Walker Percy Wednesday 173


The question must arise then: If triadic activity is overt behavior and as such is the proper object of investigation of a factual behavioral science and is not formulable by the postulates and laws of conventional behaviorism, what manner of “postulates” and “laws,” if any, would be suitable for such a science? Or is the game worth the candle? For, as George Miller says, whenever the behavioral scientist confronts language as behavior, he is generally nagged by the suspicion that the rule-governed normative behavior of naming, of uttering true and false sentences, may somehow be beyond the scope of natural science. Shall we as behavioral scientists accordingly surrender all claim to language as a kind of behavior and yield the field to formalists, logicians, and transformational linguists? Have we not indeed already settled for a kind of tacit admission that there exists a behavior for which there is no behavioral science? To give some simple examples:

Two events occurred in Helen Keller’s childhood. One can be reasonably well understood by learning theory. The other cannot.

Helen, we know from Miss Sullivan, learned to respond to the word cake spelled in her hand by searching for a piece of cake.

Even though we were not present and could not have seen the events inside Helen’s head if we had been, we nevertheless feel confident that learning theory can give a fairly adequate account of the kind of events which occurred. B. F. Skinner would have no difficulty explaining what happened and most of us would find his explanation useful.

But a second event occurred. One day Helen learned in great excitement that the word water spelled in one hand was the name of the liquid flowing over the other hand. She then wanted to know the names of other things.

Theorists of language behavior have been unable to give a coherent account of this event. When one tries to fit this triadic event onto a dyadic model, queer things happen. Ogden and Richards, for example, found themselves with a triangle, two sides of which represented proper “causal” relations between symbol and reference and between reference and referent. A dotted line was drawn between symbol and referent. The dotted line stood for an “imputed relation” between word and thing as contrasted with the “real” relation between word and organism, and organism and referent. The next step was to see man’s use of symbols as somehow deplorable. Korzybski constructed a curious quasi-ethical science of “general semantics” in which he berated people for the wrong use of symbols. Stuart Chase compared symbol-using man unfavorably with his cat Hobie.

One might suppose that a science of language behavior must first determine what sort of behavior is taking place before issuing moral judgments about it.

Three men have a toothache.

One man groans.

The second man say, “Ouch!”

The third man says, “My tooth aches.”

Now it may be unexceptionable to say that all three men emitted responses, the first a wired-in response, the second and third learned responses. ‘” But if one wishes to give a nontrivial account of language behavior, it does not suffice to describe the second and third utterances as learned responses. What kind of a learned response is a sentence and how does it differ from other responses?

Nor does it suffice to describe the two events in Helen Keller’s childhood as instances of learning by reinforcement.

The greatest obstacle to progress in semiotic has been the loose use of analogical terms to describe different events without specifying wherein lies the similarity and wherein lies the difference. To use a term like response analogically is to risk a spurious understanding of matters that are in fact little understood and difficult to investigate.

One recalls Chomsky’s reaction to Skinner’s Verbal Behavior:

Anyone who seriously approaches the study of linguistic behavior, whether linguist, psychologist, or philosopher, must quickly become aware of the enormous difficulty of stating a problem which will define the area of his investigation, and which will not be either trivial or hopelessly beyond the range of present-day understanding and technique.

The following is a loose set of postulates and definitions which I take to be suitable for a behavioral schema of symbol use and which might be adapted from Peirce’s theory of triads. Recognizing the peculiar difficulties that regularly attend such enterprises-not the least source of confusion is the fact that unlike any other field of inquiry language is fair game for everybody, for formal and factual scientists, for logicians, linguists, learning theorists, semanticists, syntacticians, information theorists, and, alas, even for philosophers — I accordingly offer these propositions with the minimal expectation that they will at least suggest an alternative, a way of thinking about man’s use of signs which is different from the standard treatment and, I trust also, less dispiriting.

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