The structure of thought and the life and death of "ghosts"

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel (William Blake)

Few authors are at all prolific after their death, but  the brilliant Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, died before his greatest book was written. Two of his students ghosted The Course in General Linguistics about a century ago, based on notes taken in his classes.

Saussure proposed that language provides the categories we use in order to engage in symbolic thought. As a result, language both makes possible such thought and limits what can be thought. When we come up against those limits, we have to invent new language, or new meanings for old words. He further asserted that a word consists of the sign and the signed, the sign being the word that represents the idea, the signed being the underlying meaning that the spoken or written word evokes. Therefore, the structure of language is the structure of thought, and is a web of meaning rather than an accumulation of individual words.

Saussure advocated studying language synchronically, that is, at a given point in time, which permitted a study focused on the structure of language and differentiated it from philology, which studies the history of the development of language.

Structuralism is one of the most important concepts in social theory, though it has fallen out of favor. Critics have argued that it is ahistorical and deterministic; some have portrayed it as a sort of prison, a rigid framework that dictates all we can think or be. In my opinion, it need not be thought of in this way. The problem with structuralism is that theorists have given insufficient thought to where the structure comes from, ceding this to the older study of philology. To my mind, this has led political theory down a blind alley.

Anyone who speaks a language can tell you, language is not static, nor do linguists make such an error. In political theory, the most famous theorist to use structuralism used psychology as a framework as well, and used Freudian psychology at that. I don't object that Freud is old hat -- after all, he was a contemporary to Saussure -- but it does seem to me that it would be more fruitful to use ideas still widely considered true in the field if you are going to rely on psychology. One of these is the importance of play.

All mammals learn through play, a concept introduced by Karl Groos in The Play of Animals (1898) and The Play of Man (1901), this being one major difference between mammals and other types of creatures. Learning language is a form of play; play is creative and often competitive. Groos stated in The Play of Animals, "Animals can not be said to play because they are young and frolicsome, but rather they have a period of youth in order to play; for only by doing so can they supplement the insufficient hereditary endowment with individual experience, in view of the coming tasks of life."

People are not eternal; we strut our little hour or two, and are gone. Each generation must learn language, play with it, and adapt it to that generation's needs. Further, if our culture and society are a form of structure, each of us must find our place in the structure; we are not bees, born to our station. If society were static, this would be easy, as we could find a place in the structure that already existed. Society is never static. It may change rapidly or slowly, but it changes, in part because each new human being must find the meaning of its own life within the structure of society. This can be easy or painful, depending on how well one fits the existing structure, and the extent to which one must invent oneself. The need to define oneself is one of the most human of our needs. A bacteria doesn't share it, an ant is defined genetically, other primates must find their place in the social hierarchy, but need not wonder What it's All About. It is uniquely human to need to define the meaning of one's life.

We do not do this by ourselves. To a great extent, we are made up of what we have learned, from people we've met, books we've read, events we've witnessed. None of us share these elements exactly with any other human being, therefore each of us is a unique amalgam of things we've learned. This means each of us can define ourselves differently.

Richard Dawkins gave us a powerful concept for thinking about what builds the structure. His concept of memes, self-replicating strings of information, provides a way of thinking about structures that is adaptive, organic and creative. Memes come from people, who explore information, adapt it to their needs, combine it with other information, and produce new ideas. Memes have been misinterpreted; I have a book on my shelf that calls them “Viruses of the Mind.” Ick.

Memes make up the structure of the mind just as nerve cells make up the structure of the brain, and we produce them just as naturally. One might say they are analogous to both genes and cells, but that also fails to describe their importance. The structure of human thought must consist of memes of different levels forming structures of varying complexity. Every word is a meme. Letters are a meme at a level above words, because without words, we would never have invented letters for them to be made up of. I am now using letters to describe words which fit into a structure of language that enables me to communicate about memes, which concept is in itself a meme. Without those structures, I would be unable to play with the concept, but without my mind, there would be no one to play with the concept, communicate it to others, and replicate it in their minds.

This give us a concept for the importance of authorship. Consider Hobbes' concept of authority: The author of the act is the one who has the right to act, and other can be granted the right to act on say-so of that author, that is, on authority. This places authorship as one of the most important aspects of legitimate social action. For the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, authorship was shrouded. When thesis met antithesis, it was resolved on the level of production, in a black box free of human agency. It seemed to come from nowhere and control everyone. Consider his views on family:

Does one now have to point out that in addition to the three great narcissistic wounds inflicted on humanity (that of Galileo, that of Darwin, and that of the unconscious), there is a fourth and even graver one which no one wishes to have revealed? Since time immemorial the family has been the very site of the sacred and therefore of power and religion. It is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful ideological state apparatus." (Althusser 1993 104-5).

Given the father he had, one can sympathize with his view. But something must shape our consciousness, or we wouldn't have one. Absorbing our culture from our family is not necessarily a thing that restricts our freedom. It gives us the ability to participate in culture, to be fully human.

In our actual lives, authorship is essential, because information needs a head to work in. True, we may write things down and put them in a relational database, but finding meaning is a human endeavor. We have the desire to create meaning, and find the means to do it. Playing with ideas allows us to recombine them. The inventions of our play help define us, give us our place in the world and in addition, they offer a form of immortality.

One form of immortality is to have children, and offer the future our genetic material. Because we are thinking animals and have minds shaped by of memes as well as bodies shaped by genes, we have the possibility of another form of immortality. We can pass on the substance of our thought and the patterns of our actions to others. Even if we are not individually remembered by name, each person we interact with is changed by interacting with us. Whether we are polite or rude, thoughtful or thoughtless, we imprint this on those we meet, and they can respond by copying or rejecting our actions and thoughts. We make not just our place in the world in which we move, but the world which settles in our wake.

In that wake, the ghost of our thoughts and actions lives on, whether we wish it to or not. It is a kind of involuntary (and conditional) immortality of which most of us remain unaware.

That immortality, or course, depends on the continuing existence of the structure. About 90,000 years ago, shell jewelry, use of pigments and beautifully crafted tools appeared, signaling the appearance of an advanced neolithic civilization; there is even some indication of symbolic behavior as far back as 160,000 years ago. These early signs of upper paleolithic culture disappeared, reappearing several times before civilization “took” permanently (one hopes) about 45,000 years ago. Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas of University College, London1 theorize that the repeated disappearance of cultures is related to declines in population. In other words, the structure of thought behind early neolithic civilization required more minds than existed following droughts or other disasters that reduced population below a level that would sustain it. This might be called the death of ghosts. Those patterns of thought and action that had entered the structure of thought and culture died when there were not human agents to carry them. Each time this happened, some memory must have remained, a lost Atlantis in the minds of those who carried memories of a greater time, and felt the loss of wisdom that came when the structure of that culture could no longer be sustained. Yet what greater proof could there be of the agency of human thought in the formation of structures than the collapse of structures when there are not enough human agents?

Currently we are seeing the extinction of many languages, which must involve a death of ghosts for the cultures linked to those languages. So the death of ghosts can come about from the withering of a culture without a decline in population, if members of that culture decide to participate in another culture and enrich it instead.

I use the term ghosts to emphasize the human agency of thought. We are made up in part of those we've learned from, and they live on in our minds as we live on in the minds of those we interact with. We make up the living cells of the structure, carry it, shape it, and pass it along. The ghosts of those who came before us live on in us, and we will live on in the minds of those we've shaped.

1Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior

Powell et al.
Science 5 June 2009: 1298-1301
DOI: 10.1126/science.1170165

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
On being a ghost in a soft machine