Mind Self and Society
Section 8 Imitation and the Origin of Language
Wundt's difficulty has been resolved in the past through the concept of imitation. Of course, if it were true that when a person shakes his fist in your face you just imitate him, you would be doing what he is doing and have the same idea as he has. There are, in fact, certain cases where the responses are like the stimuli in the social act, but as a rule they are different. And yet it has been generally assumed that certain forms imitate each other. There has been a good deal of study on this problem of imitation and the part it is supposed to play in conduct, especially in lower forms; but the result of this study has been to minimize imitation, even in the conduct of the higher animals. The monkey has been traditionally the most imitative animal, but under scientific study this was found to be a myth. The monkey learns very quickly but he does not imitate. Dogs and cats have been studied from this standpoint, and the conduct of one form has not been found to serve the purpose of arousing the same act in the other form.
In the human form there seems to be imitation in the case of a vocal gesture, the important gesture as far as language is concerned. So the philologist in particular, before the psychologist reached a more accurate analysis, went on the assumption that -we imitate the sounds that we hear. There seemed to be a good
(52) deal of evidence for this also in certain animal forms, particularly those forms that utilize a richer phonetic articulation, such as birds. The sparrow can be taught to imitate the canary by close association with the canary. The parrot learns to "speak." It is not, we shall see, genuine speech, for he is not conveying ideas, but we commonly say the parrot imitates the sounds that appear about it.
Imitation as a general instinct is now discredited in human psychology. There was a time when people assumed that there was a definite impulse on the part of the human animal just to do what it saw other people do. There is a great deal of seeming imitation on the part of children. Also there is among undeveloped forms a speech that appears to be nothing but imitation. There are persons whom we consider unintelligent who say things over without having any idea of what is meant, a bare repetition of sounds they hear. But the question still remains why the form should so imitate. Is there any reason for imitation? We assume that all conduct has back of it some function. What is the function of imitation? Seemingly we get an answer in the development of young forms. The young fox goes about with the parents, hunts with them, learns to seize and avoid the right animals; it has no original objection to the odor of a man, but after it has been with the old fox the scent of man will cause it to run away. There is, in this case, a series of responses which become definitely associated with a particular stimulus; if the young form goes about with the parent, those responses which are all there in its nature become associated with certain definite stimuli. We can, in a very generalized sense, speak of the fox as imitating its parents and avoiding man. But that usage would not imply running away as an automatic act of imitation. The young fox has been put in a situation in which it does run away, and when the odor of man is present it becomes definitely associated with this flight response. No young forms in the lower animals ever merely imitate the acts of the adult form, but they do acquire during their period of infancy the associa-
(53) -tion of a set of more or less instinctive responses to a certain set of stimuli.
The above observations and reservations do not, as we shall see, justify the questionable sense in which the notion of imitation has often been used. The term "imitation" became of great importance, for a time, in social psychology and in sociology. It was used as a basis for a whole theory of sociology by the French sociologist, Gabriel Tarde. The psychologist at first, without adequate analysis, assumed on the part of the person a tendency to do what other persons do. One can see how difficult it would be to work out any mechanism of that sort. Why should a person wink because another person winks? What stimulus would cause another person to act in that way? The sight of another person acting in another way? This is an impossible assumption.
In the parallelism of Wundt we have the basis for his account of language. Wundt assumed a physical situation which has a certain import for the conduct of the form, and on the other hand he assumed a psychical complex of ideas which are in a certain sense the expression of physiological or biological values. His problem is to get out of this situation language as significant communication.
There are such situations as that represented by the conversation of gestures to which I have referred, situations in which certain phases of the act become stimuli to the forms involved in it to carry out their part in the act. Now these parts of the act which are stimuli for the other forms in their social activity are gestures. Gestures are then that part of the act which is responsible for its influence upon other forms. The gesture in some sense stands for the act as far as it affects the other form. The threat of violence, such as a clenched fist, is the stimulus to the other form for defense or flight. It carries with it the import of the act itself. I am not referring to import in terms of reflective consciousness, but in terms of behavior. For the observer the gesture means the danger and the response of the individual
(54) to that danger. It calls out a certain sort of an act. If we assume a consciousness in which there is not only present the stimulus in the form of sensation but also an idea, then there is in the mind the sensation in which this stimulus appears, a vision of the clenched fist, and besides that the idea of the attack. The clenched fist in so far as it calls out that idea may be said to mean the danger.
Now the problem is to get this relationship between the idea and the symbol itself into the conversation of gestures. As I pointed out before, this relationship is not given in the immediate response of fighting or running. It may be present there, but as far as the conversation of gestures is concerned an act of one sort calls out an act of a different sort in the other form. That is, the threat which is involved leads, we will say, to flight. The idea of flight is not the idea of attack. In the conversation of gestures there is the preparation for the full social process involving the actions in different forms, and the gestures, which are the parts of the act, serve to stimulate the other forms. They call out acts different from themselves. While they may call out acts which are alike, as a rule the response is different from the stimulus itself. The cry of a child calls out the response of the care of the mother; the one is fear and the other protection, solicitude. The response is not in any sense identical with the other act. If there is an idea, in the Wundtian sense, the psychical content that answers to a certain particular stimulus, that will not get its reflection in the response.
