Monday, March 1, 2010

Umberto Eco on the relationship of signs to reality

"A sign function correlates a given expression to a given content. This content has been defined by a given culture irrespective of whether a given state of the world corresponds to it. 'Unicorn' is a sign as well as is 'dog'. The act of mentioning, or referring to,them is made possible by some indexical devices, and 'dog' can be referred to an individually existent object, whereas 'unicorn' cqannot. The same happens with the image of a dog and the image of a unicorn. Those which Pierce called iconic signs are also expressions related to a content; if they possess the properties of (or are similar to) something, this something is not the object or state of the world that could be referred to, but rather a structured and analytically organized content. The image of a unicorn is not similar to a 'real' unicorn; neither is recognized because of our experience of 'real' unicorns, but has the same features displayed by the definition of a unicorn elaborated by a given culture within a specific content system"
Umberto Eco The Role of the Reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts Bloomington:Indiana University Press,1984. pp 179
Eco then explains the ability of signs to lie and falsify. Because signs only relate to the object they describe vicariously, signs can project a false world. This isn't to say that language has no extensional capability, but that is firstly an internal system of codes, which may or may not be true.

Understanding signs only comes from navigating the enourmous encyclopaedia of possible meanings attached to each term, by grasping what sort of discourse it is used in. The universe of discourse stops the meaning of any representation from falling into an infinite regress.
quoting Pierce
"An unlimited universe would comprise the whole realm of the logically possible...Our discourse seldom relates to this universe: we are either thinking of the physical possible, or of the historical existent, or of the world of some romance, or of some other limited universe"
Nor can we reduce signs simply to their qualities and not their effects. Even perception takes place as a temporal sequence of sense and judgment.

After providing a long definition of lithium that goes beyond its atomic weight to the various interactions it has under experiments, Eco can answer the question
"How can one link a sign to an object, since in order to recognize an object one needs a previous experience of it and the sign does not furnish any acquaintance or recognition of the object? The answer is already given at the end of the definition of lithium: "the peculiarity of this definition- or rather this precept that is more servicable than a definition- is that it tells you what the word 'lithium' denotes by describing what you are to 'do' in order to gain a perceptual acquaintance with the object of the word" The meaning of a symbol lies in the class of actions designed to bring about certain perceptible effects" pp191

On this theory, if we want to understand the way Paul uses sacrificial imagery for his ethical instruction, we will need, at the very least, to live out the instruction he gives.

Eco outlines Pierces understanding of reality as Result rather than simply datum.

The final interpretation of a sign is the established 'habit', a regularity of behaviour.
"But the category of 'habit' has a double sense, a behavioural (or psychological) sense and a cosmological one...Therefore coming back to the definition of lithium, the final interpretation of it stops at the production of a habit in a double sense: there is the human habit to understand the sign as an operational precept, and there is the cosmological habit according to which there will always be lithium every time nature behaves in a certain way" pp 192

This view is sometimes sneered at as medieval realism, but Eco emphasises it's pragmatism, that the final interpretant is the way of acting or being in the world is changed by the exchange of signs. The objectivity of this pragmatism is that it is intersubjectively testable (at least for lithium).
By final, he doesn't mean chronologically final though, since these habits always create new signs, new systems of meaning.

Eco sums up

"A semantic theory can analyze the content of an expression in various ways: by finding out the equivalent expression in another semiotic substance (the image of a dog vs the word 'dog'); by finding out all the equivalent expressions in the same semiotic system (synonymy); by showing the possibility of mutual translation between different codes within the same semiotic substance (translation from one language to another); by substituting an expression with a more analytical definition; by associating to an expression all the emotional connotations conventionally recognized by a given culture and therfore specifically coded... But no semantic analysis can be complete without analyzing verbal expressions by means of visual, objectal, and behavioural interpretants, and vice versa"

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