The Inevitability and Arbitrariness of Signs

Linguistics is the study of language. And language is, if you think about, a beautiful and very intricate system. It has all sorts of rules or conventions that allow us to communicate with each other. Without these rules, no-one would be able to understand each other. I want to take a look at a central concept in linguistics: ‘signs’. For what exactly is a sign? Probably all kinds of associations with road signs and the like pop into your mind. But when used in a different context, a religious context for example, it can refer to ‘a sign from above’; a message from God. In other words: the notion of ‘sign’ is multi-interpretable.

There is something very peculiar about signs. Something that a man called Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out: the inevitable – but utterly arbitrary – connection between ‘signifiers’ and ‘signifieds’. But what does this mean? And why is this connection both inevitable and arbitrary at the same time? Let’s take a look at that.

According to De Saussure, a sign consist of two parts: (1) a concept or meaning (the signified) and (2) a sound image (the signifier). The signified is your mental image of – let’s say – a tree. When you hear the word ‘tree’, you immediately think about a big green thing standing in a park. That’s the conceptual level of language. The other is the phonetic level or the sound image of ‘tree’. When you write the word tree, you write a ‘t’,’r’, ‘e’ and ‘e’. And when you pronounce these letters in your head, the meaning or concept of a tree immediately arises. De Saussure claims that every sign we know of (whether it is a road sign or a sign from God) consists of these two parts: the thing representing and the thing being represented.

Now De Saussure points out the following: the connection between the word ‘tree’ and the concept (or mental picture) of a tree is utterly arbitrary. It is just because the English community has chosen to take the word ‘tree’ to stand for the mental image of a tree that this connection – or sign – exists. The concept of a tree could have just as easily been called ‘worm’ or ‘water’. You can see this arbitrariness at work when comparing different languages. The Dutch word for a tree is ‘boom’, yet  it still refers to the same mental image as the English word ‘tree’. It’s a convention. Nothing more, nothing less.

Furthermore, De Saussure claims that the fact that we know that ‘tree’ refers to the mental image of a tree is because we also know what other terms refer too, and where the word ‘tree’ doesn’t refer to. By that he means that we can understand the meaning of a word only in relation to other words. It is only because we know that the word ‘branch’ refers to a specific part of a tree that we obtain the mental picture of what the concept of a tree looks like. If we wouldn’t have mental images of ranches or leaves, and all the other parts making up a tree, we wouldn’t know what a tree would be.

So now you know that the connection between a “word” and a “concept” is arbitrary but necessary for the mental image to exist. We can “choose” the connection between the word “tree” and the mental image “tree”, but it nevertheless has to exist for us to grasp the mental image of a “tree”. Because our mental image of a “tree” only exists in relation to other words referring to other mental images.

This observation made me ask the following question: if we wouldn’t have the “phonetic sound” (the tones you hear when a word is uttered) of the word “tree” resonating inside of our heads, would that imply that we wouldn’t know what a “tree” was? In other words: if we wouldn’t have the word “tree”, or any other word referring the the mental image “tree”, would that imply that we wouldn’t know what a “tree” – in our every day conception of it – was? That we wouldn’t know what that big green thing standing in the park was?

Maybe animals can clarify this issue. Cats – for example – don’t seem to use words like “food” to refer to a mental image of “food”. However, they still are able to distinguish “food” from “non-food”. That is, when I put down real food in front of my cat, he runs straight to it. He doesn’t do this when I put a television in front of his nose. So he must have some “system of thought” that makes the concept of “food” different from the concept of “television”. The real question is: is this “system of thought” purely based on unconscious, intuitive and impulse driven forces – like “the smell of food” – that trigger him into moving towards the food, or does the cat have a “sound image” connected to his “mental image” of food that allows him to differentiate “food” from “non-food”?

I don’t know, but I find it pretty fascinating to think about.

But what do you think?

Longing for Dominance and Loving Dogs

Do you want people to obey you, or do you want them to be independent? Do you want people to nod and do as you say, or do you want people to be able to stand their ground? Do you want unconditional love, or do you value the whims of individuality? In other words: are you a dog-person, or are you a cat-person?

Each morning, afternoon and evening, millions of people are walking their dog: they are pulling the cord that connects them to their most loyal follower. They are yelling at the little creature like there is no tomorrow: ‘Max, don’t shit there!,’ ‘Sit! No, sit!’, ‘Listen to me!’. Why would you ever want a creature like that? To keep such a creature on a leash, while everything in nature screams that dogs aren’t meant to be kept on a leash. So why then do it?

You could also choose a cat, a night-walker, able to save his own ass in every situation. A creature whose nature it is to wander around through life, purposeless and autonomous. Not obeying anyone, just doing as he pleases. An entrepreneur following his instincts, grabbing each opportunity to satisfy his needs. Not interested in your validation, just in his own. Only caring about you in so far as you give him what he wants. The perfect citizen in this capitalistic constellation of ours.

