Preliminary thoughts on Halliday and semiotics

Trying to understand Halliday’s motivation for the concept of Instantiation has impressed on me the realisation that the very concept arises from Semiotics as a research paradigm. The very idea of assigning the identity and meaning of actual items on the basis of their relationship to a paradigm of virtual possible entities, that is, the relationship between meaning potential (system) and instance (actual), is perhaps the key move in semiotic structuralism. It is the move that severs the relationship between meaning and world, thereby insisting that signs must be defined, not by reference to objects, referents, fact or situations, but relationally to each other. Thus language, as a privileged example of a semiotic system, can be exhaustively described and explained purely on its own terms, without any reference to its actual uses in social life.

It is important to point out that what is at issue here is not the claim that the identity and meaning of a sign or linguistic item is not self-transparent and is determined by a context or background, by something outside of itself as it were. This contextualism is shared across many accounts of language. For example, Heidegger would say: ‘what it is that makes something what it is resides outside itself, not inherent in it’; actually he would would have phrased that as: ‘the essence of something lies outside itself’. Similarly, the shift from the Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein was a matter of no longer insisting that the identity of names or basic propositions was grounded in their transparent relationship to atomic entities and facts, but rather rested on the unfolding of the varied and fuzzy contextual situations of social life. Thus the meaning of a term is a function of what ‘language game’ it is implicated in, and the language game a function of what ‘forms of life’ it is enacting.

So, the move to a context to account for meaning and identity is common to both semiotics and what we might call the more anthropological or praxis accounts of meaning and language by Heidegger and Wittgenstein. The point of difference between the two approaches lies in the character of the respective contexts they nominate. For semiotics and systems theory, context is a relational constellation or assemblage of other virtual possible meanings, meanings that could potentially have been selected in a speech act but were not, whereas for the praxis paradigm, the context is actual ‘worldly’ social situation in which the language is figuring, and the situation itself embodies and expresses deeper socio-historical themes, imperatives and motifs.

If this sketch is even half right, what instantly springs to mind is that a deep gambit on Halliday’s part is a ‘both-and’ attempt to retain and reconcile these two competing paradigms: European semiotic structuralism and Anglo-American anthropology, as he himself phrases the difference. The global vector of Instantiation – patterns of agnation – indexes the former paradigm; the global vector of Stratification, especially its encompassing of ‘the eco-social environment’ mobilises the latter.

I picture Halliday as a Kafkaesque tight-rope artist precariously balancing on the wobbly shoulders of two giant paradigms within linguistics – the systemic and the functional.  This is to attend to the name of his linguistics – SFL: systemic functional linguistics – and note that although it presents as a nominal group functioning as a proper name, a name in which the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘functional’ are set peacefully alongside each other, in fact it may represent more an aspiration, a balancing act, than naming an actual finalised stable entity or accomplished reconciliation of the two paradigms in play.

I end this post with a number of questions for follow-up:

  • What to think about structuralism and its (continuing) role in SFL?
  • How does Halliday try to stitch together such two disparate paradigms as structuralist semiotics and praxis anthropologies?
  • What was the motive for attempting this, and how did it relate to the structural-functionalism of British anthropology at the time?
  • Was this effort simply a result of a dual interest in the Marxist oriented study of language by the Prague school and various Russian schools on the one hand, and the ethnographic functionalist anthropology of Malinowski and the American ethnographers on the other?
  • How did the shifts of British anthropology such as Mary Douglas, Evan-Prichard and of continental Marxists such as Gramsci & Althusser away from a simple, perhaps reductive, materialist and functionalists account of ‘species being’ and ‘society’ impact on the SFL account of the ‘social context’ or ‘social system’ or ‘meaning potential of the social system’?

About Rob McCormack
I am a retired second chance educator living in Melbourne, Australia. Theory I am interested in includes: Rhetoric, both ancient and contemporary; Post-structural discourse theory, Laclau; Halliday's systemic functional linguistic theory; Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer); philosophy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida; 'practice theory' in social theory such as Schatzki, Bourdieu; political theory, such as Arendt, Laclau, Tully ; pedagogic theory and philosophy such as Biesta, didaktik. Praxis I am interested in include: Adult education and adult literacy; second chance education; academic discourse and writing; langauge and learning; Indigenous education.

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