(Or, Why Steven Pinker Has One)
Some months ago, I received a check for several hundred dollars from Harvard University, because I had been authorized by President Lawrence H. Summers to attend church regularly and tell children about Jesus. No, I am not joking. Believe it or not, that is a true statement, although I acknowledge its wild incongruity.
In fact, the incongruity of that statement is in a sense the point of this essay, but we will get to that in a moment—but first, I will explain how it is that President Summers paid me money to teach children about Jesus. For the past two years, I have taught Sunday School at the Memorial Church, where I have regularly read the Bible lesson and taught the Affirmation class, meaning that I have been responsible for teaching children the Bible and the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Although I love my job and would do it for free, it comes with a small stipend which I have received each year. Now, where does President Summers come in, you ask? Well, as it happens, the Memorial Church is a somewhat unusual entity here at Harvard, reporting to no one but the Office of the President. Its esteemed minister, Prof. Peter J. Gomes, is thereby authorized to preach and maintain the activities of the church, and in turn, he has made sure that the church maintains a healthy children’s education program. And so, as you can see, there is a sense (albeit stretched, I know) in which I can truthfully claim that I was authorized by President Summers to tell kids about Jesus, and even got paid to boot.
But you and I both know that this is, shall we say, not the normal course of events here at fair Harvard. By some combination of hard work, Providence, and the sheer force of inertia, the Memorial Church continues to function and thrive as a Christian house of worship here on campus. Even so it has become increasingly odd, with each passing year, for a Christian church to stand in the middle of a great secular university. It isn’t very difficult to measure the vast cultural change that has taken place since the days of old Mather, Dunster, and Winthrop. To take only two examples, I seriously doubt that pious old Mr. Winthrop would have cared much for the annual Debauchery party in the house that bears his name, and I cannot even begin to imagine what Rev. Cotton Mather would have thought of the Lather festivities held yearly in his memory. Somehow I’m guessing he would have called down fire from heaven, rather than just calling up HUPD to help usher drunk soapy kids into the shuttle bus.
You begin to catch my meaning, I am sure. To put it bluntly, it is no longer clear to many of us how religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has anything to do with our lives. This is not to say that religion has ceased to be a significant force in the world—all one has to do to disabuse oneself of that notion is to read the morning paper—and nor is it to say that the modern university has ceased to concern itself with matters of religion. But there is an important difference, as I am sure you will recognize, between acknowledging that religion is a significant force within the world at large, and acknowledging that the doctrines of religion are in any meaningful sense true, such that they make absolute claims over your life and give it purpose, direction, fulfillment, and meaning. A great many of us, here in the liberal secular Northeast, are quite wary of religion, and apart from maintaining the traditions of our ancestors (Passover and Yom Kippur; Christmas and Easter), we do not consider ourselves to be very religious, and in fact likely have a difficult time even conceiving of what that might mean. Oftentimes we consider ourselves to be spiritual, but would never think of ourselves as religious, seeing as how that rings uncomfortably with echoes of the past—with old-fashioned notions of guilt and sin, with unscientific anti-modern fundamentalism, with unfashionable moral codes and sexual strictures, and with any number of other items that we’d much rather leave behind us, gently but firmly consigned to the dustbin of history.
And so, given all this, you may be justly wondering why we even bother to have a church in the middle of Harvard Yard, seeing as how our culture has, in large part, moved on. Certainly you might wonder why it is that I bother to attend—besides, that is, my handsome paycheck from President Summers. In fact, given all the nasty baggage that goes along with organized religion—like patriarchy, war, discrimination, absolutism, harsh moral codes, and all the rest—I would completely understand if you simply threw up your hands, put this magazine in the recycling bin where it belongs, and dedicated your time to something a bit less nebulous and a lot less dangerous.
You could, I suppose, do all of this. Nevertheless, I would like to ask you for a moment to suspend judgment and take me up on a modest proposal. Quite simply, I would like you to entertain the possibility that the entirety of human experience cannot be explained by the current methodology of natural science—such as it is practiced by Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and Jared Diamondand, consequently, that something like “religion” is therefore a possible, and even a necessary, way to understand who we are as human beings. I am not asking you to discard science, evolutionary biology, or anything of the sort. Instead I am asking you to consider that there might be something unique about the human experience that does not so easily lend itself to these sorts of explanations—something that points, in fact, to a realm of human existence that can only be described with rather old-fashioned words like authenticity, meaning, purpose, soul, and even God.
