Affect and Cognition in Two Theories of the Origin of Language
Shanahan, Daniel, Papers on Language & Literature
Obstacles to interactive discourse between science and the humanities litter the dividing strip that separates the often parallel roads they follow. The primary tool of the scientist, rigorous attention to empirical evidence, is often seen by the humanist to be reductive of the "higher" aspects of human existence; the primary tool of the humanist, an intuitive search for expressive representations of Truth, is often seen by the scientist to be "soft" and unverifiable. It can be difficult to find those in either lane who are willing to acknowledge, with Gregory Bateson, that while "rigor and imagination [are] the two great contraries of mental process," nonetheless "either . . . is by itself lethal"(237). But from time to time the two paths followed by the sciences and the humanities seem to converge in ways we cannot ignore, and when they do the possibility of discovering that the two form an unbroken circle is tantalizing to the optimists among us. This essay is an examination of striking similarities that emerge from a comparison of two studies of the emergence of language separated not only by differing disciplinary perspectives, but by nearly three quarters of a century in time.
The two works, Ernst Cassirer's Language and Myth and Merlin Donald's Origins of the Modern Mind, have somewhat different purposes. Cassirer's book sets out to demonstrate the intimate relationship that exists between language and myth; Donald's book examines the development of human cognition from pre-hominid forms to contemporary times. But both works have important sub-textual parallels with one another. Cassirer's relatively limited focus on language and myth is part of his larger attempt to trace "the story of human mentality before the birth of that rather abstract form of conception which we call 'logic'"(Langer, "Introduction" vii); he is concerned with the human psyche's development of language before that psyche had much interest in reflecting on itself and before it was capable of the more reasoned reflection that one would find in, say, Platonic thought. And while Donald's book focuses on the larger sweep of human cognitive history, language figures centrally in the panorama he traces: language and myth become pivotal elements in the developmental process he traces that ultimately produces the mind of homo sapiens. Each work, however, springs from a very different background and operates on the basis of very different premises, and it is in the uncovering of those premises where we find not only the points of non-convergence that so often spring to the foreground when two works from such different disciplines are compared, but the possibility of resolving those points of non-convergence as well.
Cassirer begins Language and Myth with a look at the recurrent notion that myth and mythical conceptions represent linguistic "mistakes," that myths such as the Greek belief in stones as the origin of human beings represent nothing more than the confusion of two names ("stones" and "men" in Greek) which are assonant. Cassirer rejects this view, arguing that myth rests not upon a mental defect, but "upon a positive power of formulation and creation"(6). Myth, he says, is never an attempt to duplicate reality, let alone can it be said that confusion makes it fall short of an imitative goal; myth, like language, "strives to 'express' subjective and objective happening, the 'inner' and the 'outer' world"(7). To put it another way, myth and language are gestalts of perception and expression.
As a second step, Cassirer argues that mythical conceptualization did not, as one might be led to assume by the way in which we experience our own perception, develop from the "inspection and observation . . . of definite forms, each with its own perfectly determinate spatial limits that give it its specific individuality"(13). On the contrary, he argues, using work done on the evolution of religious conception by Preuss and Usener, "mythic conception originally grasps . . . one complex whole, out of which definite characters only gradually emerge"(14). Thus one cannot assume that either myth or language reflects an attempt on the part of the human mind to fit objective reality into logical categories; categories are developed after, as Usener puts it, "language . . . causes the multitude of casual, individual expressions to yield up one which extends its denotation over more and more special cases, until it comes to denote them all, and assumes the power of expressing a class concept"(qtd. in Cassirer 16).
Having thus established that myth is not "defective" but "mediative" thinking, and that categorical thinking is subsequent, not antecedent, to mythical conceptualization, Cassirer develops his discussion of the parallels that exist between the emergence of myth and the emergence of language, beginning with a discussion of the former. He adopts the three phases that Usener identifies in the evolution of divine nomenclature: the production of "momentary deities"; the emergence of "special gods"; and the final conception of "personal gods."
According to Usener, "momentary deities" represent the objectification of any momentary experience that may have religious content:
Every impression that man receives, every wish that stirs in him, every hope that lures him, every danger that threatens him can affect him thus religiously. "Whatever comes to us suddenly like a sending from heaven, whatever rejoices or grieves or oppresses us, seems to the religious consciousness like a divine being."(18; inner quote from Usener)
Subsequent to the appearance of momentary deities, what one might call the passive/receptive attitude toward the outward world changes, human activity and agency become apparent, and thus "every department of human activity gives rise to a particular deity that represents it . . . which Usener calls 'special gods'"(19). These deities have "no general function and significance . . . but are limited to a mere section of [experience], a narrowly circumscribed department"(19).
