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Exploration through Practical Signs

I apologize to the folks at the Lyceum for my long absence!  A new project that I’m beginning with my friend Fr. Cajetan Cuddy will hopefully help me to spin off some of this kind of content as I write on various Thomistic topics online.  But… I realize, also, that I’m not much of a “blogger.”  This is too long-form to be called that.  But, it is somewhat half-baked (perhaps three-quarter-baked), so it’s not quite “an article” either.  Ah, well….

Over here at the Lyceum, there is a great interest in the world of semiotics. And well… Here I find myself back close to the topic of the posting I made last year regarding extrinsic, formal causality and practical signs. For the upcoming annual American Maritain Association conference, I’m going to be giving a paper on the notion of practical signs, as a kind of draft for a chapter in a book I am (slowly….) writing.  I apologize for the conceptual overlap, but I think that an article laying out the theme in an essay by Maritain will be of use to the readers here.

Recovering the Practical Sign

The importance of doing this kind of recovery work regarding this topic is particularly clear to me. Based on conversations I had with our dear John Deely during his last days.  I’m sure a number of the readers here at the Lyceum are aware of the fact that early on in John’s life as an academic he had an important experience reading Maritain’s essay “Sign and Symbol,” published in French in Maritain’s Quatre essais sur l’esprit dans sa condition charnelle and in English in Redeeming the Time.  Although it was not the only factor leading to his later semiotic reflection, it was an important occasional cause that determined his later intellectual work.  In short: if John Deely could miss it, so will (and have) many others. 

Given the love of Deely here at the Lyceum, allow a bit of personal musing to open up this article.  One day at his house in Latrobe, John and I were talking about this or that—wherever his mind wished to traverse during those days when his powers had been hampered by his terminal illness.   As we were talking, I asked him: did you ever write anything explicitly about practical signs in John of St. Thomas?  He was a bit puzzled while trying to recall, and basically could not recount whether or not he did, though he did not believe that he did.

Truth be told, I somewhat expected this answer from him. I already had a sense that I couldn’t find this in his works. But afterwards, I went and checked as much as I could in his texts themselves and by way of a digital search of his works.  Obviously, his oeuvre is massive, so it is always possible that one might easily overlook something that is, in fact, contained somewhere in his works.  However, I could not find any substantive discussion of the topic of signa practica in those express terms and at any lengthy detail.  (It’s implicit in many places, but treatment of this theme in the Cursus theologicus of John of St. Thomas seems lacking.  I welcome any recovery projects that can show me where it is taken up by John in detail.  It would be an important point of continuity between his semiotic project and my own thought.)

Maritain’s “Sign and Symbol”

Thereafter I went back to read “Sign and Symbol” both in English and in French.  I was quite blown away by the central role, played by the topic of practical signification early in the essay, as well as in the lengthy endnotes included with the chapter.  I could not believe that John had overlooked this point, concerning which Maritain goes on at great length in the footnotes to the text.

As I work on this topic, I will be gathering together the various sources that I have stumbled across regarding the notion of practical sign.  Elsewhere, I will develop (in outline) some of the broader history of the language of “practical signs” as found in modern and medieval authors.  Here, in the spirit of connecting things to John Deely’s work, I am merely going to attempt to lay out Maritain’s own use of the term in “Sign and Symbol.”

If you have read this essay by Maritain, you are likely most familiar with the final section, dedicated to the notion of magical signs and “the nocturnal kingdom of the mind.”  In this latter section, Maritain is interested in developing the notion of functional “state” / “status” in order to provide a kind of epistemology of the human mind in a more primitive state, where the imagination (and cogitative power and memory) play a more emphatic role in the elaboration of knowledge than in a civilization in which abstract intellectual discourse has become culturally diffused.  The section is intended to develop certain themes in Lucien Lévy Bruhl and other authors concerned with questions of anthropology, as well as in Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Although this closing section of Maritain’s essay includes some important points regarding practical signs, I will be focusing on his earlier remarks therein, as well as his citations and comments in the end notes to the chapter.

At the start of the essay, Maritain opens with some standard discussion of signs as we find it in John of St. Thomas (Poinsot).  The readers here at the Lyceum are, deeply exposed to this topic, so I’m going to presume that you are at least generally aware of the important general outlines of Poinsot’s semiotics, especially as found in the Material Logic.  If I would point out one additional element, that is rather important here, Maritain notes how the (vicarious) objective causality involved in signs involves a kind of new mode or presence, the presence of knowability: through and in signs, precisely in their role of being signs, that which is signified becomes present, in a new manner of existing (p. 193).  Interesting developments of this theme can be found also in Maritain’s essay on language, found in the latter’s definitive form in the edition put together by Deely.  Through and in signs, other beings are themselves present, though in alio modo esse, through a cognitional (intentional-objective) presence.

