In Defense of Humanism: Pragmatism, Intention and Faith
(The Problem of Signification)
Caley Michael Orr
University of Colorado, Boulder.
Part I: Traditional Liberal Humanism and the Methodology of Pragmatism
Traditional humanism holds several maxims and suppositions to be true, from which it interprets a wide variety of empirical data. First and foremost is the concept of a fixed identity or Self. Each individual has a unique self, and this is the ultimate reference for the individual; it determines meaning and truth. In order for the self to act in the world, an objective world is posited, which we as humans are able to comprehend through the application of reason. Humanism also assumes that our minds apprehend the world as it is, and that our language is, for the most part, an accurate representation of that objective reality (Klages).
Post-Structuralist thought, built upon the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, radically changes this Humanist paradigm. It asserts that concepts such as Self and Other are synthetic products of a structured system into which humans are born. Of most importance is the structure of the semiotic system of language (a structure comprised of signs).
Before moving on to our analysis of Post-Structuralist criticism, a note should be made about the general methodology used in this paper. The philosophical attitude expressed by the pragmatism in this work is inspired by William James. Pragmatism, as referred to in this work, takes on two dimensions. First, the pragmatic effect is merely the logical, empirical consequence of holding an ideal (i.e. concept) to be true. The second dimension, the notion of the pragmatic consequence of action, is the experiential effect of holding an ideal to be true and not only reasoning to its logical conclusion, but acting on the ideal in the objective world. These two dimensions are interrelated in that the pragmatic effect acts as a sort of road-map or program for action which will lead to the consequence of action. In the analysis of the pragmatic effect, the following logic is utilized: if choosing between two or more propositions has no practical effect, then the propositions can be said to have the same meaning or truth value. A program for action is a hypothesis that can be tested within the ideal realm of logic, but the ultimate consequence of this hypothesis can only be determined through the realization of that program through action. The first part of the paper will deal exclusively with the former dimension of pragmatic analysis.
Part II: The Pragmatics of Post-Structuralist Criticism
Literary criticism in our century has been dramatically influenced by the structuralist movement in linguistics. The notion of language as a system in which we inscribe our views of reality has had a profound effect on the way the critic approaches a text. Ferdinand de Saussures conception of a sign as a relation between a signifier and its signified has been especially influential. A pragmatic analysis of the signifier-signified relation would attempt to demonstrate what can be done with such a construction and follow it to its logical and experiential consequences. Deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism and feminist theory are, in essence, examples of interpretive consequences of structuralism and its vocabulary of the sign, value and relation.
First, it is useful to explicate the tenets and premises of Saussurean structuralism. Language is a semiotic system in which meaning is a product of the position in the structure of that system. The fundamental unit of a semiotic system is the sign, and this is comprised of a signifier, a sound image, hand motion, or other vehicle of communication, which corresponds to a signified, or the concept to which the signifier refers. This synthesis is wholly arbitrary in that there is no necessary relation involved in the association between the two components of the sign. Nothing in the signified suggests a particular signifier. This arbitrary nature of the sign accounts for the necessity of a social environment in which the linguistic system evolves. A population of speakers must agree on the arbitrary signs that construct the language (a concept we will refer to as precedence or mutual knowledge* in our discussion in Part III).
It is this linguistic system in which individual words derive their value. Value is the ability of a word to be exchanged for something dissimilar or compared with something similar. Saussure uses the example of the French, mouton, which has the same signification as the English, sheep, but not the same value. In French, mouton signifies both the living animal and the meal, while English utilizes a separate term, mutton, to distinguish between the living animal and the piece of meat. Saussure distinguishes between the structure or langue, and the individual unit or parole. The parole only gains its value within the relations formed within the langue. The relation that gives an individual parole its value is negative in nature. That is, a word gains value in a linguistic system by what it is not. To use the example above, the sign sheep and mouton would have the same value if they signified the same concept in all instances. This is what Saussure calls différence. Différence depends on binary opposites in order to determine what a sign is not. Because of the linear nature of language, only one word can be compared at once, creating the binary pair (Klages). Lévi-Strauss utilizes this notion of opposition in his analysis of myths and their structure.
