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On the Paradigm of Experience
Appropriate for Semiotic

Version 2.0 of April 1, 1998

Joseph Ransdell

Dept of Philosophy, Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas 79409, U.S.A.

Ransdell's home page

This paper was originally delivered orally at a meeting of the Semiotic Society of America in Lubbock, Texas in 1980 and first published in Semiotics 1980, eds. Michael Herzfeld and Margot Lenhart (New York: Plenum Press, 1982), 427-438. The present version is only lightly revised from the original but a more extensive revision is in process.
Since there is no normal pagination on a web page, I assign in lieu of that paragraph numbers, included in brackets and placed flush right, just above the paragraph, for purposes of scholarly reference: they are not in the version already published.

    The thesis of my paper is that it is doubtful that any distinction should be drawn between empirical and nonempirical semiotics or even between experimental and nonexperimental semiotics. Doing so tends to reproduce within the semiotics movement the present academic distinction between the sciences and the humanities which semiotics should aim at discouraging, rather than reinforcing. But to overcome this undesirable dichotomy, it is necessary to disentangle the conceptions of the experiential, the experimental and the empirical from certain other complexes of ideas with which they have become associated by accident rather than necessity.
    Things which are or become present to us, such that we can recall them sufficiently well to be able to refer to and describe them in some manner -- let us call these things "phenomena" -- are usually classified or classifiable by us as things sense-perceived, remembered, foreseen, dreamed, daydreamed, imagined, hallucinated, inferred, supposed, conceived, envisioned, and so forth. That is, they are classified in relation to what I will call, for want of a better phrase, "categories of apprehension." This, or a roughly similar classification scheme, is shared by the peoples of the contemporary Western world, and, of course, by a great many others who have become "Westernized," but it is not a "human universal"; for it is a classification of phenomena considered in relation to what we think of as our faculties of awareness, and although it may be debatable whether the idea that there are such things as faculties of this sort is a humanly universal idea, it is certain, in any case, that this particular set of ways of conceiving them is far from being universal. It is not even necessary to turn to anthropological evidence or to histories of non-Western civilizations in this connection, for even the ideas of remembering and foreseeing -- which are, on the face of it, the most likely candidates for universality in this set -- are implicitly qualified by their relations to conceptions of time and history which have developed well within the recorded history of Western culture, and most if not all of the rest could probably be shown to be just as clearly qualified in their meaning through their relation to specifically Western ways of regarding things.
    Take, for example, the category of sense-perception, now commonly regarded as essentially connected with the idea of physical sense-organs which somehow mediate the perceptions. So recent is this conception that John Locke, in the latter part of the 17th Century, could say that all of our ideas come from the senses, and then go ahead to explain that this includes the "inner sense," by which he did not mean a physical organ for detecting sensations internal to the body but rather the ability to perceive the various ways in which our ideas can combine, dissociate, be abstracted from one another, and so on. And even more recently, the nature of the so-called "kinesthetic" sense -- the ability to know the position of our limbs without looking at them or relying upon tactile sensations -- constituted a topic for lively debate in 19th Century psychology even though there were no known physical organs connected with this sense, its existence being inferred from the fact that we can have a certain kind of immediate apprehension that cannot be accounted for in terms of any of the traditionally recognized five sense organs. Or consider the distinction between being asleep and being awake, in virtue of which we distinguish dreams, on the one hand, from daydreams, imaginings, and hallucinations, on the other, but which, curiously enough, does not enable us to distinguish dreaming from sense-perceiving (since we have some sense-perception while asleep). Obvious as this sleeping/waking distinction may seem it has recently been put into question by psychological research, such that some psychologists have proposed that this commonsense dichotomy might best be replaced by a coordinate trichotomy of waking, REM sleep, and non-REM sleep, in view of the fact that REM sleep has about as much in common with waking as it does with non-REM sleep. But such a reconceiving of this presupposition of some of our categorial distinctions might well call for significant revisions in the categories themselves. And quite apart from this, it is surely questionable, on the face of it, that the sleeping-waking distinction as commonsensically conceived in the modern West is really the same distinction as would be drawn by, say, an itinerant hunting people.
    Moreover, although it seems reasonable, on a commonsense level, to say that the various kinds of apprehending listed above are all "mental" operations or activities, there is little reason to suppose that what is expressed by the word "mental" in this particular context is actually a unitary and coherent idea. On the contrary, it seems rather more likely that the idea of the mental, in this context, has actually been functioning as a sort of catch-all for accommodating a variety of things which, for various unrelated reasons, are not regarded as assimilable to any commonly recognized non-mental categories. The content of visionary religious experiences, for example, are usually relativized to the category of hallucination simply because no non-mental category which can accommodate them is recognized as valid, and, indeed, the concept of an hallucination itself, as that is now generally understand, is a post-Cartesian artifact which is connected, in the popular mind at least, with vague ideas of "insanity" and the like which are as constantly in flux as are the "pop" psychologies which give this idea whatever substance it has at any given time. Or consider the idea of a dream. Dreaming is now usually regarded as a sort of mental excretion or "projection," the dream itself being regarded as the activity of dreaming reified. Yet as