Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

"Regular Division of The Plane IV" Illustration by M.C. Escher (1957). The black-and-white tesselated dog motif is built on an iconic representation of a dog. It is iconic in the technical sense of philosopher C.S. Peirce: it is a simplified but quite unambiguous resemblance of a dog. And it looks more like a dog than anything else, although it is clear to the observer that it is not a detailed--let alone realistic--representation. But the overall illustration has a rich, hierarchical indexical structure, built on the patterned mirrored, positive-negative arrangement of the dogs. The dogs, their shadows, their spatial and positive-negative relationships contribute together to an overall sense of patterned, endless movement and interconnection, within and beyond the frame. But the pattern within the frame is finite and simple, built on mirroring, stacking, and sometimes producing a negative (black becomes white and vice versa) for rows of dog icon sequences. This yields a multi-aspect index of symmetry around the horizontal and vertical midlines ... without the overall representation being symmetrical around axis. Here, a logical pattern confuses us, and in doing so, elicits emotionally laden response.

I’ve taken an entirely unintended break since the end of October from blogging. A combination getting serially infected my younger child’s viruses and bacterial infections and simultaneously getting obsessed with a demographic project that I’ll be blogging about in the Spring.

Also, it’s probably no surprise that devoting a series of coherent blog posts to the theme “Anthropology and Philosophy” is the kind of thing that one does rashly, emotionally. And once you’ve committed, you just have to figure it out.

So I’ve taken my time to try to get things they way I would like them. I hope that the next three posts will be worth the time.

Today, I’m posting Anthropology and Philosophy III, which addresses the limits of logic in human systems of symbolic representation. This leads us to the role of emotion in dealing with symbolic representations.

The post after that (IV in the series) will address Alfred Gell’s (1999) brilliant work on art from an anthropological perspective. More than anything else, Gell’s approach provides a major necessary (albeit insufficient) piece of a coherent biocultural theory of human evolution and identity.

The final post will address the emotional dimensions of agency, which constantly involves taking action and making irrational or non-rational choices in the face of symbolic and social dilemmas. This view helps us to understand how emotional systems may have co-evolved with the capacity for linguistic communication, causing the emergence of more prosocial behaviors in the hominin lineage over time. This view further helps us to understand how it is all too easy for humans to be emotionally swayed by irrational ritualized and mythologized narratives of socially excluding or committing violence against individuals representing identities symbolically framed as dangerous to the social order.

I’m happy to be back to blogging about our biocultural evolution and identity. And I hope to hear from you about your thoughts about these themes.


Gell, A. (1999). The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams. Berg Publishers.