I Didn’t Know You Cared

Quadriga Let’s start with waking up in the morning. My bedroom is lighter than it was several hours ago, perhaps even admitting a beam of light or two. I infer that it’s time to get out of bed, or at least to look at the clock. Where is the “meaning” in the ambient light? Or if it’s dark, grey, and cloudy, I expect rain; is there “meaning” in the clouds? In the lack-of-brightness?

We who are able to, we identify cues that experience has taught us to associate with situations — and to respond on the basis of that experience. Where (as in these examples) the cues to which we respond are not (typically) associated with intentional agency, we do not need to divine someone’s thoughts in order to ascribe some sort of “meaning” to sunshine, or clouds, or chilly winds, or long tracts of muddy field, or whatever. To this extent, we understand well enough the syntax of “meaning” in situations apart from [human] intentional agency. “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’”


[I do not mean here to open the canned worms of “pre-linguistic experience,” though that’s manifestly relevant. The pattern of inference from visual stimuli — and as I will argue later, from other sorts of sensuous perception — doesn’t depend on linguistic mediation, however much those phenomena may be saturated with linguistic associations.

People seemed a lot more interested in yesterday’s paragraphs than I expected. Being the sort of academic character who I am, I will endeavour to gratify that attention by expatiating on the topic — but I’ll continue at a two-paragraph pace, both to save wear and tear on my brain and to oblige myself to be conscious of what I want to say and how it might hang together.]

3 thoughts on “I Didn’t Know You Cared

  1. Pardon the diversion/digression, but I really don’t think that “pre-linguistic experience” goes quite far enough. In your examples in the previous post you used what might be termed “symbolic” visual/sensual experiences that may or may not be characterized as linguistic, e.g. how would someone interpret weather symptoms/symbols if they had not been exposed to discourse about it?

    Where I always got crossed-up in arguments with language-centered folks is with the concept that meaning might not be entirely invested in symbolic activity at all. If I wake up in the middle of the night and need to negotiate my way to another room I experience the space without interpretation or symbolic activity, either visually or non visually. The space I occupy holds significance or even “meaning” to me that is not contingent on linguistic, or even symbolic significance. At least where I stopped thinking it through a few years ago. I tended to label such “meanings” as pre-symbolic, not just pre-linguistic.

  2. You’re getting ahead of my pace, Jeff! I think one of the outcomes of picking up the stick at the sensuous end rather than the glyphic end (to characterise the spectrum roughly) involves a dissolution of the category “symbolic.” That is: do we not think of something as “symbolic” mainly as an after-effect of determining that it’s not “literal”?

    I hesitate about proposing that X or Y goes on in the mind of a human who has subsisted apart from language, since I’m not sure what that condition means, or how we creatures of language could figure out how one gets at the “pre-linguistic.” That being said, I’d imagine that a pattern of experience-consequence such as results in tool-using behaviour among crows and chimpanzees would suffice to illustrate inferential reasoning from natural conditions — does it not?

    By the way, before I hang up, I should thank you for all you’ve posted on this general topic, and for your thesis and photos. I will probably show your influence often as I write out what I’m thinking, and I won’t remember well enough when to cite you.

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