On Signs and Texts: Cognitive Science and Interpretation

François Rastier *


Are all sciences not cognitive?
__ Daniele Gambarara

Two major problems, mainly investigated by language scientists, dominate the Western epistemological tradition. They correspond to a pair of underlying preconceptions about language __  whether it is seen as a means of representation or as a means of communication. In short, the former posits meaning as a relationship between a subject and an object, and the latter as a relationship between subjects.
The dominant of these views, meaning the former, which follows a logical and grammatical tradition, stresses signs and syntax in its approach to language, relating them to the laws of reason. It is centred on cognition, and cognitivism represents its current state of development.
The second school of thought, belonging to a rhetorical and hermeneutical tradition, examines text and discourse in terms of their generative and interpretative processes, and can be considered to focus on communication 1 through pragmatics, which borrows some topics from rhetoric, and offers a restrictive outline of communicative processes; this approach is largely based on the logical positivism of Morris and Carnap, a kindred spirit to the discipline. For the sake of concision, we will classify the former approach into a problematic of signs, and the latter into a problematic of texts.
Recognizing a distinction dating back at least as far as Dumarsais, let us adopt the convention that signification refers to a property of signs, and meaning to a property of texts. The transitional concept of context may help distinguish between the two problems. If we look further into the distinction between meaning and signification, a sign, at least when in isolation, does not have meaning, and a text does not have signification.2 Signification results indeed from decontextualisation, a dispelling of context, as one may see in lexical semantics and terminology. In this respect signification is a stake of high relevance for ontological questioning, since traditionally Being has been characterised as identity with oneself. On the other hand, meaning implies maximum contextualisation, in language (context is all of the text) as well as through situational criteria (inclusive of the co-dependent variables of history and culture, beyond the sole here and now considered by pragmatics). Therefore, whereas signification is traditionally posited as a relationship, meaning can be represented as a process.
By privileging the study of meaning, interpretative semantics (Rastier 1987) focuses on the text, rather than the sign, and defines meaning as interpretation. It is based on text disciplines (law, theology, literary criticism, among others) and can be ancillary to two kinds of theories: philosophical hermeneutics and philological hermeneutics. Since it aims to describe a great diversity of texts, it is naturally closer to the latter, because while the former seeks the a priori conditions of any interpretation, the latter seeks on the contrary to specify the incidence of social practices, and leads to a typology of texts.
If of course the study of signs and that of texts supplement one another, logico-grammatical problems and rhetorical-hermeneutic problems differ significantly. The first one enjoys widespread recognition and has strong unity, for until very recently grammar and logic developed in parallel and around the same categories (such as the very concepts of category, predicate, categoreme and syncategoreme, etc). The second one hardly has unity at all, and apparently rhetoric and hermeneutics till their own fields: the spoken and the written, enunciating and interpreting, Reform and Counter-Reform, persuasion and grace, Latinicity and Germanicity, etc.


* Research Director (INaLF-CNRS), 57, rue de Paris. 94340 Joinville-le-Pont. E-mail: lpe2@idf.ext.jussieu.fr
Reprinted from Intellectica, 1996, vol.2, nº23, p.11-52. Translated by the Editors, including quotations from the French. We have chosen to distinguish between "natural language" (une langue) and unspecified "language" (un langage), inclusively of several kinds of semiotic systems such as animal communication, artificial languages, and codes. [Translators' note] [RETURN]

1. Considering the failings of communication theories, we would rather adopt the term transmission (Rastier 1995b), insofar as cultural transmission, semiotic inheritance, can be included in it. [RETURN]

2. Three paradigms of signification centered on the sign, can be said to dominate the history of Western linguistic ideas: reference, inference, and difference.
a) The paradigm of reference, in the aristotelian tradition, defines signification as a mental representation, precisely a concept. It is variously continued today by vericonditional semantics and cognitive semantics.
b) The paradigm of inference, in the rhetorical and Augustinian tradition, defines signification as an intentional action of the mind, connecting two signs or two objects. It is developed today by pragmatics.
c) The paradigm of difference, of sophistic origin, and developed by the synonymists of the Enlightenment, then by the so-called structural semantics, defines signification as the result of a contrastive categorization.
The synthesis of which we have just offered the principle consists in determining inference and reference through difference, then to place these problems of signification under the authority of semantics, by assuming that the global (the text) plays a determining role over the local (signs). [RETURN]


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