The starting point of science or any mode of knowledge seeking is, as Heidegger emphasized, not the 'facts' of that science but the adoption by a human being - the scientist - of a specific semiotic stance or standpoint. The defining stance of modern science is one of treating the world as something which stands over and against (gegen) an 'independent' subject or observer, and which thereby becomes the bodily object (Gegen-stand) of the scientist's own theoretical representations, experimentation and technical manipulations. Heidegger firmly rejected the view that phenomenology was 'anti-scientific'. Rather he rejected the basic stance of modern science as one irreconcilable with the fundamental aims of science as. science - that of searching for and discerning (scire) truth. In its place he suggested a different, more authentically scientific stance: not that of a detached subject standing over and against the world as object but the standpoint of resolutely standing in. the truth of one's own being-in-the-world - one's own embodied relation to the world and one's own direct bodily awareness of the sense or meaning of phenomena.
The understanding of science as a semiotic or sense-making activity was implicit in the philosophy of Kant, and found its first scientific expressions in the 'biosemiotics' of Uexküll and the 'psychosemiotics' of Freud. It received a new and decisive direction from the fundamental ontology of Martin Heidegger, with its emphasis on the fundamental sense or meaning of being or 'isness' as such. It found further expression in the "documentaty method" of Harold Garfinkel and the "focussing" methodology of Gendlin - the semiotics of "felt sense".
Semiotics is formally defined as the study of signs. Signs are in turn an expressions of meaning or sense. Not just linguistic signs, but all phenomena are bearers of intrinsic meaning and at the same time function as signs. But signs do not exist in isolation. The sign function of a word has to do with its place within a larger pattern of linguistic signification.. The sign function of a phenomenon has to with its place within a larger pattern of significance.. A table is not just an extra-linguistic object to which we attach the verbal signifier 'table'. Even without naming it as such, the table already functions as a sign within a larger pattern of significance, being perceived as a place around which we can sit, a platform on which we can eat or write etc. The phenomenon is not merely 'a table' but, for example the table that someone bought at a bargain price just after getting married or moving house. Similarly, a street is no mere neutral object of perception. What I see of it or do not see of it is determined by its place within a larger pattern of significance. What I see is not 'a street' but the. street I cross to get into my car or walk down to the local shop.
The semiotic dimension of phenomenology consists in understanding what a phenomenon is in terms of what it means to us - its place within a larger pattern of significance, actual or potential. What both modern science, pre-modern religious world views and 'post-modernism' share in common, however, is a search for an order or pattern of significance to events. Their common point of departure is the assumption of a pre-given order of things - whether divine, natural or purely linguistic or symbolic. In this respect they ignore the very essence of semiosis, which is the process of emergence (phusis) of actual patterns of significance from a field of potential. patterns - the emergence of order from pre-order. Pre-order is not disorder or chaos, but consists of potential patterns of significance or signification that are not themselves manifest as actual patterns or phenomena. Indeed the very identification of any actual pattern of significance and its representation in a sign system - linguistic or mathematical patterns of signification - tend to foreclose our awareness of other potential patterns of significance and signification.
Common, everyday sense-making and the consensual reality it assumes, consists of already established patterns of significance represented and reinforced by the accounts we give of them within already established languages or patterns of signification. Scientific sense too, seeks to fit new phenomena into already identified patterns of significance represented in the form of mathematical models or scientific 'laws'. Whether or not new experimental data fit these models is less important than the fact that in common with religion and common sense, science assumes a pre-given order of things that can ultimately be represented in one way or another. New models and the patterns of significance they represent, are created on the basis of earlier ones, and therefore however distinct from the latter, are at the same time inseparable from them and shaped by them. In social-scientific practices such as medicine, we see again the assumption of a pre-given order consisting of already established patterns of significance. Thus a patient's symptoms have meaning only as possible signs of a pre-given and already established disease pattern. Tests are conducted to either confirm or rule out the actuality. of this possible disease pattern, without any regard to other potential. patterns of significance unrecognized within the diagnostic framework of medical discourse.
