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Text, Discourse, and Process: Toward a Multidisciplinary Science of Texts

reviewed by Hervé Varenne - 1982

coverTitle: Text, Discourse, and Process: Toward a Multidisciplinary Science of Texts
Author(s): Robert De Beaugrande
Publisher: National Academy Press, Washington
ISBN: 0893910333, Pages: , Year: 1997
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This is a difficult and ambitious work. It is also a work that, as it is read, pondered, criticized in its details, and used as a starting point for further research may prove to have justified the ambition of its author. De Beaugrande’s ambition is to recreate the sciences of language around a new focus, away from the well-formed sentence to the effective text as it is performed for particular purposes. Notice that I write “the sciences of language” and not linguistics, for de Beaugrande, from his disciplinary anchor—linguistics, or more precisely perhaps, psycholinguistics—claims that this revolution is relevant not only for these disciplines but also for many allied ones, applied as well as fundamental. It is the rare linguist (or, for that matter, sociologist, anthropologist, or economist) who ends a theoretical treatise with a discussion of educational issues. De Beaugrande must be commended for doing just this.

The scope of the book, and the many statements to the effect that “our effort must above all be devoted to INTERDISCIPLINARY COOPERATION” (p. 15), also justify a review written from the point of view of an anthropologist interested in the impact of the broad cultural environment on the learning process. (The capitalization of important words is a constant irritant in the book.) De Beaugrande certainly has something to say to educators. To the extent that they search for a theoretical base for their activity and have the intuition that language is somehow central to this activity, they would gain by reading the book. They will need, however, a minimal background in linguistics and the fortitude necessary for difficult reading.

De Beaugrande’s “thesis,” as he puts it, is that “linguistics can and should explore texts and textuality from the standpoint of human activities in actual utilization” (p. 293). As a statement about social action in general, this is not quite new or radical. The interest in whole texts has now been a long-standing concern in a few disciplines. For many in literary criticism, in anthropology, certain branches of sociology, and even linguistics (particularly sociolinguistics), whole texts must indeed be the primary framework for the study of human expressivity whether literary, mythical, rhetorical, or even simply commonsensical in everyday life. These traditions of research are all but ignored by de Beaugrande, who never strays very far from psycholinguistics. And yet some of their contributions provide necessary support to his own.

For example, de Beaugrande states repeatedly that he is not interested in the “well-formedness of sentences” as the foundation of language analysis. As he mentions, human beings can process and, in fact, produce routinely ill-formed sentences without concurrent loss of expressivity. Thus de Beaugrande calls for a linguistics based on the cognitive operations that human beings can actually be expected to perform as they talk, write, hear, and understand. He is searching for a “theory of processing [that is] addressed to connectivity rather than segmentation; [one that] is formulated such that syntax, meaning, and actions can be given an analogous representation” (pp. 38-39). He argues that the connectivity of utterances is based on our “knowledge of the world,” which allows us to supply missing logical links as we continually make probabilistic guesses about what is to follow. As de Beaugrande mentions, our expectations often may be proven false. This may distress us or else make a text more interesting, thereby increasing our desire to find out what happens at the end. But this kind of surprise will not lead to breakdown. It will rather lead to reprocessing and the discovery of possible logical linkages. Thus de Beaugrande wants linguistic analysis to be based on realism, shared knowledge, what Grice calls the “principle of co-operation”: “Except in the presence of certain signals, people probably make the DEFAULT ASSUMPTION that language presentations are texts” (p. 23). These assumptions are also basic to the work conducted under the general label “ethno methodology,” for example.

A similar point could be made in reference to other arguments of de Beaugrande. I am thinking particularly of his criticisms of the purely logical approaches to language study. As he writes, “The strict rules of logic render the assertions they permit obvious or even tautological. Human communication thrives on uncertainties, exceptions, variables and unexpected events—all of which render a statement interesting, whether its truth can be determined or not” (p. 61). He also writes, “definitiveness is something that arises out of the connectivity of stored knowledge being used in real situations, where concepts are utilized only as far as necessary at the moment” (p. 44). These are matters that have struck others before de Beaugrande, from Kenneth Burke in his work on rhetoric, when he wrote that persuasion was more important than accurate description in human communication, to Eco with his intuition that the central problem for linguistics lies in accounting for lying (joking, dreaming, etc.) rather than for telling the truth.

