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Structuralism as a Theory of Language in the Light of Peircean Pragmaticism

Many of the posts on this blog are written from the perspective of a non-philosopher interested in developing a Peircean theory of language for the twenty-first century. For readers who share an appetite for this sort of thing, perhaps it would be apposite at this point to flesh out some of the suppositions that underly this perspective, as follows.

The essential concept of structuralism, whether applied to physics or linguistics or anthropology, is that of invariance under transformation. This makes theory, following Peirce’s whole philosophy and his pragmaticism in particular, the rationalized explication of  variety: “[U]nderlying all other laws is the only tendency which can grow by its own virtue, the tendency of all things to take habits …. In so far as evolution follows a law, the law or habit, instead of being a movement from homogeneity to heterogeneity, is growth from difformity to uniformity. But the chance divergences from laws are perpetually acting to increase the variety of the world, and are checked by a sort of natural selection and otherwise … , so that the general result may be described as ‘organized heterogeneity,’ or, better, rationalized variety” (Collected Papers, 6.101). Or, translating law and habit into the appropriate phenomenological category: “Thirdness … is an essential ingredient of reality” (The Essential Peirce,  2:345).

Once we properly understand structuralism not as the putatively debunked epistemology that originated in Geneva with Saussure, but rather as the revised, essentially correct version originating with Jakobson in Prague and Hjelmslev in Copenhagen, we can recognize the patterning of Thirdness and Secondness in language––the so-called “passkey semiotic”––for what it is. Consequently, the fundamental notion of alternation between basic form and contextual variant becomes understandable as immanent in theory, and not merely a construct or an artifact of description. The importance of this notion cannot be overestimated.

A child learning its native language, for instance, is exactly in the same position as an analyst. It has to determine which linguistic form is basic, and which is a contextual variant. Take a simple example from English, that of the voiceless stops.

English voiceless (actually, tense) stops are aspirated when they are word-initial or begin a stressed syllable, as in pen, ten, Ken. They are unaspirated when immediately following word-initial s, as in spun, stun, skunk. After an s elsewhere in a word they are normally unaspirated as well, except when the cluster is heteromorphemic and the stop belongs to an unbound morpheme; cf. dis[t]end vs. dis[t]aste. Word-final voiceless stops are optionally aspirate.

This variation makes aspiration non-distinctive (non-phonemic) in English, unlike, say, in Ancient Greek or Hindi, where aspirated stops change the meaning of words by comparison with items that have their unaspirated counterparts ceteris paribus.

It is only by taking such variation for what it is, i. e., the working out of Thirdness in the context of Secondness,  that we can we understand what Peirce had in mind with his version of Pragmatism.

The use by Peirce of the form “rationalized” (rather than “rational”) as a modifier of “variety” in the quotation above should be taken advisedly. This use of the participial form, with its adversion to process, should serve as a caveat that when Peirce talks about “objective idealism,” what he ought to have said is “objectified idealism.” This slight grammatical change puts the meaning of the phrase (and the doctrine!) in a whole new––and completely acceptable––light.

Because he was a practicing scientist in the modern sense, Peirce is the one great philosopher who escapes my definition of a philosopher as someone who only solves problems of his own devising. This also makes him a proto-structuralist (a structuralist avant la lettre).


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