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A Pragmatic Point of View - David Sless

A Pragmatic Point of View - David Sless

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Published by Marcos Beccari

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Published by: Marcos Beccari on Jan 05, 2012
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Communication Research Institute - publications > principles & philo...http://www.communication.org.au/htdocs/modules/smartsection/print....1 de 616/4/2008 15:37
A pragmatic point of view: implications for information design
Type of publication : principles & philosophyBy David SlessAuthor's note:
This is a lightly edited version of the script I used in my presentation at Vision Plus 6in Vienna on July 8, 1999.The ideas in this presentation go back a long way. But the outline and draft did not fully emerge until twodays before this conference, as I sat here in Vienna in a sidewalk cafe sipping a cold beer and slowlyreassembling myself after the long flight from Australia.As I looked up at the facias of buildings around me, I wondered how these same buildings looked to twopeople who were very much in my mind: Otto Nuerath, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.Each of them in very different ways have contributed to the substance of this paper. As I wrestled with theideas for this presentation, it became clearer to me that my original intention of following in the footstepsof the master explainer, Otto Nuerath and his Isotypes, had shifted; what emerged as I jotted down notesin the afternoon warmth, sipping a beer and smoking a cigar, was a thesis and a set of arguments andimplications that followed much more clearly in the footsteps of the master thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein,most particularly his later thinking on the philosophy of language (Wittgenstein 1952) rather than hisearlier thinking (Wittgenstein 1921) that had so energised the positivism from which Nuerath proceededand which still provides a framework for many contemporary intellectual practitioners of informationdesign.This then is a philosophical essay. It owes much to those who were energised by this great city in the earlypart of this century. I therefore feel a sense of symmetry and aptness, and a deep sense of privilege atbeing able to give this paper at this conference, in this city, as the century draws to a close.
My paper is divided into four parts. In the first part I will offer you a brief account of the intellectual contextin which I am working: the main ideas that I am grappling with, and something of their influence onintellectual life and information design in particular.Second, I am going to present you with a thesis—a proposition that takes some conventional certaintiesthat have guided information design and other intellectual activities through much of this century and turnsthese certainties on their head.Third, I shall outline for you the main arguments in support of this thesis.Finally, I shall draw out some of the practical implications of the thesis for information designers.
The intellectual context: semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics.
Often we are guided by ideas that we simply take for granted as received wisdom; we apply categories andhabits of thought to our daily activity without questioning their value to our practice. The ideas I want toexplore with you and overturn are of this type.As a researcher in the philosophy of communication, I have spent some time exploring the categories thathave been used to describe the process. In this century three categories—semantics, syntactics, and
Communication Research Institute - publications > principles & philo...http://www.communication.org.au/htdocs/modules/smartsection/print....2 de 616/4/2008 15:37
pragmatics—have been used extensively as a way of dealing with different aspects of the phenomenon of communication.For me, one of the clearest and most accessible definitions of these three terms is to be found in a slimvolume by Charles Morris, published in 1938:
Foundations of the Theory of Signs
.In this volume, one of the seminal texts in semiotics and linguistics, Morris articulated the frameworkthrough which most of the research and thinking in linguistics, computer science, information design andmany other social and humanistic studies have been studied in this century. Each of these keyterms—semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics—have been used to describe a particular aspect of communication. To paraphrase Morris's definitions: semantics is concerned with the relation between signsand the things they stand for or represent, what we think of in popular discourse as the meanings of signs;syntactics is concerned with the relations between signs, what in popular terms we refer to as grammar;and pragmatics is concerned with the relation between signs and their users, what in popular terms wewould describe as speech or reading.These three types of relationships—and it is extremely important to see these terms as definingrelationships, not objects—fully cover the range and scope within which we can study any type of communication, whether linguistic, or as in our own case of information designers, the hybrid yet indivisiblecombination of language and graphics.On the flight to Vienna from Australia, I had three great treats: two nights sleep in a row, airline food thatwas for once delicious, and the opportunity to sample many of the delights in Robert Horn's latest book:
Visual Language.
As I was thus luxuriously hurled across the globe at 39,000 feet (in the opposite direction to the arrow onthe front cover of Robert's book) I was struck by the personal significance of this arrow. Robert and I travelaround the same globe, share many of the same enthusiasms and visions, yet we travel, in some respects,as it were, in opposite directions. Robert's book, which I commend to all of you, takes Morris's categoriesof semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics and luminously articulates our domain of information designwithin the first two categories—semantics and syntactics. It is the best articulation of our domain withinthese concepts that I have seen. Yet when it comes to pragmatics, the relation between signs and users, itfalters. This is not a criticism of Robert. As Robert points out—quoting David Crystal author of theCambridge
