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  • On Interpretative Activity: A Peircian Approach to the Interpretation of Science, Technology and the Arts
  • Robert E. Innis
Noel E. Boulting On Interpretative Activity: A Peircian Approach to the Interpretation of Science, Technology and the Arts Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2006. xii + 177 pp.

Reading the present book was both a frustrating and an enlightening experience. The book is actually, and deliberately, not about Peirce but about a central set of themes, topics, and problems that would be, or rather could be, illuminated by a Peircian approach, that is, that would rely upon or benefit from Peirce's analytical apparatus and methodological example. The focal points of the book are indicated in the title itself. Science, technology, and the arts are to be interpreted in Peircian terms and the very process of interpretation itself is to be structured by recourse to Peirce's central categories and itself subjected to examination. This gives a kind of methodological self-reflexive orientation to the argument. The book, explicitly and with keen authorial self-consciousness, oscillates between the two poles of application and exemplification. Its success is to be measured by how well it applies Peircian analytical tools to its subjects and whether it really exhibits 'fair use' of these tools. What is frustrating about the book is the 'forced' or incompletely focused character of the application of Peircian concepts. But the book is also enlightening in a kind of double-edged way: parts of the operative analyses, if not the intended analyses, are helpful in leading one to think about the topics under discussion, especially aesthetic topics, and other parts enlighten one about what would need to be added to bring the present discussions to a satisfactory level.

The book consists of six chapters, plus an appendix in dialogue form. Two chapters deal with 'science' and 'technology' both in themselves and in relation to one another. Three chapters thematically or predominantly concern art, focusing upon the status of art works, the nature of their interpretation, and the place of art in society. The last chapter focuses in more general fashion upon the nature of the 'three-tiered' interpretative structure that informs the book as a whole and the nature of 'reification' as a classic term that has close connections with the notions of 'objectification' and 'false consciousness.' The great promise of the book is found in the bringing together in one volume, [End Page 809] and under one interpretative framework, of science, technology, and the arts. Such laudable scope is distinctly Peircian in spirit.

The main question one has to ask about Boulting's procedures is just what he thinks he has taken from Peirce—and what in fact he actually has taken. It is not easy to answer this question in an unambiguous way or to say exactly why Boulting even thinks he should utilize Peircian ideas in just this way to structure and formulate his ideas. On the surface Boulting's book is permeated by a quite limited, and rather undeveloped, set of categories and schemata that appear to be rooted in Peirce. The fundamental Peircian triad of sign types, icons, indexes, and symbols, is used to establish what Boulting calls three different 'conceptions' of interpretative activities, the iconic, the indexical, and the 'intellective,' which takes the place, terminologically at least, of the 'symbolic.' Boulting's triad, which he rather puzzlingly calls 'conceptions' rather than 'dimensions' or "factors," for reasons I cannot quite put my finger on, becomes the analytical 'cutting tool' for the whole book. This triad is for the most part separated from the rest of Peirce's semiotic framework, which makes only marginal and unhelpful appearances in the rest of the book. Of special interest is a seriously defective utilization of Peirce's notion of interpretants (emotional/affective, energetic, and logical). The triad of iconic, indexical, and intellective, is used to differentiate "three different senses of the term science" (3). It is further used to distinguish three different 'conceptions' of technology, the subject of chapter two. Turning to art, and taking Joseph Margolis as his main discussion partner, Boulting will further attempt to consider art works as being able to be regarded intellectively, indexically, or iconically and...