PEIRCE’S SEMIOTICS AS THEORY OF INQUIRY AND ITS USES IN LITERARY AND CULTURAL STUDIES
Despite the war on terrorism and the drive for a globalized free market, it seems that we are still afflicted by logocentrism and essentializing metanarratives. Decades of inoculation by deconstructive serums have failed to immunize us from lusting for truth (correspondence of intellect and thing), correctness, or origin far removed “from free play and from the order of the sign” (to quote from Derrida’s 1996 inaugural lecture on “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”). The order of the sign instructs us, following Saussure’s dicta, that the relation between the signifier (word), its referent (thing or idea) and its signified (meaning) is arbitrary. Not in the sense that words mean just anything you decide it means. There is no natural resemblance between sound-image, referent, and idea; the link between signifier and signified is based on alterable social convention. Saussure taught us that the value of a sign results from its difference to all the other signs in the language. Such differential relations are privileged in the spacing and ambiguity of writing in contrast to speech and its single, self-identical intention.
Now there is general agreement that “free play” does not sanction anarchy or “anything goes,” although Derrida’s invocation of Nietzsche tends to inspire the abolition of boundaries and rules. What is often stressed is that reading, re-presenting, depends on the historical and social contexts in which language is used. However, such contexts are always changeable and changing. Derrida contends that “There is no meaning outside of context, but no context permits saturation.” Which leaves us with a quandary. Derrida assumes that there is an infinite number of contexts for any utterance; this iterability of discourse is possible because the code underlying convention is slippery or unknown, hence meaning is undecidable. Since contexts are multiple, heterogenous and fluid, we cannot fix on a single guaranteed meaning for any text; all such attempts to make sense presuppose an act of interpretation, an operation of construal—in short, ceaseless acts of signification. The signifying chain never ends.
From another angle, Paul de Man inflects this undecidability by his theory of criticism as decentered reading. He argues that any text generates an aporia from the conflict between its decodable rule-oriented grammar and its rhetorical potential that “suspends logic and opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration.” Saussure is of course not the “culprit” responsible for legitimizing modes of misreading or misprision as heuristic techniques of exegesis. Even when one begins to focus on Saussure’s linguistics, or its distortion, as the single source for authorizing free-floating interpretations, one is immediately disabused.
Jonathan Culler, deconstructionist par excellence, has named Peirce as an accomplice in the oscillation, slippage or drift of signifiers and signifieds:
There are no final meanings that arrest the movement of signification. Peirce makes this structure of deferral and referral an aspect of his definition: a sign is “anything which determines something else (its interpretant) to refer to an object to which itself [sic] refers (its object) in the same way, the interpretant becoming in turn a sign, and so on ad infinitum…. If the series of successive interpretants comes to an end, the sign is thereby rendered imperfect, at least.”
Culler tellingly omits Peirce’s qualification before the last sentence in the quote: “No doubt, intelligent consciousness must enter into the series.” And, more important, such consciousness is integrated into communities of inquiry. In Of Grammatology, Derrida enlists Peirce in support of his scheme of destroying the “transcendental signified,” and with it, ontotheology and the metaphysics of presence, on account of Peirce’s view that the represented is “always already” a representamen, a palimpsest or fabric of traces.”
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) formulated a theory of signs that ingeniously resolved the old Cartesian dualism of subject and object. Consonant with developments in phenomenology and dialectical hermeneutics, Peirce’s logic helped clear up the traditional disputes concerning indeterminacy, intention, reference, agency, interpretive validity, etc.
For this occasion, I can only offer a bare sketch of Pierce’s theory of semiotics as an explanation for the production of meanings.
For Peirce, the sign or representamen is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” The representamen provides the occasion or ground for connecting object and sign. It does so by addressing somebody, that is, creates in the mind of someone an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign” which is called the interpretant or the effect that the sign produces (more precisely, a moment in the evolving consensus of a community of interpreters): “The triadic relation is genuine, that is, its three members are bound together by it in a way that does not consist in any complexus of dyadic relations. That is the reason the Interpretant, or Third, cannot stand in a mere dyadic relation to the Object, but must stand in such a relation to it as the Representamen itself does.” In other words, the interpretant determines how the sign represents the object and can be regarded as the meaning of the sign. Eventually the sequence of interpretants glossing other interpretants leads (via the emotional and energetic) to an “ultimate logical interpretant,” which is equivalent to “a change of habit of conduct.” In effect, the intervention of the interpretant makes impossible what postmodernist critics call the reified binary closure of signifier/signified, a syndrome resolved in favor of the postmodernist fetishizing “differance” and “dissemination.”