Finally, "personal gods" emerge. While special gods may have names, those names are generally nothing more than the activity with which the special god is associated. If the verbal root of the activity becomes obsolete or there are accompanying phonetic changes, most especially by virtue of the ongoing repetition of the name and the activity, however, the name may become a proper name that connotes a personality: "Thus a new being has been produced, which continues to develop by a law of its own . . . so to speak, in the flesh. This god is now capable of acting and suffering like a human creature. . ."(21).
Cassirer then moves to a discussion of language by arguing that attempts to understand the origins of language by "comparing the primary linguistic forms with the forms of logical conception"(31) fail to recognize that language precedes "theoretical" or analytical forms of thought; the key to understanding language and its origins, he says, lies in the relation it bears to mythical formulations, most especially with respect to the fact that language, by beginning with the "naming" of things, is preoccupied with the immediate experience of apprehension and the "primitive power of subjective feeling"(35). Language, Cassirer argues, "is rooted not in the prosaic, but in the poetic aspect of life," and the thing that confounds us is the way in which it is able to move from the emotive to the denotative: from mere responding to identifying (35).
Here he returns to the phases of Usener. As with the emergence of momentary gods,
uttered sounds of language . . . confront man not as a creation of his own, but as . . . an objective reality . . . as soon as the tension and emotion of the moment has found its discharge in the word or the mythical image, a sort of turning point has occurred in human mentality: the inner excitement which was a mere subjective state has vanished, and has been resolved into the objective form of myth or of speech. (36)
Moreover, "the progressive organization and ever more definite articulation"(36) of the world by use of language takes place in exactly the same way as the emergence of special gods and then personal gods takes place. "Whatever appears important . . . for acting and doing: that and only that receives the stamp of verbal 'meaning'"(37); those things we do, and do regularly, those things that are part of our daily lives, and particularly our ability to become agents of those lives, take on linguistic meaning--each "is selected from the uniform flux of sense impressions . . . [and] receives a special linguistic accent, a name"(38). Gradually, Cassirer says, various aspects of experience are related "within a purposive nexus"(39), allowing them to emerge as unities that take on aspects of a larger, more inclusive "Being": the same word may be used for "dancing" and "working" because certain Indian tribes do not recognize any distinction between them; but their functional unity will be apparent when they are compared with "painting" or "playing." Words that distinguish between the similarity shared by one pair of words and that of the other--say, "occupations" versus "pastimes"--bring language into the domain of the personal gods: entities that have life beyond the specificity of a single activity.
Ultimately, language begins to emerge as a tool in its own right. Like the personal god who, having appeared, "continues to develop by a law of its own"(21), language moves from being a denotation "merged with its object in an indissoluble unity"(58) to being "comprehended as an ideal instrument . . . and as a fundamental function in the construction of . . . reality"(62). In this, language begins to exercise the power of logic, which Cassirer says distinguishes language and keeps it from belonging "exclusively to the realm of myth"(96). What he wants to emphasize in his discussion, however, is that both language and myth spring from the same root:
They are two diverse shoots from the same parent stem, the same impulse of symbolic formation, springing from the same mental activity . . . . [T]hey are both resolutions of an inner tension, the representation of subjective impulses and excitations in definite objective forms and figures. (88)
In short, for Cassirer, language and myth are indissolubly tied to one another; one cannot understand one without coming to grips with the other.
Merlin Donald's The Origins of the Modern Mind, while it has a similar aim to Cassirer's larger goal of looking at the pre-rational mind, operates on a very different field of play. Donald wants to explore the evolution of both the human psyche and human culture and to provide an overview of how humankind has moved from its very early forms of perception, information gathering and processing, to the very modern forms of what he calls "external symbolic storage." Much of what he looks at goes beyond the more narrowly circumscribed area of study defined by Cassirer's Language and Myth; moreover, his evidence is drawn largely from contemporary research into primate cognition, the evolution of the brain and the parallel evolution of human culture--that is to say neuropsychology and cultural and physical anthropology. One of the striking things about Donald's work, however, is the extent to which the conceptualizations he develops in his discussion and the overall movement of the evolutionary processes he describes bear a striking resemblance to what is implied in Cassirer's discussion of language and myth, even though the two operate in dramatically different domains, almost seventy years apart.
Perhaps the most striking similarity lies in Donald's breakdown of the stages of the evolution of the modern mind into stages that resemble those Cassirer adopts from Usener. Donald, too, finds three important phases of human development--the episodic, the mimetic, and the mythical --though his characterizations are, as we have said, based on evidence he draws from the anthropological studies gathered largely in the last fifty years, both with respect to reconstruction of the cultural modes of behavior exhibited by pre-historic hominids and with respect to what physical anthropology has been able to tell us about the evolution of the brain. Nonetheless, the correspondences between Donald and Cassirer, for all their distance in time and discipline, are striking, and though we cannot begin to do justice to the very complex analysis and synthesis that Donald proposes, a look at some of those correspondences is illuminating.