What language seems to carry is a set of symbols answering to certain content which is measurably identical in the experience of the different individuals. If there is to be communication as such the symbol has to mean the same thing to all individuals involved. If a number of individuals respond in different ways to the stimulus, the stimulus means different things to them. If a number-of persons are lifting a weight, one person takes one position and another a different position. If it is a cooperative process requiring different sorts of responses, then the call on the part of one individual to act calls out different re-
(55) -sponses in the others. The conversation of gestures does not carry with it a symbol which has a universal significance to all the different individuals. It may be quite effective without that, since the stimulus which one individual gives may be the proper stimulus to ca I out different responses in the individuals in the group. It is not essential that the individuals should give an identical meaning to the particular stimulus in order that each may properly respond. People get into a crowd and move this way, and that way; they adjust themselves to the people coming toward them, as we say, unconsciously. They move in an intelligent fashion with reference to each other, and perhaps all of them think of something entirely different, but they do find in the gestures of others, their attitudes and movements, adequate stimuli for different responses. This illustrates a conversation of gestures in which there is cooperative activity without any symbol that means the same thing to all. Of course, it is possible for intelligent individuals under such conditions to translate these gestures into significant symbols, but one need not stop to translate into terms of that sort. Such a universal discourse is not at all essential to the conversation of gestures in cooperative conduct.
Such cooperative conduct is presumably the only type of conduct which one finds among the ants and bees. In these very complex societies there is an interrelationship of different forms that seemingly is as complex as human conduct in many respects. There are societies of a million individuals in some of the large ant nests, and divided up into different groups with different functions. What is a stimulus to action for one leads to a different response in another. There is cooperative activity, but no evidence of any significant language in the conduct of these insects. It is, of course, a field in which a great deal of work has to be done, but still there has been no evidence found of any significant symbols.
I want to make clear the difference between those two situations. There can be a high degree of intelligence, as we use that term, in the conduct of animals without any significant sym-
(56) -bols, without any presentation of meanings as such. What is essential is cooperative activity, so that the gesture of one form calls out the proper response to others. But the gesture of one may call out very different responses on the part of other forms, and yet there may be no common meaning which all the different forms give to any particular gesture. There is no common symbol that for the ants means food. Food means a great many things, things that have to be gathered, that have to be stored, that have to be carried by the workers and placed in the mouths of the fighters. There is no evidence that there is any symbol that means food as such. The sight, the odor of food, and its position lead to a certain response. An ant picks a food object up and staggers back to the nest with it. Later it means something to be eaten, it means a whole series of activities. The odor along the path is a stimulus to other insects following along the path, but there is no symbol that means "path" to such a group. The odor of a strange form in the nest means attack from other forms, but if a strange ant is dipped in liquid formed by crushing ants from the nest and then placed in the nest there is no attack, even though his form is very much larger. The odor does not mean an enemy as such. Contrast these two situations: in one there is a highly complex social activity in which the gestures are simply stimuli to the appropriate response of the whole group; in the human situation there is a different response which is mediated by means of particular symbols or particular gestures which have the same meaning for all members of a group. Here the cry of an enemy is not simply a stimulus to attack. It means that a person of a different race, of a different community, is present, and that there is warfare going on. It has the same meaning to all individuals and that meaning may mediate a whole series of different responses.
As I have said, the problem from Wundt's standpoint is to get this second character over into the more primitive conversation of gestures, or conduct which is mediated by a conversation of gestures. A mere intelligent response on the part of the different members of a group to a single stimulus (to what to the
(57) observer is a single stimulus) does not carry with it any communication. Now how is one to reach genuine language? Wundt starts off with the assumption that there are psychical conditions that answer to certain stimuli, and an association between them. Certain sights, odors, and especially sounds are associated with certain ideas. If, when a person uses a certain sound, he has that idea in his own mind, and the gesture that he uses, say a vocal gesture, calls out the same gesture in the other, then that gesture in the other person will call out the same idea in him. Say the word "enemy" calls out a hostile response. Now, when I say "enemy" it calls out the same response in your mind that it calls out in mine. There we would have a particular symbol that has a common meaning. If all members of the group were so constituted that it has this meaning, then there would be a basis for communication by means of significant symbols.
The difficulty in this analysis to which I have been referring is to account for a particular gesture calling out the same gesture in another individual, even if we assume that this same idea is associated with the same vocal gesture in another individual. Assuming that the word "enemy" means hostility, how can the situation arise in which one person says "enemy," and the other person says "enemy" too? Where one person says Is enemy" one individual will fight and another will run away. There we have two different significations answering to the sound. What we want to get is the one stimulus which has a certain psychical content calling out the same stimulus in another form, and so the same content. We seem to have the beginnings of that process among the talking birds. One stimulus seems to call out the same stimulus in the conduct of the other form. What the psychical accompaniment is in the birds, of course, we cannot tell, but we can record that they seem to have no such signification as they have in our experience. The parrot does not mean what the sentences mean to us. We have noted, however, that the canary's melody can be taken over by the
(58) sparrow, and this seemingly imitative process we must soon discuss in detail.
