In honor of Jacques Maritain’s hundred and twenty-seventh birthday, and in order to reinitiate semiotic inquiry and discussion here on LiveJournal, I offer here a few brief comments on Maritain’s analysis of the nature of signs. In his essay “Sign and Symbol,”* Maritain begins with the following strong remarks:
There are no more complex problems, no problems of wider bearing on psychology and on culture than those pertaining to the sign. The sign involves the whole extent of moral and human life; it is in the human world a universal instrument, just as is movement in the physical world. (217)
Because he is a disciple of Thomas Aquinas and John Poinsot (John of St. Thomas), Maritain is careful to point out that signs are even more universal than human psychology and culture, for the sign “is bound up with all knowing, even animal knowing. In the psychic life of animals not endowed with reason signs play a great part” (219). The basis for this claim is the scholastic analysis of what constitutes a sign: a sign is anything that presents knowledge of something other than itself. On this accounting, even the external senses—the powers of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing—depend on the action of signs: “For the use of the sign does not necessarily involve inference and comparison. There is thus a certain presence—presence of knowability—of the signified in the sign; the former is there in alio esse,
, in another mode of existence” (220).
Maritain’s main concern in this essay (and the others that occur in the same volume) is to attend to “man in his cultural life and in the complex patterns of his earthly destiny” (ix). But unlike the semiological tradition of Ferdinand de Saussure, he does not detach human knowing from animal knowing. Instead, he anticipates Thomas Sebeok’s important distinction between anthroposemiosis and zoösemiosis (i.e., between human and nonhuman sign-processes). And there is also in his analysis, at least in virtual form, justification for the semiotic discipline today known as biosemiotics
Next time we’ll take a look at just how Maritain thinks the move is made from nonhuman to human signs.*English translation of Maritain’s 1938 “Signe et symbole,” appearing as Ch. IX of Ransoming the Time (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941).
I finally got my website finished!... If anyone has any feedbck on it, it's very much appreciated!!! :)... As my work deals with issues of semiotics and signifier/signified, I thought it might be of interest to a few people here... :)
In 1971, intellectual giants Michel Foucault (1926–84) and Noam Chomsky (1928–) had a debate in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, entitled “Human Nature: Justice versus Power.” (A transcript of the debate is available here
, and a few very short segments of the debate also appear on Youtube here
.) The debate is fairly long, but worth reading if you have the time. In this debate, the two thinkers discuss the philosophy of human nature and the politics of justice and power. A number of interesting subtopics come up as well, but what most interests me is the interrelation of these two main topics of discussion.
The question of whether there is a human nature common to all human beings and, if so, what it is, is strongly related to the question of what ought to take precedence in political discussions: justice or power. The relationship seems to be mutual, in that the answer I give to one of these questions will shape or limit my answer to the other, and vice versa. However, in the Foucault–Chomsky debate the relation of the second question to the first is perhaps the more readily apparent one. Foucault’s self-proclaimed “Nietzschean” perspective on justice seems to be a product, at least in part, of his failure to accept a concept of human nature that embraces the qualities and values Chomsky ascribes to that nature. Foucault argues that “the idea of justice…is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power,” and adds that this idea “itself functions within a society of classes as a claim made by the oppressed class and as justification for it.”
Chomsky’s realism about justice is likewise rooted in his realist conception of a common human nature. His counterargument to Foucault’s position is that although existing systems of justice “embody systems of class oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression,…they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanly, valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy”—concepts that according to Chomsky refer to realities that are much more than mere instruments of oppression.( Foucault’s responseCollapse )( Foucault and Chomsky on the political task(s) of societyCollapse )( Justice, critique and human natureCollapse )( Aquinas’s metaphysico-metaethical grounding of critiqueCollapse )( Sign theory, semioethics, and critiqueCollapse )
(Cross-posted to convert_me
The other day it occurred to me that Indian philosopher Sañjaya Belatthiputta’s principle of four-cornered (or four-fold) negation (FCN) may bear an important conceptual relation to presemiotic semiosis, i.e., to semiosis that expresses no awareness of semiosis.* FCN follows the form “Neither A, nor not-A, nor both A and not-A, nor neither A nor not-A.” Now, although the explicit formulation of FCN requires semiotic awareness, it is nevertheless capable of expressing the presemiotic in that it rejects judgments or assertions of any kind. And if implemented in this way,** as a semiotic expression of the presemiotic, it may provide new light for understanding other conceptual expressions of presemiotic reality. Such expressions include Avicenna and Aquinas’s being-as-first-known (being before its division into the categories) and perhaps Charles Peirce’s Firstness as well. FCN may also serve to illuminate our understanding of the presemiotic generally. Moreover, since it is impossible for semiotic agents such as ourselves to return to an essentially
presemiotic state, FCN may enable us to get as close as we can to such a state conceptually.*Presemiotic semiosis may be described as simply “semiosic,” whereas semiosis that is “metasemiosic” may be properly called “semiotic.”
