19 November, 2007

On the Patriarchy

Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness is an odd book, that's for sure. In what other work of modern scholarship would you find an expression like 'a crotch of upper branch awninged with green leaves'? The OED does indeed list 'crotch' in the sense (#4) of 'The fork of a tree or bough, where it divides into two limbs or branches', though it has no more recent usage than 1889. But the use of 'branch' here is very strange: it is treated almost as a mass noun, without article or quantifier. And although 'awninged' is correct, I wish it were 'awned'.

If you dipped into the first chapter, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a book on language. Jaynes, like Mencius, likes toying with English and coming up with new terms—for instance, he coins 'struction' to cover both instruction and construction. After insisting (as would George Lakoff, much more famously, four years later) that metaphor is the 'very constitutive ground of language', Jaynes goes on to coin 'metaphier' and 'metaphrand' as the two parts of a metaphor. (I. A. Richards had already done this, of course, in his 1936 Philosophy of Rhetoric, with the terms 'vehicle' and 'tenor'. And let's not even talk about Saussure, whose semantics had largely been invented by the ancient Stoics.) Science, declares Jaynes, like Vaihinger before him, is determined by metaphors, while
Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb ‘to be’ was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, “to grow, or make grow,” while the English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi, “to breathe.”
A. S. Diamond, in his brilliant Origin of Language, reckoned the original of am and asti as 'to eat', noting the similarity of Latin esse (to be) / esse (to eat), and correlating food with life. In his 1690 Essay, Book 3, chapter 1, section 5, John Locke had asserted the 'sensible' (sensory) origin of all words:
SPIRIT, in its primary signification, is breath; ANGEL, a messenger: and I doubt not but, if we could trace them to their sources, we should find, in all languages, the names which stand for things that fall not under our senses to have had their first rise from sensible ideas.
Sadly, as Hans Aarsleff has pointed out, there is no sensible origin for the root of the word 'mind', 'mens' etc. And similarly, linguists have come up dud on the two roots of the verbum abstractum, es- and bheu- as Watkins lists them. Finally, Jaynes gets to consciousness itself, which he visualises as 'an analogy of what is called the real world. . . built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world'. Truth be damned, this is sublime stuff! Finally he introduces the 'paraphrand', or the body of associations and salient attributes of the metaphrand. This lets him write:
The map-maker and map-user are doing two different things. For the map-maker, the metaphrand is the blank piece of paper on which he operates with the metaphier of the land he knows and has surveyed. But for the map-user, it is just the other way around. The land is unknown; it is the land that is the metaphrand, while the metaphier is the map which he is using, by which he understands the land. And so with consciousness. Consciousness is the metaphrand when it is being generated by the paraphrands of our verbal expressions. But the functioning of consciousness is, as it were, the return journey. Consciousness becomes the metaphier full of our past experience, constantly and selectively operating on such unknowns as future actions, decisions, and partly remembered pasts, on what we are and yet may be. And it is by the generated structure of consciousness that we then understand the world.
So consciousness is sort of a map of reality, generated by language and used by memory, in a constant oscillation. Presumably Jaynes is riffing on, or perhaps just ripping off, that famous motto of Alfred Korzybski. Consciousness comes to be built up from a linguistic model of events via 'narratization', by which our actions are moulded into coherent patterns of cause and effect over time. (MacIntyre thinks this narrativity has been lost. Raminagrobis agrees, sort of.)


Later, much later, Jaynes describes superstition as 'only a metaphier grown wild to serve a need to know'. This rather reminded me of a description of Elizabethan prose I once came across: 'the intense elaboration of the vehicle causes the tenor to recede uncomfortably close to disappearing altogether'. Both lines evoke a fault: the supererogation of the subaltern, by which the map is taken for the territory, the model extended too far. Thus Marx generalised from his time to all time; Freud from a few patients to all patients, and all symptoms. Wittgenstein had claimed something similar in the 1921 Tractatus:
There is no possible way of making an inference from one situation to the existence of another, entirely different situation. There is no causal nexus to justify such an inference. We cannot infer the events of the future from those of the present. Superstition [Aberglaube] is nothing but belief in the causal nexus.
(Our friend Yusef will be keen to learn Hitler's opinions on superstition, no doubt: 'Superstition, I think, is a factor one must take into consideration when assessing human conduct, even though one may rise superior to it oneself and laugh at it. It was for this reason, to give you a concrete example, that I once advised the Duce not to initiate a certain action on the thirteenth of the month. Such things are the imponderables of life, which one cannot afford to neglect, for those who believe in them are quite capable, at a moment of crisis, of causing the greatest consternation.')