From the viewpoint of Peirce’s semiotic realism, the world can be more or less satisfactorily represented by thought-signs and sign-events, grasped as bodily feelings and actions. Thinking is a kind of action in historical society. Making meaning in thought and practice can not then be an absolutely free process unconstrained by the determinants that govern daily human activity. Consequently, Peirce’s concept of semiosis is not the unwarranted extravaganza posited by Derrida and Culler because there is in it a continual reference to the object of the representamen/signifier existing in a world outside consciousness, a world manifested in the phenomena of experience accessible only through signs. This referent is not a fixed static entity but a dynamic object, “an ever-developing cumulative definition of it, to be distinguished from the immediate object conjured up in any individual signification.” Further, the exigencies of practical life, as well as the criteria of logical economy and “concrete reasonableness” circumscribe the actualization of interminable sign-making.
Peirce’s semiotics is thus a crucial rectification of Saussure’s semantics of differential values. Peirce’s fundamental categories of understanding underlie the triad of semiosic process as the production of meaning. The following is a rough summation: Firstness involves the apprehension of quality, feeling, possibility (the icon is an instance of quality or possibility to which the sign points). Secondness involves an individual item discerned by its resistance to and interaction with an environment, embodying or exemplifying a possibility as actually existent. It points to an existential relation into which the instance enters. Thirdness involves general terms, laws, habits, a determinate knowledge of regularity or principle. In the process of translating Firstness (apprehension of qualities) into Secondness (indexical), an interpretant emerges: the symbol, Thirdness, connects quality and existential relations in terms of ground. In effect, the perception is interpreted or translated into other signs, with meaning produced in a continuous process determined by the community of inquirers.
Applying that triad of categories, signs or representations are divided into icon, index and symbol. Icon is a sign based on resemblance to its object, possessing some character contained in or expressed by an instance of the icon. Index is a sign based on correspondence to fact, some existential relation into which the instance enters. Symbol is a sign of generality which is connected not only to the ground and object but also to the interpretant. Symbol as a sign function assumes both quality (in reference to a ground) and the existential relations of a particular object or situation; symbol is also specific in referring to an interpretant, a cognitive moment, determined by Firstness and Secondness but not limited to either. Meaning derives from representations that involve the triadic categories, not any binary relation between signifier and signified.
Now, from the perspective of Peirce’s semiotics, every art-object is an icon (Firstness) whose aesthetic value resides in the articulation of its intrinsic qualities. The interpretant of the art/icon is a feeling or complex of emotions, the subjective correlative of the objective properties embodied in the art-work. Literary art is a representamen/sign of possibility experienced as Rhematic Symbol. A novel, poem or story presents us with signs of immediate consciousness, feelings, qualities, rhemes, in instants of time, as we read without sustained reflection or analysis. While the interpretants of an art-object are signs of ontological Firstness (Rheme), detached phenomenal elements which are merely potential, this aesthetic experience becomes an object of reflection and the logic of inference (hypothesis, deduction, induction). The interpretant (Rheme) becomes a new representamen that determines a new interpretant (another Rheme, Proposition or Argument). So the reader undergoes the experience of immediate consciousness in the first moment, then transforms this sign-process into a new sign, and so on. Given the dynamic nature of signs constituting a literary text, the text as we read will continue to generate a series of interpretants within specific parameters, frames of intelligibility, that apply the pragmaticist maxim: a method for defining concepts and ideas as the totality of their effects with conceivable “practical bearings.”
In reading a literary text, we move from Rheme (Firstness) to Dicent Sign (Secondness) and Argument (Thirdness). We can reason and argue on the basis of interpretants that translate the rhematic symbol, even though, following Peirce’s doctrine of fallibilism, we cannot arrive at “absolute certainty concerning questions of fact.’ While there are no rules or objective standards to determine the grounds for choosing interpretants, the practice of reading/interpretation is not wholly subjective, relativist or nominalist. Why we choose a certain framework, paradigm or language-game can be explained by prior choices and commitments that can be rationally examined and evaluated. Questioning and analysis, at some point, must come to an end for us to act on certain beliefs “and begin from there as rational human beings.” Art is then not just a set of formal properties divorced from everyday life; artistic experience is broader than what we find in conventional thought, an experience whose mediated apprehension (through icon, index and symbol) is facilitated by logic of critical inquiry and the normative disciplines of aesthetics and ethics.
