Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Semiotic, Rhetoric and Democracy

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Semiotic, Rhetoric and Democracy

Article excerpt

SEMIOTIC THEORY

John Deely's major project is about how the philosophical approach called semiosis originated with the scholastics who called it doctrina signorum. He explains how this valuable work was eclipsed at the beginning of modernity. He goes on to herald and advocate the resurgence of semiosis as centrally important to the future of 'postmodern' philosophy. In Descartes and Poinsot: The Crossroads of Signs and Ideas (1), Deely explicates the semiotics of John Poinsot (1589-1644) and contrasts them with the philosophy of Poinsot's celebrated contemporary Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Elsewhere (2) Deely explains how two centuries later Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) replicated the semiotic realist theory of Poinsot without ever reading his forerunner. For Deely, both Poinsot and Descartes lived during a fulcrum in the history of ideas when nominalist thought triumphed. The scales came down heavily against realism and strongly in favour of solipsism (3). Descartes' idealist philosophy implied that knowledge of the world came only from what was 'imagined' in the mind. There was no way of 'knowing' the world directly in any real way except via a notion of God. Deely suggests many succeeding mainstream philosophers from Hume and Kant onwards have struggled to tie their schema back to the real world. The concept of God or 'Supreme Being' is sometimes resorted to as the only way of filling in the lacuna in these philosophies. Deely's thoughts on the relevance of 'God' to philosophy are given later in this paper. Descartes' God-dependent idealism was adopted as the foundation of modern philosophy despite the fact that while Descartes was alive Poinsot finished his rendition of a far superior realist philosophy which was not God Dependent (4). Poinsot's Tractatus de Signis was the culmination of more than a millennium of developments of thought stemming from professor of rhetoric: St Augustine of Hippo (345-430 CE). Poinsot's and Peirce's semiotics posits that thought, like all other behaviours of living things, can only happen in relation to the exterior and interior environment of that life form. Simple beings behave in a simple way in response to what they encounter in their environment. But even those highly complex manifestations of life: 'people' draw all, including their most abstract forms of thought, ultimately from aspects of how their actual, real world has at some stage been sensed and subsequently conceived and objectified. By 'objectify' Poinsot, Peirce and Deely mean the making of some sort of mental acquisition of an actual or conceptual entity. Fresh mental acquisitions lead to new mental orientations. But new mental orientations, that is the acquisition of potential for new thinking, means that we become different people. We become different people, however slightly, as our subjectivity--i.e. who we are--is able to choose different responses to things and concepts. We are different because we now have a different range of possible conceptualisations. For example if we have learned to fly a plane or if we have celebrated a birthday the acquisition of all the new habits, mental images and incidental thoughts involved in those endeavours enable us to exercise a slightly different totality of mental being. These changes to subjectivity happen as the myriad representations of the new experiences are received and integrated into the previous way we were--into our former subjectivity. This acquisition of new representations takes place via the 'signs' of semiotics. Signs of new external entities and new internal concepts interact with the representations of prior concepts and sensations which already comprise the existing structure of our thinking faculties. This 'interaction' is an 'intellectual sense making' process. In short it is conscious and unconscious 'thinking.' In thinking about something, particularly when something new is encountered, an understandable 'object'--that is a multi-facetted relationship to previously acquired mental representations is produced in thought of what it is that the person is now encountering. …

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