LINGUIST List 28.4871
Mon Nov 20 2017
Review: Philosophy of Language; Semantics: Solomonick (2017)
Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <clarelinguistlist.org>
Kristin Terrill <kterrill
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/28/28-2055.html
AUTHOR: Abraham Solomonick
TITLE: From Semiotics towards Philosophical Metaphysics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
REVIEWER: Kristin Terrill, Iowa State University
REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry
Over a century after the death of its most recognized founder, Ferdinand de Saussure, semiotics can hardly be conceived as a burgeoning science. Yet, as Daniel Chandler wryly notes in his primer, ‘Semiotics: The Basics’: “If you go into a bookshop and ask an assistant where to find a book on semiotics, you are likely to meet with a blank look. Even worse, you might be asked to define what semiotics is – which would be a bit tricky if you were looking for a beginner’s guide. It’s worse still if you do know a bit about semiotics, because it can be hard to offer a simple definition which is of much use in the bookshop. If you’ve ever been in such a situation, you’ll probably agree that it’s wise not to ask. Semiotics could be anywhere” (Chandler, 2007). Situated uncomfortably between anthropology, linguistics, and philosophy, semiotics retains a reputation as arcane, if not abstruse. A doctor of applied linguistics, Abraham Solomonick has, in his late career, taken on the mantle of a semiotician. He believes that establishing semiotics as a scientific pursuit in its own right, rather than as a topic of interest in philosophy or a sub-field for scholars in other branches of science, will make it more useful for empirical research and thus, less bemusing to bookshop owners.
In his first English-language book, ‘A Theory of General Semiotics,’ Solomonick proposed a model for analyzing signs and sign-systems that could be applied universally, i.e. to any exploration of meaning and communication, regardless of its nature or purpose. In this follow-up monograph, titled ‘From Semiotics towards Philosophical Metaphysics,’ Solomonick diverts his attention from science to philosophy, and explores the potential contributions of the science of semiotics to questions of metaphysics. The motivation for this book, as Solomonick explains in the preface, is to situate his general theory relative to existing semiotic frameworks. The key element that differentiates Solomonick’s theory from the major theorists in this field (Solomonick specifically references Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles W. Morris, and Charles S. Pierce) is the construct of “semiotic reality,” or “the sum total of all the signs and sign-systems that have been produced by humanity throughout its existence.” The chief purpose of this book, which is comprised of 12 essays, is to expand on the idea of ‘semiotic reality’ and to show how it both informs and is understood through Solomonick’s semiotic framework. Readers invested in semiotics and the trajectory of its evolution may find this book of interest, especially those in search of a scientific theoretical framework for situating their semiotics research.
This book is presented in 3 parts, in which Solomonick revises his theory of general semiotics in terms of his metaphysical outlook. The first section presents a detailed explanation of his semiotic framework, which can be summarized as (a) the basic constructs of semiotics, (b) the hierarchical taxonomy of signs and sign-systems, and (c) the metaphysical premise of 4 realities, the latter of which is the major topic covered in the second section. In Solomonick’s framework, the three basic dimensions of semiotics are the sign, the sign-system, and semiotic activity. The sign is elemental: any conveyance of meaning can be construed as a sign, from a falling leaf, to a word, to a lunar map. Here, it is defined in relation to definitions previously proposed by Saussure and Pierce, and I discuss the distinction in detail in my evaluation. Sign-systems are systematically organized groups of signs that function in relation to one another, for instance, a language. Semiotic activity is the functioning of signs and sign-systems. The hierarchical taxonomy of signs is a framework for classifying signs in terms of their abstractness. Finally, the 4 realities—ontological (all that exists independent of humanity), semiotic (defined above), mental, and virtual—are the loci among which semiotic activity mediates information.
In the third and final section, Solomonick deals with practical applications and contextual information. This section is comprised of 2 essays in which Solomonick applies his framework to examinations of semiotics in science and cartography, respectively, an “illustrated biography,” and a narrative summary of the effects Solomonick’s theories have had on the academic world to date.
