We live in a technologically interconnected world. Such interconnectivity is only possible because the world is primordially held together by a network of interrelated references that constitutes a whole in which a multitude of parts can become relevant to each other. To help us understand this relational matrix, we can hardly do better than inquire into the structure of signs. Simply put, a sign is something that indicates something else. A sign is not only perceived; it has to be grasped through an apperception of unity. “If we call a consciousness of a sign an apperception,” Husserl writes, “then the signified can also be self-given along with the consciousness of a sign in the unity of one consciousness.” Our consciousness of a sign is at once a co-consciousness of that which the sign points to. In rare instances, however, the indication can be ruptured:

This analysis is obviously fitting for every kind of sign or for acts in which they exercise their present significative function, be they linguistic signs or other types of signs like signals from a boatman. The moment our interest is directed toward the signs themselves and is arrested there (rupturing this normal function), as when it is directed toward the written signs themselves or toward the flag that serves as a signal, abnormality shows up in the lived experience itself. One feels that it goes against the grain, so to speak, and that one is not only violating habit, but a habitual determinative end, a practical imperative.

Although it seems to have largely escaped Husserl’s notice, a lot of scientific activity depends on the possibility of this rupture, on the ability to interrupt the normal flow that constitutes everyday experience. In an extraordinary act of self-reference and in contrast to ordinary discourse, linguistics focuses on the system of language itself. By establishing distinct areas of research (namely, morphology, syntax, phonetics, and semantics), it breaks the phenomenon of language up into manageable parts. By disrupting the reference between signifier and signified, it is able to divorce the system of symbols from its meaning or to look at speech sounds in isolation from the particular messages that the sounds would normally convey. This three-pronged method (disrupting the normal flow of experience, arresting our attention on what is usually overlooked, dividing that which is under investigation into parts) has made it possible not only for linguistics but for science in general to develop a rich body of knowledge. On the other hand, because it breaks up the primordial unity of existence, we want to pay attention to the anomaly of splitting any phenomenon up in this way. Notwithstanding all the gains of carving up the whole, there is a cost to doing so, and it is paid in the form of a particular kind of distortion of reality.

Our intention is not to lecture science about its way of doing business, even less to accuse it of an error in method, but to point out how this sort of pulling apart obscures the world-phenomenon even as it elucidates its mechanical workings. Our emphasis is on the whole. Hence we cannot dispense with the self that is an integral part of it, with the very agency that, by referring things to each other, holds the world together as an actual place in which things are connected and encountered.

(I’ll post the rest in a few days. May your holidays be bright.)


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