Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Peirce on semiotics and rhetoric

In our ongoing IPS OOO discussion Balder noted my recent ideas sounded similar to Peirce's semiotics and provided this essay. I also referenced Pierce's entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Some of my posts follows:

This section of the SEP entry is interesting:

"Peirce held that science suggests that the universe has evolved from a condition of maximum freedom and spontaneity into its present condition, in which it has taken on a number of habits, sometimes more entrenched habits and sometimes less entrenched ones. With pure freedom and spontaneity Peirce tended to associate mind, and with firmly entrenched habits he tended to associate matter (or, more generally, the physical). Matter he tended to regard as 'congealed' mind, and mind he tended to regard as 'effete' matter. Thus he tended to see the universe as the end-product-so-far of a process in which mind has acquired habits and has 'congealed' (this is the very word Peirce used) into matter.

"This notion of all things as being evolved psycho-physical unities of some sort places Peirce well within the sphere of what might be called 'the grand old-fashioned metaphysicians,' along with such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Whitehead, et al. Some contemporary philosophers might be inclined to reject Peirce out of hand upon discovering this fact. Others might find his notion of psycho-physical unities not so very offputting or indeed even attractive. What is crucial is that Peirce argued that mind pervades all of nature in varying degrees: it is not found merely in the most advanced animal species.

"This pan-psychistic view, combined with his synechism, meant for Peirce that mind is extended in some sort of continuum throughout the universe. Peirce tended to think of ideas as existing in mind in somewhat the same way as physical forms exist in physically extended things. He even spoke of ideas as 'spreading' out through the same continuum in which mind is extended. This set of conceptions is part of what Peirce regarded as (his own version of) Scotistic realism, which he sharply contrasted with nominalism. He tended to blame what he regarded as the errors of much of the philosophy of his contemporaries as owing to its nominalistic disregard for the objective existence of form."

From Balder's source:

On Pierce:

"Semiosis in this sense is by no means restricted to processes in higher organisms, to culture and social convention. Any primitive biological organism already interacts semiotically with its environment when it selects or avoids energetic or material objects in its environment for the purpose of its own survival."

On ecosemiotics:

"Ecosemiotics is the study of the semiotic interrelations between organisms and their environment. This definition presupposes that the center of interest of an ecological semiotics is not a homo semioticus, but more generally, an organismus semioticus.... Ecosemiotics will be a study in sign processes that is not restricted to arbitrary and artificial signs. It will also, and perhaps primarily, be concerned with natural signs mediating between the organism and its environment."

This one sounds like Bryant:

"Environment, according to Uexküll (1940: 158, 334), is not Haeckel's 'outer world,' but rather a subjective Umwelt, consisting of an inner world as given by the organism's perception and specific operational world of practical interaction with the environment. Umwelt, in this sense, is the way in which the environment is represented to the organism's mind, and it comprises the scope of the organism's operational interaction with its environment. Because of the species-specific differences between organisms, their different needs, capacities, and perspectives of their environment, there are as many kinds of Umwelt as there are species (or even organisms). Every species and every organism can only perceive whatever the biological structure of its receptors, its brain, and its specific perspective of its environment allows it to perceive."

From a post by Adam at Knowledge Ecology:

"Pansemiosis refers to the position that all entities—to whatever limited degree—are sign interpreters even if only at the level of basic physical or chemical reactions. Here signs and causality are inextricably intertwined all of the way down.... While it is true that epistemic processes are interactive features of an ecosystem, it is simply not true that these processes emerge only with the human, or even with the 'higher animals.' In this sense ecosystems are semiotic (i.e., interpretive) all of the way down. We can call this approach to ecosystems 'ecosemiotics or 'biosemiotics'.... At no point in either chemical or biological processes is there any such thing as 'just' causal relations—these relations are simultaneously causally interactive and semiotically interpretive. Knowledge ecologies thus predate human actors (and whatever complex mammals you want to throw on the list) by billions of years. Its our job as humans to align human knowledge with the other ecologies of knowledge, rather than the other way around.

