coordination of actions that contributes to satisfying the viability constraint of maintaining their autopoïesis.
Thus defined, the first really important instantiation of “communication” is the intercellular interactions involved in the coherent ontogenesis of multicellular organisms that we have examined above. In the animal kingdom, communication seems to be of rather sporadic importance, with no clear evolutionary trend. It is absolutely crucial in the case of the so-called social insects – ants, termites, bees, wasps. In this area, there are a number of beautiful case studies that combine observations in the field, laboratory experiments (identifying explicitly the mechanisms that trigger the emission of a signal, and the effect that perception of a signal has on behavior), and mathematical modeling (showing that the mechanisms identified are indeed sufficient to generate the observed natural coordination of actions); classical examples include the formation of food trails and the construction of nests. At the other extreme, there are animals that are essentially solitary (e.g., lynxes who meet only for copulation).
In the light of these examples, there are several points to note about the proposed definition. The first is that the material nature of the signal is quite irrelevant – all that counts is the dynamics that are engendered. Thus, in the case of social insects, a massive role is played by pheromones, which are actually quite specific biochemical molecules, but any other molecules, on condition that they had the same conditions for emission and the same effects on behavior, would do just as well. Linguists make a big point about the “arbitrary” nature of semiotic signs; that is, there is no necessary relation between the phonetic form of a word and its semantic meaning. As we shall see, there are major qualitative differences between animal communication and human language – but the arbitrary nature of the sign is not among them.
The second point is that biological organisms “know” what to do, and they have the “know-how” to do it – but they do not know that they know. There is an important sense in which they do not understand what it is that they are doing; they do not have “intentions” in the ordinary commonsense meaning of the word. This comes as no surprise at all in the case of the cells that “communicate” to form a multicellular animal. It is not too surprising in the case of insects, where perception-action loops function without the necessity for high-level cognitive understanding of the results. But it is somewhat surprising to find that the same applies to situations of “animal communication” even among relatively evolved species. A classic case is that of the alarm calls emitted by vervet monkeys. There are three distinctive calls: the emission of Call1 is triggered, in a natural situation, by the perception of an eagle; Call2 by the perception of a snake; and Call3 by the perception of a feline predator. And upon hearing these calls, other animals respond to Call1 by crouching on the ground under cover of leaves; to Call2, on the contrary, by climbing up into the trees; and to Call3 by taking horizontal cover and peering anxiously into the distance. These reactions make so much sense – they are adequate reactions to the threats posed by each of these three predators – that it is difficult for us to imagine that the monkeys do not “understand what they are doing.” But experiments in the laboratory show that this is not actually the case. The emission of Call1 will be triggered even if the animal is safe in its cage and no eagle could possibly reach it, merely by a cardboard shape with the right angular size and velocity being drawn across the top of the cage. It will be triggered also even if there are no other monkeys anywhere around (so there would be no point in calling “look out, there’s an eagle around!”). And the perception of Call1 will trigger the crouching behavior, even if the monkey is safe in its cage and can see that there are no eagles anywhere around.
The general conclusion is that “animal communication,” both the emission of signals and the behavior triggered by perception of them, are stereotyped reactions that are typical for all normal members of the species. As such, they can perfectly well be explained by natural selection, and do not necessarily imply “understanding.”
^ Language
It will be useful to start with a theoretical definition, before looking at empirical evidence and attempting a reconstruction of the evolutionary history. I have deliberately characterized “Animal communication” has been deliberately characterized in the preceding section as (1) stereotyped and (2) not involving an intention to communicate, because these are precisely the points of contrast with human language. Human language is dramatically not stereotyped. First, because of the combinatorial mechanisms at work (phonemes or letters into words, words into sentences), the number of different “signals” is stupendous. The number of different semantic meanings is even greater. Considering the word as a unit, the meaning of a word can vary according to its linguistic context (the neighboring words with which it is combined) and even more according to its pragmatic context. Taking this into due account, one could seriously put forward the hypothesis that no word has ever been used twice to mean exactly the same thing.