Claude Lévi-Strauss major contribution to the development of structuralism is his analysis of binary pairs that exist within a structured system. He argues that myths are language and express certain universal principles, hopes and desires which can be compared cross-culturally. Strauss says the parole of mythology is the mytheme, a bundle of relations, which, when placed within the universal langue of a myth, gain meaning (Lévi-Strauss 812). Most importantly, the mythemes are constructed of binary pairs that are established as oppositions. This notion is implied in the title of his book, The Raw and the Cooked (Klages). These binary pairs usually involve a cultures knowledge of the world, which is divided accordingly into pairs such as culture/nature, male/female, light/dark, or good/evil.
The two categories of relations, the syntagmatic and the associative, bind signs together to form value and meaning within a linguistic system. Syntagmatic relations are those relations, such as syntax and sentence construction, which necessarily unfold over time and through space. In short, it is the objective and conventional linear structure of the language. Again, the value of a sign is derived through its position in sentences constructed through those syntagmatic relations. Associative relations, on the other hand, are based upon ones own subjective mental relations between signs. These associations are of an indeterminate order and an indefinite number.
With the vocabulary of structuralism now defined, it is possible to illustrate how the major schools of post-structuralist critical thought are constructed as consequences of the signifier-signified relation. Deconstruction is perhaps the furthest logical consequence, reductio ad absurdum, of structuralism. Derridas project concerns the center or transcendental signified which anchors meaning within a structured system and the play that forever tugs at the seams of such a system.
Derrida calls attention to every systems need for an ultimate reference point or center. It is an illusory product of the system to which the rules of the system do not apply. A center is presented as an absolute ground upon which judgments are made, propositions gain validity, and truth is revealed. The system itself is constructed of the binary oppositions of structuralist theory, and these pairs ultimately refer back to the center of the system. Without a center to hold these pairs in place, it is impossible for value to occur in the semiotic system, and no fixed meaning can be determined from the disordered chain of signifiers. The consequence of structuralism implicit in deconstructionist theory is the illusory nature of the transcendental signified that should give a system a sense of rigidity and structure.
The reductio consequence of the notion of signification and binary pairs is the deconstruction of a stable meaning by demonstrating that value and meaning are dependent upon a transcendental signified. Deconstruction is structuralisms tenets extended to their extreme logical consequences. A signifier refers to a signified and gains value by its relation to other signifiers in a semiotic system or langue. However, the langue must have some absolute ground in order to secure the meaning of the individual parole. In other words, the structure itself must gain value by its relation to something else, and Derrida says that this is the transcendental signified. Thus, the transcendental signified is paradoxically, within the structure and outside it (Derrida 84).
Signification is a process that relies on a center to secure its pragmatic effect; namely, to communicate the concept of the signified by way of the signifier. Derrida asserts that in Western metaphysics there has been a tendency to value one side of a binary pair over another, such as valuing good over evil, light over dark, or masculine versus feminine. In this way, Derrida brings an ethical slant to the notion of binary opposition, and this occurs as a result of the pairs relation to the posited center: the more valued side of the pair is closer to the center. The example we will see in our discussion of Lacan is the masculine-feminine pair, and its relation to the Phallus as center. The establishment of value and meaning is dependent upon the process of signification which itself is dependent upon a transcendental signified. However, it is impossible to talk about a system without using the terms of that system, but the center of a system cannot be accounted for using only the terms of the system and is therefore incomplete. This incompleteness according to Derrida demonstrates that the center is a sort of illusion of the system which acts to limit the play of the components of the structure. It gives stable meaning to the signifiers within the signifier chain by suspending them in an illusory relation to the center. If the center that binds the system is illusory, then the meaning or signification that emerges from a semiotic system becomes suspect, and this is why Derrida says we must examine the play of the parole within the langue.