The view of superstition presented by Jaynes and Wittgenstein has its roots in classical antiquity. Theophrastus simply defines deisidaimonia (superstition) as 'cowardice in regard to the supernatural'. But Plutarch, writing about 400 years later, develops deisidaimonia, literally a 'fear of the daemons', as manifest in a propensity to over-interpret natural signs: 'he who is afraid of the gods, is in fear of everything—the sea, the air, the sky, darkness, light, a call, silence, a dream'—'to the superstitious man, every infirmity of body, every loss of money, or loss of children, every unpleasantness or failure in political matters, are called "plagues from God," and "assaults of the demon"'. This is line with Plutarch's general approach to the world as a system of signs to be decoded: superstition is a failure to interpret signals, an inference beyond that which can be made, just as for modern thinkers it is a misconstrued model of reality.


John Cowan said...

Well, your intuition is quite sound on awned, and you share it with one Mrs. Hunt and one J. Ady, as the OED tells us, even if Murray does snuffle Scottishly at us through his etymological square brackets: "[badly f. AWN-ING + -ED2.]"

There may be no later reference for crotch simply because this entry is pure original unrevised OED1. But these usages you have found, crotch postdated 1971 (just in case), struction, metaphier (ugh, but there it is), metaphrand, you must (MUST) send them to oed3@oup.com, with author, book title, sample sentences, page references. It is your duty to us all.

Finally, as for roots, the whole point of the 'root' concept is that it is the limit of etymologizing, the point where analysis can go no further. Brow and bridge are traceable to the IE root *bhru:, and there must be metaphorical extension here, but who's to say which way it went? Is it the bridge that looked like the brow, an arch over the stream? Or is it the brow that looked like a bridge, an arch over the eye? We can't say.

John Emerson said...

"Crotch" in that sense is idiomatic around here. In the sexier parts of the English-speaking world the word has probably been specialized the way "cock" was, a mix of pornification and bowdlerization.

I think that all classical cultures have rich reservoirs of creative etymology, some of which is in fact accurate. In Chinese it ranges for serious scholarship through mystification and crankiness all the way to party games.

phaneronoemikon said...

I blame all my misfortunes on other people, and myself, in that order...

Greg Afinogenov said...

I'd wager that semiotics as a philosophical discipline goes back to Pythagoras.

"Pythagoras, son of Mnesarchus, practiced enquiry beyond all other men and selecting these made them his own--wisdom, the learning of many things, artful knavery" (KRS fr. 256)

"Pythagoras said certain things in a mystical and symbolic way ... he called the sea the tear of Kronos, the Bears the hands of Rhea, the planets the dogs of Persephone; the ringing sound of bronze when struck was, he said, the voice of a daimon imprisoned in the bronze." (KRS fr. 281)

Artful knavery indeed.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John C: I've already sent some suggestions to the OED ('bodhran', anyone?) but I should do these too, yes.

John E: It's idiomatic where you are? Interesting. Jaynes was born in MA.

Greg: I don't really see the connection between your quotes and semiotics / semantics. On the Stoics we have more information, though admittedly still little. Diogenes Laertius discusses Stoic grammar (Lives, 7.49-57), and there's a more substantial modern treatment in Michael Frede, 'Principles of Stoic Grammar' (J. M. Rist, ed. The Stoics).

Raminagrobis said...

The implicit connection you make between rhetoric and superstition is an interesting one - overelaboration of language is like overintepretation of natural phenomena, the ‘model extended too far’. I wonder if stylists of the later Renaissance (I suppose particularly Reformation authors) who react against the excessive embellishments and ornaments of rhetorical language use this argument– that excessive eloquence is like superstition because enchantment to verba diverts us from res. Does Plutarch explicitly make the connection between superstition and linguistic style?

Anonymous said...

Alot of Jaynes is an application of much older stuff from Henri Frankfort ('The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man') and Ernst Cassirer ( see for example 'Language and Myth')

Conrad H. Roth said...

Anon: Jaynes and Cassirer, hmmm. I'm not sure I would agree with that. Jaynes has a positivistic understanding of mythology as a reflection of cognitive differences in the primitive mind, gods as hypostases of the bicameral consciousness. Cassirer, on the contrary, thinks of myth as its own organic system of thought that cannot be explained away by modern science (see ch. 1 of Language and Myth, or vol. 2 of Philosophy of Symbolic Forms). Jaynes is really propounding the sort of rationalist positivism that Cassirer was writing against. I suppose one could see some similarity to Cassirer in Jaynes' conception of consciousness as a quasi-linguistic structure ('symbolic form'), but I think the complex relation of the two would have to be teased out at greater length. Frankfort's work I don't really know, although he was head of my current institution for a short while.

R: there is no explicit connection between rhetoric and superstition in Plutarch. However, many have read this work as itself a rhetorical exercise (and possibly the surviving part of a double-bill, the other half against atheism). Perhaps also there is the suggestion of the link in the fact that the atheist (to whom the superstitious man is contrasted) reacts calmly to misfortune, whereas the superstitious man babbles and makes excuses. It's a thin thread, probably. It would be interesting to have a look at the Reformation writers on this matter; maybe Calvin's 1549 De vitandis superstitionibus.

Levi said...

It's always nice to see Jaynes discussed, rather than dismissed out of hand.

Another excellent article,