Peirce’s semiotics may be used as a speculative instrument of cognition for exploring the complex nature of representation and its role in knowledge- and meaning-production. Its value may be demonstrated in the analysis of propositions (iinterpretants) with certain truth-claims. From this perspective, how do we read a singular text like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Fifth Book of Peace? We might begin from one interpretant of this work, the publisher’s summary, already an interested or motivated representamen connecting the art work, a rhematic symbol (composed of signs of immediate qualities, rhemes) with its “subject” in terms of a ground we can easily discern:
The Fifth Book of Peace opens as Maxine Hong Kingston, driving home from her father’s funeral in the early 1990s, discovers that her neighborhood in the Oakland-Berkeley hills is engulfed in flames. Her home burns to the ground, and with it, all her earthly possessions, including her novel-in-progress. Kingston, who at the time was deeply disturbed by the Persian Gulf War, decides that she must understand her own loss of all she possessed as a kind of shadow-experience of war; a lesson about what it would be like to experience up close its utter devastation. Thus she embarks on a mission to re-create her novel from scratch, to rebuild her life, and to reach out to veterans of war and share with them her views as a lover of peace.
In the middle section of this remarkable book, Kingston reconstructs for us her lost novel, the lush and compelling story of the Chinese-American Wittman Ah Sing and his wife, Tana—California artists who flee to Hawaii to evade the draft during the Vietnam War. Wittman and Tana help to create an official Sanctuary for deserters and GIs who’ve returned devastated by their experiences in Vietnam—not unlike, as it turns out, the metaphorical sanctuary Maxine creates, back in her real world, by inviting war veterans to participate in writing workshops. As the vets share their stories, she teaches them both the value of writing—the accurate transcription of what is in the heart—and the value of community.
Paradoxically, the stories of war and its terrors become for her and the vets a literature of peace—words that enable them to achieve peace, at least within themselves. Moving among the vets with her Buddhist-inflected wisdom and at times humorous self-doubts, weaving their stories together with her own struggle to reorient herself after the fire, Maxine Hong Kingston is at times a kind of sprite, an almost weightless spirit, who guides others toward a better place, and at times a challenging teacher, who will not let us turn from the spetacle of a world so often at war.
This passage is composed of propositions, thought-signs, designed to unify the massive structure of words and sentences constituting Kingston’s text. Connecting the art-object (made up of feelings and statements of events, etc.) with signs purporting to be what the work is about, this interpretant arises from the ground of portraying a sagacious but sensitive artist whose plight can offer an exemplary consolation to many readers in search of relief in a time of war and social unrest. Obviously the publishers want to sell another product by an artist familiar to many whose earlier works, Woman Warrior and China Men, brought pleasure and some comfort especially to immigrants and inferiorized ethnics.
The publisher’s argument is composed of symbols expressing habits of associative regularity, convention, law. It interprets the diverse materials—rhemes, dicent signs, icons and indices—from the viewpoint of a conception of the artist as a verbal alchemist who tries to meld heterogeneous impressions and events, converting loss into an occasion for creation and rebuilding. Rhetorically, it invents an index, an existential connection between two existents, in the figure of the sprite or “almost weightless spirit” who can magically re-create what was destroyed and also empathize with victims of war and alienation. In addition, an icon or figure of similarity is invoked when the author’s suffering is described as “shadow-experience” of real war. Finally, the fiction she re-creates out of qualisigns and sinsigns becomes a legisign: we witness the formation of a community of writers, a sanctuary founded on sharing acts of sign-production. Mediated by Buddhist rituals and the camaraderie of exchanging talk-stories, Kingston fulfills her mission of personal recovery while aspiring to realize her vocation as “a challenging teacher” committed to critical realism and the responsibility of mobilizing her readers for social transformation.
