Rastier, François: "On Signs and Texts"


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As such, the semiotic triangle from the Aristotelian tradition, whose canonical version had been offered by Ogden and Richards, is restored, with a major qualification: the symbol, by which the authors singled out the signifier, also turns out to be the semiotic format of the top pole of the triangle (that is Thought).
That symbolization of thought seems closely related to the naturalization agenda, because thought is then emptied out of all content proper: its content is nothing but the worldly objects to which symbols refer. Formalism, as far as thought is concerned, is thus the "abettor" of mechanistic materialism insofar as the physical world and the referent are all one.
For the naturalization effort to succeed, it becomes instrumental that all signs may be simplified into mental symbols, by various kinds of transcoding.



2. The cognitive establishment of semiotics

The fundamentally semiotic streak in the cognitive venture should not come as a surprise.
Ever since Locke defined it as a discipline1 semiotics has always been cognitive. For Locke, semiotics is a species of the science whose defining characteristic is to study signs as instruments of knowledge: we would call it cognitive science today. He says of men:

The consideration, then, of ideas and words as the great instruments of knowledge makes no despicable part of their contemplation who would take a view of human knowledge in the whole extent of it (1690, p.415).

Consequently, the study of signs as instruments of knowledge will take two paths. Sometimes, as in modern cognitive sciences, one sees there (according to Jackendoff's expression) an open window onto cognition. In his answer to Locke, Leibniz states that "languages are the best mirror of the human mind" (1704, p.333). Sometimes, the languages reflect the spirit of the people: Leibniz, who sees them as "the oldest monuments of the people" (p.279) finds an ally in Condillac: "each language expresses the character of the people which speak it" (Essay on the Origin of Human knowledge, 1746, II, 1. Ed. G. Roy, Paris, 1947). The Volksgeist nationalist romanticism develops this thesis with dubious intents, but deserves at least to be recognized for breaking away from traditional universalism.
Whether cognition is social or not, the inalienable relationship between signs and knowledge is part of the rationalist doxology, just as it is part of the empiricist doxology. The latter takes into account the diversity among languages, whereas the former seeks the universals of language, the alphabet of the human mind. The project centred on the assumption of a universal characteristic derives from there: it is a matter for creating a perfect language in order to mend the defects of languages, and in one fell swoop to endow the human mind with the best knowledge tools. This passably optimistic endeavour had fortunate consequences, because it stands at the origin of the theory of formal languages, and as such provides a basis for the theory of grammars as well as for the theory of automata. They are the theoretical bases of data processing, and by extension of artificial intelligence, then the basis for the symbolic paradigm of cognitive research.



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1. Theories of signs are obviously not a new thing. Tractatus de signis were numerous from the twelfth to the seventeenth century, which discussed the theory of the sacraments, in the same way Arnauld and Nicole's Logique, ou l'art de penser did in Port-Royal as late as 1662. But we owe to Locke the first reflexion on semiotics as a full-fledged discipline. [RETURN]






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1996.06.22