Take, for example, the first of the "cultures" Donald identifies, the "episodic." Episodic culture is, for Donald, "the starting point of the human journey"(152). It involves nothing not already achieved by the culture of the great apes, but it represents a departure from cultures developed by other animals, most especially by their ability (one might also think in terms of "need") to develop "representational strategies" as part of their cognitive style. The great apes, he says, live their lives "entirely in the present, as a series of concrete episodes and the highest element in their system of memory representation seems to be at the level of event representation . . . . [A]pes are bound to the concrete situation or episode"(149). Thus, episodic culture is bound by "episodic memory"--"memory for specific episodes in life, events with a specific time-space locus"(150).
The great strength of episodic culture is its facility at visual-event perception: Donald recalls the well-known case of Kohler's monkeys who, when faced with their own hunger, bananas hung from a ceiling, and a number of boxes at their disposal, were able to problem-solve by piling the boxes on one another to reach the bananas. This action was a function of their ability to "break down perceptual components in the situation and imagine another arrangement of the components"(154). Such information, once broken down and reprocessed, may also be stored; it is stored, however, in "a literal, situation-specific manner": it is related to the event that produced it and cannot be generalized. While a monkey may retain the memory of the banana-box event and recall it to use other objects to solve a similar problem in the future, this ability remains tied to the original event; there is no "higher function" developed, and if the memory could be effaced, the problem-solving skill would have to be developed all over again.
One cannot help but notice the similarity between Donald's emphasis on the single event as the key to the representation strategies developed by primates and the "momentary deities" cited by Cassirer. In both, there is, to use Cassirer's words, an emphasis on "something purely instantaneous, a fleeting, emerging and vanishing mental content"(18); for Cassirer, the experience results in the precipitation of a god, for Donald the solution to a problem. Moreover, there is no communication of the experience in any lasting fashion implied in either. Cassirer's momentary gods exist for individuals, and that existence is as fleeting as the experience that produces them. It leaves no communal residue. For Donald, the same is true: communication with a pedagogical intent emerges only at a later stage, when imitation can take place.
Even more striking are the correspondences that seem to emerge when Donald introduces his second cultural phase, the "mimetic." By using the word mimesis, Donald is again highlighting features of the cognitive style he is trying to characterize: he distinguishes between mimicry (the attempt to produce as exact a duplicate of behavior as possible), imitation (copying behavior, but not necessarily trying to produce an exact replica), and mimesis--which "incorporates both mimicry and imitation to a higher end, that of re-enacting and re-presenting an event or relationship"(169). A parrot mimics what it hears around it; a young bird may imitate what its parent demonstrates. But only humans will use the gesture of holding the heart to indicate grief; such a gesture "involves the invention of intentional representations" (169)
Donald describes mimetic culture, which would have appeared with the advent of homo erectus, as based on "creative, novel, expressive acts," and he says that aspects of this culture are "still a central factor in human society" (169). He does not feel, however, that it reflects the achievement of the modern mind as we know it today. For one thing, it is based largely on the elaboration or summary of episodic experience: the gesture of the hand over the heart, for instance, is one that was probably learned through repeated exposure. That it represents something more than the literal gesture of appendage touching vital organ puts it beyond the pale of monkeys who might be able to pile bricks to get bananas on the basis of their previous experience with boxes; but it still falls short of important cognitive features of the truly modern mind. Moreover, since some form of imitation still predominates in mimetic culture, it is rather restricted in its subject matter and tends to be rather slow-moving.
The mimetic culture represents another parallel with Cassirer, however, this time with the phase Cassirer characterizes by its "special deities." In both cases, repetition has precipitated out some feature of the previously time- and space-bound event in a way that allows that feature to be highlighted in the perceptual field. For Donald, such things as modeling of episodic events are made possible because those events have become familiar with repetition. For Cassirer, "definite daemonic or divine images can take shape . . .[against a] nameless Presence" (71). Even more importantly, perhaps, both mimetic culture and the phase of special deities represent the introduction of individual agency and initiative, a feature that was missing in the corresponding first stage.
Monkeys pile boxes in response to a situation presented to them (they would probably not be able to go out and look for boxes if they had not already been provided); early humankind responded to experience with momentary gods but would not have invented them had the experience not imposed itself on them. In the two second stages, the gesture of the hand over the heart or the worship of the god of harrowing may have been acquired knowledge for any given individual, but both are used intentionally and expressively--perhaps even not used by those who are of a different confession. In other words, the initiative of the individual has been introduced into the process, most especially the ability of the individual to initiate expressively. Finally, though the feature is implied rather than explicitly stated in Cassirer, both schemes imply what Donald calls "generativity": recombination of parts can take place so that more complex events can be represented, whether those events be child's play or the creation of pantheons.
