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Ontology and Veridiction in Dialogics

By Louis Hébert

Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski

1. Abstract


François Rastier

In Rastier's interpretive semantics, dialogics is the semantic component based on modal evaluations, whether of ontological status (real / unreal (or impossible) / possible), veridictory status (true / false), thymic value (positive / negative (or euphoric / dysphoric)), or any other evaluation. This chapter will focus exclusively on ontology and veridiction in dialogics. In dialogics, each semantic unit is assigned an ontological category (corresponding to a specific world) and a veridictory category, and is situated in a universe associated with an evaluative focus (a specific character, for example). The universe of reference is the universe whose units are evaluated according to the absolute truth of the text; the other universes, which may be contradicted by the universe of reference, are called universes of assumption. Consider the following story: On Monday, Lucy and Paul buy a lottery ticket. On Tuesday, Lucy finds out that they have won, but Paul -- the idiot -- doesn't believe it, leaves her on the spot, and dies without giving in. On Monday, the semantic unit they win is marked as 'possible' and 'true' in the universe of assumption of each of the two characters. On Tuesday, it becomes real and true in Lucy's universe, but real and false in Paul's. The universe of reference, which corresponds to the narrator's universe of assumption, is identical to Lucy's universe and different from Paul's. (Paul is wrong - the narrator describes him as an idiot.)

This text can be found in extended version in this book:
Louis Hébert, Dispositifs pour l'analyse des textes et des images, Limoges, Presses de l'Université de Limoges, 2007.

Click here to obtain the English translation of this book.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Louis Hébert (2006), « Ontology and Veridiction in Dialogics », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),

An updated and extended version of this chapter can be found in Louis Hébert, An Introduction to Applied Semiotics: Tools for Text and Image Analysis (Routledge, 2019,



According to Rastier's interpretive semantics, four components make up the semantic plane of texts (the plane of content, or signifieds, as opposed to the plane of expression, or signifiers): (1) thematics (the invested content), (2) dialectics (states and processes and the actors involved in them), (3) tactics (the linear sequencing of content) and (4) dialogics. Dialogics is the component of the content plane (the plane of signifieds) based on modal evaluations, whether of ontological status (real / unreal (or impossible) / possible), veridictory status (true / false), thymic value (euphoric / dysphoric (that is, positive / negative)), or any other evaluation. In this section we will focus on ontology and veridiction in dialogics (for further reading, see Rastier, 1977 [1989] and 1994; Hébert, 2001 and 2003).


In ontological and veridictory dialogics, each belief is analyzed by means of the following elements:


(1) A semantic unit (the unit being evaluated), formulated as a logical proposition (for instance: the Earth is round).


(2) The proposition is assigned a truth value, that is to say, a veridictory category (true or false) (for example: the Earth is round: true). This proposition is situated in one of the three worlds into which a universe may be subdivided: the actual world (what is), the counterfactual world (what is not, or cannot be), or the possible world (what could be).


A unit is said to be decidable if it is assigned at least one category; otherwise, it is said to be undecidable (notated # or UND). In other places, the concept undecided (notated as ø) will undoubtedly be useful to characterize a unit that is (as yet) absent from a universe, or a unit that, while pertinent to this universe (included in it), has not (yet) undergone evaluation. The concepts decidable, undecidable and undecided can be applied, in fact, to any classification or evaluation, whether modal or not.


(3) To each world there corresponds a specific ontological category, that is, its status relative to ontology, or existence. The category is assigned to a semantic unit situated in that world. The ontological categories are as follows: for the actual world: real (for example: the Earth is round: true, real); for the counterfactual world: unreal or impossible (for example: the Earth is flat: true, unreal); for the possible world: possible (for example: I will win the lottery with my ticket: possible).


(4) A universe is associated with a specific focus (an evaluator), which provides the propositions and evaluates them (for instance, a character or even several characters, if they share exactly the same beliefs). A universe, then, is made up of a set of evaluated units and their respective ontological and veridictory categories, which are associated with a specific focus, or point of view (for example, a specific character, the narrator, or an evaluator that is implicit in the lexicon of the language (in pejorative or meliorative words and expressions)).


We need to distinguish between a focus and a relay focus. A relay focus conveys an evaluation (that is, a proposition and its status or category) that originates from another, hierarchically superior focus. For example, the proposition "Women are weak creatures", marked as true, which one finds in many pre- 20th century texts (and even later), is a cliché, a common place or topos, and because of this, it belongs to a system (a sociolect) that goes beyond the author or the character that conveys it.

2.2.5 TIME

(5) Over time (one generally uses the time of the story, but there is also narrative time, etc.), a proposition may appear in or disappear from a universe, shift to another world and thereby change its ontological status, its veridictory status, or even its formulation (Mary is beautiful could become Mary is very beautiful). In addition, a single unit can be situated simultaneously in several worlds. For further details on temporal segmentation, consult the chapter on the veridictory square.


