Possible Worlds and Premature Sciences

Roger Scruton

  • The Role of the Reader by Umberto Eco
    Indiana, 384 pp, £10.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 253 11139 0
  • The Semiotics of the Built Environment by Donald Preziosi
    Indiana, 192 pp, £9.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 253 17638 7

Semiotics, semiology, hermeneutics, structuralist criticism – so many labels, but how many things? If there are distinctions here, they seem to be largely hereditary. The term ‘semiotic’ comes from C.S. Peirce, ‘semiology’ from Saussure. ‘Structuralism’ has meant one thing in anthropology, another in linguistics; its application to literary theory comes partly through the work of Propp and the Russian formalists. ‘Hermeneutics’ once indicated the nice interpretation of Biblical texts; now it denotes the nice interpretation of everything. In all these things, however, the niceties seem to be the same: technicality at the expense of theory, analysis at the expense of content, intensity at the expense of depth – in short, ‘vain babblings and oppositions of science, falsely so called’ (I Timothy vi, 20). And yet, wherever literature is taught, students have to perceive it through the veil of this new scholasticism, their observations muddled by technicalities borrowed from a thousand premature sciences, distracted by ‘methods’ which regard Mickey Mouse and the Mona Lisa, Superman and King Lear, advertising jingles and the works of Schoenberg, as equally legitimate objects of inquiry. Is this movement a reaction against critical moralism, expressed with a hesitancy so great that only massive recourse to technicality can prevent it from knowledge of its impotence? Or is it the first step towards some new critical method, a method sufficiently general as to assign an interpretation to everything that could be regarded as a ‘sign’?

Those questions are crucial for the future of literary education in our universities. Any answer to them must begin by recognising the uncertainty in a movement which now advances behind the banner of scientific inquiry, now slips sideways into the smoke of literary rhetoric. This uncertainty arises from the attempt to combine three independent enterprises, the first modest, the second speculative, the third rooted in fallacy.

The first is the quest for ‘levels’ of meaning in literary and other works. A poem may allow several readings (literal, allegorical, metaphorical, and so on), which develop with its movement, and take their structure from the narrative which unites them. Dante, in the Convivio, describes four such ‘levels’ of meaning, and the tradition which he exemplifies has continued to the present day. In particular, it can be seen in the French explication de texte, whether dressed in its old, cold, surgical garments, or fitted out in the latest jargon of linguistics. Thé method of much ‘structuralist’ criticism is that of Dante, the method of stepwise analysis, designed to reveal layers of meaning concealed within the enclosure of a ‘text’. The difference lies in a lust on the part of the structuralist for meanings which the author would not have recognised.

Semiotic and structuralist criticism also have their roots in a widespread speculation according to which scientific inquiry does not exhaust the modes of human understanding, being unable to describe the world as we experience it. We stand to this world (the Lebenswelt) in a relation not of observation but of ‘belonging’. From Kantian metaphysics and 19th-century anthropology arose the idea that a peculiar mode of understanding is reserved for this ‘human world’, a mode of understanding (Verstehen) which would show to be fraught with meaning what science displays as ‘neutral’ and ‘meaning-free’. Meaning belongs to human acts and gestures; it also lies dormant in the world. Perhaps, then, there is a general method that will reveal the meanings of things. Such a method will be unconcerned with explanation and prediction, but it will be of universal significance nevertheless, relating us to artifacts, to art, to things and to one another in a way that restores the centrality of human thought and action. It may even re-create that necessary illusion which scientific explanation took away, the illusion of human freedom.

The third intellectual motive behind this kind of criticism contradicts such speculations. If it is combined with them, it is because the seekers after ‘human’ understanding have been reluctant to relinquish, in their pursuit of it, the authority and objectivity of science. Hence there has emerged the desire for a ‘general science of signs’, or semiology. Without the assumption that such a general science is possible, the repeated borrowings from the technicalities of linguistics in order to describe the many things that are fashionably labelled ‘signs’ is nothing but a kind of alchemy, conjuring the illusion of method in the absence of the fact of it.

The idea of a general science of signs is, I think, rooted in fallacy. What makes a science? There is a science of fish because fish are similarly constituted, obey similar laws, have a discoverable essence, over and above the evident facts which lead us so to label them. (Fish constitute a ‘natural kind’.) Buttons, by contrast, have no such essence, and no common identity besides the function which we already know. There can be no general science of the constitution of buttons: if there is a science of buttons, it is a science of their function. Now signs are clearly more like buttons than like fish, and a general science of signs will therefore be a science not of constitution but of function. But what is this function? Semiology refers us to language, road signs, facial expressions, food, clothes, photography, architecture, heraldry, basket-weaving, music. Are all these ‘signs’ in the same sense, or in any sense? The word ‘sign’ means many things, and points to many functions. Do we suppose that a cloud signifies rain in the way that Je m’ennuie signifies that ‘I am bored’? Of course not, since no cloud can have the function of a sentence. From a, scientific point of view, one suspects that there is not one thing here but thousands. What is common is only a small feature of the surface of each, usually as familiar to us as the function of buttons. If there is a common essence of ‘signs’ it is sure to be very shallow; semiology pretends that it is deep.

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