In the triadic interaction of icon, index and symbol, this particular reading suggests a frame of intelligibility premised on grasping meanings as the product of a community of inquirers who use signs for diverse social purposes. This is the semiotic frame for learning and cognition, as Peirce suggests: “The very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a community, without definite limits, and capable of an increase in knowledge.” Meaning generated from triadic signs testifies not only to the social principle in thinking (logic) but to the continuity of the universe (Peirce’s “synechism). Kingston’s text becomes a kind of allegory for the communal production of meaning carried out through experimenting with the pragmatic maxim as a methodological presupposition condensed in Pierce’s aphorism: “The final upshot of thinking is the exercise of volition.”
This understanding of Kingston’s work is premised on the ground of a definite conception of the function of the artist as a moral guide and pleasure-giving performer (the Horation axiom of dulce et utile). Driven by a belief in the priority of mimetic realism, Polly Schulman’s review in The New York Times raises two objections: first, Kingston fails to integrate the sections of her book, a departure from her earlier work when she mixed fiction and memory; and second, Kingston’s “utopianism” forces her to describe an “incredible paradise of peace” in chapter 3, where Wittman Ah Sing’s vocation of observing life leads him to speculate that “Mind creates what’s out there…See the world peaceful and the war will end.” Shulman certainly differs in precisely choosing a ground to connect the representamen of the book and their objects with an interpretant that cannot accept a medley of different techniques and styles.
On one hand, we confront here a specimen of what Pierce calls the “emotional” interpretant which reacts to qualisigns or immediate apprehensions without critical distance. Through this level, however, Shulman moves to the level of the “energetic” interpretant, which Peirce describes as one displaying mental effort, “an exertion upon the Inner World.”This interpretant springs from a tension or conflict arising from the habit of valuing Kingston’s early performances—those “sadder, fiercer, deeper stories she used to tell so bravely”—over what she construes as the “unreal utopianism” of happy endings (not factually correct) and “optimism that feels forced.”
What is clearly evident here is a shifting of ground and a recasting of argument: Shulman assumes that Kingston is driven to “sanitize and happify” because she could not face any more pain. No convincing proof is adduced to support this contention. This hypothesis, it seems to me, is based on a highly selective focus on quotations that highlight moments of reconciliation, reunion, and festive solidarity interspersed in scenes of violence, futility, and anguish. It does not do full justice to the recognition of problems, conflicts and tensions (such as those among the writing veterans or the Sanctuary participants) that thwart any facile utopian escapism. Shulman upholds the first chapter as the iconic model that the author failed to emulate, for it is “the most intimate and moving section [where] she allows subtle and conflicting feelings to wash through her onto the page.”
Numerous other occasions replicate that moment, but this is not noticed, hence the judgment that this book is “a strange, scarred thing, pieced from fragments, smelling of smoke and anguish. Its power lies in its pain….” The rheme and qualisigns found in the first chapter, the realm of qualitative possibility (through which we can access the knowable reality) are translated first into iconic objects (“scarred thing”) of similarity,which then becomes an index of actualities and existents (dicisigns), finally emerging into legisign or law. Shulman’s interpretant remains at the energetic level, cognizant of disparity and contradiction, unable to evolve into what Peirce calls the final logical interpretant: “The deliberately formed, self-analyzing habit,” a “form of experimentation in the inner world.”
Meanwhile, a reviewer for In These Times takes a wholly eulogistic view of Kingston’s variegated discourse. Gary Gach starts with a reconstructive response to the diverse materials and styles which, like war and peace, cannot be separated so easily: “Fittingly then, the book defies categorization, combining memoir, fiction and journalism, with each clearly delineated. The net effect calls into question not only division of genres but the very concept of separation.” Here the ground that connects the rhematic symbol and the object (the events and characters rendered in the narrative) is the belief that things change and the interaction of events and experiences lead to “a grander cumulative design.” The interpretant combines the emotional and energetic levels of response as it seizes on the event that presaged the release of the book: “In February 2003, massive spontaneous demonstrations broke out across the planet, preemptively decrying the war in Iraq as an interruption of peace. Unprecedented.” In effect, historical events confirm the habit or disposition of opposing what is to what can be changed—this logical interpretant predicates a relation of antecedent-consequence between the sign (text) and its object (memoir of self-transformation).
