Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies
(IRICS) Vienna, 9 - 11 december 2005

<< Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht / Social Reproduction and Cultural Innovation. From a Semiotic Point of View

Diversity and Consensus - the Working Principles of Societal Semiosis. A Pragmatist Perspective on Innovation and Persistence in Culture and Society

Guido Ipsen (Universität Dortmund/Helsinki)



Especially since the days when postmodernist thought has begun to stir the minds of philosophers and societal theorists, inspiring them that modern society may become fragmented, individualized, and that it may be on the brink of falling into crisis altogether, the issue of societal and cultural change is on the agenda. Cultural critics declare that in the wake of the so-called new media, globalization, and new economy, the old principles of coherence are bereft of validity. On the other end of the spectrum, those whom Umberto Eco would label the "integrated" insist that we face new chances; they propagate the gains and deny the losses.

By subjecting societal processes to semiotic analysis, both extremes may be deconstructed. In the traditions of pragmatist philosophy, we find terminology and concepts that help to better grasp societal tendencies towards innovation or persistence. In this paper, I should like to introduce again, as they are well-established already, the terms Diversity and Consensus. The theoretical basis for my approach is nurtured by the writings of Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey.

Starting from the model of semiosis conceived by C.S. Peirce, I will propose a model of innovation and persistence that is oriented towards the development of thirdness in signs. One of the most important lessons taught by Peirce is that thirdness has no origine a priori. On the contrary, it is situated at the relative end of an experiential process which takes place continuously. In the individual, by social exchange of signs thirdness manifests itself in the form of symbolic legisigns which serve for communication, group identification, etc. On the societal scale, the symbolic legisigns form the basis for political, cultural, and social consensus. These processes have been mapped excellently, partly in other words, by George H. Mead and John Dewey.

Continuing the line of thought according to the writings of the latter, the question of innovation and persistence in society gains a different quality. I shall present an objective approach by illustrating that, semiotically speaking, both concepts are continuously competing with each other. There cannot be consensus without change, and innovation is not possible without persistence. Naturally, the perspective on the quality of persistence and innovation is a different matter. It depends on the valid societal (majority or minority) discourses whether either concept is coined positive or negative.

Towards the end of my paper, I will finally present my view that semiotic theory is also able to make qualitative statements about innovation and persistence which are objectively true. This then rests on a philosophical fundament that assumes that by applying the model sketched above, the truths and values that transcend the immediate here and now of societal change may be estimated, which enables semiotic modelling to gain a prescriptive quality.

Innovationen und Reproduktionen in Kulturen und Gesellschaften (IRICS) Wien, 9. bis 11. Dezember 2005

WEBDESIGN: Peter R. Horn 2005-10-09