But it is perhaps in the third phase of culture Donald suggests--"mythic culture"--that the most striking parallels exist between his scheme and Cassirer's. In Donald's view, mythic culture emerges with the advent of language. It is not merely the existence of language itself, however, that makes it the critical factor in the emergence of what we can truly consider modern humankind, but the specific representational strategy, and the corresponding cognitive style, that makes language possible. For Donald, the representational strategy that makes language possible is symbolic invention.
Donald's discussion of how language and symbolic representation must have emerged in a mutually reinforcing relationship is highly complex. The essence of his argument, however, is that, while apes have been shown to be quite capable of using symbols--representational devices that stand in for things that are known but that exist in absentia-- they can only use the symbols that are provided to them by humans: they are not capable of inventing their own. Only humans are capable of inventing representational devices that detach themselves from the time- and space-bound event or object and of recombining those devices in cross-representational ways that produce myth. For Donald, "the importance of myth is that it signaled the first attempts at symbolic models of the human universe"(267). Thus myth became an integrative device that allowed humans to attribute meaning to events, both personal and cosmic.
The similarities between Donald's "mythic culture" and Cassirer's stage of "personal deities" are compelling. To begin with, both recognize the extent to which the most advanced stage implies a separation from the time- and space- bound event. Symbolic representation is key to Donald's mythic culture, just as the loss of a connection between a "special deity" and the name attributed to it represents the first characteristic of the shift to "personal deities" for Cassirer. Furthermore, the loss of connection between the activity of the special deity and his or her name provokes, in Cassirer's words, "a new Being . . . which continues to develop by a law of its own"(21). Similarly, in a very complex discussion of the neurological bases upon which language emerged, Donald says that the "lexicon must be regarded as part of a representational system that is separate from the mimetic system"(251); speech especially made it possible, he says, for the whole system to "extend its reach beyond the concrete"(252). "Precisely because it was a new system," Donald goes on to say, " . . . it could grow in capacity . . . without interfering with pre-existing cognitive functions."
Furthermore, Donald emphasizes the importance of narrative in mythic culture:
narrative skill . . . might be seen . . . as the natural product of language itself. Language, in a preliterate society lacking the apparatus of the modern information-state, is basically for telling stories [and] The supreme product of the narrative mode . . . is the myth. (257-58)
While Cassirer does not explicitly mention narrative, his "personal deity" is one who "is now capable of acting and suffering like a human creature; he engages in all sorts of actions, and instead of being wholly consummated in one function he is related to it as an independent subject"(21). In other words, the personal god is one who lives in a narrative.
Finally, there is the correspondence that exists between Cassirer's and Donald's view of the way in which the final stage of their models provides both unity and meaning for those who subscribe to it. As Donald puts it,
The myth is the prototypal, fundamental, integrative mind tool. It tries to integrate a variety of events in a temporal and causal framework. It is inherently a modeling device, whose primary level of representation is thematic. The pre- eminence of myth in early human society is testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought. (215)
And Cassirer, when he is discussing how the phases of momentary, special, and personal gods are finally led to a consolidation in monotheism, says:
when the growth of language achieves the liberation of the concept of Being from its bondage to some specific form of existence, it thereby furnishes mythico-religous thought with a new vehicle, a new intellectual tool. . . . Being is not only a predicate, but at a certain stage of development actually becomes the Predicate of Predicates; it becomes the expression which allows one to subsume all the attributes of God under a single rubric. Wherever, in the history of religious thought, the demand for the Unity of the Deity arises, it
takes its stand on the linguistic expression of Being and finds its surest support in the Word. (75)
There are, it is true, some important contrasts between Cassirer's work and Donald's, though these tend be more distinctions of emphasis and degree of definition than oppositions. There is, understandably, a rather striking distinction between Donald's anthropological approach and Cassirer's: Donald, working with the wealth of research into primate cognition and related anthropological and evolutionary data that has accrued in the post-war period, draws very precise distinctions between behavior he considers comparable to that of modern homo sapiens and that which is not. Cassirer, working with the more limited data available in the mid-nineteen twenties, does not even make a distinction between various periods of hominid development. Donald tries to give some time referents in the geological record; Cassirer has none.
On the other hand, one finds further parallels between the two with respect to some of the more essential questions about perception. As noted above, Cassirer rejects the notion that mythical conceptualizations develop from pre-determined forms that were used to sort and categorize phenomena. Quite the contrary, Cassirer argues, conceptualization develops as the individual "is captivated and enthralled by the intuition which suddenly confronts it"(32). Later he says, the level of mythic conception on which we find ourselves here corresponds to a level of linguistic conception to which we may not assign offhand our grammatical categories, our neat classifications of sharply distinguished words. If we would have a verbal analogue to the mythic conceptions here at issue, we must, apparently, go back to the most primitive level of interjections. (71)
Lexis, Cassirer implies, comes at a later stage, grammar and syntax still later. In other words, Cassirer takes a gestalt approach to the question of perception, arguing that details emerge in the perceptual field only over time, when tools for dealing with them emerge as well.
