Barking Up the Wrong Tree
by Chuck Rosenthal

Have you ever gone for a walk in the woods with your dog? They like to chase stuff, particularly squirrels. Back in the days when I was studying to become a young philosopher, in a class called epistemology or the theory of knowledge, we talked about this once. (If you’ve never studied philosophy you might be surprised to find out how often philosophers talk about squirrels). The problem is this: My dog spots a squirrel and lights out after him. The squirrel runs up a tree. My dog hops around at the trunk barking up at the squirrel. From my angle I can see the squirrel bouncing from branch to branch above. My dog continues to bark upward. The question is: Does my dog know that the squirrel is in the tree?

Common sense might say, well, there’s the squirrel and there’s my dog barking at him. And from my angle I can confirm that my dog is barking at something that looks like a squirrel. So she knows he’s up there. But not so fast. Because my dog cannot confirm that she is aware that she thinks the squirrel is in the tree. She might be correct, but she doesn’t know it, because knowledge requires self conscious affirmation. Further, my dog is simply barking at something she sees, a stimulus right in front of her; there’s no thinking involved at all. Right?

Well, even if my dog can’t say, “I think there’s a squirrel in that tree,” can she in fact think there is a squirrel in the tree? Not if she can’t think. She’s just down there barking up at a squirrel without thinking or knowing that there’s a squirrel up there. Certainly, she doesn’t know the word squirrel. She’s just a bunch of bouncing and barking behavior. What if the squirrel jumps to another tree and my dog doesn’t observe that? Now she’s barking up the wrong tree. Is my dog mistaken about the squirrel? Can she be correct or mistaken without thinking anything?

Let’s look at my behavior. Let’s say that I still think that the squirrel is in the tree and I’m gazing into it with my binoculars assuming I’m going to spot that squirrel any second now. I’ve haven’t said to myself, “I think there’s a squirrel in the tree,” or “I know there’s a squirrel in the tree.” I simply lifted my binoculars and spotted the squirrel. What’s the difference?

Back then, being young philosophers, of course we couldn’t come to any resolutions about any of this, but I’m a little older now and I’ve decided to rethink it.

So my dog chased a squirrel into a tree. She’s barking up at him and I raise my binoculars and spot him. Except for the fact that I’m not barking, we’re both watching the squirrel. Strictly speaking it is impossible to say whether either of us is more or less conscious of what we’re doing except that if you were to ask me if I was aware that I was watching a squirrel I could respond, “Why yes, of course,” and my dog could not. If that’s how I define intention, thinking, and knowledge, then I can do those things and my dog cannot. In fact, thus defined, I would have to say that if the squirrel for some reason fell from the tree and I had no intentions toward it at all, I’d just let it run away. Yet my dog on the other hand, though she would likely grab the little fellow and shake him to death, has no intentions whatsoever. I have the potential to have intentions toward the squirrel and my dog, like a robot, would grab it and kill it without any realization, intention, or emotion.

Okay, I don’t believe that. Why not? What happens when the squirrel changes trees? Maybe the dog stops barking and I lower my binoculars. In that case, my dog’s behavior cued mine. My dog stopped barking and I realized that the squirrel was gone. Why did my dog stop barking?

Let’s say I’m first to stop scanning the tree because I observed that the squirrel left. My dog is barking at what I conclude to be nothing. Though in these matters animals are more often correct than I am, even if they don’t know anything, for the sake of this argument we’ll say that my dog is wrong and there is no squirrel in the tree. My thoughtless dog is barking at nothing at all. Yet though one might argue that my dog can be correct or mistaken without knowing it, that is, I can observe that she is correct or mistaken, but she cannot realize either, we must now face the fact that my dog who once barked at a stimulus, the squirrel, is now just barking. She’s just continuing her nutty behavior without a stimulus and will eventually wind down like a clock.

