Rastier, François: "On Signs and Texts"


The parallel would be even more unbalanced if we compared not just signs and symbols, but texts and computation (although there are theories that aim at the "computation of meaning"). The cynosure of our discussion is interpretation. In the case of a general semiotics such as Hjelmslev's glossematics, "there is, for the computation of theory, no interpreted system, but only interpretable systems. There is therefore no difference, on this point, between pure algebra and the game of chess on the one side and, for instance, a natural language on the other hand" (1971a, p.141). Obliviously of the hermeneutic dimension, natural languages and other languages can well be put on a par. Rather, we would place them under the scrutiny of two different kinds of hermeneutics: a formal one for languages (Salanskis 1991), and a material one for natural languages (Szondi 1982. Rastier et al. 1994, and forthcoming).
The hermeneutic regime of the symbol is one of suspension: the suspension of interpretation is the means by which computation is allowed to unfold effectively. But this suspension occurs between two phases where interpretation is possible, if not prescribed. On the other hand, the hermeneutic regime of the linguistic sign is one of compulsive interpretation: it can only be identified and isolated through a combination of assumptions1 which cannot be suspended, neither during semantic description nor while the sign is processed at the psychic level. Whereas, in computation, the interpretation of the symbol is temporarily excluded, the interpretation of the sign is always necessary.
Let us point out that the interpretive modes are not attached to signs as such, that a word may perfectly replace a symbol in computation, as a symbol a word in a text. Those modes are related to practices and traditions: mathematical hermeneutics is canonical, unlike linguistic hermeneutics whose techniques vary according to genres and texts, even according to moments in the texts.
The difference between natural languages and other languages can therefore be described as follows. Natural languages have an open interpretive mode, not specified by a priori definable functions, but by types of usages specific to the historically and culturally located practices where those natural languages are in use. They are without functions, and this is why they can be adapted to an indefinite number of uses, of which the variety of textual genres is ample evidence.
On the other hand, languages have a preset interpretive mode at the time of their establishment __ and this is the extent to which they can be called artificial.
The relationship between expression and content or, to simplify, between signified and signifier is what separates those two kinds of signs and the two hermeneutic regimes. For cognitivist semiotics, the two planes are separate, as are syntax and semantics (in the formal meaning of the term); or as the linguistic and conceptual planes are separate: signifieds, purely representational as they are said to be, do not belong on the same level of reality as signifiers, which are strictly material.
This dualism, however, seems to go against the grain of the monistic, materialistic claims of cognitivism. To solve this contradiction, the naturalization of meaning agenda submits that representations should be broken down into neuronal syntax, which amounts to pass symbols off as natural.


1. The arguments and examples are plentiful: the words take a trick will count for one sign when followed by and win the game, but for three before to a seedy hotel. [RETURN]

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AS/SA Nº5, Article 4 : Page 10 / 27

© 1998, AS/SA

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