I’m not the biggest fan of Bill Clinton, but this interview on FOX News was absolutely amazing. Anglo-American philosophers draw a distinction between syntax and sematics, which, I think, sheds light on a number of contemporary discussions in systems, structuralist, and post-structuralist thought. On the one hand, semantics refers to what language is about. That is, semantics is the study of language in its referential dimension. If I wonder how the proposition “the cat is on the mat” links up to the world, then I’m focused on semantics. Syntax, by contrast, is the study of the rules governing how words and phrases are put together, without any reference to the world independent of language. Language not only says something of something else, but language also is something, and has its own organization. For instance, the entire formalist program in mathematics under Hilbert was aimed at reducing mathematics purely to mathematical syntax, so as to dispense with any need to refer to mathematical entities (such as Platonic forms) to account for the nature of mathematics.

One of the great innovations in 20th century thought was the hypothesis that syntax governs semantics. Thus, for instance, if we crack open Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things, we find that Foucault approaches the history of knowledge not from the standpoint of semantics and questions of whether propositions advanced by scientists at such and such a time map on to the world as it actually is, but rather he studies the syntax governing inquiry and investigation at particular points in time (what he refers to as the analysis of “statements”). What Foucault seeks to show is the manner in which this syntax or these “epistemes” produce their objects, rather than simply being simple referential or semantical statements about their objects. We encounter something similar in Kuhn’s account of “paradigms”, or in Wittgenstein’s conception of “language games”. In a Lacanian analysis a good deal of the work consists in examining the manner in which the analysand is “cuckhold” by language (Seminar 5), or how the analysand’s symptoms are organized by the play of the phoneme (which belongs to syntax). The systems theorist shows how information isn’t simply a product of things “out there”, but rather how the organization of a system itself produces information (rather than the world producing information), which again calls for analogies to syntax.

This dimension of organization presiding over how propositions are put together often becomes invisible or falls into the background, as propositions direct us to attend to the object they point to. For instance, we might get into a sterile debate as to whether a particular proposition accurately represents the world, without bracketing the world altogether, and instead looking at the horizon within which the proposition is produced, purely at the level of its rhetoric. Nonetheless, if there’s something like genuine change, this change occurs at the level of syntax or organization, not at the level of semantics.

For me the most interesting moment in Clinton’s interview comes when he draws attention to the context in which these questions are being posed to him. Although his hypothesis seems to be that there’s a conspiracy against him, the more interesting thesis is the idea that media reporting is governed by a “syntax” of how narratives or stories are put together, which filters stories in advance. To have attention drawn to this dimension of reporting on the news itself at all is a remarkable thing.