Definition of the Practical Sign

Now, what is it that is signified by practical signs?  Action. For our purposes right now: human action involving above all the practical intellect, which judges and commands concerning the order that a human will should and must have in its activity.   Here it is important to note that technically the will plays an important role in constituting practical signs.  (So important is this factor that some, like Bl. Duns Scotus, would even go so far as to say—incorrectly to the Thomist’s eyes—that there are certain relations created by the will.) Nonetheless, insofar as the object of the practical intellect “is a known object, is something to be put into existence, something to be made concrete in action” (p. 195), the will plays a special role in the objectivity of practical signs.  Practical signs are destined to manifest “an intention of the intellect and the will” (197).  In other words, such signs are those which are used by the intellect in practical knowledge—whether artistic or moral—and are those signs which derive from the practical intellect’s activity (p. 197), which is destined, by its very nature, to be the (extrinsic-formal) source of the very intelligibility of the will.

So, practical signs are used by the practical intellect and also derive from its activity.  Thus, everywhere that there is human activity, we could say that the intelligibility of moral reasoning (and technical-artistic reasoning as well…) leaves an entire train of intelligibility in its wake.  You might think, for example, of something as simple as the plants that are sitting in the bay window of my office. They were put together by my mother-in-law for my kids to have something to watch grow as we enter spring this year. Technically, those plants have their own intelligibilities that can be manifested to intellects that are prepared to see such data.  However, we can also understand these plants as calling to mind the moral choice (and command) effected by my mother-in-law.   In other words, the planter (constituted as a kind of “moral whole”) can bring to mind something other than itself: not merely my mother-in-law, not merely other plants, but an act of human moral-intellection and freedom.  And what is more, this kind of sign represents a sort of “invitation” for my own moral intellection: “go and do likewise.”  In other words, we can apprehend the little planter as having a unified moral species, being as it is the embodiment of a past action.  It is not merely a physical specimen.  It is a moral specimen, and it signifies something other than itself, namely a particular kind of beauty-infused generosity toward by children.

Now, in “Sign and Symbol,” Maritain notes both natural-practical signs and conventional ones.  (One cannot help but think of Thomas Reid here, but ultimately Maritain is doing something much more speculatively grounded.)  Natural signs would include, he says, things like “gestures of supplication and command; smiles and glances laden with some intention or other,” etc.. (There are important connections here to what John Deely says, in Introducing Semiotics, about the various “entia rationis” that are formed by animals’ powers of estimation.)   Among conventional signs, Maritain includes “signs employed for the control of traffic or to aid navigation; gestures and formulas for taking oaths; military insignia; religious rites; etc.” (p. 197). (Here too, related topics can be found in Introducing Semiotics, and peppered all throughout Deely’s works.  Moreover, too, there are some examples of interest in the works of sacramental theology by Louis Billot, whose theory of sacramental causality is, however, problematic.)

Causality of the Practical Sign

At this point, however, it is very important not to commit the error that one finds all too often in more-superficial accounts of what practical signs are.  Under pressure from the needs of sacramental theology, especially regarding sacraments in the Christian order (in contrast, for example, to “sacraments of the Old Law”), quicker summaries of the divisions of sign will tend to ambiguously slur together sign-causality (which is “vicarious objective causality”) and efficient causality.  A good example of this can be found in the relatively schematic and sketched-out words of the 16th-17th century Irish-Bohemian Franciscan Friar Francis O’Devlin: “A speculative sign is that which causes its significate [in knowledge], as smoke in relation to fire and words in relation to things.  A practical sign is one that together causes and signifies, as the sacraments in relation to grace” (Philosophia Scoto-Aristotelica Universa [1710, p. 450]).

Or, in a more rigorously structured form, consider the following objection and response in John of St. Thomas’s Cursus theologicus.  In the argument he proposes against his own position, it is denied that the notion of sacrament as such (thus in its broadest acceptation, including more than the sacraments of the New Law) would be a practical sign, for this would seem, the “interlocutor” says, to foist efficient causality even on to sacraments of the Old Law, which, in fact, did not themselves involve efficient causal power. They did not of themselves confer such grace but, instead, merely signified the salvation that was to come in Christ (see ST III, q. 62, a. 6; q. 60, a. 2, ad 2; q. 61, a. 3).  They were be external signs of the internal working of God; however, they were not (according to the Thomist jargon), separated efficient-causal instruments of the Incarnate Word.

