Since this blog deals mainly with facts of current American speech, Y-H-B has refrained from expatiating on theoretical matters. However, recently the opportunity for me to teach a course on theory at a Vermont institution (nomina sunt odiosa) has loomed on the horizon (hopefully, despite the rampant ageism that has presented an insuperable barrier to my resuming my college teraching career). I will, therefore, share with readers a course description that will give them an idea of what the thinking behind this blog has been, as follows.
A COURSE ON INTERPRETATION
This course is inspired by the life and work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), widely acknowledged as an American Renaissance man, our country’s greatest thinker, and the only native son who ranks among the world’s great philosophers. It is distinguished by its interdisciplinary scope and its orientation towards Peirce’s theory of signs (what he called the semeiotic, following Locke), which offers the hope that it may reveal and also foster links of method and of aim among the “three worlds”––the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities (including here the academic disciplines, criticism, and the creative arts). Peirce’s whole philosophy, of which his theory of signs is the centerpiece, is an immense synthesis of the key ideas of modern science with the classical logical paradigm that traces its origins from Aristotle through the Stoics, Locke, and Kant. Peirce’s great achievement is the addition of the theory of interpretation. The course’s significance, therefore, derives in part from its focus on interpretation as the key to understanding the foundations of the separate disciplines.
The purpose of the course is to introduce students to a common language that has the power to underwrite modern interdisciplinary studies––in this century and beyond. Peirce’s theory of interpretation, which is at the heart of his semeiotic, treats ideas as integral to the “reality” of human experience, whether the data are derived from observation of the natural world, the earth and the heavens, or people and societies.
Science adds to our knowledge, advancing from the known to the unknown, by a coordinate use of both abductive (hypothetical) and inductive inference, both by the recognition of similarities and the shock of contrast and opposition. Peirce’s conception of the interpretant as a law or rule, invariably instantiated in individual signs, is his most radical advance and provides a systematic understanding of the way this coordination does its work.
The course will draw upon various theoretical and methodological perspectives: the study of behavior and of the structural generalities that bind individuals and groups typologically and historically; the study of ideology or of a culture’s representation of itself in its visual and verbal forms; and the study of the articulation of meaning, wherever it might be situated, whether in scientific analysis or in humanistic discourse. Each of these approaches and emphases offers important insights into the role of interpretation in defining the foundations of the various disciplines in their interconnections.
The centrality of interpretation will be brought out by pursuing three themes, which have been chosen to give students of diverse backgrounds and interests a feeling for the kind of synthesis that a coherent interdisciplinary perspective can provide. The themes, in order of presentation during the semester’s work, together with their associated issues, are as follows:
1. SIGNS AND COGNITION. Peirce conceived of his semeiotic as a theory of cognition (following Plato and Locke). What research program will enable sign theory and cognitive science to join hands successfully with the natural sciences? Like many other philosophers and scientists, Peirce was fascinated by the morphology of the natural world. How can modern cognitive science, particularly linguistics, implement Peirce’s understanding that the natural world’s diversity and complexity cannot be explained merely by reference to physical, mechanical, or thermodynamic forces? What is the role of interpretation and the structure of thought in relation to the various disciplines? How can Peirce’s sign theory and his concept of final causation be understood as congruent with contemporary notions in evolutionary biology such as genetic program? Peirce’s theory proposes general answers to some of the questions enumerated above, specifically in alignment with his pragmatist conception of meaning and reality.
2. THE ANALOGY BETWEEN GRAMMAR AND NATURE. The course will raise questions about language as a foundational metaphor, an issue that goes back beyond Aristotle to prehistory and is to be found in almost all cultures. Should one attempt to analyze the language of nature like the human body, or the human psyche, “grammatically?” Which aspects of nature are (so to speak) its nouns, verbs, and adjectives? What is its syntax? Pursuing the analogy between grammar and nature in the spirit of such queries will necessarily involve confronting various disciplinary paradigms in their conceptual foundations. The semeiotic approach in Peirce’s sense takes anything whatever, including inorganic matter, as potentially significant: anything is capable of signifying if taken to be a sign, i.e., capable of “causing” an interpretation.
3. HISTORICAL EXPLANATION IN THE HUMANITIES AND THE SCIENCES. Since historical explanation is the mode of explanation in all disciplines where the agent’s purpose is central, what kind of logic do we need in order to deal with historical and evolutionary change as well as action? To what extent is the idea underpinning historical method, that a good description constitutes an explanation, applicable to the language-oriented disciplines? What is the relationship between synchronic and diachronic explanation? Can any given state of affairs (the “synchronic slice”) be explained with a more exact understanding of its causality by its evolution? Historical inquiry can be called a “science” in the measure that it utilizes rules of appropriateness grounded in schemas of practical inference. Do these schemas provide an objective framework for the explanatory practice of historians as well as all who utilize (retrospective) interpretation, like biologists and linguists? Peirce’s entire philosophy is based on a profound understanding of the role of history and evolutionary growth in the structure of knowledge. His theory of final causation is coordinated with the theory of signs in an organic way.
The major objectives and emphases of this course can be characterized by considering the “eccentric” position peculiar to human beings and the “third world” (in Karl Popper’s terminology) which expresses our eccentricity. Peirce’s conception of man as a sign, and of the universe as a semeiotic universe, is perhaps the deepest, most fertile, most imaginative, and most practically applicable form of this fundamental matrix of the human universe. Our bodies make us members of the physical world, permeated by forces and energies, events and interactions. Our psyche is a center, a perspective of feelings, emotions, and efforts, tendencies, dreams, by which the world of bodies is captured, tasted, chewed, swallowed, digested, or spewed back in disgust or enjoyment. Our eccentricity lies in the third world, the world of dialogue between the external and the internal worlds–what Peirce (early in his career) called the “Tuistical” (ego.id.tu) and (later) the Semeiotic World.
Although Peirce was a mathematician, logician, and scientist, his semeiotic recognizes the importance of feeling, emotion, sensation, sentiment, action. Put another way, the semeiotic offers us not only a way to understand science as a human enterprise, it also offers an approach to literature and the arts, to religion, to society, to the whole of the third world that lies between the private incommunicable interior and the vast spaces of the exterior universe.