The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 2 After the Fall

Step 2

Eve and Adam are out of Garden now, due to their dispute with their Landlord.  Eve has had a new idea.  Carrying around the abstract picture of a tree (the stick drawing) is a real hassle.  It keeps getting dirty and wrinkled and has to be redone again and again.  But, all of sudden Eve realizes that it really doesn’t matter what is on the paper or even whether it is on paper at all.  Anything will do so long as she waves it at some trees and gets Adam to realize this thing she is waving means (let’s just call it a “symbol”): “anything that sufficiently resembles these things I am waving this symbol at is a tree”.  This is a slightly different—but even more dangerous—version of the principle of sufficient reason.

The symbol could be anything.  It could be some marks on paper that need not resemble a tree in any way at all, say marks that look like this: tree (or this: شجرة).  It could be sounds, say three sounds that put together sound like [tri] (or [shajara]).  It could be a dance move, a gesture, or a string with a knot in it.  The symbol, whatever it is, signifies trees.  The set of trees that were waved at or the sorts of things which some later group takes as typical of trees I will call “the exemplars.” The meaning (semantically speaking) of the symbol (say “tree”) is: anything that sufficiently resembles the exemplars for “tree” (the things Eve waved at or the sorts of things later people take as exemplary trees) is (counts as) a “tree”. 

Now, Eve and Adam at this point have been inventing symbols and waving them at top speed.  They have lots and lots of symbols (let’s just call them “words”).  And the words have begun to take on various relationships to each other.  For example, anything that sufficiently resembles the exemplars for “tree” also sufficiently resembles the exemplars for “plant.”  Or: Anything that sufficiently resembles the exemplars for “tree” does not sufficiently resemble the exemplars for “animal” to be counted as an animal.  Eve, with Adam, has created a “system,”  a map of things in the world, an “ontology,” a worldview.  The two of them have “cut the world up” in a certain way.

Now here is a question:  If we had not started with Eve and Adam, but with Moon Woman and Wolf Man, would they have cut up the world in the same way as Eve and Adam did?  Did intelligent creatures on a far away planet create symbols that are anything like Eve’s and Adam’s?  Did they categorize their world and its things and events in anything like the way Eve and Adam did theirs?

The answers to these questions are all “no.”  There are many ways worlds can be cut up into bits and pieces and boundaries.  And THAT has also been an endless source of misery, hate, fear, and warfare for humans, as has the principle of sufficient reason.  And the two (cuts and reasons) are related.  When we argue over whether THIS THING is sufficiently like THAT THING to be the SAME THING we are arguing over boundaries (cuts, waves), ontologies, worldviews, ways of being in the world.  People have long suffered and died because of such arguments, especially when they started naming things much less solid than trees. Ah, we have come to Cain and Abel. 

[to be continued …]


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