Art and Language: What makes us human?

Many times I have had (sometimes heated) discussions with family members who claim that there is no essential difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom – that we are just slightly more ‘developed’ than they are, but there is no real gulf between the two groups. One of the areas in which I try to draw attention to in order to highlight what I believe to be a real, qualitative difference between us and other animals, is our use of language (as opposed to communication). The usual response I get to this is that ‘maybe they (the other animals) do have language, but we just don’t know about it yet.’

My response to that is usually something along the lines of ‘well, if they had language, I’m pretty sure that they would be able to tell us about it’ – and it is at this point that the discussion usually devolves into misunderstanding and short-temperedness. The point I will try to make here though, is that language involves the use of referents, of signs, which enable us to transcend the signal-and-response communication methods through which other animals transfer information and learn things. To try and make this clearer, I shall use some passages from Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, where he spends a chapter discussing human usage of semiotics, and how it is that this distinguishes us from other animals:

Many people, including some scientists, like to speak of the “language” of the Rumbaugh’s chimp, Skinner’s pigeons, and the Purdue parrot, to say nothing of the song of the humpback whale. These communications, however, bear little is any resemblance to human language. The former can be understood as dyadic events not qualitatively different, albeit much more complex, from other dyadic events in the Cosmos. The latter cannot be so understood…

…Triadic behaviour is that event in which sign A is understood by organism B, not as a signal to flee or approach, but as “meaning” or referring to another perceived segment of the environment. This triad is irreducible. That is to say, it cannot be understood as a sequence of dyads, as could the events say, when Miss Sullivan spelled C-A-K-E into Helen’s hand and Helen went to look for cake – like one of Skinner’s pigeons.

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1984), pp.94-95, Arena.

            What Percy means by dyadic events here is a simple, linear interaction between an organism and a signal from its environment. Such interactions can be multiplied and concatenated to the point where an organism is receiving or sending quite complex sets of signals from/to its environment (including other organisms), but the essential nature of the individual interactions does not raise above this level. What he means by triadic (and the irreducible triad) is the relationship between subject, signifier and a third category, the referent.

For example, with regard to the example given of ‘Helen’ mentioned above (this is Helen Keller, the American author and political activist who was born both deaf and blind), when the letters of the word ‘cake’ are spelt into her hand this is simply a signal given that is known to indicate a certain activity or action. A similar episode took place between Helen and Mrs Sullivan at a later date, with one important difference:

As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “w-a-t-e-r” several times…

…All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she added thirty new words to her vocabulary.

ibid, p.98.

            In this instance, Helen had learned that the water rushing over her hand somehow is the word ‘water’ – a mysterious connection had been made between the signifier and the referent, and a whole world of meaning had entered Helen’s world, and she had moved from the world of communication into the world of language. Walker Percy elaborates later in the chapter:

The world of the sign-user is a world of signs. The sign, as Saussure said, is a union of signifier (the sound image of a word) and signified (the concept of an object, action, quality). If you protest that your world does not consist of signs but rather of apples and trees and people and stars and walking and yellow, Saussure might reply that you don’t know any of these things but only a sensory input which your brain encodes as a percept, then abstracts as a concept which is in turn encoded and “known” under the auspices of language…

…If you do not believe that the word apple has been transformed by the percept apple, do this experiment: repeat the word apple fifty times. Somewhere along the way, it will suddenly lose its magic transformation into appleness and like Cinderella at midnight become the drab little vocable it really is.

ibid, pp.102-103.

            Percy provides further illustrative detail by pointing out the fact that cats (for example) have no myths, tell no stories to one another about the world – they simply signal to one another, and their world is not invested with meaning. We humans on the other hand, although still responsive to and dependent upon the various signals that we receive and send out, impose a world of meaning upon the universe.

It is this investment of our environment with meaning, the sense of transcendence of the mundane, that characterises our language and sets us apart from other animals. By referring to this third category, or sign, we can ‘name’ things (c.f.; Genesis 2:19-20), and also learn the languages of other groups who have given different names to the same objects. Hence my argument that, if other animals had language, they could tell us – they could point us to their signs, and we could point them to ours, and we could learn each other’s languages. This is however, manifestly not the case – we are irreducibly different in this respect.

Another thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is creativity, or more specifically, art. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton draws attention to this unique aspect of prehistoric man’s (and by implication all human) life, the significance of which is seldom noticed by secular commentators:

When all is said, the main fact that the record of the reindeer men attests, along with all other records, is that the reindeer man could draw and the reindeer could not. If the reindeer man was as much an animal as the reindeer, it was all the more extraordinary that he could do what all other animals could not. If he was an ordinary product of biological growth, like any other beast or bird, then it is all the more extraordinary that he was not in the least like any other beast or bird. He seems rather more supernatural as a natural product than as a supernatural one.