late as Plato, the Greek word "onar" was regularly used not to refer to a mental activity or its "product" (i.e. the dreaming activity reified), but rather to the thing or things which appear to one while one is asleep, which might be more real and independent of one's thought processes than the things which appear to one while awake: the gods, for example, who -- in Plato's time at least -- characteristically chose the time of sleeping rather than waking to communicate with mortals. Or again, consider the idea of memory, in the sense of recall. It is now usually taken for granted that the recall is something like the viewing of a mental photograph or cinematograph of an earlier occurrence, though it might be equally as plausible to regard recall as being a perception of its object quite as direct or immediate as a sense-perception, were it not for the connection of the idea of memory, in the popular mind, with a certain conception of time which is, in fact, no longer regarded as valid in physics, and perhaps also because of a connection with a long outmoded belief about the impossibility of action at a distance.
    The point to mentioning these considerations is not to argue that the classification of phenomena under these typical Western categories of apprehension is either arbitrary or valueless, for I do not doubt that the various categories each have some useful role to play in helping us to organize our experience on the practical level, even though, taken as a whole, this categorization scheme does seem to me to be a rather shaky and ramshackle affair. The point is rather to suggest, first, that it is neither necessary nor desirable for us to work within its confines on the theoretical level: it is not necessary because all of these categories, and the more general idea of the mental which includes them, are clearly historical artifacts rather than inescapably human ways of categorizing things; and it is not desirable because, although they doubtless have some value, and are not simply arbitrary, they are nevertheless far from being stable, perspicuously conceived, and systematically well-organized. Moreover, to work within their limits is to confine ourselves within an ethnocentrism which tends to corrupt our attempts at understanding human life as such.
    The way out of this is, I believe, in the adoption of a phenomenological point of view (in Peirce's -- not Husserl's -- sense), according to which a thing -- in the broadest and vaguest possible sense of the word "thing" -- is to be regarded, first of all, as a phenomenon, that is, as something which is not conceived ab initio in relation to this or any other set of categories of apprehension, and therefore not implicitly regarded ab initio as falling into this or that metaphysical category; for these categories of apprehension are intimately, if not altogether coherently, connected with metaphysical categories of a Cartesian type, such that, for example, anything sense-perceived is usually regarded as "physical", anything hallucinated is regarded as "mental," and so on. Since anything can be a sign, this means that, by taking the phenomenological stance, we thereby free the conception of a sign from any a priori metaphysical conceptions. Supposing, then, that we adopt the phenomenological view as basic, it may indeed be necessary or desirable, for this or that special purpose or in this or that special type or area of inquiry, to deal only with such signs as are, let us say, physical in character (whatever that may mean). But if so then it should be made clear just what it does mean for something to be physical and why it is necessary or desirable to deal only with signs of that particular metaphysical category. In other words, the adoption of a phenomenological stance as basic does not preclude the adoption of a more limited conception of what is to count as a sign, but it would require us to be more explicit than usual as to what our working metaphysical assumptions actually are and for what purpose it is deslrable to adopt them.
    I began with some sceptical comments on our present categories of apprehension because the conceptions of the empirical, the experiential, and the experimental have become entangled in this dubious organizational scheme, though I believe they can be disentangled from it fairly easily, and can be understood in such a way as to have prior application on the phenomenological or pre-metaphysical level. Thus, for example, although it is usually thought that being empirical, that is, making appeal to experience to settle a matter of inquiry, is essentially connected with the idea of an appeal to sense-perception, there is no such necessary connection, since it is quite possible to ground our work in semiotic on appeals to the experience of entities which, according to our usual categories of apprehension, might be classified as merely imaginary or dreamt or hallucinated or whatever. And similarly with regard to the idea of experimentation. The usual assumption is that experimentation is primarily a matter of physical manipulation, with the idea of the "thought experiment" recognized as a sort of ghostly but sometimes useful supplement. But there is in fact no general need for the idea of experimentation to be qualified in either respect (i.e. as being physical or as being mental), though again, there may be special needs to do so in connection with this or that special purpose or type of inquiry.
    Let me now explain why I think the ideas of the empirical, the experiential, and the experimental can be disentangled from the complex of dubious distinctions and restrictions we usually associate with them, such that it is possible for us to regard all applied semiotics as empirlcal semiotics, which means, in effect, that the term "empirical semiotics" can cease to function as a term of contrast, and the semiotics movement in general thereby take a further step in the direction of unity. To begin with, let us note that all three of these words -- "experience", "experiment ", and "empirical" -- expressed substantially the same thing in their earlier (i.e. Latin and Greek) forms, namely, the idea of learning resulting from attempting. (This is not a merely etymological point: it has been less than five centuries since the Latin and Greek languages were the principal vehicles of thought and learning in Western intellectual culture.) Thus the English words "experience" and "experiment" both descend from cognates of the Latin "experiri", which means to attempt, to try, to test or try out, to prove, in the earlier sense of the word "prove" as it occurs in the familiar but usually misunderstand maxim that it is the exception that proves the rule, meaning that it is the apparent exception that puts the rule to the test to determine whether the rule can be so construed as to make the exception only apparent. This Latin word in its noun form, "experientia", is in turn the rough equivalent to the Greek "empeiria" -- whence the English word "empirical" -- and the stem of "empeiria" is the stem of the verb "peirao", which, again, has the sense of attempting or trying out, putting something to the test, the word "empeiria" itself referring to what is learned in virtue of trying.
