Stoicism’s Linguistic Turn

Yesterday I posted on the psycho-physical monism of the Stoics and the resulting, less substantive, more relational ontology it entailed.  It is this view of things as having their existence wholly determined by their divinely fated place within the causal nexus of the psycho-physical universe that is mirrored in the Stoics’ philosophy of language.[1] On the Stoics modified semantic triangle, what provides the meaning behind our words or statements are, again, not eternal “ideas” (as per Plato), nor even intellectual “thoughts” (as per Aristotle), but what the Stoics called lekta, a term whose meaning is difficult to ascertain, but which has been various described as the semantic content, the intellectual intention, or a mental linguistic utterance of the things that we verbally say or write. As such, the Stoics seems to have viewed the lekta as an intermediate or hybrid reality between words and pure thought and which as such do not properly “exist” so much as they “subsist” as intramental states of mind and what, because of their materialistic monism amounts to the same thing, “an operational modification by the human material body.”[2] On this “de-psychologized semantics,” as Umberto Eco has described it, the Stoic lekton represents not an ontologically distinct thought or idea, but an indefinite “position within a [semantic] system, the result of an abstract segmentation of the noetic field, a cultural unit…”[3] We rely upon other words, in other words, to largely determine the meaning of our words, a Stoic insight that Eco hails as an unprecedented discovery of “the provisional and unstable nature of the sign-function” and which Milbank commends as “a theory which tends to identify thought with language.”[4] Thus, just as the being and identity of things for the Stoics is a function of their ordained position and role within the divine pyscho-physical causal web that is the existing universe, so the meanings of words is a consequence of their position within the semantic web that is a given system of language.[5] This leads to a further consequence of the substitution of the Stoic lekton in the place of the Platonic and Aristotelian idea, namely a shift from viewing linguistic meaning in terms of a hierarchical and linear model of dictionary-like denotation and semantic “equivalence,” to a more indeterminate model of connotative association and semantic “inference.” As Milbank puts it, the Stoic lekton, “as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… the Stoic conception of meaning [is not one of] equivalence (of sense and object) but rather as a fated connotative or inferential ‘tension.’”[6] To bring this discussion at last to bear on the issues of primary concern in this book, the doctrine of the lekton helped the Stoics avoid the error Derrida, for example, attributes to the Platonic tradition, namely (in Milbank’s words) the “delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.”[7] Or in more modal terms, in contrast to the semantic possibilism (as we might term it) of the Platonic and Aristotelian semantic triangle, according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought or eternal ideas that supplies the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic lekton implies a semantic actualism according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence which are available to be connoted within a given linguistic or semantic system.


[1] Colish, Mirror of Language, 11, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[2] Ibid., 89.

[3] Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 31.

[4] Ibid., 30, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 90.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89. Milbanks remarks here follow those of Andreas Graeser, who writes how “the Stoics conceived the total sum of existence in terms of a moving continuum and thus were not likely to conceive of the denotations of meaningful expressions as natural classes of extra-linguistic entities.” Graeser, “The Stoic Theory of Meaning,” 80.

[7] Ibid., 60.

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