Mind Self and Society

Section 3 The Behavioristic Significance of Gesture

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The behaviorist of the Watsonian type has been prone to carry his principle of conditioning over into the field of language. By a conditioning of reflexes the horse has become associated with the word "horse." and this in turn releases the set of responses. We use the word, and the response may be that of mounting, buying, selling or trading. We are ready to do all these different things. This statement, however, lacks the recognition that these different processes which the behaviorist says are identified with the word "horse" must be worked into the act itself, or the group of acts, which gather about the horse. They go to make up that object in our experience, and the function of the word is a function which has its place in that organization; but it is not, however, the whole process. We find that same sort of organization seemingly extended in the conduct of animals lower than man; those processes which go to make up our objects must be present in the animals themselves who have not the use of language. It is, of course, the great value, or one of the great values, of language that it does give us control over this organization of the act. That is a point we will have to consider in detail later, but it is important to recognize that that to which the word refers is something that can lie in the experience of the individual without the use of language itself. Language does pick out and organize the content in experience. It is implemented for that purpose.

Language is part of social behavior. [1] There is an indefi-

(14) -nite number of signs or symbols which may serve the purpose of what we term "language." We are reading the meaning of the conduct of other people when, perhaps, they are not aware of it. There is something that reveals to us what the purpose is-just the glance of an eye, the attitude of the body which leads to the response. The communication set up in this way between individuals may be very perfect. Conversation in gestures may be carried on which cannot be translated into articulate speech. This is also true of the lower animals. Dogs approaching each other in hostile attitude carry on such a language of gestures. They walk around each other, growling and snapping, and waiting for the opportunity to attack. Here is a process out of which language might arise, that is, a certain attitude of one individual that calls out a response in the other, which in turn calls out a different approach and a different response, and so on indefinitely. In fact, as we shall see, language does arise in just such a process as that. We are too prone, however, to approach language as the philologist does, from the standpoint of the symbol that is used.[2] We analyze that symbol and find out what is the intent in the mind of the individual in using that symbol, and then attempt to discover whether this symbol calls out this intent in the mind of the other. We assume that there are sets of ideas in persons' minds and that these individuals make use of certain arbitrary symbols which answer to the intent which the individuals had. But if we are going to broaden the concept of language in the sense I have

(15) spoken of, so that it takes in the underlying attitudes, we can see that the so-called intent, the idea we are talking about, is one that is involved in the gesture or attitudes which we are using. The offering of a chair to a person who comes into the room is in itself a courteous act. We do not have to assume that a person says to himself that this person wants a chair. The offering of a chair by a person of good manners is something which is almost instinctive. This is the very attitude of the individual. From the point of view of the observer it is a gesture. Such early stages of social acts precede the symbol proper, and deliberate communication.

One of the important documents in the history of modern psychology, particularly for the psychology of language, is Darwin's Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Here Darwin carried over his theory of evolution into the field of what we call "conscious experience." What Darwin did was to show that there was a whole series of acts or beginnings of acts which called out certain responses that do express emotions. If one animal attacks another, or is on the point of attacking, or of taking the bone of another dog, that action calls out violent responses which express the anger of the second dog. There we have a set of attitudes which express the emotional attitude of dogs; and we can carry this analysis into the human expression of emotion.

The part of our organism that most vividly and readily expresses the emotions is the face, and Darwin studied the face from this point of view. He took, naturally, the actor, the man whose business it is to express the emotions by the movements of the countenance, and studied the muscles themselves; and in studying them he undertook to show what the value of these changes of the face might be in the actual act. We speak of such expressions as those of anger, and note the way in which the blood may suffuse the face at one stage and then leave it at another. Darwin studied the blood flow in fear and in terror. In these emotions one can find changes taking place in the blood flow itself. These changes have their value. They represent,

(16) of course, changes in the circulation of blood in the acts. These actions are generally actions which are rapid and can only take place if the blood is flowing rapidly. There must be a change in the rhythm of circulation and this generally registers itself in the countenance.