    Now let us note three ideas which are implicit in the ideas of learning from trying out or attempting. First, there is the idea of a certain possibility which is entertained seriously enough by the tryer to warrant actually making trial of it to see if there is any truth in it: in other words, there is implicit here the idea of a question to be answered, or a hypothesis to be verified or disverified. Second, there is the idea of something other than or external to the tryer and his/her hypothesis, something with a being of its own which may turn out to be in agreement with what the tryer is trying to do or is testing, but which may turn out to be obstinately other than the tryer anticipates it as being; something stubborn, autonomous, independent: in short, the root idea of the brute fact against which the hypothesis may be dashed and perhaps destroyed or modified. Then, third, there is the idea of learning which takes place in virtue of the trial, a modification of the learner and his or her ideas which results from the attempt, be it a success or a failure: the root idea of verification and disverification, not in the rarefied formal logical sense but rather in the more basic sense that the attempt will in fact tend to reinforce or to alter or to weaken the tryer's confidence or belief in the actuality of the possibility entertained and acted upon.
    Such is, in part, the complex of ideas involved in the words "experience", "experiment", and "empirical" in their earlier forms, and it is substantially what we associate with the notion of taking a scientific attitude towards our ideas, meaning, namely, not satisfying ourselves as to their truth or falsity simply on the basis of the fact that we find it pleasing or displeasing to think of something as being so, but rather an attitude which leads to seeking out or to arranging a situation wherein that which the ideas are about -- the object of the ideas -- will have its chance to confront one's ideas of it and be able to exercise its own independent being and power in defending itself forcefully against these ideas if they misrepresent it. It is, I believe, more than a mere metaphor to regard the things we try to understand as having a power of self-defense relative to the ideas with which we try to capture or ensnare them, though it has been increasingly characteristic of the Western mind since the Renaissance to regard the world -- that is, anything external to our ideas and plans -- as passive, defenseless, infinitely plastic: the perfect victim, as it were. This is perhaps what is at the root of -- among other things -- the absolute idealisms of the 19th Century and their thinly disguised and historically relativized versions in the conventionalistic philosophies of science which are currently fashionable.
    What I want to convey is that the idea of the empirical, the experiential, and the experimental have mistakenly come to be associated almost exclusively with the metaphysical conception of the physical, on the one hand, and with the highly questionable mentalistic category of sense-perception, on the other, whereas in fact there is no essential connection with either of these; and that what has been lost sight of is that there is experience when and only when one finds oneself in a confrontation with something other than oneself and one's ideas that has the power to do something to one if one is not doing right by it. Now, our present categories of apprehension stand in no systematic relation to those objects, entities, things, events, etc., which have enough vitality of their own to defeat one's ideas of them when those ideas are mistaken. Even some sense-perceived entities -- mirages, for example -- have a very' weak ability to stand their ground against our ideas of what is really there, external to us, whereas some entities we would regard as purely imaginary, such as persons in a well-constructed novel, have as much or more ability to defeat our ideas of what they are than do many persons we meet in what we call "real life," who live in a constant state of anxiety lest they fail to conform to what others expect or want them to be. Hence, if it is the confrontation with something autonomous enough to be genuinely experienceable which is what makes the difference between an empirical and a non-empirical subject-matter, and therefore the difference between an empirical and a non-empirical semiotics, I believe it is to the idea of the phenomenal object -- the object unqualified per se by such notions as that of the physical, the sense-perceptible, and the like -- which we should first turn in getting clear on what empirical objects are.
    It is true, of course, that not all phenomenal objects are sufficiently independent of our ideas of them to warrant talking of them as experienceable, or at least not in the robust sense of "experience" needed for semiotics in general to be truly empirical. Many -- perhaps most -- phenomena are so evanescent that there really is no truth to be told or thought about them, which is to say that they are hardly experienced at all. But whether or not a given phenomenal object does or does not have sufficient staying power, power to stand its ground against us when we go against it in our thinking about it, cannot be determined in advance by applying to it this or that metaphysical label, including the label "physical", or by subsuming it under this or that special category of apprehension, at least as regards the jerrybuilt system of categories of apprehension we commonly recognize and use.
    Since my time is limited, I cannot discuss here the further factor of public availability which must be taken account, and I can illustrate what I am trying to say only by taking a single sort of case; but I will take one which would appear prima facie to be especially difficult to conceive as exemplifying a scientific or empirical approach, namely, the case of a semiotic analysis of a literary text, a story with purely fictitious characters.
