Sign Worship

By Paul Bouissac

Rather than confidently aiming at absolute truth, scientific research strives to reduce ignorance. Sustainable knowledge is backed by healthy skepticism and constant willingness to critically reconsider even the best entrenched assumptions. Genuine research distrusts direct phenomenal evidence, and relies on limited predictions supported by calculations. Results are rarely the ones which were anticipated. In general, discoveries are surprising, that is, counter-intuitive. Everyday life evidence is useful only in a limited way – we cannot intuit the causes of long-term effects, nor factor in our working memory too many parameters in assessing complex situations. This is why humans painstakingly devised ways of overcoming their relative cognitive blindness by crunching numbers and manipulating symbols. We end up knowing a few things that we cannot fully understand because this knowledge is at odds with our direct phenomenological intuitions.

As Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman put it his Alix G. Mautner Memorial Lectures: “I am going to describe to you how Nature is – and if you don’t like it, that’s going to get in the way of your understanding it. It’s a problem that physicists have learned to deal with: They’ve learned to realize that whether they like a theory or they don’t like a theory is not the essential question. Rather it is whether or not the theory gives predictions that agree with experiment. It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense.” (QED: The strange theory of light and matter, 1985, p.10).

The “science of signs” started as a bold vision, the idea that a great diversity of domains more or less restricted to the human sphere, could be conceptualized through a single general model: the sign. This was unexpected and exhilarating, as is, at first, any form of scientific reductionism, and such a novel approach to the great diversity of social interactions and cultural productions, soon expanded beyond the human sphere to encompass all forms of life under the name of biosemiotics, unleashed a flow of speculations and a few research projects. In the meantime the notions of sign, sign-dynamics or sign-systems (as some prefer to say) have come to designate indiscriminately different theoretical constructions and common sense notions that form the basis of what could be called “folk semiotics” (a component of “folk psychology”). Echoing an earlier assessment by Ogden and Richards (1923), David Lidov pointedly called attention to this state of affairs in his article on Sign in the Oxford University Press Encyclopedia of Semiotics (1998). Space and time metaphors have characterized these models of the sign, variously conceived as structures or processes, apprehended in the forms of graphs and diagrams as abstract relations or as transformations, dynamic events, staggered open-ended interpretations, replications, and the like. These were ways of expressing the shortcomings of a single notion that is both loaded with philosophical history and too simplistic (even in its most sophisticated forms), or perhaps too self-evident, for actually explaining anything. Impervious to these predicaments, semiotic discourse keeps uncritically gravitating around the Sign or its temporal proxy, Semiosis. Its absolute centrality is taken for granted. There is a serious risk that semiotics could become a sign-worshipping intellectual pastime, indulging in self-fulfilling prophecies, unable to deliver any epistemological surprises, and mostly translating the knowledge of various disciplines into the predictable philosophical or linguistic jargons that have come to dominate semiotics. Perhaps, the notion of sign has outlived its heuristic usefulness and scientific fertility.

This is why semioticians should pay more attention to other notions that might help them break away from such a sterilizing fascination by refocusing, reframing and reassessing their epistemological quest. One such notion is the meme, which most semioticians have found unpalatable when it was proposed some three decades ago by Richard Dawkins (1976). There is no question here of substituting an object of worship for another. Memetics has already shown its limitations in this respect. The point of interest, however, is that the meme is a model that intersects with several versions of the sign model. It focuses our epistemological attention on what Saussure called “the life of signs in social life” and it provides an evolutionary twist to the Peircean notion of semiosis, by underlying the fact that what we call “signs” often happen to die, as archaeology and historical linguistics amply demonstrate. It offers an opportunity to re-think or “un-think” the interplay of information and behavior, of the emergence and extinction of symbols and meanings. It opens the way to new methods of investigation from evolutionary ecology and niche construction to population genetics and game theory, which could refreshingly recast old semiotic problems in a novel light, and, in so doing, bring in some mathematics and its capacities for leading the human mind to true discoveries and new theories. It also brings into play an interesting shift of perspective since the meme is modeled on biological processes (thus making it amenable to neuroscientific investigations, notably regarding memory and cognition) whereas the sign models are rooted in philosophical speculations that tend to be used to interpret known biological processes rather than guide further inquiries aimed at reducing ignorance.

All advances in knowledge have proceeded through questioning what was previously taken for granted. Semioticians have reached a point of stasis in which too many assumptions have become articles of faith in a kind of sign worship.

Imitation, Memory, and Cultural Changes: Probing the Meme Hypothesis, a symposium organized by the Toronto Semiotic Circle. Proceedings and Videos.