Solomonick’s framework is grounded in the foundational texts of semiotics with additional elements related to his proposed metaphysical model. For instance, his conception of the ‘sign’ elaborates on his readings of Pierce and Saussure. Saussure’s dyadic model posits that a sign consists of two parts: ‘signifier’ (a formal symbol) and ‘signified’ (a concept), both of which are conceived as mental constructs, whereas Pierce’s triadic model includes three components: ‘representamen’ (a formal symbol), ‘object’ (that which the symbol stands for), and ‘interpretant’ (the sense made of the sign by a person) (Chandler, 2007). Just as Pierce’s triadic model of a sign was more complex, both conceptually and philosophically, than Saussure’s dyadic model, Solomonick’s 4-part model incorporates one additional element into Pierce’s framework: the sign’s ‘social recognition.’ Solomonick proposes that in addition to acting as mediators between people and the world around them, signs also mediate between individuals and society. Through this model, Solomonick introduces his metaphysical theory of a ‘semiotic reality’: “Within [Pierce’s model] we form our signs and our mental ideas by direct contact with the outside world, but within [the additional element] we do so through social experience – through the interpretation of the entire body of cultural heritage that we receive through contact with humanity, including what we hear from other people, glean from our education and from reading books, etc. In the long run, our ideas appear to be nurtured from both of these sources, but the second source definitely prevails over the first. That is why its addition to the model of the sign is completely justified” (Solomonick, 2017). This extension of the sign model is perhaps more relevant to Solomonick’s metaphysical theories than to his scientific taxonomy of semiotics; however, the notion of semiotic reality is incorporated throughout the entire book.
Solomonick’s major innovation in the science of semiotics is a hierarchical taxonomy of sign types and sign-systems. This taxonomy was introduced in his earlier monograph, but its re-introduction here provides ground for Solomonick to build a case for semiotic reality through his general framework. The lowest level of the hierarchy is natural sign-systems (natural signs being the basic unit for this system), followed by iconic sign-systems (images), language sign-systems (words), notational sign-systems (graphemes), formalized sign systems of the first order (symbols with fixed meaning, such as arithmetic symbols), and formalized systems of the second order (symbols with ad hoc meaning, such as algebraic symbols). The hierarchy for this taxonomy is based on the signs’ degree of abstractness, a concept that Solomonick explores in detail in his essay on ‘visuality.’ ‘Visuality’ is defined as taking form as a mental or conceptual representation. The degree of abstractness can also be understood as a relationship among the formal symbol, the mental representation, and the object or concept they relate to. For instance, natural signs, such as the changing color of the sky before sunrise, are literally visual and are a part of ontological reality; they require no socialization or intentionality to have meaning. Linguistic signs (words), by contrast, are arbitrary and depend on social convention to have meaning. Likewise, signs in formalized systems, e.g. mathematical symbols, take on meaning through social conventions. These are further removed from ontological reality than language, because they are deliberately designed by people and because to understand these sign-systems requires special training and/or advanced intellect. Formalized signs convey meaning more efficiently than images, words, or graphemes can. Concepts in formalized sign-systems may also be extremely abstract, complex, or theoretical, and thus the ‘visuality’ of these signs occurs when people construct meaning from other concepts rather than through direct interaction with ontological reality. For the most part, this process is facilitated by social interaction.
Solomonick seems unwilling to reject the social constructivist viewpoint that informs Saussure’s semiotics, i.e. the assumption that conceptual meanings originate in social conventions rather than in essential, a priori truths. Solomonick’s theory of multiple realities could be construed as a middle ground between realism and constructivist epistemology (the philosophy that knowledge of the world is socially constructed and, therefore, open to interpretation); he believes that signs and sign-systems not only convey what is known about ontological reality, but also that the forms of signs and sign-systems can be seen as evidence of the nature of both ontological and semiotic realities. An elegant example Solomonick returns to repeatedly throughout the book is the periodic table of elements, a sign-system designed by Mendeleyev to represent a theory of chemistry. At the time of its introduction, the periodic table was used to predict the discovery of elements based on logical deduction that the new sign system made possible. Thus, the value of semiotics as a branch of science, according to Solomonick, is that sign-systems have the potential to reveal knowledge that would not be apparent through other means of investigation. Solomonick’s model of semiotics is formulated as a sign-system precisely because sign-systems can be used to generate new theories—not only do they convey concepts, they also provide a unique type of evidence about the nature of both ontological and semiotic reality.