We are not here concerned with the details of the scholastic-theological theories of sacramental causality but, instead, with the particular claims regarding practical signs deployed in such debates.  Thus, Poinsot presents to himself this objection:

The notion of practical sign consists precisely in the fact that it brings about what it signifies (efficiat id quod significat).  However, not all sacraments bring about what they signify. Therefore, not all of them are practical signs.  The major premise of this argument is proven as follows: if a practical [sign] does not bring about what it signifies, it is, then to be numbered among speculative signs (invenitur in speculativis signis). Therefore, it is necessary that it involves something more than merely representing what it signifies; now, this additional element is to effect, that is, practically bring about (practicare) and enact (operari) that which it signifies.  Thus, it is necessary that a practical sign bring about what it signifies, for otherwise it is not clear what the notion of “practical” involves in such signs (Cursus theologicus, vol. 9 [Vivès], q. 60, disp. 22, a. 2, no. 116).

To this Poinsot responds, retaining the notion of practical sign for all sacraments, whether of the “law of nature” (outside of the Mosaic Covenant), the “Old Law,” or the “New Law”:

That a practical sign brings about what it signifies must not be understood as referring to physical and productive efficacy in esse (for this is not required for the notion of that which is practical) but rather refers to a quasi-moral efficacy—that is, a causality directing and ordering to an end.   And thus, the fact that a practical sign brings about what it signifies cannot involve something different than what holds true for the practical intellect.  Now, just as the practical intellect does not need to productively bring about something in order that it be practical but, rather, does so, as it were, by ordering and directing (and according to a moral ratio), the same holds true for the sign derived from practical intellection.  Thus, when a given sign is practical, this consists in the fact that it signifies, though not having representation as its end but, rather, sanctification or a holy work (opus sanctitatis).  However, that it bring about what it signifies and have [this] as its end is not of the essence of precisely what it is to be practical sign (non est de essential practice ut practicum est), though it is possible that such causality be found with it (ibid., no. 117).

Pushing the point, however, the objector says that such moral causality must, nonetheless, be in the genus of efficient causality:

A moral cause is truly efficacious.  Now, the practical intellect is concerned with deeds as its end, precisely as a moral cause, for it morally brings about what it signifies.  Therefore, by being practical, it is to be placed in the genus of efficient causality, at least morally.   Thus, just as it is of the essence of the sacrament to be a practical sign, it will also be of the essence of a sacrament to be a cause, and thus placed in the genus of efficient causality, at least moral efficient causality (ibid., no. 118).

In response to this:

Absolutely speaking, it does not belong to the nature of that which is practical that it be the moral cause of its object.  For as St. Thomas says in ST I, q. 14, a. 16, God has, simply speaking, practical knowledge of evils, but is not said to be the moral cause of evil.  Therefore, it suffices that the practical intellect order its object to a given work and not come to its end in knowledge of a reality, having it as its end.  However, it does not require that such ordering function as a cause in the manner of an efficient-causal principal but, rather, as ordering to an end that is a work, whether or not from this fact it is said to cause the latter (ibid. no. 119).

Thus, by way of summary, we might take his remarks earlier in the disputation in question:

The ratio of practical sign merely requires that it signify its significate as something to be given in practice, not by the causality of the sign itself but by the causality of another cause, though signified by this sign. For the ratio of sign merely requires the signifying of causation, not the causing of that which is signified. In other words, it suffices that it signify a reality not precisely so that it be represented or precisely as it is representable [as would be the case in speculative signs] but, instead, as it is caused and given [through practical agency] (ibid., no. 83).


The ratio of practical sign does not come from the fact it would exercise efficacy precisely because of its very nature as a sign (ex ipsa ratione signi), as though it had in itself the power of effecting but, rather, that is ordered to a work as to its principal end, whether this work is brought about by means of a power communicated to the sign itself, or joined to it from without, that is, by means of a disposition by the one who uses it, or something similar, as was explained earlier, especially since it is not of the nature of the practical intellect that it should have efficiency in the external object itself (ibid., no. 43; on the last point, cf. nos. 119–120).

