• Category Archives: Language

Language as Semeiotic: The Peircean Underpinnings

April 5, 2020

Since so many of the posts on this blog refer to Peirce’s theory of signs––either explicitly or ex silentio––perhaps a synoptic view of what he called semeiotic would be of use to readers. What follows has been adapted from the seminal work of the late dean of Peirce studies, Max H. Fisch, Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 324-326). (The key to the abbreviations of the volumes of Peirce’s writings can be found at the end of this post.)

The first published sketch of Peirce’s semeiotic was in a paper “On a New List of Categories,” which he presented to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on May 14, 1867. Forty years later he described this paper as the outcome of “the hardest two years’ mental work that I have ever done in my life” (CP 1.561). He first establishes, in place of Aristotle’s ten categories and Kant’s twelve, a new list of three: Quality, Relation, Representation. He then uses these categories to distinguish: (i) three kinds of representations [i.e., SIGNS]––likenesses (which he will later call icons), indices, and symbols; (2) a trivium of conceivable sciences—formal grammar, logic, and formal rhetoric; (3) a general division of symbols, common to all three of these sciences—terms, propositions, and arguments; and (4) three kinds of argument, distinguished by their three relations between premisses and conclusion—deduction (symbol), hypothesis (likeness), induction (index) (W 2:491-59; CP 1.545-59).
Peirce is a logician, and he concerns himself with semeiotic only so far as is necessary to place logic within the larger framework of that one of the three most general kinds of science that Locke, following the ancient Greeks, had distinguished. To that objection, however, it may fairly be replied that at no time of his life did Peirce set any limit to the intensity of cultivation of the larger field of semeiotic that would be advantageous for purposes of logic, even if the cultivating had to be done by logicians themselves because, for the time being, they were the only semeioticians.
In any case, it was not enough in Peirce’s eyes for semeiotic to provide a pigeonhole for logic in the classification of the sciences. This became fully apparent in 1868-69 in a series of three articles in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy: “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” and “Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities” (W 2:193-272; CP 5.213-357).
The first two papers are there for the sake of the third. The upshot of the series is a theory of the validity of the laws of logic, including those of’ the logic of science (that is, of hypothesis and induction) as well as those of the logic of mathematics (that is, of deduction). Yet the first paper is in the form of a medieval quaestio, a disputed question, and the second begins with a four-point statement of “the spirit of Cartesianism,” followed by an opposed four-point statement of the spirit of the scholasticism that it displaced. In respect of these four antitheses, “modern science and modern logic” are closer to the spirit of scholasticism. The first paper was “written in this spirit of opposition to Cartesianism.” It was meant to illustrate as well as to commend the “multiform argumentation of the Middle Ages.” It resulted in four denials:
1. We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts.
2. We have no power of Intuition, but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognitions.
3. We have no power of thinking without signs.
4. We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable. (CP 5.265)
These propositions cannot be regarded as certain, Peirce says; and the second paper puts them to the further test of tracing out some of their consequences. The third paper then constructs a theory of the validity of the laws of logic in the form of “further consequences” of these “four incapacities.”
The central positive doctrine of the whole series is that “all thought is in signs” (5.253). Every thought continues another and is continued by still another. There are no uninferred premisses and no inference-terminating conclusions. Inferring is the sole act of cognitive mind. No cognition is adequately or accurately described as a two-term or dyadic relation between a knowing mind and an object known, whether that be an intuited first principle or a sense-datum, a “first impression of sense” (5.291). Cognition is a minimally three-termed or triadic relation (5.283). The sign-theory of cognition thus entails rejection not only of Cartesian rationalism but also of British empiricism.
The sign-theory of cognition leads into a semeiotic theory of the human self, “the
man-sign” (5.313), and thence into a social theory of logic. “When we think, then, we ourselves, as we are at that moment, appear as a sign” (5.383); “the word or sign which man uses is the man himself” (5.314). “Finally, no present actual thought (which is a mere feeling) has any meaning, any intellectual value; for this lies not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought may be connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts; so that the meaning of a thought is altogether something virtual” (5.289). “Accordingly, just as we say that a body is in motion, and not that motion is in a body, we ought to say that we are in thought and not that thoughts are in us” (5.289n1).
“The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. Thus, the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a COMMUNITY, without definite limits, and capable of an indefinite increase of knowledge” (5.311). “So the social principle is rooted intrinsically in logic” (5.354).
Along the way, with the help of his three categories, Peirce’s doctrine of signs is worked out in greater detail in these three papers, and especially in the second of them.
The semeiotic thus founded was semeiotic as viewed from the standpoint of logic and studied for the purposes of logic, and more particularly for those of the logic of science rather than for those of the logic of mathematics. But it was a semeiotic that included logic.

