The Thought Occurs

Friday, 8 March 2019

Dreyfus And Hao On Circumstantial Meaning

A multi-stratal perspective on circumstantial meaning

Shoshana Dreyfus (with Jing Hao in absentia)

This presentation provides a ‘broader’ understanding of what is previously known from a grammatical perspective as ‘circumstantial meaning’ or circumstantiation. This ‘broader’ perspective takes into account more abstract meanings beyond grammar, considering both field (at the register stratum) and discourse semantics, in addition to lexicogrammar. The paper shows how the lexicogrammar alone is not able to adequately account for the meaning potential of ‘circumstantial meaning’, and how by examining this region of meaning from three strata, a fuller account of circumstantial meaning is made possible. A richer account of circumstantial meaning is necessary because, while circumstances may be considered structurally peripheral, earlier explorations of circumstantial meaning (such as Dreyfus & Jones 2008, 2011; Dreyfus & Bennett 2017) show that this area of meaning often makes important contributions to the register of any given text and to the building of disciplinary knowledge. This exploration is demonstrated through two texts: a student’s high scoring piece of creative writing from the subject of English in the final year of schooling and a synopsis of a history book on the Chinese fishing industry in colonial Australia. These texts reveal the significantly different ways in which circumstantial meanings are used in different subject areas – i.e. to contribute to setting up an ‘ambience’ in literary texts and to developing knowledge in history.

Blogger Comments:

[1] To be clear, as Halliday & Matthiessen (1999) have argued, the 'broader', 'more abstract' meanings that are manifested in circumstantiation are the highly generalised categories of expansion and projection, which they term 'transphenomenal' because they 'operate across the various categories of phenomena' (p223), and generate patterns that constitute 'fractal types' because:
… they are principles of construing our experience of the world that generate identical patterns of semantic organisation which are of variable magnitude and which occur in variable semantic environments.
[2] To be clear, in SFL theory, 'field' is the ideational dimension of context — from the culture as potential to varying institutions/situation types to varying situations as instances.  Register, on the other hand, as a functional variety of language, is a sub-potential of language, not the systemic potential of context.  Here the authors are merely repeating Martin's (1992) misunderstandings of field, context and register, as demonstrated here (field), here (context), and here (register).

[3] To be clear, in SFL theory, it is the grammar that construes ('intellectually constructs') the semantics.  That is why understanding the grammar (wording) of a language is the means of understanding its semantics (meaning).

[4] Here the authors misinterpret the peripheral status of circumstances in terms of ergativity as peripheral status in terms of semogenesis (making meaning), and use this misinterpretation as a straw man against which to argue.

[5] To be clear, in SFL theory, knowledge is meaning, and 'disciplinary knowledge' is the meaning (semantics) that realises an institution (context sub-potential).  Both levels of symbolic abstraction involve all metafunctions, and so are not limited to field (context) and ideational meaning (semantics).