This interpretation then understands the structure of the book as a carefully planned transition from themes emblematized by the various elements of “Fire,” “Paper,” “Water” and “Earth.” The section on “Water” conduces to the creation of a community of resistance which is sustained in the writing workshop for veterans. Choosing the ground of conceiving the book as a prophetic symbol of a better future arising from the painful past, this reader highlights the “liberation of Kingston from the customary isolation of writing” by way of the spiritual community practices of Buddhism led by the exiled master Thich Nhat Hanh. The stress on change, on imagining something not present or recognizing something not yet manifest, allows Gach to concentrate on the sequence of selected scenes and episodes, construing them as indices to the argument concerning the function of writing in a community mediated through Buddhist principles: “T5BP shows how war trauma can be healed in a community by making it conscious (through words), and by becoming conscious of being conscious (through meditation). And by seeing our common humanity, in our shared capacity for peace, love and understanding.”
Peirce’s concepts of truth and reality are all future-oriented, the end result of pursuing the logic of inquiry to wherever it will lead. However, we can all agree on a plausible if not valid reading of Kingston by grasping her characteristic sign-usage—that is, the chosen ground or frame of intelligibility. The triadic sign and meaning are indivisible: every sign embodies the relation of its representamen to its object and interpretant according to some ground or language game. I propose locating the distinctive dynamics of sign-usage that makes Kingston’s book unique in these two passages, the first from the section on “Paper”:
At kingdoms’ rise and fall, the new king would cut out the historians’ tongues. Writers had to set fire to their own books, and be burned to death in the book fire. Historians whose tongue stumps were cauterized lived on. They made dumb gestures that could not express subtle, complex ideas, such as descriptions of the way the world has never been but might be.
And here is the second passage from the “Epilogue”:
The images of peace are ephemeral. The language of peace is subtle. The reasons for peace, the definitions of peace, the very idea of peace have to be invented, and invented again.
Children, everybody, here’s what to do during war: In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A community. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment.
Peirce argued that meaning-production springs from the relation of a sign to its object “in respect to a Quality in such a way as to bring a Third Thing, its Interpretant, into relation with the same object. To generate meaning, there are four requirements three of which involve Peirce’s categories: the sign, like everything else, has some form or ground of intelligiblity (Firstness); the sign stands in relation to something (Secondness); and the sign is comprehended or translated by something else (Thirdness). A fourth requirement is stipulated by Peirce: “The whole purpose of a sign is that it should be interpreted in another sign and its whole purpose lies in the special character which it imparts to its interpretant. When a sign determines an interpretant of itself in another sign, it produces an effect external to itself.” Given the dynamic relation between the three constituents of the sign (representamen, object, interpretant), the sign’s power resides in its efficacy to represent something to a collectivity of inquirers, thus establishing a frame of meaningfulness.
The various representamens here offer a variety of possibilities, but the question is how they are translated in other signs based on what chosen ground, linkages, connections. We can foreground the burning of historians and their books; the cutting of their tongues to prevent them from articulating complex ideas of alternative worlds. Can these signifiers simply be translated into a signified like “State power suppresses truth by killing the recorders, and even if some survive, they are so mutilated that they cannot envision a world different from their own.” The tone and syntax of Kingston’s sentences convey facts with resignation, exemplifying one approach to the existing order. This dyadic pair, “signifier/signified,” does not take account of who is connecting sign and object, the interpretant; the interpretant is not the signified but the entire process of signification, the experience of intelligibility that unifies communicating speakers/sign-users and produces comprehension.
The interpretant we seek goes beyond the Immediate Interpretation (which Peirce calls an abstraction or a possibility) to the Dynamical Interpretant, the single actual event of making sense which differs for every occasion, and eventually to the Final Interpretant to which all interpretations converge “if the Sign is sufficiently considered.” Let us assume here that Kingston is not interested simply in summarizing in a nominalistic or positivist manner what happened—the thrust of the first passage, although a large part of the book is an attempt to witness, transcribe or report what happened (the historical burden of a memoir).
The concluding passage then gives a clue to the nature of the Final Interpretant if we read it as an argument that peace, the desired and obsessive topic/theme of Kingston’s discourse, is something fashioned, the fruit of repeated acts of invention, an ephemeral and subtle object that can only be represented by an imperative sign consisting of icons and indices: poem, parade, community, school, vow, moral principle—equivalents of “one peaceful moment.” Understood in this way, Kingston’s book as argument produced by diverse modalities of representation in order to fix a belief. It embodies a semiosic process outlined by Peirce, one (to quote Leroy Searle) “always concerned with and embedded in a real historical context, aware of consequences, without becoming systematically entangled in linguistic issues that are always indeterminate when considered apart from pragmatics.”
