The following came from notes initially prepared for the “On Semiotics” 15 Minute Insight, which has since moved in a new direction (and will, I hope, be released this Monday or Tuesday [6/24 or 25]).
To talk about semiotics, the doctrine of signs, I think it’s prudent to summarize the peculiar philosophical history which has led to what I consider the present necessity for understanding and promulgating semiotics. That is: modernity, as a philosophical era, begins through a divide of the mind from the world. There had been flirtations with this divide of thought and reality in previous philosophical eras—the tension between realism and nominalism in the Latin age, for instance, or in Socrates’ refutation of the sophists’ relativism—but never before had the divide been taken as a presupposition. Descartes takes it as a given that our ideas or concepts are instrumental signs at best—that is, signs we must know themselves, as objects, in order for our minds to be directed to the further objects that those mental signs signify—and John Locke, and all the rest of the modern thinkers, followed in the Cartesian footsteps even as they tried to escape the consequences.
This divide has come to permeate our thinking, our theories of truth, our language, and, in short, Western culture as a whole. That is not to say everyone explicitly takes it for granted that our thoughts or concepts are instrumental signs, as did Descartes, Locke, and all the rest of their era, but it is to say that this presupposition has altered countless aspects of the cultural world in which we have all likely been raised. The sad reality of this history, is that had just a few small things been different, modern philosophy would never have arisen as it did.
For nearly simultaneous with Descartes’ publication of the Discourse on Method in 1637 and the Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641, John of St. Thomas, or John Poinsot to give him his family name, was writing his Cursus Philosophicus, in which scattered writings on the nature and action of signs shed a light on the matter like no thinker before. These scattered writings are available as a coherently-edited and translated treatise, under the title Tractatus de Signis, to which I have linked in the notes below. But sadly, Poinsot’s work fell into obscurity and received little attention outside the Iberian peninsula and insulated pockets of Catholic higher education. In the meantime, most thinkers seemed to follow the most pernicious of Descartes’ exhortations—namely, to not read the medievals—and thus his presupposed divide of mind and world permeated thought and language for centuries, eroding our collective understanding of truth.
Nevertheless, modernity’s hold was not and is not absolute. Creative retrieval of traditions past and nearly forgotten remains a possibility so long as their texts survive and if we may—to appropriate a phrase from Heidegger—genuinely repeat the questions of those traditions. It was just such a genuine repetition performed by Charles Sanders Peirce in the latter half of the 19th and early portion of the 20th centuries; for, unlike the many who followed the Cartesian prohibition on reading the medievals, Peirce engaged them deeply, reading Scotus and Ockham, and most especially the Conimbricenses, a group of semi-anonymous Jesuit authors at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, and at one point the teachers of John Poinsot. They, too, wrote and thought much on signs, and it was their writing in particular that prompted Peirce to formulate a new explicit doctrine of signs.
This doctrine—semiotics, a name actually proposed first by John Locke but pursued by neither he nor any of his followers, a doctrine which can be described broadly as the study of the action of signs and narrowly as the normative science of truth—this Peircean doctrine of signs was likewise nearly lost to history. Peirce lived a controversial life, marred by great physical and psychological torment, as well as his own bad decisions and misplaced trust, and the majority of his writings were for decades kept locked in a vault at Harvard University, with access being highly restricted. Only in recent years have those writings begun to be more widely available—first in a poorly-edited, poorly organized, and woefully incomplete 8 volume collection; second in a succinct but well-edited, well-organized 2 volume selection of “essential” readings; and third in an on-going project to publish all his works in a chronological order… of which only 7 out of 36 volumes, I believe, have so far been produced.
What has been and is still being uncovered in the great trove of Peirce’s erratic, at times almost quixotic, scattered, jargonistic, and often confusing writings is a brilliant series of insights, and almost equally brilliant series of struggles, with how we are to understand the nature and function of signs not just as cultural artifacts or necessary means for our own internal intellectual consistency, but as the fundamental constituent of the web of life and perhaps even all the universe as a whole.
In the meantime—between 1906 and 1911—Ferdinand de Saussure at the University of Geneva proposed a doctrine of signs for which he suggested the name “semiology”, but for which his followers forcibly appropriated the name “semiotics”. Saussure’s proposal was strictly limited to a consideration of linguistic signs. Among his followers, one finds Algirdas Greimas, Roland Barthes, Louis Hjelmslev, Christian Metz, Yuri Lotman, and many others—at least, many others who treat semiotics as a consideration of language alone, such as Jacques Derrida and all who engaged in the trend of deconstructionism. While many of these thinkers produced insightful thoughts on language, by their limitation of signification to the linguistic they fell into the same division between mind and world that permeated all modern philosophy; and a struggle is ongoing over semiotics, whether it will fall in line with the Peircean, synechistic view—described in the previous video—or if it will lapse into the same inane thinking that dominates ultramodern philosophy.
Today, the Peircean impetus has become the stronger, thanks to the work of people like Tom Sebeok and the many working in the tradition of biosemiotics, which applies semiotic insight to biology, as well as Susan Petrilli, Augusto Ponzio, and my own dissertation director, John Deely, to name just a few.