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  • Dewey, Semiotics, and Substances
  • Marco Stango

1. Introduction

Although the Deweyan notion of experience has been largely developed by the pragmatist scholarship (e.g., Bernstein; Frega, John Dewey et la philosophie; Pensée, expérience, pratique; Frisina; Jung; Kahn; Maddalena; Stuhr, Experience as Activity; "Dewey's Reconstruction"; Tiles, "Dewey's Realism"), it is surprising that its semiotic structure has been mainly overlooked. The reasons for this gap in the literature could be the fact that "semiotics" is usually associated with the work of Charles S. Peirce rather than Dewey and that Dewey never developed a general theory of signs. The aim of this paper is to introduce a semiotic reading of Dewey's theory of experience through the key notion of indexical existence. I believe that this reading can shed new light on Dewey's theory of experience as "interaction" or "transaction" (LW 16:4–294) and on the metaphysics implied in it. In particular, if we take the problems of semantics and metaphysics as relevant for a Deweyan understanding of experience (against, e.g., Rorty, "Dewey's Metaphysics"), the notion of indexical existence proves to be not only heuristically fruitful, but also theoretically indispensable in order to make sense of a series of theses present in Dewey's work, including the non-fixism and pluralism of metaphysics, the continuity of inquiry, and the "logical" nature of substances. Therefore, the reconstruction that I present here is an attempt to dig out the semiotic spirit already present in Dewey more than the introduction of external semiotic elements into Dewey's philosophy.

As evidenced by recent scholarship on Dewey, in order to grasp the meaning of Dewey's project, a new confrontation with the way pragmatism deals with realism and constructivism is necessary (for instance, Hickman, Neubert, and Reich [Hickman et al.]).1 Ideally, such confrontation would [End Page 26] cast new light also on the way the pragmatist project as a whole should be interpreted. As it is known, the endeavor of American pragmatism has been motivated since its very origin by a constant need for redefining its nature, its limits, and its goals. The aim of the present paper is to contribute directly to the ongoing renewed attempt at understanding the specificity of Dewey's philosophy and, indirectly, at understanding pragmatism's overall metaphysical project. I will suggest that one of the best interpretative keys available to us is that of semiotics: Dewey's pragmatist metaphysics of experience is, at the bottom, a genealogical and developmental metaphysics of signs.2 Thus, in the paper, I try to fill in the gap in the literature about the role that semiotics plays in Dewey's metaphysics. While I believe that the present research has implications for understanding the project of pragmatism as a whole, I will not develop this "semiotic portrait" of pragmatist metaphysics here. What I will do is provide a first step in the direction of a semiotic interpretation of Dewey's metaphysics of experience and inquiry.

Peter Godfrey-Smith (in "Dewey and the Question of Realism") has argued that Dewey's pragmatism constitutes an alternative to the traditional forms of realism and constructivism because it attempts to articulate a metaphysics from the point of view of the "intelligent control" of events, which is neither mere representation nor pure invention. My interpretation attempts to push this line of thought further by showing that the intelligent control of experience is for Dewey always an affair of signs.

I proceed as follows. In § 2, I build on Dewey's essay "Appearing and Appearance," and I introduce the notions of mere appearance, settled sign, and indexical existence. In § 3, I present the related notion of indexical residuum, necessary to complete a reinterpretation of Dewey's theory of inquiry in semiotic terms. These two sections contain the groundwork for the entire semiotic re-interpretation of Dewey's metaphysics. The picture emerging from the analyses there contained is that Dewey's pragmatist metaphysics of experience is, as already mentioned, a genealogical and developmental metaphysics of signs. Finally, in § 4, I draw some conclusions for a Deweyan semiotic metaphysics of substances.

2. Appearances, Indexical Existence, and Semiotic Properties

A possible justification for the use of the...


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