Some mention of all this work might have made de Beaugrande’s statements less like general abstract postulates derived idiosyncratically and more like the fruit of a collective research experience. Yet, de Beaugrande’s relative parochialism is not a serious failing. His phrasing of the collective intuition is original enough to be a contribution in itself. This phrasing differs mostly in de Beaugrande’s attempt at systematizing an analytic procedure. The two central chapters are thus devoted to the introduction of a system for the analysis first of sentences, and then of whole texts based on “linearity,” “connectivity,” and “world knowledge.” This leads de Beaugrande to produce complex lists of various types of deductively produced grammatical and conceptual categories to be used for the diagramming of sentences and texts. People who are skeptical of deductive reasoning when applied to theory making in the social sciences may find this problematic. For example, de Beaugrande, in order to analyze a text in terms of its “conceptual connectivity,” feels the need to develop a long list of concepts that, by implication, are of universal validity in that they would account for the core range of the meanings that human beings can express. When this leads to statements such as “Translating is possible only because human beings share an experiential world and perhaps also universal processing strategies. . . . The EQUIVALENCE between a text and its translation can neither be in form nor lexical meanings but only in the experience of the text-receivers” (p. 291), a cultural anthropologist, for example, will rebel and search for the theory of culture that would allow for such statements. De Beaugrande does not have a theory of culture. He does not even have a true theory of linguistic variability. In this sense he is still very close to American transformational linguistics, which he criticizes, and very far from those who have tried to build their work on language on the direct encounter of variability, arbitrariness, and cultural systematization as have the Saussurians and French structuralists on the one hand and, on the other, the American Boasian culturalists (with their present day descendants). In my opinion, this is a serious limitation of de Beaugrande’s work: The process of text and discourse production is not simply a matter of constructing a string of utterances by putting together grammatical and conceptual resources according to plans and for certain purposes; it is also a matter of doing all this in terms of specific and socially produced cultural patterns that cannot be deduced. In other words, I find helpful de Beaugrande’s insistence on realism and on textuality. I find the chapters that he devotes to the application of his theory provocative, particularly in comparison with traditional linguistic analysis. But I regret his failure to confront the cultural specificity of the modes that real people use to build, interpret, and respond to natural texts of all sorts.

What does all this have to do with education? As I mentioned earlier, de Beaugrande is exceptional in that he closes his book with a chapter that asks precisely this question. It is only a brief chapter, dealing summarily with the teaching of reading, writing, foreign languages, and other such matters. Its main theme is that “education is on the wrong track as long as it stresses EPISODIC KNOWLEDGE over CONCEPTUAL RELATIONAL” (p. 278.) This is a continuation of de Beaugrande’s argument that the processing of discourse (including the didactic) is a matter of conceptual connectivity rather than exact replication of disjointed items. De Beaugrande thus argues against any behavioristic curriculum in which students are tested in terms of their ability to memorize facts. He favors instead any method—including a new kind of computer-assisted instruction—that emphasizes the “deeper processes of human cognition.” For him the language-based disciplines are in a pivotal situation because the processing of texts requires all the central cognitive abilities. De Beaugrande then moves on to a criticism of the work of tradition kinds of applied linguistics in education, of readability studies, and of audiovisual methods in the teaching of foreign languages. All this adds up to a call for more humanistic approaches to education.

Many have been those who have written more passionate and less cold-blooded arguments against behaviorism and the kind of simplifying pedagogy that produces “Dick and Jane” readers. These may be put off by de Beaugrande’s arid style. Given the scientific bias of American educators, this analytic style may prove more successful in redirecting pedagogy than more literary calls. Let us hope so.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 83 Number 4, 1982, p. 644-647
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 754, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:27:11 PM

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  • Hervé Varenne
    Teachers College, Columbia University
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