Play is the infinite realm of possible substitutions and arrangements of a systems components. In a semiotic system, it is the infinite set of possible signifier-signified relations. It is the movement of elements within a structured whole and the cause of a kind of anxiety and tension within systems. Play is complete in the sense that it includes all possible truths, yet it is inconsistent with the rules of any one system; therefore, with the absence of a center, it becomes impossible to pinpoint a specific truth. This reduces a system to an aporia or undecidable meaning, because all systems at some point become internally inconsistent and give rise to contradictory meanings. There is no ground upon which to decide amongst the possible meanings. For example, the signifier good, loses a stable meaning when the center that binds it to its opposite in the binary pair good/evil is lost. The center that gives value to good and evil might be God, Platos Eternal Good, or Kants Categorical Imperative. In all of these cases, the center must be posited, for the existence of God has been impossible to prove, and Plato relies on the asserted existence of the Forms as much as the Good Will is a fundamental posited component of Kants ethical scheme. This incompleteness of the center and inconsistency of play pulls at the structure of a system by constantly challenging its consistent structure. The transcendental signified is both the origin and demise of the system-- its alpha and omega. Once again, this is the extreme pragmatic effect of the structuralist notion of the sign. Because the sign can only come to have meaning within a system, and the structure of the system itself is never secure, a signifier cannot be said to have an absolutely stable meaning. Thus, the consequence is eternal strife between the coming-into-being of a supposed transcendental signified to harness meaning in the world and the play, the natural entropic force that refuses to be captured in a single system.
Derrida marks a distinction between two efficient causes of structure: engineering and bricolage. The notion of the engineer is a myth, because an engineer is an absolute creator; it is a god-figure that constructs systems from pure primordial essence. On the other hand, the bricoleur crafts a system from the remnants of past, deconstructed structures and utilizes only the parole that are useful in the construction of the new langue. While Derridas theory concerns the structurality of structure, what he called a rupture in Western thought (Derrida 83), psychoanalytic and feminist theory each attempt a bricolage of the pieces of the system put into play by the consequence of Derridas reductio ad absurdum of structuralism.
Psychoanalysis makes use of structuralist notions in its explication of the unconscious mind and its structure. How humans enter into the structure of language, how the concept of Self is formed and the construction of gender and sexuality are fundamental interests of psychoanalysis. The psychoanalytic critic, Jacques Lacan in particular, approach these questions from the perspective that the signifier-signified relation is a result of psychological development. The pragmatic effect of the psychoanalytic approach is the reinstatement of meaning as a function of the unconscious mind and the revelation of the existential gap between Self and Other.
Psychoanalysis preoccupation with sexuality, as well as its role in psychological development, and the construction of the unconscious has its roots in the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud, although not himself a post-structuralist, establishes the psychoanalytic vocabulary in which other critics such as Lacan interpret the structuralist paradigm. The Freudian conception of the unconscious mind supposes that the unconscious develops as a result of the repression of sexual or libidinal energy by the Super-Ego in response to the castration anxiety of the Oedipus complex. Sexual drive is the underlying force behind almost all human action, and, discovering sexuality, the child is polymorphously perverse, an undirected mass of seething uncontrolled desires which push to seek pleasure (Klages). For boys, the Oedipus complex is the desire to kill the father so that he can fulfill his libidinal desire for his mother (Klages). Both a male and a female infants first sexual object is its mother, for she provides the first pleasurable experiences. A boy desires his mother, but upon his first realization that girls do not have penises, he comes to develop castration anxiety. This is the fear that his father will castrate him for desiring his mother. It is this fear that creates the conscience or Super-Ego that represses those forbidden desires and creates the unconscious mind (Freud 92). A girl, on the other hand, is subject to Penis Envy, feels animosity toward her mother for not giving her a penis and seeks to be impregnated by her father so that she might have a child with a penis, thereby switching her sexual object from the female body to a male body (Freud 94-96). This process of repression of desires into the unconscious forms the conception of Self and gender. In an analogy to the Saussurean notion of meaning through value, the feminine gender is constructed as negative by the lack of a penis. In defining a precise mechanism by which selfhood is attained, Freuds intentions are humanist in nature.
