Common Sources for the Semiotic of Charles Peirce and John Poinsot

Article excerpt

The prevalence today of "semiotics" as the preferred linguistic form for designating the study of signs in its various aspects already conceals a history, a story of the ways in which, layer by layer, the temporal achievement we call human understanding builds, through public discourse, ever new levels of common acceptance each of which presents itself as, if not self-evident, at least the common wisdom. Overcoming such present-mindedness is not the least of the tasks faced by the awakening of semiotic consciousness.

One need not go back very far in the literature on this subject to find that the term more widely bandied about with regard to the study of signs and sign-systems (codes) was rather "semiology," particularly in its French form. As recently as 1971, Thomas Sebeok reported that. "this is the term that, reinforced by the prestige of Parisian intellectual life, now turns up regularly in British newspapers and magazines, such as The Times Literary Supplement, and in an outpouring of volumes on the most diverse verbal and nonverbal arts, ranging from architecture . . . to cinematography."(1)

What a difference a day makes. There are a host of reasons, from superficial to profound, that play a role in the current dominance of "semiotics" as the preferred linguistic form for designating the study of signs. The reversal of dominance in the discursive rivalry between "semiology" and "semiotics" as cultural forms of understanding, we want to suggest, is owing to the gradual, not to say grudging, recognition of the comparative depth, scope, and importance of the studies authored, on the one hand, by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and those who took their principal inspiration in the study of signs from his work; and, on the other hand, by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and those who took principal inspiration in the study of signs from his work. Saussure, of course, coined the term "semiologie," while Peirce, though he did not coin the word "semiotic," nonetheless took it over from the desuetude into which it had fallen as a neologism at the end of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding of 1690 and put it into current circulation.(2)

The last word has not been spoken, but insofar as it is a question of positive evidence, we are obliged to grant that despite their coevality, Saussure and Peirce formulated their ideas for a doctrine or general theory of signs completely independently of one another.(3) This comparative autonomy of their central proposals is reflected in the fact that Peirce sees semiotic as a foundational and architectonic inquiry, while Saussure sees it as a subalternate science that, when realized, "would form a part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology."(4)

Partly for reasons of European chauvinism, partly for reasons of their respective biographies (which, in Peirce's case, destined his work to a long obscurity, while the remarks of Saussure on semiology were brought to light within three years of his death), Saussure's proposal for a development of semiology as "a science which studies the life of signs at, the heart of social life"(5) immediately caught the imagination of Europe's intellectual class and became a rallying cry for a flurry of writing. However, what Sebeok said of the works of "Morris, Hjelmslev, Barthes, and their numerous epigones on the holistic force of semiotics" can also be said of Saussure's own remarks on semiology: they "hardly exceed programmatic pronouncements."(6) By contrast, Peirce's writing on semiotic comprises the body of many volumes and calls for a fundamental rethinking of the traditional questions of science, epistemology, and experience together with a recuperation of the previous history of philosophy neglected by modernity, with a particular emphasis - for good reasons, some of the specifics of which we shall be shortly considering - on the achievements of Latin scholasticism.(7) In short, Peirce's call for a doctrine of signs, demanding a thorough overhaul of intellectual traditions and disciplines in general, even had it been more effectively promulgated in his lifetime, lent itself nowhere near so easily as Saussure's vision for semiology to a popular rallying point for journalistic indulgences. …