Persons, Signs, Animals

Lane, Robert 2009. Persons, Signs, Animals: A Peircean Account of Personhood. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 45(1): 1-26.

Throguhout his philosophical writings, Charles Peirce makes numerous pronouncements about the nature of persons, or ourlesves, or as he sometimes says, "man." For example, in the cognition series of 1868-69, he writes that "man is a sign" (5.314, EP 1:54, W 2:241). Peirce defines a sign a , roughly, anything that stands for something for someone, and his claim that man is a sign seems to mean that a person consists of her own thinking, and since thinking is in signs, the person herself is a series of signs. But this semiotic account of personhood is far from all Peirce has to say on the subject. For example, in a late unpublished manuscript, he writes that "[bỹ a 'person,' ... I suppose we mean an animal that has command of some syntactical language" (R 659, 1910) (Lane 2009: 1)
I would add feeling and perceivng to thinking a more thorough semiophrenic account.
According to Peirce, one's mental life is a continuous process of sign generation and interpretation, and the continuous interpretation of earlier thought-signs gives one's thinking the structure of a dialogue wherein a person at an earlier time engages in cognition that she herself understands at a later time (4.6, 1906). This idea is reflected in Peirce's claim that "[a[ Person is mind whose parts are coördinated in a particular way" (P 954, c. 1892-93). The coordnation just is this semiotic relationship between earlier and later thought-signs. In short, a person's mental life, and thus she herself, is a continuous process of semiosis. The idea, that each person is a continuous flow of thought-signs, reflects Peirce's synechism, according to which "all that exists is continuous" (1.172, c. 1897). (Lane 2009: 3)
Ah! The cumulative nature of thought. I am in fact continually reinterpreting earlier ideas; regurgitating and improving - sometimes rejecting - them. Also, compare this to Bakhtinian dialogism.
Recognizing that distinction can aso help us avoid a potential misunderstanding of Peirce's oft-quoted claim that "we ought to say that we are in thought and not that thoughtsa re in us" (5.289 n.1, EP 1:42, W 2:227 n.4, 1868), and on a correct understanding it becomes clear that that claim is consistent with the view that a given person consisits of thought-signs. Here is the context of the statement:
[N]o present actual thought ... has any meaning ... for this lios not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought may be connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts ... It may be objected, that if no thought has any meaning, all thought is without meaning. But this is a fallacy similar to saying, that, if in no one of the succossive spaces which a body fills there is room for motion, there is no room for motion throughtout the whole. At no one instance in my state of mind is there cognition or representation, but in the relation of my states of mind at different instants there is. [Footnote:] Accordingly, just as we say thata body is in motion, and that motion is in a body we ought to say that we are in thought and not that thoughts are in us.
Peirce's point is not that the individual human beings do not think or that they do not have thaughts; were that his point, it would put this passage at odds with the project of much of "Some Consequences," which is to argue that an individual person's cognition consisits of thought-signs. Rather, his point is that thought (cognition, representation) is something that does over time, not something that a person has at any given moment. (Lane 2009: 5)
This is simply brilliant! The analogy with motion is useful for my purposes.
Thought is a thread of melody running through the soccessin of our sensations. (CP 5.395)
Musical metaphors!
The notion tha ta thoucght is something that any number of individuals can have in common, i.e, that the same (external) thought might be (internally) thought by multiple individuals, underlies Peirce's view that individual persons are continuous with each other. In a 1906 manuscript on pragmaticism, he wrote that "two minds in communication are, in so far, 'at one,' that is, properly one mind in that part of them" (EP 2:389). (Lane 2009: 6)
This is an interesting - mentalistic - conception of communication. Although extremely simplistic, only an authority such as Peirce can be taken seriously with it.
Our embodiment as physical, language-using organisms is so central to personhood that, says Peirce, the tongue is "the very organ of personality" (8.84, c. 1891). The essential difference between persons and other signs is that we are living organisms (7.588, W 1:496, 1866(. On its own, Peirce's semiotic account might seem too mentalistic in its disregard of the life of action, especially in its earlief formulation, according to which every interpretation is another thought-sign rather than, for example, an action actually performed by the person in question. But his naturalistic account acknowledges the centrality of action and embodiment to personhood. Says Peirce: "the body of man is a wonderful mechanism, that of the word nothing but a line of chalk" (7.583, W 1:494, 1866).
That a man-sign is "connected with ... [a] physical organism" gives him "a higher degree of life than any word" (R 290, 1905). Conversely, it is our semiotic nature that enables us to transcend the mere animal; - an essence, a meaning subtile as it may be" (7.591, W 1:498, 1866). (Lane 2009: 7-8)
More droplets of brilliance from Poirce. The comparison with a line of chalk is epigraph-worthy.
According to the reconciliation I have in mind, a person is an animal whose nervous system functions in a specific way, viz. to engage in a continuous process of sign-interpretation. To my mind, this is a compelling, albeit still rough, picture of what it is to be a person, and in this section I will show how such an approach might be further elaborated. (Lane 2009: 8)
According to Peirce's theory, a given perceptual experience, or percipuum, has two components: the percept and the perceptual judgment (e.g., 7.629, 1903). The percept itself has two aspects. First, it is the locus of phenomenal qualities. When one is, say, tasting sweet iced tea, the percept is the aspect of experience that encompassos the qualities of the tea, such as its coldness and its sweetness. It is not that the percept has those qualities. Rather, the percept is the experience of those qualities as they occur in the tea. It is the phenomenal presentation of those qualities to the experiencing subject. But it is not a representation of those qualities. The percept presents the phenomenal world but does not represent it in the manner required by indirect realism. When I taste the sweet tea, it is not merely a sign of the tea's sweetness that I am experiencing; rather, I am directly experiencing that sweetness itself In its second aspect, the percept is a "clash" between the perceiver and her environment (8.41, EP 1:233, W 5:225, 1885); it is the causal interaction between perceiver and perceived. The percept, then, is a perceiver's direct perceptual interaction with her surroundings and the phenomenal presentation of extra-mental qualities that accompanies that interaction. The two aspects of the percept respectively correspond to Peirce's universal categories of Firstness, or quality' and secondness, or reaction. (Lane 2009: 8-9)
Compare this to Austins cheese example.
Within this framework, the animal-body and semiotic-mind of an individual person are seen to be not wholly disjoint from, but rather continuous with, each other. The animal-aspect of a given person and the semiotic-aspect of that same person are continuous and inseparable. This upholds Peirce's own emphasis on continuity, and it also leaves open the possibility that not just consciousness but also personhood comes in degrees. (Lane 2009: 17)
I am left to beg if it be linear or radiant gradient.


Post a Comment