Lacanian psychoanalysis takes the analogy of the unconscious as a structure and attempts to explain structure as quite literally the product of a signifier-chain. Lacan asserts that language is analogous with and finally imperative to the development of the unconscious mind from the infantile pure consciousness. Similar to what Freud calls the stage of polymorphous perversity, Lacan describes the Real: a primordial monistic consciousness in which the infant is aware only of its immediate needs. The a priori structure of language is made possible by the Mirror Stage, in which the infant becomes aware of its own reflection and recognizes itself as an integrated whole. Upon this realization, the child enters into the Imaginary. The Imaginary is a pre-verbal stage in which the infant misrecognizes the reflection as itself, when in fact it is merely another object or other: what Lacan refers to as a specular image. The pre-verbal concept of Self is formed, as is its existential binary opposite, Other. The process of misrecognition forms the concept of ego, and the unconscious mind is born, tearing a rift between self and other and closing off the Real forever.
The notion of the unconscious mind as structured like a language is derived from the structuralist notion of value. Entering the Imaginary entails an inevitable sense of loss. This loss or lack allows for the différence necessary for structural value and the process of signification that produces meaning. The final stage of linguistic and cognitive development is the realm of the Symbolic, which is the realization of the a priori structure of language, made possible by the Imaginary and its consequent concept of Self. The Symbolic is the final compartmentalization of the pure experience of the Real, into cognitive bundles, or signifiers. As Derrida says, the totalization of the infinite and complete field of experience is impossible to capture in the finite semiotic system of language. In order for this to occur, a language would have to encompass the totality of the natural play in the world. In other words, the langue itself would have to be infinite, and, since this is not the case, a crisis in signification is created. As the conscious use of language struggles to capture all of the experience (to become one with the Real-- an impossible task), it must constantly defer the empirical data along the signifier-chain which comprises the unconscious. This constant deferral does not allow for the fixed and stable meaning of any of the signifiers along that chain. The concept of I is an illusion because it is founded on the misrecognition of the specular image for the self, when in actuality it is just an other. Again, the pragmatic effect of the import of structuralist theory is the abandonment of meaning and the loss of hope that meaning might be found in our world of experience.
Lacan attempts to establish a sort of transcendental signified of his own by positing the Phallic (really just a patriarchal notion of the Real-- a realm in which there is wholeness and unity, with no conception of Lack) as the center of the semiotic system of the unconscious. As in the Freudian theory, gender is constructed as a result of Lack anxiety. The masculine identity is defined by its close relation to the Phallus due to the biological fact that males have penises. On the other hand, the feminine is defined by the lack of a penis. Thus, the feminine identity is a product of a negative relation-- it is defined by what it is not. In the Lacanian psychoanalytic approach, this is of linguistic value. Selfhood is a product of the semiotic I. This I ultimately desires to return to the Real: to feel no lack. Because the feminine I is defined by Lack, it is farther removed from the Phallic Real than the masculine I. Feminist theorists have taken this idea into much consideration. The feminist analysis is perhaps the closest to a true intentionally pragmatic interpretation of structuralist consequence. It is concerned with what can be accomplished by positing the Phallic as the center of our semiotic unconscious and the real effects of writing outside the phallo(go)centric system. This neologism is a combination of the Lacanian notion of the phallocentric system and Derridas insistence that Western metaphysics is rooted in the philosophy of presence manifested in the logos or word. From the American liberal feminist approach of Sandra Gilbert to the psychoanalytically rooted theories of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, feminist critical thought is interested in the politics of the process of signification.
Throughout history, writing, along with most pursuits, has been dominated by men, and Gilberts analysis of this phenomena involves the metaphor of the pen as penis (Gilbert 487). In her article, Literary Paternity, Gilbert points to the oppression of the female identity in the literary profession. This oppression is primarily the result of the identitys definition by negative value: woman is woman because she is not man and lacks a penis. Thus, the long-standing metaphor of the pen as penis necessarily excludes the feminine identity from participation in literary creation. Women are to be passive receptacles of the penis and exist only to be acted on by men, both as literary and as sensual objects (Klages). Gilbert argues that this metaphor arises out of the masculine anxiety which occurs because of the males inability to be absolutely certain of his paternity in regard to his biological children (Klages). Therefore, literature acts as a substitute for certain knowledge of a biologically generative ability. Gilberts work opens the door to womens writing by demonstrating the obstacle as the pen/penis metaphor. Women must find their niche in writing that allows full expression of the feminine experience without being bound by the limitations of Lack.
