Reflection 112: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog

June 5, 2009


(Copyright © 2009)

Before I explain the title of this post, I have to provide enough background to make it meaningful.


The two most important words in the English language are the articles “a” (or “an”) and “the.” These little words distinguish between general categories of conscious experience (concepts such as a word, an apple, a dragonfly) and sensory phenomena or percepts specifically representing one category or another (the word “word” itself, the apple I ate for lunch, the dragonfly zipping back and forth over the still pond). The indefinite article “a” directs attention toward a class of things known for their shared resemblance within consciousness; the definite article “the” directs attention toward a unique member worthy of consideration apart from other members of any such class.


Put that way, the distinction between individual things and things that are members of a class of things seems merely a way of talking about things that are significant in themselves and things that are significant because they share characteristics common to a group of things. Which may seem a trivial distinction. What difference does it make whether I say, “I ate an apple for lunch,” or “I ate the apple on my plate”? An apple could be big or small, red or yellow, ripe or unripe, sweet or sour, whole or cut into pieces, tangy or bland, and so on. The apple is not a matter of serial either/or distinctions but is what it is and nothing else. We may not know all of the details, but we know its character derives from its exhibiting one specific combination of sensible details which are mere possibilities within the overall category.


The question is, why draw the distinction? And the answer must be, because it makes a significant difference to me, and if you will only listen to my story as it unfolds, you will come to understand the difference been an apple as a vague category of experience and the role this one apple plays on a particular occasion in my life.


The apple on my plate was put before me. I didn’t select it, it was presented to me. In my family we had to eat what we were given—the specific servings. We couldn’t pick and choose. If the starving children in China couldn’t pick and choose, neither could we. If the apple turned out to be wormy, sour, or bitter, we ate it nonetheless. An apple is an abstract idea; we didn’t deal with abstractions. We ate our dinners. Without hesitation, without question, without complaint. Abstractions don’t nourish the body, only specific apples on specific plates at specific times in specific places can do that. I am made of such apples. Without them I wouldn’t be here today. I am living proof of the distinction between an apple as an idea or category of experience and the apple on my plate. Both are apples in my mind, but in wholly different ways. One is both in my mind and my stomach; the other remains a dim phantom. Viva la [Burp.] difference!


All of which goes to explain the title of this post: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. Take note: the cloud; a dog. Cloud as sensory phenomenon, dog as concept or idea—both in consciousness, but playing different roles. The distinction is crucial. If it was, The Cloud That Is a Dog, that would be a metaphor, not a simile. But the principle is exactly the same: a concrete aspect of experience bears on and informs an abstract or ideational aspect of consciousness, the two together building an edifice in the mind much larger than either structure taken by itself.


What set me off on this rather tortuous journey was a quote from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (Houghton Mifflin, Mariner Books, 2000, first published 1977). The second chapter ends with this thought:


For if consciousness is based on language, then it follows that it is of a much more recent origin than has heretofore been supposed. Consciousness come after language! The implications of such a position are extremely serious (page 66).


Consciousness based on language requires language to come first, as the foundation must precede the house. In my mind, given the rate at which life has evolved, that’s a mighty big “if.” From my perspective, consciousness must embrace both the concrete and abstract aspects of language such as I have taken pains to illustrate in this post so far—if language and metaphor are to be possible. Language is only one aspect of consciousness. I have looked at humor, how we name things, metaphor, seeing one thing as another, not seeing what is in front of us, pain—all involving various combinations of concrete and abstract ramifications within consciousness. If I can point to a single example of consciousness without words, then Jaynes’ contention, no matter how erudite, is open to question. Think sight gags, Picasso’s Guernica, the concluding movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the championship-deciding game in the World Series, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (sung in German), the ballet Swan Lake.


But no, I will offer only The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. Not in so many words, but as a photograph of the actual event when it happened. Before I get to the drum roll, first think what that might imply: seeing a cloud as a dog. It is an act of perception and an act of cognition engaging each other, not in the world, but in the mind. My mind. Wholly without words. The mental representation of a cloud becoming mutually engaged with the idea—the very essence—of doggishness. This is not an example of language itself but of what makes language possible: the coupling of sensory phenomena with conceptual ideas so that words—whether spoken, heard, written, read, signed, or seen—take on meanings and convey them to other minds.


Drum roll. Expectant hush. A flash of brilliance. I give you, preverbally: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog. 


DogCloud, 7-2008


In his Afterword, Jaynes allows, “Consciousness is not all language, but it is generated by it and accessed by it. . . . Consciousness then becomes embedded in language and so is learned easily by children. The general rule is: there is no operation in consciousness that did not occur in behavior first” (page 449). Which to me sounds like he’s hedging or preparing way for a cop-out. He claims solving problems, like driving, requires no consciousness—but to me solving novel problems is the essence of goal-directed consciousness which we must do on our own, in our own minds, in light of our own skills and judgment. Even driving, I skillfully access my progress through brief glimpses between and during cogitations. Bringing the crew of Apollo 13 back safely to Earth is Exhibit A of the conscious mind’s deliberate, informed, hands-on, preverbal, problem-solving ability.


For myself, I am content to inhabit a conscious world that allows me to visualize phenomenal clouds in the guise of idealized dogs, engaging my environment through a metaphor more fundamental and much older than speech. I spend much of my time in nature attending to speechless creatures of one sort or another (see Pix at the head of this blog). As I have written, there is no language per se in nature, yet there is consciousness of every sort—including my own. I keep my ears, eyes, nostrils open, mouth shut. Yet still I form concepts based on what I find, and my mind grows in every dimension. I have wordless feelings, expectancies, insights, and memories. Much of what I know today I have learned through personal, first hand interactions with nature more basic than language.


As an encore, I give you The Great Seal of the United States of America. It may look like the representation of an Eagle to you, but check out the carrot and stick in those talons—this is the representation of an eagle in the process of representing a nation’s ideals. Here is a visual metaphor cloaked in our national identity, no small trick for a bird, or for consciousness either, and all without words.

Great Seal of the U.S.





2 Responses to “Reflection 112: The Cloud That Looks Like a Dog”

  1. tp said

    Bringing Apollo Thirteen back is a good example of your point contra Jaynes. I offer another supporting your side — Captain Sullenberger, who heartened us all during what was otherwise The Winter Of Nothing But Bad News. He may have been acting from learned skills, but he wasn’t acting unconsciously, or from “habit.” Which I think endorses your point. ??

  2. And I doubt he was carrying on a discussion with himself: “Oh, lordy, what do I do now? I’ve got it, the river!” If consciousness is primarily verbal, then what is wordless nature all about? Thanks for the suggestion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: