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By Rocco Capozzi
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1997 Indiana University Press
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Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language
Grammars and the Philosophy of Language
There are many disciplines–such as linguistics or iconography or musicology–that are concerned with different semiotic systems, of which they represent the rules of functioning. We will call these disciplines grammars. In this sense Italian linguistics is a grammar, as is the study of gestural languages, or as it can be the study of different types of road signals. Any theory of signs that assumed to be a general or universal grammar would be a grammar in the above sense in so far as it takes into account only these rules that are allegedly at work in every sign-system, by articulating them into a super-system able to explain how the different sign-systems function as they do.
If the philosophy of language can be thought of as a reflection on language (or, in various ways, on languages, and on the faculty of expression), it could also be said that during this century a "linguistic turn" has taken place, and that philosophy as a whole is now none other than a reflection on language.
But any philosophy of language (be it an analytical or a hermeneutical one) usually takes the grammatical researches for granted. The philosopher is rather interested in the fact that we use grammars in order to speak about the universe (in the widest sense of such term, which includes even these metaphysical assertions that neo-positivists might have excluded from the realm of meaningful propositions). Philosophers of language do not seem directly concerned with the way in which the syntactical or the lexical component of a grammar are organized, but rather with the activity of speaking, that is, with the way in which we use grammars in order to make meaningful statements about actual or possible worlds, with the nature of meaning, or (since even Vico and Condillac were philosophers of language), with the origins of language, with the relationships between language and Being, and so on.
If Heidegger's is a philosopher of language (and there is no doubt that he spent his life speculating on language in general), he represents a good example of a philosopher who ignores grammatical questions (and when dealing with them, at least at the etymological level, is no more rigorous than Isidore of Seville).
For historical reasons, contemporary semiotics was instead to come into being as a grammar above all else; be it as universal grammar or as the study of specific grammars. Undoubtedly this is what did occur with structuralist semiotics, along that line which runs from Saussure and Hjelmslev and passes on through to Barthes, continuing from there towards the grammar of fashion or the grammar of Japanese cooking. Lévi-Strauss's designed a grammar of parental relations, and it was for this reason that it was to have so much influence on the development of structural semiotics. Greimas started out as a lexicographer and then founded an all-too-rigorous narratological grammar.
But outside of the structuralist current of thought, Peirce, too–although from the beginning he was to establish his semiotics as a purely philosophical discourse (in which he elaborated a list of new categories, performed a critique of Cartesianism and sketched out a theory of inference)–contemporaneously elaborated a 'grammar' of all the possible types of signs. His trichotomies belong to his "speculative grammar."
Peirce is, at any rate, an example of how the distinction between philosophical inquiry and grammatical inquiry sometimes blurs. If we reconstruct a history of semiotics as a history of the various doctrines of all the different types of signs, is it possible to separate a grammatical moment from a philosophical one in the works of Aristotle or the Stoics? Can one say that the Prior Analytics are a grammar of logic and the Posterior ones a philosophical reflection on our ways of knowing? Should the universal grammar of Modistae be considered a grammatical analysis of Medieval Latin or a philosophical reflection on the role and essence of language? Locke is certainly a philosopher of language, but are the authors of Port Royal only grammarians? Chomsky is evidently on the side of grammar, but his Cartesian philosophy of language is the explicit and unignorable nucleus of his entire project. Where would we place Montague's formal grammar? Would we take Austin's, Grice's and Searle's pragmatic research as a philosophical one, or as "grammar" which establishes a set of rules for using natural languages in different contexts?
As repeatedly stated in Eco 1984, I believe that there are specific semiotics, which are grammars of a particular sign system, and which Hjelmslev would have called semiotics, in the plural. These grammars would be able to exist–and sometimes have in fact developed–outside of the general semiotic picture. But naturally they are more interesting when they take this picture into account. Now and then the general picture has prevailed over the specificity of the sign system at hand; during the 1970's there were some rather naive attempts to extend the categories of linguistics to every sign system. This occurred because a single specific grammar, that of natural languages, was assigned the task of serving as the parameter for semiotics in general. An example of an even-handed elaboration of the specific grammars of simple systems (road signals, navy flags, bus numbers and so on) is that of Prieto. In Messages et signaux (1966), he provisionally adopts the parameters of the linguistic notion of articulation, but precisely in order to demonstrate how the systems he is analyzing do not obey the same rules as natural languages do.
When it is well-constructed, a specific semiotics attains a scientific status, or close to it–to the extent to which this is possible for human sciences. These grammars are descriptive, frequently they also are prescriptive and to some extent they can be predictive, at least in a statistical sense, in so far as they are supposed to successfully predict how a user of a given sign system, under normal circumstances, will generate or interpret messages produced according to that system's rules.
Opposed to these specific semiotics (in the sense that it is superordinate to them) lies a general semiotics. Whereas the specific semiotics find their objects as already given (ways of using sounds, gestures, lights and so on), general semiotics posits its own theoretical object as a philosophical category. In this sense, the concept of sign–or of semiosis–which should account for the various kinds of "signs" used by the specific semiotics–is a philosophical concept, a theoretical construct.
The philosophical nature of general semiotics explains the resistance which it encounters from time to time. For the layperson it often seems incongruous that scholars who discuss the syntactical structure of Swahili are grouped under the same aegis as those who analyze the direction of the gaze in a Renaissance painting; not to mention still others who investigate the inferential mechanisms which guide a doctor when diagnosing pneumonia or when investigating the question of whether there is a system of communication among lymphocytes. And not only the layperson but also the scholar sometimes wonders whether semiotics, besides concerning itself with the processes of intentional communication, should really be concerned with those processes in which a natural symptom is treated as if it were intentionally produced for purposes of communication.
We usually feel fairly self-confident about telling the layperson that it is only because of his or her insufficiencies that s/he cannot see the relationship between the word smoke and a puff of smoke, between the German language and traffic signals, between the production of a linguistic act and the waving of a flag. Several decades have now passed since the days when we thought that these phenomena should all be investigated using tools provided by linguistics. We no longer think semiotics must concern itself exclusively with sign systems or signs organized in systems, because we know it is possible to observe moments in which communication takes place without, beyond, before and against any system. We know that semiotics can study rules as well as processes–including those processes which don't follow the rules. Nevertheless, if general semiotics has meaning, it has it inasmuch as it is able to unify, to subsume under a single set of categories of all the particular cases in which human beings (and to some extent also animals, for certain scholars) use phonations, gestures, and natural or artificial objects in order to refer to other phenomena (objects, classes of objects or states of affairs) that are not perceivable during certain interactions, and which often do not exist, or exist only in a non-physical form.
Certainly it is easier to recognize the empirical existence of texts written in Italian (studied by literary history or the history of the Italian language) or of species of animals, than it is to recognize semiosic processes. It is for this reason that semiotics works harder to gain recognition than does literary history or zoology; but it took just as much effort to construct a general concept of the atom–and this concept attained the status of a philosophical principle long before any empirical verification was possible.
Therefore, even if a sentence is different from an epic poem, and even if the way we perceive Morse signals is different from the way we perceive the form and chromatic shadings of a cloud, we maintain that in all cases, whether explicitly or implicitly, a common mechanism is at work, no matter how disparate the outcomes may seem on the surface. If it is the same physiopsychological apparatus that renders us capable of understanding both the sentence It will rain tomorrow and the cloud which announces a rainshower not yet experienced, then there must be something that allows us to join these two different processes of perception, elaboration, prediction and dominion over something that semiosis does not place before our eyes.
In this sense a general semiotics is a branch of philosophy, or better still, it is the way in which philosophy reflects on the problem of semiosis.
Then one can distinguish a general semiotics from a philosophy of language by stressing two peculiar features of a general semiotics. (1) Semiotics tends to make its categories so general as to include and define not only natural or formalized languages, but also every form of expression (even those which seem alien to any grammatical organization), as well as the processes for generating grammars that do not yet exist, the operations by means of which one can break the rules of a given grammar (as it happens in poetry), and also those phenomena that do not seem to be produced with the aim of expressing something, but which can be nevertheless seen at the starting point of an interpretive inference. (2) Semiotics tends to draw its generalizations from its experience with grammars, to the point that philosophical reflection becomes heavily enmeshed in grammatical description.
In undertaking such an enterprise, semiotics evidently runs certain risks. Under the entry "Semiotics" which appears in the 1970's edition of the Garzanti Enciclopedia Europea, Raffaele Simone–after correctly reconstructing the history and problems of the discipline–goes on to cite the enlargement of the semiotic field from Saussure up to the present, extending from literature and logic to animal communication and psychology; an enlargement in which semiotics "goes so far as to aim to be the general science of culture." Simone comments: "In this excessive amplification of its horizon lie the reasons for [semiotics'] diffusion but also the germ of its eventual defeat: if all of culture is a sign, a single science that studies everything with the same concepts and the same methods is perhaps both too little and too much. It would be more useful to look to a variety of independent disciplines, each of which could cover an area of inquiry, even if this area was to be imbued with an awareness of the semiotic nature of the object of study."
There are a number of thinks to think about in this passage. I would eliminate the word "defeat" and replace it with "crisis" (for crises can also be periods of growth). I would like to reflect here on the "germs" of this crisis.
In his delineation of these germs, Simone was a bit optimistic: both in his reduction of the list of fields which semiotics invaded and in his accusation against semiotics–that it aimed to become the general science of culture. In effect–as a look at Simone's bibliography suffices to show–semiotics is actually much worse, going so far as to present itself as the general science of nature. Simone could not have missed the passage (an explicit one in Peirce) from a theory of the sign to a general theory of inference, and from there to the study not only of communication and signification, but also of the perceptive processes. Today semiotics tends to consider perception as a (fundamental) aspect of semiosis. On the other hand, if we take all the studies that have either the word semiotic in the title, or which appear in journals with this word in the title, as examples of semiotic research, we find this research extends to the world of nature, from zoosemiotics to the development of a phytosemiotics; to immunologists' interest in cellular semiosis, to the intertwining of brain sciences, artificial intelligence and semiotics. Twenty years ago, in A Theory of Semiotics, I placed all of these aspects of semiotics beyond a taboo threshold which I called the "lower threshold of semiotics." But this was above all an act of caution: one can decide, ex professo, not to address a series of problems without claiming that these problems do not exist.
Simone suggests that it would be more useful to look for a variety of independent disciplines, even all of them had to be imbued with an awareness of the semiotic nature of their object of study. I have to say that I am fairly inclined to subscribe to this view. I am convinced that semiotics does not exist as a scientific discipline. There are many specific semiotics, and often the same semiosic phenomenon gives rise to a range of theorizations and grammars. To put this in academic terms, "semiotics" should not be the name of a discipline, but rather that of a department or a school–just as there is no single discipline called "medicine" but instead schools entitled "school of medicine." Medicine was a single discipline in the days of Paracelsus and Galen, that is to say when it was in a primitive stage. Today the common object of the medical sciences is the human body, and the methods and approaches, like the specializations, are constantly changing. Under the headings of medicine we have surgery, biochemistry, dietetics, immunology and so on....
If you go to visit one of the best-stock scientific bookstores, the Harvard Bookstore at Harvard University, you will see that in the last ten years the shelves have been reorganized. In many American bookstores books about semiotics are erratically shelved. Occasionally they are under literary criticism; from time to time they are in a section that used to be called structuralism and which now (as Barnes & Noble has done in New York) is called "post-structuralism." At the Harvard Bookstore, however, there is a separate, quite extensive section which includes artificial intelligence, the brain sciences, logic and analytical philosophy, psychology of perception, linguistics and semiotics; and this section is entitled Cognitive Sciences.
No one in the United States has ever claimed that the cognitive sciences are a science, or a discipline; and everyone is in agreement about maintaining them as a sort of interdisciplinary aggregate with a common nucleus. And it does not displease me that semiotics has come to be included in this confederation, even if there are those who debate whether semiotics is a cognitive science or the cognitive sciences are a branch of semiotics. Even if we affirm that semiosis has become a central concept for our contemporary scientific paradigm–as the concept of nature or res extensa–res cogitans dyads were for other paradigms–then it is certain that many disciplines can derive inspiration from semiotic concepts, without necessarily being a semiotics.
But in order to be able to say this, it is necessary that there continue to be this discourse that I call general semiotics; a discourse that addresses the extent to which there is an object of study (or genus generalissimum) common to all these disciplines, and that also outlines the conditions necessary for its theorization. A general semiotics is necessary precisely because semiotics is not a unified science.
Excerpted from Reading Eco by Rocco Capozzi. Copyright © 1997 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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