Science and Nature
Nos 7/6, 1986

pp. 56-62


The provocative Tran Duc Thao theses



 On the Origin of Language and Consciousness



Dept of Psychology

Concordia Univ. (Montreal)


A Review Essay


Vietnamese philosopher Trân Duc Thao, in the book Investigations into the Origin of Language and Consciousness [1], presents his own materialist model for the role of signs and signals (semiotics) in the emergence of homo sapiens from the primate state. His model seeks to integrate current theories of child development psychology with the findings of anthropology on the relations between tools, work activity, social relations, language, and the objective ontogeny of consciousness of self, thus producing what he calls "the semiotics of real life." An added benefit from his endeavor is the introduction to English‑language readers of the dialectical materialist tradition established by Soviet anthropologists A. Spirkin and V.P. Iakimov [2]. This impressive undertaking has a weakness to be discussed here: Thao's failure to free himself fully from his previous preoccupation with the idealist concepts of Husserl's phenomenology, so akin to Sarte's (sic) existentialism [3]. Since Thao's work has been quite independent of mainstream anthropology, his original theoretical approach has a freshness which warrants our attention. His writing combines mastery of scientific psycho‑linguistics and anthropology with the finesse characteristic of phenomenological analysis.


In the three chapters of this book, the author attempts to apply a dialectical materialist method to the investigation of consciousness as it is objectively experienced in three aspects of its relation to the external world: 1) the indicative gesture as the original form of consciousness; 2) the development of the instrument and the birth of language; 3) the origins of the Oedipal crisis.


The first chapter of Thao's book is deeply indebted to Spirkin's anthropological analysis of "gestural indication". This act of pointing to an object was, according to Spirkin, the crucial initial moment which allowed pre‑hominids to develop a progression of linguistic signs. From there, Thao gives an erudite anthropological analysis of the origins of primitive prelinguistic signs, proceeding from the indicative gesture, to the development of self‑recognition and self‑reference in the process of reciprocal interaction and recognition of/with others. The next phase is the act of "echoic representation", Thao's original anthropological application of the Marxist theory of self‑consciousness [4] to the concrete context of pre‑hominid tribal daily activities and interactions. He then hypothesizes further stages of development leading to qualitatively different "flashes of consciousness", which he terms sporadic cognizance, individual cognizance and collective cognizance, and which constitute the praxical basis for the ideality of consciousness.


Analysis by levels


Another original contribution of Thao here is his demonstration of the correspondence of these three anthropologically‑derived stages of cognizance to the concrete experience of consciously apprehending an object. At the first level, the real object appears as a given from the external world in its sensory image, as existing outside consciousness and independently of it. At the second level is the concrete perceptual experience itself, where the sensory image is "projected" unto the object, giving it meaning based on experience. It is thus perceived as an image of that first‑level image, or the image of itself in itself.


At the third level appears, in a relatively confused form, the social image where the subject sees himself as others see him in a structure of reciprocity of actions and as others see the external world. Here the act of perception has its own image in the gesture of the others with whom the subject identifies, so that this image of himself which he finds in the others presents itself as within himself. According to Thao the phenomenological method concentrates its attention on the second level, the "experienced" image. It systematically ignores the first level of the "real" image and is never able to grasp the third social image because of its solipsist perspective. Here Thao uses scientific anthropological evidence to dispose of the phenomenological claim that introspection is the essential basis of knowledge of the psyche.


One problem with the first chapter is Thao's use of terms such as "flashes of consciousness" and "tendential images projected by internal gesture" (p. 25). Here Thao's attempt at a materialist analysis stumbles at the difficulty of translating concrete "experienced" aspects of representation and meaning into materialist neurophysiological terms. An example is this passage (p. 20):


"In fact, the projection which constitutes this image starting from the outlined movements of the animal, is actually produced by the 'tendency' of these movements..., the psychic image has a tendential reality, so to speak, remains strictly nonmaterial."


Though Thao’s concept of the "tendential image" is elaborated from Spirkin's theory, he seems to overlook essential notions of Spirkin's theory based in the neurophysiology of the second signalling system. These notions are essential to understand fully the material neural basis of linguistic images and representation.