Many of our acts of hostility exhibit themselves in attitudes of the face similar to animals which attack with their teeth. The attitude, or in a more generalized term, the gesture, has been preserved after the value of the act has disappeared. The title of Darwin's work indicates his point of approach. He was dealing with these gestures, these attitudes, as expressive of emotions and assuming at the time that the gesture has this function of expressing the emotions. That attitude has been preserved, on this view, after the value of the act has disappeared. This gesture seems to remain for the purpose of expressing emotions. One naturally assumed there an attitude in the experience of animals which answers in some sense to those of the human animal. One could apply the doctrine of the survival of the fittest here also. The implication in this particular case was that these gestures or attitudes had lost the value which they had in the original acts, and yet had survived. The indication was that they had survived because they served certain valuable functions, and the suggestion was that this was the expression of the emotions. That attitude on Darwin's part is reflected in the work of other psychologists, men who were interested, as Darwin was, in the study of the act, in the information that is conveyed by one individual to another by his attitude. They assume that these acts had a reason for existence because they expressed something in the mind of the individual. It is an approach like that of the philologist. They assume that language existed for the purpose of conveying certain ideas, certain feelings.

If one considers, he realizes that this is a false approach. It is quite impossible to assume that animals do undertake to express their emotions. They certainly do not undertake to express them for the benefit of other animals. The most that can be said

(17) is that the "expressions" did set free a certain emotion in the individual, an escape valve, so to speak, an emotional attitude which the animal needed, in some sense, to get rid of. They certainly could not exist in these lower animals as means of expressing emotions; we cannot approach them from the point of view of expressing a content in the mind of the individual. We can, of course, see how, for the actor, they may become definitely a language. An actor, for example, may undertake to express his rage, and he may do it by an expression of the countenance, and so convey to the audience the emotion he intended. However, he is not expressing his own emotion but simply conveying to the audience the evidence of anger, and if he is successful he may do it more effectively, as far as the audience is concerned, than a person who is in reality angered. There we have these gestures serving the purpose of expression of the emotions, but we cannot conceive that they arose as such a language in order to express emotion. Language, then, has to be studied from the point of view of the gestural type of conduct within which it existed without being as such a definite language. And we have to see how the communicative function could have arisen out of that prior sort of conduct.

The psychology of Darwin assumed that emotion was a psychological state, a state of consciousness, and that this state could not itself be formulated in terms of the attitude or the behavior of the form. It was assumed that the emotion is there and that certain movements might give evidence of it. The evidence would be received and acted upon by other forms that were fashioned like itself. That is, it presupposed the conscious state over against the biological organism. The conscious state was that which was to be expressed in the gesture or the attitude. It was to be expressed in behavior and to be recognized in some fashion as existent in the consciousness of the other form through this medium of expression. Such was the general psychological attitude which Darwin accepted.

Contrary to Darwin, however, we find no evidence for the prior existence of consciousness as something which brings

(18) about behavior on the part of one organism that is of such a sort as to call forth an adjustive response on the part of another organism, without itself being dependent on such behavior. We are rather forced to conclude that consciousness is an emergent from such behavior; that so far from being a precondition of the social act, the social act is the precondition of it. The mechanism of the social act can be traced out without introducing into it the conception of consciousness as a separable element within that act; hence the social act, in its more elementary stages or forms, is possible without, or apart from, some form of consciousness. 


  1. What is the basic mechanism whereby the social process goes on? It is the mechanism of gesture, which makes possible the appropriate responses to one another's behavior of the different individual organisms involved in the social process. Within any given social act, an adjustment is effected, by means of gestures, of the actions of one organism involved to the actions of another; the gestures are movements of the first organism which act as specific stimuli calling forth the (socially) appropriate responses of the second organism. The field of the operation of gestures is the field within which the rise and development of human intelligence has taken place through the process of the symbolization of experience which gesture--especially vocal gestures-have made possible. The specialization of the human animal within this field of the gesture has been responsible, ultimately, for the origin and growth of present human society and knowledge, with all the control over nature and over the human environment which science makes possible.
  2. ["The Relations Of Psychology and Philology," Psychological Bulletin, I (1904), 375 ff.]

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