Thomas Lloyd Short: Peirce's Theory of Signs.
Peirce's Theory of Signs.
New York: Cambridge University Press 2007.
US$85.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-84320-1).
This book is a remarkable effort to produce a comprehensive and accessible study of Peircean semiotics. The lack of a systematic presentation of Peirce's theory of signs has been for decades a reason for concern for Peirce scholars and philosophers who tried to approach his ideas. Short engages in an attempt to demonstrate the relevance of Peirce's theory of signs in contemporary philosophical thought, and he brings together issues from semiotics, logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and the history and philosophy of science.
The book's aim is twofold. Short proposes a strong interpretation of Peirce's semiotics, which supports a naturalistic and yet non-reductive account of the human mind. This is combined with a lucid examination of Peirce's defense of the inherently objective nature of scientific inquiry as a privileged means of producing knowledge about an independently existing reality.
Chapter 1 provides useful background information on antecedents and alternatives to Peircean semiotics. In Chapter 2, Short discusses Peirce's early theory of signs, treated in the 'New List of Categories' and in the anti-Cartesian essays dated 1868-69. The controversial arguments presented in this chapter hinge on two main claims. First, Short maintains that the 'New List of Categories', usually considered by Peircean scholars as a keystone towards the development of his triadic theory of signs, is in fact only 'a stepping stone' and therefore it is 'not required for the mastery of his later thought' (32). This interpretation is in sharp contrast with a whole line of inquiry in Peircean scholarship, which tends to emphasize the continuity of Peirce's thought. The hiatus that Short poses between the 'New List' and Peirce's mature semiotics should be approached with some caution, especially by the uninitiated reader. The Kantian derivation of Peirce's categorial apparatus as it was first elaborated in the 'New List' has a crucial relevance for the development of Peirce's phaneroscopy and his theory of signs, and Short seems to dismiss it too easily.
Short's second claim revolves around the detection of three flaws in Peirce's 1868-69 theory of thought-sign. The first flaw consists of an infinite regress of representation deriving from the doctrine that every thought-sign interprets a preceding one. Short points out that this implies a form of idealism in which thought lacks objects not constituted by thinking (42). The other two flaws derive directly from the doctrine of thought-sign. The second flaw is that, if a sign's significance consists in its being interpreted by another sign, then those interpretants cannot be mistaken, with the result that significance is assigned arbitrarily. The third flaw consists of the risk of a circular account of significance, deriving from the assumption of the dependence of significance upon interpretation (43). Short's hypothesis is that Peirce was aware of these three difficulties and strived to correct them in successive steps between 1877 and 1907. This process of revision culminated in his mature semiotics, which included a robust articulation of the concept of index, his pragmatic theory of meaning and a complex concept of teleology.
Teleology and the problem of final causation are central themes of Short's book (Chapters 4-6). His examination of Peirce's notion of finious (or, as he defines them, 'anisotropic') processes serves the purpose of demonstrating that his mature semeiotics is developed in parallel with a naturalistic account of teleology. Short insightfully articulates a concept of teleology and finious processes as based on a natural tendency or propensity rather than on subjective intentions. He proposes a concept of purpose as 'a type of outcome for which an agent acts or for which something was selected as a means' (110), and brings a sign's significance to bear on the purposes of possible interpreters rather than individual minds. This interpretation departs from Peirce's original formulation; however, it represents a fresh attempt to rescue teleology and final causation and give them new visibility in contemporary philosophical discourse.
In Chapters 7 through 9 Short explores Peirce's conceptions of the relations between signs, objects and interpretant, and presents an overview of the development of his trichotomies of signs. In Chapter 10 he draws illuminating connections between Peirce's theory of signs and contemporary debates on meaning and reference in philosophy of language. Peirce dissociated meaning (which he assumed to be conceptual) from reference, but did not propose a concept of rigid designation. Short shows that his mature pragmatism is not a verificationist theory of meaning. Rather than explaining meaning with a finite list of verification conditions, he posed no limit to the growth of symbols. In Short's terms, for Peirce new verifications are 'discoveries . . . made through a symbol's application' (288).
In Chapter 11 Short identifies Peirce's theory of mind with a 'naturalistic history of thought' (289). He articulates Peirce's theory of mind in parallel with the concepts of purposefulness and intentionality, and contrasts it with contemporary functionalist and physicalist approaches. Once again, Short seems to depart from Peirce's original formulations; yet his account respects the ultimate aims of his mature pragmatism.
In the final chapter, Short explores Peirce's concept of science and his theory of scientific inquiry. A valuable point in the chapter is his critique of simplistic interpretations of Peirce's concept of convergence and his derivation of a theory of truth which appears to anticipate contemporary deflationism. The two theories address different questions: where Peirce spoke of belief, the deflationists often speak of warranted assertion (332-3). Yet, a careful consideration of Peirce's often misread 'The Fixation of Belief' (1877) reveals a developmental theory of truth which is complementary to deflationist accounts.
Peirce scholars might remain slightly disappointed by Short's unjustified dismissal of Peirce's early thought and of the continuity of his theory of signs. Despite this, his attempt to demonstrate the relevance of Peirce's semiotics in contemporary philosophical thought hinges on a balanced interplay between convincing arguments and documented research. This book insightfully unravels the necessity of overcoming the contemporary philosophical tendency to 'atomize issues' (xi), and there is reason to believe that Short's comprehensive study will set the agenda for interesting future developments in Peircean scholarship.
University College London