Helene Cixous takes up the challenge of writing as a woman by embracing the female identity as a positive signification in the traditionally phallo(go)centric semiotic system of language and literature. She asserts that women must write themselves into the phallo(go)centric text that is our collective consciousness. Women have a responsibility to define the feminine identity in positive terms. In The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous claims that to claim or reclaim female sexuality from this oppressive system is to free it from its relation to the Phallus: [women] are in no way obliged to deposit our lives in [the phallocentric systems] bank of lack. . . .We dont fawn around the supreme hole. We have no womanly reason to pledge allegiance to the negative (Cixous 314). Women must take the process of signification into their own hands and write the feminine experience, both in writing about their own bodies and sexuality and by reestablishing the feminine identity as a new signifier within a new signifying system. Cixous calls this new system lecriture feminine or feminine writing. Lecriture feminine involves fluidity and play, the feminine strategy for returning to the primordial pure experience of the Real. Poetry is the medium or genre in which such language finds its place, for poetry relies more on the associative relations of structure and loosens the syntactical restrictions of the syntagmatic. As a textual genre, poetry is self-referential and intentionally ambiguous in pointing toward multiplicity and play. Cixous coins the term sexts, a neologism that illustrates the gendered text and its implications (Cixous 315). Essential to feminine sexts is what Cixous calls jouissance, the French word for orgasm, because it embraces womens sexuality and pleasure as something real and positive, no longer defined by what it lacks, but claiming its own essence.
The biology of the feminine identity is essential lecriture feminine and the final embrace of femininity as a positive signifier. Luce Irigaray takes the biological approach to feminine writing by emphasizing the importance of a linguistic representation of female sexuality. This side of sexuality has had little chance of being part of the signification process because of the limitations established by the phallo(go)centric system. In This Sex Which is Not One, Irigaray describes in the necessary detail the biological origins of female sexuality. She points out that women have erogenous zones all over their bodies, and that these must be considered part of the totality of female sexuality (Irigaray 28). Women must learn to take their sexuality into their own hands (literally and metaphorically). They must become secure in that sexuality without succumbing to masculine oppression which continually seeks to define it in the negative value of Lack and as a product of male sexuality, thereby allowing men to possess a woman sexually (Irigarary 32). Irigarays immediate solution is for women to retreat from men into lesbian relations which can establish the autonomy of womens sexuality until the necessary social changes can be made and women can attain social autonomy and equality, as well.
In conclusion, the intended pragmatic effect of feminist theory and its incorporation of structuralist notions of sign, value and relation is the explication of the need for women to participate in the construction of what it means to be feminine. With the womens movement now at hand, women can no longer be passive in their acceptance of gender roles. They must speak and write their way into the text that is our collective consciousness. Thus, feminist theory takes on its political dimension. With the shifting gender signifiers and the continued attacks on any notion of absolute meaning, criticism and all of Western thought seems to have reached a crisis: with no stable meaning within our semiotic perspective of the world, we are unable to make moral and ethical claims, and humanity is left floundering in an amoral realm.
Part III: New Humanism and the Renaissance of Meaning
Perhaps the gravest consequence of the structuralist paradigm is the deconstruction of volition. With no apparent absolute ground upon which to stand and make decisions, how can humans decide on any course of action, especially regarding moral and ethical issues? Derrida provides a keen observation into the ethical structure of Western metaphysics, but his deconstruction of any sort of system makes it impossible to choose a program of action based on logical grounds. The heaviest blow to any comprehensive perspective of the world comes with the deconstruction of the Self. How can we have certain objective knowledge of the world if we do not have a concrete self from which to begin our investigations? The re-establishment of some of the Humanist ideals, modified by what insights the Post-Structuralist tradition has offered, should remedy this epistemological and ethical crisis, if it can be properly formulated. The reconstruction of the concept of a concrete self, the redefinition of the meaning of meaning and an explication of the role of faith in the realization of the ideal of objective meaning are fundamental goals in what we call the Renaissance of Meaning and the formulation of a New Humanism.
