A Realist Approach to Semiotics

Semiosis is multi-functional (Jakobson 1990; Halliday 1994). It is simultaneously referential (or propositional, or ideational), social-relational (or interpersonal), and expressive. Thus, in the Habermasian terms introduced earlier, semiosis raises validity claims of truth, appropriateness and truthfulness/sincerity. Though it should hardly need saying, we insist on the importance of all three, including, contra Saussureans, the role of reference: there are not only signifiers (e.g. words) and signifieds (concepts) but also referents; the ‘play of difference’ among the former could not be sustained without extensive embedding of semiosis in material practice, in the constraints and affordances of the material world. Just because the relation of reference between individual lexemes or phrases and objects to which they refer is not one-to-one or self-sufficient, it does not follow that language and ways of thinking are unconstrained by the world. Not just anything can be constructed.

This does not mean that the differentiations and qualities of the world dictate the content of knowledge – for the latter is a fallible construction and to assume otherwise is to commit the ontic fallacy. But nor is the world or being dependent on knowledge – if one assumes that it is, one commits the epistemic fallacy. This pair of arguments is important in helping us to disambiguate ‘construction’ into its two moments of construal (the fallible ideas that inform it) and construction (in the sense of the material processes, if any, that follow from it) (cf. Sayer 2000). Indeed, even in the case of social constructions such as institutions, what gets constructed is different from how it is construed; and the relative success or failure of this construal depends on how both it and the construction respond to the properties of the materials (including social phenomena such as actors and institutions) used to construct social reality. Of course, the construal need not refer to the material world: it could also refer to other semiotic phenomena, to images, smells, sounds or feelings and states of mind.

Critical realism and semiosis (revised version). Fairclough, N. , Jessop, R. D. & Sayer, A. 2004 In: Realism, discourse and deconstruction. Joseph, J. & Roberts, J. (eds.). London : Routledge p. 23-42. 20 p.

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