For Patrick Coleman
Patrick was the first professor I hired when I became chairman of the UCLA French Department back in 1974. He held his PhD from Yale, having worked with Paul de Man, and had a distinguished career at UCLA.
Patrick retired a few years ago and occasionally sends me a reference to a text that he thinks I might be interested in. The other day, he sent me an excerpt from a forthcoming book by David Bentley Hart entitled Leaves in the Wind (https://davidbentleyhart.substack.com/p/reflections-on-life-and-mind-part-d1b?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=361195&post_id=140636799&utm_campaign=email-post-title&isFreemail=false&r=em5wi&utm_medium=email) that seeks to apply the notions of meaning and semeosis to the complexities of the genetic information that is the basis of life on Earth.
This is the writing of a subtle mind impatient with the mechanistic/algorithmic calculations by means of which ChatGPT has recently passed the Turing test by appearing to reflect “thinking.” Since Hart’s attempt to assimilate the genetic code to language questions the very core of what I call generative anthropology, it provides a useful opportunity to make clear in what way the scenic element of human language makes it incomparable to any such algorithmic operation.
The ontological status of “the human” is the crux of all forms of the thinking about thinking that we call philosophy or metaphysics; and the minimal characteristic feature of the human is the possession of language. Hart begins by describing classical Greek thought as fundamentally ignoring the distinction between mental and physical complexity: as he puts it, “there was no mind-body problem.” Or in my terms, the metaphysical aspect of such thought was not itself an object of reflection, but was simply taken for granted. In other words, language was understood as a “natural” phenomenon, not requiring any particular hypothesis of origin—something that humans discover and so to speak “download” rather than invent.
And this explains why the Greeks, despite their understanding of logic and mathematics, never quite initiated modern science. If mind and matter were not dichotomized, then the modern ideal of the laboratory that maximally excludes unnecessary parameters to facilitate the establishment of natural “laws” could not emerge, and classical science could never develop beyond a sophisticated version of what Lévi-Strauss called la pensée sauvage.
But in Hart’s view, the separation of “matter” and “spirit” that permits the minimalistic constitution of physics and the other sciences is itself inadequate, because it fails to establish a basis for the “semeiotic” content of what natural scientists call “information.” Hart does not accept the idea that the complex codings that preside over the emergence of living beings can be understood as purely material cybernetic arrangements. Thus he speaks of the translation of the genetic code into living beings as a process of semiotic/linguistic communication, one that carries with it a burden of intentionality beyond the merely material.
. . . Until we have rethought “nature” at a far deeper level than we have so far succeeded in doing, the very notion of “naturalist” explanation is useless and really little more than a distraction.
A good deal of that rethinking should, it seems to me, concern itself with the coding of genomes in organisms and the use that organic systems make of that coding. By this, though, I do not mean simply that we need to examine the coding itself in all its complexity, or to draw conclusions from that complexity about, say, some external intelligent designer. I mean, more simply, that we should consider the code in light of the nature of semeiotic communication—of language, that is. (par. 81-82; my emphasis)
Without getting into the further details of Hart’s argument, we can stop here and observe that the problem he faces is the same one faced by all modern philosophers, that is, those who unlike Plato and Aristotle understand thinking as of a different nature than being. This is in effect a recognition of the difference between the human and the rest of the universe, a difference inherent in the Judeo-Christian basis of Western civilization—which begins, as the Gospel of John tells us, with the logos.
And it is a measure of the decadence of this civilization today that this distinction is no longer taken for granted, and is on the contrary treated by analogy with the post-colonial critique of the West’s long-term dominion over the rest of the world as one more example of unjust domination. Not that in the text that Patrick sent me Hart displays any sign of turning his analysis into a political statement. Nonetheless, he rejects the idea that human language is unique and incomparable to the mechanisms, however complex, by means of which living organisms translate the code of DNA into new living organisms. The following passage suffices to convey Hart’s point:
Life actually communicates itself from one organism to another, and that communication is a good part of what marks it out as a living system. But how does it do so? Given the way some theorists speak, one might think we were talking about the mere transference by contact of some periodic physical pattern—or quasi-periodic but largely regular pattern—producing something like the pretty images conjured up by cellular automata or the fractal ramifications of crystals. But in fact life replicates itself in organisms through a certain semantic content, which exists and has effects not at the level of the physical embodiments of syntactic structures alone—those are merely the medium of transmission—but instead by being intended and being understood. Here the issue really is “information,” in its most commonsense acceptation of the word. The genome is not a collection of small physical switches that work like springs upon the cell; its whole causal power lies in its legibility as intentional content to an interpretive and cognitive agency, . . . (par. 83; my emphasis)
In other words, unlike a digital computer following a complex list of instructions, the mechanism of life incorporates something very like, not to say identical with, human consciousness. But to speak of the “understanding” of the “interpretive and cognitive agency” that constructs a new organism from the genome of the fertilized ovum is in effect to return to the metaphysical a priori that made the Greeks incapable of making their rationalism the basis of what the modern world calls empirical science.