Upon close pragmatic inspection, the concept of a concrete self is seen to have survived the relativistic onslaught of structuralist and deconstructionalist criticism. What has risen from the ashes of these schools of thought are two basic propositions:
1. The concept of Self is an illusion of the structure of consciousness.
2. The Self is an actual concrete entity existing within a conscious being.
(Essentially the binary opposite of proposition 1)
Because of the pragmatic consequence of action, these two propositions can be collapsed into one, and, for all practical purposes, the existential claim about the Self (i.e. proposition 2) can be held to be true. Whether or not the Self is an illusion or not is immaterial; what matters is that the conscious being acts as if a concrete self exists by performing all of the actions that necessarily require the positing of a self (i.e. all of the acts of volition-- willing, desiring, speaking etc). Another example of this method is implicit in such systems as Euclidean geometry. The geometer posits certain abstract entities, such as points and lines, from which one derives theorems that correspond with our empirical experience of the world. It matters little whether those entities truly exist. For all practical purposes, they do, because of the pragmatic consequence of action. Other parallels include theoretical entities in physics such as atoms and subatomic particles, as well as more profound objects such as black holes. These entities have meaning according to the consequences which follow from their postulation.
A theory of meaning within a linguistic system is another goal of the New Humanism, because, in pragmatic everyday practice and in literature, we do mean things by making utterances in a language. Thus, in the spirit of the above proof of the existential significance of Self, meaning exists, as well. Structuralist and post-structuralist criticism seems to forget the true purpose of language: to communicate. The importance of meaning as a function of communication brings us to the need for a theory of communication, if the meaning of meaning (or structurality of structure?) is to be made explicit. What is it then for an utterer to mean something in a language? Our model for determining this will be a Grice-Schiffer hybrid (see Paul Grices Studies in the Way of Words and Stephen Schiffers Meaning). This is an intentionalist approach in that it focuses on the subject (also, the self) as the source of the utterance and meaning as an emergent property that occurs between the utter u and audience A. In the modified, logical Gricean terms, the conception can be formed simplistically as such:
an utterance p means x if utterer u intended to produce some effect E, in audience A, and the E is produced by As recognition of us intention to utter p to mean x (Grice 88).
The Schiffer side of the hybrid incorporates the notion of mutual knowledge* in order to avoid the possibility of an infinite regress of intentions and recognitions (e.g. u intends that A recognize that u intends that A recognize that u intends that A recognizes that. . .). Mutual knowledge* is the knowledge that A knows that p, and B knows that p, and A knows that B knows that p, and B knows that A knows that p. In language and a definition of meaning, it is the recognition on behalf of both the speaker, S, and the audience, A, that there has been a precedence set in which x has taken on a property in relation to a circumstance or fact that is the object of expression p, such that when S wishes to express or mean p, S will utter x (Schiffer 30-31). The * following knowledge is to make clear that the mutuality of the knowledge is dependent upon the context of the environment in which meaning is engendered. Thus, we have provisional account of what it is to mean something pragmatically in a semiotic system.
Mutual knowledge* can also be called belief*, and this is the notion of pragmatic faith in an objective world. This ideal of Humanism can be demonstrated in an informal proof. Unless one gives way to solipsism and sits in the corner denying the existence of an outside world (as the logical extremity of post-structuralist theory seems to suggest-- Derrida in particular) until one turns blue in the face, action must be taken in the world. Logic can map out possible programs of action according to their pragmatic effects. Indeed, it seems that one of the purposes of critical theory, even post-structuralist theory, is the explication of the program of action suggested in texts without actually testing their pragmatic consequences of action. However, in order to practice criticism at all, we must posit an objective world in which to act. One has faith in this world (what Lacan calls the Real), because one must in order to act and interact. If there is no center in which meaning is grounded, then communication itself becomes impossible. Feminist theory, with its political intentions, loses all meaning in the event that we all turn to solipsism, as does any program of action that requires that its consequences be enacted upon the world in order to gain meaning. Finally, without meaning and the volition to act on that meaning, the question arises, why do anything at all?
These fundamental tenets of New Humanism are nothing more than an attempt to restore meaning to the world by explicating certain programs of action. It is true that some things must be posited. Systems do require a transcendental signified, but the illusion is not involved in the center of the system, only in the refusal to choose a program of action that allows us to make decisions in the real objective world. Solipsism and deferral to subjectivity is the only true illusion in the game of meaning and life in general.
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