Semiotics as Enlightenment: East and West

A Critical Approach

Paul Bouissac, University of Toronto

Each word forming the title of this paper is problematic. Their linking compounds the problem. My purpose is first to confront the semantic difficulties and their complex implications, then to attempt the construction of a perspective which may help to formulate new problems and a renewed corresponding research agenda.

1. Semiotics, Postcolonialism and Globalization.

Semiotics, under any other name, was redefined at the turn of the previous century to designate a general scientific inquiry based on the still imprecise notion of the sign. Although the words "semiotic", "semeiotic" and "sémiologie", based on the Greek radical "semeion", already existed in various technical terminologies (such as medicine, philosophy and military communication), it was then reinvented to encompass a set of programmatic inquiries whose goal was to provide a definite understanding of the way in which meaning is created or discovered and communicated. The immediate sources of 20th century semiotics (C.S.Peirce and F. De Saussure) proposed epistemological projects exclusively based on the resources of human rationality and its powers of observation, reflexion and argumentation. The intellectual background of these sources was the age of Enlightenment during which British, French and German philosophers and scientists had decisively emancipated the pursuit of knowledge from the theological and political constraints that had molded the European intellectual tradition since the spread of Christianity. In the rhetoric of its fountainheads, semiotics was to be the next if not the last frontier of the conquest of Reason.

However, the aggresive redefinition of Enlightenment, usually marked by its capitalized initial, did not totally upstage its previous uses in the theological and mystical discourse. Revealing the absolute truth and ultimate meaning primarily was and remained the claim of Christianity in its various institutional and philosophical forms. Meaning was already the focus of methods of interpretation applied to divine will and inspired texts. A powerful hermeneutic technocracy had developed for centuries through fierce debates within the Judeo-Christian tradition bearing upon ontological details which had saturated the theoretical horizon of European intellectual life. During the 20th century, the modern heirs to this tradition soon entered the new speculative space which had just been opened by rationalistic semiotics. A vast enterprise of historical reconstruction was then undertaken pushing back the sources of modern semiotics at least to Augustine of Hippo (354-430) with lip service paid to his ancient Hellenistic sources. In this process the new semiotic project, which had been conceived as an absolute beginning, lost its epistemological innocence and progressively became submerged by the resurgence of the European mediaeval discourse, largely blurring the issues and defusing the revolutionary potential of the new scientific agenda which had taken up from the point where the failure of the Idéologues had left it (Dascal and Dutz 1997). Charismatic propagandists such as Umberto Eco and John Deely (e.g. 2001) contributed to frame the nascent semiotic revolution into a Mediaeval perspective. By recasting the new conceptual semiotic problems in traditional philosophical terminology, this neo-scholastics largely neutralized their unsettling qualities and partially succeeded in taking control of the emerging semiotic institutions.

Indeed, the semiotic discourse, which grew at a remarkably fast pace after the 1960s both in Europe and in the Americas, soon shifted away from the heuristic mode of the pioneers of modern semiotics, who had tried to lay the basis for a daring but logically sound scientific approach to the study of signs, and adopted a rhetoric of revelation that promised a kind of semiotic enlightenment which was to be delivered through direct phenomenological evidence guided by authoritative voices rather than by empirical and formal methods. Semiotic discourse became highly predictable. Semiotics was efficiently marketed as a doctrine, at times even in a cult-like manner, by a variety of more or less charismatic personalities. This western product, endowed with the prestige of "occidentalism", became an object of intellectual fascination and attracted the attention of scores of non-western academic establishments. Globalisation brought western semiotics to Asia as an exotic item among others through academic exchanges, translations, and the training of a few students who became semiotic missionaries of sorts. Through a process akin to cultural colonization, the intellectual capital of Euro-American semiotics imposed its conceptual models with their load of universalist assumptions on a subset of philosophers and linguists. As a part of the package, a millenium or so of western theological heritage tended to displace the cultural and philosophical memory of more ancient societies in the guise of a modernist updating process. Disentangling the threads of contemporary semiotic discourse by distinguishing its ethnocentric assumptions, its historical layers of concepts and terminologies, and its inner conflicting forces, is a daunting challenge that probably no single individual can meet. By contrasting the enlightenment of a religious faith and its secular versions with the Enlightenment based on rational thinking, this preamble’s purpose was to attempt to redefine the East-West interface with respect to the discourse of modern semiotics and its global circulation in a postcolonial perspective.

