January 5, 2010

Avicenna on writing, speech, and psychic trace

"Human beings are endowed with a perceptive faculty on which the forms of external matters are impressed. From there the forms are conveyed to the soul, where a second impression is made, one which persists even when those forms are no longer present to the senses. Now matters may be impressed on the soul in other ways which resemble the conveyance of the senses, as when an impression is made on the sense, and its sensible form is subsequently converted into an abstraction; alternately, impressions may come along another route which it is not the job of logic to explain.

"Matters have an existence in themselves and an existence in the soul, which leaves traces there.

"Out of its need for association and community, human nature is dependent on communication, and was motivated to contrive a means to it. [To that end] there is nothing swifter than the action of the voice, which is especially well adapted given the voice's evanescence and impermanence, and its lack of simultaneous plurality. In addition to its swiftness, it has the benefit of enabling semiosis, along with its effacement when the need for signifying has passed (lest it be construed as a signifier after this). Therefore nature inclines toward use of the voice, and is outfitted by grace of its Creator with the instruments for articulating phonemes and arranging them so that the traces in the soul are signified.

"After that there follows a second need, and that is for a path to knowledge of what is currently inapparent or still to come in the future. What is learned in the future can be added to the record of things already known, for the benefit and completion of humankind’s wisdom through mutual association. Most of the arts are only brought to completion by the development of the ideas they contain, and the discovery of their laws, with the latecomers assisted by the predecessors in whose footsteps they follow, and this is to the benefit of those still to come. Even what is not currently needful may prove useful. Some other path to knowledge besides speech was therefore needed, so the various forms of writing were contrived, all by divine guidance and inspiration."

"The signification of real-life matters within the soul is a natural mode which does not vary as to its signifier or signified, as does the utterance's signification of the psychic trace (in which the signifier does vary although the signified does not), nor is it like writing's signification of the utterance and writing (in which signifier and signified alike may vary).

"As for the process by which the soul imagines the forms of real-life matters and what sets that process in motion, and what it is that attends to the forms when they are inside the soul, and what attends to them when they are outside, and what the causal agent is that rouses the imaginative faculty to actuality -- these questions do not pertain to logic but to another field of knowledge. Likewise, the arbitrariness of speech and writing may be debated by linguists and scribes, but the logician speaks of it only in passing. The aspects of utterance which the logician does need to know about are the conditions by which simple and composite meanings are indicated, in order thereby to gain insight into meanings themselves, the better to gain insight from them into the unknown. For this is the logician’s job."

From On interpretation (The Cure: Logic, book 3), I.1