**Whether FCN may be applied at the semiotic level to semiotic awareness itself is another matter, and one over which many in both the East and the West have given conflicting answers, though in jargon that is “presemiotic” (not in relation to the rudimentary semiotic awareness that makes jargon possible in the first place, but in relation to semiotics as an interdisciplinary perspective founded by Charles Peirce).
Not to cross genres, but I thought you guys might like this :)
Jean-Paul Sartre, in Being and Nothingness
, briefly discusses the German concept of Umwelt
that has become vitally important for semiotic inquiry. He writes,
My “environment” must not be confused with the place which I occupy and which we have already discussed. My environment is made up of the instrumental-things which surround me, including their peculiar coefficients of adversity and utility. Of course in occupying my place, I prepare the ground for the revelation of my environment, and by changing place—an operation, which, as we have seen, I freely realize—I provide the basis for the appearance of a new environment. But on the other hand the environment can change or be changed by others without my having any hand in the change.…In a general way the coefficient of adversity and utility of complexes does not depend solely on my place, but on the particular potentiality of the instruments. Thus as soon as I exist I am thrown into the midst of existences different from me which develop their potentialities around me, for and against me. For example, I wish to arrive on my bicycle as quickly as possible at the next town. This project involves my personal ends, the appreciation of my place and of the distance from my place to the town, and the free adaptation of means (efforts) to the end pursued. But I have a flat tire, the sun is too hot, the wind is blowing against me, etc., all phenomena which I had not foreseen: these are the environment. Of course they manifest themselves in and through my principal project; it is through the project that the wind can appear as a headwind or as a “good” wind, through the project that the sun is revealed as a propitious or an inconvenient warmth. The synthetic organization of these perpetual “accidents” constitutes the unity of what Germans call my Umwelt, and this Umwelt can be revealed only within the limits of a free project—i.e., of the choice of the ends which I am. (pp. 647-8)
Below is the first video of a five-part YouTube version of John Deely’s “A Sign is a What?” The other four parts are currently available here
on the University of Tartu’s website. Here
is the .pdf version, reprinted from The American Journal of Semiotics
20.1–4 (2004), 1–66.
Edit: worked this out on my own...mostly.
In addition to the first ten sign types, Peirce elaborated certain possible combinations for immediate objects--descriptive (1), denominative (2), and distributive or copulative (3). These three form a trichotomy just like the others, where a descriptive states the characters of its object, a denominative points it out, and a copulant brings it into certain logical relations (e.g. "if...then...", "...is...", etc.). He further states, and here he suggests that he is aware of the contentiousness of the claim, that because the Object determines the Sign, it is impossible
to have a descriptive famisign (=legisign or type) or a denominative famisign. Legisigns can only be copulative. Given that all conventional terms are of the nature of legisigns, as are all true symbols (which he seems to distinguish from, say, a common noun, such that a symbolic rheme would have to be predicative, rather than a general subject), what then is the possible object of, you know, regular nouns and verbs? If an abstract noun like "beauty" is a descriptive, what's the distinction between that and the linguistic sign that represents it?
I am very confused, probably because I lack logical or philosophical training. Any help is appreciated.