We argued that there is no evidence of any general tendency on the part of forms to imitate each other. If one attempts to state such a tendency it breaks down mechanically. It would mean that we have a tendency to do the same thing that other people are doing, and also that these tendencies are not only in our nature, but also that they are attached to certain specific stimuli which mean what the other people are doing. The sight of one person doing something would be a stimulus to another person to do the same thing. We should have to assume that what the person is doing is already a reaction that is in the nature of the imitating individual. It would mean that we have in our nature already all of these various activities, and that they are called out by the sight of other people doing the same thing. It is a perfectly impossible assumption.
When the psychologist came to analyze imitation he restricted it to the field in which people happened to be doing the same thing. If one person is running he may be said to arouse the stimulus for other people to run at the same time. We do assume that the sight of one animal actually running is the stimulus to other animals to run. That is very important for the preservation of animals that go in droves. Cattle grazing in a pasture all drift along together. One animal left by himself will be nervous and will not graze, but if put with other animals it is again normal. It does more readily what it is doing provided it is in a group. The tendency to drift together is not an impossible sort of an instinct, since we can conceive that the movement of animals in a certain direction should be a stimulus to other animals. That is about all that there is in the "herding" instinct, if reduced down to something concrete in the action of the form itself The animal acts more nominally when with others in the same group. He will feed better than otherwise. But when you come to some specific act about all you can find is that the animals do tend to move in the same direction. This may lead to a stampede in the herd. Something of that sort is
(59) involved in the so-called "sentinel." One animal, a little more sensitive than the others, lifts his head and starts to run away,, and the other animals do tend to move with the sentinel form. It is not, of course, imitation in the sense of copying; for one animal is not copying the other animal. The one animal simply tends to run when the other does. If a cat is put in a puzzle box and the cat does get to the point where it opens the door by a lever action and does that often enough, it will strike that lever the first thing. Now, if another cat is put in, and where it can see the first cat, it will not imitate it. There is no evidence that what one animal does becomes a stimulus to the other animal to do the same thing. There is no direct imitative activity.
There does however, seem to be a tendency to imitate among men, and in particular to reproduce vocal gestures. We find the latter tendency among birds as well as among men. If you go into a locality where there is a peculiar dialect and remain there for a length of time you find yourself speaking the same dialect, and it may be something which you did not want to do. The simplest way of stating it is to say that you unconsciously imitate. The same thing is also true of various other mannerisms. If you think of a certain person you are very apt to find yourself speaking as the other person spoke. Any mannerism which the individual has is one which you find yourself tending to carry out when the person comes to your mind. That is what we call "imitation," and what is curious is that there is practically no indication of such behavior on the part of lower forms. You can teach the sparrow to sing as a canary but you have to keep that sparrow constantly listening to a canary. It does not take place readily. The mocking bird does seem to take up the calls of other birds. It seems to be peculiarly endowed in this particular way. But in general the taking over of the processes of others is not natural to lower forms. Imitation seems to belong to the human form, where it has reached some sort of independent conscious existence.
But "Imitation" gives no solution for the origin of language. We have to come back to some situation out of which we can
(60) reach some symbol that will have an identical meaning, and we cannot get it out of a mere instinct of imitation, as such. There is no evidence that the gesture generally tends to call out the same gesture in the other organism.
Imitation as the mere tendency on the part of an organism to reproduce what it sees or hears other organisms doing is mechanically impossible; one cannot conceive an organism as so constructed that all the sights and sounds which reach it would arouse in the organism tendencies to reproduce what it sees and hears in those fields of experience. Such an assumption is possible only in terms of an older psychology. If one assumed that the mind is made up out of ideas, that the character of our conscious experience is nothing but a set of impressions of objects, and if one adjusts to these impressions, so to speak, a motor tendency, one might conceive of that as being one which would seek to reproduce what was seen and heard. But as soon as you recognize in the organism a set of acts which carry out the processes which are essential to the life of the form, and undertake to put the sensitive or sensory experience into that scheme, the sensitive experience, as stimulus we will say to the response, cannot be a stimulus simply to reproduce what is seen and heard; it is rather a stimulus for the carrying out of the organic process. The animal sees or smells the food and hears the enemy, the parent form sees and hears the infant form-these are all stimuli to the forms to carry through the processes which are essential to the species to which they belong. They are acts which go beyond the organism taken by itself, but they belong to cooperative processes in which groups of animals act together, and they are the fulfilment of the processes which are essential to the life of the forms. One cannot fit into any such scheme as that a-particular impulse of imitation, and if one undertakes to present the mechanism which would make intelligible that process, even the intricacies of the central nervous system would be inadequate. An individual would be in such a situation as one of Gulliver's figures who undertook to save his breath by not talking, and so carried a bagful of all the objects about
(61) which he would want to talk. One would have to carry about an enormous bagful, so to speak, of such possible actions if they were to be represented in the central nervous system. Imitation, however, cannot be taken as a primitive response.