Rastier, François: "On Signs and Texts"


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It will certainly be objected that cognitive semantics, with authors like Langacker,1 broke away with the dualistic conception of the sign. Nothing is less sure. Indeed, the signified is continuously located in another order of reality as the signifier. It is simply that cognitive semantics divorced the theory of direct denotation, and watered it down without giving up the principle of compositionality. But when mentalism strikes back and it defines the space where states of affairs happen, it links back signifieds, become concepts once again, to cognitive fields with no defining principle, in a mental space which is a new version of transcendental space (Rastier 1993).
All things considered, none of the great competing paradigms of cognitive research on signification acknowledges that the semiotic is a level which would allow to consider it as an area of objectivity that can be studied in itself. The semiotic unit as such is surreptitiously replaced with the percept on the one hand, with the concept on the other. Certainly, the percept/concept distance tends to be reduced, insofar as cognitive schemes have retained the outline of forms in space from their Kantian ancestors __ while losing their mediating function, for want of pure concepts of understanding.
The objective common to all of the cognitive paradigms, which might lead one to say that they are pursuing the programme fulfilled by general grammars before the advent of comparative linguistics, consists in going upward from language to thought, and from the expression to the concept. Dummett summarized the attempt in the same way: "By examining the mechanisms of language, it is of course thought we are trying to analyze. Language in itself would hardly have any importance at all if it did not make it possible for us to access the workings of thought" (1994, p.2).

(iv) The function of symbols in the symbolic paradigm.
Their eponymous function allows to guess that symbols are entrusted with missions of paramount importance.
a) They are the means of any scientific description. According to Minsky and Papert:

What do we mean by "description"? We do not mean to suggest that our descriptions must be made of strings of ordinary language words (although they might be). The simplest kind of description is a structure in which some features of a situation are represented by single (primitive) symbols [...] (1974, p.223).

This is the cognitivist road to perpetuate the thousand-year-old search for primitives. The underlying idea is that symbols are simpler and more primitive than words, as we will see further in relation to the language of the thought.2
b) As we know, they are the basis for Artificial Intelligence. We have to credit Newell and Simon for formulating the Strong Physical Symbol System Hypothesis: a physical system that can handle symbols has the necessary and sufficient characteristics to produce or at least simulate intelligence.
This functionalist thesis rests in particular on a quite peculiar mode of relationship between types and occurrences. Symbols in their form, and as types, are computed, whereas in their material format, and as tokens, they are implemented. It is then enough to state that matter is related to spirit in the same way implementation relates to computation, and the problem of their articulation is apparently solved. However, the relationship between types and tokens is a crucial problem in semiotics and semantics: it governs for example the questions of polysemy and typicality, and more generally categorization. Characterizing this relationship, qualifying how tokens differ from types, is a major objective of interpretation. When one postulates that they do not differ, one implies that interpretation works on its own (Rastier 1995).



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1. Langacker is the only author in that current to mention Saussure: he borrows from the latter's iconic figuration of the signified. [RETURN]

2. Symbols then act as what the gentlemen of Port-Royal called words of ideas: they represent such simple ideas that they cannot be defined, and are used to define all the others. The elementary does not have to be interpreted as soon as it is decreed that elementariness provides meaning: it is a founding principle. Greimas's indefinables, and Fodor's primitives are actually the same notion. [RETURN]






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1996.06.22