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

How Can We Signify Being? Semiotics and Topological Self-Signification

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

How Can We Signify Being? Semiotics and Topological Self-Signification

Article excerpt

Over the centuries, much has been written by philosophers seeking to shed light on the meaning of Being. Inspired by the 18th--19th century works of F. W. J. von Schelling (see Gare 2011), ontological phenomenologists Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and their followers have emphasized that Being can be elucidated effectively only by surpassing the division of subject and object long prevalent in mainstream philosophy. Yet, whatever the content of the phenomenological discourse on Being, however much this has reflected the intention of surmounting the subject-object divide, the underlying semiotic structure of such discourse has been tacitly geared toward maintaining the split. This has resulted in an implicit objectification of Being that has undermined phenomenology's central aim. In the present essay, I will attempt to spell out the inadequacy of conventional semiosis for the signification of Being, and to offer a semiotic alternative more equal to the task.

1. CONVENTIONAL SEMIOSIS

In the most general terms, a sign is any entity capable of conveying meaning. Semiotics pioneer Charles Sanders Peirce identified three basic components of the sign. First there is the representamen or sign-vehicle, the physical token that does the signifying. Peirce also called this the sign in its "own material nature," the sign "as in itself," and the "ground" (Peirce 1931-1966, 1.339, 8.333-34, 2.228-29). The thing to which the sign refers gives the second component of the Peircian triad, the sign's object. Thirdly, there is the interpretant, defined as the meaning the sign conveys to the one who views or reads it. Every interpretant implies an interpreter, mind, or subjectivity that takes it in. In characterizing the sign as a "representation," Peirce sums up his fundamental triad: "A representation is that character of a thing by virtue of which, for the production of a certain mental effect, it may stand in place of another thing. The thing having this character I term a representamen, the mental effect, or thought, its interpretant, the thing for which it stands, its object" (Peirce 1931-1966, 1.564).

In the conventional text, the three aspects of the sign are related to each other in an external manner. Here sign-vehicles are primarily alphabetic, consisting of graphic marks on a page, such as the squiggles you are now processing as you read this essay. Given that these signifiers have been agreed on by convention and are purely arbitrary in themselves, the meaningful objects to which they refer can only be other than what the signifiers themselves inherently are. In the English language, the word "boat" can have no intrinsic relation to the object floating in the water; we just agree to refer to said object with that combination of letters.

Our system of alphabetic signs was designed to serve the interests of detached subjects who stand aloof from the objects cast before them. As a consequence, the relationship between the semiotic object of the conventional text and its interpretant--the meaning of the sign as given to the mind of the subject who reads it--is also entirely external. Anthropologists Jack Goody and Ian Watt (1963) indeed brought out that the rise of alphabetic literacy in the middle of the first millennium BCE coincided with the appearance of a new and more abstract form of subjectivity. Emerging from intimate participation in a mythic culture governed by orality, the now more sharply differentiated individual devised a system of writing that surpassed the impermanence and ambiguity of the spoken word, a system that would enable the world to be objectified and analyzed with greater precision than ever before. To be sure, though orality was dominant in pre-literate mythic societies, systems of writing had already been developed, the earliest pictograms coming into use millennia before the Greek alphabet. But these precursors of mature literacy were cumbersome, inefficient, and equivocal. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.