The Thought Occurs

The Thought Occurs

Sunday, 9 July 2017

A Critical Examination Of Jim Martin's ISFC 2017 Plenary Abstract

James R Martin
University of Sydney
Martin Centre for Appliable Linguistics, Shanghai Jiao Tong University



SFL is well known for its trinocular vision: three language strata (phonology, lexicogrammar, and discourse semantics), three metafunctions (ideational, interpersonal and textual) and three hierarchies (realisation, instantiation and individuation). And each trinity is a complementarity, not a partition – always already there; you can’t do meaning from any one perspective without the other two.

In this paper I will take the trinocularity of metafunction as point of departure, and consider its role in both enabling and disabling the evolution of SFL. I’ll begin with context, and issues arising with respect to modelling register and genre. I then turn to disciplinarity, and problems arising from a purely ideational view of knowledge structure. As a third step I’ll look at identity and the need for an [sic] transfunctional view of communion.

In conclusion I’ll comment on the way in which the centrality of metafunction to our conception of language has shaped the evolving architecture of the theory as a whole, as scholars expand the frontiers of social semiotics from the standpoint of SFL’s dialectic of theory and practice (i.e. appliable linguistics).


Blogger Comments:

[1] The reason Martin is attempting to demonise the metafunctions here, through such negative appraisals as 'tyranny' and 'disabling', is that his model of genre is not differentiated metafunctionally.  That is, this talk is, inter alia, an attempt rebrand one of the defects in his model as a strength.

[2] This is misleading.  The three language strata in SFL are phonology, lexicogrammar and semantics.  The stratum of discourse semantics is Martin's invention only, and it is theorised on multiple misunderstandings of the categories and scales of SFL theory, as demonstrated in great detail here.

[3] This misunderstands realisation.  Realisation is not a hierarchy.  Realisation is the relation between two levels of symbolic abstraction, and it obtains along several different dimensions of SFL theory; e.g. 
  • between axes: syntagmatic structure realises paradigmatic system;
  • between ranks: group/phrase rank syntagms (forms) realise clause rank function structures;
  • between strata: lexicogrammar realises semantics; and
  • within semantics: metaphorical meanings realise congruent meanings — see Halliday & Matthiessen (1999: 288) or here.
Note that Martin (1992) understands neither realisation nor instantiation, as demonstrated here (realisation) and here (instantiation).

[4] The reason Martin uses the word 'partition' here, instead of the more appropriate word 'module', is that his own model is theorised on his misunderstanding of SFL as a modular theory.  Martin (1992: 390):
Each of the presentations of linguistic text forming resources considered above adopted a modular perspective. As far as English Text is concerned this has two main dimensions: stratification and, within strata, metafunction.
Martin (1992: 391):
Within discourse semantics, the ways in which systems co-operate in the process of making text is much less well understood. … A more explicit account of this co-operation is clearly an urgent research goal; English Text has been concerned not so much with addressing this goal as with making it addressable by proposing four relatively independent discourse modules to beg the question [sic] … . The point is that integrating meanings deriving from different metafunctions is not a task that can be left to lexicogrammar alone.
Martin (1992: 488):
In this chapter a brief sketch of some of the ways in which discourse semantics interacts with lexicogrammar and phonology has been presented. The problem addressed is a fundamental concern of modular models of semiosis — namely, once modules are distinguished, how do they interface? What is the nature of the conversation among components?
As Halliday & Webster (2009: 231) point out, SFL is a dimensional theory, not a modular theory:
In SFL language is described, or “modelled”, in terms of several dimensions, or parameters, which taken together define the “architecture” of language. These are 
  • (i) the hierarchy of strata (context, semantics, lexicogrammar, phonology, phonetics; related by realisation); 
  • (ii) the hierarchy of rank (e.g. clause, phrase/group, word, morpheme; related by composition); 
  • (iii) the cline of instantiation (system to instance); 
  • (iv) the cline of delicacy (least delicate to most delicate, or grossest to finest); 
  • (v) the opposition of axis (paradigmatic and syntagmatic); 
  • (vi) the organisation by metafunction (ideational (experiential, logical), interpersonal, textual).
[5] This confuses language with linguistics.  We don't "do" meaning from metafunctional perspectives, but we can analyse it from one or all metafunctional perspectives, using a theory that models meaning in terms of metafunctions.

[6] This is misleading.  The context stratum in SFL construes the culture as a semiotic system.  The stratification of context into genre and register — i.e. context–specific varieties of language — is Martin's invention only, and it is theorised on multiple misunderstandings of the categories and scales of SFL theory, as demonstrated in great detail here (context), here (genre) and here (register).

[7] This is misleading. In SFL, knowledge is modelled as meaning, and meaning is modelled in terms of all three metafunctions. Halliday & Matthiessen (1999: x):
… “understanding” something is transforming it into meaning, and to “know” is to have performed that transformation. There is a significant strand in the study of language […] whereby “knowledge” is modelled semiotically: that is, as system–&–process of meaning, in abstract terms which derive from the modelling of grammar.
The notion of a "purely ideational view of knowledge structure" is thus an example of the logical fallacy known as the attacking a strawman:
A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be "attacking a straw man".
This strawman necessarily has its origins in a misunderstanding of SFL theory by Martin himself.  One possibility would be that he has confused knowledge with field, the ideational dimension of the cultural context (misconstrued by Martin as register).  See here for some of the misunderstandings of field in Martin (1992).

[8] The interest in 'communion' here, as with Martin's previous work on affiliation, reflects Martin's true ideological position.  Bertrand Russell, in his History Of Western Philosophy (pp 21-2), identifies this, and explains why it is consistent with Martin's hostility to science, his interest in heroes, like Nelson Mandela (Martin & Rose 2007), his opposition to liberal humanism (Martin 1992: 587-8), and his treatment of students:
Throughout this long development, from 600 BC to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them.  With this difference, others have been associated.  The disciplinarians have advocated some system of dogma, either old or new, and have therefore been compelled to be, in greater or lesser degree, hostile to science, since their dogmas could not be proved empirically.  They have almost invariably taught that happiness is not the good, but that ‘nobility’ or ‘heroism’ is to be preferred.  They have had a sympathy with irrational parts of human nature, since they have felt reason to be inimical to social cohesion.  The libertarians, on the other hand, with the exception of the extreme anarchists, have tended to be scientific, utilitarian, rationalistic, hostile to violent passion, and enemies of all the more profound forms of religion.  This conflict existed in Greece before the rise of what we recognise as philosophy, and is already quite explicit in the earliest Greek thought.  In changing forms, it has persisted down to the present day, and no doubt will persist for many ages to come.

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