Since the language of the neurophysiology of higher nervous processes provides alternative scientific formulations of greater clarity to refer respectively to "consolidations of incidental association" or to "inner speech" [5], one may wonder why Thao kept the ambiguous references to "tendential images" in his text. It must be that the author had some reservations in using purely neurophysiological terms. I suspect that such reservations, which are common to many philosophers dealing with the difficult definition of mental images, have something to do with the fear of biological reductionism, a fear which might be accentuated in Thao's case by his phenomenological background. Perhaps the apparent "idealism" involved to such analyses of the "tendential image", etc., Thao terminates this chapter by paying his dues to Lenin's materialist analysis of mental representations [6], and equating it to his own interpretation.


Recapitulation of consciousness


In the second chapter, concerned with the development (ontogeny) of individual consciousness, Thao's materialist anthropological analysis of the development of the indicative gesture in pre‑ and early horninids provides an analytical grid against which he objectively traces the interaction of the three levels of reflection in the formation of the first operations of meaning in the consciousness of the human child. Here, Thao gives a highly complex analysis and integrative reinterpretation of Piaget's observations on the development of inner speech and thought in the child [7].


The ontogenetic phases proposed by Thao are the following: 1) The indicative sign (14 months) accompanied with the word (sentence); 2) the first signs of representation (14‑18 months) where the child is capable of an enduring image of the object in its absence; 3) the developed indicative sign (13‑18 months); 4) the signs of "syncretic" representation (16‑17 months), where syncretic refers to the confused alternating between two representations: the developed gesture imitating the motion of the object and the indicative gesture of the object (the "this here"); 5) the deferred imitation as an insistent syncretic sign of representation of the motion of the absent object; 6) the functional sentence, from its elementary forms to developed types; 7) the disengagement of the form and the birth of the name.


To support his phylogenetic theory of the syncretic sign as a turning point in the appearance of truly conscious representation, and in the absence of anthropological data on that specific anthropological era where syncretic signs are hypothesized to take place (Homo Faber Primigenitus), Thao skillfully and ingeniously combines evidence from observations of children by Piaget's disciple Gouin‑Décarie, and her non‑Piagetian interpretation of such findings (8). This is done in parallel with an elaborate phylogenetic analysis of the slow differentiation from the signaling and signifying gestures of pre‑hominids to the semiotics of Homo sapiens taking form in the toolmaking process. Step 1: the development from natural instruments used by apes in the presence of the object of biological need to the preparation of instruments by anthropoids with a consequent generalized sensori‑motor image of the instrumental function, in parallel to the necessary formation of the "indicative gesture". Step 2: the phase of adaptation and formation of habits linked to prepared tools in the genus Praehomo entails the capacity for "sense certainty" that comes with cognizance of the indicative sign (Australanthropi). Step 3: the elaborated instrument (Kafuan) requires a representation of the absent object of a biological need and leads also to Step 4: a syncretic representation of the instrumental shape and later to Step 5: the production of the shape of the useful part of the instrument (Olduvian). Step 6: finally, the production of an instrument with representation of its total shape is defined as a tool, thus marking Chellean man and the emergence of genus Homo Faber (Pithecanthropus).


The following excerpt shows how creatively Thao integrates evidence from two fields of science to understand the development of thinking in the last phase, the formation of sentences: the use and making of tools taking place in the context of task‑oriented social interaction brings about the sentence as the necessary consequence of the communication involved in such a process (pp. 73‑74):


Tool production implies the shaping of the whole of the raw material according to a total typical form... While the Olduvian chopper only requires from 5 to 8 cutting strokes on both sides of the edge, the Chellean biface requires several dozen well‑ordered strokes, and for each stroke, the exact striking place, the direction and the force of the motion. Here the worker must be able to indicate to himself a series of operations which presupposes the differentiation of the verb..."


Enter Oedipus


The third part of the book is an essay, "Marxism and Psychoanalysis on the Origins of the Oedipal Crisis". Trân Duc Thao criticizes and reconstructs the hypothetical beginnings of the Oedipal triangle in its pre‑Oedipal stage by developing the theory of the socio‑historical forms of individuality. Thao's socio‑historical model traces the Oedipal crisis to the social progression from what he calls animal "jealousy" to the suppression of "zoological individualism", as a condition for the formation of the first cohesive social group which is essential for the beginning of human production. According to Thao, the next stages develop with the transition from the communalization of women to the pairing family, involving the "reawakening of jealousy" and the emergence of the Oedipus complex.


In opposition to Freudian theory of the Oedipus complex, which essentially bases itself on descriptive notions of concrete biological facts such as instinct and pleasure, Thao attempts to grasp its concrete socio‑historical determination.