A semantic unit that is situated in the possible world is considered not to have any veridictory status (true or false). (For example: It will rain tomorrow: possible). Obviously, when a proposition is possible, the inverse proposition is also possible; in order to simplify, we use only the proposition that is being emphasized. (For instance, saying that it is possible I will win also implies that it is possible I will not win; so we can retain the first proposition by itself.) When a possible proposition is validated or invalidated, it then moves to the actual world (and/or the counterfactual world). If the weather forecaster says that it will rain Tuesday, for instance, this proposition is situated in the possible world on Monday; on Tuesday it moves to the actual world and is assigned to either the 'true' (if it rained) or the 'false' (if it didn't rain) category.


In descriptive practice, the counterfactual world essentially serves to account for the most common forms of lies and "conflicts of beliefs" (other kinds do exist, involving the possible world). In a conflict of belief (the reverse being a consensus of belief), this is where we find the contradictor's semantic unit and its veridictory category. The classic change of belief that can often follow a conflict of belief and resolve it is represented by the movement of one semantic unit and its veridictory category from the actual world to the counterfactual world. Conversely, the unit previously situated in the counterfactual world "changes residence" along with its veridictory category to the actual world. In the classic lie, the actor presents his counterfactual world as actual and vice-versa. For convenience, the analysis may leave out the counterfactual world and use only the actual world and the possible world. The distinction between these two worlds can even become optional, and at that point, if the counterfactual world is left out, the distinction between worlds and universes becomes useless. What this does is to put the ontological category 'possible' and the veridictory categories 'true'/'false' on the same level.


There are two kinds of universes: universes of assumption and universes of reference. A text's universe of reference is the universe that contains the units that are evaluated accurately according to the text. The universe of reference may or may not correspond to one or more universes of assumption (the character-narrator's universe, for instance, or the omniscient narrator's). The universe of reference is what allows us to find out the "actual truth" in a text. To give an example, if we simplify the analysis, then we can say that the proposition The Big Bad Wolf wants to devour Little Red Riding Hood is true and real in the BBW's universe and in the story's universe of reference, from the time he meets RRH to the end of the story. Conversely, it is false and real in RRH's universe (we could also say that it is absent from her universe, since the idea never even occurs to her) until the cruel moment of awakening when the BBW reveals who he really is, a BBW.


It is helpful and sometimes necessary, when there is disagreement between universes, to set up separate universes for each instance of communication (see our example of dialogic analysis below). We shall distinguish between the empirical author (the "real" flesh-and-blood author), the implied author (the impression that the text gives of its author), the narrator, the narratee, the implied reader (a model reader, for instance, supplied by the text), and the empirical reader.


We can use the same kind of table for ontological and veridictory dialogics as we use in the analysis below:

  1. Column 1: the reference number;
  2. Column 2: T: time (for example, T1 for time unit 1, T1-T2 for the interval from T1 to T2);
  3. Column 3: U of X: Actor X's universe;
  4. Column 4 (optional): AW - actual world, CFW - counterfactual world, PW - possible world;
  5. Column 5: T - true, F - false, # - undecidable, ø - undecided (if we delete column 4, we can add the category 'possible' here).


Consider the following story:

Mary says that the sun rises in the West. Paul does not believe it. Andy maintains that it's possible. They decide to stay awake that night to wait for the sunrise... The victims of a collective illusion, they observe that... the sun rises in the East.

This is an analytical table describing the above story. (Possibility is included on the same level as true/false):

A simple ontological-veridictory analysis
A simple ontological-veridictory analysis

"The victims of a collective illusion" indicates that P1 is true in the universe of reference, which is identical to the narrator's. However, in the reader's reality (implied or empirical), the sun rises in the East.


HÉBERT, L., Introduction à la sémantique des textes, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2001.
HÉBERT, L., "L’analyse des modalités véridictoires et thymiques : vrai/faux, euphorie/dysphorie", Semiotica, Bloomington: International Association for Semiotic Studies, 144, 1/4, 2003, p. 261-302.
RASTIER, F., Meaning and Textuality, trans. Frank Collins and Paul Perron, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
RASTIER, F., M. CAVAZZA and A. ABEILLÉ, Sémantique pour l'analyse, Paris: Masson, 1994.


Give an ontological-veridictory analysis of the following three stories:

1. The rather well known story of Jesus

Jesus is dead. All of the disciples are crying. Mary Magdalene meets Jesus! She tells the disciples. Some of them believe her; others do not. Jesus appears. Everyone believes now except for Thomas, who asks to place his fingers in the wounds. Then he is convinced.

2. A story with two endings

Bob thinks he's going to win at bingo. Robert doesn't think he will. Bob hollers, "I won!" Robert retorts, "You're wrong, B12 didn't come up". Bob: "Yes it did!" The bingo attendant: "Bob is right". ENDING # 1: Robert does not believe the attendant; ENDING #2: Robert concedes that he was wrong.

3. Paul and Mary

Mary thinks that Paul is insensitive, until one day she finds out that the big stupid brute often cries. Paul has always believed himself to be sensitive, although he admits that he does not seem that way. In reality, however, Paul cries because he works evenings as second-assistant onion chopper in one of the city's classy restaurants. During the day, he works as a hitman.

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