During this past semester, I have been taught by Prof. Steven Pinker that the human soul does not exist, and that religion is a natural phenomenon, thus making religious belief incompatible with science. In what follows, however, I aim to suggest a way in which Steven Pinker might be wrong, pertaining to the uniquely human phenomenon of language. Unfortunately I am not nearly as learned as Prof. Pinker, and so cannot hope to provide anything more than an amateur’s analysis, based upon ideas that are not even my own. By the end of this essay, however, I hope to have shown you that some notion of the “soul,” and also of religious belief, is in fact the best way to make sense of our unique status in the world as the only species that talks, laughs, lies, weaves fables, cracks jokes, searches for meaning, and gets itself into the crazy, glorious, and often disastrous predicaments of humankind.
Sadly, there will not be time to address the many objections you undoubtedly have about organized religion, and about Christianity in particular. And we will not even be able to touch on the innumerable other ways in which men and women have come to faith in God—if you come to the end of this essay and think it is quite shaky indeed to rest the edifice of religion upon the logical argument which we shall here lay forth (or, indeed, upon any sort of logical argument at all), you would be right. I am not a religious person because of this argument, and I would not expect anyone else to be either. Even so, I hope you will soon begin to agree with me that the gift of language is exceptionally curious, and in fact seems to point to the necessary existence of a human self, or soul, that produces it—and (if you like) why Steven Pinker actually might have a soul after all. Our guide, in the task ahead, will be a somewhat unusual figure in twentieth-century letters, whom I like to call, for reasons that will soon become clear, a “doctor of the soul”—the philosopher and novelist Walker Percy.
If you have been previously introduced to Walker Percy, it is most likely by means of his first novel, The Moviegoer, which was awarded the National Book Award in 1962. Percy was trained as a physician, but spent forty years of his life as a novelist and philosopher, producing six novels, two book-length essay collections, and an extended theoretical work, Lost in the Cosmos, that can best be described as a sort of existential self-help book. One year before his death in 1990, he was presented with the prestigious Jefferson Award by the National Endowment for the Humanities, in recognition of his status as one of America’s leading men of letters. Proof of his enduring impact may be had simply by walking over to Widener Library, where one will find row upon row of literary criticism devoted to his work. Still today, it is remarkable how many Percy devotees one may find—and when I say devotee, I do mean it. There are a multitude of writers, of course, with well-earned reputations for brilliance of style, keenness of wit, and profundity of thought, but there are only a few whose books have a way of changing people’s lives.
Walker Percy is such an author, and while his writings are widely regarded for the consummate skill with which he weaves his plots and turns his phrases, his books are perhaps most remarkable for the often deep effect they have upon their readers. They seem to diagnose something, as it were, about the soul of modern man, and prescribe a solution that continues to arrest and compel. But I must apologize, since I am getting ahead of myself. You will no doubt be wondering how a man who began his career as a medical doctor ended it as a philosopher-novelist. I shall do my best to explain.
Walker Percy was born on May 28, 1916, in Birmingham, Alabama, to an aristocratic old Southern family of considerable means. His father, Leroy Percy, was an Ivyleague educated Birmingham lawyer with a country-club house and a great deal of respect in the community, who nevertheless committed suicide when young Walker was only thirteen. Two years later, his mother followed him in death due to an automobile accident, which Walker believed all his life to have also been suicide. Thus orphaned at the age of fifteen, Walker and his two younger brothers were adopted by their bachelor uncle, William Alexander Percy, who thankfully did not commit suicide but nonetheless was constantly plagued by a deep depression. Upon graduating high school and leaving the dark, gloomy world in which he was raised, Walker studied at the University of North Carolina and at Columbia Medical School, from which he obtained his M.D. in 1941. Later in life, he commented that his pursuit of science as a young man was due in large part because of its order and regularity—perhaps his own life did not make sense, but science did, and for a time it provided the youthful Percy with a way to make sense of the world. No sooner had he gained his M.D., however, than he contracted tuberculosis, and was hospitalized for three years in a New York sanitarium.