The Everlasting Man (2010), pp.18-19, Martino Publishing.

            Pre-empting arguments which would try to account for this massive difference by drawing a line of progression from the lower animals to the higher, finally culminating in man, Chesterton points out that not only does this ignore the astounding difference in kind between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom, but that, anthropologically speaking, there is zero evidence of such a progression taking place:

It is useless to begin by saying that everything was slow and smooth and a mere matter of development and degree. For in the plain matter like the pictures there is in fact not a trace of any such development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well…

…All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature. In other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone.

ibid, p.19.

            This gulf between humanity and other animal species has its parallel in physiological developments as well, in that evolutionary biologists have struggled to account for the huge difference in complexity between human brains and higher primates – a difference which doesn’t seem to have had any discernable evolutionary advantages, even when seen as developing incrementally. This phenomenon is known as hypertrophy – a word that, when applied here, falls into the category of terms that are used to make it sound like a certain phenomenon fits into our current philosophical paradigm, when really it doesn’t and we don’t know why (Marilynne Robinson has some interesting things to say about this in relation to modern scientism here) – and supplements the historical account given by Chesterton of man’s distinctiveness and strangeness when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom.

In summary then, one can see that humans, in these two respects of art and language, are quite distinct from other animals, and come across as something astounding and unique in the world – as Chesterton says, ‘a thing standing absolute and alone’. What is even more remarkable, from the Christian point of view, which already accepts the exceptional character of mankind, is that these two facets of our character also bear an incredible witness to the divine authorship of our nature. Firstly, God’s creation of the world was itself the prime act of creativity, and God, in His continuing act of creation, is the first and ultimate artist, from and in whom all other acts of creativity find their source.

Furthermore, in creating the world, He spoke all things in to existence – ‘In the beginning was the word…’ (John 1:1); ‘And God said, “Let there be light”…’ (Genesis 1:3). This Word of God was not just spoken once, but is the logos, the divine reason that is the basis of all structure and meaning in the universe, and without which we would not be able to ‘refer’ or ‘signify’ at all. All our language finds its root in this original and unending act of divine speech by which God brings His creation into being and invests it with the significance that humans alone are able to apprehend.

Truly then, in our ability to use language and to create works of art, we are given a small glimpse into part of what it means when we say we are created in the image and likeness of God, and a reminder of our special place in His plans for the redemption of all creation (c.f.; Romans 8:19-22). Only by conforming our wills to that of the One who both created and redeemed us, can we become the stewards and redeemers of the creation He has placed under our care. We are special, but we were made so for a reason – for, whatever Saint Paul meant in Romans 8, creation can only be redeemed through the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’. This liberty is a liberty of love, which alone can enable us to fulfil the Law, and can alone restore to fullness the divine image in us that is at present only imperfectly reflected.


13 thoughts on “Art and Language: What makes us human?

  1. I am, alas, anthropocentric. I am a speciesist. I say this knowing this may be viewed as bigotry in the future. I believe humans are made specially as the image of God.
    I don’t believe, however, many of things that people are responding to. We may become vegetarian or even vegan as a people because of zeitgeist or environmental reasons, or other technological advance. I don’t think, as some anthropocentrists do, that we must eat and use animals. And we remember that animals are also, in Genesis, soulish folk, and our job is to take care of them. For most, it means not messing up their ecosystem.
    If we took away all the bad stuff we do to animals unnecessarily, much of this conversation would be unnecessary.

    • Thank you for your comments; my apologies in advance though, but I can’t quite see what point it is you are making here, and so am not entirely sure how to respond! I believe humans are made specially in the image of God too, which was the crux of my post, and also that this is the only thing that truly guarantees any robust doctrine of human rights.

      With regard to vegetarianism, I also agree that the reasons people take up this ethos are, for the majority of vegetarians or vegans, rooted in environmental concerns which do not see humans as special, in fact even see us as being a species that should be allowed to die out because of the harm we do. It is these who I would properly term ‘speciesist’, as, despite espousing a worldview which denies special ontological significance to humanity, and seeing humans as ‘just another species’, yet in practice give preferential treatment to that species.

