Semiotics and Science

Although not yet a widely understood field, semiotics–defined briefly as the study of the action of signs–has begun to make a name for itself; in Europe, at least.  Heretofore in the United States, most people outside of a limited circle who believe themselves to know something of “semiotics” know what is in fact semiology, merely one branch of what belongs to semiotics, but long mistaken to be the whole tree by a tradition of thinkers following Ferdinand de Saussure.  This semiological tradition includes Roland Barthes, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and Gilles Deleuze.  Semiology considers signification only at the level of species-specifically human linguistic construction (and its cultural manifestations).  The ordination of semiological studies is towards signs as social conventions: which is to say that semiology confines its study to symbols (viewing other signs only obliquely) and is focused upon a property of symbols (their conventionality) rather than their essence (the signification of generality).

In contrast is the more robust concept of semiotics, stemming from Charles Sanders Peirce, which considers signification at a universal scale–including but not confining itself to species-specifically human symbolic signification.  Peirce scholarship is a field fraught with disagreement; he was an erratic writer, who left much in unfinished manuscripts, quite possibly experienced bipolar disorder, and likely had a lifelong narcotic addiction on account of suffering trigeminal neuralgia in an age when it had no other treatment.  This erraticism leaves his work open to wide varieties of interpretation and requires a considerable survey of seemingly disparate texts in order to discern the unifying threads of his thought.

The history of semiotics and its international development, as well as the controversies of semiotics scholarship, can be found elsewhere, however, and with more detail than I can provide.  In terms of my own position within the world of semiotics, I am a neophyte, whose provisional entry has been granted by association: my dissertation director, John Deely, was a prominent member, best known for his history of philosophy from the viewpoint of semiotic development, the Four Ages of Understanding.

Aside from the personal connections, I believe that semiotics, as both a discipline and a tradition, has a lot to offer.

What is semiotics?

To say that Peirce was fond of distinctions and classifications would be an understatement.  This tendency could likely be attributed to his appreciation of medieval scholastic philosophy, especially that of Duns Scotus (and unbeknownst to him, Thomas of Erfurt, whose work was mistakenly included in Scotus’ Opera omnia for centuries).  Among the most elaborate sets of categorizations that Peirce made were those of kinds of signs and of kinds of science.  In several different texts, he provided clear distinctions for what he called the “sciences of discovery”, broken down into three categories: mathematics, cenoscopy (or philosophy), and idioscopy (or what today would typically be called “science”, including both “hard” and “soft” or “social” sciences; Deely proposed changing the spelling to “ideoscopy”, to connote “idea” rather than “idiot”; 2009: Purely Objective Reality, 5.  While I have often used this spelling myself, I am currently leaning back towards idio-, for it more accurately signifies the “specialness” of a “view”).

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914)

Cenoscopy he likewise divided into three: phaneroscopy, normative science, and metaphysics.  Phaneroscopy–which Peirce initially called “phenomenology” but which he renamed to distinguish his thought from that of Hegel–discerns the universal categories of all experiencing: called by him Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, which we might alternatively name the experience of possibility, brute actuality, and habitual order.  Normative science divides into aesthetics, ethics, and semiotics (or logic); and semiotics divides into speculative grammar, formal logic, and speculative rhetoric (or methodeutic).  Peirce describes semiotics as the normative science of truth (1903: “An Outline Classification of the Sciences”, The Essential Peirce [EP], vol. 2: 258-62), or the “science of the necessary conditions of truth” (Collected Writings [CP], vol.1, §444).  Semiotics accomplishes this task by studying the “essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis” (CP.5.488), which requires, in turn, an understanding of the function and possible varieties of signs.

But, of course, before such a study can be understood, it needs to be known what a sign is.  John Poinsot (1589-1644; commonly called “John of St. Thomas” for his fidelity to the teaching of Aquinas) defined it as something whose whole being consists in making another known.  Thus, the stop sign on the street corner is not in and of itself a sign except insofar as it makes known the rule of the road.  Absent the rule, and absent the awareness of the rule, the red octagon with the word “stop” on it does not fulfill its usual, conventional function–just like an unfamiliar word, or one in a language not understood.

Thus what we typically call a sign is not, in fact, a sign itself.  The thing upon which a significative capacity is placed is rather a vehicle for signification; Peirce sometimes called it a Representamen (which, if derived from the Latin, should not be pronounced as we would typically desire in English, represént-amen, but rather represen-tá-men).