Donald, in his discussion of how language emerged and brought the homo line over the threshold into "mythic culture," refers to the Gestalt movement's critique of structuralism, arguing that perception is not an assembly of parts, but an impression of the whole, from which details gradually emerge. Then he goes on:
What the Gestaltists said about perception might also be true of language. The rule structure of language, the unique phonetic properties of speech, and the apparently impossible complexity of linguistic constructs at the level of word and sentence might well be secondary phenomena. . . . Words and sentences, lexicons and grammars, would have become necessary evils, tools that had to be invented to achieve [a] higher goal. (216)
At the same time, however, this very striking parallel between the two with respect to the gestaltative nature of the first linguistic impulses unveils as striking a contrast between Cassirer's and Donald's work, one that roots them in their time, perhaps in their own cultures, certainly in their disciplines, but that, once reconciled, allows us to see the complementarity of each towards the other.
First of all, it is quite evident, even from a cursory reading of the two, that while Donald's conception of language is highly sophisticated, Cassirer's is rather vague. Donald includes substantive discussions of such things as semantic networks theory, meaning postulate theory, and lexical decomposition theory when he undertakes his examination of linguistic and psychological theories of meaning; he has an extended discussion of the lexical hypothesis--the notion that the lexicon is at the center of the language system; and he proposes a schema for a "vertically integrated language system" with a "linguistic controller" as its primary switching device. By contrast, with the exception of the distinction mentioned above that Cassirer makes between interjections and other "verbal forms," Cassirer's discussion of language is almost exclusively at the level of lexis. While much may be inferred from what he says more generally about the way in which conceptualization emerges--his focus on such things as names and correspondence between names and activities, for instance--he leaves the nuances of language formation, in its more sophisticated features, untouched.
But perhaps the most significant difference between the two comes with respect to the emphasis Cassirer places on what we might call the cathartic element in the emergence of language and the almost complete absence of any similar emphasis in Donald. For while Donald--admirably, given the structuralist-heavy air anyone who deals with these questions must breathe--takes on board the Gestalt critique of structuralism, he does not pursue the other feature of gestalt theory, the notion of "closure"--the tendency of the mind to create forms even when they may not be complete themselves. Nor does he address what one naturally detects beneath the surface of that tendency toward closure: the likelihood that some sort of catharsis provokes it. In fact, despite the fact that he has acknowledged the Gestalt attack on structuralism's pointilliste approach to perception, Donald's approach to the emergence of language is in some ways just that: an attempt, albeit an admirably thorough and informed one, to come to grips with the question by virtue of a highly detailed analysis of the parts that go into making up symbols and mental models. In his view, language seems to emerge from an accumulation of necessary prerequisites; there is no "threshold moment" beyond which the existential experience of language use provided by the whole has become more intense for its users than the sum of its parts, let alone is there any notion that the species itself may have provided the catalytic element for bringing the parts together.
By contrast, the cathartic element in Cassirer's account of the emergence of conceptualizations, myths, and language is pervasive. It begins with his discussion of Usener's "momentary gods": "Just let spontaneous feeling invest the object before him, or his own personal condition, or some display of power that surprises him, with an air of holiness, and the momentary god has been experienced and created"(18). The theme continues with his remark, quoted above, about the individual "captivated and enthralled by the intuition which suddenly confronts it." And it persists right up to the end of his discussion, where he argues that language and myth "stand in an original and undissoluble correlation with one another," remarking,
They are two diverse shoots from the same . . . impulse of symbolic formulation, springing from . . . a concentration and heightening of simple sensory experience. In the vocables of speech and in primitive mythic figurations, the same inner process finds its consummation: they are both resolutions of an inner tension. (88)
Cassirer's discussion is profoundly influenced by the importance of religion in the formation of the human psyche; he remarks at one point that the emerging human consciousness "finds itself steeped, as it were, in a mythico-religious atmosphere"(72). By contrast, Donald's discussion of the emergence of language is built on the premise that language emerged as an answer to needs that had been developing in the species, and that those needs are based on increased cognitive capacity; there is no mention of "inner tension," let alone resolution or release of that tension, and no substantive mention of religion in his discussion. In fact, one could go so far as to say that Cassirer's analysis is based on the premise that the irrational side of human behavior is the most important feature in the emergence of language and myth, while for Donald it is the rational side.