In the final analysis, interpretations vary. And their legitimacy, plausibility, or validity depend on what beliefs they lead us to and how effectively this goal of persuasion is reached. Given such beliefs fixed by a certain interpretation, what ensemble of acts and practices do they instigate, arouse, or solicit? I think that is the next step in pursuing Peirce’s logic of inquiry.
Applied to literary interpretation, Peirce’s semiotic proceeds by a logic of hypothesis, testing by induction, and its implication in belief-formation. The search for meaning is a matter of formulating a synthetic inference, by abduction, in real-life situations. What do we think of the consequences or effects of choosing a certain ground linking signs and their objects, pressured by our needs and desires? While multiple circumstances and desires influence groups of readers/interpreters, the mode of rational inquiry implies a normative ethics and aesthetics regulated and validated by modes of logical inference. Belief arises from the process of inquiry and experiment that should be pursued freely without the threat of heresy from the gatekeepers of orthodoxy—since beliefs are always tested and proved/disproved, as a commitment to a “concretely reasonable” world.
Obviously I am not proposing here a return to the formalist view of an autonomous text relying on authorial intention, as some neopragmatists advocate. Nor do we envisage a recuperation of the legible/readable text based on the traditional hermeneutic circle suffused with multiple if contradictory significations. Relative to our collective purposes and desires, the relevant contexts for understanding this art-work can be enlarged and offered for discussion. The final interpretant—in Peirce’s epistemology, “the effect the Sign would produce upon any mind upon which circumstances [history, artistic techniques, biography, and other contextual information] should permit it to work out its full effect”—would deploy such information provided by historical accounts as elements of the hermeneutic horizon of expectations to help us appraise the cogency of all the “possibles” rendered in the narrative.
We can indeed anticipate a range of possible interpretants that we can speculate on for any particular scene, or for any other pivotal episode, in Kingston’s narrative as a sequence of representamens, and for the text as a whole. As I have argued, however, that range can not be infinite nor arbitrary since the over-all principle of “concrete reasonableness” (the logic of abduction) imposes a provisional end to this phase of the inquiry. The knowable reality which the art of Kingston’s “fiction” strives to represent is not an indeterminable, mysterious “something”; to the extent that the representation exhibits the “power to live down all opposition,” the interpretant can grasp the “true character of the object… The very entelechy of being lies in being representable,” Peirce insists, mediated through the community of inquirers.
I have already remarked that for Peirce thoughts are not immediately perceived in a soul, mind or self; thought—the Cartesian cogito–is a relation of signs possessing material properties, as brain process. The “I” itself is a sign entailing the triadic constituents of signification. However, the universe cannot be reduced to simple mechanical forces (Secondness) derived from sheer thisness (Firstness), a pattern of action and reaction. Knowledge of the universe and varying degrees of self-control spring from Thirdness (mediation; law), the intelligence found in semiosis, in the production of meaning: the representation of one object to a second by a third. Intelligence then is not immediate spontaneous knowledge of ideas in the mind or soul, nor a dyadic relation between objects. It is an interpretive relation, the result of arriving at the “right method of thinking, of transforming signs.” In Peirce’s semiotic inquiry, ideas are not immediately known or intuitively grasped; their meanings can be discovered by a process of inference, a sequence of translation and transcoding. The thoughts (interpretants) we have spring from the triadic relation of determining the ground connecting signs to their objects and objects to the interpretant. Since we have to make decisions and act in real situations, the cognition of meaning is not infinitely deferred but is conceived as a continuous process of inference or reasoning in communities of inquiry.
Peirce insisted on the reality of universals and of all relations, specifically the relation of representation. We are far removed here from postmodernist epistemological skepticism and relativism and the subject-object antinomies of Cartesian thought. Unlike the ideas perceived introspectively in Descartes’ mind, whose meaning is intuited or immediately known, the meaning of a thought-sign, although a thought is not self-evident and cannot be reduced to sense-data (positivism) or to the norms of ordinary language (Wittgenstein). We have to interpret the sign by subsequent thought-signs and practices to know what it means.
