Sunday 28 November 2010

Semiotics, Knowledge and Connotation

Much of this thinking about knowledge has been drawn from Gregory Bateson's idea of 'double description': that 'two descriptions are better than one' (for example, binocular vision). The process of identifying the difference between descriptions was closely associated with a process of 'abduction' (a term he took from Peirce), where the significance of something (it's meaning) was connoted, not denoted. Regarding Peirce himself, it's interesting to note that his concern was primarily for how knowledge was conveyed through signs. He remarked:
"The essential function of a sign is to render inefficient relations efficient... Knowledge in some way renders them efficient; and a sign is something by knowing which we know something more." (Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol 8, p332)

Connotation is contrasted with denotation. Denotation, for Bateson, belongs to the sphere of descriptions which carry their own propositional content. For example, a dictionary definition is denotative; it is, as Wittgenstein says, basically a tautology. Connotation is formed from difference between descriptions; meaning is abducted: the propositional content lies between different descriptions.

However, I think that something which appears to be denotative may nevertheless carry a number of descriptions. The dictionary definition may be denotative, but the fact that it is published in a dictionary carries information concerning the veracity of the definition. If the definition appeared in a blog, it might not carry this in the same way. This seems important to me when we consider open learning content.

I wonder if a blog on its own may be denotative, and may not carry any claim of veracity, but if it is recommended by a teacher, then a person description is added, together with the ethos of the teacher. A blog by a recognised author may also carry the ethos of the author (if this is discoverable to the reader). The veracity or ethos of open learning content might be conveyed by the institution which promotes it. But what then for a wikipedia article which might not have single authorship, or institutional branding? I suspect that if Wikipedia was the only source of information, then this would be a problem. However, Wikipedia is one of many descriptions of things available through the web (and each page contains a variety of descriptions). Personally I use it as a route into literature which is authored. My experience of Wikipedia is rather like that of a detective finding fragmentary clues which I piece together through a process of following-up leads through the technology. Person descriptions and ethos descriptions can be found eventually - I suspect this is an ultimate requirement for knowing.

We might consider that in linguistics connotation results from the articulation of multiple descriptions (double articulation). It's interesting to consider this in the light of semiotic/structuralist attempts to understand music, movies or art. I might look at this tomorrow.

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