What are we to make of these differences amidst the otherwise striking parallels that exist between Cassirer and Donald? Are they irreconcilable? Is this simply another case in which the similarities between a literary-philosophical discussion and a scientific one must be consigned to different universes because of the yawning gap that exists between what a neo-Kantian philosopher and a "hard data" analyst are likely to emphasize as they probe the sources of the emergence of language? Perhaps not. While reconciling the differences that exist between the discourses of the sciences and those of the humanities is never an easy task, it is sometimes possible to demonstrate a complementarity between the two, that in fact each supplements the other in some important ways. What we need to bring together the views of Cassirer and Donald is a set of data or a theoretical construct based on such data that will help us reconcile Cassirer's emphasis on the irrational and the religious and Donald's emphasis on the cognitive, something that would allow us to acknowledge the importance of both the cathartic and the cognitive dimensions of the emergence of language. And in fact, such a theoretical construct and a body of data to support it exists.
The differences that exist between Cassirer's discussion and Donald's pivot on the fact that Cassirer emphasizes the role of affect in the emergence of language, Donald not at all. While acknowledging that language eventually takes on what he calls a "discursive" principle (26), a direct antecedent of what we would call induction, Cassirer insists that the origins of language must be seen within the context of the affective response of the organism to stimuli, most especially the attempt on the part of the organism to discharge the "tension" created by an encounter that takes on religious significance.
In The Languages of the Brain, Karl Pribram divides the affective domain into two distinct areas: the motivational and the emotional. Basing his distinction on extensive neurological study, Pribram says that all affect emerges from the organism's attempt "to extend [its] control to the limits of what he perceives"(212). To the extent that this attempt appears to hold a reasonable hope for success, the organism feels "motivated"--in common parlance, we might call this "positive reinforcement," or, to use a popular current term, "empowerment." Pribram, however, goes on to say,
to the extent that the attempt appears infeasible at any moment, the organism becomes of necessity emotional . . . [while] motivation and emotion must go hand-in-hand . . . motive implies action, the formation of an external representation; e-motion, on the other hand, implies the opposite, i.e., to be out of, or away from action. To be emotional is to be, to an extent, "possessed." (212)
One might imagine primitive humankind, as Cassirer does, faced with something both unexplainable and unavoidable, like the phenomenon of lightning. An encounter with lightning would no doubt provoke fear and awe, but unlike a confrontation with a predator or a savannah fire (though these in their own ways would certainly produce fear), the possibility for action, that is for the extension of the organism's control over its situation, is not available. Lightning cannot be controlled, nor can it be ignored, and thus it can only produce a response that Pribram would call "emotion."
Emotion involves self-regulatory mechanisms at the neurological level too complex to recount here, but one might compare it to an automobile transmission with the clutch disengaged: the engine is running, but its torque is not being transferred to the wheels. The difference between an automobile and an organism is that, except perhaps in states of shock or catastrophic neurological damage, energy continues to course through the organism, even when action to extend control is impossible. This energy produces such emotions as fear, which primitive mankind would no doubt have felt at the strike of a lightning bolt, and that emotion might be accompanied by such things as increase in pulse, breathing rate, and even involuntary muscle contraction (shivering and shaking) which would serve as attempts to relieve the intensity of the emotion felt. But flight, a possibility in the face of a predator or a savannah fire, would be relatively futile, particularly in a large, violent electrical storm. Emotion--the side of affect that corresponds to situations of helplessness--would dominate the organism.
Imagine for a moment, however, that a disengaged automobile transmission might have--or might be able to develop--an alternative avenue for discharging the energy that has been cut off from its normal channels and that, to extend the metaphor, is disrupting the entire body and chassis of the car with shivering, shaking, etc. Imagine an organism that, by virtue of its expanding cognitive abilities, might be capable of a second-level representation of the event it had witnessed, an image, of lightning that existed in what Pribram calls the "World-Within." In such a case, the attempt to extend control could then be transferred into this second-level representation and effected in a different manner: the naming of the phenomenon that produced the original feeling of helplessness. In other words, language might simply be the means by which affective/emotional states are transformed into symbolic representations that allow the organism "control"--albeit at the level of symbolic representations--over phenomena it previously felt powerless in the face of.
In The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Cassirer makes just such a characterization of the ways in which expressive forms contribute to the emergence of consciousness:
Every elementary expressive movement does actually form a first step in spiritual development, in so far as it is still entirely situated in the immediacy of sensuous life and yet at the same time goes beyond it. It implies that the sensory drive instead of proceeding directly towards its object, instead of satisfying itself and losing itself in the object, encounters a kind of inhibition and reversal, in which a new consciousness of this same drive is born. . . . In withdrawing, as it were, from the immediate form of activity, action gains a new scope and a new freedom; it is already in transition from the merely "pragmatic" to the "theoretical," from the physical to ideal activity. (qtd. in Parsons et al. 1171)
Moreover, since Donald attributes the analysis of perceptual events to the episodic stage of human development but considers the evolution of language and symbols to have come considerably later in the process, the scenario suggested above would seem to fit his time line. Imaging of some kind was possible early on in the development of the homo line; as cognitive advances occurred, the species would develop a collection of images--an "image-field" we might call it-- that could then function as a domain in which naming could take place.
