…a Sign cannot denote an Object not otherwise known to its interpreter, for the obvious reason that if he does not already know the Object at all, he cannot possess those ideas by means of which alone his attention can be narrowed to the very Object denoted. Every object of experience excites an idea of some sort; but if that idea is not associated, sufficiently and in the right way with some previous experience, so as to narrow the attention, it will not be a Sign. A Sign necessarily has for its Object some fragment of history, that is, of the history of ideas. It must excite some idea.
—Charles S. Peirce, MS 849.9-10
It’s been a whole year since our first look
at Maritain’s “Sign and Symbol,” and thus as good a time as any to continue “ransoming the time”—“for the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16).
Regarding what we might call the difference of human animals (which are semiotic) from brute animals (which are semiosic only), Maritain speaks thus:
The birth of the idea, and hence of intellectual life in us, seems bound up with the discovery of the value of meaning of a sign. An animal employs signs without perceiving the relationship of meaning. To perceive the relationship of meaning is to have an idea—a spiritual sign. Nothing could be more suggestive in this connection than that kind of miracle which is the first awakening of intelligence in blind deaf-mutes (Marie Heurtin, Helen Keller, Lydwine Lachance): essentially it depends upon the discovery of the relationship of the meaning of some gesture with regard to a desired object. The sign is the keystone of intellectual life. (220-21)
All animals have perceptual
concepts (percepts), but only the human being has concepts in the stricter sense—abstract or intellectual
concepts. Though Maritain speaks of these concepts or ideas as “spiritual” signs, by spiritual he simply means to distinguish the image-materiality of percepts from the relative immateriality of ideas. Take note that concepts of either kind—perceptual or intellectual—are only the first node (the signifier) of the triadic relation in which the sign really consists. The sign itself is what Maritain calls “the relationship of meaning”—i.e., the relation of (1) the signifier to (2) the object signified for (3) the cognizing mind. Now, nonhuman animals use these semiosic relations, but they do so unwittingly. They never shift from being merely semiosic to fully semiotic (self-consciously semiosic). For Maritain, the maturation of the human being qua
rational animal depends precisely on this shift. Only when the human becomes semiotic—i.e., only when he or she becomes aware of sign-relations—does the human truly unfold into what distinguishes his or her nature from other forms of animal existence.
Deconstruction is a project to which any and very text is thus (indeed!) a-priori liable. But, what needs to be noticed—and what seems constantly to escape the notice of deconstructionist epigones—is that the ultimate source of the passions in the environmental interaction (both cultural and physical) of human animals with material surroundings objectified in turn imposes indirect limits
on the deconstructive process, just as more directly
there is also need for consideration at times (though far from always, and deconstruction as a method marks a great advance in the understanding oft his matter) of the “intentions of the author”. (Deconstruction as a process normally tends legitimately and systematically to leave out of consideration authorial intention as a factor in the construal of texts. Yet there are times when such intention as textual factor cannot be omitted from consideration without some distortion of sense at critical junctures, so far as linguistic signs have not only a customary and iconic dimension but also and always a stipulative dimension as well, which is exactly what separates them within the class of “customary signs” from the purely customary signs of the “brute” animals overlapping within the semioses of human animals, and conversely.)
—John Deely, Semiotics Seen Synchronically: the View from 2010
, p. 66
’s recent semiotic commentaries on the Cordoba controversy and Terry Jones’ (former) intentions to burn copies of the Qur’an
—two issues that have received widespread media attention in the past several weeks—underscore that what is at issue as these events are unfolding is not mere physical, mind-independent reality, but reality as apprehended from within competing sign-systems. For as Robert Corrington observes, “Not all signs or sign systems are compossible in the same semiotic space. Part of the how of world semiosis involves an intense competition between and among sign systems” (A Semiotic Theory of Theology and Philosophy
, pp. 190–1).
In Rader’s blog post “Designing Controversy: The Semiotics of Cordoba House
,” we first turn to “the most interesting controversy in American culture in ages—whether it is appropriate to erect a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan, just two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Centers.” Rader highlights an interesting semiotic paradox: whereas the Cordoba Center’s architecture is “ameliorative and even unifying,” the terminology many have been using to describe it has been downright “divisive.” Radar asks,
Why has the name and purpose of the Cordoba Center taken precedence over its rather innocuous design? In short, the symbology of the design does not traffic in the same cultural associations as a term like “mosque.” One connotes Islam’s Islamness; one connotes Islam’s Americanness.
