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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Music, Information, Referring

“In 11.6 it is suggested that the capacity of language to have an effect or to ‘mean’ is by virtue of the association of its elementary parts with something in the world of experience, and by the constraints on combination of these parts– or rather, by the association of these constraints with aspects of these experiences. Further, the effect that language structure has is not the whole range of meaning but only information, and more specifically the kind of public information that can be transmitted with little or no error. Music too has parts, and constraints on their combination: notes as compared with phonemes, musical phrases as compared with words, methods of composition compared with syntax. Despite some physical similarities between the parts and constraints of language and of music, they differ deeply in their structural properties and in their content– in the aspects of experience with which they may be associated. However, the very fact that meaning– one might say subject-matter –in language is limited to information leaves room for important areas of meaning or expression to be covered elsewhere. Indeed, if language is specifically an information system (to express or communicate) rather than generally an expression system (for all content), then all types of expressing other than informational ones must be lodged in other modes of expression and other types of activity.”

“These rather obvious observations are brought here only in order to point out that pieces of music cannot be identified with those things that language can identify– certainly not with information, but even not with those feelings that are connected with specific information or specific situations discernible in language.”
[Z.S. Harris, A Theory of Language and Information (1991), p.313]

“In sum, the relation between language structure and language information becomes strong enough to be fruitfully analyzable only when the structure is described with maximal economy as a system of constraints on word occurrence. When this is done, it may be that we also reach the possibility of understanding the relation of referring itself. For if language and information are systems of particular departures from randomness, so are the objects and relations of the perceived world that language talks about, or that the structure of language and corresponds to the structure of the world. There is no basis here for any general claim that language mirrors the world it talks about, or that the structure of language and information corresponds to the structure of the world. However, we can see in the languages of science that their classes of entities and relations are distinguished vis-a-vis each other comparatively to the entities and relations of the science itself.”
[Z.S. Harris, Language and Information (1988), pp.83-84]

Elsewhere in A Theory of Language and Information, Harris argues that all cases of deictic reference convey information about a particular thing through their cross-reference to the subject of an expression implicit in the opening of any discourse: “I say.” “That hat is an awful color” is ultimately reduced to something like “I say that hat has a color that is awful” by Harris’s theory of English syntax. The word “I” bears the weight of all reference to the external world for Harris. Yet his approach to language essentially rejects the study of sentence-meaning in terms of truth conditions. Since his theory of syntax makes for lexicalized parsing, i.e., results in a computer implementation that relies on lexical data to make parsing decisions, his concept of a reduction here is somewhere between semantics and syntax in the Chomskyan senses of those terms. Notice, though, what Harris says about the possibility of accounting for reference in his distributional approach to language, in Language and Information, only three years earlier. There, he considers the correspondence between the linguistic structures of a scientific sublanguage (e.g., the jargon of chemistry) and the structures of the subject-matter of that science to be the most promising example of a relation between words and world that coincides with a successful practice (in this case, of science). This successful practice, he seems to imply, is what makes sciences and their languages the best things to look at for clues to the riddle of reference. Note Harris’s caution when he avoids claiming that this practice of reliable, useful communication in science research is proof of a resemblance between propositions and situations. He only concedes that the success of science language shows a correspondence between two kinds of structures. I think he agrees with the Neo-Kantian opinion that research only becomes possible as science once the researcher rigorously defines her methodology. This definition of the methodology implies a corresponding series of objects-types and their relations that delimits the subject-matter of the science. The Neo-Kantian philosophies of science agree that the success of science depends on the constitution of this kind of structure through the practice and communication of scientists themselves. Harris’s hedged claim about science and its language lends itself to the same transcendental interpretation as the Neo-Kantian idea of methodology.
Harris’s belief that deictic references refer back to the speaker herself via the implicit expression “I say” makes the empirical subject, her body located in time and space, the only means of describing the objective world for the subject who confronts the world with intentions, desires, etc. On the other hand, he believes that music essentially expresses the content of inherently subjective experiences, but that music lacks the structural constraints that would allow its code to acheive objective reference to the world like language does. So music is the system of subjective experiences associated inherently with sound that carry no information, and language is the system of objective information associated only incidentally with sound, that can only carry information but never expresses inherently subjective experiences. I get the impression that Harris’s rigid separation of language from music underwrites his deep respect for music, rather than dismissal. Maybe music is to Harris as religion is to the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason. Having delimited language’s sphere of influence, Harris makes room for music. The latter day Kantianism of Harris’s semiotics puts to shame Hegel’s supposedly post-Kantian reduction of music’s content to that of its text (libretto).

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