Thoughts on Being Human [3] – Signs of Our Times

What are the signs of our times?  That is: what signifies our here-and-now moment?  Screaming politicians?  Angry mobs?  Memes?  The ubiquity of networked technologies?  It is always hard to tell, from within a moment, what signifies the intelligibility of that moment; understanding precisely where we are requires spending time to find points of reference.  Every moment in history, it seems likely, confuses us more when we are in it than when we have passed it by.  Despite this, which ought to be easily recognized, we nevertheless tend to believe our culture now superior to cultures past—not without reason, mind you—without thinking very much about what cultures future might think of us.

A longer paper addressing some of these issues is available on, and audio of the presentation (43:35) has been embedded below.

Julian Baggini recently wrote, in a piece for Aeon Magazine, that racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced great philosophers of bygone eras—such as Aristotle, Kant, or Hume—deserve our admiration despite their failings; for “Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are, even the greatest.”  Baggini’s point, though many may recognize it in the abstract, remains outside the habitual considerations of most people today.  In other words, we may recognize that very many of one’s beliefs are very frequently the product of one’s environment—of one’s “time”—and yet hold our own beliefs as though personally-arrived-at convictions of the greatest intellectual certitude and the securest moral rectitude.

Likely, we have arrived at many of our convictions through our own action; at least, in some small part.  But even more likely is that we have played less of a part than we generally suppose; and that the culture into which we have been born or otherwise thrust has played a much greater role than we would like to admit.  To give some anodyne examples: our aesthetic tastes are generally taken to be subjective, and in the age of the internet, decreasingly provincial.  In other words, you can find in the urban northeastern United States fans of Texas-recorded country music, and in the cornfields of the Midwest, lovers of hip-hop.  While this aesthetic diversity might speak to subjective variation—not only in music, but in art, architecture, literature, food, and any other matter of taste—the variation differs less than a superficial glance would have us believe.  Rather, we are in many ways determined by forces outside of ourselves.  We can see this in two ways.

First, we are naturally limited—determined in our bearing by our culture—by the availability of objects: a rare food that is an acquired taste is one an impoverished girl from Minnesota is unlikely to enjoy, just as a teenager who has grown up on pop music is unlikely to appreciate Franz Liszt (at the very least, as much as Liszt deserves to be appreciated).  But second, and much more importantly, we are limited by unrealized presuppositions uncritically adopted.  Whether conscious of it or not, each of us forms, from a very young age, a background image about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.  More often than not, the ideological commitments or prejudices belonging to people of the past were likewise rooted in their own presupposed and unquestioned background images.  That is: sexism, for instance, was not an arbitrary selection, nor was it merely a power-grab.  Rather, the belief about the universe was one of pervasive hierarchical order: if things appear differently they also appear, to the mind that presupposes all things are hierarchical, as unequal.  Though grossly unjust, and relying upon an a priori belief, there was a fittingness that appeared to Aristotle and company in ranking women lower than men, given the presuppositions already established about how the universe operated.

Especially was such a priorism easy when exercised by nearly all.

Are we really much different, today?  We tend not to see our own ideological commitments quite so well as we do those of others (especially long-dead others, whose ideas were so very different from our own).  We hold our ideologies “too close”, like emerald colored-glasses to which we’ve become so inured we have forgotten the world is not really that green, forgotten that we are wearing them in the first place: “An ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality – that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself.”[1]

As said in the previous entry, many—most—of our beliefs develop not through a process of rational inquiry, but rather of sentimental attachment, whether this attachment stems from an internal tenacity or by external authoritarian imposition; especially unrealized impositions accepted without question: the bearings of our parents, teachers, friends, or expanded cultural network which become our own by a social osmosis; which slide into our minds through popular and social media.  The positions we do hold consciously—e.g., our political preferences, our philosophical adherences—more often than not find acceptance only because they have a fittingness to beliefs held a priori.  We are predisposed—determined, in a very literal sense of its Latin etymology (that is, not “determined” as the “inevitable product of temporally antecedent efficient causes”, but as “reduced from a wider potential to a narrower actuality”; having terms or limits set on us)—by innumerable things outside ourselves.  How?

To invert the meaning of our titular phrase: we not only know a time by its signs, but a time itself is determined by its signs.

What is a sign?  Casually, we likely think of nothing more emblematic than the street sign: especially the large, red, octagonal one with “STOP” boldly striking across; or perhaps the large neon announcement of a place to eat—or of a different concupiscent appetite.  We might think in terms of signals and the ordering of logistics, or even in terms of marketing.  But these are, for the most part, unreflectively-adopted notions and merely examples of a phenomenon, not a definition nor even an oblique grasp of the essence of what it is for something to be a sign.