But a clock just winds down and a dog changes her behavior. She barks, barks, looks up into the tree, hesitates, barks a few more times, sits, then gets up and comes to me. However rigidly determined that behavior might be, I surmise that for a while she was barking at something she thought was in the tree and stopped when she noticed there was nothing there. More reductively, at some point, without the stimulus in front of her, she stopped barking. But however much I might wish to argue that there is no difference between barking at a squirrel and barking at an absent squirrel, there is a difference in behavior that occurs in the transition from barking and not barking and it is dependent on noticing there is no longer a squirrel in the tree. More so, to say that there is no difference in my dog’s behavior when she is barking at the squirrel and barking at nothing at all is to imply that the behavior is somehow in my dog. For however long she was barking at all, she was barking at a removed stimulus and, once again, however simply or mechanically I wish to interpret it, it requires behavior toward a stimulus that is not present, abstract behavior.

One alternative is to say that when the squirrel left the tree my dog simply continued barking because she was all riled up like that wound clock. But a mechanical clock isn’t prodded to behavior by a stimulus, it’s wound up, and my dog, however thoughtlessly she might have pursued the squirrel, was barking at the stimulus, the squirrel, while it was in the tree and after it departed. If you ever watched a dog bark you probably noticed that dogs don’t bark at nothing at all; they see something or hear a sound. If it’s a sound they stop, listen, and if they hear it again they bark again, they might even advance toward it. So if my dog is barking up at nothing, where is the stimulus? In the dog. And when she notices that the squirrel is no longer there, her behavior changes. If certain mental acts, however rote or miniscule, do not accompany her behavior, then there is no way to describe how or why she would ever behave at all.

During this brief encounter with the squirrel I seem to have observed several different behaviors and attitudes in my dog. After going bananas when I looked at her and said “walk,” including running to the closet and grabbing my shoes, nuzzling her leash, and then running back and forth from me to the door, in my truck she is less excited. She places her left paw on my right arm as I drive. I know, as well, that she recognizes the trailheads, because she removes her paw and lunges when we reach them; if I were to drive beyond the trailhead, she grows agitated and looks out the back window. In fact, her lunging behavior begins when I turn up the road that leads to the trailhead. One thing, the road that leads to the trailhead, the trailhead that she cannot yet see, triggers the same behavior as seeing the trailhead.

Once out of the truck I unleash her and she runs ahead, sniffing the ground, marking spots where I assume other dogs have left their marks. If I stop to urinate, she returns and urinates on top of that. She’ll move out ahead of me, return and touch her nose to my knee, than move off again. She displays curiosity. Sounds make her lift her head and tilt it, listening. She pokes her nose into crannies, under logs; she might circle a bush or tree. If she comes to a fork in the path, she’ll hesitate. She might wait there or she might choose one, stopping when I reach the fork, moving ahead again if I follow her, following me if I choose the other way and then once again running ahead. We are now in the rhythm of the walk and these behaviors are performed without effort, in a kind of fluidity of pleasure. If I call to her, “Nadine,” she’ll pause and look at me, eyes wide, tongue slightly out, an expression of active pleasure. She is capable of displaying other expressions, too.

Interestingly, if someone else is parked at the trailhead, Nadine will circle their vehicle, sniffing, mostly at the wheels. Because dogs urinate at the wheels of cars, I assume this is what she’s smelling. But as we proceed down the trail, Nadine will often depart from the main trail and begin moving down a tributary. If I follow her, she’ll lead me to the people who came in the other car. Just following a scent, you might say, the way I’d follow something I could see. She’s not following the people, she’s just following the scent. Reductively, I’d have to argue that she’s following the scent without expecting to find anything. More on hunting behavior later.

Now we’re back on the main trail and the squirrel pops out. For a moment my dog comes to complete attention, stiff, head up, and then lights out after the squirrel. Suddenly her behavior is much more singularly concentrated. When the squirrel climbs the tree my dog hits the trunk with her front paws and springs upward as if she might climb the tree herself if she could. Now the barking. Her behavior is aggressive, almost angry; the barks are not like the sounds she uses to beg or wake me up, yips and whines, not the inquisitive growls offered when she is in my house and hears a sound outside, not the warning yaps toward a stranger who’s entered my yard, not the yips when she plays with my kitten or the rumbles she uses to get my attention while I’m reading. I don’t translate barks into English, but I know that one is different from another and used at different times in different contexts.

