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.