Monday, May 22, 2006

Symbolic Representation

Ok, I know I said I wasn't going to mess around with epistemology anymore, but I need a couple of neither/and posts to act as a segue into my next series.

Through the past couple of posts, I talked about how we gather raw data and tried to suggest how we should organize it. There's another aspect to our rational interaction with the world, however. After all, we need to be able to communicate our judgments to others.

After St. Augustine and before the 14th or 15th centuries, the Christian theologians/philosophers of Europe saw reality as a series of "books" to be read. There was the word itself - the Bible - but there was also the "book of nature." Nature was a series of symbols of God; not God himself, but simulations.

That view fell away for several centuries, but was partly resurrected in the 20th century by European philosophers. Starting with Martin Heidegger in 1929, hermeneutics - the study of how humans interact with symbols - began to be used as a path into human existence as such. That turn is largely responsible for the maligned monstrosity known as "postmodernism."

So the idea - and I think it's a nifty one - is that symbols, specifically meaning language - mediate our relationship to both ourselves and our world. Put another way, language is not only our mouth, but it is also our hands and eyes.

Because language has come to be seen as the medium of our rational relationship to both ourselves and our environment, studying it was one of the major philosophical preoccupations of the 20th century. There were repercussions for epistemology, ontology and even ethics. Jacques Derrida, arch-deconstructionist, sent the world into a tizzy with things like "the trace" and "differance." Other writers - from Nietzsche to Levinas to Foucault - have traced the many pitfalls and quandaries found in language. One of the most significant writers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once considered that the whole work of philosophy was a battle against the deceptions of language.

When we are trying to hold a discussion about any particular topic - from chemicals to the nature of love - we have to do so using the symbolic framework of language. This is because the topic of conversation is not simply a "given." (I'm wishing I had written some of the previous posts differently, because now I realize I may have seriously miscommunicated.)

This is a ridiculously abstract concept that took me a long time to understand: language does not point to it's object, but rather stands in for it's object. Any topic of conversation - from this laptop to the Trinity - is not immediately present to the speaker or writer.

This is not to malign the five senses, but merely to point out that sense data must be formed into a particular shape - and since my brain doesn't actually turn into a chair when I am thinking about chairs, it must use a symbol. A re-presentation. The five senses are purely physical tools; animals have the five senses. What they do not have is the rational ability to express and communicate, and that is linguistic.

It isn't only sense data that needs to be formed into a particular shape - the abstractness of our subconscious and imago also requires representation. We have to use language to make ourselves intelligible to ourselves. In the academic lingo, language mediates our self-presence to ourselves.

There are two topics I'm interested in. I'm going to try to discuss both in this single post.

The first is the hermeneutic circle. I think this term is an apt description of a large portion of human interaction with the world. Simply put, we affect the world, and the world affects us. We come to a situation or a written text; governed by whatever factors, we are affected. We act and affect the situation, or we re-read the text through a slightly different set of eyes. The situation is different, or our reading of the text is different. We affect the situation again, or we read the text again - each time, we are changed and our perception is changed. That is part of our constant engagement with the world; our perceptions and representations (and therefore our rational considerations) of the world are constantly being nudged however slightly.

The second is the question of meaning in language. Does a particular text mean one thing, and if so, what is the authority governing that meaning? Or perhaps any text can have a practically limitless number of meanings?

One could say that the meaning of a particular text is self-evident; this necessarily implies the belief that language points to something beyond itself. It is the belief that language stands for its object, not that it stands in for the object. This, however, has several problems. One, it denies the nature of language as mediator, leaving us without a seemingly necessary tool. Two, it has serious practical problems: I dare anyone to point me to a single non-technical text that people don't differ in their interpretations over. This second point is explained in various ways, and that can be left to various posts.

One could say that authorial intent governs the meaning of a text. However, the only thing the reader has access to is the text. We aren't mind readers. Authorial intent, by definition, resides within the author. Another problem with this is that it assumes that the author always says what she means, and means what she says. One, this conflicts with our common experience of being frustrated that we can't properly express ourselves. We can't properly express ourselves because we are trying to interpret something abstract within us.

Which is not to say that I'm denying the existence of authorial intent - obviously I'm trying to convey particular ideas. But this expression - of my ideas - is necessarily an interpretation of myself. I am forcing an abstraction into the external, cultural created and transmitted medium of language. This is an inevitable difference - however fine - between my words and my intent. Authorial intent exists, and in a certain context, it should most certainly guide the content of a discussion about a text. It must simply be recognized that my intent is not the final authority over the meaning of this text, and the attempt to deny this is futile. Just look at the comments in this post for a good example.

So how is communication possible at all? Even if the meaning of a text slides around a little, we still manage to communicate effectively. Why are architectural plans worth a damn? How come scientific texts - symbols though they are - are so useful in understanding and manipulating the physical world? It certainly appears as if certain forms of language - ie, mathematics - really do escape the inevitable slide of meaning.

It's all about context. Mathematics exist in an extremely narrow band of symbols; these symbols are rigidly controlled and no ambiguity is really possible. This does not mean that meaning lies within the numbers themselves - they still stand in for something - but what they stand in for is tiny and regulated by the community mathematicians. Math holds a lot in common with more traditional forms of language, and I'll talk about that in future posts.

Other, less precise texts - from prose to poetry - will inevitable slide more than math. The hermeneutic circle more blatantly affects these types of texts, and so there is a great deal more disagreement over "meaning."

There are not infinite possibilities for meanings in a text, however. Language is a social construct, and so its limits are socially constructed. No one individual can act as if the English language held a series of meanings only for him; the attempt to have an entirely person language is just as futile as having a personal currency. The value of the dollar is socially constructed, and it is in constant flux, but always within a context.

No text - other than math or computer languages - will ever mean one thing. Its meaning will always (again with the lingo) "differ" and "be differed." Possible meanings are not infinite in number. So there's a tension there - and the only way you can deal with it is to carefully tread the hermeneutic circle.

Which is all to say: stuff is complicated.

Ok, I think that's an adequate into to semiotics. Not terribly academic, but I'll take whatever license for mediocrity that self-publishing on the net provides.

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