When she seems to notice that the squirrel is gone she hesitates, as I described earlier. It’s interesting that when she abandons the chase, she does not scoot ahead, returning immediately to her walk behavior, but comes to me almost calmly. I pet her, then she springs ahead again. If we were to encounter other situations, people she doesn’t recognize, people she does, other dogs, someone on horseback, Nadine would display different behaviors.

I want to talk in detail about animal emotions later, so I’ve tried to describe my walk with Nadine as a series of transitions to different behaviors without reading emotions into them. But it’s very difficult to describe some of these transitions without apparently describing the transition from one emotional state to the next, as if a dog exhibiting the behavior of excitement was, in fact, not feeling excited, or a calm dog was not feeling calm. How could a calm dog become excited unless it was stimulated into excitement? If not, I’m asked to imagine that non-human animals are the most stunning kind of stoics who can display radically different behaviors while feeling nothing.

If different emotions do not accompany different behaviors, it is impossible to talk about different behaviors or how transitions from one behavior to another could occur at all. In the animate world, change and feeling go hand in hand. But up till now, because animals don’t talk, we haven’t had a model, a theory, which allows us to explain and even experiment with how animals might think and feel. Without a theory, people who believe in animal consciousness have been reduced to pointing at examples that seem to imply thought, but in most cases can be explained more simply by behavioral models.

I’ll take on behaviorism later, for now let’s work back to the Cheese and George Herbert Mead. Mead was not a strict behaviorist but, as he sometimes described himself, a social behaviorist. He believed that mind was an emergent characteristic of language and social interaction. And as a number of thinkers of that time began to realize, meaning was not something that found its expression through language, meaning arose in language. As a Darwinist, and like Darwin, he didn’t believe that these abilities had no precedent in what he called the “lower forms;” they evolved from the conversation of gestures used by animals in interaction. Mead, as well, believed that the other organisms must possess attitudes toward stimuli, and defined an act “as an impulse that maintains the life process by the selection of certain sorts of stimuli it needs. Thus, the organism creates its environment. The stimulus is the occasion for the expression of the impulse” (MS&S, 6).

Animals create their environments by their attitudes toward finding food, procreation, defending territory, finding safety, raising young, etc. and somehow these things are done, without exception, in a kind of blind, or as philosopher Christine M. Korsgaard might say, “wonton” running from one sensation, one stimulus, to the next. Mead was out to save humanity from the behaviorists by handing them the other animals. Once again he found the key to separating us from the lower forms. For my part, the hinge on the door here swings on the word attitude. What is an attitude? A predisposition to behave? It’s hard to describe it without seeing it as something that precedes or lies in anticipation of behavior, something a little different from behavior itself, however much I wish to explain it as something like “instinct,” something purely biological.

Among the examples of the difference between humans and animals Mead offers is, well, a man on a walk with his dog in the woods. They come to a chasm. The dog runs back and forth trying to find a point where he can cross. The man, who was simply following the path, has had his walk interrupted and suddenly his mind is freed to contemplate a solution.

The dog and the man would both try to find a point where they could cross. But what the man could do what the dog could not would be to note that the sides of the chasm seem to be approaching each other in one direction. He picks out the best places to try, and that approach which he indicates to himself determines the way in which he is going to go. If the dog saw at a distance a narrow place he would run to it, but probably he would not be affected by the gradual approach which the human individual symbolically could indicate to himself (Mead).

But this explanation does more to obscure than clarify the distinction between the man and the dog. The dog tries to find a place to cross and runs to the narrower place. How does the dog differentiate between wider and narrower? Why is the dog trying to cross at all? To a mindless creature, what’s the difference between crossing and not crossing? How do we explain these cognitive transitions that Mead simply overlooked in his desire to show the difference between the man and the dog? Back to the squirrel: supposedly, though my behavior and Nadine’s behavior are comparatively the same, the difference lies in that I can examine the choices I make and she cannot; I can account for my cognitive transitions, she, if she has any, cannot account for hers.

A number of cognitive ethologists have tried to argue for animal consciousness by noting the similarities between humans and animals, not the differences, in terms of observable behavior and the structure of our brains (there are a number of books; the most thorough, I think, is Donald R. Griffin’s Animal Minds, which catalogues hundreds of experiments in the wild that seem to imply animal intelligence). The problem being that though it might make sense to infer that certain animal behaviors, migration for example, or deception or warning cries, imply abstract thinking, we can’t demonstrate it. We don’t know how they do it. Well, is there space between the conversation of gestures and the significant symbol that we haven’t explored?