The search for order in science, religion and common sense is self-fulfilling. For any pattern of significance, once identified, limits our awareness of alternate potential patterns and shapes our experience in a way that actively selects out phenomena that do not fit into established patterns or provide signs of other patterns. What Garfinkel called the 'documentary method' is this semiotic process whereby events are interpreted in terms of an already established pattern of significance, and thus provide further 'evidence' of the reality of that pattern. That the perceived pattern of significance. itself may be represented in the form of documents. (for example medical histories or case notes, business reports and legal reports, academic or scientific papers etc) is itself important - for these not only represent perceived commercial, legal, medical or scientific 'realities' according to their own semiotic codes and patterns of signification, but play a powerful role in the way these realities are perceived. Indeed, as documents they form part of the very realities they document. Thus a set of medical test results or a scientific paper does not merely document a specific social practice - that of medical examination or scientific experimentation. As a document it also forms an important part of those practices, laying the basis for further tests or experiments.
Both the ideal standards of the modern scientific method and an authentic scientific stance in the Heideggerian sense stand in direct contrast to the semiotic stance adopted in everyday life. Making sense of things scientifically means going beyond those tacit assumptions and 'understandings' that shape not only institutionalised or professional practices but all the social practices that make up what we call 'everyday life'. These social practices governed by a number of semiotic codes through which 'con-sensual' or 'common sense' understanding of reality is constituted and protected. Three basic types of codes can be identified:
1. A code of discourse. in which we tacitly assume a shared understanding of the meaning or sense of common words and utterances.
2. A code of conduct. governing everyday worldly practices whereby their own commonly accepted sense or 'rationale' is also tacitly assumed.
3. A code of communication. that sets boundaries on the legitimate doubt that can be cast on the commonly accepted senses of words and the commonly accepted sense or rationale of worldly practices.
Together, these codes constitute a set of unspoken rules which assume certain agreed points of departure. for any specific social action or interaction, practice or procedure. Departing. from these rules or questioning these points of departure, is as Harold Garfinkel's studies showed, guaranteed to arouse bewilderment or indignation.
As an example, we can identify three socially-accepted points of departure. for a typical medical consultation:
• It is tacitly understood. that we all know what 'illness' and 'health' are, that they are opposites, and that 'illness' is something 'bad' and 'health' something 'good'.
• It is tacitly understood. that the patient arranges the consultation because he is suffering symptoms of a possible 'illness' which he wishes to have identified and which he is therefore prepared to be prescribed treatment for.
• It is tacitly understood. that the patient will describe their symptoms and that the medical practitioner will then seek to arrive at a medical diagnosis of an illness, and recommend a course of treatment aimed at a 'cure', and based on knowledge of the organic physical 'cause' of that illness.
Should a patient reject any or all of these points of departure, or depart from any of the unspoken rules of interaction they give rise to, he or she will be regarded as disruptive or deviant. This often happens in the case of psychiatric patients who may seek help from a medical practitioner but who may doubt that they are 'ill', doubt that they are in need of 'treatment' or doubt that they suffering from symptoms with an organic cause.
Scientific sense, in contrast to 'common sense', places, in principle, no boundaries on legitimate doubt or questionability. In practice. however, the situation is quite different. For being itself a social practice., modern science is governed by its own unquestioned codes of discourse, conduct and communication, and by the points of departure implied by these codes. What Garfinkel called "ethnomethodology" was, in contrast, a self-reflexive form of scientific research, focussing on the actual processes and procedures - "methods - by which people made sense of the world in everyday social practices and interactions. One of his experimental methods was to deliberately disrupt the semiotic codes of everyday discourse, conduct and communication involved, asking his students to respond to subjects in everyday dialogue situations in a modern 'scientific' manner rather than an ordinary everyday manner - adopting an attitude to sense-making akin to Cartesian doubt or Socratic questioning.
Subject: Hi, Ray. How is your girlfriend feeling?
Experimenter: What do you mean "How is she feeling?". Do you mean physical or mental?
Subject: I mean how is she feeling. What's the matter with you?
