|Picture 4. A toy assembled from children’s construction set7
In the language a combination of sounds forms morphemes, morphemes are assembled to produce words, words are used to write texts. In other words, language is a hierarchical system in which units of a higher level consist of units of lower level.
Units of a higher level are assembled from units of the lower level in accordance with the rules of grammar. In some cases, these rules may be rigid and straightforward as is, for example, in the majority of cases the rule for producing the plural form of nouns in English. In other cases, with regard to the language units of a higher level - texts - these rules may be soft and allow variance. Usually in such cases these rules are not even called grammar, and belong to the cultural norms, laws of the genre or are valued as a manifestation of good or bad taste.
Reference to reality
All these units are signs or symbols. Correspondingly, the language is a sign system or – which is the same – a symbolic or semiotic system (symbolon and semeion both being the Greek for sign). We understand this as follows.
All language units have a dual nature. On the one hand, they can be used as components to assemble units of a higher level. As said above, this is done in accordance with the rules of grammar.
On the other hand, each unit of language refers us to reality. We will not here, nor in the future attempt to clarify the notion of reality. Normally in our common speech we indicate this reference to reality when we say that words have meaning, a sentence expresses a thought, and a text has content. For simplicity, we will mostly use the word content further in this book.
Please pay attention to the next phenomenon, quite obvious in life, but very essential to the understanding of the language. When we design a language unit of a higher level N from units of a lower level n1, n2,..., the content of the unit N in some degree consists of a combination of the contents of units n1, n2,..., but is not limited to them. The unit N as a whole has some additional reference to reality. This is a general rule, and the exceptions only prove it.
Take a simple example. Mother washed the window, the famous phrase of the Russian ABC-book, is precisely such an exception, where the content of the sentence is exactly equal to the sum of the contents of its constituent words. But in this case we deal not with a message, but with a toy phrase which is designed to teach children writing. This sentence assumes no communication load.
Suppose now that this phrase is used in a real situation. In this case, one cannot learn the specific meaning of the words mother and window from a dictionary, they take on additional individual meaning. Both for speaker and for the listener - in the context of their life - the fact that mother washed the window has informational load which they could not have obtained from an encyclopedia.
Another thing that happened when the speaker and the listener invested in this phrase their individual meaning was a clarification, an improvement they made in the universal dictionary meaning of the words mother and window - if only for an infinitesimally small degree.
Where does the language accumulate knowledge?
Language has several means of accumulating knowledge. First, it can be done through development of dictionary. I do not mean only - or even mainly - actual preparation of dictionaries, encyclopedias and reference books in paper or electronic form. First of all, it refers to development of the meanings of words (and other items of a language - say, prefixes, suffixes), which is updated every minute in the activities and interactions of all language speakers in the process of its use. We can say that these meanings are everywhere and nowhere. They are in a not very understandable way recorded in the minds of people (and everyone gets them a little bit differently). But at the same time, the concepts exist on an extra personal level, they can be reconstructed from a combination of texts and even to some extent from the general structure of the language.
Further, the knowledge is accumulated in the form of texts either physically existing in one or another form or having imprinted in the minds of the people who have heard or read them. Each text (read, heard or spoken) has brought about additional information (which follows from the thesis that the content of a language unit of a higher level is not equal to the sum of the contents of the constituent units of the lower level).
Finally, language carries knowledge in the form of its grammar. Grammar divides language units into major conceptual categories and suggests how these categories relate to each other. Grammar of natural languages deals with the most deep, fundamental categories - space, time, existence. When below we talk about other sign systems which can be considered generalizations of the idea of language, we will see that grammar can be much more specific.
A generalization of the language are the sign systems. Russian Wikipedia defines a sign as follows 8:
Sign is an agreement (explicit or implicit) of attributing to anything (the signifier) of a particular meaning (the signified).
This is not at odds with our definition of the language given above. Therefore, we can say:
All units of a sign system have a dual nature. On one hand, they can be used in accordance with grammar rules to assemble units of a higher level. On the other hand, each unit refers to reality.
