“Why do we need linguistic signs?”
“What is a linguistic sign and how does it mean what it means?”
“What effects do linguistic signs have and what precautions are called for when we avail ourselves of them in order to convey our thoughts and feelings, argue with other people or try to move them in any way?”
This complex set of issues, whose roots go back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle, is still of paramount importance today, insofar as it governs the most fundamental questions we ask about language, its meaning and its uses. Throughout debates whose emphasis has shifted hence and forth between logic, grammar, theology, as well as rhetoric and literature, our understanding of what it takes for a linguistic expressions to be meaningful has come in a variety of ways. In order to make sense of this diversity, the consideration of results, even the most recent ones in linguistics, cognitive sciences and information sciences, however essential, is not enough. What is required first and foremost is a second-order model allowing us to catalogue, classify and differentially analyse theoretical patterns that have been implemented throughout history in order to account for the complex phenomenon of meaning as a property of linguistic expression, as a correlate to contents of thought, or else as a product of communication practices.
SÊMAINÔ research project is meant to develop such a methodological device by way of historical comparison between relevant authors and theories. Used as a heuristic filter, it will help us discover and assess (filter “in” and “out”) differences and similarities between them.
These as well as other elements of continuity and discontinuity, whose charting is one of the project’s priorities, will be instrumental in identifying both past patterns and margins for future development. Philosophical inquiries into how language works and what signification is have much to gain from comparative description and mapping of transformations. As a matter of fact, on the one hand, we are confronted with a wide variety of theories which differ one from another by the emphasis they place on different aspects, be it physical (linguistic signs have a materiality and a physiology of their own), semantic (meaning, reference and everything that falls between), psychological (the actual handling of signs in its intellectual and affective dimension) or pragmatic (usage situations of linguistic expression, both successful and biased). On the other hand, for all their differences and peculiarities, linguistic and semantic theories are rooted in conceptual networks whose divergences often reside in matters of detail and local calibration: a number of different authors, who all have their own historical contexts, have been asking time and again similar questions about what are, in fact, linguistic signs, how can they be lent significance and what precautions are required when we make use of them.