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Meaning and the Continuum in Language

When language is (properly) understood as part of nature and not merely as a tissue of conventions, the explanatory power of Peirce’s synechism––his theory of continuity––becomes overwhelmingly apparent. Peirce’s 1892 lecture, “The Logic of Continuity” (reproduced in Reasoning and the Logic of Things [Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1992, pp. 242-68]), stresses the relation between continuity, generality, and habit:

Habit is a generalizing tendency, and as such a generalization, and as such a general, and as such a continuum or continuity. It must have its origin in the original continuity which is inherent in potentiality. Continuity, as generality, is inherent in potentiality, which is essentially general [p. 262].

In my own understanding of continuity/synechism that I’ve been trying to apply to language for the purposes of my talks in Colombia later this month, I emphasize what might be called ‘meaning as a preexistent continuum’ rather than what we “make” of things and events alone. In this vein, meaning is both the empirical result of what we make of the world and what “always already” surrounds and pours in on us (the semiotic web?). This idea then necessarily brings up the distinction (opposition?) between the virtual and the actual. Any Thirdness (or law) must be able to specify the relation between what is and could be, and what could be is only limited practically by what was. This is where history (and experience) come in, and the acknowledgment of the “real presence” (as inexcludable from either perception or inference) of history is what makes judgments both verifiable and ground-ed/-able. With reference to language and its use specifically, there is no such thing as being able to speak a language without the necessary, implicit presence of the time axis (history) in every utterance of one’s own and in every understanding of the utterances of others. (Parenthetically, the whole argument about subjunctives and conditionals in Peirce’s statement of the Pragmatic Maxim both as to origins and to effects will always be deficient unless it explicitly recognizes the necessary presence of the historical dimension in both thought and action.)

The only point that needs to be expanded is the one that bears on the opposition––more properly, the contrast–– between virtual and actual. Every linguistic form and series of forms in utterances is actual but has a virtual set of alternatives as a backdrop (= the system of relations that make up the structure of a given language). In language the historical tendency is to take contrary relations (= contrasts) and make them into contradictory relations (= binary oppositions). The system of relations is a continuum made up of relational singularities, and these singularities are what is manifested in speech.

As to the historical dimension, one can say that every human act, not just involving language, occurs as a singularity backdropped by a continuum that is the pool of possible acts. Every present fact is the cumulative result of past facts of the same genus. Innovation––in language as elsewhere in nature–– occurs only against the backdrop of preexistent possibilities.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

One Response to “Meaning and the Continuum in Language”

  • Gary Richmond says:

    This article is, in my opinion, quite excellent, deserving of a very broad intellectual audience. So, for one thing, I’d heartily recommend your re-posting it to the Peirce e-forum, peirce-l. Gary Richmond, writing as peirce-l Moderator.

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