Rastier, François: "On Signs and Texts"


3. The Globalizing Agenda of Contemporary Semiotics

In order to better specify the relationship between semiotics and the cognitive sciences, let us expand on our contemporaries. Twenty years apart, in the Sixties for semiotics, in the Eighties for cognitive research, two transdisciplinary movements, one on the basis of the social sciences, the other one sprouting off engineering, set out to lay their claims on the issue of meaning. Their creative difficulties, their fertile incapacity to achieve their ultimate goal could be paralleled today.2 However the parallel symmetry will be broken here, by questioning on the one hand the semiotic deficiency of the cognitive sciences, and on the other hand the hermeneutic failings of semiotics.
As the generative capacity of these disciplines grew with their claim to describe possibilities, they veered away from attested facts, with increasingly reductive methodological attempts and the vindication of partial models. No doubt the descriptive weakness of contemporary semiotics and cognitivism originate from a common transcendentalism: they purported to annex meaning through regressive basicism, by defining the a priori conditions of its articulation, by the elementary structures or the syntactic rules of a language of thought. This establishment results in making meaning and the cognition of it rest on a lame ontology, in fact the spontaneist ontology of logical positivism, never questioned as such, because it is laid out as the condition of any claim to scientificity. To make for science, it is required to reduce the object of study to its elements, and recombine them. This provides a rationale for our critique, in particular, of the concept of sign (as an element) in semiotics, and of that of syntax (as a combination) in cognitive sciences.

4. Semiotics and logico-grammatical problems

Perhaps the ambitions of contemporary semiotics have been thwarted because it defined its object in too restrictive a manner. Indeed semiotics presents itself in the form of a science of signs, and many works of semiotics are devoted to a typology of signs (Eco 1992). In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the Peircian definition of semiotics as a "doctrine of signs" (1956, p.98. Following Locke, p.415) enjoys great authority, and Sebeok, who has spent thirty years tending to the global academic destiny of semiotics, stresses that the key concept of semiotics is still that of the sign. Pap recently summarized the alleged agreement among semioticians when he affirmed that "semiotics is the study of signs" (1990, p.1).
The case would be settled if the sign were not an artifact manufactured by semioticians. On the one hand, its identification is the result of interpretation, not its starting point. In addition, in general, the semiotic practices do not play upon signs in isolation, but upon complex formations, whose segmentation is always problematic, and sometimes impossible. The definition of semiotics as a science of signs therefore fits with the logical and grammatical tradition, in particular the one inaugurated at the opening of Peri hermeneias, which still looms over the discipline. As we know, it is universalist, static, realistic, and relies on an ontology of substances. It seems that the sign's loneliness is the down-side of the self-containedness of its concept, to which it is subordinated.


1. In fact this periodisation merely points out climacteric media attention. Although they by and large ignored one another, the two currents borrowed from one another more than popular belief has it: in semantics, Schank's theory of primitives, and his theory of scripts, come from Greimas (who developed Pottier and Coseriu's theory of semes, in addition to Hjelmslev's theory of catalysis). Van Dijk and Kintsch's theory of text also reworks, impoverishing it in the process, Greimas's narrative theory. [RETURN]

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AS/SA Nº5, Article 4 : Page 6 / 27

© 1998, AS/SA

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