This, however, immediately raises a problem. Animal communication functions (without understanding) because it is stereotyped. If human language is not stereotyped, how do human beings ever communicate correctly by talking? A part of the answer is that in general we probably understand each other far less than we fondly imagine. Garfinkel (1967), in his foundational work in ethnomethodology, impishly pointed out that in the course of normal conversation, the socially acceptable thing to do is to accept to have only a very vague and imperfect understanding of what is actually being said, and riding the wave of good faith that things will become “sufficiently clear” as we go along. Arguably, some of the most significant moments of communication occur when speakers identify a misunderstanding; paradoxical though it may seems, what happens is that they then realize that up until that point, they had been misinterpreting each other (with the best of intentions, of course). My point here is not nihilistic; I am not saying that we do not understand each other at all, only that our understanding is not, and cannot be, “100% perfect” as the “information-transfer” model would suggest is possible.
If we accept that a verbal utterance radically underdetermines the meaning to be communicated, how can some degree of communication nevertheless occur? This is where the intention to communicate comes in. First, the hearer puts great creativity into inventing, imagining, and guessing what the speaker might be trying to say. Of course, this is (at best) a hypothesis; the communication can be consolidated only if there is some feedback. This is why such phrases as: “Do you mean that …” (followed by a paraphrase) or “I don’t understand what you mean at all, please say it again” or (sometimes) “Yes, yes, I see, go on” are so common in ordinary conversation. It is to be noted that these metalinguistic messages – absolutely vital for linguistic intercomprehension, on this account – are often replaced by facial gestures and mimics: a frown, a deliberate silence, a nod of the head, winking the eyes, and so on. Such gestures are not usually counted as “linguistic” (they are not words), but if this theory is right, such metalinguistic signals are actually at the core of what is characteristically linguistic. Thus, linguistic communication is governed by a (mutual) intention to communicate. It is thus, theoretically, a second-order communication about the status of the first-level intercomprehension.
This discursive elaboration is meant to put some flesh on Maturana and Varela’s rather dry formulation of the “linguistic domain”: language is a second-order metacommunication, a coordination of coordination of actions. Something to note here is that language, characteristically, has an effect of taking a distance from the action itself. To put it crudely, as long as two people are hurling verbal insults at each other, they have not actually come to blows.
With this attempted theoretical characterization of what language is, we may now take a look at some empirical studies. I shall start with the comparative studies: taking our nearest biological relatives (chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) as “representative” of our most recent common ancestors some 5 Myr ago, what can be said of their linguistic capabilities?
In a pioneering study, the Gardners (1969) taught sign-language to baby chimpanzees. Two anecdotes are extremely telling. The first concerns Washoe, the eldest of their “children.” Washoe loved to play with Roger, the young man who kept her during the day, and one of her favorite games was to ask Roger to tickle her. The corresponding sign sequences were carefully recorded on video, and Roger was quite proud of them. One morning, apparent disaster struck: Washoe, in a skittish mood, did not make the usual sign sequence “Roger-tickle-Washoe,” but signed “Washoe-tickle-Roger.” Poor Roger was dismayed, and hoped that the tell-tale cameras were not functioning: what ammunition it would be for the critics who were only too ready to accuse Washoe of just fooling around without really understanding anything. Roger tried to rescue the situation; he signed “No, Washoe, you’ve got it wrong: Roger-tickle-Washoe,” and he tried to tickle her as usual. But this did not suit Washoe, who stuck to her idea; she signed in reply “No; Washoe-tickle-Roger,” and to show what she meant actually started to tickle Roger! We have here a fine example of second-order “communication about communication” at work (and incidentally, an understanding of grammatical relationships); by this standard, then, far from being a failure it is precisely this sequence that is illustrative of a genuinely linguistic capability.
