Rastier, François: "On Signs and Texts"


In traditional cognitivism, the naturalization of meaning agenda is accompanied by the reduction of signs to signals, i.e. to low-level physical phenomena: bits in the compiler-model theories of cognition, spikes in neuronal theories.1 This reduction of signs to their signifiers gives a sense of naturalization, but that is not meaning, an issue which is simply conjured away.

1.2. Symbols

The text you are reading is without doubt composed of small black images, your comprehension is certainly accompanied by neuronal discharges, but the mediation between these two material orders is still a highly problematic one. The symbolic paradigm of cognitive research, and in particular the language of thought theory, have both tried to solve the problem by using only the logical concept of interpretation, and by ignoring its hermeneutic dimension. The study of the concept of symbol will enable us to specify how cognitivism went about that task.

(i) The semiotics of logical positivism

As disciplines specializing in the processing of symbols, computer science and its applied branch, Artificial Intelligence, should belong to the semiotic domain. But semiotic reflection is only presented there in a quite impoverished form from the theoretical point of view, the logico-positivist semiotics derived from Carnap and Morris. As a logical attempt, it turns out to only recognize one type of signs, logical symbols, or at least its goal is to assimilate all signs to such symbols (Montague 1974). Although it is a mentalist one, the so-called symbolic paradigm of cognitive research is just that. Its reductionism originates from the tendencies of the Vienna Circle, which gave birth to that form of semiotics.2
In keeping with this reductive goal, Morris provided a purely physical definition of what a sign is: "A particular physical event" (1971, p.96). Therefore positivism already practises physical reduction in the very definition of the sign it provides. We are going to explain how that material object can also be at the same time a logical construct, so that the strictures of logical positivism are observed.

(ii) The sign according to Hilbert and the symbol

Obviousness is one of the positivists' criteria.3 Hilbert's formal approach is a convincing case: "In mathematics [...] concrete signs themselves, whose form appears to us immediately and obviously, are the object of our examination" (1925, p.170-171. Ladrière 1957, p.3). Demonstrations then become "something concrete and locatable" (p.169). That would be possible if the signs had to be read only, but not to be interpreted.4 Hilbert's sign is identical to itself in all occurrences, its varying signifiers are without relevance. Its occurrences refer to only one entity (identical to itself). It is autonomous, because neither its signifier nor its referent are defined in relation with the rest of the formal system. The symbol does not take any part in paradigmatic substitution, because it is not inter-defined with others: it is simply distinct from them.
Let us recall that in the formal paradigm, some symbols are devoid of signification. Russell, for example (1903, VI, ¶51), considers that logical words (connectors and quantifiers) are by themselves empty of signification, and that the others "have one by the simple virtue of being symbols put for something other that themselves" (p.47). This is a well-known distinction, one that dates back to Aristotle __ who made a distinction between "articulations" in speech (arthron) and the noun and verb, whose signification is warranted by ontology. It was built into grammar in the Sixth century by Priscian, who distinguished the categorematic words from the syncategorematic ones, and has lived on until our days along with its grounding ontological postulates.


1. Even from the neurophysiological point of view, this is a reduction, because spikes are grouped into bursts. [RETURN]

2. It was a question of unifying all sciences on the single model of mathematical physics, according to what one called the unity of science hypothesis. Morris and Carnap delineated their program in the Encyclopaedia of Unified Science (1938). Unified Science translates the Einheitswissenschaft of the Circle of Vienna. [RETURN]

3. That is not a defining criterion, because the concept is used throughout various forms of non-critical intellectualism (see Thomas Aquinas's simplex apprehensio). [RETURN]

4. On the sign according to Hilbert, see Piotrowski (1994, p.58-59). Turing, in his foundational study when he expands on the immediate recognizability of symbols (1936, p.250), reaffirmed the fact that the symbol is self-evident because of simplex apprehensio. Admittedly, neither Hilbert nor Turing ever claimed that the definition of mathematical signs can be extended to the whole of signs. But Ladrière's general objection has remained unanswered: "the use of the formal method does not exempt mathematical thought to maintain contact with certain intuitions which precede formalization, and which formalization can merely help clarify" (1957, p.9). It will be the task of formal hermeneutics (Salanskis 1991). [RETURN]

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AS/SA Nº5, Article 4 : Page 8 / 27

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