Encyclopaedia of language
—"Pragmatics is not at present a coherent field of study"As a student in this so-called "incoherent" field of study, I take a slightly different view, not only about itssupposed incoherence but also about its status within the field.Pragmatics is the poor relation of the triumvirate—the Cinderella who, in my view, does all the work butnever goes to the ball. Here in Vienna—in this magical city in which great balls have played such an iconicpart—the time has come for Cinderella to go to the ball.In Morris's original formulation and in most subsequent theoretical treatments of the subject the threetypes of relationship are treated as having the same ontological status, the same right to existence underthe sun. They are treated as three aspects of communication, but seen through different approaches andmethods.
The thesis: pragmatics rules, OK!
My thesis is that pragmatics is not only ontologically superior to the other two, but that semantics andsyntactics have no existence outside of pragmatics. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that anysemantic or syntactic analysis is a pragmatic invention. Far from being real and valid subjects in their ownright, my thesis is that semantics and syntactics are generated, constructed through pragmatics.Cinderella's two ugly sisters, I want to argue, are not—as in the fairytale—real in their own right, but moreinterestingly and perversely, Cinderella's own invention—the perfect alter egos for justifying her ownmasochistic desires.But enough of fairy tales and playful dark deconstructions. I turn now to the arguments in favour of mythesis.
Communication Research Institute - publications > principles & philo...http://www.communication.org.au/htdocs/modules/smartsection/print....de 616/4/2008 15:37
Why pragmatics rules
The arguments in favour of my thesis must stand up against one powerful proposition of classical semioticswhich sustains the ontological equality of semantics and syntactics with pragmatics. Namely thatobservations of people and societies point to many areas of consistent usage, whether in language,graphics or other communicative forms. This observed consistency, it is argued, must be the product of anunderlying rationale or process. The proposition that my arguments have to counter is that semantic andsyntactic studies open up for scrutiny this underlying rationale.There are three arguments against this central proposition of classical semiotics.Neither semantic nor syntactic properties of language are observable in themselves. We only have'access' to these properties through instances of language use. To use the terminology of theories inthis area: we can only study
; we can only study
; we can only study
; we can only study the
; and so on. The object of study is never observed, always inferred.(I find resonating similarities between this style of argumentation in science and earlier theologicalargumentation about the nature and existence of god—like semantics and syntactics, god is neverobserved, always inferred. And like god, the existence of semantic and syntactics is taken as amatter of faith, with all the work being done on creating plausible rationales.)Within any theory of semantic or syntactic structuring or rules we also need a theory that explainshow these structures or rules determine behaviour or action (depending on your theoreticalpreferences). Such arguments resonate well with dualist philosophical arguments about the linksbetween mind and body, spirit and action. And they suffer from the same logical flaws and reductioad absurdum.Any theory which presupposes underlying rules that powerfully determine behaviour or action mustalso account for our daily encounter with aberrant behaviour and changes in consistent usage. Whydo people break so called 'underlying rules', rules that are supposed to determine their actions? Howdo people invent new ways of acting consistently, supposedly changing the underlying rules? Again,these are not new questions and resonate with other earlier challenges to functionalist thinking.The classic tactic in defence of 'underlying rules' is endless elaboration. Every exception creates a new rule.But the deployment of this tactic exposes a costly aspect of sustaining a belief in the existence of semanticand syntactic features of language. These beliefs require elaborate and costly academic institutionalframeworks within which to sustain the endless elaboration. Faith is, as ever, greatly demanding of individual and collective effort.Yet despite the effort deployed in order to 'create' the impression of a body of knowledge or 'a coherentfield of study' , as David Crystal refers to it, there are three observations that bedevil attempts to turnthese so called 'fields of study' into useful bodies of knowledge.None of the theories which fall into this broad church—from psychoanalysis to transformationalgrammar and cognitive science—are predictive of peoples' behaviour or actions. In their defence, weare often told that these are theories of interpretation, hermeneutics, ways of understanding thatenrich our world. This may well be true, but they derive much of their rhetorical force from theimplicit and sometimes explicit claim that they actually explain human conduct. Plausiblepost-factum 'explanation' is good story telling, no more nor less. But it is not a useful body of knowledge in any scientific sense.Most damningly, if one is concerned about rigour, these theories offer no methods of proof thatenable us to distinguish between discovery and invention. A typical feature of such theories is thatthey offer a dense and multi variable complex explanation of human action, far more dense andcomplex than the phenomenon they seek to account for. In simple terms, they always present uswith more unknowns than knowns. As most high school students learn: to solve a set of equationscontaining unknowns, you always need the same number of equations as unknowns. It doesn'tmatter how many equations you have, how elaborate or complex they are: 100 equations and 100unknowns can be resolved; 100 equations and 101 unknowns cannot. Behind the wealth of elaboration and scholarship, there is at best an unresolvable uncertainty and at worst, nothing to

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