Tuesday, December 04, 2007



Is the "Signifier" Arbitrary?



Anyone interested in linguistics will know that for Ferdinand Saussure, the father of modern structuralism, post-structuralism and semiotics, there existed a "signifier" and "signified": the "signifier" was the linguistic term or phrase used to convey meaning and the "signified" was the object referred to. However, that is not quite true. Saussure bracketed the referent (or "thing-in-itself") and declared that the "signifier" referred not to something in the real world, but to a concept in our minds. This is to say, that for Saussure, the linguistic phrase was representative of our "idea" of reality--but not necessarily reality as it really is. For example, we know very well what a corner is--but where does a corner begin and end? Our perception tells us one thing, but possibly the reality is something else. For these reasons of verification, Saussure avoided saying that the signified is an object in the real world: on the contrary, the signified is only a concept in our own minds. The signifier, for Saussure was "arbitrary", in the sense that there was no necessary connection between the linguistic phrase and the thing or idea represented. For example, "a house" could just as easily be called "a shoe" as long as everyone accepted the new meaning ("A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" as Shakespeare puts it).

In his "Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus" Ludwig Wittgenstein proposes the idea that language has a common logic with reality. Admittedly, he eventually renounced this point of view--but is there any way in which Saussure's theories about epistemology could be interpreted as supporting this early Wittgenstinian idea? It would certainly seem that the theories involved are mutually exclusive, as if language is "arbitrary" there can be no common logic between it and reality. However, the earlier point about Saussure "bracketing the referent" becomes vital here. If the signifier does not refer to a real thing, but to a concept in our minds, then it may be possible to assume that though language does not share a common logic with reality, it does have a common logic with our perception of reality (which might be constructed from Chomsky's "universal grammar"?). Furthermore, if our perception of reality portrays a more or less "true reality" then we might reasonably say that language shares its logic with reality. Of course, the objection would be: "To what extent does our perception of reality reflect reality as it really is?" Personally, I believe that all living creatures perceive the world more or less as it truly is: this is necessary for survival in an often hostile environment.

Was Wittgenstein possibly wrong to discard his early model?

5 Comments:

Anonymous The Iconic One said...

Nice attempt to tie in Saussure, Chomsky and Wittgenstein in a single unified theory.

10:21 AM  
Blogger pluto85 said...

So true!

12:22 PM  
Blogger options07 said...

Hi John. To start in the deep end, Chomsky only talks about universal syntax, it's Ray Jakendorf who extends this to universal semantics. It would be great to find that the mind conforms to 'reality' in some way, but perhaps Kant is right here and it's the phenomenal world that we shape through our perception. Apropos, the 'thing in itself' is not the referent but once again in Kant the underlying real things behind the phenomenon. Schopenhauer calles him on this and riposts that there can only be one such 'ding an sich', which he calls the noumenon, and the Hindus call Brahman.
Anyhow, welcome to the other side of the frence, John. If you give up on the arbitrariness of the sign, you are persona non grata among the PoMos!

1:32 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

Thanks, Mark. Our categories, particularly in science and mathematics, do seem to have a bond with reality: perhaps language does too? I am not convinced about the arbitrariness of language.

1:58 AM  
Blogger V. M. Lucas Lindegaard said...

I completely agree that «all living creatures perceive the world more or less as it truly is [because] this is necessary for survival» (I am a realist), but different living creatures perceive the same world in different ways, depending on their sensory-cognitive mechanisms. We do not hear certain sounds or see certain things that do exist in reality, and other animals can hear or see, for example. This is completely independent of language. Animals with extremely limited communicational possibilities, that hardly could be called language, still perceive the world more or less as it is.

I have never read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus. Without a context, the idea that «language has a common logic with reality» is weird. It all depends, of course, on what is meant by “reality” and “logic” (and ultimately “language” as well, although this last definition seems less problematic…). If the logic of reality is, for example, that the price of a given product depends on the relationship between supply and demand, does that mean that language has the same logic? What are we talking about?

«If language is “arbitrary” there can be no common logic between it and reality». This sentence is also very strange to me. “Arbitrary” (as it is used by Saussure and, more generally, by linguists) means that there is no reason other than convention to establish a relationship between a given sequence of sounds and a meaning (call it a “concept in our minds”, if you want, but the meaning of a word is not really a concept). It means that there is no more reason to call a rabbit kanin than coelho…

There are no “Saussure’s theories about epistemology”. Saussure was not interested in how we know the world, he was only trying to establish the bases for the scientific study of language. The compilation of notes from his students, which are the only document we have of his thought, were published as Cours de linguistique générale, not as Cours d’épistémologie générale. You say: «for Saussure, the linguistic phrase was representative of our “idea” of reality – but not necessarily reality as it really is». This is also very strange. First of all, why “the linguistic phrase”? Aren’t all the phrases linguistic? But when does Saussure speak about “phrases”? The way you put it, it would seem that the phrase is the basic linguistic unit, and that was never stated by Saussure (nor by anyone else, as far as I know). But the most important is that it is not the adequacy of our “ideas” to “reality” that interests Saussure. Bracketing the referent is saying that the word dog does not bite, and that studying dogs is the object of zoology, but studying the word dog is the object of linguistics: it has specific phonetic, syntactic and semantic properties that are not those of canines, but that it shares with (Saussure would say instead “that make it different from”) other English nouns. [Besides, referent is a very tricky word. In linguistics, referent is an entity in the world that a noun or a set of nouns refer to. Most of the words in most of the sentences have no referent. For instance, the noun “glass” in the sentence “this is s glass” has no referent as such. I am not sure, though, that this clear for Saussure…]

It could be that “language has a common logic with our perception of reality”. Not because it shapes it, as some naively have proposed, but perhaps because it reflects same basic mental operations or hardwired categories. It is very difficult to know exactly what parts of language do reflect our perception of the world, but it could be that some categories of natural languages like causality, consequence, agency, identification, differentiation, for example, do express basic operations of the human mind... This is a fascinating area for research and there is research being done in that area. But it is for sure that there is no connection between, for instance, our perception of the world and ascribing a notion a certain part of speech or a gender – very often, the same predication can be made using a verb, a noun, or even a preposition phrase as its nucleus, and that we use one or the other part of speech changes also from language to language: both I am thirsty and j’ai soif reflect the same perception of reality; that the sun is feminine in German and masculine in Castilian does not tell us absolutely nothing about “our perception of reality”; and that a language is SOV or VSO does not relate either to the way reality is perceived. Etc.

Now, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to understand what Chomsky’s “universal grammar” does here in the middle of all this. As mentioned in another comment, it has nothing to do with “perception of the world”. What Chomsky says is that we have an innate linguistic structure in our brain that can accommodate all human languages, and that structure is obviously, for him, a syntactic one. Chomsky’s theory has always had a strong syntactic bias, and although it has evolved a lot, that “obsession” persists (see the “recursion only” discussion). The attempts to introduce semantics in the theory, like Jackendoff and others did, never really went very far, at least in the sense that they never had much explanatory power...

All in all, I find that some examples of what you really mean could help the reader understand what your point is. And I apologize for my poor English.

5:57 AM  

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