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Mon, May. 24th, 2010, 06:06 pm
essius: For the skeptics: The significance of John Deely

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.)