GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 2, 2013

A brief note on terminology

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:03 pm

I have always been dissatisfied with the use of the term “ostensive” to designate the originary sign. Yes, the sign is ostensive—it involves, necessarily, some kind of pointing—but it is not only ostensive and, more importantly, “ostensive” is a commonly used concept in linguistics and cognitive psychology and in those contexts has a much more narrow meaning. “Ostensive” in those contexts means pointing to an object under conditions where sign users already know what it means to point, and in discussions of language in particular it gives the misleading impression that the originary hypothesis is vulnerable to the critique of Augustine’s model of language learning advanced by Wittgenstein in the opening pages of his Philosophical Investigations. The distinction Wittgenstein makes there, between language as designation of objects, and language as following a set of mostly tacitly understood rules is foundational for contemporary thinking about language and much else. The term “ostensive” makes it sound like GA is on the wrong side of this divide when in fact we are most certainly not: that signs only make sense on a “scene,” within an “event,” means that central to sign use is the configuring of complex scenes and events, whose ultimate constitution lies beyond the comprehension of any participant. Language is a tacit, open-ended, rule governed activity for GA no less than for any Wittgensteinian derived mode of reflection or inquiry. We just insist that the rules have an origin in the urgency with which human beings must defer the ever-present potentiality of violence.

If not “ostensive,” then what? Well, the originary sign is also iconic—it represents because it is “similar” to the act of appropriation it aborts; it also, in its completion, imitates the object (qua God) itself in urging that renunciation. But it is also not just iconic, because “iconic” as some of the same problems as “ostensive”—what counts as “resemblance” is itself culture bound and therefore can’t unproblematically account for the origin of culture. The originary sign is iconic and ostensive, because it is constitutive—that is, it establishes the very conditions under which iconic and ostensive signs are possible; but it does so ostensively and iconically. So, we need all three of these concepts to grasp the originary sign in all its paradoxicality. Fortunately, there is much overlap between the three words, making a portmanteau possible. “Icon” contains the “con” with which “constitutive” begins, and “constitutive” contains the “st” near the beginning of “ostensive” (with an “o” separated from the “st” by a rather unobtrusive “n”), allowing us to compose the following: the “iconstitensive” sign. (The “ut,” as far as I can determine, does not comprise part of the root of “constitute,” so we can lose it.) The stuttering “ostensive” one might hear in “iconstitensive” reflects, we might say, the hesitation that is also an essential ingredient of the originary sign, and one can hear all three words in this new one out of many without that new word being unduly difficult to pronounce, it seems to me.


  1. This is kind of a side issue to your main point; but doesn’t the originary hypothesis suggest that the referential and the functional (convention-driven) view of language is a false dichotomy? The originary sign refers unambiguously to the central object, but it also signifies it as significant. There may well be some tension between the referential and ethical functions, as when we talk about God for example, but in general, language does both: serves an ethical function while referring to objects or ideas. BTW, the way I understand the later Wittgenstein is that, not only is language usage conventional, as per his idea of language games, but also that language usage is functional, agreeing with pragmatism.

    Another thing that seems problematic, to me, about the idea of the ostensive is that it seems to imply that we are merely naming a subject-object without making a predication about the object. What I mean is that when we point or refer to something ostensively, we are also making a claim about its significance, implicitly a declarative sentence. As Charlotte wrote, ostensively, in her web: “some pig!” meaning “he is not just any pig but a very special one.”

    Comment by Q — December 5, 2013 @ 11:10 am

  2. This is where the question of a “new way of thinking” becomes important–yes, the originary hypothesis abolishes the distinctions between referential, functional and ethical–but there is no word for a sign that does all that. I don’t disagree with you about Wittgenstein–his is the best attempt, prior to Gans, to encapsulate in a single understanding all these dimensions of the sign. The “language games” are functional, of course–they are how we do things together. But Wittgenstein can’t explain why there are “rules” and “games” in the first place. I think following the progression from ostensive to imperative to interrogative to declarative can enable us to meet Wittgenstein on his own terrain and “annex” it for GA. I very much admire his methods and thought experiments–looking carefully at how words work in one use differently than in another, showing how words bring a particular “grammar” along with them, exposing certain philosophical language games by showing how certain formulations can’t really be saying what one thinks they are saying, etc. In each case we can see the pragmatic, ethical and transcendent rubbing up against each other. I hope someone carries out an originary reading of Philosophical Investigations one day.