It was here, isolated and ill, that the ordered world of science began to fail Percy, forcing him to finally face down the demons that had haunted him since his troubled childhood. All his scientific training, Percy realized, was not enough to give his life meaning and purpose, and he struggled mightily with the same feelings of despair that had led both his parents to suicide. He began to read widely among the existentialists: Heidegger, Kafka, Marcel, Kierkegaard, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, who put into words what Percy had begun to suspect: that science, despite all its successes, “cannot utter one single sentence about what a man is, or what he must do.” In the existentialists, he found a diagnosis of the disease that had taken his parents, quite different from the one he had been taught in medical school: instead of clinical depression, negative environmental stimuli, and chemical imbalance, the existentialists wrote about malaise, inauthentic existence, the dread of nothingness, the void of meaninglessness, and the terrible emptiness of everyday life. From them he learned that there are some diseases that cannot be found in textbooks of medicine, and that the wild, dark despair he felt in his soul was not due to any conventional malady, but rather instead was brought on by a crisis of meaning. It was not long before Percy abandoned the practice of medicine, seeing as he did that it was inadequate to provide him with answers to the questions of purpose that begged for solutions. He did not, however, leave off being a doctor, for in his long years of searching he had not only found a diagnosis for the modern malaise, but also, so he thought, had discovered a prescription, perhaps even a cure. Consequently he left off being a doctor of the body, and began practicing as a doctor of the soul. Percy, it might be said, took the temperature of the Western world, and found it dangerously ill. In his fiction and non-fiction alike, he spoke of the chronic “everydayness” which pervades modern life; trapping millions in numbing lives of empty banality; and leading men and women who should, by rights, be the most blessed of all people, with every conceivable material need fulfilled, living in the freest, most prosperous society the world has ever known—the men and women of American suburbia, just like Percy’s parents—to the point of madness and despair; to steep their flesh in antidepressants, alcohol, and pornography; to spend their lives in endless pursuit of material wealth; to stoke their latent rage with films and television shows and wars so violent as to recall the brutality of the ancient Roman Empire; to give themselves over to every sort of deranged political ideology and system of belief; and even, as did Percy’s parents, take their own lives in despair. “Why is the good life,” Percy asked, “which men have achieved in the twentieth century so bad that only news of world catastrophes, assassinations, plane crashes, and mass murders can divert one from the sadness of ordinary mornings?” Why indeed, Percy asks. We should be happy, but we are not—what is the matter with us? Do we know what is the matter? Do we know why we are here? Do we even know who we are?
We do not, Percy said, and in this lies the root of our problems. Ever since the nineteenth century, the halls of Western civilization had echoed with what Matthew Arnold named the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith. For centuries, the idea of God had been the capstone of Western thought—God was, so to speak, a part of the air that one breathed. Even when Western men and women were not particularly pious (and many of course were far from holy), they regarded God and his Church as an essential part of their societal fabric. Westerners were possessed of a sense of place: they looked up at the stars, and knew that they were God’s stars. They looked around at the world, and knew that it was Gods world. They looked at themselves, and knew that they were God’s people. Their lives were endowed with purpose; their actions had eternal import; their souls were immortal. They knew that life at times may not make sense, and indeed, often would not: wars raged, plagues ravaged, and thieves plundered throughout their difficult lives. But suffering was eventually to be redeemed; in fact was redemptive, for so it had been made by Christ’s suffering on the cross. In this world they would have trouble, but they did not fear, for they knew that Christ had overcome the world. By faith, they were sure of what they hoped for, and certain of what they did not see; this defined their lives, and anchored their world.
But of course, as beautiful and as comforting as all this was, it was not to last. Changes came to the Western psyche, which were to forever change the way in which they saw the world and their place therein. In the High Middle Ages, the theological certainty of St. Thomas Aquinas had reigned supreme: all truth was God’s truth, and all the world was God’s. By the nineteenth century, however, the rigid proofs and postulates of Aquinas had long been a thing of the past. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution had all burst upon the scene with their freewheeling, freethinking ideas. Religious doctrines were no longer secure, and even God’s existence was very much in doubt.
The publication of Darwins Origin of Species had dealt the last remaining argument for God’s existence a fatal blow, the result being that the framework by which Western man had long understood himself had disappeared, virtually overnight. Even the cherished human soul was not safe—Herbert Spencer, in his widely influential Principles of Psychology, asserted that our minds were nothing more than stimulus-response machines created by the process of evolution. Evolutionary psychologists confidently stated that our so-called “souls” were really nothing more than physical functions caused by simple chemical reactions. It is difficult to underestimate the seismic shift represented by all of these changes: no longer were the stars God’s stars; no longer was the world God’s world; no longer were we God’s people. Man’s life was not endowed with purpose; the soul was not immortal, in fact did not even exist; and God, who had benevolently watched over us all these long years, was dead.