Peirce opposed nominalism as the view that consciousness (percepts) is not the real thing but only the sign of the thing. Peirce held to the view that “Reals are signs” and knowledge can be acquired from an understanding of the triadic process of representation. In general, deconstruction and post-structuralist theory generally subscribe to a nominalism that questions objective reality, general laws. Nominalists reduce modes of reality to individual entities, disintegrating phenomena into dyadic relations artificially fashioned by subjective will or textual fiat. This in turn obscures the dependence of thought on diverse forms of representation which condition the truth-claims of propositions. Unlike postmodern nominalism, Peirce’s approach allows the study of society, culture and history to become an objective science not in the narrow mechanistic or narrowly empiricist sense but in a genuinely dialectical mode where human rational agency participates in the discovery of truth in historically specific situations. Dialectical also because thought or intelligence demonstrates its real creative force not in absolute “free play,” in undecidable self-fashioning divorced from history and nature, but within the constraints of the real world in which we live (the universe of Thirdness) and the reciprocally interactive logic of necessity and chance.
Peirce’s semiotics is indeed a theory not of language but of the production of meaning in the triadic interaction of sign, object and interpretant. While the meaning of a sign is “altogether virtual,” the fully articulated meaning inheres in the habits of interpretation, the capacities and dispositions these habits are calculated to produce; such habits are assessed in terms of whether it leads to the “entire general intended interpretant” which, for Pierce, gives “command of a whole range of a sign’s possible interpretations,” resulting from the use of a more adequate and systematized body of information. Semiosis is thus rendered concretely determinate by the goal of “concrete reasonableness” involving the logically controlled use of signs in purposive thinking, with relevance to real problems of adaptation and adjustment of humans to their sociohistorical environment.
For Peirce, the terminal goal of semiosis is the emergence of “concrete reasonableness” and its embodiment in a community of inquirers open to the impact of experience, the intractable factuality of an objective world, the historicity of life, and the influence of traditions. This follows from Peirce’s insight that the ultimate foundation of meaning is not found in arbitrary conventions but in the rectifiable process of interpretation. Such process leads to the shaping of general habits and the correction and improvement of traditions based on a systematic, rigorous critique of common-sense assumptions, ideologies and received conventions.
Knowledge and reality, “cognizability” and being, are synonymous terms for Pierce. His critique of meaning ultimately directs us to fix our attention on the habits of thinking and action precipitated by our cultural practices, effects with practical bearings in everyday life. Perceptions and habits of inference (as in the experimental testing of hypothetical postulates) always take place within the domain of semiotic representation. Aesthetics, for Peirce, is nothing else but “the theory of the deliberate formation of such habits of feeling (i.e., of the ideal)” which he also called “the play of Musement” after Schiller’s Spieltrieb.
Reading The Fifth Book of Peace and analyzing the repertoire of interpretants of each section or episode of the book may be said to constitute those significant practices that challenge not only our hermeneutic skills and capabilities of construing perceptions and translating perceptual judgments; they also elicit signs of whether we, and others in the collaborative enterprise, embody what Peirce calls “an intelligence capable of learning by experience.” James Hoopes adds this lesson: “Peirce’s semiotic therefore allows for realistic recognition that human life and society are to a significant degree a matter not only of freedom but also of constraint, a matter of people being shoved this way or that by bullets and ballots, a surplus or shortage of land, the rise and fall of technologies and industries, and so on.
On the other hand, Peirce’s monism and semiotic realism allow for some freedom or, rather, a role for thought. By explaining how thought is action, Peirce’s semiotic makes it possible to understand why thinking, language, and culture are real historical forces” (1991, 12). Again, here, the goal of “concrete reasonableness” compels the thinker to judge not individual thoughts but habits of argument, habits of forming intelligible and appropriate responses to signs, bearing in mind that what enables the intelligibility or meaningfulness of signs are the consequences, effects, and future experiences that they produce. Peirce’s pragmaticist maxim underscores the nature of learning as the semiotic inquiry into the formation of beliefs leading to rules of action and habits: “…the entire intellectual purport of any symbol consists in the total of all general modes of rational conduct that, conditionally upon all the possible different circumstances and desires, would ensue upon the acceptance of the symbol.” –###