Read This Title As You Are a Human Being Who Understands English

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“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. ”   — Mr.Keating, Dead Poets Society

A quote from the film Dead Poets Society may illustrate the light and beauty humans have discovered in poetry, as well as the primitive men read the distinct smell in the wind as a warning of a dangerous animal’s approaching. We used to recognize and interpret sign, and generate its meaning. Briefly, Deacon concludes: “Breaking down the term re-cognition says it all: to think [about something] again.” (Deacon, 77) Deacon’s piece at length talks about the interpretive process, the tricky relationship between Peirce’s “icon, index and symbol”. At first, the triad reasoning seemed confusing, until I found Deacon’s comment on Peirce’s contribution to the semiotics very interesting: “Peirce’s most fundamental and original insights about the process of interpretation: The difference between different modes of reference can be understood in terms of levels of interpretation.” (Deacon, 73) Indeed, the mystery of a sign is that it can be interpreted in a million ways: anything is a sign once it is interpreted as a sign. And that means, one thing can simultaneously be treated as an icon, an index, and a symbol as the content is defined by the context.

It’s a recursion, infinite creations in finite materials. Deacon does mention the word “recur”: “A languagelike Signal would exhibit a combinatorial form in which distinguishable elements are able to recur in different combinations.” (44) I find it fascinating. Think how many times a simple object “apple” has been interpreted and how fast these interpretations and meanings have gone through your brain. A picture of an apple is an icon when we see it, we think of the round, red, juicy apple, but wait, it becomes a symbol as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, a symbol of the original sin, also, isn’t it the apple that kills Alan Turing? And what about Steve Job’s Apple? The multiple mappings make our existing world so complex and colorful, and we as humans seem to naturally have the ability to associating, to make sense from nonsense, and make more senses out of that.

Take my meaningless title for instance, “Read This Title As You Are a Human Being Who Understands English”, if the person who reads it does not understand any language, he/she can’t see any words or letters but only the strokes of various shapes, maybe the character font is “cambria”, and the word size is “12”, at this point, the printed sentence is just an icon. It’s an index when I point out that it’s the title of this blog, to relate the sentence as a whole to the function of a title, and even a quote by myself. It becomes a symbol when you really read it and almost immediately understand its meaning. By that means, any words, sentences, letters, any languages are symbolic signs – Peirce’s symbols. By generating ideas and connecting different indexical signs, we create layers of symbolic significance, and that extends to metaphors. My sentence “Read this Title As You Are a Human Being Who Understands English” is no longer a simple sentence with literal meaning, but a metaphor for this week’s readings, a joke about semiotics and our mind. At this point, the metaphor is much more important than the language itself.

According to Lakoff, a metaphor goes deep into different domains of experience. “A metaphor can be understood as a mapping from a source domain to a target domain.”(Lakoff, pg190) How boring our lives would be without metaphors? Poetry will lose the depth of soul, and TV shows will lose their fun and vigour. Joe Wang, a Chinese comedian in America who has a PhD in bio-molecular, I always found his talk shows full of metaphors that are rich humor and let people laugh. In his performance at RTCA dinner, he joked about the questions from American history lessons: “Who is Benjamin Franklin?” And he thought: “The reason our convenience store gets robbed?” When asked: “What is the Second Amendment?” He thought again: “The reason our convenience store gets robbed?” Similar examples are too numerous to list, and my point is that, although we can treat thought as computation as Clark mentions in his piece, the great difference between human and machine lies in what the signs and symbols have endowed us: we don’t just follow the procedures but generate our existing ideas and keep digging new meaning in our lives. We laugh when we understand that new meaning, and the laugh itself is a representative of joy.



Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Excerpts from chapters 1 and 3.

George Lakoff, “Conceptual Metaphor.” Excerpt from Geeraerts, Dirk, ed. Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.

Andy Clark, Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. (Excerpts from Introduction, Chapters1-2)