Symbol vs. Signal

I have recently ordered but not yet read S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action. I look forward to seeing him elaborate on a point I intend to develop into several areas here: a distinction between signal and symbol.

The ability to make useful distinctions

Rich Dad, Poor Dad

I start with a contrast I understand to be Hayakawa’s own: chimpanzees can be taught to drive but chimpanzees cannot be taught to drive safely with regard to traffic signals. The chimpanzee responds to a change of traffic signal according to our very name for it: signal. (“Signal” note shares the same root as “sign.”) The chimpanzee sees the light change to red: the chimpanzee stops the car. The human sees the light turn red: and considers the options: will stopping block the intersection? Will stopping get his car rear-ended? If all is right, then stop: behind the safety line.

I am reminded of my oft’ quoted statistic: more pedestrians are killed crossing with the green than against it. (My son responded to that reminder in Hayakawa’s context: Some humans fail to distinguish between signal and symbol: all chimpanzees fail to distinguish between signal and symbol.)

(I am also reminded of an army story I tell at [federally sabotaged, censored, dissolved; now being recreated here]: Members of Kilo Company were ordered to yell “Kill” upon being given any order (being coerced to confuse the NATO symbol kilo with the similar sounding English kill. This conscientious objector refused: until told by a sentimentally drunk sergeant at the Christmas party (held in a tent at the firing range), to sing I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. pk was the only private to scream “Kill” at the command: deliberately confusing signal with symbol.) (Note further that the distinction relates intimately with points long developed here and also related to semiotics, as in Description vs. Thing: map vs. territory: the symbol is understood by a sentience to be part of a map; a signal may be taken (by the confused) as a shortcut to the territory.)

A list of reasons not to stop when the light turns red could go on and on: you’re a scoff law; you don’t believe in civilization; you’re speeding, endangering yourself, your cargo, and all others in the vicinity of the road because your wife is in labor, your husband has arterial bleeding, you just robbed a bank and the fuzz is hot on your trail … I’ll also point out that I don’t know what tests have been run on chimpanzees in traffic conditions … Are there no exceptions? Were all species of chimpanzee tested? All individuals? In all possible signal light circumstances … Never mind; these chimpanzees are thought experiment chimpanzees: they don’t have to be altogether real.

In short, one responds to a signal akin to a robot, to a symbol as a sentient being. And what’s a signal to one sentience may be a symbol to another. Seeing a black cat, one person may cross herself, another throw salt over his shoulder, another ignore it, and another laugh … (and another stuff it in a bag and take it home for dinner).

That’s my introduction. Who knows what an actual reading of Hayakawa will stimulate me to add. The visitor will have her own ideas and is welcome to guess what pk has in mind with or without Hayakawa: except for the following which I sketch in right now: an illustration already commenced in other contexts (The Truth of Jesus, Christiaprimity, to give just two examples). What one does upon seeing a depiction of Jesus in his Passion depends largely upon one’s training. One will genuflect, another will genuflect and cross himself, another will just take it in … The Hindu may have learned to ignore it. pk’s response on more than one occasion has been more “primitive” (primitive as in the behavior of the bumpkin who climbs up onto the theater stage to try to look down the “dress” of the image of the actress projected onto the silver screen.) pk wants to take the poor bastard down! [See Play for Voices.] Give him a drink, a Band-Aid, get him into the shade, get him to the hospital, take him to a nice lake side … (Here pk too is (again deliberately) confusing signal and symbol (map and territory).) Of course pk can’t take Jesus down off the cross. pk can’t take down any of the uncountable tens of thousands who have been nailed or tied to crosses. pk can’t even stop the torture of the current uncountable millions tortured or executed for no better reason than Jesus was: because they’re smart? Because they’re good? Independent? Not knee-jerk kleptocrats?

I am now reading the Hayakawa and will have to return here for revision as well as to continue. Language in Thought and Action. Very good. Read it. But read my Macroinformation first.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in pk Teaching, semiotics, thinking tools. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Symbol vs. Signal

  1. Charlie R Chisholm says:

    Hayakawa, along with Chase, Korzibsky and others helped turn by life from crap to 35 productive years. At 66, I stil think of myself as beginning life 35 years ago with these giants as parents.

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