Therefore my own definition of a sign is: the irreducibly triadic mediation accomplished by a relation between a fundament and a terminus; that is, not one thing standing for or in relation to another, but the completed actuality of mediated relating between two beings (fundament and terminus) by means of a third (the sign-vehicle), determined by one and determining of the other (the twofold relation).  I think this is faithful, keeping in mind the distinction between the sign-as-relation and sign-as-vehicle, to one of Peirce’s later definitions, given in a 1908 letter to Lady Victoria Welby (EP.2.482):

I define a Sign as anything which on the one hand is so determined by an Object and on the other hand so determines an idea in a person’s mind [this attribution to a “person’s mind” Peirce later called his “sop to Cerberus”], that this latter determination, which I term the Interpretant of the sign, is thereby mediately determined by that Object.  A sign, therefore, has a triadic relation to its Object and its Interpretant.

While agreement about and understanding of the nature of signs still requires considerable development, there is nonetheless an immediate and obvious value of semiotics for the conduct of all sciences of discovery, including those of idioscopy.  One of the fundamental trichotomies of signs which Peirce frequently invoked, for instance, is that of icon, index, and symbol, which achieve their semiosic function by, respectively, similarity, association, and generality (or rules or habituation).  This division helps to classify and therefore understand, for instance, animal behavior: how a dog, for instance, might develop a habit on the basis of frequent association through obserations of objects which are similar to one another (and thus to its past experiences); or how a human being has a species-specific kind of iconic capacity in our intellectual concepts.

Clearing the Woods: the present and future of semiotics

Developing such understanding on the basis of semiotics is something Peirce himself intimated a necessity, calling himself a “backwoodsman” who finds the field he had discovered to be too vast (CP.5.488):

I here owe my patient reader a confession.  It is when I said that those signs that have a logical interpretant are either general or closely connected with generals, this was not a scientific result, but only a strong impression due to a life-long study of the nature of signs.  My excuse for not answering the question scientifically is that I am, as far as I know, a pioneer, or rather a backwoodsman, in the work of clearing and opening up what I call semiotic, that is, the doctrine of the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis; and I find the field too vast, the labor too great, for a first-comer.

The most prominent field wherein semiotics is today being applied is that of biosemiotics–which incorporates the study of signs, or the understanding of signs as studied in themselves, into the field of biology.  Thomas Sebeok, to whom the recovery of Peirce can largely be credited, eventually came to consider life as coextensive with semiosis, and vice versa.

If it is, as Peirce stated, the business of idioscopy to discover new facts (CP.1.184) and new phenomena (CP.8.199) through some special and unordinary mode of empirical observation (cf. CP.1.242, 278), and nothing else, then clearly a science such as biology, in order to be rectified into a meaningful articulation, requires something else.  The mere seemingly-mechanical processes of living beings do not, in other words, explain themselves nor are they explained for us by the mere fact of observation.  To understand the processes of life, we need to go beyond observation into inference.

The processes of living beings, moreover, clearly themselves proceed also by means of semiosis: by actions which involve interpretation of signs.  While there may be controversy over how this research is conducted, there is little dispute within the semiotic community that biosemiotics–which studies a range from the most minute and simplest forms of life to the human being (possibly to divide, at some point in the future, into many more specific subdisciplines, e.g., psychosemiotics)–is necessary.

In the meantime, it is a topic of debate as to whether or not semiosis belongs also to non-living beings; if there is, as Deely coined the term, such a thing as physiosemiosis.  Peirce seemed to think so–but Peirce’s cosmology is often regarded much like the rants your crazy uncle goes on when he’s had one too many drinks (or perhaps like the cab driver I had on my way to a conference in Long Island, who insisted that the entire universe was comprised by vibrations emanating from a dimension beyond those we observe and everything else is mere illusion).  And yet, while Peirce might sound a bit kooky from time to time–his one-time student, Christine Ladd-Franklin thought Peirce’s cosmological writings suggested deteriorating sanity–is probably far less insane than, say, the multiverse theory that many prominent contemporary cosmologists accepte as at least a decent possibility (cf. Houser 2014: “The Intelligible Universe” in Romanini and Fernández [eds.], Peirce and Biosemiotics: a guess at the riddle of life: 20).  As Deely puts the matter (2015: “Building a Scaffold: Semiosis in Nature and Culture”, Biosemiotics 8: 346-47):

the question of physiosemiosis, of an action or “influence” of signs in the order of φύσις, comes down to the question of whether an intersubjective relation, normally and typically dyadic in the physical order and resulting from “brute Secondness”, can achieve Thirdness — can realize triadicity — prior to (hence independent of) life.

In other words: can two things, lacking vital force, lacking internal organization that allows for any organic self-directedness, interact in such a way that action transcends the hinc et nunc actuality into the pattern(ing) characteristic of a tendency?  On the one hand, it seems nearly indisputable that this is the case: if the universe changed from lifelessness to possessing life, either this occurred by forces outside of the universe (direct divine intervention) or it occurred by an internal ordination in the constituents of the universe already implicit at the outset of existence.  Said otherwise: either the universe is a priori evolutionary in its structure, including the emergence of life, or it needs help from some sort of God.

