Home » Tradition » Quotations

John Deely on Semiotics and Logocentrism

Within current philosophy, David Clarke has made a belated attempted to define semiotic itself in the restrictive terms already established as proper to semiology: an “attempt to extend analogically features initially arrived at by examining language use to more primitive signs, with logical features of language becoming the archetype on which analysis of these latter signs is developed”. It is simply a misnomer to title a book based on such a thesis Principles of Semiotic. To try to reduce semiotic to the status of a subalternate discipline within the dimensions of current linguistic philosophy already evinces adherence to the modern perspectives of idealism which semiotics points beyond.

Among modern philosophers, the one who struggled most against the coils of idealism and in the direction of a semiotic, was Martin Heidegger. His failure to free himself from the modern logocentrism is, to be sure, a testimony to its pervasiveness in modern culture, and to the scale of the task semiotic in its fullest possibilities has to face. Yet in the debate between realism and idealism, he is the one who perhaps most clearly brough tot he fore the fact that, whatever its drawbacks and “no matter how contrary and untenable it may be in its results”, idealism “has an advantage in principle” over realism. That advantage lies in the simple fact that whenever we observe anything that observation already presupposes and rests within a semiosis whereby the object observed came to exist as object—that is to say, as perceived, experienced, or known—in the first place.

No one, including Heidegger, realizes this fact better than the semiotician. Indeed, at the heart of semiotics is the realization that the whole of human experience, without exception, is an interpretive structure mediated and sustained by signs. So it is perhaps not surprising that much of the original semiotic development in our time has taken place along the tracks and lines of a classical idealism in the modern sense, an environment and climate of thought within which the structuralist analysis of texts and narratives is particularly comfortable.

Yet we are entitled to wonder if such a perspective is enough to allow for the full development of the possibilities inherent in the notion of a doctrine of signs—to wonder if the “way of signs” does not lead outside of and well beyond the classical “way of ideas” of which Locke also spoke. We are entitled to wonder if what we need is not rather, as the recent collaborative monograph by Anderson et al. calls for, “a semiotics which provides the human sciences with a context for reconceptualizing foundations and for moving along a path which, demonstrably, avoids crashing headlong into the philosophical roadblock thrown up by forced choices between realism and idealism, as though this exclusive dichotomy were also exhaustive of the possibilities of interpreting human experience”.

Such a development seems to be what is taking place in the tradition of semiotic. This tradition, in fact, given its name by Locke, had reached the level of explicit thematic consciousness and systematically unified expression only very late—as far as we currently know, not before the Tractatus de Signis essay in 1632 by the Iberian philosophy of Portuguese birth, John Poinsot.

John Deely 1990: Basics of Semiotics [8th edition], 5-6.

For much more on John Deely, see the Wikipedia entry, a lengthy bibliography [1965-1998] [1999-2010], an obituary written by Christopher Morrissey, and the many presentations at the International Open Seminar on Semiotics: A Tribute to John Deely on the Fifth Anniversary of His Passing.

Henry Osborn Taylor on the “Middle Ages”

Preface to the First Edition, 1911: The Medieval Mind (2 volumes), Vol.I, xi–xiv:

The Middle Ages! They seem so far away; intellectually so preposterous, spiritually so strange. Bits of them may touch our sympathy, please our taste; their window-glass, their sculpture, certain of their stories, their romances—as if those straitened ages really were the time of romance, which they were not, God knows, in the sense commonly taken. Yet perhaps they were such intellectually, or at least spiritually. Their terra—not for them incognita, though full of mystery rand pall and vaguer glory—was not the earth. It was the land of metaphysical construction and the land of spiritual passion. There law their romance, thither pointed their veriest thinking, thither drew their utter yearning.

Is it possible that the Middle Ages should speak to us, as through a common humanity? Their mask is by no means dumb: in full voice speaks the noble beauty of Chartres Cathedral. Such mediaeval product, we hope, is of the universal human, and therefore of us as well as of the bygone craftsmen. Why it moves us, we are not certain, being ignorant, perhaps, of the building’s formative and earnestly intended meaning. Do we care to get at that? There is no way save by entering the mediaeval depths, penetrating to the rationale of the Middle Ages, learning the doctrinale, or emotionale, of the modes in which they still present themselves so persuasively.

But if the pageant of those centuries charm our eyes with forms that seem so full of meaning, why should we stand indifferent to the harnessed processes of mediaeval thinking and the passion surging through the thought? Thought marshalled the great mediaeval procession, which moved to measures of pulsating and glorifying emotion. Shall we not press on, through knowledge, and search out its efficient causes, so that we too may feel the reality of the mediaeval argumentation, with the possible validity of mediaeval conclusions, and tread those channels of mediaeval passion which were cleared and deepened by the thought? This would be to reach human comradeship with mediaeval motives, no longer found too remote for our sympathy, or too fantastic or shallow for our understanding.

Not only shalt thou do what seems well to thee; but thou shalt do right, with wisdom. History has laid some thousands of years of emphasis on this. Thou shalt not only be sincere, but thou shalt be righteous, and not iniquitous; beneficent, and not malignant; loving and lovable, and not hating and hateful. Thou shalt be a promoter of light, and not of darkness; an illuminator, and not an obscurer. Not only shalt thou seek to choose aright, but at thy peril thou shalt so choose. “Unto him that hath shall be given”—nothing is said about sincerity. The fool, the maniac, is sincere; the mainsprings of the good which we may commend lie deeper.

So, and at his peril likewise, must the historian judge. He cannot state the facts and sit aloof, impartial between good and ill, between success and failure, progress and retrogression, the soul’s health and loveliness, and spiritual foulness and disease. He must love and hate, and at his peril love aright and hate what is truly hateful. And although his sympathies quiver to understand and feel as the man and woman before him, his sympathies must be controlled by wisdom.

Whatever may be one’s beliefs, a realization of the power and import of the Christian Faith is needed for an understanding of the thoughts and feelings moving the men and women of the Middle Ages, and for a just appreciation of their aspirations and ideals. Perhaps the fittest standard to apply to them is one’s own broadest conception of the Christian scheme, the Christian scheme whole and entire with the full life of Christ’s Gospel. Every age has offered an interpretation of that Gospel and an attempt at fulfilment. Neither the interpretation of the Church Fathers, nor that of the Middle Ages satisfies us now. And by our further understanding of life and the Gospel of life, we criticize the judgment of mediaeval men. We have to sympathize with their best, and understand their lives out of their lives and the conditions in which they were passed. But we must judge according to our own best wisdom, and out of ourselves offer our comment and contribution.