Garfinkel was struck by the intensity of the emotions aroused in both subjects and experimenters by disrupting or being required to disrupt routinised conversational exchanges based on common sense understandings and semiotic codes. The example above, is like many others cited by Garfinkel himself, a seemingly facile one. This is largely because Garfinkel quite wrongly identified a 'scientific' attitude to sense-making simply as giving free reign to intellectual doubt about the meanings of words. In contrast, Eugene Gendlin's method of 'focussing', applied within psychotherapy, is far from facile. For instead of seeking to disrupt common sense by challenging people to intellectually define the meaning of commonly used words its focus is on their felt bodily sense. of what these words name.
Subject: I've been upset all day since the meeting.
Subject: What do you mean. I feel upset.
Focusser: I'm asking you to sense how that upsetness feels in your chest and belly.
Subject: It's as if something sticky is turning around and around in my belly.
Focusser: Try recalling your body's felt sense of the whole thing, the whole meeting - to feel the connection between it and he sticky thing turning around.
Subject: That's it. The meeting began all right and I felt good but then there came a sticky point at which I knew I just I wouldn't be able to turn things around.
Focusser: OK, so focus now for a time on recalling your body's felt sense of what stopped that turnaround from happening.
Subject: As I began to feel frustrated I just got more and more in my head, feeling out of my body whilst trying to score intellectual points by squeaking at people in a high-pitched tone of voice.
Focusser: OK. So focus now on what it might have felt like to stay grounded in your body, to let yourself feel the sense of frustration in your chest and belly rather than letting it get to your head and come out in your voice.
Subject: Funny. As I did what you suggested the sticky thing stopped turning over in my belly and I felt something else, like a solid core that felt patient and unperturbed rather than upset.
Though the terms 'psychotherapy' and 'psychotherapist' have a consensually agreed meaning and though they refer to accepted social practices with their own points of departure and semiotic codes, Gendlin questioned the very idea that there is such a thing as 'psychotherapy' or 'psychotherapists'. He argued instead that there were only dialogues between people - any people - dialogues that could be more or less therapeutic. What makes a dialogue therapeutic in Gendlin's sense has nothing to do with knowledge of some 'thing' we call the psyche, or with psychotherapy as a social practice. A therapeutic dialogue is one that breaks a basic common sense code of discourse - the assumption that people share a common mental or emotional understanding of particular words or life situations, that these shared meanings constitute indubitable and unquestionable psychical realities, and that any exploration of our personally felt somatic sense of their meaning is therefore irrelevant.
As Gendlin points out, it is only on occasions when people lack words that they refer back to their felt, bodily sense of what they want to say. Similarly, it is only through not understanding or being understood by others that assumed and conventionalised understandings break down, and a breakthrough to a deeper, felt understanding becomes possible. For as Garfinkel points out: "The anticipation that a person will be understood" is a "sanctioned property of common discourse".
What have a medical consultation or the nature of therapeutic dialogue to do with the defence of scientific methodology? Medicine and psychotherapy are areas where the modern scientific and everyday attitudes to sense-making meet. They are also areas in which an authentic scientific stance is compromised. by a set of pre-established professional practices which, being accepted as a part. of everyday life, are neither socially nor scientifically questioned.
A professional practitioner is someone who applies methods derived from an inherited body of scientific knowledge, and hopefully also keeps up to date with new research. A scientist is someone who not only learns how to apply certain methods more effectively but uses their own experience to add to and deepen the body of knowledge which was the source of those methods. Both the scientist and the professional practitioner begin by accepting an inherited body of knowledge on faith. But the professional practitioner who is also a scientist - a knowledge seeker - goes on to question the limits and explore the gaps in this body of knowledge. There is no reason why an engineer, as a professional practitioner of an applied science, should of necessity also be a research scientist. But the same does not apply to a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. A scientific physician or psychologist is someone motivated and able to learn something more about the human body and human beings from their every bodily encounter with another human being. In the past, every physician was at the same time a scientist, gathering not only new experience but also gaining new scientific insights from that experience. The same was true of psychologists such as Freud. Today, however, we acknowledge entire professions of health 'practitioners' who do not feel any need to be scientists - who apply a general body of knowledge to particular individuals but have no interest in deriving new insights of general validity from their experience of particular patients or clients. Instead they see themselves only as professional practitioners - their sole job being to incorporate. each new person's experiences into a general body of knowledge, to make sense of it in existing terms and respond to it according to their training. Such a 'know enough already' or 'know it all already' attitude may be scientifically. adequate for the job of a professional engineer, who is unlikely to discover new laws of mechanics building a bridge. It is wholly inadequate and inadmissible for a practitioner of the applied human sciences, who will invariably be confronted with scientifically significant. differences in each new human being to whom the existing body of scientific knowledge is applied.
