To Un Th Hu Be

Grinker, Roy Richard (ed.) 1956. Toward a Unified Theory of Human Behavior. New York: Basic Books.

Because this is an old and rare book there's a good chance that I'll never gain unmediated access to it. So instead I'll take the next best thing and read the reviews of it available on JSTOR. The significance of it consists of it containing a paper by Jurgen Ruesch - one of the few that Roman Jakobson has cited (ergo, has read).

Sprott, W. J. H 1957. Review of Toward a Unified Theory of Human Behavior edited by Roy R. Grinker.. American Sociological Review 22(1): 110-111.

IN 1951 Jurgen Ruesch, a psychiatrist, and Roy Grinker, the Director of an Institute for Psychosomatic and Psychiatric Research, got together some seventeen representatives of allied disciplines - a zoologist, some sociologists, an historian and so on, making a committee of nineteen, who set out to hold bi-annual week-end conferences at which they were to discuss the possibilities of a "Unified Theory of Human Behavior'. A report of the first four conferences is presented in this book. (Sprott 1957: 110)
Apparently Ruesch took to Morris in attempting something like unified science.
They discussed the possibilities of a unified theory of human behavior. But what could that mean? That, alas, was not a question to which they addressed themselves for any length of time. The setting of the problem is straightforward: social systems are "run" by humans, humans have personalities, they are also physical organisms and therefore allied to all living organisms. Now does a "unified theory" mean a set of rules from which one can deduce the rules of biology, psychology and sociology? This was scarcely discussed, and to be sure the nature of such rules is obscure. Does it mean a new-Spencerean statement of evolutionary process? This was touched on and provided the bright idea that in social development it is symbols that ensure continuity and changes, performing thus the same role that genes do in the history of physical organisms. More extensive and rewarding was another line: are there concepts which apply to all these fields, and if so do they mean the same wherever they are used? Much is said about homeostasis and the discussion of this by Emerson and Anatol Rapoport is well worth reading. (Sprott 1957: 110)
So an amalgamation of psychosomatics and social sciences? The idea of change and continuity effected by symbols in analogy with genes precedes the idea of "memes".
Is there, it is asked, a set of rules, or a mode of analysis of communication, which applies to the signals that flash from cell to cell, to communications from id to ego, and to the communications from man to man in society? The concepts are discussed and, if nothing else, communication theory is clarified in the process. But then, as one may imagine, all sorts of difficulties of a basic nature reveal themselves. Systems may have some homeostatic control to keep them intact, their parts are in a communication net-work and systems communicate with one another. But - what is a system? What are boundaries, and how permeable are they? The discussions on this question are among the most valuable in the book. Another even more fundamental problem loomed up. Speigel presents is with a diagram of systems related to one another: the soma, the psyche, the group, the society, and - obscure indeed - the universe. Perhaps the concepts of homeostasis and communication theory apply to them all - except the last. Perhaps, suggests Morris, they are linked by a system of common symbols in any given society that - to take his example - "policeman" has a meaning in the communication system, and it has a meaning in the social system in that it defines a role; it also has a meaning in the personality system in that if a person becomes a policeman and now symbolizes himself as a policeman, he has become a policeman," and he might have added that when he became a policeman he may become flat-footed. (Sprott 1957: 110)
The communication matrix of Ruesch and Bateson is here pretty apparent - intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, and society are here soma, psyche, group, society - and universe. Clarifying communication theory is pretty much what Ruesch does at every step. And the question, "What is a system?", still looms large to this day. The Morris here, it turns out, is the self-same Charles Morris. And now that I dared to dream a little and looked this title up in our library system it turns out that Sebeok's collection does indeed have it. So I will actually gain unmediated acces to it, but reading these reviews cannot hurt, so I'll continue.
Each system can be dealt with independently, but the link between them is the system of common symbols. All this seems to help us on a bit, but we constantly hear, particularly from Ruesch who presented a paper on it, disturbing references to "the observer." This is both salutory and irritating. All our theories are the views of observers; how far does his perspective contaminate objectivity? (Sprott 1957: 111)
The former part is what sociosemiotics is all about. Ruesch's insistence on the perspective of the participant-observer is also Jakobson's takeaway from this book.

Deutsch, Morton 1957. Review of Toward a Unified Theory of Human Behavior edited by Roy. R. Grinker. Administrative Science Quarterly 1(4): 543-546.

One approaches a book like this with mixed feelings: it has such an imposing list of contributions but such a pretentious title. To speak of a general theory of human behavior at this stage of the development of the behavioral sciences, when the more mature physical sciences have no "general theory," smacks of grandiosity. Our situation is that there are hardly any well-developed small theories, and the linkages between empirical research and theoretical statements are most often weak or lacking. Yet I suppose it is these very lacks and uncertainties in the field, combined with the urgent feeling that "something ought to be done about something," which give rise to the earnest searchings for an all-embracing formulation. Something of the same motivation led me to look forward to reading this volume, hoping that some salvation from the tension of intellectual uncertainty might be offered by the distinguished group of contributors. (Deutsch 1957: 544)
The situation is not much different almost 60 years later. Only the linkages between empirical research and theoretical statements are more tangential than ever.
The focus of the conferences was the concept of "system," and the basic theme was that a unified theory could be developed which subsumed the various systems that are relevant to the study of human behavior, for example, the organic, the psychological, the social, the cultural. (Deutsch 1957: 544)
Aren't we still looking for a viewpoint that would integrate these systems coherently?
The discussion of boundaries centered around an outline presented by Ruesch which classified boundaries in terms of a host of miscellaneous characteristics and in terms of the physiological, psychological, social action, and communication universes. Ruesch's classification has a richness of detail which is appealing, but on closer inspection it looks like a trop in which stretched analogies could ensnare one in rather fruitless discussion if they are taken seriously. (Deutsch 1957: 545)
Curiously, I have the same feeling with Ruesch's theory of communication (or synopsis of it). It looks beautiful on paper, but it feels threatening to put it into any meaningful action. Perhaps that is why there is so little follow-up to Ruesch's work? (But then again, the same could be said for both Morris and Jakobson.)