The reference to reality is a means to impose an order on this reality, to structure it. This was stated by Ernst Cassirer, who
generalized the idea of symbol and recognized as ‘symbolic forms’ a broad class of cultural phenomena, such as language, myth, religion, art and science, through which a person organizes the surrounding chaos. Still earlier Kant argued that art, being an intuitive way of representation, has symbolic nature9.
There are other ways, not just by the sign systems, to organize ‘the chaos around us’. In fact, the discussion of this issue is the subject of this book.
What does reference to reality mean?
In natural language, when a sign refers us to reality it has meaning or signifies something. But that's not the only possibility of such a reference. An element of a sign system may have not meaning but function or purpose, i.e. be designed or designated for something. This is exactly true for the units of the signs system, which we initially used as a metaphor: for the children's construction set. Every detail of the set can be used in many ways. There may be various possibilities of using them, nevertheless, nuts and bolts are in the main used according to their function, wheels - to ride them, etc. Still, as shows the above picture, a wheel from the set can be used ‘off-label’, just as a round object to represent an aircraft engine. ‘The grammar of assembly’ allows one to connect the elementary components and produce an unlimited variety of products.
Examples of sign systems
It seems that the construction of the actual mechanisms is not so fundamentally different from the assembling of toys from the details of the children's construction set. In many ways this is true, however, there are significant differences.
The fact itself that we can label design of mechanisms a sign system is fairly obvious:
Various machine elements; machine blocks assembled from these elements; mechanisms; systems of machines form a hierarchy of units
They are combined with each other arbitrarily but according to some laws of ‘mechanical grammar’
Each of them has a specific purpose, i.e. a reference to reality
Regarding this sign system, let us pay attention to two things. First, the system of machine components does not exist in isolation. It is inextricably linked with the system of weights and measures, with scientific theories, education, the existing opportunities in mining and processing resources, and many other areas of life.
Secondly, I would like to draw attention to the special procedures which in this case organize the reference to reality of the elements of this system. As we mentioned, the individual parts (bolt, gear) have a designation, a function. To be more precise, each of them has a certain range of possible applications, and the possibility of new applications may first be not known but eventually they might be discovered.
When assembling a module or a mechanism from the components, people pursue some goal. They want this machine to carry out some function. The function of the whole machine is mainly determined by the functions of its component parts, but, as a rule, it is not reducible to them. Therefore, special efforts are required in order to organize ‘the reference to reality’, this time of the whole module or the whole mechanism. This stage has a special name - prototyping, testing, debugging, etc. Then begins the stage of incorporation of our machine into the broader reality, first into the technological and production process (by making a small batch of products), and then into the economy (by developing logistics, marketing, sales). And by the end of the day one may find that the new machine fits into reality in a completely different way than it was conceived by its designers, and possibly it will change reality itself beyond recognition.
Training: army and labor market
The transition from medieval army of knights to the army of modern times occurred not so much because of the invention of gunpowder, as by turning the army into a sign system. The soldier was taught to perform common commands, and after that people became elements of the system. Of the individual soldiers it was possible to form units and regiments, which became possible to manage and maneuver.
Again, we should turn our attention to the fact that the training has to be carried not only at the individual level, but units need also to be trained, i.e. a ‘fine-tuning’ has to be organized to establish reference to reality of the elements of a higher level.
Creation of the army as a sign system then immediately led to the development of military science - tactics, strategy, military organizations and other.
Exactly the same can be said about the labor market and the emergence of standardized education. As is well known, these two stories are inextricably linked. According to a popular saying of Bismarck, ‘the wars are won not by generals, wars are won by school teachers and parish priests’.
On the one hand, understanding how the legal system operates is rather simple. Law is only a special language that is designed to format the relationships between people. This language operates a special vocabulary, but otherwise it is quite similar to usual natural language.
The language of law is developed through several mechanisms, which are combined in different ways in different jurisdictions. With the system of Anglo-American common law conceptual system is basically shaped by the courts when examining individual cases. That is, it is very similar to how ideas get developed in everyday life. One can also say that the court of law acts as a researcher, who tries to solve a problem and has to improve his scientific instruments.