A half century before Mead wrote Mind, Self, and Society another American thinker was as work theorizing about symbols and consciousness: Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce wrote volumes and published almost nothing, though many now consider him the founder of American Pragmatism and America’s greatest philosopher. He had a huge influence on William James (who first theorized the social realized self in his Psychology), who in turn influenced Mead. Mead’s significant symbol is, in fact, the same as Peirce’s concept of the symbol, the culmination of his semiotics or theory of signs.

It’s interesting that across the Atlantic, in France, another philosopher, named Ferdinand Sausure, was developing a theory of signs around the same time as Peirce. Sausure’s theories of language would go on to have tremendous influence on European thought, spawning semiology, structural anthropology, structuralism, post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. Peirce’s semiotics didn’t spawn much of anything. But I want to deal with his ideas precisely because Sausure’s theories, like Mead’s, go the way of human symbolic communication, i.e. language. On the other hand, Peirce’s semiotics fills that gap between gesture and significant symbol.

I’m going to deal with only the very core of Peirce’s sign theory, his concepts of the icon, the index, and the symbol. These are the three basic signs. A sign is something that stands for something to someone, in Peirce’s terminology, a sign stands for some object to an interpretent. The object needn’t be a thing; it can be a concept or another sign and, interestingly, the interpretent needn’t be a human mind, it might even be another sign. For Peirce, the world of meaning, what we call reality, is constructed from this web of triads, i.e. signs, so this quickly gets very complex. These three types of signs are also direct expressions of what he calls his phenomenological categories and for this reason there are a few things I’m going to leave out when I talk about these signs. Peirce was willing to go there, but we don’t have to. The Cheese is still at the bottom of the steps saying, “Meow-meow.”

Peirce’s first basic sign is the icon. An icon is just as you might think it is. It’s a sign that looks like the thing it represents. A picture or a photograph of a dog is an iconic sign of a dog. Let’s say it’s a photo of my dog, Nadine. Then the photo is the icon/sign that stands for Nadine, the object, to me, the interpretent (or my interpreting consciousness, yet another sign). For our purposes, that icon is most often visual, but it could be a smell, a sound, a taste, or something I touch or feel. It smells like popcorn in here; that wail sounds like a fire engine; this tastes like the wine I had yesterday; this feels like silk.

For an icon to function as a sign, it must be recognized and, if the object it represents is not standing right in front of me, it requires me to remember that object. For our purposes it’s interesting to note that a memory occurring in iconic signs is likely accompanied by emotions and an explosion of other iconic signs. When I see a picture of my deceased dog, Piccolo, a dozen memories of his big-heartedness flash to me: his apparent joy to get a snack, his frantic barking at strangers, as well as the sequence of putting him down in the middle of the night, his coming to our bed, whining in pain. These memories might include his smell, his bark, the feeling of his fur against my hand. My eyes might water or my chest aches a little, I feel fondness, affection, sorrow. These memories are icons standing for Piccolo to me. I’m going to call this iconic consciousness and we’ll have to return to it, but let’s note here that these icons of memory will flash to me without any act of awareness or will on my part; I can have them without my saying, “I am having memories of Piccolo,” in fact without my employing any language at all.

Peirce’s second basic sign is the index. An index points to its object. I come to a T in the road. On the road sign an arrow points left. Maybe next to it is the name of a town, Wattsburg, and I now know “that Wattsburg is that way.” The arrow is the indexical sign, like a pointing index finger, Wattsburg the object, and I am the interpretent. An index is a little more abstract than an icon in that it requires its object in order to be anything at all. A picture is a picture, an image, in and of itself whether or not the thing it is a picture of is present or not, though for it to be a sign it must be a picture of something interpreted as that by someone who sees it. An arrow pointing at nothing is not an index. The index needs the thing it is pointing at to be an index and needs an interpreter to be a sign.

