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Pierce's Theory of Signs (review)
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Peircean semeiotics—Peirce's own term, in contrast to the discipline of "semiotics" that is usually spelled without the second "e"—has generated a substantial secondary literature, much of it designed to clarify Peirce's obscure, unsystematic, and continuously developing ideas about signs articulated over a forty-year career, but some of it in the attempt to illuminate other disciplines or fields of inquiry (e.g., one of the most recent being the provocative Cinema and Semiotic: Peirce and Film Aesthetics, Narration, and Representation, by Johannes Ehrat, published by the University of Toronto Press in 2005). T. L. Short's comprehensive discussion advances the conversation, or at least attempts to do so, in at least the following ways:

  • •   Short presents a historical interpretation of the development of Peirce's semeiotics, at the heart of which is the argument that Peirce sufficiently recognized his 1868–1869 doctrine of thought-signs to be flawed and that his mature pragmatic theory of signs emerged after almost forty years of specific efforts to remedy the flaws of the earlier theory. More specifically, whereas the earlier theory was right in avoiding the reigning forms of (Cartesian and other) foundationalism bequeathed by the early modern period, Peirce had at that time neither figured out how interpretation could then avoid an infinite regress (since every interpretant depended on previous thought-signs), nor found a way to present a noncircular account of the notion of significance (since all signification depended on preceding signs). Short argues that Peirce's mature semei-otic corrected these flaws precisely by "grounding" interpretation and signification in purposeful action.

  • •   Short proffers a philosophical proposal regarding purposeful action considered within the broader framework of final causation as playing a central role in Peirce's pragmatic theory of signs and meaning. Final causation is understood as general types (rather than particularities) of possible outcomes (selections for) that are irreducibly nonmechanistic and that could involve either natural processes (in which case they are anisotropic, meaning directed toward the establishment of new states or configurations) or the selective activities of agents (in which case they are purposeful actions). The former is evidenced in the kinetic theory of gases and heat (which tend irreversibly, albeit nonmechanistically, toward states of equilibrium) and in the evolutionary theory of natural selection (which selects genetic variants that enables the general goal of the adaptation, survival, and reproduction of organisms). The latter—agential activity—leads to a clear distinction between selection for (final causes understood as general types) and selection of (the particular means that serve more wide-ranging purposes). Thus, we may choose to eat (selection of) because we desire to be healthy, but our desire, in this case, is an efficient rather than a final cause; instead, health remains the telos that causes our psychological desire. In short, health is the general type of goal that motivates various types of purposeful actions, all of which tend toward the desired outcome.

  • •   Short provides a dialogical attempt to show the relevance of Peirce's teleological semeiotic to contemporary philosophy of science. In particular, something like Peirce's pragmatic theory of signs, understood teleologically, is required to make sense of scientific experimentation as a process of objective inquiry (even if scientific observations are theory laden), of the fallibilistic quest for truth (as opposed to a philosophical relativism), and of realism as an underlying ontology of both the scientific endeavor and what is studied by science. The result is what might be called a contemporary Peircean-inspired contribution to philosophy of mind and philosophy of science, with Short here drawing from Peirce in his engagement with a wide range of more recent interlocutors in both domains.

While each of these theses, broadly considered, can be disputed (and some have already been in the pages of various journals, including a roundtable symposium in the flagship journal devoted to Peirce scholarship, Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society 43:4 [2007]), scholars can do no better than to begin with this book if they wish to get a good feel for the status quaestiones on Peirce's theory of signs. Short masterfully introduces Peirce's ideas, develops them fairly consistently from out of Peirce's own framework of...



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