Language, Culture, and Philosophy


How do words mean? How is meaning constructed? These seemingly innocent questions are lethal to the entire edifice of knowledge. If we imagine knowledge, not as wisdom, but as an architecture of writing, then the foundation of “truth” is undermined. The question becomes not what do we know but how do we write? If philosophy in the nineteenth century was about ideas, then philosophy in the twentieth century was about language or linguistics. We live in the aftermath of this “Linguistic Turn.”

This “turn” away from ideas and towards language meant that words, not things, would be examined in terms of how words, put together into speech acts and discourse, acquire meaning. Which philosopher marks this “turn,” when and where this “turn” took place depends upon which account is read and which definition of “linguistic turn” is used. Some have contended that German mathematician and philosopher, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, others think that the “turn” was British (or Anglo-Austrian) and was the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Perhaps it is best to think not in terms of “first” but in terms of the significance of what is a change in direction. As Richard Rorty said,

The picture of ancient and medieval philosophy as concerned with things, the philosophy of the seventeen through the nineteenth century as concerned with ideas, and the enlightened contemporary philosophical scene with words has considerable plausibility.

The linguistic turn is a concern about how language allows speech and under what linguistic conditions meaning is constructed. In other words, philosophy becomes fused with literary theory and knowledge become examined as the result of a social/cultural structure. The turn towards the study of the arts, visual and literary, through linguistic philosophy started with concerns with logic (analytic philosophy) and semiotics (the study of signs).

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

After this death, the students of Saussure recreated his lectures and published them as Cours de linguistique générale (1916). This act of devotion brought their teacher’s radical reconsiderations of the way in which meaning is formed. Saussure made a distinction between langue, that is the system, the institution, rules and norms, and parole, which is the actual manifestation of the system in speech, and writing. The philosopher made the distinction between rule and behavior and noted that meaning is bound up in this system of relationships and differences. Language is composed of a network of established significations and relativism is checked by a competent reader who has a sense of what one is reading towards. Langue is a Metadiscourse and parole is a specific text, and structuralism attempted to find and establish an almost scientific approach to de-coding signs and finding their meanings.

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism will specifically deny the basic precepts of Structuralism–its reliance on rules, its search for meaning and its bi-polar structure. Language is the rule and speech is the behavior. The system itself is synchronic as a functional whole and diachronic in its inevitable historical evolution. Saussure and his followers concentrated on the synchronic study of language that is examining the system as a whole as an abstract structure. The diachronic structure was left to others as this aspect of the structure changed with historical changes and was relative and ceaselessly in flux.

The Saussarian system is constructed on the basis of binary oppositions, which Saussure declared to be inherent in the language as a habit of thought that allowed any culture to order and sort out a vast heterogeneous field of elements into distinctions and differences. Structuralism, as a mode of analysis, studies signs within this network of relations. Meaning is bound up within a system of relationships based upon difference and relativism or individual interpretation/solipsism is checked by cultural competency or a sense of what one is reading towards.

Language competence is the ability to represent within a system of norms and rules. This system is one of relations and oppositions in which elements are defined in formal and differential terms. The units of language are modes of a series of differences or functional contrasts. These binary oppositions are inherent in language and this relational identity or dependent identity is crucial to language. For the signifier to express meaning, the signifier must differ from other signifiers and these differences are essential for the signs to work. The linguistic system can be defined as the place of the sign, which acquires meaning only within the system of differences.

Semiotics or semiology seeks the grounds of signifying processes. Structuralism is important because it does NOT seek the truth. There is no truth; there is no human subject. There are only codes or sign systems and it is these structures that produce meaning. Meaning is arbitrary and there is on necessary connection between these structures and “reality”. The revolution of semiotics is the undoing of the common sense link between the word and the thing. The “thing” can be “named” anything and can mean anything. Language, therefore, is not a window on reality, nor is it a mirror. Language is merely a network of signification. Furthermore, knowledge is structured by the systems of code. The structuralist discourse is a method designed to master and explain language and to create a universal grammar of narration.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

Peirce proposed a topology of signs organized into the icon, the index, and the sign, which is the combination of the significant and the signifié or of form and meaning. That the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary is one of the central insights of Structuralism. The arbitrariness of the mechanics that create the sign upsets the ancient notion that words were imbued with the qualities of their referent. Words and things become detached, and things can be known only through words, which in turn can function only within a system and only in terms of their differences. Peirce separated icons from signs by pointing out that icons are based upon actual resemblance, rather than arbitrary relationships, such as a portrait resembling the subject: a one to one relation.

