Thursday, December 16, 2010

Icon, Index, and Symbol

I would like to continue addressing my “radical hypothesis” that the mindset for both making and listening to music presumes a context grounded on symbolic forms, which need not necessarily directly involve the lexical primitives of any system of music notation.  This raises the somewhat perplexing question of just what those symbolic forms are, if they are not grounded in the notational systems that musicians already use.  One clue may be found in  those three stages proposed by Ernst Cassirer as a sort of gradus to the Parnassum of linguistic behavior.

In philosophy it often seems to be the case that good things come in threes.  Where Cassirer is concerned his three stages bear a striking resemblance to an earlier famous “trichotomy” developed by Charles Sanders Peirce in his pioneering work in semiotics.  Cassirer gives no sign of having been aware of semiotics as a discipline in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, and he recognizes Peirce only for his pioneering work in symbolic logic.  Consider, however, what happens when we examine Cassirer’s three stages in the context of Peirce’s published work.

Drawing again on Alfred Schutz’ account of these stages, let us begin with the first of them:

It [language] is first mimic expression, imitation of the sensuous perception by sound, so characteristic of the language of the child and primitive man.

Compare this with the first of what Peirce calls “three kinds of representations” specified in his 1868 paper for the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “On a New List of Categories:”

Those whose relation to their objects is a mere community in some quality, and these representations may be termed Likenesses.

Peirce would later call these representations icons.

Next we turn to Cassirer’s second stage:

The second level is that of analogical expression.  Here the relationship between sound and designated content is not of a material nature, but that of an analogy of formal structure.

This is both similar and different to what Peirce had in mind for his second kind of representation:

Those whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact, and these may be termed Indices or Signs.

Where the difference emerges is in what Peirce means by “correspondence;”  but, before considering that distinction, let us move to Cassirer’s third stage:

Only the third level is that of symbolic expression proper.

Peirce describes his third kind of representation as follows:

Those the ground of whose relation to their objects is an imputed character, which are the same as general signs, and these may be termed Symbols.

The operative adjective here is “imputed.”  It anticipates one of the critical properties of symbols that emerged in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, which is that there is no inherent relationship between the symbol as a signifying artifact and what it is that is represented by the symbol (i.e. the relationship is only “imputed” by those who use the symbol, thus sharing Ludwig Wittgenstein’s approach to how we “impute” meaning to linguistic constructs).

It seems as if, working through his own devices, Cassirer developed a system that parallels Peirce’s icon-index-symbol progression with an alternative progression that we might call “icon-onomatopoeia-symbol.”  This makes sense if we think strictly about that process by which we bring order to all those signals that bombard our senses;  and it is our capacity to tease order out of that "blooming, buzzing confusion" of sensations described in Chapter XIII of William James' The Principles of Psychology that probably distinguishes our ability to listen from, as Igor Stravinsky put it, the capacity of ducks only to hear.  However, as Gerald Edelman observed in developing his model of consciousness, that capacity to make sense of “exteroceptive” signals received by our sensory system may be applied recursively to the “interoceptive” signals given off by the brain as part of its own sensemaking behavior.  The correspondence of indices is not necessarily one of analogy.  It may also represent a “pointer” to another object, such as an interoceptive signal.

What this seems to mean is that it is not sufficient to make sense of what we (like ducks) hear when music is played to us.  Thinking about music is not only bringing order to sensory signals but also recursively bringing order to our introspective examination of how we are responding to those signals.  In other words the thoughts associated with a listening experience involve not only identifying “objects of perceptual categorization” but also building a bridge between those objects and the vaster repertoire of the objects of our individual consciousness.  Music thus taps into our consciousness in ways that elude verbal behavior, even at its most expressive.

This may get at why the effort of writing about musical performances is so challenging.  At a level of perceptual categorization, it would seem to involve nothing more that accounting for the perceptual objects of our sensory order;  but that is not where the music is, so to speak.  The music is on the other side of that metaphorical bridge in the realm of individual consciousness.  This implies the corollary that the concept of “writing about music objectively” is inherently an oxymoron.  Music only exists within the recesses of our own being and our conscious awareness of those recesses;  and one way of reading Plato’s Theaetetus is to recognize that this criterion for the existence of music is also a criterion for the existence of knowledge itself.

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