Monday, December 10, 2012

Notes on Kravchenko's "Sign, Meaning, Knowledge"

Please bear in mind the limited nature of my knowledge of linguistics, as a mere lay person, and hence the reason for the general philosophical and methodological nature of the comments.

I found Kravchenko's book highly interesting and relevant to questions I have had on the nature of how abstraction is active and maintained in the world.  It dovetails with my reading of Nicole Pepperell's "Disassembling Capital", which eschews any notion of structures of capital which is not reduced to "downstream" effects of individual practices.  There may be something to the way in which not only institutions as fast-frozen practices taking on a life of their own, and thus resistant to counter micro-practices than Pepperell would seem to allow for, but also how language in being tied to not merely communication, but knowledge and meaning, which impede recognition of counter-practices or conceptualization of problems as systemic (capital's problem, rather than the problem of a person or a particular institution.)  I think there is something about language in this conception which is not only "adaptive", but which short-circuits experience, here understood as not what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us, and thus language acts as a means of recognizing or failing to recognize what happens to us as experientially interesting or valid.

Notes on Kravchenko
The premise of his work seems interesting, the replacement of a sentential linguistics with a semiotic linguistics. The critique of logical semantics and structural linguistics are both quite strong, especially on the idea that we cannot separate language from context and meaning.
Obviously this is a view of language as natural and biological, not merely conventional. Key referents are Peirce, Morris (1945), Ogden & (1927), and Maturana(?).
However, some relatively clear problems present themselves:
  1. The notion of language as natural (biosemiotic) does not entail that it is adaptive because evolution is not itself simply adaptive. Evolution can be non-adaptive in two senses: the first is that some evolutionary developments are akin to Gould and Eldridge's spandrels, that is, they are outcomes alongside of adaptations that follow from them, but are themselves not necessarily adaptive.
  2. Evolution is not merely adaptive in the further sense that creatures to do “adapt” to a static environment, but can also create their own environment, transforming it. This is true of all species, but none more so than humans. To presume environment as given in this form undermines key aspects of his argument for linguistic change and historicity, but also reifies capitalist society as nature.
  3. This brings us to the problem of nature and sociality. In the discussion of the priority of spoken over written language, a valuable and I think novel approach, the assumption is that sound as a form of communication meets certain criteria for generating a sign system and that it serves that purpose for all animals. However, this is only true for social animals and not even even all of those (ants, for example, do not predominantly communicate via soupand.) Sound signification for communication is especially prominent in social mammals, and thus the rudiments of language are both natural and social because sociality is part of the species
  4. For humans however, where what we call fully-developed language, which in this case entails being concerned with meaning and sense and involves the capacity for self-reflection, the more social we become the less we are natural beings. Language may thus be nature, but as social-natural it is also increasingly non-natural and derives elements from human social development. Written language is exactly of this nature, but spoken too is impacted by this.
  5. Because of his pragmatism, Kravchenko falls prey to a series of philsophical errors.
    1. Physicalism is one of them because pragmatism eschews a really adequate notion of concepts such as is to be found in Hegel and Marx. This is not unlike the physicalist readings of value common to vulgar Marxism. Value as abstraction and concept are lost, and because of the lack of an adequate notion of sociality he cannot conceive of concept as a social field with an objectivity which is both mental and external to any given speaker.
    2. Functionalism goes along with the adaptationist approach, since adaptationism is highly functionalist, whereas non-adaptationist notions of evolution do not require developments to correspond to a function, they can be non-adaptive and can allow an organism to transform its relation to its environment at a species level.
    3. There is an obvious bon mot in his treatment of knowledge because he reduces it to individuals. Like all pragmatism, it retains Cartesian reductionism even as it wants to rid itself of Cartesian dualism. However the semiotic approach to language is itself utterly social in form. Meaning can only be meaning between speakers and listeners, and the meaning that a large linguistic group shares is not merely based on the shared experience in the sense of what an individual might experience, but in the experience of social forms, and the meaning is to some extent given to the individual in a way which is reinforced by the results of repeated interaction with the social form.
    4. The replacement of philosophy by cognitive science is so fashionable, and at the same time rather lacking in philosophical seriousness.
There are many strong aspects to this view, but they require critical correction

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