These indexical signs are also mythic and change within the conventions of knowledge and the linguist reads these indices within this system of conventions. According to Peirce, all signs consist of a significant, which is the form, and of a significance, which is the meaning of the sign. All signs are fundamentally incomplete. The significance of one sign cannot be grasped by examining the sign on its own. Any sign acquires meaning only within a network of relations that presents an interpretant in the form of another sign. The sign’s meaning is developed within the system of language and the meaning is manifested through the use of the sign.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2000)

In Structural Anthropology (1958), this French scientist combined anthropology with linguistics, understanding signs to be combination of the signifier and the signified and as forms that were fundamentally incomplete. The signifier cannot be directly grasped but can be understood only in the form of another sign and meaning is determined through this development. All cultural phenomena are signs read by the inhabitants of the culture, but these inhabitants cannot function as subjects because meaning is bound up within the conventional structure. It has been said that Structuralism is Kantian thought without the transcendental subject or without to reasoning and rational human mind actively interpreting and creating reality. The Kantian subject is dissolved and becomes a passive, unwitting object upon which the linguistic system operates at will. The structural analysis refuses to consider a notion of “self” identified with consciousness and does not seek for external causes that make the “subject” as the explanatory cause.

Any object (even human objects) is defined/structured by its place in the system, but unlike form this structure has no content. Content itself is a logical organization and is the same nature as form. Form is only a way of organizing the particular structures that make up content; and meaning is only the effect of logical, intellectual structures by which the mind orders experiences. Following Kant, Lévi-Strauss proposed that the mind imposes form on raw materials and creates myth, which are forms of concrete logic composed of bundles of relations or sets of items. Organized in terms of binary oppositions–dark and light, good and evil–myths explain or reduce the often-frightening contradictions in the real world.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Jung united Freud and Structuralism into his concept of the “Collective Unconscious.” He recognized Freud’s concept of the dream but asserted that the unconscious remained unconscious. Although Jung understood that “dream-work” was an active process that included actions of displacement, condensation, symbolization and so on, he disagreed with Freud’s notion that these actions were actions of censorship. For Jung, dreams did not deceive but express. Dream thinking was simply an “older mode of thought” and the interpretation of dreams will show that the meanings are bound up in recognizable form. Dreams are like plays, they dramatize through plots and culminate in a climax. The manifest content of dreams, therefore, is drama. The latent content can be uncovered through free association, for dreams are self-portrayals in symbolic form. Dreams have a creative role to play in the total human psyche and are linked to the dreamer’s life.

Both Jung and Freud considered mind and body to be linked. For Jung the psyche functioned in terms of archetypes that are inscribed in the body and are genetically transmitted. These archetypes are unconscious pre-dispositions. In the Kantian sense, archetypes are a priori conditions for actual experience, or, to put it another way, archetypes organize experiences. Archetypes are models or primordial types or ideas that act as originals or exemplars. Jung was talking about cognitive structures that were congenital structures that produced patterns of behavior.

The image, which is symbolic, is the functional form of this system and can be described as a typical situation into which energy is released. Image approaches instinct. Symbols manifested in images necessarily emerge from archetypes which, being universal, are part of the collective unconscious. It is not so much that we can read each other’s symbols but that we can read the instinct to make symbols. Once these symbols are decoded, the archetypal foundation of these forms will be revealed.

Freud and Jung corresponded but disagreed on what determined the nature of the human psyche but they were part of a philosophical mindset that sought to set out what Jean-François Lyotard would call a “grand narrative.” For Freud the engine of his grand narrative was sexual energy, for Jung the engine was the organizational capacities of archetypes. Also writing philosophy during this period was Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), a Neo-Kantian philosopher and Kantian interpreter, who would bring a number of these ideas together into his three volume (1923-29), Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which incorporates art as a language of symbolic forms that had to be interpreted.

Cassirer worked with Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) at the University of Hamburg. These three scholars were the Hamburg School and were interested in the historical evolution of “symbolic forms.” Warburg applied the notion of psychological archetypes of art and searched for recurring images and recurring symbols that returned eternally in art as symptoms of the unconscious. Panofsky applied the notion of the Kantian mind actively constructing culture to works of art and attempted to read art according to the teachings of structuralism, especially that of Saussure whom he had read.

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