Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Most modern philosophers seem to agree that there is no direct relationship between the Saussurean "signifier" and "signified". First, there is a sound (word or signifier) that, in the mind of the subject, connects with the object or idea "signified". It is a mental process of signification then that in no way connects with the logic of the real world. This was a conclusion reached by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in the latter part of his life. His "Philosophical Investigations" proposed the idea of multiple logics the rules of which were often mutually exclusive. Wittgenstein gives the famous example of the boy who goes to the shop with a note from his mother; on the note is written: "Six red apples". First, the shopkeeper opens the drawer marked "apples", then he consults a colour chart and finally he counts six. The point of the story is to demonstrate that there are three different kinds of logic even to a simple statement like this. The French philosopher Michael Foucault also speaks of "multiple subjectivities" in his work echoing the German philosopher Niezsche. For Foucault, knowledge is fragmentary and often more significant in its omissions and contradictions than its affirmative statements. In this context, he developed the idea of multiple discourses each with its own rules and truth foundation. Internally each discourse is logical, but this logic disappears when confronted with the logic of another discourse. The ideas of both Wittgenstein and Foucault tend to lead in the direction of a moral and linguistic relativism: one can be logical only within the limits of one's own discourse.

This leads me on to my theme of what I call modern "metalanguages". It is amazing how many fields operate their own special language within which a particular logic is utilised; outsiders who don't understand the particular language and logic employed will probably find the field unintelligible (nor will they easily be understood). Marxism would be one obvious example of a metalanguage: everything is seen from the perspective of sopme key principles that animate all linguistic content. Key words in the discourse might be: exploitation, class struggle, dialectic, capitalism, etc. Another discourse would be Catholicism where key concepts such as: resurrection, after life, hell, damnation and prayer will permeate every discourse. Of course these are two obvious and easy discourses, but every academic discipline also has its metalanguage. These days, it is difficult to talk of literature, for example, without reference to postcolonialism, contact zones, structuralist and poststructuralist ideas, deconstructionism, semiotics, etc. Furthermore, most scientific discourses possess their own metalanguages which are often indecipherable to outsiders and sometimes interenally contradictory (for example there is the current debate concerning macro and micro physics).

Perhaps the eventual outcome of this process of "discorsification" will be to set people more at odds with each other than ever before: everybody is right within the confines of his/her own discourse or metalanguage and there is no absolute authority that is going to back up any of them. On the other hand, it's just possible that, given the right perspective, people could become more tolerant of the other's point of view knowing that truth is not absolute but a construct of interactive discourse.


Anonymous Barthes said...


2:28 AM  
Blogger ely said...

Most thought provoking!

12:26 PM  
Blogger options07 said...

John, you say " it's just possible that people could become more tolerant of the other's point of view knowing that truth is not absolute but a construct of interactive discourse."

Try telling that to the prisoners of conscience in China, Burma, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. People who stand up for democratic ideals, for freedom and human rights and are abused, imprisoned and killed for their misguided absolutism. How much easier it would be for them to say "Truth" is just a relative construct.

6:23 AM  

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