Thursday, December 07, 2006

The To Somebody of the Sign

Peirce defines the sign: "A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity" (quoted in Beuchot and Deely, Common sources for the semiotic of Charles Peirce and John Poinsot). Pedro da Fonseca defines to signify as "to represent something to a cognoscitive faculty." Beuchot and Deely treat these two definitions as equivalent. I'm not so sure Peirce didn't say exactly what he meant, no more and no less. What are the conditions of possibility of a cognoscitive faculty? What are the conditions of possibility of a somebody?

What can we say about the cognoscitive faculties of the cephalopods? The capacity for semiosis is abundantly evident within that class of organisms, but they do not possess "the cognitive system of a human being," as Beuchot and Deely would have it, and the nature of their cognoscitive faculties remains rather opaque. Is "somebody" then precisely as vague as it needs to be to describe semiosis, or do we need to say more?

John Poinsot gives the following definition: "a sign is that which represents something other than itself to a knowing power." Now I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Poinsot didn't have primarily octopuses in mind by the phrase "to a knowing power." The theological question ("Does God read signs") is not one I'm prepared to deal with. I'm looking at the semiotic question, "To whom is a sign addressed?" and wondering what the bare minimum requirement is for semiosis. Now, does Poinsot's definition imply that in using signs we can't be truly misunderstood? What kind of knowledge/power are we talking about?

Peirce of course says elsewhere that the interpretant is the somebody to whom a sign is addressed, and he describes that sometimes as "thought," that is, the sign represents something to thought. But this use of "thought" is not transparent: Peirce means by it the "mental effect" of the sign. "A representation is that character of a thing by virtue of which, for the production of a certain mental effect, it may stand in place of another thing. The thing having this character I term a representamen, the mental effect, or thought, its interpretant, the thing for which it stands, its object." Surely "somebody" is the clearest way of saying things, but now I can't be sure what is really meant by that.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:23 AM.


Blogger Clark Goble said...

The weird thing about Peirce is that "mental effect" of a sign tends to lead him to basically a panpsychic view of the universe not massively different from the Stoics. Everything is or could be quasi-mind.

December 08, 2006 9:51 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Yeah, that's a strange and wonderful concatenation. I don't intend to be tackling panpsychism head on, but it crops up. At the moment I'm reading Bains on the natural environment according to von Uexküll which is related--though Bains has an interesting angle on the lebenswelt. In the future (when I have Peirce's texts handy) I'd like to fully examine what Peirce means by "mental effect." I imagine I'd be happy to see it in human terms, without foreclosing the implications for other organisms.

December 09, 2006 9:23 AM  

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