Large role in shaping the legal language played and play academic lawyers who do not deal with specific cases or lawsuits, and are engaged in the development of law as a consistent system, i.e. as an integer organism that has its own logic of development.
Finally, the specifics of law are that it should be based not only on its internal logic and the abstract notions of justice, but it should reflect the values and preferences of the society in which it lives. This function is implemented also in different ways, in particular through the parliamentary law-making, and through participation of the jury during the trial.
As regards specifics compared to natural language, we should note that the legal concepts: property, liability, contract, etc., seem easy to understand, but in fact they are not self-evident. One day I happened to be present at a dispute between two of my grandchildren, then 8-9 years old. At that time, they took a great interest in collecting some plastic bubbles, looking similar to coins. It turned out that on the previous day one of them had presented several such circles to the other. Now he had changed his mind and demanded them back. The reasoning was as follows:
These circles used to be mine
You have a lot of them anyway
I tried to turn the conversation to the standard basis of civil law. I said:
What was yesterday, does not matter, but now it's his circles
Whether he has many or few circles is irrelevant
I can not say that such an approach seemed to them convincing. Generally, we must remember that those ethical ideas on which the modern Western society and a market economy are based, did not seem obvious and indisputably true when they appeared in the XVII-XVIII centuries. The thesis that one must not kill his neighbor, but is allowed to economically destroy his business and thus bring him to starvation, is a priori at least not obvious. It is no accident that in order to justify this new ethical system such outstanding works as The Wealth of Nations were written. Trying to justify the new ethics, Adam Smith created the science of economics.
Formal sign systems: Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics
We can say that axiomatic systems are a degenerate case of the sign system. They do not contain symbols that refer to reality, but only a grammar in its purest form. (…)
In order to make use of the results of geometry or mechanics, for example, for engineering calculations, this grammar has to be ‘imposed’ on some material objects. As a result of this operation, a complete signs system emerges where signs refer to reality. Next, the problem arises how to predict the behavior of more complex objects - i.e. their ‘meaning’ and their correlation with reality based on the ‘meanings’ of constitutive more simple objects. And the power of Euclid’s or Newton’s grammar is precisely in the fact that this can be done with great precision. (…)
Informal sign systems: fashion
Stability of a sign system
As we repeatedly stress, the meaning of sentences is not limited to the meanings of the words. In a more general sign system, the meaning of a unit of level N is not limited to the values of its constituent units of the level
The problem, however, is that ‘playing’ with the meaning of words is almost always beneficial. The institutional economics has a special term for such behavior: opportunism. The essence of it is that, say, any agreement expressed in words can be interpreted at least a little in favor of one party. And often such opportunistic behavior results in serious crashes, especially when a chain of successive opportunistic actions of several contractors takes place.
Moreover, very often a situation occurs where somewhat changing meaning of words or other sign structures is beneficial to all parties. It might seem that there is no problem in this case. However, such actions could undermine the integrity and stability of the system as a whole. Suppose, for example, that in production of bolts and nuts standards are not met. For each individual owner of defective nuts it can be beneficial, as it gives him more chance to find a suitable bolt. But the system as a whole will be doing very inefficiently.
There may be various ways to preserve and maintain stable meaning contexts. One such a mechanism is the institution of professions, developed in Western Europe since about the XI century, first by the Catholic Church. Professions include priests, lawyers, doctors, scientists. These institutions establish segregation of the professionals from ‘laymen’ and are organized in such a way as to direct the motivation of the professionals to maintaining and developing their corresponding sign system, and not towards pursuing ‘secular’ purposes. As a result, special activities get developed aimed at conservation of the sign system, ensuring a uniform interpretation of concepts and suppression of deviations. These activities include not only technical work like preparation of dictionaries, technical standards, guidelines, etc. In essence, we are talking about a large cognitive and social system which includes training and research, special ethics, promotion patterns, etc., which has many properties of a living integer organism.