The east-west dichotomy itself reflects an ethnocentric cultural mapping which generates ambiguities. In western-centered discourse "east" is the marked category and is connoted by the notions of remoteness and periphery with respect to an assumed center. The history of this discourse and its geo-cultural inscription during the 19th century (Kern 1983) imposed a global mental mold and attempted to reduce identities expressed by images of Asian centralities to literary figures or anecdotal oddities. Should not the use of East and West in the title of this seminar, or the suggestion that East Asian is more than an opportunistic label, be critically examined? Have such categories any philosophical validity? Do we not still accept a postcolonial condition by the mere fact of using them, even with qualifications? Do they have an impact on our approach to reasoning about semiotic issues? If semiotics is about some form of philosophical or scientific enlightenment, does it make sense to culturally restrict to East Asia an inquiry which necessarily overlaps with Buddhism and its abundant discursive productions and practices spread over a much larger cultural area? Why should this body of reasoning and the models it constructed be implicitly assessed with the gauge of Christian theological conceptual apparatus and its secular versions rather than the reverse? Can we build an inclusive perspective that would truly transcend the different speculative traditions? Is it desirable, let alone possible? This is, at least, what the philosophers of the Enlightenment and their posterity thought, perhaps naively, when they undertook to reconstruct fundamental knowledge on human reason alone.

2. Eurasian perspectives.

It may seem rather surprising that the overwhelming body of metaphysical and psychological speculations generated by Buddhism in Asia has not yet given rise to a secular and rationalist semiotic philosophy with a cultural specificity which would parallel western discourse. If one is to rely on the textual descriptions of modern western semioticians(e.g. Piatigorsky 1976, 1984: Rambelli 1998), there seems to be little doubt that the Buddhist discourse is as rich in discussions of signs and representations, under any other names, as the Western theological tradition. Even though its root metaphors such as "seeds" or "veils" are strikingly different from those of "tracks" or "monuments" of the western classic stream, it puts forward a similar claim to enlightenment with matching intellectual robustness and it is backed by a more impressive temporal depth and inclusive diversity. The first explanation which comes to mind is that the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries proceeded from unique historical circumstances. Therefore it could not be expected that the same transformations could occur in parallel synchronization given the differences in cultures and timeframes. Actually such an expectation would bear witness to a form of postcolonial comparitivism which uses a western historical representation as a universal gauge. Nevertheless this situation begs for an explanation whatever standards one may use. Short of locating in Buddhism some ultimate truth -- and in that case it would have to be decided which variant of Buddhism is selected for this purpose -- we are confronted by a challenge: why religious and philosophical traditions, akin to the Judeo-Christian one in as much as it makes a strong claim to truth and enlightenment, and logically formalizes the problems of meaning, representation and interpretation, apparently have not eventually taken the form of a secular, scientific project similar to modern semiotics? Is this because Buddhist speculations remained enclosed in monasteries and esoteric texts? Is this because its endoctrination processes are so effective and self-absorbing that they preclude the construction of any dynamic interfaces with intellectual inquiries of a more risky or practical nature than self-accomplishment? Some might say that there is no need for this since Buddhism is essentially rationalistic and pragmatic, or even that semiotic concerns are mere symptoms of ignorance which true enlightenment will dispell.Such answers cannot satisfy modern inquisitive minds brought up in more demanding, less dogmatic epistemologies.

The many streams and schools of Buddhism, their geographical dispersion and interfacing with local cultures over the greater part of Asia, their abundant textual productions in both Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan languages, and their propensity to commenting, interpreting and arguing, have, over some twenty-five centuries, generated a huge technical terminology supported by scholastic institutions. This rich Sanskrit and Pali vocabulary and its transliterations,translations and expansions in Chinese and Japanese, provides a stock of notions which largely matches the diversity and refinement of Greco-Latin speculative idioms from which most western semiotic characterizations and categorizations have been derived and neologisms have been coined.

But the discourse of Buddhism itself was not an absolute beginning. It emerged in dialogue with more ancient speculative and mystical traditions in the Indian subcontinent, such as the philosophical insights linked to sacrificial rituals, yoga, and ancient Hindu texts which all provide nomenclatures prone to be redefined and systematized with logical consistency and cognitive credibility. In addition, Buddhism did not spread in a vacuum beyond its area of origin. Divination, medicine, and other codifications offered then, as they still do, much older classificatory terms which can provide root metaphors and lexical forms to more abstract generalizations. Such is the case with the impressively large body of texts produced by Daoism in China.