Many wondered, as did Nietzsche’s madman, if the entire Western world was now “straying as through an infinite nothing,” and it is from this world that the existentialists grew. Their differences notwithstanding, each of them in their own way diagnosed the symptoms of the modern malaise. Dostoyevsky’s tortured underground man spoke of the loss of human freedom that accompanied scientific determinism: “Science itself” has taught us, he wrote, “that in fact man possesses neither a will nor a whim of his own, that he never did, and that he himself is nothing more than a kind of piano key or organ stop.” Nietzsche, in his Genealogy of Morals, wrote of the eclipse of traditional notions of morality, which had long been underwritten by divine revelation, but must now be understood as historically contingent, mutable, and lacking in any intrinsic force. Sartre spoke of the fundamental human need for transcendence; and Marcel of our need for relatedness; neither of which could be satisfied in a world without God, ruled not by divine love, but instead by the cold, hard, and arbitrary laws of nature. Life, in a sense, had become impossible, since the very things which man most required to live had disappeared, seemingly never to return. Percy of course knew this, and the protagonists of his fictional work reflect all the symptoms of existential angst that had long been the hallmark of existentialist fiction. In this Percy is not unique—his most enduring characters, such as The Moviegoer’s Binx Bolling, The Last Gentleman’s Will Barrett, and The Thanatos Syndrome’s Tom More, have much in common with J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, and even little Alfie Singer in Annie Hall, who refuses to do his homework because the universe is expanding. The question Percy asks, then, is a common one, and indeed might be said to be the central question facing modern society: “What does a man do,” Percy writes, “when he finds himself living after an age has ended, and can no longer understand himself because the theories of man of the former age no longer work?” What, indeed, do we do, when we no longer know who we are? Professor E.O. Wilson, who teaches right here in our very own department of biology, has said forthrightly that a proper understanding of science cannot include a belief in God, and that theology will not survive as an independent discipline. Likewise our famed professor of psychology, Steven Pinker, has clearly stated that modern science has made religious belief impossible, and that the old notion of the “human soul” is entirely obsolete. How, then, can we heal our empty souls if they no longer even exist? How could we possibly regain a new sense of meaning and purpose, when the words themselves have become impossible anachronisms of a former age? Where do we start; where do we begin?
It is here that Percy is unique, and in my opinion absolutely fascinating. “There is,” Percy tells us, “only one place to start,” if we mean to build up, from the rubble as it were, a new understanding of humankind: “The place,” he writes, “where mans singularity is there for all to see and cannot be called into question, even in a new age in which everything else is in dispute. That singularity is language.”
Now, you will have to bear with me for a moment. I realize that statement may sound at first a bit like the ravings of the folks on the street corner who promise that Lyndon Larouche is the savior of all mankind, or perhaps the fellow on television in the question-mark suit who sells that book, or whatever it is, that somehow makes you fabulously wealthy simply by dialing a telephone number. But I promise you, Percy is after something quite different here; something that I think is absolutely revolutionary. His argument is somewhat complex, and it will take us a bit of work to get through. Nevertheless, it is exceptionally important, because it is nothing less than an argument for the existence of free will, meaning, purpose, the human soul, and yes, even God.
To begin with, let’s go back to the mention I made of Dostoyevsky’s underground man, whom I said lamented the loss of human freedom that accompanied scientific determinism. Now, you may never have had occasion to believe that science is in the business of taking away your freedom—unless, in my case, you have a great deal of reading to do for next week that rather interferes with your videogame plans—but, let me assure you that that is in fact what the men in white coats over at the Science Center are doing. I am not really joking: if you have a passing familiarity with physics, chemistry, or biology, you will begin to understand my point.
Take any elementary physics problem: if little Johnny pitches a baseball to little Susie at a velocity of 30 kilometers per hour, and little Susie’s bat hits the baseball with a velocity of 40 kilometers per hour, at what speed will the baseball be traveling when it breaks your living-room window? A simple problem, quite easily solved by applying a simple formula, which essentially is a derivation from the law of cause-and-effect. Johnny pitches ball; Susie hits ball; ball breaks window. This, you see, is the way in which science understands the world: as a series of physical phenomena; an interaction of matter; all operating according to readily derivable laws in a relationship of cause-and-effect. Physics, chemistry, and biology all operate in essentially the same way, meaning that if you sign up for a biology class on evolution and human behavior (which I did last semester), you will receive an explanation for human phenomena that is, at bottom, the same as that given for little Johnny and Susie’s baseball game.
Why do we act the way we do? Why do we build empires, explore the unknown, and wish upon stars? Why do fools fall in love? Because, you will be told, the human mind is a collection of instincts that have developed through time by the process of evolution, each of which respond in regular ways to the stimuli they receive from the environment. This, you will learn, is all the product of the sociobiological revolution, led in fact by our own fair Harvard, which is in fact nothing less than an entirely materialistic attempt to provide a “scientific” explanation for all human activity. Free will, of course, and notions of “mind” and “soul” must go completely out the window. Tom Wolfe, in his marvelous essay collection Hooking Up, expresses doubt that anyone “ever believed so completely in predestination as these, the hottest and most intensely rational young scientists in the United States.”
But you of course know better than that, because you know that really we have not gotten beyond Herbert Spencer, who believed it might one day be possible to plot all of human activity on a well-ordered chart, just like a train schedule, or Freudian psychology, which firmly held that all mental activity is entirely material and therefore completely determined. Dostoyevsky’s underground man knew this, and so do you. This is how all human activity can be explained, including the quintessentially human activity of language.
