Cultural Pragmatism and the Life of the Sign

By Richmond, Gary | Critical Arts, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Cultural Pragmatism and the Life of the Sign

Richmond, Gary, Critical Arts


Wanting to catalyse new approaches to interdisciplinary inquiry and practice within the field of journalism, media, and cultural studies (JMC), Shepperson reconceived interdisciplinary relationships in the light of the highly original--and still not fully understood--work of the American scientist, philosopher and logician, C.S. Peirce. Shepperson approached his reconceptualisation of interdisciplinarity in ways meant 'to bear on the global dimension of the human condition', even imagining that, as a consequence of their own evolving practice, such disciplines as JMC might begin to influence the general ethic of societies in ways which could meliorate social conditions. While he did not live to complete this work, his pioneering research in applying Peirce's pragmatism to inquiry into the social realm can be seen as preparing the theoretical foundations for a new discipline, cultural pragmatism.

Keywords: abduction; abnumerable collection; architectonic; category theory; critical commonsensism; C.S. Peirce; cultural pragmatism; interdisciplinarity; normative science; potential population; pragmaticism vs. pragmatism; realism vs. nominalism; semeiotic vs. semiotics; social justice; theory of inquiry

If we had to name anything which is the The Life of the Sign, we should have to say that it was its use. Ludwig Wittgenstein

Every symbol is a living thing in a very strict sense that is no mere figure of speech. The body of the symbol changes slowly, but its meaning inevitably grows, incorporates new elements and throws off old ones. Charles S. Peirce

When Peirce defines a sign as representing an object to an interpretant, he is describing a social process occurring in time. That process is where the sign lives, and the The Life of the Sign is no metaphor. Eugene Halton


In the final years of his life Arnold Shepperson began to take significant steps towards applying to his own field of cultural studies some of the boldest, most advanced, and most pregnant ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced purse), the logician and scientist who has been called 'the most original, versatile, and comprehensive' intellect that America has yet produced. Seeing a unique value and power in Peirce's thought and method for inquiry generally, Shepperson began to creatively apply Peircean pragmatism to especially the interdisciplinary aspects of cultural studies.

The truly ground-breaking work of Peirce, the discoverer-inventor of both philosophical pragmatism and modern semiotic, remains for the most part unknown, at least in the sense in which Peirce conceived it. (1) The consequence is that his philosophy has had little or no significant impact on many of the disciplines in which it might have proved most beneficial, including journalism, media, and communication studies (JMC). Besides its intrinsic difficulty, a likely reason for this neglect is that Peirce's highly original and breathtakingly comprehensive scientific work is often confused with other theories having very different emphases. For example, the pragmatism which he introduced is often conflated with such 'classic' psychological and instrumental transmutations of it, as represented by William James and John Dewey respectively. In addition, it is not infrequently interpreted (I should say, misinterpreted) as equivalent to certain selective and partial uses of it, for example in the work of Jurgen Habermas or that of Umberto Eco. Finally, pragmatism has even been conflated with such distortions of it as one finds in the work of Jacques Derrida or with that particularly virulent strain of veritable anti-pragmatism represented by the late Richard Rorty's writings.

Similarly, semiotic has at least until recently tended to be associated with the dyadic semiology deriving from the strictly linguistic analyses of Ferdinand de Saussure. …

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