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 , 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!