Almost. You will have heard, perhaps, of B.F. Skinner, who also incidentally both studied and taught psychology at Harvard. Skinner was for years the principal exponent of behaviorism, which was, like Spencer and Freud and everything else, a dyadic system for understanding human behavior as a set of responses to given stimuli. Among other things, Skinner wrote the magisterial Verbal Behavior, which quickly became the standard in its field. Skinner’s explanatory model for human language, in Percy’s own words, was rational and elegant, standing “in a direct line of continuity with chemistry and physics. The happenings in a speakers mouth, in the air, in the ear of the listener, along the nerves, could all be understood, at least in principle, as chemical and physical interactions occurring between molecules or electrons.” The behaviorist model of language was precisely what one would expect, given that the entire range of scientific knowledge in mans possession depended upon the assumption that all observable events take place in a dyadic, stimulus-response relationship. “Particles hitting particles, chemical reactions, energy exchanges, gravity attractions between masses, field forces, and so on,” explained Percy, “can all be explained as an interaction of elements in a dyadic system.”
The only problem with the behaviorist model, however, for all of its rational simplicity and scientific elegance, was that it didnt work. Noam Chomsky’s famed review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior in 1959 dismantled the behaviorist paradigm, permanently changing the field of linguistics. Not since then, Percy wrote, “has it been possible to take seriously the application to language of the old stimulusresponse theory, however refined and modified it might be.” A look at Chomsky himself will be useful to understand the import of this paradigm shift: in his 1963 book Language and Mind, he recounts the general consensus among language scholars during his time as a graduate student at Harvard—”that the framework of stimulus-response psychology would soon be extended to the point where it could provide a satisfying explanation for the most mysterious of human abilities [e.g., language].” This approach, however, was shown by Chomsky and those who followed him to be “not only inadequate but misguided in basic and important ways.” By an analysis of actual human language, Chomsky discovered that all known languages share what he called a “universal grammar” based upon an unchanging “deep structure.” To make a very long story short, Chomsky was saying that language is not explicable in terms of learned behavior in interaction with the environment, but instead only in terms of a universal, built-in structure, unique to humans and qualitatively different from stimulus-response phenomena. As he explained:
This system of linguistic competence is qualitatively different from anything that can be described in terms of the taxonomic methods of structural linguistics, the concepts of S-R [stimulus-response] psychology, or the theory of simple automata. …Mental structures are not simply more of the same but are qualitatively different from the complex networks and structures that can be developed by elaboration of the concepts that seemed so promising to many scientists just a few years ago.
This of course was a remarkable assertion to make, both then and now. If human mental structures could not be explained in terms of stimulus-response mechanisms, then they apparently had no analogue in the rest of the natural world, and became exceedingly difficult to account for by the processes of natural evolution. Indeed, Chomsky recognized the import of his claim, writing that the radical uniqueness of human language made it “quite senseless to raise the problem of explaining the evolution of human language from more primitive systems of communication than appear at lower levels of intellectual capacity.” Natural selection, he wrote, could only be put forward as an explanatory device so long as it was recognized that “there is no substance to this assertion, that it amounts to nothing more than a belief that there is some naturalistic explanation for these phenomena.” Skeptical that human language could be accounted for in such a manner, Chomsky wondered aloud “whether the functioning and evolution of human mentality can be accommodated within the framework of physical explanation,” and even cited Descartes old idea of mind-stuff, while being careful not to quite go so far as accede to the notion of an immaterial mind. In the end, although Chomsky had decisively dismantled Skinners behaviorist model of human language, in doing so he had opened a veritable Pandoras box of questions about the nature of the human mind. If human mental activity could not be explained in terms of dyadic, stimulus-response activity, then what did make sense of it? Chomsky ultimately defaulted on this question, pointing suggestively in the direction of Descartes but finally concluding that “the processes by which the human mind achieved its present stage of complexity and its particular form of innate complexity are a total mystery.”
It was precisely this ambiguity that Percy picked up on in his own work. “While the prevailing behaviorist theory has been dismantled,” he noted, “no other theory has been advanced to take its place… It is somewhat as if the Ptolemaic geocentric universe had been dismantled but Copernicus had not yet come along with his heliocentric model. ” The behaviorist theory, although wrong, at least gave a coherent picture of how language worked. Chomsky’s “universal grammar” hypothesis fit with the actual phenomenon of language, but did not really explain it: as later critics (like Hilary Putnam) were to point out, positing “innate ideas” was another way of saying that no one quite knew how it worked.