This is, of course, not a coincidence. The project is backed by the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, whose members have made sure the building does not
resemble a typical mosque. Rader says its architecture arguably sacrifices the “semiotics of Islam” in order to assimilate itself to “the semiotics of New York (and by extension) the semiotics of America.” Indeed, he further suggests a connection to 9/11:
It was the semiotics of America—its tallest buildings, their symbology—that the terrorists attacked, and it is that symbology the Cordoba House seems to embrace. Indeed, it is remarkable how similar the proposed building looks to the original twin towers—a detail no one seems to be talking about.
But the more emphasized connection has been altogether negative in significance:
What people are talking about is the notion of a mosque near Ground Zero. For many Americans, a mosque is a shelter for Muslim extremists (even if it isn’t). It’s a place that cultivates, indoctrinates, and celebrates the symbology of Islam. It is ultimately, for those who oppose the Cordoba House, a place that makes sacred the ideals that led to the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, it is this sign-system—one constructed out of fear, ignorance, and malice—that has gained greater media coverage. Its infiltration of the American Lebenswelt
is nothing short of insidious. Indeed, some have identified its root as “Islamophobia
This brings us to Rader’s second post, “On Burning the Quran: Why It’s Really about Semiotics
.” Florida pastor Terry Jones’ decision to burn the Qur’an
(from which he has since appeared to have retreated) is not merely a physical event, but an importantly semiotic one. That is, there is nothing inherent to the book itself, or to the act of burning it, that is offensive. It is, rather, what the act signifies
. To some, book-burning is “inherently” offensive. To others, the offense is aggravated by the fact that it is a holy
book that is to have been cast into the flames:
In reality, there is no actual danger in burning pages of a book. But, as General Petraeus notes, it is the image of Americans burning Qurans that concerns him. The danger, then, lies in the semiotic realm.
In all religions, fire carries with it a purgative and a punitive signification. For Rev. Jones, watching the Quran burn in the flames of denunciation is in concert, symbolically, with his claim that Islam is of the Devil.
Americans are, again, misguided if they obsess about this proposed burning on legal or moral grounds. That’s not where the real meaning is made. True meaning, real consequences take place in the semiotic, the symbolic, the cultural realm, and it is in that realm where discussions about the wisdom of such actions need to take place.
The “great irony,” Rader notes, “is that burning sacred texts is not anti-American; it’s wholly American.” For it is our “freedom to symbolically destroy another symbol” which, “in part, what makes America itself a symbol worth attacking.”
Of course, much more needs to be said on the semiotic situation as it has developed and continues to develop.** These two politically intense issues—as the media has made all too clear—have become inexorably intertwined. Although it is often difficult for us to rinse our eyes and see things clearly, it is important to attend to the nuances that have made things unnecessarily complicated. For the devil continues to lurk in the proverbial details and not, as Jones alleges, within Islamic doctrine.( NotesCollapse )
’s a Youtube of philosopher John Searle describing how written language both enables and constitutes
human civilization (in contrast to nonhuman and primitive human animal societies).
Paul Cobley, The Routledge Companion to Semiotics
(ed. Cobley, 2010), pp. 203-4:
While Peirce is acknowledged as the greatest American philosopher, John Deely (b. 1942), in his wake, is arguably the most important living American philosopher and is the leading philosopher in semiotics. An authority on the work of Peirce and a major figure in both contemporary semiotics, Scholastic realism, Thomism and, more broadly, Catholic philosophy, Deely’s thinking has demonstrated how awareness of signs has heralded a new, genuinely ‘postmodern’ epoch in the history of human thought. ‘Postmodern’ here means ‘after the modern’ rather than the fashionable intellectual and publishing movement emanating mainly from Paris and associated with the academic trend of poststructuralism from the 1960s onwards (the postmoderns ‘falsely so called’…). …
Deely’s early articles focused on the problems that the idea of evolution posed for conceptions of what it is to be human. This concern runs through all of his work, including his most recent discussions of the human as the animal possessing a semiotic consciousness. Important to this is the concept of Umwelt, the ‘objective’ world of any animal. Customarily, ‘objective’ implies phenomena completely separate and closed off from the vagaries of subject’s apprehensions. Deely, on the other hand, demonstrates that the world that seems to be wholly independent of humans – ‘objective’ – can never be such. Things exist; but objects are ‘what the things become once experienced’…, bearing in mind also that experience takes place through a physical, sensory modality. In this sense, even such entities as unicorns or the minotaur can be considered objects embodied in the physical marks of a text or contours of a statue. …
As Deely repeatedly attests, this perspective on signs is not new. It is derived from the work of the Latin scholars, especially the Tractatus de Signis (1632) of John Poinsot which Deely rescued from the consignment by historiographical partiality to mere footnote status. …
Deely’s work has been most closely concerned with the definition of signs. However, it also ranges over analytic concerns in the history of philosophy (for example, ‘relation’ and ‘intentionality’) as well as the general history and historiography of ideas. Many see the pinnacle of Deely’s writing in his 2001 book, Four Ages of Understanding. However, unlike many scholars who produce a single landmark work, Deely has repeatedly published books and articles that have broken new ground.
