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Dialogic Semiosis: An Essay on Signs and Meaning.

Johansen, Jorgen Dines. Dialogic Semiosis: An Essay on Signs and Meaning. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 1993. xv + 357 pp. $25.00--In response to continental structuralist approaches in contemporary semiotics, Johansen has drawn from Pierce a dialogic model of language meaning. This project organizes the book. In Part 1 Johansen explicates and critiques the approaches of the French structuralist Saussure and the Danish linguist Hjelmslev. In Part 2 he expounds the philosophy of language of the American pragmatist Pierce. In Part 3 he advances his own dialogic model, which crystallizes his proposed union of continental text theory and the general Piercean theory of signs and meaning. The book succeeds in establishing a connection between the study of the formal properties of the sign and the theory of meaning.

In Part 1 Johansen critically analyzes the basic concepts employed in Saussure's and Hjelmslev's text theories. He shows how their methodology is based on a prior assumption, namely, that to carry out the method one must know the language in question. That one can interpret meaning is a precondition for their analyses. This raises the issue of whether it is feasible to analyze a text in purely formal terms without talking account of the referential and communicative aspects of language. Johansen concludes that structuralism's neglect of these aspects renders it unable to explain how language means something.

Part 2 takes the reader on a journey through the labyrinth of Pierce's philosophy of language, showing how his theory of the signifying and interpretative process deals with questions of meaning, cognition, reference, truth, reality, experience, and community. He clarifies some of Pierce's basic triadic distinctions and their interrelations: (1) firstness, secondness, and thirdness; (2) qualisign, sinsign, and legisign; (3) icon, index, and symbol; (4) representamen, object, and interpretant; and (5) energetic, emotional, and logical interpretants. He makes the nuances of Pierce's semiotics as comprehensible as possible. For instance, Pierce's icon-index-symbol distinction is often criticized on the grounds that few pure instances of these sign categories exist. Using material from Pierce's unpublished manuscripts, Johansen rejects the assumption that these are exclusive categories and holds that they concern three modes of functioning of any sign. He explains the distinction with interesting examples, such as Tinbergen's ethology of stickleback fish mating rituals and the developmental human psychology of Piaget and Bruner. These discussions develop his criticisms of structuralism: that meaning is not merely a question of formal code but of both code and reference; and that reference occurs not just through signs functioning as symbols (that is, in virtue of an arbitrary relation to their objects) but also through signs functioning as icons (that is, in virtue of similarity to their objects) and indices (that is, in virtue of part-whole or causal relations to their objects).

Part 3 proposes a Piercean model of the basic elements of the dialogic situation and their relations: utterer, sign, object, interpretant, interpreter. It connects the model to pertinent views of Socrates, Aristotle, Hjelmslev, Habermas, Apel, Austin, Freud, Searle, and Russell, and finishes by showing how to apply it (for example, to the traffic light treated as text).

The reading is quite difficult, being permeated by extended discussion of technical terms and their subtle interrelations. The clash between formal and pragmatic approaches is well developed, however, and the book contains many insights. It argues persuasively that pragmatism can elucidate the preconditions of the understandability of speech and of text meaning--preconditions ignored by purely formalist approaches at their own peril. Thus, a pragmatic philosophy of language and of communicative and social interaction can make an invaluable contribution to contemporary semiotics.
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Author:Holcomb, Harmon R., III
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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