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This review appeared in Volume 2 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Communications Theory

by Graeme Nicolson

Phenomenology of Communication: Merleau Ponty's Thematics in Communicology and Semiology. By Richard L. Lanigan. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press. xvii -- 288 pages. ISBN 0-8207-0185-8.

From his beginnings with Edmund Husserl, phenomenology has had a double face. First, it aspired to be a first philosophy, an absolutely fundamental theory of mind, reality and reason, competing with materialist philosophy, Hegelianism, and the other contenders in the domain of metaphysics. This was the undertaking that Husserl called "transcendental phenomenology". Yet always there was phenomenology as an applied philosophy too. Husserl himself worked out a phenomenological version of psychology, and hoped that it would be a prototype for further studies. He wanted a kind of phenomenological reformation of the formal sciences and the sciences of nature and society. In the very first paragraph of his preface to the present book, Lanigan calls attention to this bifurcation of phenomenology. Evidently he himself is only making an application of phenomenology -- specially to communications theory; there is no pretence of contributing to metaphysics. In this way, the book exemplifies the reception and development phenomenology has experienced in the English-speaking world over the past three decades or so. There have been few phenomenological contributions, if any, to first philosophy, in the English-speaking world, but a good number of applications of phenomenology to linguistics, anthropology, the human sciences generally, theology, poetics, and even natural science.

It is not Husserl but Maurice Merleau-Ponty whose phenomenology is invoked in this book, a beautiful and supple form of thought that merged first its philosophy and its application into a simple whole. A fine scholar of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty was, still, above all, a creative and original thinker. There is little doubt that his thought can cast great light upon human communication in all its forms-- in his highest metaphysical reaches as well as in his concrete attention to psychology and linguistics, Merleau-Ponty was ever alive to how we communicate and fail to communicate. He has been well described as a philosopher of ambiguity, and that expresses the artist that also dwelt within him. Although Chapter 1 of the present book, "The Phenomenology of Human Communication", seeks to draw upon Merleau-Ponty's sense of ambiguity and praise of ambiguity, it must be said that the artist's gift was not given to Professor Lanigan.

He proposes -- and I am sure he is right -- that communication is truly human only where the clarity of our rhetoric preserves some awareness that ethics is never so clear-cut. Phenomenology, he proposes, will be well suited to highlight the ambiguity of communication, for it is the philosophy that never eliminates lived experience and first-hand consciousness. And yet this chapter does not tell us why communication, and consciousness in general, have this depth and this ambiguity, even though Merleau-Ponty himself returned again and again to this point. Instead, there are several pages here on a philosophy of science that have a most didactic, apodictic, programmatic ring to them, suggesting that the author's real goal is not to explore ambiguity but to conquer it, and to constitute communications theory as a field of science. One certainly sees the teacher laying it all out on the blackboard !

Chapter 2., "Theoretical Models in the Philosophy of Communication", also has the schoolmaster's touch. The theory of communication can be approached by way of information theory, semiology, existential phenomenology, conceptual analysis, and critical theory. Lanigan wants to make use of all these "models" -- each one highlighting one particular element (or "construct") that is part of human communication. These elements (intentionality, conventionally, and others) are given very brief and sketchy intentionality treated in a page and a half without reference to any of the philosophical debates of Brentano to Follesdal. Again, the reader's attention is displaced towards methodology- how to constitute the discipline of speech communication. And yet: before exploring alternative theoretical approaches, a reader might wonder (this reader certainly did wonder, right at the beginning, what is meant in general by "communication" or "human communication". The book is nA quick to tell us that We also wonder -- we who occupy universities with curriculum and departments organized in a certain way -- what is characteristic and fundamental for an academic study focused on communication. At some places, Lanigan recognizes that communication is a praxis. Yet his theory of communication is not practical; this is not a "how you can communicate better" kind of book there is no ars or tehne of speech communication here. The traditional U.S.A. Speech department was in fact the modern variant of the study of rhetoric, and the secular variant of homiletics.

Rhetoric, Homiletics and Speech were practical disciplines, excellent ones at that whose relative eclipse these days we might be inclined to mourn. But Lanigan's goal is to constitute a theoretical discipline. But is there place or need for such a discipline?

