Controlling Signs

Applicable in any century, be it 19th, 20th or 21st (or 21st BCE)–Language controls behavior.


If Professor Booth goes into his usual coffee shop to get his morning coffee, and says to the waiter, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please,” and the waiter brings it to him, what has happened? What is the methodology of the waiter? It is not absurd to ask why the waiter does not bring the America Cup filled to the brim with unroasted coffee beans, nor why Professor Booth does not say, “I asked you for a cup of coffee, but you have brought me a cup of mostly hot water.” Moreover, if Professor Booth searches the literature of linguistics and of psychology in order to locate those studies and experiments which will tell him about the methodology of the waiter, he will find very little. The original program of linguistics set forth a hierarchy of investigation, beginning with phonemics, and going on through morphemics, syntactics, semantics, to pragmatics. But as yet very little has been accomplished above syntactics. Psychologists, at least of the typical academic breed, seem to be unaware of the problem. 


The landlord of the Spouter-Inn had recommended us to his cousin Hosea Hussey of the Try Pots, whom he asserted to be the proprietor of one of the best kept hotels in all Nantucket, and moreover he had assured us that cousin Hosea, as he called him, was famous for his chowders. In short, he plainly hinted that we could not possibly do better than try pot-luck at the Try Pots. But the directions he had given us about keeping a yellow warehouse on our starboard hand till we opened a white church to the larboard, and then keeping that on the larboard hand till we made a corner three points to the starboard, and that done, then ask the first man we met where the place was: these crooked directions of his very much puzzled us at first, especially as, at the outset, Queequeg insisted that the yellow warehouse — our first point of departure — must be left on the larboard hand, whereas I had understood Peter Coffin to say it was on the starboard. However, by dint of beating about a little in the dark, and now and then knocking up a peaceable inhabitant to inquire the way, we at last came to something which there was no mistaking.


Let us return to the waiter. I believe that something can be said about his methodology. In going for a cup of coffee in response to Professor Booth’s request, his behavior can be characterized as depen-dent upon his perceptual disengagement of an analogically determined recurrent semiotic pattern from an analogically determined series of semiotic matrices. A request for coffee can be made in a variety of verbal formulations, but the waiter responds to all of them in the same way. He has determined that the analogies among those patterns are sufficient to justify his responding to them with the same behavior. However, if Professor Booth meets the waiter at the beach, when both of them are on vacation and taking sun baths, and if Professor Booth repeats his request for coffee, it is quite unlikely that he would get it. For the waiter would determine that the analogical resemblances between the beach and the restaurant are not sufficient for him to obey Professor Booth’s instruc-tions. In the restaurant he has analogically determined that the customer-waiter-restaurant matrix is analogically similar enough to the hundreds of such matrices in which he has successfully performed so that he ought to get Professor Booth’s coffee.


I was called from these reflections by the sight of a freckled woman with yellow hair and a yellow gown, standing in the porch of the inn, under a dull red lamp swinging there, that looked much like an injured eye, and carrying on a brisk scolding with a man in a purple woollen shirt.

‘Get along with ye,’ said she to the man, ‘or I’ll be combing ye!’

‘Come on, Queequeg,’ said I, ‘all right. There’s Mrs. Hussey.’

And so it turned out; Mr. Hosea Hussey being from home, but leaving Mrs. Hussey entirely competent to attend to all his affairs. Upon making known our desires for a supper and a bed, Mrs. Hussey, postponing further scolding for the present, ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said — ‘Clam or Cod?’

‘What’s that about Cods, ma’am?’ said I, with much politeness.

‘Clam or Cod?’ she repeated.

‘A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?’ says I; ‘but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs Hussey?’

But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple shirt, who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word ‘clam,’ Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out ‘clam for two,’ disappeared.

‘Queequeg,’ said I, ‘do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?’

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.


(1) Theoretically any sign can elicit all responses; this proposition accounts for the ineluctable consequences of interpretational pluralism; all interpretations are equally valid. (2) Theoretically all signs can, in an individual organism, elicit but a single response. Indeed, in instances of extreme psychosis, that is exactly what can and does happen. Yet behavior that can be subsumed by these two corollaries is extremely rare. (3) Sign response is controlled, and ultimately can be controlled only by force. If one cannot seduce a child into stabilizing his response to a given sign, one hits him

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Bold text is from Morse Peckham’s “The Infinitude of Pluralism,” while normal type is from chapter 15 of Moby Dick, “Chowder.”

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