Thus the search for a standard and generic medical diagnosis replaces the development of new insights from gnosis - direct acquaintance with particular patients. The adoption of standard sense-making procedures applies no less in psychotherapy, alternative medicine and complementary health practices as in orthodox medicine and psychiatry. The practitioner seeks merely to identify and remedy a pre-classified 'condition' - whether an organic disorder or childhood disturbance, a chemical imbalance in a person's brain or an 'energy imbalance' in their 'aura', a blocked artery, blocked emotion or a blocked acupunctural 'meridian', a psychological trauma or an organismic 'miasm' (homoeopathy).
Of chief concern to the 'professional' is the correct and effective application of a body of knowledge with which to make sense of and respond to the client's emotional signals or bodily symptoms. Of considerably lesser concern is the patient's or client's own semiotic process - the way they make sense of and respond to their felt condition and its felt sense or meaning. The client is expected only to signify. their condition in conventionalized language that can be 'understood' and 'made sense of' by the professional, and to do so in a time-constrained context governed by its own already established semiotic codes, points of departure and routinised or ritualized procedures.
The current one-sided. scientific definition of 'semiotics' as the study of signs rather than sense, together with the definition of 'semiosis' as the process of sign making. rather than sense-making. fits in well with the semiotic codes governing social and scientific practices in general, which are about 'making the right signs', using the 'right' discourse codes or jargons, and responding 'appropriately' to signs made by others - rather than making deeper sense of those signs.. But for this to happen professional practitioners must be able, according to Heidegger to "glance out beyond their profession and practice and…for once open themselves, let themselves into something entirely different."
The 'hypothesis' of a certain potential pattern of significance in phenomena can be confirmed by experiment or experience. Merely to confirm the phenomenal actuality of a potential pattern of significance however, by no means disproves the reality of other potential patterns, nor does it rule out the existence of alternate, actual patterns. The fact that a vast corpus of sentences, for example, can be shown to share the same syntactic pattern, does not disprove the reality of other potential patterns or the existence of sentences with different syntactic patterns. Similarly, the fact that a person or particle can be shown to exhibit a certain predictable pattern of behaviour proves neither that they do not also exhibit other patterns of behaviour, nor that they do not possess the potential for these other behaviours. In the modern scientific method, it is readily admitted that everything hinges on 'conditions' under which phenomena are observed to follow a predictable pattern, just as in daily life it is readily admitted that everything hinges on the 'situations' in which people behave in certain predictable ways. The question of how conditions or situations are defined, and to what degree they can be said to be 'the same' or 'different' is another matter however. Every determination of an experiential situation or set of experimental conditions is necessarily selective in what it counts as part of that situation or set of conditions.
The grounds of modern scientific and common sense rationality do not themselves fall within the scope of scientific experiment or everyday experience, both of which have their own pre-established rationale or method. of sense-making. Within this rationale, the experiential conditions or experiential situations in which certain patterns of significance are observed are only 'controllable' or 'repeatable' in so far as they are pre-defined by the observer in a way that rules out conditions or aspects of a situation deemed to be irrelevant or not subject to direct observation, measurement or control. The idea that a population of human subjects, for example, can be randomly. selected for a scientific experiment, is ultimately absurd. For any such selection, however unbiased in terms of definable criteria such as age, gender, racial background etc will be unbiased only according to those pre-defined criteria and not others. Indeed the very idea of a 'randomly' indeterminate sample of unique and highly determinate individuals is ultimately a contradiction in terms.