The second example concerns another baby chimpanzee raised by the Gardners, Lucy. Like many human children, Lucy was distressed when her (adoptive) parents left her at home in the morning to go to work at the university. She developed a routine of “acting out,” expressing her distress by behaving badly, throwing the cushions and furniture around and so on – much to the discomfort of the young man who was her babysitter. One morning, however, there was a change in the pattern: when Lucy espied the Gardners escaping down the garden path, instead of acting out her scene, she signed: “Lucy-cry.” Notably, this linguistic expression replaced the action: we have here a striking illustration of the effect of language in creating a distance from first-degree action. It is not difficult to imagine the transformation of the situation: instead of having to control his irritation at the scene, the babysitter was able to take Lucy in his arms and comfort her.
It seems legitimate to conclude, therefore, that chimpanzees (and probably the other great apes) have the capacity to acquire linguistic communication of a type qualitatively different from animal communication in general. There are, however, two qualifications to be made. The first is that in spite of deliberate trials in this direction, when returned to a situation of semicaptivity removed from human interference, chimpanzees do not seem motivated to develop or even maintain their linguistic skills in spontaneous communication among themselves. The second qualification is that their linguistic communication is never far removed from what is actually going on in the present. They are not totally unable to understand “tomorrow” and “yesterday,” but the very notion of a fictional story seems to be beyond their ken. They can well invent little fibs, but they do not really tell stories, and when it comes to “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who lived in a tower on an island … “ they are lost. In other words, their linguistic capacities seem to stop at the stage of narration. It is interesting to compare this with child development (Stern 1990). Newborn human infants do not speak; they reach a first stage of capability at around two years of age, and this seems to be (roughly) the stage achievable by chimpanzees: we may call this “Language1.” For human children, there is a second stage, which they achieve around four years of age, when the narrative register (both telling and understanding stories) reaches a threshold of maturity: we may call this “Language2.”
With these concepts and empirical references in place, we can turn to a reconstruction of the origin and development of language in human pre-history. Having long been banned by the International Society of Linguistics, in recent years, a fruitful return has been made to the question, fueled both by the sort of evidence presented thus far but also, of course, by reconstruction on the basis of hominid fossils (Bickerton 1990). Interestingly, a major current in recent studies is to suggest that here, too, the processes occurred in two stages: a “Language1” in early homo species as much as 2 Myr ago; “Language2” considerably later, with homo sapiens sapiens around 150 Kyr (the pace of historical change accelerates, so that for human prehistory the time scale becomes thousands of years, or Kyr).
^ Tools and technology
It is generally agreed that hominization, and the difference between humans and other animals, resides in two features. We have just dealt with the first, that is, language; the second is the use and fabrication of tools. We shall again start with a theoretical discussion before going on to look at some of the historical evidence.
Considering the constitution of an Umwelt by chaining sensation-action cycles, what tools do is to increase the range of possible actions, and increase the range of possible sensory returns. Thus, human beings live in a world that they themselves have constructed – not just in the sense that they modify their environment (buildings, streets, towns, etc.), important though this is, but because to the extent that their sensorimotor coupling with the environment is mediated by tools, what the “world” is for human beings is largely constituted by these tools. This is, of course, more than ever true today.
In order to grasp the full import of the invention of tools, it is important to note that a tool (unlike a sensory or motor organ) exists in two distinct modes, that we can call “in-hand” and “put-down.” When it is being used, a tool as such typically disappears from consciousness; attention is quite naturally focused on the particular sort of “world” that is brought about by the successful mediation of the tool. This is the “in-hand” mode. But tools, typically, can also be detached from the body and “put down.” It is in this second mode that they become themselves the focus of attention, and can be repaired, or made, or invented. The dual nature of tools comes from the fact that there is a constant back-and-forth between these two modes.
