Signs of distinction

The first step in cognition is the making of distinctions. It makes eymological sense, then, that discretion and discernment (each a variety of wisdom) depend on recognition (separation) of discrete things in (from) the flux of experience. All of these words spring from the same Latin root, although in English, discreet and discrete parted company in usage and spelling around the 16th century.

Cognition begins with perception, and perception begins by foregrounding something against what thereby becomes its background. Then it is identified by its difference from something else. In a cultural meaning space, ‘each unit acquires a semantic value only insofar as it is inserted into a semantic axis, and thus opposed to another unit’ (Eco 1976, §2.12.1). In a logical meaning space, ‘assertion always implies a denial of something else’ (Peirce, CP 1.357). The ‘opposition’ can be symmetric in a binary way, as between a pair of opposites, or multilateral as in the radial symmetry of a starfish, or asymmetric like figure against ground or text against context.

A unit, once distinguished within a universe of discourse, can be designated – not only with nouns but also with verbs, adjectives and so forth; a cultural unit is not necessarily a ‘thing.’ Once the name exists, it can be applied either to the node in the network of meaning space – the type – or to an individual instance of the type – a token. But the relationship between word (lexeme) and concept (node) becomes increasingly complex when we take intersemiotic relations into account. As Eco (1976, 122) points out, in reference to ‘Model Q’,

this model anticipates the definition of every sign, thanks to the interconnection of the universe of all other signs that function as interpretants, each of these ready to become the sign interpreted by all the others; the model, in all its complexity, is based on a process of unlimited semiosis. From a sign which is taken as a type, it is possible to penetrate, from the center to the furthest periphery, the whole universe of cultural units, each of which can in turn become the center and create infinite peripheries.

This depiction of ‘the whole universe of cultural units’ approaches the image of a sphere the center of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere – an image with a history traced by Borges (1952) from the pre-Socratic philosophers to Pascal. This sphere was identified with being, the universe, or God, while here it appears as the structure of the universe of discourse: another clue that the world is inside out (Chapter 5).

This model helps to explain why communication problems arise within a linguistic community: the repertoire (the lexicon) is in the public domain, while the meaning space internal to the individual is private. Eco, by designating the nodes as ‘cultural units,’ is clearly referring to a public meaning space (or semantic space, Eco’s own term). As he says, ‘we are looking for a semiotic model which justifies the conventional denotations and connotations attributed to a sign-vehicle.’ And indeed, symbolic communication only works to the extent that language users strive to conform their usage to an ideal correspondence between word and intended referent. Biologically, though, it is clear that this ideal can never be fully realized, since it is always the individual first person speaking, and her utterance can only be shaped by her internal models (of the ideal public meaning space and of the world), constructed through her own personal history.

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