In a bout of dubious scientific romanticism, Quine, in Word and Object, conjures up the beginning of language learning by positing an extra-linguistic anchor, a physical stimulus, to get us over the bridge from babble to the noun. Quine’s piece on the baby learning the word Mama takes the then fashionable behavioralism of Skinner and embeds it into theory of the onto-genesis of language:
“The operant act may be the random babbling of some thing like 'Mama' at some moment when, by coincidence, the mother's face is looming. The mother, pleased at being named, rewards this random act, and so in the future the approach of the mother's face succeeds as a stimulus for further utterances of 'Mama'. The child has learned an occasion sentence.”
Coincidence plays a hinge role here. The presentation of Mama’s face –its looming – makes this a bit more primitive than Mama pointing at her face, but the logic is the same: there is the extra-linguistic world, the presentation, the coincidence with utterance, and the occasion sentence. The set up here has been remarkably consistent in Western philosophy of language since Augustine’s De Magistro, in which Augustine instructs his illegitimate son on the semiotic constitution of language – words as signs – by reference to charades, the language of gesture of the deaf, mime, and mostly, the pointing finger. Adeodatus accepts the significance of signs, but then gets stuck on what we would call the social construction of reality: how does one ever get out of the world of signs?
Adeodatus: But even a wall, as our reasoning shoedd, cannot be shown without a pointing finger. The holding out of the finger is not the wall but the sign by means of which the wall is pointed out. So far as I can see there is nothing which can be shown without signs/
Augustine: Suppose I were to ask you what walking is, and you were to get up and do it, wouldn’t you be using the thing itself to show me, not words or any other signs?
Adeodatus: Yes, of course. I am ashamed that I did not notice so obvious a fact.”
Adeodatus concedes, of course, too quickly, since it is not clear why you can’t use the thing in itself as a sign, just as it is unclear why Mama’s face is the thing in itself, and not already the sign, this is Mama.
Signs are a labyrinth. We are continually promised that the labyrinth has an exit, but we are continually deflected from its discovery once we’ve made our fatal entrance.
However, though the metaphysical divide between the word and the object in Quine is definitely arguable, Quine does, properly, take up the issue of divided reference as an issue that cannot be delayed until language is learned.
Another word for divided reference is wise-assery. The smart aleck, the wise ass, the joker – from my earliest memories, I was always like that. And I am amazed and pleased, most of the time, that Adam is also a mocker.
A couple of nights ago, Adam made up his first pun, when we showed him how to roll spagetti on a fork and he pronounced it a pasta-fier.
As well, he has found out how much fun it is to imitate himself. Sometimes, he will pretend cry and pretend tantrum for the fun of it. To, as Quine would put it, stress the context of stimulation in which he has been placed. Or, as I would put it, to both entertain and tease his parental units.
Teasing stretches a long way. It is rooted in the animal world – not only among humans, but among other social animals – and it goes all the way into literature, which is, at base, simply a long form of teasing. There are writers who must have been aggressive teasers when they were young – like Nabokov – and others who were, perhaps, more ambiguous about the phenomenon – like Kafka. Teasing isn’t a necessary derivative of sign using – I’m not sure anyone has ever caught an ant or a bee teasing, although perhaps we have just not looked hard enough – but sign using is certainly a prerequisite of teasing. I’m learning to enjoy this all over again with Adam.
Although … to give Augustine and Quine their due, when it comes to distinguishing the sign from the thing, Adam seems more in their camp. Thus, when I ask Adam, once he has jumped up and down and laughed while seeing a superhero, if Adam is a superhero, he will invariably reply, no, Adam is Adam. Adam is always Adam. At least for now, he’s having no truck with deconstruction.