In point of fact, in reference to the operations of the genome, the terms “intentional,” “interpretive,” “cognitive” are so many metaphors. Meaning is a phenomenon unique to human language. For if indeed it exists already at the level of the genome, then what precisely is it that distinguishes human culture from that of bacteria?
What is of interest in Hart’s language is its undoubted power, if not truly to convince, then to reassure. Whereas the simple ideas of the originary hypothesis tend to be dismissed as signs of an antediluvian mindset, these metaphors comfort the taboo preventing this and any similar attempts to define the difference between what we humans call “thinking” and the activity of the double helix. The obvious reality that our thinking is incomparable to the kind of mental activity exhibited even in our most advanced primate cousins, let alone in the most elementary living organisms, has become a truth too painful to contemplate, like the “superiority” of one civilization over another. How much easier is it then to reject the postulation of human uniqueness as an example of the same kind of myth-making as Max Müller’s notion that the first humans, observing the power of the sun, designated it as their originary deity.
As a final example of the confusion of genetic coding with semiosis, Hart assimilates the complexity of a literary text, that is, a human creation, to that of a living organism:
The text of Anna Karenina is, from the purely quantitative vantage of its alphabetic sequences, utterly random; no algorithm could possibly be generated—at least, none that is conceivable—that could reproduce it. And yet, at the semantic level, the richness and determinacy of the content of the book increases with each aperiodic arrangement of letters and words into a coherent meaning. There is no way in which that intentional level of semantic meaning can be reduced to that physical level of inherently meaningless “paratactic” information-flow, much less generated by it; structurally the two levels continuously diverge from one another precisely to the degree that each becomes more coherent in its own terms, and so any algorithmic reconciliation of the two in terms of some more comprehensive notion of information is infinitely unattainable. And this presents something of a difficulty for a wholly physicalist account of life, because what is encoded in a genome and in the organic system to which it belongs, and so what allows for replication and variation, is a replete semeiotic economy, one that is quantitatively random and resistant to algorithmic compression at the syntactic level and yet utterly and exquisitely precise, meaningful, and determinate at the semantic level. (Par. 87; my emphasis)
The meaning of a linguistic message, whether a simple command or Anna Karenina, exists only for a mind. If we want to speak metaphorically of the “meaning” of an organism, it can only relate to its ability to react to different stimuli: to deal with the world in such a manner as to be able to survive and produce surviving offspring. But these complexities, no doubt equally admirable, have essentially nothing in common.
I do not think it is necessary to do more than juxtapose the two italicized passages to make my point; what is intentional in Tolstoy and what Hart calls “meaningful” in the genome may both be “exquisitely precise,” but there is no reader—other perhaps than God, who sees his creation as “good”—to judge it as “meaningful and determinate at the semantic level.”
No doubt the very existence of life is a marvelous phenomenon involving a code whose complexity is even now beyond that of any human invention. But this code is not comparable to language even in its most primitive form, such as the pointing gesture (“aborted gesture of appropriation”) that the originary hypothesis proposes as humanity’s “first word.” This gesture has no complexity at all; but it is a mode of communication that indeed involves meaning and intentional content. Speaking of the “intentional content” of one’s DNA simply ignores what language is; the communication of an intention is not the translation of a sequence of proteins into a living organism, but very simply, an individual’s sign to another of what he intends, a form of communication that animal languages accomplish only with instinctual and largely invariant signals.
The rest of Hart’s argument is in effect a rhetorical embellishment of this basic fiction. Once one accepts the fundamental equivalence of the complexity of the genetic coding that leads from the germ cells to a functioning animal with the generally far less complex usages of human language, one has denied from the outset the possibility that what differentiates language from such natural coding can be “higher” than it on the scale of being.
Which is why the originary hypothesis is not concerned, like Chomskian linguistics, with the emergence of a hypothetical language module, but with that of the minimal ostensive form of language realized in pointing. Animals do not point. They are unable to understand the great Zen precept that one should look at the moon and not at my finger that points to it. This is not a matter of “stupidity,” but of a categorical incapacity. Animals do not converse with each other. They do not, as we do, share scenes with one another; they cannot follow a narrative. It is these modest interactions, and not the infinite potential of syntactic recursion, that fundamentally characterize human language.
I can only hope that, rather than letting itself be destroyed in its primal desire to be rid of the founders of its unique relationship to the sacred, the West will come to its senses and once more accept the sacrality of the unique extension of biological life through which human language, along with meaning, cognition, and intentionality, came into being.