To his credit, Chomsky did in fact admit that he could not give a good explanatory model, calling the processes by which the human mind acquired the capacity for language a “total mystery.” Nevertheless this did not satisfy Percy: in Chomskys schema, the infamous “Language Acquisition Device” remained a “black box whose contents were altogether unknown.” The current state of knowledge, Percy thus argued, did not even reach “the level of explanatory adequacy of, say, seventeenth-century biology, [in which] the work of Harvey and Malpighi [constructed] crude but accurate models of cardiac and renal function; to suppose, for example, that the heart is like a unidirectional pump or the kidney is like a filter. One may not say as much at the present time about the unique human capacity for language.” Into this void, Percy proposed to place not Descartes mind-stuff, but instead the semiotic philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce: the only theorist, Percy held, who had provided an adequate explanatory model for the unique phenomenon of non-dyadic human language.
C. S. Peirce is an extraordinarily important figure in American philosophy: a brilliant polymath whose writings ranged over a wide range of topics, he managed to found both philosophical pragmatism and semiotics while never holding tenure at a university or, indeed, becoming very well known outside of a small circle of friends during his lifetime. His writings are unapologetically technical, containing dozens of terms which he coined himself as he went along, making his work at times extremely difficult to decipher. While his writings had an important impact on twentieth-century philosophy, however, Percy contended that their full import was never realized. He argued:
The extraordinary insight of Peirce into the triadic nature of meaning for humans has been largely perverted by the current European tradition of structuralism and deconstruction and the American version of ‘dyadic’ psychology, that is, various versions of behaviorism. It would be nice if someone pursued Peirces breakthroughs.
By this, Percy meant that although different sections of Peirce had been appropriated by various schools of contemporary philosophy, his central idea—the notion of Thirdness, or “triadicity,” that was central to his entire metaphysic had been largely ignored and distorted by modern philosophy and psychology. Percy’s official biographer, Patrick Samway, traced back Percy’s interest in Peirce to a book which a friend had given him in the late 1940’s, containing a short passage which bears striking similarity to Percy’s later recorded opinions: “Peirce was a lone voice in the howling wilderness of late nineteenth-century irrationalism; he was not appreciated during his lifetime, and has hardly been recognized since. The full consequences of his thinking have not had their effect on philosophy.” Percy could not have agreed moreall his life, he intended to write a book on Peirces philosophy and theory of language, although he never was able to do more than write up his ideas in essays. In a 1971 letter written to Shelby Foote, he explained the reasons why he thought such a book would be important:
I still think it would be as important as I told you. I would even say that it is revolutionary: that 100 years from now it could well be known as the Peirce-Percy theory of meaning. No kidding. Im not even being vain. It just so happens that this old fellow, Charles Peirce laid it out a hundred years ago, exactly what language is all about and what the behaviorists and professors have got all wrong ever since. I propose to take his insight, put it in modern behavioral terms plus a few items of my own, and unhorse an entire generation of behaviorists and grammarians.
For Percy, Peirce’s notion of “triadicity” (which he was to call the “Delta Factor”) provided a way to understand the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon of human language, and in fact, laid the foundation for a new theory of the human self.
You are, of course, likely wondering what precisely I mean by “triadicity,” and how on earth it is supposed to relate to language and the human soul. Thankfully, it is actually quite simple, and was explained very nicely by Percy himself. In what is perhaps his most important essay, “The Delta Factor,” Percy begins by asking a simple question: how did Helen Keller learn to use language? The story, of course, is familiar to all of us: for years, Helen had lived in a sort of shadow world, unable to communicate with those around her except by emotional acting out, pointing, gesturing, and so on; indeed, her communicative capacity was roughly equivalent to Washoe the chimpanzee and other trained apes who communicated in similar fashion. One morning, however, thanks to the determined efforts of her nurse, Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller broke out of her prison of silence and into the light of language. Her autobiography tells it best:
Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away…
Something remarkable happened in that moment, Percy believed: in fact he wrote that “if one had an inkling of what happened in the well-house in Alabama in the space of a few minutes, one would know more about the phenomenon of language and about man himself that is contained in all the works of behaviorists, linguists, and German philosophers.” How did Helen Keller come to understand that the word water meant the cool liquid running over her hand? And perhaps more significantly, how did she immediately know that everything had a name, and so subsequently ran around the house and yard asking Anne Sullivan what everything was called? What was going on in Helen Kellers mind at that moment?