    Naturally, I agree with your second point as it bolsters my own claim that “ostensive” is an inadequate name for what we mean by the originary sign.

    Comment by adam — December 5, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

  3. I appreciate your comments. A question: are you suggesting that the originary sign is unique, that it should be distinguished from subsequent signs?

    Comment by Q — December 5, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

  4. Actually, no–I think all signs are “iconstitensive.” In Peirce’s terms, although I’m not sure he ever quite acknowledges it, all signs are ultimately iconic and indexical and symbolic, even if one or the other is predominant in a particular instance of sign use.

    Comment by adam — December 6, 2013 @ 4:41 am

  5. I assume you’re talking about human signs, not animal signals. How are written words iconic, or indexical?

    Comment by Q — December 6, 2013 @ 11:40 am

  6. Yes, of course human signs.

    How are written words iconic or indexical? Yes, that’s the strongest way of posing the question because written words seem most unmistakably symbolic. Let’s start with their indexicality. A book (a collection of written words) published by Oxford University Press means something different than the exact same words, in the exact same order, self-published by a college drop-out. The written word, that is, always has a provenance, the hands and institutions it has passed through, and that is part of its meaning. The same goes for spray-painted vs. scrawled vs. neatly handwritten vs. printed, or the choice of fonts. One of Peirce’s examples of an indexical sign is a hole in a wall which is a sign of a bullet having passed through. The way in which writing looks, and the way it has been transmitted, signifies what it has passed through.

    The iconic dimension of writing seems even more obscure. But when we read, we don’t read individual letters–we read entire words, phrases and sentences all at once. (Many mistakes in reading and copying result from this.) In other words, we don’t decode the phonetic alphabet when we read–we read on the model of previous texts, which the one we are reading now “resembles”–in that sense, the written word signifies iconically, on the model of previously read texts.

    Comment by adam — December 6, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

  7. On one level, anything and everything in the world is an index of other things, and iconic of (resembling) other things, and animals interpret their environment in precisely these terms.

    Comment by Q — December 7, 2013 @ 9:43 am

  8. Then we share much with animals–all we don’t share is that the indexical and iconic is, for us, always mediated through the symbolic.

    Comment by adam — December 7, 2013 @ 10:21 am

  9. I agree that bald use of “ostensive” is problematic; it’s too easy to be dismissed by philosophers who think this is merely naive. Gans used the term “designative,” in an attempt to distinguish (ostensive) pointing from (designative) sacralizing. One doesn’t point to God; one designates the sacred locus in which he resides, usually by bowing one’s head and muttering a prayer. The notion that the originary sign is “iconstitensive” — i.e., made up of iconic, constitutive and ostensive elements — is nice, but I don’t think the neologism is going to persuade anybody. Kenneth Burke said that the first sign was an imperative, “No!” — pointing as interdiction. I think this is a nice way to think about pointing. Ostensive pointing is possible only once the object is divorced from appropriative action. So, as you say, the action becomes a symbol — a metasign — that iconically resembles the appropriative gesture.

    Comment by Richard — December 23, 2013 @ 8:33 am

  10. You may be right about the fate if “iconstitensive”–I never know what will persuade anybody, I’m not persuaded that anybody else does, and I don’t think it would do much good to know. At any rate, the elements you introduce would need to be addressed in a new name for the originary sign. Would “designative” be distinct from “ostensive” in the philosophy of language/linguistic discourses where they are both used? It seems to me that to see designative as sacralizing would be the same kind of “stretching” of a much more “neutral” word as is the case with “ostensive.” Burke’s notion certainly comes very close, while itself still singling out a particular element of the originary configuration (it would need to be a “no!” that simultaneously establishes the meaning of “no!”). It’s an element that needs to be included, though–perhaps (not that this will make it any more persuasive!) by placing the “n” before the word, in the same way “one” becomes “none” and “ever” becomes “never” so as to yield “niconstitensive.”