Thao however does not criticize nor question the validity of the Freudian concepts of the unconscious and of the Oedipal formation or structure in the unconscious psyche. Simply assuming the existence of the Oedipal structure in the unconscious as a given, he attempts to find its socio‑historical determinants and to support it with facts from anthropology. From Freud’s point of view the Oedipal conflict is born of the abstract opposition between “Desire” and “Social Law.” From Thao’s point of view the Oedipus complex originates in the dialectical contradiction, historically determined, between two laws: on the one hand, the primitive law of the communalization of women which, in the amorphous and undifferentiated state of the first human society during the Chellean era, guaranteed, by the strict interdiction of jealousy, the necessary unity and solidarity for the beginnings of tool production. On the other hand there is the new law of the pairing marriage, imposed by the development of household industry in the Mousterian epoch. The old communal right to sexual freedom without restrictions becomes a hindrance to the development of productive forces and loses all social justification, now merely appearing as a simple individualistic claim. Such a claim in other circumstances could have been limited to particular cases without leaving any trace in heredity. Thao argues, however, that the coincidental circumstances of what he calls "the biological tragedy of woman", where gait changes to vertical locomotion, the consequent pelvic inadequacies, and the ensuing high mortality rates of women during that period, aggravated undisciplined jealous competition for the few remaining female partners, especially among the youth.


The contradictions of the two laws assumed the anguished form of sharp conflict between generations: older male‑Fathers, experienced hunters and paired with female‑Mothers, versus the young "bachelor‑Sons," less experienced at hunting and often given the task of protecting the female-Mothers and children while the rest of the tribe was gone on expeditions. According to Thao, this generation conflict developed into a gigantic social generation conflict, as the competition for female‑Mothers (since most females were mothers a a very young age) became embodied in what Thao calls “the language of real life” . This introduced pre‑linguistic contradictions at the unconscious level of language between sexual desire for women and for Mothers when almost all women surviving the biological tragedy' were necessarily playing a highly valued Mother role. Here Thao does not define by what mechanisms the translation of social relations becomes codified into an unconscious structure even less materially defined, which would have the property of being passed on through hereditary mechanisms to the next generations, in the form of pre‑linguistic mental structures. At this point Thao's hypothesis is purely speculative and seems to endorse the idealist notion of Jungian archetypes and to rely on a highly Lamarckian understanding of evolution in a rather intrepid way. The author uses a very self‑assured tone in proposing such a hypothesis to the point that he does not even warn the reader of the speculative character of such hereditary mechanisms and of the questionable factual nature of his anthropological interpretation.


Moreover, Thao proposes this hereditary mechanism to account for the perpetuation of a complex of unconscious feelings in the unconscious of today's child and today's adult neurosis. Thao's definition of the unconscious is the key to this remarkable reconstruction. He defines the unconscious as "the sedimented residue of the language of the transcended stages of human development" (p. 195). This definition of the unconscious appears very abruptly in the last pages of the chapter without further elaboration. The text would have gained very much if the author had used the conditional tense more frequently.


Another criticism is that Thao overemphsizes the evidence from family interactions to support his theory of the origins of Oedipus. This theory does not attempt to account for the psychopathological and clinical facts essential to the development of Freudian Oedipal theory.


One important weakness in Thao's psychoanalytic interpretation is his argument that the Oedipal complex is a deviation or impasse in anthropogenesis and that the social relations of the time allowed for a second more "healthy" solution in parallel to the "Oedipal" solution to the generation conflict. Thao describes the healthy way, as the "Path of affectionate identification without rivalry". As a support of this hypothesis, Thao proposes the "ambivalence" of social relations which developed in the endogamic community of the Mousterian period. Forgetting that such "ambivalence" is far from demonstrated, and just postulated in the first argument on the Oedipal relations, Thao develops a second hypothetical interpretation: on the one hand, owing to the lack of women, the "Sons" found themselves sexual rivals of the "Fathers", but on the other hand, because the communal economy has remained dominant, the immediate communal relation would have maintained between them an identificatior without jealousy, following the tradition "inherited" from the original Chellean community (p. 196). Thao continues his speculation with overcertain statements such as: "The same was undoubtedly true for the Mothers" (p. 196) who, on the one hand, because of their age, appeared as objects of desire to the Sons but, on the other hand, as mothers responsible for the fireplace and guardians of precious provisions for the community, could not fail to elicit respect in the Sons. Thao goes on, concluding "and it was undoubtedly that respectful identification of the Sons with their social parents which initiated them into the practice of developing personal relationships". Here Thao places the anthropogenetic birth of "personal" relations, defined as the first "intersubjective" relations, so central to the development of human consciousness.