Although Lanigan relies heavily on the concepts and terminology of Saussure, Hjelmslev and other linguists, this field of study is not linguistics. It does not address phonology, morphology, syntax, or the comparison of different languages. Neither is this a semiology in the style of Barthes; it does not address the diversity of ways in which meaning is constituted and disseminated in social life. Speech and speech alone are at issue here. Lanigan's term "communicology" would seem to incorporate a claim that parole as such is now ready for a theoretical, not practical, study. A "life-world" experience such as speaking or speech communication would seem to be in need of a phenomenology whose strength is to encompass lived experience, le vécu, the thought of Merleau-Ponty. I can imagine that an Introduction to this book could have been written to clarify just how communication, and the study thereof, could be demarcated, and why phenomenology would give the philosophical direction to the study. But I did not find those points made in the Introduction that was actually written.

Chapter 3, Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Communication", and Chapter 4, whose shorter title is "Freedom and Field", are so placed in the book that the reader anticipates from them the textual justification for applying Merleau-Ponty to the study of communication. We might have expected Lanigan to cite Merleau-Ponty texts showing how communication helps to constitute perception, or how one's solitary understanding is penetrated by social communication, or how the painter communicates in his work, or how we communicate by way of our bodily gestures, or how social groups communicate with one another. All these matters do appear in the writings of Merleau-Ponty, but Lanigan does not really deal with the writings. I believe there was only one quotation from The Phenomenology of Perception in Chapter 3, only a couple more in Chapter 4, but plenty of references to abstract blackboard schemas and diagrams devised by Lanigan upon which he tries to map Merleau-Ponty.

There is more attention to Merleau-Ponty's text in Chapter 5, "Communication Science and Merleau-Ponty's Critique of the Objectivist illusion", the last-named being another version of the good ambiguity so characteristic of the philosopher. The subject under discussion in this chapter, however, is psychotherapy; the reader is left to draw whatever conclusion he or she wishes to draw on the matter of communication. Psychotherapy is, I suppose, a case of communication; maybe that's the point.

Chapter 6, "Phenomenological Reflections on Habermas' Critical Theory of Communication", is only partly written by Lanigan. It contains as a kind of hard centre (pp. 80 -- 83) an essay on dialectical materialism by two German authors, but the coating, by Lanigan, tries to make the claim that Habermas' theory of communication requires a phenomenology to give it its foundations. Lanigan stresses (pp. 91 fE) the interpersonal character of communication. His position appears to contradict that of the hard-nosed dialecticians whose essay he incorporates, though he betrays no sense that anything is out of place.

The chapters have referred to are grouped as "eidetic research". They are now followed by a group of four chapters described as "empirical research". They deal with cases as diverse as the prisoners' mutiny at the penitentiary in Attica, New York in 1981 (Chap 7; reflections on a psychological test where portions of words are erased and subjects must construe them (chap 8; thoughts on polarization between Black and White youth groups in U.S. inner cities (Chapter 9; and comments on techniques for interviewing for the purpose of generating texts of oral history (Chapter 10). What is Anigan up to in putting such a diversity of material before us? In each case he shows that some phenomenon of communication is at work. That will afford evidence that all sorts of social and educational studies could benefit through grasping how communication works. I certainly cannot deny that aH these studies and cases manifest very graphically either failed or successful communication. But would I be called churlish if I said that we want more linkage between the empirical studies and the preceding eidetic analysis?

Now everything up to here constitutes Parts One and Two of the book. It is Part Three that is likely to be of the most interest to readers of this Review. It is on Semiology thus fulfilling the promise of the book's subtitle.

As with the earlier part, the first four chapters here are called "eidetic research",and the last four "empirical research". One thing we want to see clarified is the relation between the two theoretical approaches, phenomenology and semiology. Clearly it is in the eidetic part that the clarification would be found, if it were to be found at all. Most characteristic of Lanigan is to advocate the fusion of semiotics and phenomenology; Lanigan identifies himself most often and most prominently (pp. 5, 167, 168ff., 175 ff. 184 ff.) as a partisan of "semiotic phenomenology". But there is a bit of a tangle here in certain chapters: at points, Lanigan speaks as if it were he who was carrying out the fusion of the two disciplines or traditions. At other times, however, he speaks as if they were already fused in past history.

Chapter 11, "Structuralism and the Human Science Context of Phenomenology and Semiology", by naming three different initiatives or traditions in its title, is seeking to demarcate them. And given that one's study might focus particularly on langue or langage or parole, Lanigan differentiates phenomenology from semiology in that the former takes parole as primary, whereas semiology is devoted primarily to langage. The distinction is drawn on lines of principle.