Useem, John 1957. Review of Toward a Unified Theory of Human Behavior edited by Roy R. Grinker. Social Forces 35(4): 376.

The individual scholars, one may infer, were not expected to act, nor did they conceive of themselves as acting, in the capacity of formal representatives of their own disciplines (an illusion not uncommon in many interdisciplinary meetings); hence they were free to explore whatever theoretical aspects of their fields were of interest to them personally and to those present. (Useem 1957: 376)
This is ideally the everyday life of a semiotician.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of this book lies primarily in the insights it offers those sociologists who are curious about the development of theoretical models and the methodological problems involved in the formulation of appropriate concepts. These can be explored with profit with respect to such areas as schemes for linking of the intrapersonal and interpersonal, the significance of the observer for what is observed, the connections between the principles of stability and change within systems, boundaries between systems, etc. In these and comparable topics, the analyses are characterized by sophistication, erudition, and a sensitivity to the frontiers of our total fund of theory about man's behavior. (Useem 1957: 376)
I am interested in appropriate concepts, linking intra- and interpersonal communication, and whatever these scholars (especially Morris and Ruesch, whom I did not dream to meet between the same book covers) have to offer.

Stephenson, William 1959. Review of Toward a Unified Theory of Human Behavior edited by Roy R. Grinker. American Journal of Sociology 64(5)

The first of the conferences had before it brief formulations by Spiegel (that everything is interdependent on everything else); by Shakow (there are needs, which may or may not be gratified); Ruesch (that communication theory has much to offer, but all observers must be psychoanalyzed first, otherwise facts are distorted); Talcott Parsons (who provides a neat account of his general theory of action); Laura Thompson (who interjects core values); and by Florence Kluckhohn (who recommends value orientation and a questionnaire as a framework for the comparison of cultures). In the discussion, Weiss remarks that all, so far, is "rationalization," "schemes and diagrams," merely "a statement of the facts." What is missing, he adds, is quantification, to reduce the immense variety of facts to a few more common ones. (Stephenson 1959: 524)
That everything may be dependent on everything else is something E. R. Clay finds to be not inconsistent. That Ruesch holds psychoanalyzing observers up as a contingency seems dubious, but I'll see if I read it. And I'm a bit excited to read "a neat account" of Parsons' theory, which has thus far eluded me.
Jules Henry in a richly good-humored paper asks who in a maternity ward is being kept in a steady, homeostatic state, the new-born baby, the mother, the hospital, American society as a whole, or the world? However, Deutsch restores the serious note and provides, in a paper entitled "Autonomy and Boundaries According to Communication Theory," the first approach to unification of a kind. It would be such as invites the behavioral sciences to talk the language of boundaries, decision points, memory pools, higher-order feed-backs, homeostasis, and the like. (Stephenson 1959: 524)
I wonder how this metalanguage compares to Lotman's boundaries, bifurcation points, texts, self-descriptions, heterogeneity, and the like.
Those of us who are privileged, through this volume, to look in upon the day-by-day (more or less) thinking of so many authorities can at least draw the conclusion that, if a brew of experts in the behavioral sciences is concocted, it will have a polyglot taste. It is difficult otherwise to understand how, after the mixing, the basic results are homeostasis, transaction, information theory, metabolism, reproduction, irreversibility, goal-seeking, sex differentiation, and permanent coupling. (Stephenson 1959: 524-525)
From this selection I'm most interested in transaction and irreversibility - will keep an eye on these.

Gillin, John 1957. General and Theoretical: Review of Toward a Unified Theory of Human Behavior edited by Roy R. Grinker. American Anthropologist 59(6): 1092-1093.

For those who wish a neat package or a finished theoretical system, the present volume will probably prove tiresome and irritating, although Grinker provides a summary at the end. However, the book explicitly represents work in progress and for those, like the present writer, who are interested in the development of such unfinished business it is very stimulating. (Gillin 1957: 1092)
With reviews like these emphasizing the book's irritability it's no wonder that it's not so well known outside of its own era. But alas I am also intested in the development of these ideas (especially, as mentioned above, by Ruesch and Morris).
Fairly general agreement was achieved on three broad "principles" applying to all types of systems having to do with human behavior. The first is the principle of homeostasis, conceived as stability or trend toward stability or equilibrium. The second is the principle of transaction, meaning a reciprocal relationship among all parts of the field and not merely interaction, which is regarded as a relationship between only two systems. The third area of agreement is on communication of information as it operates in various types of systems ranging from the biological to the social and cultural. (Gillin 1957: 1092)
Well, Ruesch was a transactionalist. I'm interested in if and how these principles could be reconciled by the views of Jakobson and Tynyanov (1928).


Post a Comment