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  • The Microstructure of Logocentrism: Sign Models in Derrida and Smolensky
  • Kip Canfield

I. On (Pure) Rhetoric

Peirce (Buchler 99) says that the task of pure rhetoric is “to ascertain the laws by which, in every scientific intelligence, one sign gives birth to another, and especially one thought brings forth another.” Sign models are metaphors that evolve to support any constellation of ideas, and as de Man points out, “metaphors are much more tenacious than facts” (“Semiology and Rhetoric” 123). Any critique of current ideas dealing with human cognition and symbolic behavior must therefore address the metaphoricity of sign models.

In what follows, we will explore a remarkable parallelism in stories about the sign, between the discourse of the humanities and of cognitive sciences. This exploration will be conducted in the form of close readings of two works, “Linguistics and Grammatology,” Chapter 2 of Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, and “On the proper treatment of connectionism” by Paul Smolensky. The purpose of these readings is not to apply results from one field to another or to hypothesize direct influence, but rather to investigate two rhetorical strategies that develop in the face of the same metaphoric impasse. Both of the works in question come out of a rejection of structuralism—in philosophy and cognitive science, respectively—and although their arguments are basically the same, they take different paths away from structuralism.

Derrida stakes out a skeptic’s position, one that shows the aporias and contradictions inherent in the dyadic sign model used by structuralists. He explicitly denies that there is any way around these contradictions. Smolensky, by contrast, has the scientist’s typical aversion to skepticism, and he tries to reconceive the sign model that underlies his theory of connectionism in order to resolve those same contradictions. The parallels between these two works, I will argue, may be attributed to a similarity in the historical moment of each author, even though the works themselves are twenty years apart and their authors are of different nationalities.

Derrida stakes out his territory in opposition to Structuralism, with its linguistic model of rules and grammars for atomic units of meaning. Oversimplification of Structuralism can be dangerous (see Culler 28), but in essence, Structuralism was an empiricist reaction to the interpretive projects of the New Criticism, and it explained referent meaning as the center of a symbolic system or structure. In “Linguistics and Grammatology,” Derrida demonstrates the problems that such an autistic view of human signification entails, and suggests that the dyadic sign model of Saussure is in fact responsible for generating the aporias of Structuralism.

Smolensky’s work is an oppositional response to traditional Cognitive Science, that uneasy mixture of Cognitive Psychology and Artificial Intelligence. Cognitive Psychology, in turn, began as a reaction to the empiricism of Behaviorism and its inability to refer to Mind as a theoretical construct. The relatively humanistic models employed by Cognitive Psychology came under attack after the field became heavily influenced by computer-based Artificial Intelligence in the 1970s, and it became fashionable to value cognitive models only if they had a computational implementation. The state of this modeling led to very simple and brittle models of human cognition and, in effect, dragged Cognitive Psychology back towards Empiricism. For example, a recent work by Alan Newell Unified Theories of Cognition) proposes a theory of cognition that is based primarily on production rules (rules of the if/then type). The complex problem of how the antecedents and consequents of these rules arise cannot be addressed in such a limited architecture: in fact, Smolensky sees this sort of dyadic sign model—the kind of model that is easily implemented on a serial computer—as the basic problem for objectivist Cognitive Science.

Both Smolensky and Derrida, then, object to a tradition that presents a simplistic, deterministic view of human signification, and both elaborate a new vision of semantics and dynamics for their sign models. Each author offers a vision of human cognition that is more complex, more mysterious, and less deterministic than the traditions they oppose.

II. Sign Models

Though the discourse of any given historical moment is governed by certain metaphors, it is often the case that changes to those metaphors are...

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