Yet the very next chapter, 12, is entitled "The Foundations of Semiotic Phenomenology". It focusses on classical phenomenologists primarily with the aim of disclosing the semiological elements that apparently belong essentially to their thought. My view is that the account of Husserl's phenomenology here grossly overstates Husserl's awareness of semiotic questions. The truth is that the semiotic theory of Logical investigations. Vol. Il, Investigation 1, is all too abstract and even primitive. The account of the intentional act of meaning -- constitution there is barely alive, if at all, to language, or to differences that arise through the chains of signifiers and signifieds. Derrida's study of Husserl showed that beyond any doubt. Now obviously this historical issue poses no obstacle to a philosopher today who wishes to incorporate semiotic analysis within a phenomenology. But the historical deficiencies of Husserl should not be covered up.

Chapter 13, "Semiotic Phenomenology as a Theory of Human Communication Praxis", is a further contribution to a non-dichotomous or integrative theory.

Moreover, this chapter can give us insight into a further matter, how the theory of communication is to be related to semiology. Indeed, I would say that it is most of all in this chapter, occurring so unfortunately late in the book, that the reader can glimpse what "communication" means, in its essentials, to Lanigan. Communication theory, according to Lanigan, focusses upon our linguistic practice, not so as to bring out its digital logic (so prominent in information theory), where something's determinateness is grasped though its excluding what it is not, but on its binary analogue logic, where a thing brings something else along with it. So, for instance, speaking does not exclude silence, but includes it; speech (parole) does not differ from language (langage) but depends on it; etc. Lanigan is regrettably sketchy on this important point, always choosing to address the reader almost confidentially, as one who can surely be expected to understand these important matters already. I suspect that he is right on this matter of the "binary analogue", although he does not explain himself at all thoroughly. Moreover, we are told here that communication is marked by reversibility, that key idea in Merleau-Ponty. Again Lanigan does not explain the point -- rather, he intimates it to us, as if it would be pedantic to explain the point, making us feel that it would be tiresome of us to ask for an explanation of it.

The title of Chapter 14, "Semiotic Phenomenology as a Metatheory of Human Communication", marks it as belonging together with the previous one. Basically, it seeks to show how the semiobiological schemas of Saussure and Roland Barthes would be rewritten if they were subordinated to the "binary analogue logic" of communication theory. To this reader, the chapter seemed to be aiming at even greater abstraction and formalism than, for example, Barthes' Elements of Semiology, but I could not see what gains in insight it might have brought.

The remaining four so-called "empirical" chapters are not empirical at all, not in the way the earlier group were. They offer semiological studies, basically, of C.S. Peirce (Chapter 15), of Alfred Schultz (Chapter 16), of Plato's Sophist (Chapter 17), and practices of academies and conferences (Chapter 18). The book ends with a biographical sketch of Merleau-Ponty.

If one looks closely at the Acknowledgements and Bibliography, one can trace the origin and growth of this collection--for it is not a book but a collection of published essays recycled in the guise of a unitary book. It was produced out of papers which were themselves produced over about 18 years. Lanigan has published other books; now he offers, not a collection of papers as other well-published academics do, but the appearance of something else. And this "book" was not carefully edited. There is a bewildering graph on p. 6 that I eventually established was intended to elucidate a different essay that was not even included in the present collection. On the other hand, Lanigan will often refer to one of his own pieces listed in the Bibliography, without telling us that the piece in question was reprinted as a chapter of this volume. The promise of the title is not fulfilled; the author did not trouble to carry out what he announced.

The sketch on the title page and dust cover seems fitting in a way, appropriate to this collection, perhaps even a metaphor for the academic and the political culture of our time. The sketch renders a group of people all talking away, but not one of them, apparently, listening; for they don't even have any ears.


Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology. Original work published 1964. E.t. by A. Lavers & C. Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1968.

Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena. Original work published 1967. E.t. by D. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Original work published 1913.E.t., B. Gibson. New York: Humanities Press, 1931.

---, Logical Investigations. Original Work published 1900-01. E.t., J.N. Findlay. New York, Humanities Press, 1970.

M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. Original work published 1945. E.t.,Colin Smith New York: Humanities Press,1962.

Graeme Nicholson is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Toronto. He has worked mostly in hermeneutics, on the one hand, and phenomenology and metaphysics, on the other, drawing mainly on the German tradition of philosophy after Kant. His main publications are Seeing and Reading (Humanities Press, 1984) and Illustrations of Being (Humanities Press, forthcoming).

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