Basics of Semiotics and the problem of knowledge

In reply to Theo Wit, aka Sal Scilicet,concerning article “On the Philosophy of Language, Part II” ( – particularly his rejection of my disagreement with his thesis that ‘all knowledge is language based’:

“A toad will not eat a dead fly. Is that because it doesn’t know what’s good to eat? No. If the fly does not behave like a fly, the toad literally can’t see it.”
That’s right; its instincts and senses are imprinted to respond to the signs of a fly in motion; absent the signs, absent the response.
However, in a more complexly organized organism, sign-recognition/response patterns become more complex and allow for greater indeterminacy. When two dogs bark at each other, they are signifying to each other. But one dog can fail to respond to another dog’s bark, signifying that the other dog’s bark is insignificant to it.
The evolutionary question, obviously, is how the sign-recognition/response patterns we find in all organisms develop into something so complicated as language.
Humans have a brain that is not imprinted to simple sign reception and response. The human brain is highly complex and perceives a myriad of signs internally and externally, and constructs readings of these signs that refer back to the past and forward into the future, as well reconstructing them into signs for entities and others not immediately present. It also has to engage in a continuing reorganization of these perceptions, constructions and responses to account for the continuing change of its internal and external environment. “‘Knowledge’ is not an independently verifiable, experiential phenomenon, but an extremely durable hypothesis” – actually it is both; which is exactly why it does have a “verifiable relationship (…)to “my experience”” – my experience is the verification of it.
For instance: “Knowing how to bake a cake is not descriptive of ordinary experience.” Perhaps not; but I surely must know how to bake a cake if what I want to do is bake a cake. Or I must be able to read the recipe written by someone I can rely on to know how to bake a cake (barring a possible disappointment in experience, e.g.,’this cake tastes terrible, this recipe is false!’). If I can bake my cake and it’s edible, this means I have read the signs correctly. (And it doesn’t matter whether the noun “cake” absolutely ‘refers’ to objects like the one I am eating, because I am eating it nonetheless.)
“When I say, “I know what time it is”, I am not referring to one of the classic so-called concrete facts of ‘the real world’, but a convenient social construct, To which we then attach all sorts of meaningful subtexts.” Perhaps; but if it works,i.e., e.g., if it actually gets me to work on time, then even if fictive, it’s a reliable fiction. Although questioning it might be a good study for epistemology – which is why I found your essay interesting despite my disagreements with it – the real problematic is not why language cannot ‘work’ (epistemologically) but why it does, in every day usage (occasional failures not withstanding).

My comment Theo Wit was responding to, posted here to provide histoical context for the above:

The solipsism [some] read in Theo’s insistence on incommunicable uniqueness [of individual knowledge] is mitigated by his assertion of the social construction of the ‘self.’ If you say there is something wrong with this, you’re right; they are incompatible theories. And Theo clearly understands this, by making language – a fundamental tool for social construction – itself problematic. But if it is problematic, how can it effectively drive us to construct a self through use of references to the self and others?
There is an answer: Only if at some stage of development we see others as somehow mysterious duplicates of the self.
Behind this text is not only Foucault, but also Derrida and Jacques Lacan (what I have just described – crudely – is Lacan’s “mirror stage”). The problem has a long history, dating back to Fichte’s “Science of Knowledge” which the German Idealists took up with gusto: the entire world is “other” to the perceiving “self.” Fichte’s basic theory is not too bad – if one substitutes “organism” for “self,” one gets a theory of organism-environment interaction that can also explain, or at least raise for inquiry, certain epistemological and psychological difficulties a rational intelligent organism might have adapting to the physical and social environment (which is how the theory was adopted by the American Pragmatists, for instance). However, the French Structuralists and Post-Structuralists, situating the problematic in the indeterminacy of language as suggested by Saussure’s dialectic semiology, took it as absolute and, ultimately, undecidable.
Much of what they had to say had already been said by such as G.H. Mead, Wittgenstein, Quine and others; and even in their own day by such as Rorty and Umberto Eco. But these philosophers always took into account the fundamentally contingent nature of language, and of the social contexts in which it is used. These contingencies and contexts assure us that our language is relatively reliable for what we want to do with it, despite its problematics.
It is the absolutism of the Structuralist/Post-Structuralist position that gets it into trouble. Theo says (again): “All knowledge is after all, language-based.” As I said before, this is just not true. If it were so, non-rational animals would not be able to find food, since they wouldn’t “know” what to [do with] it. ‘But that’s not knowledge!’ Perhaps not; but the example indicates that the root of knowledge can not be found top-down, discovering how a mind that knows (say) particle physics can also know how to say ‘Hi, Jack!’ to one’s neighbor, or how that remark differs from the word ‘hijack.’ The root of knowledge is to be found (if ever) in how a rational organism interacts with its environment. That is true of language, but it is also true of other means of communication and social activity.


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