The conceptional origin of the trias syntax, semiotics and pragmatics can be traced in the semiological field. Especially Charles Sanders Peirce and Charles W. Morris have found a conceptional frame for this categorization. Central is the relation between a sign (reprensetamen), a referent (the object of reference for the sign) and the meaning of a sign. For Peirce the sign is meant in a wider sense: is always is a product of a relational process, which includes all three correlates that lead to interpretation. Morris also invokes the concept of a triadic relation, but in a different way than Peirce. In his behaviouristic concept Morris sees the affective function of a sign as a psychological disposition of an interpreter, to react in a certain way to a sign. (Morris 1971) The analysis of the sign in its relation to its correlates leads to three dimensions: the syntax, the semantics and the pragmatics. Syntax is the relation between the analysed sign-vehicle and other referents, semantics is the relation between the sign vehicle and its object (designatum) and the pragmatics as the relation between the sign vehicles and its interpreter. Morris embraced what a Rossi-Landi called “radical empiricism” with three components “that correspond to the three dimensions of semiotics. Radical empiricism is semantic investigation, methodological rationalism is syntactic investigation, critical pragmatism is pragmatic investigation. The unity of science thus results from the unity of its linguistic structure, from the semantic relationships which it succeeds in establishing, and from the practical effects it produces.” (Rossi-Landi, 1978)
Let’s look a bit closer on the three components.
1) The syntax is for Morris far more than a system of syntactic rules of a language. In more broad sense Morris syntax is connected with signs of the perception, the aesthetic signs and the practical use of signs. As Posener (Posner 1981, p. 54) has pointed out, the Syntax can be regarded as a) the analysis of signs and signs combination in respect to their structural framing, b) the mode of combining signs and c) the formal relation of the signs in respect to each other.
2) The semantics is the relation of the signs and the objects that they relate to, it is the dimension of signification not of meaning. With semantics one denotes the conditions for that an object can be a correlate of a sign.
3) Pragmatics are the relation of the signs to its interpreter, it is the analysis of the use of signs in a general sense. In Morris’ view, pragmatics are concerned with real life aspects of semiosis (as is the functional process activated by social actors, with psychological, biological and sociological phenomena that are part of the sign process.) (Morris 1938)
In a later summary of the three components, we can observe the behaviouristic stance, that is underlying Morris approach: “Pragmatics is that portion of semiotic which deals with the origin, uses and effects of signs within the behaviour in which they occur; semantics deals with the signification of signs in all modes of signifying; syntactics deals with combinations of signs without regard for their specific significations or their relation to the behavior in which they occur.” (Morris, 1946, p. 219) Central in this pragmatic view on signs is the directed attention towards the relation of signs to their users. Thus, Morris' concept of a division of signs concerned with the relations of signs to their interpreters or users also propelled the place of social context for signs and language. This was crucial for example for John Dewey’s (Dewey 1934) experiental pedagogy, as well as of the work of Wittgenstein, Sapir, Malinowski and others. In the 1990s German sociology took on this question of social context of signs by also referring to the semiotics of Morris, which then found their way into general assumptions about scientific knowledge production and its social and cultural contexts. Exemplary are Wissenschafts- und Erkenntnistheorie by Kriz, Lück and Heidbrink, who broaden the notion of semiotics to aspects of social experience (Kriz, Lück and Heidbrink 1987, p. 47-48) and Jürgen Ritsert’s Einführung in die Logik der Sozialwissenschaften (Ritsert 1996) that expands the semiotic triad to a theory of social sciences. In Ritsert’s concept, the syntax of a theory means a formally logical principal of order, the semantics of a theory the meaning and content of a theory and pragmatics the relation of a theory to praxis. It is worthwhile mentioning that Ritsert analyses theories, not praxis.
