•Roy Harris

An integrational approach to communication
The main focus of my research for the past 25 years has been the development of an integrational approach to signs and semiological systems, and hence to all human communication. This involves looking at current educational practice, together with the whole history of linguistic thought from Plato down to the present day, in a perspective that differs radically from the orthodox view presented by traditional authorities. Integrationism has important implications for our understanding of interpersonal relations, as well as of modern society and its communicational resources, including the entire range of arts and sciences.

Communication as a creative activity
All forms of communication, when seen from an integrational perspective, demand continuously monitored creative activity. Even the most trivial act of communication is subject to this requirement. Communication, in other words, is not a closed process of automatic 'transmission' of given signs or messages from one person's mind to another's, but of setting up conditions which allow all parties involved the free construction of possible interpretations, depending on the context. These contextual possibilities are intrinsically ongoing and open-ended. (This applies to my – or anyone else's – statement of them.) This open-endedness outstrips and defies any 'rules' or 'codes' that participants may think can be imposed, either in advance or retrospectively.

Integration and time
Postulating the indeterminacy of communication is not the end but only the beginning of wisdom for anyone who takes the philosophy of the subject seriously. One reason for this indeterminacy is that all communication is time-bound. Its basic temporal function is to integrate our present experience (T1) both with our past experience (T-1) and with anticipated future experience (T+1). (It hardly needs pointing out that the idea of indicating temporal sequence arithmetically as a configuration of 'plus' and 'minus' values, although convenient for purposes of succinct exposition, already begs various important questions about time and signs.) The main point is this. In a timeless world, that temporal integration would not be possible: there could be no signs and no language. So the first precondition for any society that depends on semiological proficiency (operating with signs) is that the participant members must be creatures capable of grasping that integrational process and its temporal implementation.

Integrationism versus segregationism
Recognition of this fundamental integrational function provides a basis for comparing and analysing all communication systems, both linguistic and non-linguistic. Such an analysis stands in marked contrast to traditional semiology, where the reigning assumption is that there must already exist established systems of signs (e.g. languages), without which communication would be doomed to failure. Thus integrationism (as opposed to 'segregationism', i.e. any approach which assumes that systems of communication are independent of their potential users or of the contexts in which they can operate) denies the existence of context-free signs. Signs, including linguistic signs, are products of the communicational process, not its prerequisites.

Three integrational parameters
Integrationist theory recognizes three parameters relevant to the identification of signs within the temporal continuum. These are (i) biomechanical, (ii) macrosocial, and (iii) circumstantial. The first of these relates to the physical and mental capacities of the individual participants. The second relates to practices established in the community or some group within the community. The third relates to the specific conditions obtaining in a particular communication situation.

Signs and rules
By contrast, segregational approaches treat communication as a process by which two individuals, A and B, both already knowing a particular system of signs, choose signs from this given system in order to pass messages to each other. Accordingly, communication can only break down if A or B misapplies the system they are both deemed to be using. But the system itself is, ex hypothesi, adequate for 'conveying' the messages required. It allegedly stands, epistemologically, 'above' and 'beyond' its users and their individual circumstances. In this respect, orthodox theory implicitly treats communication systems as being analogous to institutionalized games, which cannot be played properly unless the individual players not only understand and master but consciously abide by the institutionalized rules.

An alternative to static models of communication
Integrationism questions this rule-based 'games' approach to human communication, regarding it as an attempt to impose a pre-determined static model on an essentially dynamic and creative process. Only by rejecting static models does it become possible to explain linguistic change or the development in human history of quite novel forms of communication, such as writing or television, that are semiologically unique and unprecedented, but nevertheless rooted in the biomechanical, macrosocial and circumstantial conditions obtaining at a particular time and place.

The language myth and demythologization
The integrationist approach to language rejects the 'language myth' that has dominated Western thinking on the subject for centuries past. This myth continues to dominate modern linguistics, whose orthodox exponents postulate idealized linguistic communities bound together by shared systems of known rules and meanings. The integrationist agenda offers the prospect of an alternative: a demythologized linguistics which corresponds more realistically to our day-to-day communicational experience. High on this alternative agenda are the demythologization of the concept 'language', the demythologization of the connexions between speech and writing, and the demythologization of the linguistic relationships between individual and society.


For further discussion of Integrationism and its role in redefining communication please see Integrationism: a very brief introduction


© Roy Harris, Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics, Oxford, 2010-2015