Deixis: How Big Is Your Head

deixis = context dependence (δεῖξις Gk “reference, demonstration, display” from deiknynai “to show”)

From wikipedia: “the phenomenon wherein understanding the meaning of certain words and phrases in an utterance requires contextual information.”

Image from What Sorts of People

The most common categories of contextual information are those of

  1. person: the grammatical persons involved in an utterance, usually signalled by pronouns;
  2. place/space: the spatial locations relevant to an utterance, signalled, for example, by the adverbs “here” and “there,” and by the demonstratives “this” and “that” (defined relative to the speaker as proximal [near the speaker: “here”], medial [near the addressee] and distal [far from both: “there”]); and
  3. time: the various times involved in and referred to in an utterance, signalled by adverbs like “now,” “then,” “soon,” etc. (defined relative to the time when an utterance is made: the “encoding time,” or when it is heard: the “decoding time” [Fillmore 1971]) and tenses.

There is also discourse/text deixis (the use of expressions within an utterance to refer to parts of the discourse that contain the utterance, e.g., “This is a great story”), and social deixis (the use of expressions that signal relative social status and level of familiarity, in particular, tu-vos distinctions and honorifics).

Deixis can be gestural (i.e., requiring audio-visual information to be understood) or symbolic (i.e., not so).

Cf. anaphora: exophoric (i.e., referring to something outside the discourse, homophoric when that thing makes a generic expression specific, e.g., “the Queen,” the thing being the country in which she reigns) and endophoric (i.e., referring to something inside the discourse, anaphoric when the thing was previously identified, cataphoric when it is yet to be).

N.B. The deictic centre or origo is “a set of theoretical points that a deictic expression is ‘anchored’ to,” usually the speaker at the time and place of the utterance (wikipedia). Maturana wrestles with an originary kind of deixis, namely , in his ontological diagram that illustrates the relationships between the explanatory paths of objectivity-in-parenthesis (observer- and observation-dependence—go the origo) and objectivity-without-parenthesis (observer- and observation-independence—no origo):

Randall Whitaker explains at Encyclopaedia Autopoetica:

This diagram divides the possible explanatory paths with respect to the dichotomy between objectivity-in-parenthesis (the right half) and objectivity-without-parenthesis (the left half). In all cases, an observer is explaining phenomena she engages in her experience (praxis of living). The two explanatory paths are differentiated according to whether or not the observer/explainer ascribes “objectivity” (independence from observer and observation; i.e., “without parenthesis”) or “(objectivity)” (dependence upon observer and observation; i.e., “in parenthesis”). In the case of objectivity-without-parenthesis (the prevailing worldview of the Enlightenment and, hence, modern enquiry), there is assumed to be one all-subsuming reality (a universum). This universum is explained in terms of discrete (presumably objective) elements (e.g., “matter,” “energy,” “mind,” “God”), and the criterion of acceptability for an explanation is one of “truth” (i.e., adherence to the presumed model/element[s]). In the case of objectivity-in-parenthesis, observer-dependency of explanation opens up a realm of multiple explanations and, hence, multiple “realities” (a multiversum) explained in terms of operations of distinction, and the criterion of acceptability for an explanation is one of “operational coherence.”


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