Especially Ritsert’s book was influential to Gabriele Sturm’s chapter on scientific methods in her seminal study Wege zum Raum, and notably to the location of method between theory and empiricism. (Sturm 2000, p. 21-27). Already here Sturm refers to the triad of syntax, semantics and pragmatics in relation to the spatial analysis exactly as laid out in Morris’ as well as Ritsert’s theory. Sturm’s conclusion is, that methods always operate in two directions simultaneously. As systems of rules, methods are the constitutional base for theory on the background of experience. On the other hand, theories make use of given catalogues of methods, which underpin the empirical proof. In this process of proof also the syntactic structure of the research is explained.
In a later lecture of 2015 given by Sturm at the HCU in 2015 (Sturm 2015) she differentiates her theory on method. This leads her to propose the following aspects that should define the methodology of the research process:
With semantics Sturm now denotes a field that consists of defining the interest of knowledge, the theme, the argumentation of the theme as well as assembling the already existing knowledge concerning the theme, the knowledge aim and the documentation that clarifies the decisions made in the semantic process. A representational documentary product of semantics could be a proposal or exposé.
The syntax field is concerned with the structure of the research and the formulation of the research question. it is divided in two layers: the structure of the field that is worked with (=object of research) and the structure of the scope of the work (=subject of research). In the syntax are asked the questions “Which knowledge do we already have about a theme? What is the purpose of the chosen method? Which methodological design is used?”
Finally pragmatics consists of the questions which instruments and strategies to use to collect data, which instruments and strategies of analysis to use and to look for already existing modes of design or research procedures that fit to the chosen theme. So in pragmatics also the decision between design and research and the choice of the procedure of research or design is made.
To sum up, semantics is the clarification of the endeavors conditions and relations, syntax is the conception of the justification, pragmatics is the formulation of the argument and securing of the utilization and functioning of the work.
By arguing, that the spatial sciences (Raumwissenschaften) are interdisciplinary by their different forms of intermingling between research and design (the intermingling especially taking place in the dimension of pragmatics), Sturm concludes that also the interplay of semantics, syntax and pragmatics asks for a specific organising of interdisciplinary work. Indeed, it is not new, that spatial sciences are characterized by differing traditions of science practises, which are assembled and mixed in different constellations. What is new is, that these constellations have to be consciously (re)organised in their methodological set up. This conclusion leads Sturm to fundamentally reask the question of “what is research?”. The alternative proposal of Sturm is, to let go of the term research and instead to speak about what she calls “a process of knowledge”. To methodologically organise this process remains the key question of interdisciplinary spatial analysis.
For the use in the Urban Design department of the HCU, the triad of semantics, syntax and pragmatics as carved out by Sturm, is put into an iterative diagrammatic program. It consists of four modes. A) coming into play, which means generating and finding the motive of knowledge and b) how to play which implies finding the question, doing research, getting material, creating the program, c) play which consist of a field of practises such as doing, reflecting , recording and displaying and finally d) understanding the playing. While a) can be related to semantics, b) to syntax and c) to pragmatics, d) is a meta-form that recapitulates the archive build up in a) , b) and c). We also call this process “project archaeology”. It should be mentioned, that d) can then also come the object of a), b) and c).
While we now have connected the components of research with their semiological correlates, it is important to note that in the above listed modes a) to d) one is confronted with an intermingling of the research dimensions of semantics, syntax and pragmatics. For example: to come into play one maybe does a dérive, which is foremost a pragmatic procedure. While doing the derive one finds out about the semantics both through an embodied agental process as a lived confrontation with an urban reality and a representational, reflective process, which can then lead to a syntactical analysis.
In that respect, we see the method itself also as praxisform. The structure of this form we call take. So one could argue that we expand the semiological triad – which is, after all, a theory of theory – to a practise form. Here we follow Ian Hackings saying that „We represent and intervene. We represent in order to intervene and we intervene in the light of representation.” (Hacking 1983) The grounding theory of space to this approach is one, that interprets space not as a given but as produced by actors and actants. The basic didactic modes of this theory are a) perceiving = semantics b) representing = syntax and c) living = pragmatics. These modes refer to the categories of space that Henri Lefebvre (1991, p.38-39) has laid out in “The Production of Space” as perceived space, conceived space and lived space.