Conversely, however, the different ways in which individuals can make sense of 'randomized' events, and the number of patterns of significance they can find in them is limitless. This was shown by an experiment of Garfinkel's in which university students were asked to trial a new form of counselling in which they could ask the counsellor any series of questions and get a yes or no answer. Unknown to the subjects, the counsellor's yes-no answers were randomized and entirely arbitrary. This did not prevent the subjects from seeking and successfully finding deeply meaningful patterns of significance in the counsellor's answers - even where these appeared to directly contradict one another. Garfinkel's work demonstrated both the human being's unlimited capacity for sense-making, and showed on the other hand, the ways in which this capacity is limited by taken-for-granted significances attached to events and experiences in everyday life.
Just as the perceived social reality of the human being is shaped by their own semiotic activity so is the perceived natural 'environment' of the organism. Jakob von Uexküll recognised that the environment (Umwelt) of the organism is a sign-world or 'semiosphere' shaped by the selective significance it attaches to different sensory phenomena. If the Unwelt of the organism is a world of signified sense or 'signification' then the inner world (Innenwelt) of the organism is a world of sensed significance constituted or 'sentience' - the internal 'semiotic space' of its own sensory environment or 'semiosphere'. Finally, the body of the organism is a vehicle of motoric response to this sign world - and in this way a medium of active signification or sign-making which in turn immediately alters its own sensory environment or Umwelt. The semiotic life of the organism is thus essentially a semiotic circle., one shaped by the selective significance attached by the organism to particular sensory phenomena in its environment, mediated by the inwardly sensed significance of those phenomena, and ending in motoric responses to its environment which both signifiy that sense, alter its sensory environment and signal other organisms within it.
The term 'bio-logy' refers to the speech or language (logos) of life (bios). Of fundamental significance to biology is the understanding of life itself as a language. Molecular biology on the other hand, reduces the 'language of life' to its material expression in a molecular 'alphabet' or genetic 'vocabulary'. Even in the modern understanding of 'biosemiotics' a reduction is performed. Molecular and cellular communication is, as Heidegger noted "reduced to a mere series of reciprocal releasing mechanisms" whilst "chemical processes are elevated to linguistic communication". An authentically bio-logical medicine cannot rest on the reduction of the human body. to a set of 'bio-semiotic' processes understood in this reductionistic manner. Instead its focus must be on the human being's own 'soma-semiotic' processes - their own way of giving signs. and making sense. of their felt body, felt dis-ease and felt bodily self.
Modern medicine and psychiatry, together with so-called 'alternative' medicine, complementary therapies and psychotherapy, are all fields in which today, pseudo-science or anti-science. has entirely replaced authentic science - Fundamental Science. Both pseudo-science and anti-science share a common form of semiotic degeneration - semiotic literalism.. Both the mental patient who claims that there is a nuclear bomb in his belly and the medical psychiatrist who takes this statement as a 'sign' of a neurochemical disorder in the patient's brain fall victim to semiotic literalism. Both take the patient's words literally. Both take them as signs 'referring' to some actual thing - the nuclear bomb in the belly or the neurochemical brain imbalance. Similarly, the orthodox physician who treats a patient's symptoms as signs of a 'hormonal imbalance' and the alternative practitioner who diagnosticises an 'energy imbalance' share a common form of semiotic literalism. This is the understanding of the patient's symptoms as signs. of some bodily 'thing' than as the embodied communication or 'bodying' of a felt meaning or sense. The patient's symptoms are taken as signs of a bodily disease or disorder and the 'cause' of the patient's felt dis-ease - rather than as its bodily epxression.