In the first section of this paper, I alluded to the constructed nature of the East-West dichotomy, and provisionally took it for granted that it had some validity for the purpose of this seminar, if only because the participants apparently agreed to accept such a frame of reference. The mapping and classification of cultures on the bipolar mode has a long history. Before the recent concept of culture itself marked a first step toward the relativization of differences, the ideologies of ethnic identity created many exclusionary categories which remained inscribed in the normative spatial and temporal representations which were globally imposed during the 19th century (Kern 1983). The iconic coining of expressions such as Eurasia, Far East or Indian subcontinent bears witness to the tacit power of ethnocentric representations. The Greeks had their Barbaroi, a radical "othering" notion which has been rendered by many other terms in the course of history. A book published in France in 1994 in a reputable philosophy collection is titled L’Inde pense-t-elle? (Does India [sic] think?). The authors, Guy Bugault, who has taught philosophy at the University of Paris, also makes reference in his introduction, with racist overtones, to "the yellow peoples" with regards to a particular philosophical attitude. This caricatural echoing of a recent colonial past is a symptom of the negative "orientalism" which still pervades large segments of the western intellectual establishment. Symptomatically, a recent monumental handbook of semiotics devotes its 11th section to non-western semiotics, a mere 200 pages representing about one tenth of the total pages published to date (Posner et al. 1997, 1998). This section actually consists of short chapters providing cursory semiotic descriptions of several Asian cultures perceived through the filters of western semiotics. "Orientalism" reduces these cultures to interesting cases under the theoretical gaze of semiotics, a process popularized by the essayist Roland Barthes (1982 )."Occidentalism", on the other hand, is not less problematic. Can the force of inertia of stereotypes be successfully overcome and can semiotics emerge from its ethnocentric, postcolonial predicaments towards a truly enlightening scientific global endeavor?

A first step could be to reconsider the image that western semiotics has constructed of itself in the historical mode. Mythical thought fosters the notion of absolute beginnings and clearcut territorial boundaries. Conceiving cultural and linguistic areas as separated entities results from such mythical thinking and leads to essentialist ontologies and axiologies. The continuum of nature in space and time does not allow for actual gaps. Boundaries of all sorts are more imagined than real. Borders are dynamic interfaces, zones of constant exchanges, transformations, resistance and negotiations. Differences are modes of relation rather than separation. When western semioticians identify the logic and philosophy of the Stoics as the dawn of semiotic thought in Greece in the third century (BCE) they indulge in mythical discourse. There is a scholarly consensus that the founder of Stoicism (Zenon of Citium) was a trader from Cyprus with Asian roots. It is now acknowledged that Greece, far from being the radical beginning that European intellectuals dreamed, was the receiving ends of continuous influences from the Persian and Indian kingdoms. These cultures were fostering a much more ancient tradition of intellectual speculations and controversies. The Hellenistic period in particular, in the wake of Alexander’s conquests, did provide numerous opportunities for intellectual interactions which are explicitly mentioned by the historiographers of the time (Long 1998). Later, other empires, numerous colonizations, trading routes, invasions westward and eastward, ensured a continuous overlaping of traditions and intellectual permeability. The essence of ideas is to spread. The pervasive impact of Asian thought on European thinkers is well documented. Eurasia is probably a better frame of reference for retracing the dynamic of the semiotic discourse and its claim to cognitive enlightenment.

To illustrate my point, a pivotal figure of the European Enlightenment, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (!646-1716), who can also be credited for initiating the beginnings of scientific semiotics in as much as he went well beyond John Locke’s (1632-1704) programmatic statements and considered signs as a crucial factor in all forms of thought and knowledge (Dascal 1978; Dascal and Dutz 1997), was well aware of Chinese moral and philosophical achievements through his interactions and correspondence with the Jesuits (Cook and Rosemont 1994). As biased by religious presuppositions as Jesuitic scholarship may have been, it nevertheless generated an influential literature whose deep impact on the age of Reason is now well established (Yuen-Ting Lai 1998). Leibniz was particularly impressed by a most ancient evidence of powerful logical thinking, the Yi-Ching, which he considered to have prefigured his own binary calculus. Lengthy discussions of this discovery is found in his correspondence with de Rémond (Leibniz 1987). While some specialists have doubted the relevance of such speculations, the impact itself is unquestionable. Semiotics as an essential component of the Enlightenment bears the mark

3. Toward a New Semiotic Paradigm.

The philosophical traditions and ideologies within which the various branches of modern semiotics have blossomed are historical artefacts, even if the conditions of their emergence and development have become invisible, or "unthinkable", to their modern practitioners. Any intellectual heritage carries its load of cognitive constraints and tacit cultural assumptions. The semiotics inspired by Judeo-Christianity are sustained by a fundamentally optimist epistemology, a sort of metaphysical trust in perceptual phenomenology and intellectual intuition, as well as in the possibility and reliability of communication. They tend to presuppose that all problems are solvable, if not already solved, because they exclude by definition divine malevolence or ontological incoherence.

