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Dynamical Models in Semiotics/Semantics

Instructor: Franson D Manjali

Course Description

The course is mainly expository in character. We shall be concerned with the signifying aspect of human language which is inevitably and simultaneously both natural and cultural. Broadly, we emphasize the relevance of three levels for comprehending the process of signification: the physical-biological, the linguistic-categorical, and the cultural-metaphorical. Such a three-layered perspective -- essential in our view -- has been often masked by the predominantly grammatical approaches to the study of language, especially of the classical and other privileged languages.

Our starting point is the assumption that the case structures pertaining to the sentences of natural languages code and classify the basic patterns of actions and interactions perennially occurring in the world, and available for human perception. The sentential units are geared to capture the interactional dynamics inherent in the world. The infrasentential units, such as the words fill in these case structures or frames, and have meaning only secondarily. However, the linguistic units such as words and case-based sentential structures which categorize objects and actions in the world, upon ritualized use, become severed of their relationship with the physical-biological realm. And moreover, the discrete linguistic signs can be more or less freely and automatically combined to form sentential units. This is the domain of grammar -- the rule-governed and automatized combinatorics of arbitrary symbols -- appropriately the concern of much of traditional linguistics including that of Noam Chomsky and of Ferdinand Saussure. The notion of a topologico-dynamic semantic continuum is, for us, the main means for reestablishing the link between the categorially available linguistic signs and their physical-biological deep structures.

Evidently, the linguistic structures thus formed do not remain deterministically tied to the physical-biological domain. Their use in specific cultural and intersubjective contexts are subject to inter-categorial dynamics. This is essentially the domain of metaphor (and metonymy) which incessantly allows for the appearance of 'new' semantic values for the 'old' formal units and structures. The networks of semantic values thus created and stabilized constitute the cultural-metaphorical 'worlds' which are discursively real for the speakers of particular languages. The elements of these networks, though ultimately rooted in the physical-biological realm can and do operate independently of the latter, and form the stuff of our everyday discourses.

The perspective that we adopt here has benefited from several multi-disciplinary theorizations in the 'non-Cartesian' approaches to Cognitive Science, that have emerged in the last twenty years or so. These include R. Thom's and J. Petitot's topologico-dynamic approach to Semantics/Semiotics, E. Rosch's prototype approach to categorization, L. Talmy's notion of 'force dynamics,' G. Lakoff's and M. Johnson's works on conceptual metaphors, and H. Maturana and F. Varela's concept of 'autopoiesis'. We shall also refer to the 'classical' works of Indian philosopher of language Bhartrhari (7th century) and of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1st century).

Basic readings on the semiotics of Saussure and the linguistic theory of Chomsky, on the developments in Cognitive Science, and in Cognitive Linguistics would be useful for the participants of the course. We shall eschew heavily 'technical' discussions, but it is advisable for the participants to have a sound knowledge of the important concepts and ideas in the above-mentioned areas. As for the Sanskrit works, we shall depend entirely on translations and secondary texts.

Course Outline

We shall be discussing the topics listed below. These are not necessarily titles of the lectures.

Lecture 1 Discrete signs, combinatorics, and the dynamic semantic continuum:
a. Saussure on discrete signs and on combinatorial syntagms,
b. Hjelmslev's notions of the 'content plane' and of the cases as signifying spatial relations,
c. Tesniere's actantial model of sentence meaning.

Lecture 2 Thom's Catastrophe Theoretic Semantics and its further development by Jean Petitot.

Lecture 3 The 'karaka' theory of the Indian grammarians, as expounded by Bhartrhari.

Lecture 4 Len Talmy's 'Force Dynamics in Language and Cognition'.

Lecture 5 Physical Dynamics and the prototype-based categorization of basic sentence structures.

Lecture 6 From the Physical to the Cultural -- the Dynamics of Conceptual Metaphors.

Lecture 7 Autopoiesis: Embodiment, Enaction, and Embeddedness.

Lecture 8 Conclusion: Physical dynamics and cultural models in language and cognition.

Send comments or questions to Franson D Manjali
copyright 1997, Franson D Manjali.
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