    There are many reasons why a literary critic might be interested in a certain novel or short story or epic or folk tale or whatever, and many different sorts of things a semiotic analysis of it might aim at revealing. Semiotic does not prescribe a special agenda in application but rather a putatively coherent analytical framework that has to interpreted in application according to the intellectual needs of the field of inquiry. But let us suppose that the aim is simply that of conveying to others a certain interesting reading of the text which the critic has discovered, or at least believes to have discovered, and thinks worthy of communicating to others. The starting point could be -- though this is not suggested as the normal starting point, which is up to the literary critic or theorist to decide -- with the marks, the configurations, on the pages of a text. These marks will normally have multiple sign-values of several basically different sorts -- symbolic, indexical, and iconic -- which, when well-interpreted, will reveal certain phenomenal objects, such as people, places, situations, events, and so forth. (This is the story proper, and it is, as a whole, a phenomenal object.) Now these objects are not themselves either physical or mental per se: they are simply phenomena which become present to us when we interpret the configurations on the page intelligently. (We might say that these phenomenal beings are imaginary, but I don't know what this would add to what is already assumed when the work is identified as a work of fiction. In fact, that is perhaps what we mean in identifying it as a work of fiction: namely, that one is to regard the phenomenal entities which compose the story simply as phenomenal entities -- at least on the first level of interpretation.) In any case, these phenomenal objects (people, situations, events, etc.) may themselves be profitably regardable as signs of various types having various sorts of interpretability, and the intelligent interpretation of them will in turn reveal or make present a new set of objects. And then it may be that some or all of this further set of objects will also be profitably regardable as signs the interpretation of which will reveal still further objects, and so on, to whatever point it finally becomes unprofitable to seek still further objects in this way.
    Works such as Mann's Doctor Faustus and The Magic Mountain exemplify the sort of story which has many levels of profitably interpretable objects, many "layers of significance," as we say. On the other hand, there are other texts, interesting and valuable in a different way, which, though not very "deep," in that sense, offer many alternative possibilities of interpretation at a relatively superficial level, all of which may be more or less equally valuable in one way or another. And of course these are but two types of interpretational potentiality (which are often skillfully combined); for there are stories whose objects are signs of other stories or of objects in other stories; there are stories whose objects have little or no interpretational depth at all, nor afford much leeway in interpretation, but which are extraordinary perspicuous or gratifying or instructive to contemplate; there are stories whose deeper level objects are historically real persons and occurrences, which may in turn be signs of mythical beings, which may in turn be signs of abstractions; and so on.
    Now let us suppose, as I have said, that the literary critic is concerned only to explain or indicate a certain interpretational path to be taken which -- so the claim or hypothesis goes -- will lead the reader into the presence of an object or a domain of objects which no one has previously recognized as being available in and through the work. These objects may be anything whatsoever. For example, they may simply be such entities as love or death or greed in general: not this or that person's loving or dying or greediness, but just love or death or greed as phenomena which the text, so interpreted, makes present to the reader. Simone Weil's essay on the Iliad, for example, explains it as a sign whose deeper object is brute force; that is, her essay exemplifies a literary analysis the purpose of which is to teach the reader how to so read the Iliad as to have this simple entity -- brute force -- become present to them phenomenally. Now love and death and greed and brute force are phenomenal entities of the sort which can appear in various special metaphysical contexts: for example, in the metaphysical context of the historical order, or in the metaphysical context of biological science, or in the metaphysical context of one's own personal life. But as presented in a story these phenomena may appear in no special metaphysical context at all but merely be present to one as phenomena, without further qualification.
    When literary analysts or critics write books or essays with this particular sort of purpose, can they be said to be proceeding empirically, in the sense of making an appeal to experience and to experiment? Can they be said to be practicing empirical semiotics? I would say Yes, they can. In fact, they would be doing a rather poor or worthless job of literary analysis if they were not. For isn't the substance of a claim such as Weil's, for example, simply this, that regardless of what you may think at first, if you follow the interpretational path she indicates you will find yourself finally compelled by the experience of the object which will reveal itself to you to acknowledge that you do, indeed, have before you brute force itself, as an object for your contemplation and reflection? There are, of course, other ways of directing someone's attention to brute force: hitting them in the face, for example, or hitting someone else in the face in their presence. To explicate this difference would involve explicating the idea of esthetic distance, which I cannot attempt to do here; but it is worth pointing out that one may learn something about such a thing as love or death or brute force or greed from an esthetic experience which one would not learn by active or non-esthetic participation in or experience of them.
    Thus, in this sort of case at least, all of the essential elements of the experiential and the experimental -- hence the empirical -- are as present as they are in what is more commonly regarded as exemplifying these conceptions. Or at least they are so when the analysis is performed and presented responsibly. For the critic must explain or indicate in some reasonably clear way the procedures the reader of the text is to follow in order to arrive at a certain predicted result, and it is surely a matter of fact whether the predicted experience occurs or not. I cannot, of course, argue that the same is true of all other sorts of semiotic research simply on the basis of this one sort of case; but this will, I hope, provide you with an example sufficiently clear to enable you to put it to the test yourself in respect to your own area of special concern.