    Comment by adam — December 23, 2013 @ 10:33 am

  11. I think the biggest hurdle is that the ostensive is associated with good old-fashioned empiricism. You associate the sign with the object through experience. But this is the structure of indexical rather than symbolic reference. It seems to me that symbolic reference is the more precise term for ostensive pointing. Deacon’s use of Pierce’s categories certainly helped make this clear to me. The key is to break the habitual indexical/empirical associations. You can use your index finger to point at anything, but this is only because the pointing finger negates the habitual associations of personal experience. My experience of the object is threaded through your experience of the object; that is why I think the object is worth pointing at in the first place. What I liked about your earlier comments is your statement that the outstretched finger is an icon of the other’s outstretched finger. It refers to the object only because it also refers to the idea or meaning of the pointing finger. The finger as symbol. As for negation, the middle finger is best for that. More seriously, the pointing finger has to negate the appropriative gesture before it can point. According to Tomasello, chimps don’t point. He cites an experiment in which food was hidden in one of three buckets; the experimenter helpfully points to the right bucket, but the chimps select randomly each time. But when the experimenter makes a concerted effort to reach the bucket by making grasping gestures, etc., the chimps select the right bucket. He takes this as evidence that chimps don’t cooperate by sharing knowledge but they do anticipate, especially when it comes to food. The trouble with the empirical/indexical model is that it is unable to explain this aspect of the originary sign. Incidentally, Burke isn’t the only one to say that the first sign is a negation of the object (“No!”). Gellner puts it that way too in his discussion of the origin of culture. Interestingly, he says that this is basically what Wittgenstein realized after he wrote (and then refuted) his own theory of reference in the Tractatus.

    Comment by Richard — December 23, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

  12. Yes, the symbolic is what is lacking in the “ostensive,” but I think “constitutive” is equivalent to “symbolic,” or, at least, the origin of the symbolic. The reason we couldn’t quite call the originary sign “symbolic” is because the originary sign brings the symbolic into being, o calling that sign “symbolic” is anachronistic. Only humans could “constitute,” or put forth a sign that does so–constituting means “establishing together,” and that’s what the “symbolic” does once the sign system is in place to do so.

    Your reference to Wittgenstein via Gellner is very interesting–I assume that’s Gellner’s reading of W, but how does he get there. I’m never surprised to find W close to GA, but that he considered the negation of the object (or its appropriation) to be central is new to me.

    Comment by adam — December 23, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

  13. I don’t know Wittgenstein well enough to say what he said about negation. Gellner’s reference to Wittgenstein comes in the context of the former’s discussion of the origin of culture. For Gellner, the more important figure is Durkheim. Gellner says somewhere that the later Wittgenstein is basically a vastly inferior version of Durkheim. No doubt this tells us more about Gellner’s antipathy toward the kind of linguistic philosophy he encountered at Oxford after the war.

    Isn’t the symbolic always constitutive? Even when I point to the book on the table, I am constituting a new scene of attention. Couldn’t I say, equally, that the term constitutive is anachronistic because you can’t constitute something until you have symbolic signs? The way you want to use the term seems to me better served by the term “originary.”

    Comment by Richard — December 23, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

  14. I suppose in the end the real test of these terms is (as Wittgenstein might say) in their use. I think that “constitutive” gets at the paradox of the originary in a way that “symbolic” doesn’t–if we think about the political notion of constitution, it involves a collective construction of legitimacy that must retroactively legitimate itself (the “people” constitutes itself by imagining itself to be already constituted–otherwise, how could the constitution be possible?). And critical theory, since Kant, has been using “constitutive” in a very similar way, to refer to that which must “groundlessly” be presupposed before we can presuppose anything else. So, yes, the symbolic is always a constitutive–the question is really which of these near synonyms better clarifies what we understand to have happened on the originary scene (and, therefore, every subsequent scene).

    Of course, the centrality of “originary” is not in question–the discussion of terms like “iconic,” “symbolic,” “constitutive,” “ostensive,” etc., is about what comprises the originary–what makes the originary sign originary.

    As you suggest, if Gellner thinks Wittgenstein is an inferior version of Durkheim–well, taking nothing away from Durkheim (they don’t really cover the same field and therefore aren’t exactly in “competition”), but he doesn’t understand Wittgenstein very well.

    Comment by adam — December 23, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress