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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary


José Augusto Mourão

 The concept of ‘meaning’ in semiotics is indefinable because meaning is associated indissolubly with signification and direction, and it is for this very reason that the task of semiotics contributes to the enrichment of the effective degree of intelligibility of the world that surrounds us, or at least, to the reorientation of the way to question it: “why do things have a meaning?” The idea of the construction (of meaning) is core to semiotic theory. Meaning exists only as the result of a construction made by subjects “in situation.” All meaning is the effect of an application. 

Keywords: code; sign; symptom; signal; symbolic; language

How does a sign acquire meaning? Where does meaning come from? How pertinent is the distinction: signification vs. meaning? Is meaning a contextual phenomenon? Can meaning be spoken about as a signification deformed by the context? As interpretation? Theories about meaning are numerous. The majority of these theories step off from the axiom of conventionality. As if there were some prior agreement to some communication, and as if the existence of a code were imposed, in an imperative way, on the various partners of the exchange. Whatever takes place before convention is made is relegated to the shadow. The question which remains is this: how does meaning emerge from experience? There are two answers to this in western philosophy: idealist type answers (these are the concepts that are within us and which make things exist), and empiricist type answers (it is the existence of things which make concepts emerge in us). There is a third type of answer which Jean-Marie Klinkenberg calls interactionist. This answer states that meaning comes from an interaction between stimuli and models, which supposes a back and forth from the world to the semiotic subject and from the semiotic subject to the world. Here is an example of how stimuli are seen with respect to the model that we use: I see a being and I place it in the category “living” which I have elaborated for myself or which someone else has done for me, then I place the being into the category “animal” or even into the category “dog”. In another movement, it is the model which is modified by the data which perception and observation furnish (I believe that all animals that live in the water are “fish,” but new observations indicate that fish – a whale or a dolphin – have features that place them closer to other animals, which forces me to reorganise the category “fish” as well as the category which would include the whale.) The originality of this model deals with the corporality of the sign: our body is a physical structure subject to the laws which Biology studies and undertakes, and yet it is also a living structure which has a phenomenological existence.[1]
There are other ways to respond to this question, linking it either to intentionalist conceptions of the spirit, to the question of holism and to the institutions of sense (Decrosse, 1993) or to a social anthropology of meaning through the theories of communication, of diverse semiotics and pragmatics, or to the epistemology of the sciences (Sallatin, 1996). For Pierre Jacob a realist of intentionality and a materialist monist, the question of meaning can be summarised in this small excerpt: “To think is to represent. Thus a representation is a mental entity and mental entities are neurological entities. A cerebral state can have not just physical, chemical and biological properties, but also semantic properties” (Jacob 1997).

We call the relationing of something with another thing ‘meaning’ in that the second thing is aware of the first. Thus race would explain Man, the story of a given gesture, or Evil, the people, the individual, etc. The logic of meaning is a logic of the relations that function according to universal principles (principles of identity, contradiction, of the third-party excluded). The meaning elevates the generality. It always consists of a perception or the reading of a generalness. Meaning is subject to the objectivity of the rule and all meaning is the effect of an application. [2]
For Pelc, the term meaning is used semiotically when linked to some type of sign, not just to words, propositions and texts but also to symptoms, signals, symbols, representative paintings or sculptures. On the other hand, meaning also linked to non-signs, such as existence, sacrifice, life or history. Thus, this author distinguishes between three types of non-semiotic meaning: 1) finitist concepts which include intentional, teleological, and functional concepts of the meaning, 2) explicative concepts which include motivational, causal and genetic concepts, and 3) axiological concepts which are evaluation-oriented.[3] In the typology of implicit meaning, the presupposed, the understood and rhetorical meanings are present. The implicit meanings are not autonomous since they are the result of pragmatic bonds established amongst the various significations in which at least one is considered explicit and which all are the product of inferential calculation.

For those who work in the social sciences (history, sociology, law, political science and communications), it is inevitable that texts, objects, facts are made to speak, interpreting documents, monuments or behaviours, in sum, building or rebuilding the signification from actions or works which have surpassed the respective domains of investigation. The work of the sociologist, jurist, historian, etc. goes through problemisation, analysis or manipulation of that which constitutes the very theoretical object of semiotics because meaning is associated indissolubly with signification and direction, and it is for this very reason that the task of semiotics contributes to the enrichment of the effective degree of intelligibility of the world that surrounds us, or at least, to the reorientation of the way to question it: “why do things have a meaning?” The concept of meaning in semiotics is indefinable. In the Dictionnaire of Greimas and Courtés, meaning may be considered either as something that permits the operations of paraphrase or transcodification, or that which deepens human activity as intentionality. Before manifesting under the form of articulated signification, nothing can be said about meaning unless metaphysical presuppositions [4] are allowed to interfere. L. Hjelmslev proposes an operatory definition of meaning, identifying it as first “material” or as “support” in all semiotics as form manifests itself. Here meaning is synonymous with “material”. Hjelmslev has refined Saussure’s theory insisting on the fact that the two planes brought together in a semiotic function were, above all, affective or conceptual substances, biological or physical, which would correspond to Saussure’s “acoustic images” and “conceptual images.” The joining converts them into forms: the form of expression and the form of content. J. Fontanille advances the hypothesis according to which the process of values formation corresponds exactly to the passage of substance into form: substance is sensitive, form is intelligible. “Substance is the place of intentional tensions, of affections and of the variations of extension and quantity; form is the place of systems of values and interdefined positions” (Fontanille, 1988: 39). J. Courtés gives the example of the material continuum that is a “tree”, even if evoking the image of “roots”, “trunk”, “branches,” etc. To represent it metonymically presupposes the choice of a particular point of view which does not take into account, for example, the continuous circulation of the tree sap from one extreme point of the tree to the other (Courtés, 1995: 27). In modern semiotics, it is the form of a language which organises the continuum of experience through the categories of its semantics, syntax and morphology; therefore, there is no form that is not manifest by a substance, and for its part, no substance that can appear without being “formed”. Substance is the fleshy and pulsing texture of our existence. Without form, the affective colouration of experience would remain absolutely inexpressible. In the German hermeneutics of Lights, there is a distinction between Sinn (signification) and Bedeutung (meaning). Signification defines itself as a stable form, independent or slightly dependent on the context whereas the meaning varies with the contexts and is not defined relative to an isolated sign. Frege’s thesis that the signification determines the denotation is testament of this: “it is natural to associate to a sign (…), beyond that which can be called the signification of the sign (Sinn) in which is contained the object’s mode giving” (Brandt, 1993:134). Signification is, first, mediatised by a semiotic structure, not just in the sense that the latter is a bridge between two previous structures, the subjective and the objective, but in the sense that it is the condition of possibility of all signification (Cassirer, 1975, vol. 3, pg. 86). “The meaning of an expression is its use” has constituted, since Wittgenstein, a leitmotiv of the philosophy of language that has been widely interpreted because “use” is defined as much by the distributionalist registry of occurrences and their contexts as by the conditions in which an expression is inserted in communicative schemes. F. Rastier asks the question of meaning and signification inside two problematics: the logical-grammatical problematic and the rhetorical-hermeneutic problematic which preside over the interpretation of its occurrences. Meaning is not granted by a previous coding, which would strictly associate a signifier and a signified or a class of signifieds: it is produced in pathways that discretise and unify the signifieds amongst themselves, passing as signifiers (Rastier, 1996).

Meaning and signification do not pre-exist our being in the world and our action. Against the temptation of the ontology of signification, semiotics places the meaning, not at the headwaters (as if a river) but at the mouth of our interactions with the world, with our fellow man and with ourselves. Coherence and intelligibility of discourses is wrapped in an ordered enunciative activity of which the discursive structure is the simulation, deemed in no way dependent on a structure of signification prior to that of manifestation. If it is true that “linguistics suffers gravely from methodological nominalism,” as Per A. Brandt mentions, “meaning, this indefinable element of linguistics, can perfectly orient the meta-stability of a science which aims at the human competency of symbolization (verbal, gestural, figurative, and even mental) (Brandt, 2001:3). Greimas foresaw this tension between meaning and non-meaning from the first pages of Du sens: “It is extremely difficult to speak of meaning and say something sensible about it. To do so properly, the only way would be to construct a language that does not mean to be anything: thus we would mark an objectivising distance which would allow us to sustain discourses deprived of meaning about sensible discourses” (Greimas, 1970: 7). We might wonder what losses are involved in semiotics which neglect the relation of lexicon with the thing and with the sender’s “I meant to say”; which separates the notion of “meaning” as a conceptual construction beginning with a context, and that of “signification”, in suspension as the relation with a thing. The model of the sign which has only two terms has condemned thought on the meaning of binarism: two sides of the same sheet. At the same time, a fundamental question has been eliminated: that of constructing a “real”. The crisis of the notion of sign expresses itself in France and in the field of philosophical reflection, in the 1970s. It appears today that any damage repair can only be done outside the Saussurean inheritance. Peirce founded semiotics branding it the fundamental theoretical axis: that of relations amongst the production of meaning, the construction of the real and the functioning of society. Peirce’s ternary model is better adapted for pondering the question of meaning. Here, the subject reencounters his world and his body at the same time. And meaning, its social nature. Peirce’s theory, analytical and inferential, is applied not only to that which makes sense but also to everything which “perturbs the spirit”. All abductive interpretation stems from an enigma. It is this theory which allows us to distinguish a primary dimension in any interpretable element – “corpuscular” as opposed to another of an “ondulatory” nature (Y. Almeida, 1994). Following the suggestion of I. Almeida, we can call the semiotic relation of the corpuscular type “signification” and the semiotic relation of the ondulatory type “meaning”. The description of signification always supposes an inferential enigma whereas the description of meaning can be simply diagrammatical. In conclusion: “if the meaning does not exist to be picked up (as a buried treasure would be when someone goes digging for it on the surface) it is because, in all cases, it has yet to be constructed”. To semiotically analyse the texts (for example, politicians), the images (for example, advertising) or collective practices (the internal dynamics of how a trend spreads, the way an electoral campaign is played out, the formation of a ritual, etc.) is not “to discover” or “to reveal” meaning in them because this meaning is never entirely given beforehand nor is it ended once and for all. Meaning exists only as a result of a construction performed by the subjects “in situation”. It is this construction of meaning and of the subjects which constitutes the object of socio-semiotics, for example.



[1] Jean-Marie Klinkenberg, Précis de sémiotique générale, Points, De Boeck Université, 1996.

[2] Jean Luc Nancy, Le sens du monde, Paris, Galilée, 1993, p. 109.

[3] J. Pelc, “Semiotic and nonsemiotic concepts of meaning”, American Journal of Semiotics 1. 4, 1982, p. 1-2.

[4] A. J. Greimas, J. Courtés, Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage, Paris, Hachette Université, 1979, p. 348.

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