The Enlightenment and its legacy generated a more sceptical approach, attempting to think anew the traditional problems of philosophy and devising methods aimed at reaching true knowledge by strictly human rational means such as logic and experimentation. Modern scientific semiotics was ushered in by the Enlightenment and remains conditioned by its assumption of rationality. In the semiotic discourse, the notion of "sign" is a notion by default. Sign functions have to be assumed in order to explain a class of observed behavior that does not appear to be reducible to pure physical causality, that is, the folk physics built from tactile and visual data. Speculative constructions fill the "black box" on the virtual mode. These diagrams and linguistic models are elaborated within the constraints formed by the tacit assumption that they must be rational and show logical consistency, hence the constant blurring between semiotics and logic in the modern semiotic discourse and its claim to universalism. Furthermore these models aim at discovering laws of nature or laws of the mind whose generality could account for every possible instance of "semiotic behavior". The latter, of course, can be identified only through the virtual models provided by cultural patterns of interpretation and speculative constructions, hence the circularity of the process and the remarkable predictability of the modern semiotic discourse whose pseudo-empirical dimension is usually afforded by "thought experiments" or anecdotal narrative selectively gathered from the scientific literature.

Interestingly, modern semiotics has not paid great attention to the only achievement of the legacy of the Enlightenment which directly bears on its concerns, namely the works of Darwin (1809-1882). Instead, influential semioticians of the second half of the 20th century have promoted the views of an anti-Darwinian, Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), which were more compatible with the implicit metaphysics of the philosophical drive which then had overcome the movement. The point was forcefully made that semiotics should come under the purview of biology but at the same time biology was opportunistically redefined in terms of scholastic semiotic models. Newcomers to the semiotic fold were invited to bask in a euphoric universe "perfused" with signs, a sort of cosmic percolation of semiotic rationality.

As Darwinism is coming of age in the context of crucial advances in biology which impact decisively upon both psychology and anthropology, semiotics finds itself at a turning point which might provide an opportunity to reconnect with the seminal programs outlined by its initiators, C.S. Peirce and F. de Saussure. Since everything has to be built from scratch, the cultural and ideological dichotomy East versus West is becoming irrelevant. If both the concepts of speculative Buddhism and Judeo-Christian semiotics belong to the archaeological museum of philosophy, Eurasian semioticians are confronted with the new daunting task of rethinking semiotics in view of the scientific knowledge of their time, not with respect to the obsessive conceptual echoes of various traditions of ignorance.

Several directions appear to be particularly promising. Let me mention three of them: First, the joint developments of evolutionary psychology and the cognitive neurosciences yield crucial information on sign structures and processes. The former, evolutionary psychology, has taken up from the false start of sociobiology which was purely speculative and had too hastily jumped to simplistic conclusions. It now stimulate a paradigm shift in traditional psychology. The latter, the neurosciences, have moved their focus from pathological neurology to the non-invasive investigation of functional brains thanks to a range of visualizing technologies which make possible observations of neuronal firing patterns and chemical transformations correlated to semiotic behaviors. The dynamic interface between the two is in the process of opening the "black box" which semioticians had labelled "signs"or "semiosis", and what is found is most often surprising such as the probable existence of mirror neurons (Stamenov & Gallese 2002).

Secondly, the notion of rationality itself is recast in Darwinian terms as a set of cognitive "adaptive tools" cobbled together by the tinkering of evolutionary constraints rather than as a "faculty of the mind" endowed with a unified and coherent universal competence for the intellectual understanding of complexity (Gigerenzer & Selten 1999). This new field of inquiry tackles a very sensitive area where the traditional domains and methods of biology overlaps with those of philosophy and mathematics. As stated by the reviewer of a provocative book on theorizing in developmental biology (Keller 2002), "In general, mathematicians value conceptual simplicity and the idealized model of a process, whereas biologists want to know how the specific system they are confronting works" (Slack 2002). As the author herself claims, "organisms solve the problems they face with little regards for elegance, efficiency or logical necessity"(Keller 2002). The search for natural laws which would explain the complexity of the patterns observed by algorithms of matching complexity which would generate rational designs is fundamentally questioned by new approaches such as the cellular automata theory (Wolfram 2002). The "bottom-up" random generation of patterns (which are in the eyes of the beholders) appears now to be the only natural processes as opposed to the "top-down" implementations of virtual blue-prints. These developments interestingly echo some overlooked remarks by Saussure that "signs are irrational" in as much as they are driven by a logic of their own alien to human rationality.

Thirdly, the momentum created some thirty years ago by Richard Dawkins when he tentatively suggested that cultures could be understood as the complex phenotypes of exogenic, possibly parasitic, algorithms conceived as replicating units on the model of the genes, has inspired an abundant literature fertile in novel philosophical speculations. But it has also opened a new field of scientific inquiry which begins to yield counterintuitive models and hypotheses, whose relevance to semiotic questions should be obvious as it is at times explicitly stated by their authors (e.g. Deacon 1997, Aunger 2002).

These are very interesting times indeed for human knowledge. The cognitive revolutions which are taking place under our eyes and the paradigm shifts they trigger are a challenge for all semioticians, either from East or West. Whether our current models of the sign can remain enlightening in this context is an open question.