Perhaps we can enter into a more critical appreciation of the sign by very briefly considering its history.  John Deely (1942-2017)—philosopher and semiotician (and my dissertation director) whose Four Ages of Understanding is vital reading for any interested in the history of signs—showed that it was Augustine of Hippo (c.350-430) who first defined a sign as indifferently natural or cultural: “A sign is something that shows itself to the senses and something beyond itself to the soul” (Signum est quod se ipsum sensui et praeter se aliquid animo ostendit).  The notion of signs was central to the philosophical-informing of Catholic theology and philosophy throughout the Latin Age—in explaining the nature of the sacraments, chiefly—and developed from Augustine’s notion of signs as physical things that, being sensed direct our minds to something else, to a more general but essential meaning given by John Poinsot (1589-1644), as “that which represents to a cognitive faculty something other than itself” (id quod potentiae cognoscitivae aliquid aliud a se repraesentat).

A sign, therefore, has an inherently relational quality; it represents to.  Some centuries after Poinsot, Charles Peirce (1839-1914)—who did not know Poinsot’s long-forgotten work, but did know the work of Poinsot’s teachers, the semi-anonymous Conimbricenses—recognized that this relationality must be triadic in nature: in other words, the relation that a sign accomplishes is no mere concatenation of dyadic (two-term) relations, but a mediation whereby one thing affects another, which in turn affects a third back towards the first.  A mere thing, apart from this accomplished relation, is not in fact a sign—that is, it doesn’t perform the significative function.  Were I to say “illud quod primo cadit” to someone entirely unfamiliar with Latin, it would not signify to them what it signifies to someone who knows the language; especially the medieval usage; and most especially the oeuvre of Thomas Aquinas (most especially his 1270 Summa theologiae prima secundae q.94, a.2). To a tribal native from a remote region of the world, the “STOP” sign does not signify the law, which she does not know (it may correspond to something in her own culture, but that is a rabbit hole we’ll not go down).

The causality exercised by a sign, therefore, is in that it directs our cognitive faculties to this rather than that.  To some extent we are free in regards to the signs by which we allow ourselves to be directed.  For instance, I may choose to think not of the weather outside, but of the book on my desk; or of what it might be like to remain conscious while being sucked into Sagittarius A*.  Quite likely, I—and you, and everyone else—am more likely to think of some things than others, a thinking not free of cathectic influence.  If an attractive woman flaunts her most attractive qualities towards me, seductively, it is much more difficult to think about philosophy (though doing so can help prevent making a mistake with that woman—especially if you start talking about philosophy with her; often a real mood-killer).

Often, however, this distractedness follows not simply because of the here-and-now objects drawing our attention.  We as human beings are creatures shot through and through with habits: with governing tendencies which draw us towards behaviors and objects even in their absence.  Any habitual smoker—or explicit addict of any kind—can attest to this phenomenon.  But one need not be an outright addict in order to have developed habits; and many of our habits—particularly those that are not well-defined or explicit—escape our attention.  These are not only habits of behavior (virtuous or vicious, benign or malicious, unimportant or vital), but also habits of thinking.  Whereas habits of behavior can in part be explained through consideration of neurochemistry—lust and love and romance, testosterone and oxytocin and dopamine, for instance—habits of thinking can be understood only by recognizing the influences and the actions of signs.  Thus even our habits of behavior become profoundly determining of our actions and especially of our reactions when we are not conscientious of the semiotics at work in our lives (since our behavior does not occur in a cognitive vacuum, but as a consequence always to some cognition), even more so are our habits of thinking semiotically determined.  Most especially is this the case with the establishment of what we consider “normality”—the baseline or background image mentioned above—which notion comes primarily from influences we do not even recognize.

In other words, we believe things not only without really knowing what it is in which we believe, but often without even realizing that we believe them at all.  We—confused somnambulists plodding along with uncritical beliefs—are indeed both signs of our times and are ourselves formed by the signs of our times.

The next entries will consider this semiotic, cultural determination in three interrelated movements: first, distinguishing the cognitive faculties which belong to the human being; second, considering the habituation of our cognitive faculties; and third, by illuminating some of the cultural determinations which are common to us but of which we are unaware.

[1] Slavoj Žižek 1989: The Sublime Object of Ideology, 49.

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