The first human tools for which there is solid evidence are the well-known flint tools. There is a very nice sequence, running from the first “choppers,” crudely made just by banging two pebbles against each other, through the increasingly sophisticated and finely-chiseled bi-face tools, to the exquisite polished arrowheads of the Neolithic period. Leroi-Gourhan (1964) proposed a quantitative measure, the length of useful cutting edge per kilogram of raw material (the brute flints were a relatively rare and precious resource). This measure, which we may denote by LCE/W, increased gradually and continuously over several million years, from the very first stone tools (ca. 3 Myr) until about 100 Kyr. The pace of historical change was thus very slow, in tune with the pace of anatomical change and in particular the increase in brain size. Leroi-Gourhan remarked that during all this time, “man secreted his tools almost as though they were nails or teeth.” Thus, the inaugural event was not (as we fondly like to think) a sudden and dramatic increase in the size of the brain. After the shock of Darwin’s suggestion that human beings had common ancestors with apes, the question arose as to the nature of the intermediate stages. The expectation was that the “missing link” would be a creature with a human head on an ape-like body. As Leroi-Gourhan said, “We were ready for anything but this: mankind began by the feet.” Thus Lucy, like other early Australopithecus fossil specimens, had a small head; what was distinctive were the legs and feet, adapted for standing upright with a biped means of locomotion. Not only is such locomotion remarkably efficient from a mechanical and energetic point of view; it also frees the hands, and creates an “anterior field” between head and hand, which is the prerequisite for making and using tools.
If there is a “break” between biological evolution and human prehistory, it comes after this period, which was largely continuous with biological evolution. Around 50 Kyr ago, there seems to have occurred an “event” that we can characterize by the superposition of several apparently unrelated indications. One of these, noted by Leroi-Gourhan, is a radical change in the slope of the curve of LCE/W against time: suddenly, the values were multiplied by tens and hundreds. Looking more closely at the tools themselves, the reason for this change becomes apparent: whereas before, the useful part of the tool was what was left behind by the chiseling process, now what was used were the chips. Now in order to produce useable chips, a long and elaborate process of preparing the flint is necessary, before the final blow knocks off the chip. From a cognitive point of view, this requires a strongly developed capacity for anticipation. From a technical point of view, this innovation was followed quite rapidly by a whole series – weaving, the use of fire and pottery, then agriculture and the creation of towns. From a symbolical point of view, this is also the period of the first cave art; symbolically, also, it is marked by the disappearance of Neanderthal man, the last surviving species of our numerous biological cousins. Can we find any explanation for this apparent “event”?
First, we may note that our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, arose in Africa around 150 Kyr. The “event” at 50 Kyr marks an acceleration in the rate of cultural evolution that relegates further biological evolution to relative insignificance. Guille-Escuret (1994) has put forward an intriguing hypothesis. By 50 Kyr, the making and using of tools was already established with its own history (and ethologists have claimed that all sorts of animals, not only apes but also crows and others, make and use tools); on the other hand, language was also developed, with its own history. But there is no evidence of any connection between language and tool-use. As modern stone-nappers have found, talking is neither necessary nor sufficient when one is trying to make a primitive bi-face. It is plausible to suppose that language was used first of all in the context of personal social relations; as is still true today, this leads to a runaway effect. As our social life becomes more complex, we need linguistic communication to cope with it, but ironically, one of the main effects of talking about our social life is … to make it even more complex! This sets the stage for Guille-Escuret’s hypothesis: the “event” at 50 Kyr could have been the meeting of these two strains, of using language to talk about technical artifacts (making, using, and especially inventing them). Etymologically, this corresponds exactly to the birth of “techno-logos,” that is, technology.
^ Consciousness
Here again we will start with some elements of theoretical definition, and then put the phenomenon in the context of its historical genesis. The word “conscious,” as it is used in ordinary language, is remarkably polysemic; it is important to distinguish between different forms of consciousness, at the very least between what Edelman (1989) has called “Consciousness1” and “Consciousness2.” Consciousness1 corresponds to “animal consciousness,” states of self-awareness and emotional feelings, the fact of having some sort of lived experience; it seems, to a first approximation, to have developed gradually over a long period – in the vertebrate lineage, from fishes to reptiles to mammals. “Consciousness2” or “reflexive consciousness” is a much more sharply delineated phenomenon; it is specifically human, and inseparably related to language. Jaynes (1976) gives a most interesting definition: reflexive consciousness is “an analogue metaphrand based on visual perception of spatial relations.” The idea, in a nutshell, is that consciousness is a process which occurs in an imaginary metaphorical “space.”