Therefore, the point is clear: efficient causality is one thing, signifying causality is another.  And no matter how much one increases the force of the vicarious objective causality of signs, one will not get, from the causality of signs precisely as signs, a causality belonging to a different genus of causality. Although someone like Louis Billot, SJ had much of interest to indicate regarding the way that practical signs can, for example, bestow particular ranks and functions upon those designated by those signs (cf. Billot, De ecclesiae sacramentis [1914], 66ff), nonetheless, his solution, which posits a kind of half-way house of “intentional” causality seems to buy its sacramental causality on the sly, by trying to fuse together aspects of vicarious objective causality and efficient causality into a kind of hybrid. (On this topic, see Maquart, “De la causalité du signe: Réflexions sur la valeur philosophique d’une explication théologique.”)

Now, all that has been said here is summarized well by Maritain in “Sign and Symbol”:

In order to be practical, the intellect does not need to be drawn outside its proper limits as intellect.  It is within these limits, remaining intellect and without passing over to nervous motor influx that the intellect exercises its practical functions and deserves to be practical.

So also, in order to be practical the sign does not need to be drawn outside its proper limits as sign and thus become an efficient cause.  It is by remaining within the genus proper to signs (formal causality) that it exercises a practical function and deserves to be called practical: as making manifesting not precisely a thing but an intention and a direction of the practical intellect.  It is not as itself causing or operating something that the sign is active; it is as conducting or directing the operation by which the thing signified is produced or caused (Maritain, “Sign and Symbol,” 197).

For the purposes of this “article”, I will leave things here. As I keep writing, I will put together the various sources that are implicit in much of what I have said. There are a number of exegetical, historical, and philosophically speculative issues involved in these matters. They are of pivotal importance for articulating the nature of cultural realities. It is a great disappointment that the topic has not been discussed in any significant detail in the Thomist mainstream. Let us at least hope that those of us who take John Deely as a kind of master will do him the homage of filling out this important aspect of our day-to-day life amid the activity of the semiotic animal that is man.

Note from Dr. Kemple: if you are interested in John Poinsot’s semiotic, sign up for this seminar!

Musings on Extrinsic Formal Causality and Practical Signs

This is not quite how I envisioned this first blog post turning out… Originally, I had considered writing something on the issue of the political common good, focusing on the plurality of common goods in relation to the political exercise of social justice in its original and true sense (namely, the right ordering of various goods within a social whole).  Oh well… That will be my next posting.

I am in the midst of working on a monograph devoted to a topic dear to my heart, concerned with (broadly speaking) the being of culture, exposited in line with a rigorous Thomistic metaphysic.  I am at a point of writing where I need to discuss the topic of extrinsic formal causality.  Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post that teases out some of the ideas that will eventually enter into that particular chapter of my work.

The Platonic and Neo-Platonic universe is one that is dominated by the notion of extrinsic formal causality.  According to a kind of somewhat pedestrian, “kitchen table” Platonism, which philosophy professors often teach their undergraduate students, the world would be a kind of imitation of the transcend realm of the Forms or Ideas.  However, as any astute reader of Plato himself knows, many seeds for Aristotle’s own thought are found all throughout the written expression of the master’s thought, from which he drank for so many years.  Thus, in the Timaeus, we find the need to posit (by way of myth) a “receptacle” into which the form would be reflected (thus inserting material causality into the Platonic metaphysic), as well as the famous “Craftsman” (or “Demiurge”), who looks at the Forms and places them into the matter-receptacle(s), thereby making mutable copies of the immutable ideal realities (thus inserting efficient causality into the metaphysic).  Although Neo-Platonism would more clearly articulate the role of a kind of cosmic teleology, with all things going forth from the One and magnetized to return thereto (to the degree that this is possible), Plato’s conception of the Idea of the Good no doubt is the seed for such reflection on universal metaphysical gravitation.  (Think of how powerfully such teleology is expressed in Aristotle’s own account of the particular causality exercised by the First Cause when he discusses this not in the Physics but, rather, in the Metaphysics.)

But, with all of that being said, the most powerful of causes that operates on the Platonic and Neo-Platonic mind is extrinsic formal causality: the “really real” is to be found in the Ideas, with everything else being a copy thereof.  Thus, the world is full of copies and images, derivative realities whose intelligibility points to an external source upon whose model they were fashioned.  The Christian mind would readily develop this Platonic insight into the philosophical-theological metaphysics of the “Divine Ideas.”