Communism or capitalism. Dogs versus cats. Men is born to dominate: be it in communism or otherwise. We feel superior by watching others crave for our attention, hoping for us to come and rescue them. It makes us feel important. This is a universal need. That means that, if we can’t fulfill this need in our everyday working lives, we need to find different options for satisfying this need. We need to express our dominance in another way. We can do this by beating our wives, rebelling against society or by taking care of a creature that is fully dependent on us. A creature that, even if it wants to take shit, needs our approval to do so.

Do people with dogs have to compensate for something? For a feeling of powerlessness, disobedience, or any other sense of inferiority they experience in their daily lives? A need to execute their dominance, if not over human, then at least over an animal? ‘But he is so sweet,’ ‘He is always happy and wiggles his tail when I come home.’ That might be true, but do you want a creature longing for your validation? You don’t want a spouse that obeys you, no matter what you request, do you? Not if you can also have an independent soul, able to live a life on its own, even when you are not there to grant your permission.

Power structures are everywhere: even in our relation to our pets. Marx (and Darwin) would be jealous.

But what do you think?

The Herd that Is Humanity

The train station of a big city is the place to be for seeing the human survivor instinct in optima forma. It is here that Thomas Hobbes proofs himself right: humans are indeed selfish by nature. People can seem so friendly, waiting in serene groups for the train to come. But then, when a last minute change in the track is announced, the herd goes mad. It is like the butcher coming to slaughter the last few pigs. Like the shepherd and his golden retriever pushing the crowd onto the road of freedom.

People take themselves and their lives very seriously. When the broadcaster on the train station announces that, two minutes before the planned departure of the train, the track has changed, hundreds of people sigh and mumble, “Why does this always happen to me?” At those moments I always think to myself: isn’t there just as much reason to laugh as there is to whine? I mean: isn’t it awfully funny to see hundreds of people waiting in the cold, desperately nipping of their coffee and smoking their cigarettes, waiting for the train to bring them to the jobs they hate? To see them running back and forth, like monkeys on acid? If we wouldn’t take ourselves so serious, and come to realize that truly no-one cares that we’ll be late for work, or for anything about our lives for that matter, then we might come to enjoy running around like fools, pushing away those other self-centered train-people.

This little illustration captures society in a nutshell. It is always chasing the next big thing that is going to save them, whether this is a train bringing them to their “money making destination” or to an ideology saving the true nature of the human species. This process will repeat itself until society makes up its mind and realizes that the track has changed. And when the track has changed, everyone stands in the front-line, everyone claims to be the one who knew where to go all along, waiting to get punched in the face by the next change in track that is announced.

Let’s face it: we are followers. Although we would like to believe that we came up with things for ourselves, in fact, we have no idea what to do until someone tells us. That goes for marketing as well as for societal movements. But radical changes in society take time. It is not like announcing a change in track. At least, not in a democracy. It is there that societal changes are incremental, behaving like a snowball gathering mass. And when the snowball is big enough, the second biggest snowball will lose its followers and eventually melt down.

The crowd has no reason. It moves according to the whims of its animalistic instincts. Food is food, power is power. Discrimination does not exist in its vocabulary. Merely genuine but unreasonable fear. And it is this fear that drives all of us. It is this fear that makes us go to work every day, even if we don’t want to. It is this fear that fuels envy, making us hate those that are better than us. It is this fear that drives our hunger, the fear to die. And fear goes hand in hand with our human weakness, our vulnerability to Mother Nature’s changes. A little wind and we are gone. A little water and we are dead. A little shacking and our lives will tumble down.

Let’s accept our vulnerability and seek shelter in the irrational source of life fueling the crowd. You want to know what this would look like? Go visit a train station.

But what do you think?

An Application of Freud’s Theory of Mind

Everyone must have heard of the name ‘Sigmund Freud‘ at some point in their lives. Thinking about the name, there might be all kinds of images popping up in your mind: things like the mind being like an iceberg, notions like ‘The Id’ and ‘The Ego’, and Freud’s ideas about sex as the explanation for pretty much everything we do. But you might not fully remember all of it. You could say that the ideas might be floating around somewhere between your consciousness and your unconsciousness – to speak in Freudian terminology. But what was it exactly that Freud claimed? And why do many philosophers of science condemn his theories to the realm of ‘pseudo-science’? And what’s the value of Freud’s ideas? Let’s apply Freud’s ideas to an everyday situation and find it for ourselves.