We have already seen, thanks to Chomsky, that the behaviorist theory of language acquisition does not work. Chomsky, however, declined to draw a diagram relating the elements together: his “Language Acquisition Device” remained a mysterious and inviolate black box. Percy, however, following Peirce, drew a diagram representing the relationships between all the elements at play:
The word “water”
Helen _______ The object
The three elements of the triad, Percy argued, were completely irreplaceable: the word “water” was a symbol for the actual object (water), or the referent, both of which were joined by a coupler: Helen Keller. All three were joined in real relationship to each other, but their relations could not be described in terms of a dyadic, stimulus-response interaction. Skinners behaviorism was ultimately described by Chomsky as inadequate because it attempted to draw stimulus-response arrows between a series of related items. Peirces triad, however, did not commit this error, since it was not possible to draw such arrows between three equally related and irreducible elements. The word and the object are not inherently related to each other, but rather are arbitrarily coupled together. Language is fundamentally an act of symbolic naming and coupling: in Hellen Keller’s example, it is of course the case that the word “water” is not actually the object water, but instead is an arbitrary set of vocables. But when Helen learned from Miss Sullivan that the word “water” is water, she engaged in an act of symbolic naming, by which she understood the actual object through a symbol which stands for it. Here, then, comes the crux of Percys point: the word and the object are not in any way independently related to each other, and yet they are joined together, in a real relationship in which the symbol is understood to stand for its referent. This, Percy and Peirce argue, can only be done by a coupler: by a third element which is capable of joining the two other elements together.
It is in this precise sense that Percy believed himself not merely to be constructing a plausibly diagrammed description of language acquisition and use, but something which to him was far more important: a semiotic of the self. Language makes no sense at all as a phenomenon of naming and communication, Percy argued, unless a Third entity exists capable of joining the symbol to its referent: here, Helen Keller; more generally speaking, a self, or a coupler. There is no other way by which Helen could have joined the two disparate elements together and understood immediately that they were part and parcel of an entire system; that everything in fact had a name: if Helen had merely been an organism in an environment, she could not have done so. Skinners pigeons and Washoe the chimp could learn to press a button or make a hand signal in exchange for food, but they could not learn to understand a symbol to mean its referent, and so could never approximate the human use of language. Consequently, animals are unable to break out of the dyadic, stimulus-response relationship in which the universe of matter interacts: by breaking out of the endless chain of dyadic relations, however, Helen Keller (and by extension, mankind) gained the sovereign ability to name, and therefore to stand apart, as it were, from the universe of objects, connect and comprehend and judge them, and so to create from them meaning. Unlike the animals, Percy argued, we do not exist solely in the dyadic environment (Umwelt) of sensory experience, but also and most fundamentally in the “triadic” world (Welt) of linguistic signs, from which we create meaning and derive understanding and purpose. Through language, humans create a “world of signs” by which they communicate to one another about themselves, about their environment, and about their world, and it is “in this immaterial world of meaning that they achieve whatever consciousness they have of the self and world.” This world of knowing is also one of relatedness, in which we depend upon our relationship to other humans (in Helens case, upon Anne Sullivan) to “name” and thus make sense of our physical environment and mythological universe: together, we name chairs, dogs, winter, December, punctuality, jealousy, love, Leviathan, and God.
This, then, is what Percy meant by the “Peirce-Percy theory of meaning”: when Helen Keller understood “water” to mean water, the full light of language opened up to her the door of understanding, naming, comprehending, asserting, willing, and knowing. In short, she entered into her full personhoodand by extension we, human beings, have done the same. Percy thus believed firmly that language, the “Delta Δ factor”, mans “singularity” which stood for all to see and could not be called into question, could provide a firm ground for a new theory of man: as Homo loquens, Man-the-Talker. Using this concept, Percy set out to “understand Man as the languaged animal,” arguing that one might “even begin to understand the manifold woes, predicaments, and estrangements of man—and the delights and savorings and homecomings—as nothing more nor less than the variables of the Delta phenomenon, just as responses, reinforcements, rewards and such are the variables of stimulus-response phenomena.”
Percys criticisms of behaviorist psychiatry, which regarded man as simply an organism in an environment, were thus resolved: the uniquely human feelings of angst, alienation, homelessness, and transcendence could not be understood by modern psychiatry precisely because such feelings lay in the domain of the Welt, mans symbolic world of meaning. One could make sense, finally, of the claims of the existentialists, and understand how one might begin to live “authentically” or “inauthentically”—one must learn how to live meaningfully within the meaning-world of symbols.