It is, however, all too tempting for Christian philosophers to rush to the heights like this.  It comes from a laudable and pious sentiment.  But, the bright light of theological concern can tend to bleach out the importance of more quotidian realities.  Thus, among scholastics, one will most often speak of the “artistic idea” by which an artist fashions his or her work.  But such discussions are a kind of quick scaffolding for the sake of accomplishing the real construction: just enough elaboration so that one can then move on to the “truly important topic” concerning the Divine Ideas, the artistic exemplars of all created beings.

However, let us consider phenomena that are far more down to earth.  As I sit here typing, I see all sorts of things in my office.  A mug of coffee sits at my right.  Pens sit next to papers.  Slightly behind me, alongside the wall, there is a piano with a music book open, instructing me on the harmonization of a Bach chorale.

The last example is instructive (and, of course, purposely chosen).  Note the verb in the final clause: the book is instructing me.  Obviously, the sense of this verb is not the same as when it is used in its proper sense, referring to the activity of a teacher in relation to his or her students.  The act of instruction involves a kind of efficient causality.  But, for all that, is the transfer a mere metaphorical rhapsody?  No, for the most essential aspect of teaching is the act of presenting ideas before the mind of another, the “presentation of the object” to be known.  And this is something that the music text does to the person who has eyes to see.

Let us presume that I have never seen this harmonization of the “Darmstadt” melody before.  As someone who can somewhat plunk away at a piano, I have the agentive capacity to interpret music so as to then “transfer” its “message” to the tips of my fingers.  But, I cannot so transfer the “Darmstadt” melody until I know it.  In other words, my playing this melody depends, for its very being, upon the details intelligibly arranged on the paper.  And what is dependence in being?  It is a relationship of effect to cause.  My performance of this melody today must be “formed” by the message of the music pages.  My agency receives its form from outside of me—it is influenced by a causality that is, at once, extrinsic and formal.

In its merely “natural” being, the book of chorales is of use for starting a bonfire.  If civilization were to collapse, and if all modern Western music notation were to be forgotten, these properties would remain.  But, to the eyes of cognitional human agents, with a certain cultural and habituated ability to actualize the intelligibility that has been placed in these signs, the book is a window on the soul of a particular kind of music.  It pulls the musician into its orbit and expresses an intelligibility that is there in the paper—but in alio modo esse, according to another manner of existence.  It provides the “measure”, the right proportioning (at least in general terms), for my music playing.

And if one has eyes to see, one will realize that even blank paper itself also exercises this sort of causality.  In a literate culture in which writing upon paper is a possibility, a blank piece of paper is seen for the artifact that it is.  It is a practical sign of a kind of activity.  When viewed within the particular cultural context of sign interpretation, it is a kind of invitation to activity, it specifies a kind of activity: qua paper, this is something to be written on.  Sure, it can specify other activities too: make paper airplane from this, or cut out shapes from this, etc.  But the point remains, insofar as it brings into our minds the possibility of a practical activity—that is, insofar as this artifact is part of the relation-complex that leads my mind beyond the paper to a given kind of activity—the paper, precisely in this relational structure, becomes a sign, a practical sign.

We are surrounded by practical signs directing our action—they are everywhere.  They perfuse the world.  And although this kind of causality is exercised most clearly in human agency, where choice intervenes so as to constitute new forms of intelligibility, there is a real sense in which such extrinsic formal causality perfuses lower forms of activity as well.  When several trees interact with their environment so as to “communicate” with each other through their root systems, the various fungi and elements that take part in these processes have intelligibility as part of a kind of organic communication system only if one takes into consideration the life pattern of the trees in question.  In other words, the intelligibility of this system of activity, precisely as a unified system of activity, derives its intelligibility from the particular organic capacities of the plant life in question.  Even here, there is a kind of “extrinsic information” which gives an intelligibility that is not merely present in the uncoordinated activity of the parts of this now-active plant communication system.

But, I have gone on too long already.  I merely wanted to tease about on this topic to get a feeling for where the mind might go when writing on it.  Hopefully, though, this musing begins to get you thinking.  You’ll never look at the world the same again: the edge of the road is a practical sign (exercising extrinsic formal causality) telling you not to drive over it; the dashes between lanes indicate to you a kind of legal driving pattern; a driveway is an invitation to drive there and not on a lawn; a door handle is an invitation to turn and open a door; and in just the right context, a steep and open snowy hill begs you to ski down it.             

Extrinsic formal causality is everywhere, for the world is perfused with signs, both speculative and practical.  Let him who has eyes to see see.