Binary Relationships

The study of binary oppositions began long before the 1950s florescence of language theory.  Language had become the model describing how all systems or structures functioned.

Beginning with Lao-Tzu and Socrates, philosophers studied language writing the rules for how it functions and meaning forms.  Language is but a tool that can distort reality, but also aid us in understanding very well what we are experiencing.

A Medieval rendering of the traditional square of opposition. From a ninth century manuscript of commentary by Apuleius on Aristotle’s Perihermaneias. Image courtesy of Citizendium 

Binaries form a fundamental mechanism of the language dynamic.  Binary relations are words that work together representing categories which are logically opposed, or in a relationship, e.g., Right-Left, Man-Woman, Nature-Culture.

In many ways, identities are formed in opposition to the other. I hope to show “opposition” does not mean a completely negative relationship.  When two things are set in opposition, we compare qualitative similarities and differences.

Jonathan Culler has written “Relations are important for what they can explain: meaningful contrasts and permitted or forbidden combinations.”

To interpret anything, we get ahold of the topic by reducing it to discrete words or phrases (which later relink with larger concepts and theories) and this process often means beginning with binary oppositions.

In Logic, the square of opposition graphically represents binaries and their relationships to other words and their connotations.  The square originated in the 4th century BCE with Aristotle.  In it, the propositions of four terms are “opposed” in four ways.  Meaning flows out of these oppositions.

Based on the ancient square of opposition, the modern semiotic square was developed by Algirdas Greimas and published in 1966.

Greimas square courtesy of Wikipedia

A semiotic square is a kind of map or compass for navigating cultural meaning. The semiotic square models dimensions within language that are not seen but have great affect on meaning between the four terms.

It is based on the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s principle of difference (1916) where meaning occurs in words by their difference from other words.

The four corners of the square represent different positions in the production of meaning.

Semiotic square of Sacred-Vernacular and Cathedral-Home, diagram my construction 

By juxtaposing two binary terms, we can begin to associate the connotations that accrue around the terms, and consider what is at stake when one term is used instead of another.  Values play a key role.

My diagram of the semiotic square charts the connotations influencing the meanings of the terms. SACRED- VERNACULAR define each other in tandem by what the other is not. CATHEDRAL-HOME are related architectural terms, the physical representations of binaries.

Oppositions create relationships: Light/Darkness; Up/ Down; Wave/Particle; and so on. Binary relationships explore and establish meaning. Each term defines the other by what it is not. “Up” has no meaning without “down.” A semiotic square shows how connotations influence denotation.

The semiotic square unpacks binary oppositions and thereby elicits a bigger cultural picture establishing the personal and social contexts that influence the main terms.