The link provided by Pribram's distinction between motivation and emotion, however, brings us back to the critical element provided by Cassirer. If language, or for that matter any second-level representation, came about as a response to our inability to extend control over certain aspects of the environment at the sensory level, its emergence would have involved the release of affect--emotional tension--as emotion was transformed into motivation. In other words, "catharsis" would have been involved when "action"--that is, the naming of things--became possible. Certainly at the very outset the catharsis would most probably have been overwhelming, involving as it did the transformation of moving from a sensory interpretation of the "World-Out-There" into a symbolic "World-Within." But in time, this catharsis might have become considerably more mundane: the simple release of energy one associates with any successful attempt to satisfy a drive or impulse.
In other words, Pribram's distinction between motivational affect and emotional affect allows us to dispel the notion that Donald's emphasis on the importance of cognitive development of the human psyche in the emergence of second-level representational systems and Cassirer's emphasis on the affective nature of the leap that was made in moving from sensory perception to symbolic representation are somehow incompatible. Symbolic representation, especially language, would have resulted from the blocking of a natural drive (the extension of control over the environment), and the consequent development of an alternative vehicle for satisfying that drive. That alternative would have required an already-established, relatively high level of cognitive development that involved the collection of sufficient numbers of images to allow a "field" in which the alternative vehicle could be implemented, and that threshold could probably only have been crossed once the hominid line had passed through the "mimetic" stage. Moreover, this particular transformation of emotion into motivation would have been accompanied by massive catharsis, representing as it did a watershed event in the species' ability to reproduce reality in the form of second-level representations.
Thus Cassirer's emphasis on the importance of religious experience in the emergence of language is entirely appropriate. The emergence of language, even if it took place over thousands of years, would have been affect-laden, not only in its basic structure (i.e. its connection to the organism's desire to extend control over the environment), but in the magnitude of the threshold-crossing it represented. This was the species-wide equivalent of the cathartic moment recounted by Helen Keller when she discovered the meaning of "the living word," accomplished in this case without guide or teacher, but alone, in the fashion of explorers venturing into uncharted territory. Such a moment can only have been profoundly awe-inspiring, and would have subsequently taken on an importance of mythical and even "spiritual" proportions. One is led by it to understand remarks like that at the opening of the Gospel According to John, "In the beginning was the Word."
At the same time, it would be a mistake to relegate the emergence of language to some mystico-religious realm wherein even angels fear to tread. Though awe-inspiring and wonderful, this development has its place in the emergence of homo sapiens, and it implies the antecedent development of some important cognitive features, without which it could not have taken place. Perhaps the chief of these is the generation of images. For though the first words may have been some sort of combination of interjection and name--the first producing the catharsis of blocked affect and the second satisfying the drive to extend control over the environment--the naming function would require the existence of what has been called the "general ability to form multipart representations from elementary canonical parts"--put in simpler terms, to take pieces of experience and reshape them into manipulable mental images of generic kinds. Kohler's monkeys were able to use boxes to get bananas, but they would come away from the experience with an "episodic" form of knowledge, useful to them only in closely similar episodes; human children, however, are able to take the knowledge acquired in such an episode and extract generalizable elements from it that they can then apply to other settings. The latter ability forms the field in which not merely events, but second-level representations of events can be stored. To paraphrase John, "Just before the beginning, there came associative memory."
It would seem that the parallels between Cassirer's heavily philosophical view of the emergence of language and its relation to myth and Donald's more cognitively-based analysis go beyond such things as the tri-stage process of development, from momentary/episodic to special/mimetic to personal/mythic. Indeed, the divergent emphases of the two, which might at first glance seem to be an obstacle to reconciliation, actually form a revealing complementarity. It would be foolish to imagine the emergence of anything so profoundly innovative and complex as language as either a uniquely cognitive or uniquely spiritual event. The cognitive antecedents to language that would be required make it clear that the rational features we have come to associate with human cognition are critical to developing the capacity for language. On the other hand, the emergence of language cannot be seen as merely another episode in evolutionary history; both by virtue of the fact that it revolutionized the ways in which the impulse to extend control over one's environment could be satisfied, and by virtue of the fact that it created the possibility of reflection, it ranks as a true Rubicon-crossing. The opposable thumb, while it transformed evolutionary potential for the hominid line, did not in and of itself create the possibility of being aware of that transformation; language did. Thus language not only allowed a new form of catharsis, it opened up the possibility of reflecting on that catharsis, experiencing further catharses from those reflections, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Put simply, the complementary views of Cassirer and Donald remind us that language is itself an alloy of the cognitive and affective powers of humankind. It allowed a quantum increase in the options available to the organism as it tried to cope with its environment, and it did so in a way that made the experience profoundly affect-laden. It may well be, as Cassirer suggests, that the "discursive principle" inherent in language by virtue of the fact that it operates a step removed from sensory realities opens the path to "theoretical thinking"--and ultimately to science and to "objectivity." The possibility that language will ever become absolutely affect-free, however, is quite unlikely. Any linguistic production is a narrative, the result of a constellation of influencing factors that require interpretation--meaning, ultimately, that those addressed and those being addressed will always rely on affective elements to state their case, or to understand it. On the other hand, language has quite clearly opened up the possibility that humankind might exercise a greater control over its environment by virtue of its ability, not simply to manipulate images of that environment as second-level representations, but to gain reflective distance from both itself and the environment, to analyze the relationship between the two from a position of both sympathy and reason, and, ultimately, to balance the one against the other for the good of both. It affords us the possibility, to paraphrase Yeats, of navigating life both with a lamp turned mirror and a mirror turned lamp.