Once, when I was living in India, I’d just returned from Nepal with a bunch of Nepali rupees. I soon learned that nobody wants Nepali rupees (not even Nepalis), but now, back in India, I sought to exchange them at the National Bank; I was told that no state banks would do it. I entered the National bank in Gangtok, Sikkim, and finding no activity on the first floor, followed some people up the stairs to the second. There were some people sitting on benches, waiting for something, I supposed, and through a window I saw a man in a room, sitting behind a desk, sleeping on his forearms. Then I saw a sign at the corner of a wall. It said, “Cashier,” with an arrow pointing left. I walked left until I reached the end of the wall where there was another sign that said,  “Cashier” with an arrow pointing right. Between them, nothing at all. You have to love India. But the point is that those arrows weren’t indexes because they didn’t have an object. For an index to function as a sign it must point at something and someone must make the connection. When that connection is made, the object pointed to is either seen or imagined or remembered, so the index contains an element of the icon.

At the top of Peirce’s sign hierarchy lies the symbol. The symbol is the emperor of signs. Its nature is completely abstract because it is generally a sound, a word, and its relationship to its object is arbitrary, that is, unlike the icon that looks like its object, or the index that points to its object, the symbol is attached to its object by convention — Peirce uses the terms law, rule, or habit — and that convention is generally language. For example the word cat has nothing to do with the animal at my feet; the French use chat, the Spanish gatto. The sound we use to designate the animal has nothing to do with the animal; any sound could have been assigned within the language, kitty, meesh-meesh, argpurdle, it doesn’t matter, because its meaning is derived from it use in a language and use in a sentence in a given context. The meaning of cat when I say “The cat is on the mat,” is very different from its meaning when I say “He’s a real cool cat.”

If we were to follow Peirce, we would need to enter a complicated discussion of the nuances of how a symbol acquires its meaning. So far, Peirce is using the word symbol much in the way Ferdinand Sausure uses sign. But Peirce’s understanding of the symbol is distinctly different than Sausure’s and they construct their triangles of meaning very differently.

Peirce: Interpretent Sausure: sign

symbol object signifier signified



In this schematic comparison, Peirce’s symbol functions like Sausure’s signifier and his interpretent is equivalent to Sausure’s sign. For Sausure, the sign, i.e. meaning, arises within the connection between the signifier and the signified. For Peirce, the connection already exists for the interpretent to connect, though it doesn’t invoke meaning until it arises in the interpretent.

For Sausure, and the Europeans who follow him, meaning only exists at the top of the triangle, in the conventions that govern language signs and in language only. Meaning only occurs in the rules that govern language (langue) and its use in a given context (parole or speech); the world and the objects of the world do not play a role in how we mean what we say or think. Even apparent icons, like the little man on the bathroom door, function because of the conventions of the connection.

For Peirce on the other hand, part of the meaning of any sign, be it icon, index, or symbol, contains the thing it indicates. In the case of the symbol, it contains aspects of both the icon and the index. In the sentence Bill loves Mary, the symbols Bill and Mary indicate (point to) Bill and Mary and love indicates a kind of affection they feel for each other; within that lies the icon or image we have in our minds of lover and beloved. So though the connection of the sound used in a word (or the written letters) and its relationship to the world is arbitrary, and its meaning constructed by the sentence it’s used in, it yet, by virtue of the fact that it contains indexical and iconic elements, points back at the experienced world as a reference.

I’ve taken a few paragraphs here to discuss ideas that would more properly be treated in several books. These are two very different views of language and consciousness (and they go back as for as the Medieval dispute between Realism and Nominalism, if not Plato and Aristotle). In terms of language theory, that is, how language functions and how it means, Peirce’s Realism becomes problematic. But in terms of how we think, the view that all meaning is in language and language only ignores some fundamental aspects of consciousness that Peirce’s semiotics account for, aspects I’ll discuss in following chapters. For our purposes, now, if we agree with Sausure, then animals do not employ the conventions of language; they do not think. If we agree with Peirce, then the fundamentals of signing exist in animal behavior.

