Doctoral defence: Jonathan Grant Griffin “A semiotic of motives: Kenneth Burke and Deely-Tartu semiotics”

On 14 March at 16:00 Jonathan Grant Griffin will defend his doctoral thesis “A semiotic of motives: Kenneth Burke and Deely-Tartu semiotics” for obtaining the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (in Semiotics and Culture Studies).

Professor Kalevi Kull, University of Tartu
Professor Mihhail Lotman, University of Tartu

Lecturer Andres Luure, Tallinn University
Professor Richard Fiordo, University of North Dakota (USA)

By laying in parallel key concepts from Kenneth Burke (1897–1993) and contemporary semiotics, this work explores the critical role that motive plays in the development and discovery of meaning within human experience. We highlight Burke’s thought regarding the role of motive in human meaning-making, which he highlighted as an active, volitional process. Drawing especially from the so-called Motivorum works (“A Grammar of Motives, A Rhetoric of Motives”, and the nebulous “Symbolic of Motives”), we enrich Burke’s conceptual schema within an explicitly semiotic frame, derived from an intersection between John Deely’s general semiotics and the Tartu School approach, represented especially by Kalevi Kull. The result is an analytical framework that traces out the necessity of motive from biological goal-orientation to the formal boundaries of human thought. Employing Burke’s notion of terministic screens, treated here as a form of hierarchical modeling, we show that in order to make conclusions about reality, we must use some terms to describe it, which also entails rejecting other incompatible options. Some meanings are made possible, while others are semiotically screened out, which can lead to quite different results for meaning and experience – especially in contexts governed by God-terms, the maximal form of terministic screens. Our choices, which concretize motives, result in a semiotic filter for experience, and over time we become signs of our choices and motives. This runs counter to the Modern paradigm, which treats its motivated conclusions as deterministic entailments. That contradiction arises from Modernism’s semiotic foundation, and we employ our Burkean-semiotic framework to analyze this foundation, its underlying motives, and its meaning results. We argue that Modernism’s internal contradictions result in a collapsing of realism and idealism, with two commonly resulting stances: (1) naive realism, in practice dictated by institutions of power, and (2) naive relativism, dictated by the individual agent. Contrastively, we suggest a teleological method that looks at the various trajectories of incompatible meaning possibilities, traces out their (entelechial) end points, and uses those end points as the basis for which the agent will choose – especially in high-stakes meaning contexts. The questions asked are thus: “What does this choice lead to? What kind of experiential world will it open or close? What kind of motive underlies it? What do I want to be a sign of?”

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