 The emergence of language has, in this decade, become the subject of much discussion. To cite only the recent highlights, books by Bickerton, Lieberman, Gazzaniga, Wind et al., and Deacon. See also LOS Forum, the journal of the Language Origins Society, University of Nijmegen, Netherlands.
 Tellingly, Cassirer begins with an extended passage from the Phaedrus in which Socrates characterizes the interpretation of myth as a "rustic science"(Language 1-2).
 This example is my own. His preoccupation with demonstrating the way in which language differentiates before it unites leads Cassirer to ignore slightly the way in which language moves to the final phase. But see his subsequent discussion, 55-62.
 One might be led to think that Donald was heavily influenced by some aspect of Cassirer's work, but Cassirer does not even appear in Donald's bibliography.
 He actually posits four, but the fourth--cultures that rely on "external storage devices"--lies beyond the scope of what Cassirer considers.
 Donald considers his "mythic culture" to be the only stage that has left the archaic hominid phase and moved into a genuinely modern human phase.
 In fairness, one must say that the Gestaltists themselves virtually ignored the cathartic elements in perception. One must look elsewhere for the notion that perception involves both Gestalt "wholeness" and what one might call "the shock of recognition"; see, for instance, James Joyce's notion of "epiphany," discussed in Scholes, 61-63.
 See Bruner for a discussion of how discourse styles make it very difficult to reconcile the scientific and the humanistic perspectives.
 Donald's discussion of the role of emotions is largely limited to the facial expression of feelings and its role in mimesis.
 See Pribram, Chapter 11, "Interest, Motivation and Emotion."
 Recounted by Langer, Philosophy 62-63 and Cassirer, Essay 33-36.
 M.C. Corballis, quoted in Donald 71.
 Damasio's recent Descartes' Error, while avowedly speculative in many respects, makes powerful suggestions about how affect plays an essential role in our cognitive processes. His remarks about the emergence of consciousness of feelings closely parallel Cassirer's on the same topic and Pribram's on motivation/emotion; they are worth quoting at length:
why would anyone need to become cognizant of [feeling states and the entities which produce them]? . . . The answer is that consciousness buys an enlarged protection policy. Consider this: If you come to know that animal or object or situation X causes fear, you will have two ways of behaving toward X. The first way is innate; you do not control it. . . . The second way is based on your own experience and is specific to X. Knowing about X allows you to think ahead . . . so that you can avoid X, preemptively. . . . In short, feeling emotional states, which is to say being conscious of emotions, offers you flexibility of response based on the particular history of your interactions with the environment.(132-33)
Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Bantam, 1988.
Bickerton, Derek. Language and Species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Bruner, Jerome. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard, 1986.
Cassirer, Ernst. An Essay on Man. New Haven: Yale, 1944.
----. Language and Myth. Trans. Suzanne Langer. New York: Dover, 1946.
Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994.
Deacon, Terence. The Symbolic Species. New York: Norton, 1997.
Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
Gazzaniga, M.S. Nature's Mind: The Biological Roots of Thinking, Emotions, Sexuality, Language and Intelligence. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
Langer, Suzanne. Translator's Introduction. Language and Myth. By Ernst Cassirer. New York: Dover, 1946.
----. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Harvard, 1979.
Lieberman, Philip. The Evolution of Speech, Thought and Selfless Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
Parsons, Talcott, et al. Theories of Society: Foundations of Modern Sociological Theory. New York: The Free Press, 1961.
Pribram, Karl. Languages of the Brain: Experimental Paradoxes and Principles in Neuropsychology. Monterey: Brooks-Cole, 1971.
Scholes, Robert. In Search of James Joyce. Urbana: University of Southern Illinois, 1992.
Wind, Jan, et al., eds. Language Origin: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Publishing, 1992.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Affect and Cognition in Two Theories of the Origin of Language. Contributors: Shanahan, Daniel - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 36. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2000. Page number: 246. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.