If someone describes another person as a 'dark horse' we do no take their statement literally, but 'metaphorically'. That is to say, we have a felt. understanding of what they mean.. We do not conduct scientific experiments and look for 'evidence' that might prove whether this person is 'really' a horse and a dark one at that. We would be quite wrong in thinking that this is common sense with which science has no dispute. 'Scientific' psychiatry, for example might well lead a professional psychiatrist to perceive a patient not merely as a 'dark horse' but as 'psychotic'. Why? Because this patient claims, for example to have that bomb in their belly. From the scientific point of view there is no 'empirical evidence' whatsoever for this claim. Therefore it is irrational and a sign of psychosis. And yet the same individual who would be quite ready as a human being to accept a description of a friend or colleague as a 'dark horse' may, as a professional psychiatrist, be totally unwilling to treat the patient's claim as anything but an assertion of literal fact. Both psychiatrist and patient are unwilling or unable to take the assertion as the metaphorical expression of a felt meaning. In this way both share a common mental disorder - what Fiumara call the pathology of literalism.. The mental patient claims it to be a literal 'fact' that there is a bomb in his stomach. The medical psychiatrist not only accepts the literality of the claim but takes it as a sign that the patient is 'psychotic' - and believes that there is quite literally, some 'thing' inside him (a chemical imbalance in the brain that is 'causing' this psychosis. This 'scientific' attitude is adopted even though there is no more evidence of a chemical imbalance than there is of the bomb. Both psychiatrist and patient are mad - they share the common mental disorder of semiotic literalism - a type of semiopsychosis. accepted as normative and actively cultivated by conventional scientific thinking.
One reason the patient finds it necessary to insist that there 'really' is a bomb in his stomach is that in a scientific culture facts and their significance are treated as more real and taken more seriously. than feelings and felt meanings. The reduction of felt. meaning to its expression in verbal signifiers and assertions has a profoundly distorting impact on our understanding of what thought. is. Scientific research is founded on the assumption that language serves to represent 'literal' facts rather than to convey or bear across felt senses. To 'bear across' is the meaning of the Greek verb metaphorein. Aristotle defined metaphor as the verbal representation of one thing as. another - describing a person as a 'dark horse' for example. But what literalistic thinking refuses to recognize is that not just language but perception itself may have a metaphorical character. The fact that we perceive something or someone 'as' this or 'as' that in the first place - as a 'car' or 'clock', as a 'bomb' or as. a 'brain imbalance', as. a 'psychotic' or as. 'a dark horse', is evidence of this metaphorical character. For metaphor is not simply the linguistic representation of one thing as another. It is the perception of things and people 'as' this or that - through a certain 'as-spect'. Which. as-pect we take as significant, and how we interpret this significance, however, tends to determined by the place we assign to a phenomena within an already established pattern of signification - literal or metaphorical - rather than the felt sense or meaning it bears across. to us (metaphorein). Semiotic literalism replaces sensed significances with already established and signified senses, felt sense with assigned. sense, our feeling of what a sign conveys with the search for some 'thing' that it signifies. Signs are reduced to signifiers in search of a signified or to a system of interrelated and mutually defining signifiers. The result is degeneration in our capacity to directly sense significance, to feel addressed by the signs which surround us.
"Each of us is encased in an armour whose task is to ward off signs… The waves of the ether roar on always, but for most of the time we have turned off our receivers. What happens to me addresses me. In what happens to me the world-happening addresses me. Only by sterilizing it. by removing the seed of address from it, can I take what happens to me as a part of the world-happening which does not refer to me. The interlocking sterilized system into which all this only needs to be dovetailed is man's titanic work. Mankind has pressed speech too, into the service of this work." Martin Buber
Buber's dialogical. semiotics was based on the understanding that sense or meaning is something that communicates through. the word (dia-logos) and which can never be fully represented in other. words. What is true of words as verbal signs is true of phenomenal signs also. Whether the sign is a spoken word or life event, a dream symbol or bodily symptom, a set of astrological configuration or statistical correlations, there is no dictionary we can turn to interpret its meaning as it addresses us.. For to turn to the dictionary is sterilise the "seed of address" and the seed too, of our own authentic response to what addresses us.
"Signs happen to us without respite, living means being addressed. We would only need to present ourselves and to perceive. But the risk is too dangerous for us, the soundless thunderings seeem to threaten us with annihilation, and from generation to generation we are perfecting the defence apparatus. All our knowledge assures us "Be calm, everything happens to you as it must happen, but nothing is directed at you, you are not meant; it is just "the world", you can experience it as you like, but whatever you make of it in yourself proceeds from you alone, nothing is required of you, you are not addressed, all is quiet."
© Peter Wilberg 2002