The Treasure Chest

Tackling Meaning

By Paul Bouissac

Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural Language in Hindu Tantra

By Robert A. Yelle. Religion in History, Society, and Culture Series. Routledge, 2003.

Mantras are probably the most ancient and most puzzling language artefacts that have been conveyed to us through a ritualistic tradition. The nature of their meaning is one of the most debated questions among specialists. Actually, the issue is whether or not they are meaningful in a linguistic and semantic sense. In Explaining Mantras Robert Yelle proposes a semiotically informed treatment of the question. Yelle's approach is pluridisciplinary but in a synchretic rather than eclectic manner, as it draws his semiotic inspiration from Michael Silverstein's work, bringing pragmatically together the Peircean and Saussurean theoretical strands. The results are insightful and go well beyond explaining mantras, ushering in new views on ritual, poetic, rhetoric and law, and their mutual relations. Like all innovative interpretations, there is no doubt that Yelle's conclusions will be considered provocative and will reactivate the debate not only on mantras but also on semiotic theories and methods. Given that the author has a solid background in the history of religions, and is also a trained lawyer, his ability to meet any intellectual and rhetorical challenges can be trusted.

The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin.

By Keith E. Stanovich. University of Chicago Press, 2004

Explicit concerns for meaning has long been a taboo topic in mainstream psychology in spite of sporadic attempts to measure it through "objective" tests. Meaning has been mostly taken for granted in cognitive psychology whose focus tended to be restricted to the processing of information and the construction of models aimed at accounting for perception and reasoning. Two new concerns have entered fairly recently the epistemological horizon of psychology: emotions and Darwinism. "Re-entered" would actually be a more appropriate term since the former was a focus of William James's reflection (e.g., "What is an Emotion", 1884) and James Baldwin had adumbrated the emergence of evolutionary psychology, (e.g., Development and Evolution, 1902). Both concerns, which are central to the argument of The Robot's Rebellion, resurface with a vengeance. James's salvaging of religious belief has indeed become difficult to hold in the context of the New Synthesis and its memetic offspring. Keith Stanovich confronts the problem of meaning in this new context with courage and determination. When the fundamental assumptions of a worldview are undermined by scientific discoveries or compelling arguments, how can humans survive this sudden collapse of the meanings they previously ascribed to things, thoughts and actions? These problems should be of utmost interest to semioticians and the way in which they are tackled by this brilliant cognitive psychologist -- whose research on reading are considered forefront -- should provide us with both insights and healthy provocations. A sustained constructive dialogue between semiotics and cognitive science is long overdue. Stanovich's book could offer a splendid opportunity for this.

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

By Jordan B. Peterson. Routledge, 1999.

Published in 1999, this book does not seem to have been noticed by semioticians. It is however of particular interest for those who, along the line of the Paris School of semiotics, claim that meaning and narrative structures are essentially linked. But semioticians of any theoretical persuasion would find its reading rewarding and stimulating, if only because many problems traditionally raised by semiotics are tackled by Peterson in novel ways, without reference to signs and semiosis, semiolinguistic and narrative structures, or modeling systems. Written by a psychologist, who was then at Harvard University, now at the University of Toronto, Maps of Meaning confronts the question of how humans make sense of their world, their lives and their actions, and cope with changes that happen to upset the beliefs in which meaning is always gounded. The author relies on a wide array of disciplines, using data from developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, anthropology and archaeology, and drawing from the insights he found in Nietzsche, Jung, Dostoevsky, Wittgenstein, Frye, Binswanger and Solzhenitsyn among other. Some pronouncements endorsed by Peterson may make some semioticians uneasy but will definitely challenge them to translate his heuristic metaphors into their own metalanguage and compare his concepts and arguments with those of their own discourse on meaning. Any semiotician concerned with the desirability of balancing extreme formalism with a measure of human psychology should find Peterson's work invaluable.