If The Cheese isn’t thinking at the bottom of the stairs, then he’s just meowing away. I’d have to suppose that one day when he was hungry he happened to meow at the bottom of the stairs and I appeared. Then I went down to check the food bowls, which I found empty. I filled them. The Cheese ate, reinforcing his behavior of meowing. I petted The Cheese and that added pleasure became a contingency of the reinforcement because genetically, unlike dogs, for some reason or another, cats enjoy it. In time, the contingency became a part of the reinforcement; the Cheese no longer separated it from being fed; he had to have both. That’s the simple answer. The problem is that it’s not a simple answer and it doesn’t explain much even if it’s somewhat correct.

Let me tell you as story, i.e. an anecdote, not evidence. I once lived in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania where I kept a couple dogs and lots of cats. I trained all of them to ring a string of bells that hung outside my back door when they wanted to get in. It was really easy. They came to the door, and in the process of meowing or barking or pawing they eventually struck the bells. Then I let them in. Generally, they learned it immediately, that is, after the first or second time.

Back then I was a behaviorist and, in fact, for the most part, even in terms of human behavior, I still am. I’m not a mystery to me. Genetics and social conditioning explain most of what I do. But back in Pennsylvania those animals did a couple things that got me thinking. For starters, if I was in the house and didn’t come to the door, and then if I didn’t come after several rings, they tended to ring the bells harder. I was with a friend the first time that happened and he said, “What do you think of that?” and I said, “Well, I guess he really wants to get in.”

It was easy to do the follow up experiment. When a cat rang the door bells, I didn’t come right away and eventually they rang the bells harder. Off the top, that implied that they might know what they were doing, or at least expected the bell ringing to bring me and when it didn’t they got pissed off.

The other thing that I thought I noticed was that despite an experiment I’d read about where cats didn’t copy each other’s behavior (it’s the famous cats-in-a-box experiment where a cat had to press a lever to get out and when one finally did, none of the others imitated it), my new cats seemed to do just that, imitate. One of the veterans rang and got in, the new cat went up and hit the bells. Since, I’ve learned that there’s a fine line between following and copying or imitating, one we’ll have to look at closely later.

In my last quasi-experiment I pretended to leave the house, then sneaked back to observe the cats. They didn’t ring the bells when I wasn’t there. They waited for me to come back, which made me think that they connected me being in the house to their getting in, that they saw the bells as an agency for bringing me to open the door, not just a mechanism that caused the door to open.

These are what a scientist would call anecdotes, and I can’t offer them as evidence for animal consciousness. There could be a hundred things I failed to notice. There are no controls. I could just be making stuff up. But it was this kind of behavior in the domestic animals around me that got me thinking about animal cognition.

Let’s just look at the simple act of ringing the bells. There had to be a cognitive transition between not wanting to get in and then wanting to get in. Those are different things that are related to different behaviors. The bells (and the door, for that matter) had to be perceived as a means of entering the house. The cats had to remember that ringing the bells got them in. More so, in had to be a place they wanted to go. And though if you never had a cat or a dog you might argue that they make no connection between the door opening and my opening it to let them out or in, in fact animals request that kind of thing all the time. I’ll talk some more about asking behavior later. The very least we must notice here is that my coming to the door is inseparable from it being opened and, in the act of ringing the bells, my opening the door must be anticipated. However behaviorally reinforced this behavior might be, the behavior is inexplicable without cognition. That cognition occurs by means of iconic consciousness, in signs.

A behaviorist might point out here that I’m just playing a semantic game; that the difference between sitting under a bush and ringing bells to get indoors is just that, a difference in behavior and there is no animal consciousness experiencing those behaviors or, at the very least, it’s superfluous to postulate one. My position is that it is impossible to conceive of behavior without experience, without cognitive transitions that semiotics explains.

On the other side, when you start talking about cognition you run into the problem of defining precisely what it is and where it is, that is, though we all seem to be thinking all the time, no one has ever opened a brain and found an idea inside. This falls under a very old philosophical dispute, the mind-body problem. I can’t solve that, but I’ll try to tackle some of the issues of consciousness later in this book.

But now the Cheese wants me to pet him while he eats. He has an iconic sign of me that he calls to. He expects me to appear. There are smell and taste icons of the food he anticipates, as well as the tactile icons of being petted. He thinks these icons consecutively and repeatedly, like we do. This isn’t language. It’s not English or French. But it is primitive signing behavior. It explains something else, as well: how animals figure things out. Let’s take a look.

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