Differentiating between ontological reality and semiotic reality places Solomonick firmly in the realm of realism/logical positivism, i.e. the philosophy that knowledge has roots in an objective reality. The stated purpose of this book is to explain and explore the construct of semiotic reality, and the collected essays do explain how this construct underpins his theoretical framework at different levels. His exploration of the relationship between ontological and semiotic reality is more developed than his introduction of the 4-reality model, however. Ultimately, Solomonick will need to provide further support for the propositions of ‘mental’ and ‘virtual’ realities. These components of his framework are discussed briefly in the end of the second part of the book, and it is unclear what differentiates either the mental or the virtual from the semiotic. Perhaps this clarification will be the topic of future works.
On the whole, Solomonick accomplishes what he sets out to do, which is to propose a means of pursuing semiotics as a science in its own right, and provides a philosophical basis for the framework that is inclusive of multiple viewpoints. Disregarding the inherent value of Solomonick’s theories, however, some critical flaws in the book damage the author’s credibility. Most importantly, the references for this book are provided in a disorganized, haphazard manner. For instance, Solomonick does not provide a bibliographic reference for an in-text citation of a book called ‘Basics of Geometry’ by D. Gilbert. Searching both WorldCat and Amazon.com failed to yield any results for this title; perhaps this in-text citation is an English translation of the title of a Hebrew or Russian textbook. The “Illustrated Bibliography” chapter does not contain a complete list of referenced works, and also is missing the illustrations. Not all of Solomonick’s in-text references are accompanied by footnotes, and some footnotes are merely web page addresses (URLs) with no author or copyright information. Moreover, many of the web pages cited have been taken off the web since the publication of this book. Finally, some of the claims made to support Solomonick’s arguments are not themselves supported with evidence; an early example of this occurs when he lays out the theoretical basis for the order of the hierarchical taxonomy: “Thus, increased abstractness of various types of signs goes hand in hand with their becoming more remote from their referents and with their escalating level of generalization. This seems to be the decisive factor in the creation of increasingly abstract signs and sign-systems in the history of our development as Homo sapiens.” No anthropological evidence is provided for the claim that signs and sign-systems become increasingly abstract throughout history; it remains an unsubstantiated assumption that underlies the structure of his framework.
Solomonick also claims in places that no literature exists on a topic, even when these claims are easily disputed. For instance, in his essay on ‘visuality,’ he writes, “Not a single monograph is devoted to [visuality as a philosophical entity], to visuality’s general and most significant sense. Not a single philosophical article deals with the applicability of visuality under different conditions and hypostases” (2017). Yet a cursory database search reveals several such monographs, including general explorations of visuality by Beate Allert (1996), Hagi Kenaan (2013), and Michael Leja (2000), to name just a few. Editorial oversights of this nature detract from the usability of this book as a scholarly resource. Its clear, straightforward style and provocative subject matter make for compelling reading, however, and it adds a philosophical basis to the theoretical framework established in Solomonick’s earlier book.
Allert, Beate (ed.). 1996. Languages of visuality: Crossings between science, art, politics, and literature. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Chandler, Daniel. 2007. Semiotics: The basics, 2nd edn. New York: Routledge.
Kenaan, Hagi., & Batya Stein. 2013. The ethics of visuality: Levinas and the contemporary gaze. London; I.B. Tauris.
Leja, Michael. 2000. Peirce, Visuality, and Art. Representations, 72(72), 97-122.
Solomonick, Abraham, & Libby Schwartz. 2017. From Semiotics towards Philosophical Metaphysics. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Kristin Ilene Terrill is a PhD student of Applied Linguistics and Technology at Iowa State University. Her research interests include discourse analysis and language acquisition. Her goal is to teach linguistics at a university.
Page Updated: 20-Nov-2017