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SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

what's love got to do with it?

Adriano Palma


Herbert Simon appears very neutral with respect to the many possible "schools" of literary criticism. And maybe he achieves that goal (but not by uttering sentences consisting only of common sense, though; hence he did not fail). He is not neutral, however, in philosophy. In what follows, I would like to suggest at least some of the ways in which what Herbert Simon states is not uncontroversial at all.

1. Externalist Construals of Meaning

In much of contemporary philosophy of language a sort of quasi- consensus has developed to the effect that "meanings ain't in the head." Externalist ideas have been around since seminal articles written by Hilary Putnam, for example. They can be summarized roughly as follows: what determines the meaning of a symbol cannot be only what goes on from within the thinking-meaning entity because if that were the case we would run afoul of the intuitions encased in the so-called twin-earth tests of intuitions. For reasons of space I don't want to wax long on this, but Herbert Simon is squarely on the other side. The meaning not only of a single term (Putnam's example was "water") but of entire texts is the meaning of that text to someone or something, and that thinking entity can recover meanings via recognitional capacities internal to it. Herbert Simon's "physical symbol system hypothesis" runs directly counter to this somewhat orthodox standpoint: all that is needed to have meanings is the ability to "input symbols into memory, combine and reorganize them into symbol structures, store such structures over time, erase them, output them through motor processes, compare pairs of symbols for equality or inequality, and branch." These are capacities that are not only present in humans, but, as Herbert Simon unambiguously states, they are already present now in computers. And, I take it, computers are not externalist meaning-engines at all.

2. Is This an Empirical Question or Not?

The physical symbol system is an empirical hypothesis for Herbert Simon. But again this is not universally accepted. To cite the clearest example of the opposition, John Searle (1990) presents the following "formal" argument to prove the hypothesis a priori incoherent. Premise 1: Computer programs are formal (syntactic); premise 2: Human minds have mental contents (semantics); premise 3: Syntax by itself is neither constitutive of nor sufficient for semantics. Conclusion: Programs are neither constitutive nor sufficient for semantics. Now only either Searle or Simon is right (either it is an empirical hypothesis that computers think and access meanings or it is false, but it is false a priori because of a very basic form of conceptual misunderstanding). Personally, I tend towards the view that what we face here is the need to uncover of the implicit premisses of both (Searle's and Herbert Simon's views). In particular much of the premises Searle is using depend upon a specific stand (a first-person stand is the one and only affording us the knowledge that our brain is not only a syntactic engine) but it would be very interesting to uncover more of the implicit structure of Herbert Simon's reasoning in that respect.

3. Antiholism and Literary Meanings

One important strand of Herbert Simon's views-and again, at least in the experience of this writer, far from uncontroversial-is that meaning pertains to single words (or even to units smaller than words). There is a vast area of literary criticism which is standing dogmatically behind the holistic dogma along the lines "no meaning without larger and larger contexts." At the limit of the process, of course, the context is the universe as a whole and we can not isolate anything as the meaning of a text. I found very refreshing in Simon's treatment the development of the idea that recovering more meanings out of a literary text is not at all contradictory vis-à-vis the plain fact that "dog" can be a meaningful term all by itself. The idea is that we need not underplay or undermine the evocative power of a novel or of a poem by denying that the use of terms in it can be as commonplace as ever.

4. What's Love Got to Do with It?

I found most intriguing but eventually less than fully satisfying Simon's comments on the representational character of some "artistic expressions." "Representational" is something which denotes outside itself and "nonrepresentational" is something which does not have a "built-in" semantics. Music (and not operas or songs) is nonrepresentational by this standard. The mechanisms which make us "understand" music are very obscure indeed, but I can't help but ask whether we should not go one step further and see meanings also in syntactic structures (broadly interpreted) themselves. Music seems to me to evoke meanings purely via its syntax, and we should try to develop a comprehension of what the contemplation of syntax brings about in terms of meanings attached to meaningless texts.

5. Who Owns a Text Is a Trivial Question

Simon tends to see the realm of literary criticism in catholic ways: there is no point is trying to show that authors' intentions are irrelevant, since they are relevant to she who writes. The readers can, and most often will, find more meaning and different meanings from the intended ones. What is relevant is that the richness of meaningful structures is common wealth: it is open to all from the airport reading of a pulp novel to the rarefied atmosphere of Cummings. And one cannot but agree that much of the debates between different schools of criticisms appears to be an effect of the need of academia to produce new fashions and new ways to publish to enhance one's status within academia itself. But it remains that if meanings are, albeit tenuously, dependent on intensions or intentions of those who write and of those who read, then there are meanings in text, that they are not composed by free signifiers, as some would have us believe. It seems to the present writer that the increased cooperation between a cognitive approach and literary criticism cannot but be helpful in seeing more clearly that literature (and maybe art in general) does not have any privileged status. It is indeed part and parcel of the evocation of meanings we encounter everywhere. One important way of looking at this consists in the construction of cognitive theory of rhetoric. Much of what is evoked by literary texts depends on the skillful ways writers have used to evoke without saying, and ambiguity is just one of them. In this sense perhaps the "two" cultures can start talking to each other, escaping from the traps of the imperialist views that not long ago saw language as a "fascist" order of discourse.

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