Let’s imagine that you are a guy that goes out with some friends. You guys are ‘chilling in the club’, while suddenly an absolutely gorgeous woman enters the room. You notice a certain feeling taking control over your body: attraction, the feeling of you wanting – in whatever sense defined – that woman. This is not a feeling for which you might necessarily have arguments. No, the feeling is just there. This feeling comes down from the part of your personality that Freud calls ‘The Id. The only thing that The Id cares about is receiving pleasure, loads of it. It has an inextinguishable urge to grab on to everything within its reach, just for it to calm down its perpetual longing for pleasure; no matter how briefly the satisfaction might last.

You can imagine that society would be a rather chaotic institution if every one of us would just give into his animalistic urges at all times. The notion of rape would become little different from our custom of shacking hands. Therefore some basic rules of conduct need to be ingrained in each member of society: ‘Be gentle to others,’ ‘Help an old lady cross the street’ and ‘Don’t have sex with someone else unless that someone wants to’. It is within this domain of ‘The Superego‘ that all kinds of religious and political beliefs nestle. Beliefs that will guide you in living your life like a caged monkey.

Surely: it’s all nice that we are trying to control our animalistic urges by coming up with a set of reasonable rules. But who makes sure that the needs of The Id and the rules of The Superego are properly matched? After all, as we have just seen, they might contradict each other. So we can’t always satisfy both at the same time: we can’t just rape everyone and be a gentleman at the same time. And that’s where ‘The Ego comes in. The Ego is the controlling power, the power that tries to satisfy the needs of The Id while taking account of the rules of The Superego. The Ego is the house of reason, of the economically thinking part of you; the part that decides to fulfill the most pressing urges first – like the urge to still our hunger – and postpone not so pressing urges – like the urge to have sex – to a point in time at which satisfying this urge might be more ‘appropriate’.

Now you can understand why Freud sees our sexual drives as the prime reason for all our psychological problems, right? After all, it isn’t easy to suppress our animalistic needs, put forward by The Id. That can only be done by repressing the beast that lives inside of us. Or, to put it more boldly, the beast that we simply are. But taming the beast does not make it fall asleep. The beast is still there, waiting for his opportunity to come. And when it comes, he unleashes his true nature. So we have to do everything within our power to shackle the beast, everything in order for us to live a ‘reasonable’ life.

There are – and have been – many criticisms about the scientific status of Freud’s ideas, and you might see why. It’s after all quite difficult to capture something as intangible as ‘The Id in terms of empirical data. Nonetheless, Freud’s ideas have found to be very influential within the domain of psychiatry, even though the current generation of psychology students hardly learns anything about them.

Ah well, scientific or not, it’s still a pretty fascinating point of view, right? Oh, and for the guy at the bar: he took the girl home.

But what do you think?

Living from Habit to Habit

Everyone who has a cat knows where I am talking about: cats have that inexplicable urge to always knead a pillow before ‘deciding’ to sit down on it. Whenever I see my cat doing that, I always ask myself: What – if anything – is going on inside of his head right now? Doesn’t he realize that he can just sit down? Is he just stupid? Maybe he is. But maybe things are a little more subtle than that…

Because maybe it is just a habit: an innocent little habit, like all of us have. Like when we stand up in the morning and take a shower, eat breakfast, brush our teeth and start our day. Let’s call this ‘habit morning’. Or like another habit we have – ‘habit evening’ – that consists of getting home, eating dinner, watching television and going to bed. And what is it we do when ‘habit evening’ has ended? Exactly! We return to ‘pattern morning’ and the cycle starts all over again.

You could say that, on a higher level, our entire lives are nothing more than a string of habits. Because what did your year of 2010 look like? It probably looked something like: celebrating birthdays, mourning at funerals, enjoying Christmas and celebrating new year. And what about 2011? Pretty much the same, right?

We are smart creatures: we have big heads full of big brains. We have a neo-cortex that is bigger than that of any other animal wandering around on this earth of ours. And even though we might have animalistic urges, such as the urge to mate and the urge to avoid pain, we seem to be able to detach ourselves pretty well from these instincts. We can, if we want to, use our magnificent thinking powers to defeat the animal inside of us. But how often do we actually use these special thinking powers of ours? Are we truly acting like conscious and reflecting beings that are different from the ‘stupid rest’ of the animal kingdom? Or are we for the bigger part just living our lives on cruise-control, hardly thinking about what it is that we are doing?

We are efficient biological machines designed to use as little energy as possible. Just as we won’t travel a hundred kilometers in order to get a coke if we can just buy one in the store next door, neither will we reflect upon what we are doing if the situation doesn’t require us to do so. Only when something goes out of hand, we might feel inclined to change the manner in which we live our lives. We love being intelligent but only insofar as it helps us to live a less intelligent life.

So, given all of this: do we actually differ from cats? They have habits, we have habits. They don’t think, we don’t think. Surely: we might be able to reflect upon our lives in a manner that cats can’t (or at least don’t), but as long as we don’t use this ability of ours we aren’t that much different from cats. The only difference might be that we aren’t kneading our pillows before sitting down on them.

What do you think?