With a theoretical definition in place, the major part of Jaynes’ remarkable book is devoted to putting forth a highly imaginative scenario for the origin of consciousness. His main idea is that between animal consciousness and our current form of consciousness there is a “missing link” that he calls the “Bicameral mind”; “Consciousness2” first arose in the form of visions and voices of gods – what today we would call hallucinations, but that at the time of the first great urban civilizations (Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Aztec, Incas) were not only normal but were absolutely necessary to social life. Modern consciousness was born in suffering, at a time of crisis with the breakdown of the “bicameral mind.” To support this astonishing hypothesis, Jaynes appeals very effectively to written texts – specifically, to the contrast between the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and to the contrast between Old Testament prophets such as Amos, and the “modern” mentality of Ecclesiastes. These texts, in the form that we now have them, are of course later transcriptions of what was originally an oral tradition – the basis of what was to become the Homeric epic and the oral tradition of the Jews. Thus, the birth of modern consciousness can be given a quasi-historical date: around 5000 BC. The point lies not in the fine detail of Jaynes imaginative (although deeply researched) account; it is, rather, the principle_ that consciousness results from a process of historical genesis, and this process is open to scientific investigation.
^ Writing
Looking at cognition in general and human cognition in particular from a historical point of view, there is a feature of overriding importance that cannot be ignored. In one of its guises, it is known as the “Greek miracle”: in the space of a few hundred years, the Greeks of antiquity invented philosophy, history, mathematics, logic, “modern” sculpture and dramatic art, democracy, a formal legal system, and … coined money. Many of these accomplishments lapsed during the “Dark Ages” and were revived only at the end of the Middle Ages in the historical movement explicitly known as the “Renaissance.” The self-styled “modern” way of being human, which is still basically ours today, had its origin in ancient Greece. Goody (1977) quotes Lévi-Strauss and notes the following list of dichotomies that distinguish “domesticated” from “savage” forms of social life:
DomesticatedSavage
ModernNeolithic
Science of the abstractScience of the concrete
Scientific knowledgeMagical thought
EngineeringTinkering
Abstract thoughtIntuition/imagination/perception
Using conceptsUsing signs
HistoryAtemporality; myths and rites
Goody’s proposal is to examine to what extent these cognitive oppositions can be understood as deriving from the technical innovation of writing. Writing was invented not by the Greeks, but around 3000 BC in Mesopotamia. In its earliest form, in Uruk, it consisted of clay tablets that were attached to objects in order to identify their owners; later, the objects were represented by signs, which made it possible to detach the tablets from the objects. This system owes its origin to administrative and economic needs. The gains in productivity resulting from state-controlled systems of irrigation gave rise to an agricultural surplus. This surplus had to be stocked in warehouses in town, and redistributed; hence the need for a system of accounting. Two things are worthy of note here. First, writing was right from the start inseparable from a system of social relations themselves structured by technology: this system was both the reason for the invention of writing, and in return writing aided its development. Second (and quite contrary to what many contemporary linguists assume), writing is not a simple derivative transcription of spoken language; right from the start, writing is an integral part of cognitive operations that would be simply impossible on the sole basis of spoken language.
