Re: language and relationship

Tim A. Connor (
Fri, 21 Mar 1997 14:55:15 -0800 (PST)

Gary & Mike

While I think there's an important point here--that language is a dynamic
process, not a "thing"--it seems to me that to define a construct as
broadly as Maturana (and his followers) would have us do "languaging" is
to virtually empty it of useful content. By defining language as all the
activity by which we coordinate our activities with others, we end up
asserting not only that "without language we have no relationship" but
"language is relationship" (or maybe "languaging is relating"). It is
equally true that without relationship there is no language--there has to
be something to coordinate, after all.

The problem is not that any of these propositions are invalid, but that
they tend to paper over useful distinctions among different kinds of
symbolic and communicative activity. To impose a PCP frame on Maturana's
system for a moment: What is the contrast pole to "language"? If there
is nothing in human experience that is not language, what use is the word

Certainly in evolutionary terms relationship precedes verbal language (our
primate ancestors were social long before they learned to talk, and it
seems likely that the major adaptive advantage of our overgrown forebrain
is that it enables a social species to become more effectively social
through the use of symbolic modes of communication). On the other hand,
much of our physical evolution occurred in an environment in which culture
provided much of the selective pressure--so we are biologically adapted to
experience the world--including our own bodily sensations--through
symbolic systems that arise from relationships with others and so are
public: "A child counts on his fingers before he counts 'in his head'; he
feels love on his skin before he feels it 'in his heart.' Not only ideas,
but emotions too, are cultural artifacts in man." (that's from Clifford
Geertz's essay "The growth of culture and the evolution of mind," which I
cannot recommend too highly).

So while I think there's much value in attending to the way language (and
other cultural systems) structures our world, I think it's useful to limit
the meaning to something like its common usage (something close to
Watzlawick's "digital communication"). This makes it easier for us to
attend to the differences between sending e-mail, dancing, participating
in a religious ritual, playing peek-a-boo with a baby, using a finger to
model a problem in manipulating a toy, solving an algebra problem, making
love, reading a map, and listening to or performing music. There are
other ways of noting the similarities among all of the above than
subsuming them under "language."




Tim Connor, M.S. "Psychotherapy is not
Pacific University an applied science, it
School of Professional Psychology is a basic science in
2004 Pacific Avenue which the scientists
Forest Grove, OR 97116 USA are the client and his
<> therapist"
--George Kelly

On Thu, 20 Mar 1997 wrote:

> >>
> >> > "Without language,we have no relationships.
> >>
> >> What about early attachment relationships, which begin around 6 months
> >> of age and earlier, between infants and adults -- would it be fair to say
> >> that babies don't have relationshps with their parents?
> >------------------------------
> >
> >I have wondered about this as well, Mike. But what I have come to
> >realize is that I was attaching a conventional, Objectivist
> >interpretation to the term 'language' --- namely, that there IS
> >someTHING, some entity, which we call 'language.'
> >
> >But is there? What evidence is there for it?
> >
> >I have concluded, after long study, discussion and reflection, that I
> >can locate no such evidence. I am left with the conclusion that we use
> >the term 'language' to denote a metaphor, or a linguistic
> >distinction/concept, but not a demonstrable 'reality.' In the final
> >analysis,then,the traditional Objectivist interpretation of language is
> >thing-oriented, static, and potentially misleading and illusory.
> >
> >However, if we join noted Biology of Cognition scholar Humberto
> >Maturana, we can reframe or reconstruct our interpretation of 'language'
> >to a view which I believe is more in keeping with Constructivism (see
> >Attachment). We can begin to think in terms not of a thing, but of a
> >dynamic action process of languagING, in which we
> >coordinate action with ourselves and others, continuously, publicly and
> >privately, throughout all the conscious days of our life.
> Hi Gary:
> Your comments about language as an activity rather than as a fixed
> structure are rich and thoughtful. I think that it is an appropriate
> point to make. I agree that we should avoid speaking of language as
> an abstract structure, and speak of speech, speaking, utterning, and
> the like. However, as rich as your comments are, I may have been
> addressing a different point. The poem suggested that without language,
> there are no relationships; it suggests the priority of language in
> psychological functioning. My point was simply that sign activity is but
> one vehicle of psychological functioning. I gave early attachment as
> an example of how there could be a relationshiup, but not signs or speech.
> Here is another example, a classic one, from Piaget. Piaget was watching
> his 15 month old girl as she played with a toy clown with long feet. The
> feet of the doll became caught in the low neck of her dress, and Jacqueline
> could'nt get them out. After her failed attempt, Jacqueline "put her hand
> in fron of her, bent her forefinger at a right angle to reprduce the shape
> of the clown's feet, described exactly the same trajectory as teh clown and
> thus succeedded in putting her finger in the neck of the dress..."
> In this example, the child is using the trajectory of her finger as a
> symbol to "stand for" the movement of the clown. This is not sign-
> activity. Piaget, in fact, sees such symbolic uses of action as a
> forerunner to signs. Again, my point is that we think and relate in many
> ways, sensori-motor actions, images, emotional expereicne, that are not
> necessarily instances of sign activity.
> Best,
> Mike Mascolo