PEIRCE, Charles Sanders.
1931-1958. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1-8, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (vols. 1-6) and Paul Weiss (vols. 7-8). (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press). Abbreviated CP [references by volume and paragraph number]
1982-2009. Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, ed. Max H. Fisch et al., vols. 1-6, 8. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). Abbreviated W [references by volume and page number]
1992-1998. The Essential Peirce, vols. 1-2., ed Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (vol. 1) and Peirce Edition Project (vol. 2). (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). Abbreviated EP [references by volume and page number]


Repeating A Post from May 2013: “That’s A Really Good/Great Question”

March 27, 2020

During the last few weeks, when all sorts of politicians and others are being interviewed by the media, one cannot help observing how often these persons respond to every question by beginning their answers with the utterance, “That’s a really good/good/great/excellent question…” Therefore, Y-H-B has been moved to repeat a post first published here in May 2013, as follows:

Speakers of (American) English not infrequently start answers to a question with one or another variant of the sentence “That’s a good question.” It can be heard, for instance, in broadcast interviews, but not only. This opening can be annoying to the questioner (or to someone listening/overhearing the conversation) because it may seem utterly otiose. However, it does have the multiple communicative effect of: (1) complimenting the questioner for posing the question; (2) informing the questioner that an adequate answer may not be in the powers of the interlocutor, and forestalling a censorious judgment (silently) resulting therefrom; and (3) keeping the channel of communication open withal.

The last effect fulfills the so-called PHATIC FUNCTION, i. e., that of keeping the conversation going. Speech gambits that keep the channel of communication open include not only whole sentences but a range of vocables that are not really words sensu stricto but sounds such as “uh-huh,”hm,” grunts, and even audible intakes of air. These are all (largely unconsciously) meant to avoid creating the effect that one of the parties to the conversation is not listening or not interested in keeping it going. All genuine conversations (unlike speeches or declarations) are embedded in a social matrix, in which mollifying one’s interlocutor is an intermittently necessary goal among others.


Trump’s Incessant Repetition of Certain Words as an Indication of an Underlying Pathology

March 22, 2020

To prove the proposition that has been enunciated in a previous post, viz. “You are what you say,” no one listening to Donald Trump’s public speech this week during press briefings by his Coronovirus Task Force can be unaware of the fact that he incessantly repeats the adjectives “incredible,” “tremendous,” “amazing,” “great,” and “unbelievable,” applying them as qualifiers to nearly every substantive he utters. What is to be discerned in this indiscriminate usage is just that: the inability to discriminate between the items being qualified by these adjectives as to the items’ SEMANTIC VALUE. If everything is “incredible, unbelievable, tremendous,” etc., then this is tantamount to NOTHING BEING DIFFERENT FROM ANYTHING ELSE.

This linguistic habit (along with the catastrophically error-ridden syntax) pervading Trump’s speech is a sign of an underlying pathology––perhaps even of one pathology among several, including anosognosia, the pathological absence of self-awareness. Whatever else is true of Trump, this deficit alone is true and undeniable, and it alone disqualifies him from continuing to serve as the president of the United States.


Grammar in the Time of the Plague: The Malleability of Language

March 20, 2020

The so-called COVID-19 crisis may not be the Black Death of the Middle Ages, but in the digital age it has brought out the fact that the media have utilized the malleability of contemporary American English to couch their utterances in ways that may seem to wreak havoc with the boundaries between traditional grammatical categories, namely the fundamental distinction between nouns and verbs.

That is what is happening when media language takes a noun phrase like “social distance” and makes a verb out of it; or “self-quarantine,” etc., etc. English in the twenty-first century (on both sides of the Atlantic) increasingly feels no compunction about making verbs out of nouns, or for that matter, nouns out of verbs, e.g. “good read,” “recent ask,” etc., etc.

At a time when social communication of all kinds is at a premium, we all benefit from the digital revolution that will ultimately conquer even the contemporary iteration of the Plague.


[ADDENDUM: Readers who know Russian may wish to (re)read Pushkin’s so-called ‘Little Tragedy’ “Пир во время чумы” (“Feast During the Plague”), loosely based on a scene from John Wilson’s poem “City of the Plague” (1817). For a definitive analysis of all four ‘Little Tragedies’ see my “The Metonymic Structure of Pushkin’s ‘Little Tragedies’,” which is chapter 8 in Michael and Marianne Shapiro, Figuration in Verbal Art (Princeton University Press, 1988).

The Glossary of Useful Words 15: ‘redoubtable’

March 8, 2020

A very useful word that no longer seems to be part of public speech and is not heard from ordinary users of English is redoubtable, first borrowed from Middle French and attested in the fifteenth century, viz. the adjective defined by the OED as follows:

“Esp. of a person: that is to be revered, commanding respect; formidable, esp. as an opponent; that is to be feared or dreaded.”