      I’m not sure what you mean by ‘soulish folk’ wrt animals in Genesis, but I don’t think there is anything in the text that justifies a belief in animals having a soul per se – all we can glean there is that God brought them into being, gave them life, and saw them as good. I also agree that having an anthropocentric view does not mean that we must eat and use animals. As I said in the post, we are called to be stewards of creation, and what Saint Paul was talking about in Romans 8 is (in my opinion) something along the lines of restoring a proper harmony to in creation by exercising our role of stewardship more responsibly. We are called to be God’s vice-regents on Earth, not the abusive or exploitative landlords we have sometimes become.

    • P.S. Have you read ‘The Lion’s World’ by Rowan Williams? He has some very interesting points to make about how C.S. Lewis uses talking animals (and, in Prince Caspian, enlivened trees) as a means of (amongst other things) awakening in the reader this sense of stewardship that is implicit in human specialness and dignity.

  2. I find this topic fascinating. Brendan Purcell has written an excellent book on this topic titled “From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Reflections on Human Origins”. Purcell identifies seven factors (grace notes as he calls them) that make humans unique:

    1. Genetic ancestors. All of homo sapiens can be traced back to a common female ancestor (mitochondrial DNA) and male ancestor that originated in Africa approximately 60,000 — 200,000 years ago.

    2. Biological traits for language. Humans have a large frontal area of the human brain and unique vocal tract that are designed for language.

    3. Long development period. Humans have an infancy and childhood development that lasts far longer than other animals (including other primates). This long nurturing period helps develop socialization and culture.

    4. Use of symbols. Humans are unique in their use of symbols such as art to convey meaning.

    5. Use of language to convey meaning of existence. While other hominoids may have had rudimentary language skills, homo sapiens appear to be unique in their use of language to express the meaning of existence.

    6. Human knowing. Citing philosopher Bernard Lonergan, Purcell cites three levels of human consciousness: sense experience; understanding of that sense experience; and judgment of whether that understanding is correct. Purcell states the scientific method as an example of this process. The ability to form imaginative hypotheses and to test them (our ability to grasp ultimate truth) transcends our physical senses.

    7. Free will. Purcell argues that humans have definitive free will so that we can choose to either follow or override our genetic instincts. As examples, he cites Socrates, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sophie Scholl of people who overcame their individual instinct for survival for the sake of truth and freedom of conscious.

    I highly recommend Purcell’s book but you can also find a summary from a speech he gave at the 50th Eucharistic Conference in 2012.

    W. Ockham

    • Dear William,

      Many thanks for the recommendation – that book sounds really interesting. I am under a self-imposed moratorium on book-buying at the moment (until I have read everything in my ‘to read’ pile that is!) but will bookmark that, and will certainly read the speech at the Eucharistic Conference. Thank you.

      I too find this area fascinating, and am amazed at the glibness with which many in today’s society will say that there is nothing special about human beings, or that we are just another animal, but a bit smarter. As you have outlined above, the differences between us and the rest of the animal kingdom are enormous, both qualitatively and in terms of the scale of difference.

      In fact, wrt point no. 6, I have often considered it to be one of the best means of persuading atheists to reconsider some of their premises to point out the irreducible strangeness of the fact that there exists in the universe a creature that is not only self-conscious, but can ask questions about its own origins. Is the existence of something in the universe that is able to ponder such questions not a strong indication that things are not as random and meaningless as some suggest? Doesn’t always work, but it at least gets a good conversation going!

      • Michael:

        I agree with you that Point 6 is a strong argument in favor of theism. From a purely materialistic standpoint, there is no evolutionary reason to inquire about origins or meaning.

        W. Ockham

        • Agreed! There doesn’t seem to me, from a purely materialistic standpoint, to ask any questions about purpose or meaning whatsoever. I highly recommend the Marilynne Robinson article that I linked to in my post – she provides a great critique of modern-day scientism, which I’m sure you would appreciate 🙂

  3. Thanks for the discussion on Percy’s triadic theory of language. As a Catholic, Percy was probably inspired by the sacraments toward a triadic theory in contrast to dyadic theories of other academics. The foundation of all triads is affirmed and celebrated in the sacraments of the Church, most notably the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

    • Thanks for your comments – very interesting.

      As far as I know, Percy’s triadic theory of human language was directly based on his study of semiotics, particularly Charles Peirce. What he found there may well have overlapped with sacramental theology, but I don’t think that was the original inspiration for his theory.

      I am intrigued though, as I haven’t heard the sacraments described in this way before – how is is that they are triadic in nature?

  4. Pingback: Man and Beast | Journey Towards Easter

  5. Pingback: Art, Love, and Creation | Journey Towards Easter

  6. Pingback: To Know Good and Evil | Journey Towards Easter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s