So, too, could one begin to understand how to give a real ground to the old notions of “dignity,” “freedom,” “morality,” and the “sacredness of the individual”: if Man had broken out of the deterministic sequence of dyadic energy exchanges, and had begun to give names to the items, persons, ideas, and myths with which he filled his world, then it began to make sense to talk of human beings as willing individuals, possessing sovereignty, freedom, and the capacity for moral action. And in his last public lecture, delivered in 1990, Percy spelled out what he (along with Peirce) saw as the inevitable implication of the new theory of Homo loquens; man the triadic creature:
Once one concedes the reality of the triadic event, one is brought face to face with the nature of its elements. A child points to a flower and says “flower.” One element is the flower as perceived by sight; and the spoken word “flower,” a Gestalt of a peculiar little sequence of sounds… But what is the entity at the apex of the triangle, that which links the other two? Peirce, a difficult, often obscure writer, called it by various names, interpretant, interpreter, judge. I have used the term “coupler” as a minimal designation of that which couples name and thing, subject and predicate, links them by the relation which we mean by the peculiar little word “is.” It, the linking entity, was also called by Peirce “mind” and even “soul.” Here is the embarrassment, and it cannot be gotten round, so it might as well be said right out: By whatever name one chooses to call itinterpretant, interpreter, coupler, whatever it, the third element, is not material. It is as real as a cabbage or a king or a neuron, but it is not material. No material structure of neurons, however complex, and however intimately it may be related to the triadic event, can itself assert something. If you think it can, please draw me a picture of an assertion. A material substance cannot name or assert a proposition. The initiator of a speech-act is an act-or, that is, an agent. The agent is not material.
Peirce, he said, insisted on “both the reality and the nonmateriality of the third element,” and so did Percy. Choosing to reject both German and Berkeleyan idealism as inconsistent with what he regarded to be the real findings of science, and likewise convinced by Chomsky that man could not be regarded as merely an organism in an environment, Percy was left with Peirces triadic theory of meaning as the only explanation consonant with both the uniquely human phenomenon of language and the uniquely human feelings of angst, alienation, homelessness, and transcendence. Peirce understood that his linguistic triad, along with his acceptance that the scientific method offered an avenue to real truths about the world, involved him “in a realism and not in a nominalism,” and thus was led to reconcile “medieval realism with scientific empiricism.” Percy, too, agreed with Peirce that the best explanation of the facts at hand led to a metaphysical realism, and so to a robust definition of the human self within an ordered world. Given this understanding, then, even old notions like “dignity” and the “sacredness of the individual” could be seen to make sense, even in light of great trials and suffering.
You see what Percy has done. On purely empirical, indeed, on scientific grounds, using nothing but the everyday phenomenon of human language and solid logic, he has rehabilitated the old, musty doctrines of the human soul, free will, meaning, and the supernatural realm. In fact he has shown that such ideas are necessary to understand the phenomenon of human language. In a real sense, the only way to understand the fact that I am sitting at my desk writing to you, is to first believe that I possess an immaterial soul. And while, of course, Percys argument does not prove the existence of the Christian God, it does point to the existence of the supernatural and breaks the back of scientific determinism. And, once that dam is burst, all the old reasons to believe in God come rushing back. Religion is no longer the crazy old aunt in the attic, lingering around long past its glory years. It is in fact, precisely the best way to understand the human predicament, and to find a cure for the existential malaise that plagues modern society. Philosophical theology, of the sort done by Aquinas, and also of the more phenomenological, existential sort done by Walker Percy and the late Pope John Paul II, is the best way we have to understand the problems we face in this life, and to perhaps find an answer to them.
It may be that you have some idea of what Percy meant when he spoke of despair, suffering, and the crisis of meaning. It may also be that you have been in search of this sort of meaning for quite some time; for some sort of answer to the all-too-human crises of angst, loneliness, and despair, but did not think it was possible to find it. Percy, however, in his books would remind us not to forget that, in a real sense, to be human is to suffer, because to be human is to exist as a wayfarer upon this earth; as a pilgrim in search of a homeland. And if the suffering we face in this life is a result, as the existentialists held, of our unfulfilled needs for transcendence and relatedness, and if in fact we do live most fundamentally in relation to others through our meaning- world of linguistic signs, then it may be that our angst is due to the disordered way in which we relate to each other, and to the way in which we have forgotten what is truly meaningful in our lives. It could be that we are all disordered and fallen creatures, turned inwards upon ourselves, who will never really become who we truly are until we turn outwards again, towards our neighbors, in the fundamental human relationship of love. It may also be that we will never be able to do this on our own, and that we stand in need of being loved if we are to learn how to love—that Someone else must first love us. A wise pilgrim, of course, will keep close watch for signs pointing the way home, and if during the night he loses his way, then he will seek guidance from the stars above. Perhaps, the light from the heavens will show him the true way home—perhaps there is even a message sent from above; one of grace, and love, which can make him whole again. And the message just may be found in these very words, written down long ago: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. And this is how God showed his love for us: He sent his one and only Son into the world, that we might live through Him.”
Jordan Hylden ’06, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, is a Government concentrator in Currier House.