The earliest form of written language is thus the list – catalogues and inventories of persons, objects, and events. One can distinguish three types of list: retrospective, prospective, and lexical. Retrospective lists of events can be organized either by reference to episodes (chronicles) or by reference to the calendar (annals); together, they constitute the documentary archives that are indispensable for the emergence of “history” in the modern sense of Thucydides and Herodotus. Prospective lists are a key tool for an important form of cognition: programming and planning action. One of the important functions of reflexive consciousness is that it creates the possibility of imagining several possible future scenarios, and to choose one after envisaging their probable consequences; the practical development of programmed action is multiplied by use of the written list, as is illustrated by the contemporary examples of shopping lists and cookery recipes. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, there were annals of astronomical observations combined with the height of the rivers, which aided the development of irrigation – yet another example of the synergy between writing and technological development.
Lexical lists were initially less frequent than administrative lists, but later they became very important, notably in Sumer and in Egypt. This third type of list is particularly interesting, because it illustrates the endogenous dynamics set in motion by the development of writing. These lists typically appear in educational institutions, for teaching purposes; in other words, there is an effect of decontextualization with respect to immediate practical needs. It is to be noted that the simple fact of writing a list of words induces cognitive effects, in particular categorization.
How can the words in a list be grouped? The grouping can be thematic, related to the properties of the objects. Thus, in the temple school of Nippur, there are many such lists of trees (84), stones (12), gods (9), officials (8), farm animals (8), reeds (8), and so on. Landsberger (1937) considers that the large number of these lists results is a consequence of the nature of the Sumerian language, which has a transparent and nonambiguous structure particularly suitable for classifying the world. Goody (1977) suggests that the relation is at least as much the reverse: it is the practice of constituting lists that influenced the language by forcing it to become less ambiguous.
Alternatively, the grouping can be organized on the basis of the form (and not the semantic content) of the words themselves. This principle is clearly at work in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian lists. The first systems of writing were pictographic or hieroglyphic, but in this case, it is difficult to order the signs on the basis of their graphical form. In the archeological record, it is found that the signs were ordered according to the similarity of the sound (in particular, the initial sound). The key point is that this manner of ordering induces an evolution in the system of writing itself: from pictographic to syllabic, then consonantic, and finally alphabetical. In other words, alphabetic writing is not the simple result of phonetic transcription; it is the result of a systemic evolution internal to the process of writing itself. Thus the invention of alphabetic writing – generally attributed to the Greeks – is not a sudden “miracle” mysteriously fallen from the heavens; rather, it can be understood as the logical result of a process spanning thousands of years.
At the same time, without being miraculous, the invention of alphabetic writing had in turn some very important effects. Because it is, indeed, a phonetical coding, it brings spoken and written language much closer together; because of this, writing extends beyond the rather narrow and specific limits of its origins to cover virtually all the domains of language. This extension was helped by the relative simplicity of alphabetic writing. Pictographic, hieroglyphic, or ideographic systems contain thousands of different signs that must be memorized; because of this, the access to these systems is inevitably restricted to a small caste of scribes, whereas alphabetic writing can (in principle at least) be made accessible to all members of a society. Thus, it is with the advent of the alphabet that writing fully invests the genres of narration and storytelling (fictional or otherwise), of poetry, of dialogue and monologue (including the interior monologue/dialog that we call “thought”). Now however paradoxical it may seem, it is at the very moment when written language comes the closest to spoken language that the originality and the specificity of its contribution to cognition becomes most apparent. Without attempting to be exhaustive, we will examine this contribution in three domains of enormous cognitive import: history, philosophy and mathematics.
The contrast between “myth” and “history” is one of the major headings in the series of oppositions between “savage” and “domesticated” thought. Goody argues that this opposition is in large part due to the contribution of writing. We have already remarked that the accumulation of documentary archives – that are only possible because of writing, obviously – is the basic condition that makes the work of an historian (in the modern sense of the word) possible. We have already noted that the narrative dimension is made possible in written form by the invention of the alphabet; it is then possible to juxtapose different versions of the “same” story, and to compare them in detail to identify on one hand the convergences and confirmations, and on the other the divergences and contradictions. In the heat of the moment, in the real time of the chanting of a ballad by a gifted orator, all sorts of collective emotional effects are possible. By contrast, writing is structurally individual and private, both during reading and the writing itself; it is thus an instrument that induces a critical distance, which dissipates collective emotion and promotes what is called “objectivity.” It is not a question of reducing the difference between “myth” and “history” to one simple cause; it is not writing as such, considered in isolation, that mechanically and inevitably produces all these effects. The causal relations are not linear, but circular and complex: the introduction of writing, limited in the first instance, produces certain results which are also limited, but these results have feedback effects on the practice of writing, and lead to its extension. At the culmination of this process, writing appears as an integral and essential part of a major cultural mutation.