"We might also note here that the framework I am proposing is entirely consistent with the enactivist paradigm within which even single cells engage in basic modes of semiotic relationship with their environment. It is the autopoietic closure of a cell that creates not just a physical membrane, but an interpretive membrane that puts the cell into a dynamic relationship with its ecology."

According to this article:

"There are further definitions of rhetoric.... Naming rhetoric the third branch of semiotics, Pierce, 'in imitation of Kant's fashion of preserving old associations of words in finding nomenclature for new conceptions,' observes that the task of 'pure' rhetoric 'is to ascertain the laws by which in every scientific intelligence one sign gives birth to another, and especially one thought brings forth another' (Pierce, 99). Rhetoric is therefore applicable to both art and science - as a system by which units, ranging from all expressible signs, produce meaning, and interpretation. But the extent to which it provides implication is beyond phonetic and spoken demonstration, and can in fact direct the content of any form of communication."

This article notes that rhetoric has different meanings for Peirce. In his later career, in addition to the above more general meaning, there is a more limited meaning through the term methodeutic, which is more concerned with effective methods of scientific inquiry (7-8). There appears to be an unresolved tension in this later work between the two definitions. The author does note though that on the rhetorical side Peirce was not limited to linguistic signs, and that it could potentially be extended to "signs without human originators" (12-13).

The potential is there but is seems debatable whether Peirce took the leap into inanimate matter having this capacity. He differentiated between dyadic and triadic communication, with only the latter being semeiotic, and the latter appears to require a 'mind' of some kind. The dyadic is "thus nonsemiotic organism-environment interaction [that] occurs when the organism is confronted with something which presents itself as a 'brute fact'" (source). Even Uexküll's biosemiotics requires living systems and doesn't go down to inanimate objects. This is not the case with Bryant or eco- or pansemiotics (or mhetaoric).


  1. Some snips from Bryant's 5/28/12 post on OO rhetoric:*

    "I’ve heard a lot of theories as to what object-oriented rhetoric (OOR) might be. One theory has it that object-oriented rhetoric is the investigation of the rhetoric of object-oriented ontology. This strikes me as a particularly stupid and uninteresting project as who cares about the rhetoric of object-oriented ontology? All this is, is an attempt to integrate the theses of OOO into a traditional correlationist framework and issues of persuasion through language. While I have no desire to dispense with the discoveries of figures like Burke and Aristotle, if OOR exists I think it’s up to something else. I don’t suggest that this post is exhaustive of what that 'something else' ought to be, but I do think that minimally if there is to be something like OOR, it will consist in breaking the bad habit of a focus on representation, persuasion, and identification, and will necessarily consist in drawing attention to the materiality of speech acts, communications, texts, and signifiers. It’s not that OOR, if it comes to exist, would give up on these things, but that it would become a little less representational, a little less 'decoding,' a little less interpretive, and far more material. It would become a little less focused on what things are about and the pathos, logos, and ethos that animates them, and a bit more focused on what texts are."

    Amen brother.


  2. Adam drew attention to this article on OOR over at his blog;* a snip from it follows:

    "Is it then reasonable to consider whether such pre-symbolic expressions operated rhetorically?... This is not about imaging a rhetoric without symbolic action but rather recasting symbols as objects among other objects in a flat ontology where the rock, the word 'rock,' the sound rock, rock music, the Rock, Plymouth Rock, and the Pink Panther are all real and rhetorical, with or without us to view them symbolically. The point is to recognize that objects need not be symbolic or in relation to us in order to operate rhetorically. What is at stake here is a symbol-independent expressive force whose effects cannot be articulated wholly in terms of physics, chemistry or other related fields. Instead it is a minimal rhetorical ontological capacity that allows objects to enter into rhetorical relations and is not solely available to humans."



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