On the other hand, argue those who deny physiosemiosis, could not a chaotic randomness be statistically capable of having interactions which eventually produce, purely by accident, a living being?  This is a bad argument, actually, but one which I intend to address more fully in the future; it requires more than fits the scope of this post.  In short: if chance and randomness are such that through them emerges nature, then they are not pure chaos.  Or, put otherwise (to repeat a phrase I heard in graduate school), accidents, chance, and randomness all ride piggyback on nature, on what is already there.  And what is already there is–regardless of whether or not laws themselves are evolutionary–ordered ultimately towards the possibility (though not the necessity) of the emergence of life; and not just any life, but even human life.

Human Science

John Deely (1942-2017)

Speaking of human beings: it was perhaps the greatest of many contributions to semiotics that John Deely provided a philosophical redefinition of human being, from “rational animal” to “semiotic animal”.  Understood correctly, there is nothing wrong with “rational” as a specific difference.  But the term does nevertheless entail an ambiguity: for although they do so differently than human beings, it is true that other animals form “beings of reason”, entia rationis, and that they do in some measure partake in the process of reasoning which is proper to human beings.  In other words, while it is true that only human beings reason as such, distinguishing human beings as rational is not specific enough.  Given improved observation and understanding of animals in their behavior and consequently their cognitive capacities, maintaining that humans should be defined as rational fosters the incorrect belief that we differ from other animals only by degree and not by kind.  In contrast, the difference of “semiotic” is truly unique to human beings: for while all animals make use of signs, only human beings are capable of the awareness that they use signs.

Why is this capability such a big deal?  In short, it is what allows us to grasp the meanings of things themselves.  A sign-vehicle determines how a cognizant being (really any being at all; but we’ll limit ourselves to the context of animals here), the interpretant, relates to an object.  Sometimes–oftentimes–the sign-vehicle results in a determination such that the interpretant is false, believing the object to be one thing when it is another, as is the intent in every instance of camouflage.  The interpreting animal may, through one or more painful experiences, learn the deceit.   Nevertheless, the animal does not yet distinguish the determination given by the sign-vehicle from the object signified; rather, it has transitioned from an interpretation of some instance as either beneficial or neutral to itself to an interpretation of that instance as harmful to itself.  A situation which previously read “safe” now reads “dangerous”.

But the human being can realize that “X is a sign of Y”–and thus, that there is a difference, a distance, between what X is and what Y is, such that X portrays Y in a way which is false to the reality of Y.  Or to take this out of algebra: “her smile is a sign of affection.”  This statement is often true; but a smile, as we all know, can hide a great many things, including the opposite of affection.

The semiotic capability, therefore, is the means by which we exercise our species-specifically human intelligence (i.e., our intellect): the ability to know what things are in themselves, and not just as they are in relation to us.  Not coincidentally, this is how Thomas Aquinas understood the meaning of intelligere: to read (legere) within or into (intus-)–not of course in the pejorative sense of reading your own thoughts into some other material, but in the sense of reading that which is written within the object considered.

All human science–that is, study of human nature, behaviors, psychology, history, culture, and so on–needs to be informed by this species-specifically human difference.  Without such an awareness, those studies are condemned to meaningless results.  That is, their research cannot be resolved (a vital philosophical term to be considered in a future blog post) into a ground of meaning if they do not first grasp the grounds for the possibility of meaning (or the grasp of meaning) in the first place.

In this way, I think semiotics is especially important for the contemporary practice of idioscopic science: that is, the scientific method and the empiriometric approaches characteristic of today’s idioscopic conduct results in nominalist (and thus ultimately nihilistic) consequences when practiced in isolation from cenoscopic insight.  This does not mean that idioscopy needs to be folded into the cenoscopic practice, or that one cannot be a scientific specialist without also being a professional philosopher, but rather that without some input from philosophical wisdom, idioscopy will run up against barriers it cannot overcome with its own tools (just as philosophy cannot discover new phenomena which improve our understanding of the universe with its own tools).  Thus, idioscopy and cenoscopy both retain a certain independence from each other, as well as a certain interdependence upon one another.  I will use Peirce himself for the final words on the subject (CP.1.278):

Every department of idioscopy builds upon philosophy… every department of idioscopy is based upon special observation, and only resorts to philosophy in order that certain obstacles to its pursuing its proper special observational inquiries may be cleared out of the way.”

And (CP.5.521):

any such idioscopic inquiry must proceed upon the virtual assumption of sundry logical and metaphysical beliefs; and it is rational to settle the validity of those before undertaking an operation that supposes their truth.

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