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“On Signs and Representations. A Cultural Account”: Luis Radford

“l’écriture, la lettre, l’inscription sensible ont toujours été considérées par la tradition occidentale comme le corps et la matière extérieurs à l’esprit, au souffle, au verbe et au logos”.
J. Derrida, De la grammatologie, 1967, p. 52.

1. The ghost of the metaphysics of pre-sence

One of the oldest discussions on the relationships between language and ideas is found in Plato’s dialogue Cratylus.

In this dialogue, Plato deals with several conceptions of language. One of them is defended by Hermogenes, the poor brother of the rich Callias, who claims that names and language are merely conventional —like, he says, the names of slaves, that may be given and changed at pleasure. Another conception of language is held by Cratylus, who maintains that there is a perfect match between the things and their names. The name or the sign of a thing, according to Cratylus, discloses or uncovers the true nature of the thing. In fact, Cratylus goes further, for, in a certain passage of the dialogue, he affirms that all truth and knowledge derive from language and names. Then, Socrates, with his usual subtle spirit of controversy, replies that if knowledge comes from names, then the names must have preceded the things. “But”, he adds conclusively, “how could he [who gives names to things] have learned or discovered things from names if the primitive names were not yet given?” (Cratylus, 347b).

The crucial point in Socrates’ argument against Cratylus’ alleged epistemological link between names and things is, of course, the prior existence of “the first things” over their names, and is embedded in a larger problem, namely, the problem of the relation between the signifier and the signified, a problem that goes back to earlier times. It is very well known that names, in many pre-Hellenic cultures, frequently had a magical power that allowed those who possessed the knowledge of the names to invoke the signified. Thedescendants of Abraham were seen by their neighbours as a somewhat extravagant people for having a God with an inutterable name.

However, the problem of the relation between the signified and the signifier is not a specific problem of Antiquity and its sources. It is present in some contemporary communities with tribal modes of social organization, and —with all its variations and disguises— has unrelentlessly haunted the whole tradition of Western thought, where the signifier has been considered as the the external body of a transcendental essence, as the external matter to the spirit, to the breath and to logos, as said in the quotation that this paper bares in epigraph. For instance, the 16th and 17th centuries quest for a Universal Language —a European quest, in which Leibniz was actively involved, that unfolded in the flow of the discoverings of Chinese writing, “Mexican paintings” and Egyptian hieroglyphs— was underpinned by the central idea of a language capable to go beyond the vicissitudes of the phemeral and noisy speech and to accomplish a direct and strict adequation between thought and the silent signs (V.-David 1965, p. 35). This idea was taken up by Frege, two centuries later. Thus, in an article published in 1882, he stresses the importance of a language capable of writing concepts without going through the non logical nature of speech. He found, in the formulas of Arithmetic, an illustrious example of such a “language” —a “language” that he called “Begriffsschrift” (from Begriff, concept, and Schrift, writing), and that would be translated as “ideography”.

This point is not foreign to some recent trends in linguistics and psychology. It is very hard not to recognize a modern version of Leibniz’s and Frege’s ghosts walking around Chomsky’s generative grammars and those supposedly “deep structures” responsible for the “suface structures” of language. Indeed, generative grammars, although recognizing local differences from one language to another, postulate a universal kernel capable of being described in terms of formal rules from where the language under consideration would be generated. In their own way, some psychologists have been using models of the mind, that have generated an important amount of work in Mathematics Education, based on an apparently harmless distinction between “internal” and “external” representations whose parallelism with the “deep” and “superficial” linguistic structures would hardly be a mere coincidence.

On Signs and Representations A Cultural Account

published in: Scientia Paedagogica Experimentalis, 1998, Vol. 35 (1), 277-302

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