A Modest Proposal

James Piat piat1 at bellsouth.net
Sat May 4 10:14:28 EDT 2002

Dear Rhonda,

Thanks for your comments.  Your wrote:

> Hmmm, Jim, I don't know that I agree. My understanding of S-R tells me
> it's dyadic.  It isn't much different from your description of Newton's
> of motion in that sense.

Perhaps you are right, but it seems to me S-R  operant  conditioning and
classical Pavlovian conditioning both involve three elements that are joined
triadically in the same way as a symbol is triadically joined with both the
object to which it refers and to the interpretor of that symbol. In the case
of the symbol-object-intepreter we have a symbol that stands for an object
to an interpreter.  In the case of Pavlovian conditioning we have a
conditioned stimulus (say a bell) that stands for an unconditioned stimulus
(say a piece of meet) to an interpreter (say a hungry dog).  Or, in the case
of S-R conditioning we have a stimulus (say a bell) that stands for a reward
to an intrepter (say a lever pusher).  I don't see how this learning
paradigm can be reduced to a series of dyadic chains of relations since it
is crucial that the three events are joined for the learning to occur and
none of the elements (stimulus, response or reinforcement) is simply the
result of only one of the other elements occuring.

>  Nikki himself gave us the first piece of the
> triadic relationship: "Let me suggest that each of us try to come up with
> very concrete example from the real world that illustrates for our friend
> just what the usefulness of all this discussion truly is."  When we think
> about what a triadic relationship IS and how it might be represented
> language, and then we actually attempt to render it into language that
> be understood by the rest of the list, so that we all nod and say, "yes,
> that's what it is" then we are doing our part in the relationship.

Oh I agree very much with this.  I'm thrilled with Nikki's question and I
agree too that the mere asking of it in some ways points to its own answer.
I'm trying to be part of that relationship you speak of.

> In
> MESSAGE IN THE BOTTLE "The Symbolic Structure of Interpersonal Process"
> Percy writes, "The very act of symbolic formulation, whether it be
> logic, art, or even thinking, is of its very nature a formulation for a
> someone else."

OK, but does that mean that when one is thinking to herself or privately
learning something new she is not engaged in symbolic formulation?  I think
that would be too narrow of an interpretation.  I think one can communicate
both with nature (a great teacher) as well as with other folks.  I think we
live in a meaningful universe and that all learning is meaningful and

> While your response seems like it may be in accord with Peirce's thinking,

I don't know whether it is or not, but I was not deliberately trying to draw
a distinction between Peirce and Percy.  Just taking a shot at Nikki's

> I'm not sure we can answer Nikki's question concerning what the point of
> all is without applying Percy. What we're engaged in on this list is the
> point of it--making meaning out of this world. We can't do that without
> triadic interaction, and I still don't get the point unless, as Percy
> we're doing it with and for others.

Well, I agree  --and I would include mother nature or God formost among the
others I'm trying to communicate with.

>  Which brings me back to the S-R
> business--in what way is that triadic communication?

I hope I've at least suggested how so called S-R conditioning or learning in
general might be a triadic form of natural communication.  The way nature
communicates with us when we learn from experience.

Frankly Rhonda I realize I may very well be all wet as regards my
interpretation of S-R learning as being triadic. In fact I believe that
somewhere Percy himself may have used Skinnerian behaviorism as an example
of a dyadic interpretation of human behavior.   Part of my motivation is
raising this alternative possibility is because I think some folks have an
almost knee jerk negative reaction to scientifc psychology as though it were
somehow contrary to the dignity of man, an affront to theism or unable to
address the issue of meaning.  Personally, and as a psychologist,  I
disagree with each of these views. But I'm neither a Percy or a Peirce
scholar and I'm mostly just tossing these ideas out there in response to
Nikki's invitation in hopes of joining with you and others in meaningful
communication.  So  --most of all thanks for the comments and good to hear
from you.  Of course I recognize that you may well be correct and that I am
not only mistaken but being defensive to boot.  I usually am!   Hopefully
your kind remarks have brought out the better impulses in me --you certainly
make me smile.

> Cheers,
> Rhonda

And Cheers to you!

Jim Piat

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