The latter part of the definition (“that is to be feared or dreaded”) has largely fallen out of mind when used today.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged online lists this aspect of the meaning first but follows it with the more contemporary definitions “inspiring awe or reverence: august, eminent” and “doughty, illustrious” in third place.

Y-H-B has used it recently with reference to the best bartender in Christendom, Patrick Honan, and his stalwart wife, Kelley Ramsey.


You Are What You Say (Redivivus)

March 5, 2020

This blog has relentlessly and unabashedly pursue the principle that every speaker is what they say. This underlies the title of my book, The Speaking Self. If more evidence for the rightness of this view were needed, Y-H-B encountered it on the streets of Manhattan this morning when going to fetch his car from a garage on East 73rd Street, when he passed a woman on Lexington Avenue who looked to be in her fifties or sixties talking on her cell phone and uttering the phrase “fucking putzoid,” which Y-H-B had never heard before. The word putz is known and used well enough, but the combination “fucking putzoid” was new to me. That a woman would utter such a profanity was strange to me, but it must have been something that she had used before. That she was willing to say such a thing was indirect but powerful evidence of her forma mentalis. QED.


Humor Is Not Necessarily Leavening: Platitudes and Causerie

February 28, 2020

One pervasive feature of contemporary American culture as it involves language is
the constant resort to what passes for humor, no matter who is conversing and what the subject of the exchange. This can be observed in the most ordinary situations, e.g. among adults of both sexes in a gym while exercising or diners sitting together at the bar of a restaurant. No topic, no matter how seemingly immune to hilarity, is nowadays discussed without the intervention of jokes and wan attempts at humor. This kind of typical repartee comes with a debasement of whatever linguistic material is being exchanged.

Americans in the twenty-first century seem to treat their speech as merely a vehicle for humor whenver they find themselves speaking to each other in informal contexts. There is thus a fundamental undermining of what constitutes seriousness as distinct from humor.

Language, being the main instrument of both thought and intentionality, now tends to serve only one primary purpose: the purveying of platitutudes masquerading as ideas.


Linguistic Fads

February 13, 2020

Just as fashion in all of culture, language is subject to fads and faddish uses of words. As with all such phenomena, they are often short-lived (pronounced [ʃɔrtlʌɪvd]).

A recent word in American English that has become faddish is negative instead of the traditional minus to designate the temperature below zero degrees. Why this has happened has mainly to do with the powerful tendency in contemporary American speech toward hypertrophy. The faddish word has three syllables, whereas the traditional one has two. Also, negative sounds more “scientific,” which is license enough for many contemporary speakers, who elevate science to a religion. One can only hope that this faddish usage will go the way of all such fashions.


Criteria Is Not a Singular Form

January 30, 2020

A common mistake of current American English speech is the use of the form criteria as a singular instead of the normative criterion. This incorrect form is currently to be heard emanating from the mouth of Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor emeritus vainly endeavoring to exonerate his client, the miscreant president Donald Trump, during the current impeachment trial in front of the Senate.

However learned and accomplished Mr. Dershowitz may be in the law, this one constant error in his English, no matter how frequently to be heard in common speech, is already enough to vitiate his argument.


Linguistic Habit as an Index of Cultural Fact

January 19, 2020

All languages exhibit habits of expression that can be reckoned to be cultural facts because they are “fixed,” which is to say that they are idiomatic and not routinely subject to variation. However, even such “fixed” ways of expressing oneself can change over time. When they do, we can abduce that something in the culture has changed, not just in the language. Language is part of culture by definition, there being no dichotomy between the two spheres.

Sitting at my Stammtisch for my regular Sunday morning breakfast at the Manchester Center restaurant Up for Breakfast, I overheard another customer order an item from the menu by saying to the server, “I’ll do the bacon and eggs.” Now, the use of the verb do in this utterly quotidian milieu is actually a fairly recent innovation in American English, the older norm being have or take.

The difference between have or take and do in this particular context may seem simply to be a matter of free variation. However, as my old teacher Roman Jakobson used to insist, there’s no such thing as free variation, just as there’s no such thing as free love. Each use of a particular verb to mean the same thing has a different value associated with it, even though the meaning of the sentence amounts to the same thing.

When one says “I’ll do sweetbreads” rather than the older “I’ll have sweetbreads,” one is silently asserting some sense of control over the order, i. e., an active part in deciding one what will get to eat from the menu. The verbs “have/take” here connote––also silently, to be sure––that one will eat what is given to them as the result of the transactional relationship between diner and server.

There is, therefore, a subtle shift of value in the difference between the two verbs “do” and “have/take” that is ultimately a fact of contemporary American culture as it pertains to the attitude betrayed ex silentio in the shift of linguistic habit associated with this mundane situation of everyday life.