These multiple cognitive effects of writing are not limited to the passage from “myth” to “history”; they also illuminate what has been called the “invention of philosophy.” Goody notes that writing has the instrumental effect of spatializing language and, thus, of rendering linguistic statements visible. This change in modality produces a qualitative effect. When one observes a written inscription, one can look at it in all directions, for as long as one desires; this is not at all the case with a phonetic statement whose trace is intrinsically transitory. It is thus writing which gives the force of apodictic conviction to a syllogism: it is, indeed, the fact that one can continue a skeptical examination of each step in the argument for just as long one likes, and come back to the argument to reexamine it at will, which in the end overcomes all resistance and conveys a free adhesion to the argument. There is a strong affinity between Greek philosophy and mathematics: the motto “None enter here who are not geometers” is well known. It was by reflecting on the constitution of mathematical entities as pure ideals that Husserl recognized the essential role of writing. We may note that this role functions both at the individual level, but also at the collective, social level: the fact that alphabetic writing can be reliably and controllably copied independently of its interpretation, contributes decisively to the formation of a common conviction that is freely shared.
The heart of Greek philosophy resides in the nexus where questions of Truth and Idealities meet; it is from this base that ethical, moral and existential questions are addressed. In all these areas, the hallmark of alphabetic writing – its capacity to follow all the meanders of thought processes – is decisive. Western philosophy is par excellence an exercise in the clarification of thought, where the identification of ambiguities and contradictions is structurally essential. This style of thought is, quite literally, inconceivable without the contribution of writing.
This is a key point in the paradigm of enaction as a whole. The question that is posed here is whether material technologies, which are classically considered as empirical and therefore as only constituted, can reach back “upstream” of the transcendental conditions of possibility and thus attain the status of contributing to the very constitution of reality. Now it must be noted that writing is a material technology; the thesis presented here is that writing is indeed the condition of possibility for the constitution of mathematical and logical idealities. Derrida (1978) has built on the germ of this idea in the writings of Husserl, extending it to the much larger domain of what he calls “archi-écriture”; and Stiegler (1988), in turn, has extended this theme to technical artifacts that form a “tertiary retention,” in other words, a form of memory that constitutes human society by providing that which is “always already there” for human beings.
Finally, it is to be noted that there is a clear affinity between the emergence of reflexive consciousness, addressed above, and the question of philosophy as evoked here. In the terms of Jaynes’ theory, a metaphorical process of spatialization and visualization appears to be at the heart of the constitution of “reflexive consciousness.” According to Goody, it is again a process of spatialization and visualization – this time materialized by the technique of alphabetic writing – which is at the heart of Western philosophy. The two processes – the one metaphorical, the other material and technical – are not strictly identical. Nevertheless, their affinity is evident; their complementarity, their convergence, and their synergy are such that their proximity in space and time (both occurred in ancient Greece, at an interval of several centuries) cannot be considered a simple coincidence.
^ Conclusion
In conclusion, it is hopefully not necessary to labour the point that the paradigm of Enaction is radically constructivist. It is neither more nor less than the fully-blown implementation, in the domain of cognitive science, of the concept that cognition is not the “representation” of a pre-given objectivist reality; rather, “reality” is neither more nor less than the result of a continual ongoing construction (enaction) of the specific “world” that each community of living organisms lives in.
^ Publication history
  • Version 1: John Stewart, 13 June 2019
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