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Semeiotic Neostructuralism and Language

Readers of this blog who have an interest in the conceptual underpinnings of its posts may benefit from being reminded of some of the main points in which the doctrine christened “semeiotic neostructuralism” (in the spirit of C. S. Peirce’s pragmaticism) by the author differs fundamentally from the dominant paradigm of contemporary linguistics, which is nominally identified with Chomsky and his followers––regardless, nota bene, whether these latter-day practitioners have renamed their particular enterprise (e. g., “Optimality Theory” or “Cognitive Linguistics;” ALL linguistics is necessarily ‘cognitive’, hence CL is a pleonasm) so as to differentiate it from what was originally called “tranformational” or “generative” grammar.

Chomsky has a rather mechanistic view of language, for all that he understands that the freedom to compose  sentences that are original, unpredictable, and yet intelligible is different from the unoriginal, predictable products of strictly mechanical  action. His view is mechanistic nonetheless because he simply posits underlying structures by which sentences are to be generated. Possibly in a wider perspective, Chomsky is no more reductively mechanistic than a semeiotic neostructuralist, in a wider perspective, is a phenomenalist. For he no doubt admits (or would admit) that the linguistic universals in our brains are not just there, period, but evolved, with the brain’s evolution, as chance variants that were ‘selected’ by the principle of reproductive success. Similarly, the intentions or needs or felt urgencies to speak or to achieve certain outcomes might explain––but only in a context wider than Chomskyan linguistics––why language’s generative mechanisms are used in this way rather than in that.

But if we focus simply on the linguist’s study, as diversely conceived by Chomsky and the semeiotic neostructuralist, then there is this difference: for the one, the teleology of language is excluded from linguistic explanation, while for the other it is the very stuff of explanation. For the one, linguistic phenomena conform to a describable structure of highly abstract laws, while for the other linguistic phenomena exhibit an intelligible if less abstract, more complicated structure. For the one, the system is a given, and any changes in it are accidental, while for the other development is essential to language––development is more the reality than is any one system of  rules––and that development is also intelligible and not merely given.

That is the conflict. The reason the semeiotic neostructuralist approach is, if it is successful, superior is that it can be used to explain the very evolution of the brain-mechanism or linguistic capacities and universals that Chomsky can at best describe. That is, given creatures somewhat sociable, exchanging  signs as their way of life, then the survival value of their communicating more elaborate and precise diagrams would explain the retention of those fortuitous variations, say, in brain structure that promote exactly such powers of expressible diagrammatization. That is, the principle of this evolution will be itself linguistic, and continuous with the principles of postbiotic, strictly linguistic evolution.

The thought here is not unlike that which refuses to postulate linguistic intentions separate from the capacity to exercise those intentions. Just as there could be no desire to speak without an ability to speak, so also there could be no evolution of linguistic capacities––even, or especially, at the physiological level––except among those who, already speaking to one another, will more likely survive as a species if they speak more effectively. Thus, instead of a neurophysiological explanation of language, we have a linguistic explanation of the higher cortex––and probably not just the speech centers either, since so many of our capacities for sensation and action would be bootless without our capacities for speech.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

One Response to “Semeiotic Neostructuralism and Language”

  • Robert Hatten says:

    Bravo! And I would add that the same principle applies to music. The best explanation of a given musical style competency is one that is compatible with style growth and change.

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