Thursday, April 06, 2006

Billy Joel Against the Behaviorists

In what is arguably his greatest song, "Piano Man," Billy Joel captures a paradoxical facet of human nature:

Yes, they're sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it's better than drinkin' alone

How is it possible that people not only "share" lonliness, but feel better for doing so?

Along similar lines there's a widely known story that when Kafka read his tales of alienation aloud to his friends they laughed to the point of tears. (Percy, 83) How can "alienation" bring joy?

In his collection of essays on man's peculiar language ability, Walker Percy probes this and other paradoxes of human being. That we see this as a paradox points to the limitations of our modern sensibilities. The school of thought known as behaviorism typifies this sensibility. Behaviorism would reduce human language to a manifestation of the sign-response mechanism that explains the behavior of lower animals and forms a continuum with the spacetime events described by neurological electrical-colloidal chemistry and ultimately physics. But this explanation is inadequate. Percy describes the radical difference between the sign-using organism and the symbol-using organism:

A sign-using organism takes account only of those elements of its environment which are relevant biologically. A chick has been observed to take account of the shadow of a hen and the shadow of a hawk but not, I believe, of the shadow of a swallow. A two-year-old child, however, will not only ask for milk, as a good sign-using animal; he will also point to the swallow and ask what it is.

A sign-using organism can be said to take account of those segments of its environment toward which, through the rewards and punishments of the learning process, it has acquired the appropriate responses. It cannot meaningfully be described as "knowing" anything else. But a symbol-using organism has a world. Once it knows the name of trees—what trees "are"—it must know the name of houses. The world is simply the totality of that which is formulated through symbols. It is both spatial and temporal. Once a native knows there is an earth, he must know what is under the earth. Once he know what happened yesterday, he must know what happened in the beginning. Hence his cosmological and etiological myths. Chickens have no myths. (202; emphasis added)

Dr. Percy similarly contrasts responding to a sign with "responding" to a symbol:

But what is a symbol? A symbol does not direct our attention to something else, as a sign does. It does not direct at all. It "means" something else. It somehow comes to contain within itself the thing it means. The word ball is a sign to my dog and a symbol to you. If I say ball to my dog, he will respond like a good Pavlovian organism and look under the sofa and fetch it. But if I say ball to you, you will simply look at me and, if you are patient, finally say, "What about it?"1 The dog responds to the word by looking for the thing: you conceive the ball through the word ball. (153)

If a symbol is to communicate anything (between persons), and to communicate truly, it needs to have a significance apart from any particular individual thing or any particular context. Symbols must exist somehow apart from the flux of particulars we call the strictly physical world. The words I type on this keyboard on this particular spring Thursday in my particular corner of New England must have the same meaning for me as they have for you, wherever in the universe and whenever in history you may be reading them.

Symbols provide the link that allows interpersonal communication and ultimately communion. Man's symbol-making ability gives us a glimpse of the profound reason people need to "share loneliness":

When I am told as a child that this flower is a lupin, when you name something for me and I confirm it by saying it too—what I know now is not only that the flower is something but that it is something for you and me. Our common existence is validated. It is the foundation of what Marcel calls the metaphysics of we are instead of I think. (295)

Thus the people in the song have established an interpersonal connection through the commonality of loneliness. Kafka's story "names" alienation and allows it to become a public possession among his circle of friends. Naming the emptiness they hold in common validates their common existence, and makes that existence a little less empty.


1. You expect a meaningful statement about balls or a ball (a coupling), not simply the sound "ball."

Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Noonday Press/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1997).

1 comment:

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