Metaphorical modelling as research method in semiotics

Katre Pärn

Punctum, 3(2): 33-60, 2017
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2017.0014


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the problematics of methodology in semiotics concerns the more fundamental question of the disciplinary nature of semiotics – whether semiotics is, or should be, a theoretical discipline or an empirical discipline – or both – and the particular modes of inquiry deemed proper for each perspective. Although debating over the disciplinary nature, or, to put it more simply, over how to practice semiotics, in those terms might seem a thing of the past, the problematics reveals its acuteness each time the relationship between theories, methods and practices/applications, as well as their scope and meaning in semiotics is discussed. Yet what remains also latent in these discussions is a more fundamental question of the particular ‘brand’ of ‘science’ and ‘scientificity’ that semiotics is expected (or not) to align with. One of the results of leaving these issues implicit and unarticulated is the divide often seen between theory and method, or theoretical and empirical semiotics.This article attempts to demonstrate how modelling functions as a bridge between theory and method. Yet the value of this bridging depends exactly on acknowledging the more fundamental layers of semiotic inquiry. The main aim of the paper is to propose and develop the concept of metaphorical modelling as a particular methodological tool in semiotic inquiry as well as the humanities more broadly. The role of metaphors in science is a known issue, however, there are few approaches that deal with it explicitly in the humanities, and as a methodological issue. The use of theories and concepts viewed as method brings to the fore the role of language in methodology. Thereby an awareness of the metaphorical functioning and processing of language becomes necessary for understanding how theoretical language is used in research.The article attempts to show that the traditional distinction between theoretical concepts as precise, literal and analytical, and metaphor as imprecise figure of speech is not adequate for understanding how theoretical constructs are used in the humanities in general and semiotics in particular. From this perspective, one can notice that the metaphorical use of theories, constructs and models has been central in the humanities and semiotics for a while. Thus better understanding of metaphor and of the metaphorical use of theoretical constructs could provide a basis for more explicit, precise and systematic use of metaphorical modelling as one specific and valuable mode of inquiry among others. After explicating the connections between method, theory, modelling and metaphor, the article examines these issues in the context of semiotics, more particularly as pertaining to the cross-domain use of a model of the sign and cross-disciplinary use of models of language.

KEYWORDS: theory as method, metaphor, travelling concepts, semiotic modelling, metaphorical modelling
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