(Cross-posted to essius
Let us suppose that I have a piece of paper, written on it is the phrase 'The experience of the colour red', and I have asked you if this piece of paper is having the experience of the colour red.
I expect that all reasonable people will answer negatively to this question, but I also expect the more interesting result that there will be some diversity in their explanations for such a response.
Many people evidently find that the fundamental problem here is that what has been written on the paper is a woefully inadequate account of what the experience of the colour red is. It is indeed perhaps not an account at all, but merely a reference to the thing. If this were so, we ought to expect that we could answer positively to the original question in a certain circumstance, namely if we had written not the phrase originally stated but rather some account of the thing which is adequate, perhaps an ideal account from natural science or something of that nature.
This position is, I think, quite incorrect, but incorrect in a way which is mirrored quite extensively in contemporary thought. I like to think of this position as being a kind of idealism, as it seems to me that it confuses--or let me say more charitably, identifies--things and ideas. The idea I am referring to is that we identify in the phrase 'the experience of the colour red', or, to follow the rhetorical opponent's response, that which is identified in the adequate account of the same. If the thing itself just is the account of it, then it would make complete sense that a paper possessing such an account thereby possesses the thing.
I intend to bring these problems into interrogation with semiotics, which of course is the subject of interest in this community. Let me say something briefly on this point before continuing. Evidently the proponents of the aforementioned position are working with a certain understanding of the sign, for they seem to recognize the original phrase--'The experience of the colour red'--as being precisely something which signifies the thing to them. However, it is not that the idea per se is a sign, on this account, but only the inadequate idea, which we can say now is inadequate precisely because it only signifies and does not constitute the thing. An adequate account, which is taken in this view to constitute the thing, thus does not seem to be a sign: the adequate account of the colour red in this case not signifying but actually being the thing. This, then, describes what seems to be the understanding of the sign implied by such a position.
There is of course another sort of explanation which we could expect to be offered in defense of a negative response to the original question. I have in mind the position which finds the essential problem to be not the inadequacy of the idea written on the paper, but the fact that it is an idea written on the paper at all. To continue in the semiotic vein, we can say that this is the position which extends the doctrine of the sign already implied in the previous position so that it applies not only to inadequate ideas, but to ideas in general. On this view, even if there were an adequate account of the experience of the colour red, as for example from natural science, writing this account on the paper wouldn't bring the paper anywhere closer to actually having the thing thus accounted for, since even an adequate account is a signification of the thing and not the thing itself. It is a signification, we might say, to the causal constitution of the thing, and in this sense still distinguishable from the original phrase, but it is no less, on this account, a signification, and no more the thing itself.
And yet, I do not think that this second position goes as far with the sign as it seems that some proponents of semiotics demand. To say, as this position does, that all such ideas or accounts are significations rather than constitutions--regardless of such qualifications as their adequacy--is not to say that all
relations, nor even all mental
relations, are significations. it is not to deny that there are constitutions, nor to deny the distinction between constitutions and significations. If, continuing with the present example, 'The experience of the colour red' signifies the experience of the colour red, and if an adequate account of the same signifies the causal constitution of the thing, it hardly follows that the thing thereby signified is itself a signification in turn. It seems, to the contrary, that the experience I have of the colour red is itself the thing, and moreover that the relevant significations are semantically grounded just by virtue of their thus ultimately referring to being rather than to signification ad infinitum.
We can certainly speak of such a thing as signifying, for example as signifying that out of my view a red spotlight is directed to the point in view that has the quality I am experiencing, but to say that we can utilize this fact in significations--of which many more could be imagined, of course--is not to say that it is in essence a sign. It seems to be in essence a thing, by which I mean an apprehension of being. If this is so, the relevance of sign relations seems to be as a kind of tool by which we can speak meaningfully of and investigate being, but certainly not as an essence which displaces being as the primary object of our intellect. Both rhetorical accounts provided to the original question agree on this point, as in both we have seen that there is a doctrine of sign at work, but one which is used to clarify the logical relations at hand and protect us from error, and not one which is used to determine the essence of the thing being considered.
Is this, then, how we should think of semiotics? Or can we go further?