I thought it might be interesting/helpful to take a look at some of the later (1906-1909) explanations Peirce gives of his use of the word "sign", partly because essius
has mentioned that "determines" can seem rather vague. Both of these, of course, don't essentially differ from Peirce's 1903 description of the sign as a triadic relation, and as such having a first, second, and third correlate and not just three dyadic relations between sign, object, and interpretant. However, in some ways, these definitions seem particularly clear, perhaps because he gives them in letters to friends, perhaps because his own concepts are clearer at this point.
I use the word "Sign
" in the widest sense for any medium for the communication or extension of a Form (or feature). Being medium, it is determined by something, called its Object, and determines something, called its Interpretant or Interpretand. But some distinctions have to be borne in mind in order rightly to understand what is meant by the Object and by the Interpretant. In order that a Form may be extended or communicated, it is necessary that it should have been really embodied in a Subject independently of the communication; and it is necessary that there should be another Subject in which the same Form is embodied only in consequence of the communication. The Form (and the Form is the Object of the Sign), as it really determines the former Subject, is quite independent of the sign; yet we may and indeed must say that the object of a sign can be nothing but what the sign represents it to be. Therefore, in order to reconcile these apparently conflicting truths, it is indispensible to distinguish the immediate
object from the dynamical
-Peirce, "Excerpts from Letters to Lady Welby", EP2 p.478
A Sign is a Cognizable that, on the one hand, is so determined (i.e. specialized, bestimmt
) by something other than itself
, called its Object (or, in some cases, as if the Sign be the sentence "Cain killed Abel," in which Cain and Abel are equally Partial Objects, it may be more convenient to say that that which determines the Sign is the Complexus, or Totality, of Partial Objects. And in every case the Object is accurately the Universe of which the Special Object is member, or part), while, on the one hand, it so determines some actual or potential Mind, the determination whereof I term the Interpretant created by the Sign, that that Interpreting Mind is therein determined mediately by the Object.
This involves regarding the matter in an unfamiliar way. It may be asked, for example, how a lying or erroneous Sign is determined by its Object, or how if, as not infrequently happens, the Object is brought into existence by the Sign. To be puzzled by this is an indication of the word "determine" being taken in too narrow a sense. A person who says Napoleon was a lethargic creature has evidently his mind determined by Napoleon. For otherwise he could not attend to him at all. But here is a paradoxical circumstance. The person who interprets the sentence (or any other Sign whatsoever) must be determined by the Object of it through collateral observation quite independently of the action of the Sign. Otherwise he will not be determined to [the] thought of that object. If he never heard of Napoleon before, the sentence will mean no more to him than that some person or thing to which the name "Napoleon" has been attached was a lethargic creature. For Napoleon cannot determine his mind unless the word in the sentence calls his attention to the right man and that can only be if, independently, [a] habit has been established in him by which that word calls up a variety of attributes of Napoleon the man. Much the same thing is true in regard to any sign.
-Peirce, "Excerpts from Letters to William James", EP2 492-493
Edit: If anybody wants to, you know, question or argue this in any way, I am totally up for it. I will defend the Interpretant! and the Immediate and Dynamical Object distinction! C'mon, who wants to believe somebody like Saussure who thought thought was all nebulous and vague before linguistic structure?
If we ask what it is that semiotic studies investigate, the answer is, in a word, action. The action of signs.
—John Deely, Basics of Semiotics
(1990), chapter 3: “Semiosis: The Subject Matter of Semiotic Inquiry”
Si preguntamos qué es lo que la semiotica investiga, la respuesta es, en una palabra, acción. La acción de los signos.
—Spanish edition: Los Fundamentos de la Semiótica
, traductor José Luis Caivano
Se nos perguntarmos o que é que os estudos semióticos investigam, a resposta deve ser uma única palavra: ação. A ação dos signos.
—Portuguese edition: Semiótica Básica
, tradução de Julio C. M. Pinto
La întrebarea: ce investigheaza studiile semiotice, raspunsul este, într-un cuvânt, actiunea. Actiunea semnelor.
—Romanian edition: Bazele semioticii
, traducator Mariana Net
Se ci chiediamo quale sia l’oggetto degli studi semiotici, la riposta è, in una parola sola, l’azione. L’azione dei segni.
—Italian edition: Basi della semiotica
, traduzione Massimo Leone