This speculation however makes very little sense without the central postulate that "healthy" attitudes of respect were "inherited" from the original Chellean community. Thus this second and parallel "healthy" social structure is also inherited and can only be as difficult to accept as the first Oedipal one by the non‑psychoanalytic and critically‑minded reader. Though Thao does not say it, the reader may wonder if a human's mental structure for "personal" relations is also inherited.


Both types of relations, Oedipal and healthy, may have taken place in reality, but why would Thao need to postulate such an improbable and fancy mechanism as hereditary transmission of unconscious structures to explain their alleged presence in today's societies?


To conclude, this book provides the elements of a creative answer to this old idealist‑materialist conundrum concerning the origins of consciousness: if human consciousness presupposes representations, and if this consciousness emerges first with production using tools, and if the production of tools itself pressupposes representation ‑‑ that is, an image in the mind of the producer of what is to be produced ‑‑ then the conditions for the origins of human consciousness already presuppose the very form of consciousness which they are supposed to explain. Thao breaks this circle by asking the question in another way, compatible with the historical materialist account: by asking if representation, as an essential precondition of consciousness, itself has its genesis in still more elementary forms of pre‑representational consciousness; by proposing that the latter existed prior to the fully human forms of production, and prior to the use of tools. These proposals are indeed extremely thought‑provoking and will ccrtainly open new avenues for the anthropological investigations of consciousness.


Notes and references


[1] Translated from the French by D.J. Herman and R.L. Armstrong. D. Reidel (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science). x, 214 pp. Originally published as Recherches sur l’origine du language et de la conscience. Editions Sociales, Paris, 1973.


[2] Iakimov, V.P., The Origins of Man, Moscow (1964). Spirkin, A., The Origin of Consciousness, Moscow (1960). (Thao lived in France for some years, where he also brought these Soviet authors to the attention of French readers.)


[3] In the 1950s, Thao wrote several seminal studies on Husserl and Marx including Phénoménologie et Matérialisme Dialectique (1951). In the 1960s, he tried to develop a phenomenological method, purifying it as much as possible from Husserlian idealism, in order to integrate it with materialist dialectics. The present book represents an about face by the author after having dismissed the possibility of such a goal. Reflecting Spirkin's theory of the origins of consciousness and language, and the semiological and linguistic studies derived from the model of Ferdinand de Saussure (Cours de Linguistique, Payot, Paris, 1915), Trân Duc Thao moved towards an elaboration of a truly dialectical semiology through criticism of Husserlian phenomenology.


[4] The historical materialist theory of self‑consciousness is based on the social relations of  reciprocity; in the activity of collective labor, the workers point out to each other the object of their common efforts. Each is thus alternatively, or even simultaneously, the giver and the receiver of the indication, both the one who guides and the one guided. In other words, each sees in the other a being similar to himself, making the same gesture. and it is precisely because he sees himself in the others that the enduring image of the social environment allows him, when alone, to take the point of view of these others who are his other self in order to point out the object to himself.


[5] Sokolov, E.N., Inner Speech and Thought, New York: Plenum (1972). (Sokolov provides a scientific neurophysiological analysis of the material basis of inner language.)


[6] In Materialism and Empirio‑criticism (p. 51) sensation is defined as the simplest form of consciousness: "it is its immediate connection with the external world. In "Philosophical Notebooks" (p. 182) Lenin further explains that "Knowledge is the brain itself in its motion of thinking." Thus knowledge is not just a simple physiochemical movement. It is a most complex cerebral neurophysiological movement taking the forms of signifying gestures and linguistic signs which are shaped by and reflective of the human forms of social interactions.


[7] Piaget, J., The Child's Construction of Reality, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1976). (Translated from La construction du reel chez l'enfant. Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle, 1937.)


[8] Gouin‑Decarie,T., Intelligence and Affectivity in Early Child‑hood, International University Press, New York (1964). (Translated from Intelligence et affectivite chez le jeune enfant; etude experimentale de la notion d'objet chez Jean Piaget et de la relation objectale. Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle, 1962.)


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