John Locke's conception of sense-perception, referred to in the third paragraph of this oral address, was imperfectly stated. To be exact, "perception" was Locke's generic term for the immediate apprehension of "ideas," all of which are said to come from "experience," and perception is of two types: sensation and reflection. (The words "perception" and "experience" are extensionally equivalent and -- though differing somewhat in connotative stress -- generally function equivalently in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding: the first stresses the immediacy of apprehension; the second stresses its involuntary and adventitious character.) Concerning reflection, though, Locke said:

This source of ideas every man has wholly in himself; and though it be not sense, as having nothing to do with external objects, yet it is very like it, and might properly enough be called internal sense [emphasis mine]. But as I call the other sensation, so I call this reflection, the ideas it affords being such only as the mind gets by reflecting on its own operations within itself (Essay, Bk. II, Ch. 1, Par. 4)

In saying that reflection "might appropriately enough be called internal sense" -- which is to say that the sensation/reflection distinction is a distinction between external and internal sense -- Locke was not being innovative simply in recognizing an internal (or "inner") sense, for the phrases "outer sense" and "external sense" were already in use. However, the identification of internal sense with the perception of "mental operations" may have been innovative, as the term "internal sense" was probably commonly used somewhat as "sixth sense" and "intuition" are still used colloquially, namely, as denoting any immediate apprehension not assignable to the traditionally recognized five "external" senses, whereas Locke's "internal sense" (i. e. "reflection") is similar in epistemic function to the scholastic logician's "second intention," which is not coordinate with but rather presupposes a "first intention" (just as Locke's internal sense presupposes external sense). In general, the words "perception", "experience", and "sense" alike function in contrast with the ideas of the voluntary, discursive, inferential, active, and so on.

END OF:  Ransdell, "On the Paradigm of Experience Appropriate for Semiotics etc."


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