In a comment responding to my last post, Matt writes:
I wanted to ask about your interpretation of Peirce as an anti-realist. He may not be your kind of realist (which means materialist, as I understand you), but he is a realist in many other senses of the word. But then that’s the rub, isn’t it? What the hell does “real” mean? Why am I even asking? How can I even ask? These are transcendental questions. But all is not lost. Here we are using words as if they were somehow separate from but subject to an objective reality, capable of reflecting it, reasoning about it, signifying it… Surely we know this framework is bunk and these questions are pointless. Worse, they are nihilist. They lead precisely nowhere, to nothing.
Better, I think, to adopt the pragmatic realism of Peirce, where construction goes all the way down since every being continues to exist only because it articulates itself successfully in relation to the many other material-semiotic beings co-constructing its habitat. Articulates itself to who? Certainly, not necessarily to any human being. Photons articulate themselves in relation to atoms. Stars gravitationally and photonically communicate with the planets orbiting them. These exchanges are meaningless mechanism, you say? Its all just efficient causes, just clueless colliding? If you say so, but then we are right back to playing word games, pretending we could designate something undesignatable. That’s pointless, if you ask me. Less toss transcendentalism and get on board with a regulative synechism.
First, I offered no “interpretation of Peirce” in my last post. I referenced him in contrast to Saussure. In Saussure you only have signifiers, language, and therefore your semiology is restricted to humans (since as far as we currently know, only humans have language). With Peirce you have icons and indexes in addition to symbols, and therefore can speak of semiotic systems or sign-systems for non-humans such as cats and ticks and tardigrades. Nowhere did I suggest that Peirce restricts us to language. However, this isn’t the issue I was discussing in my post.
Causal relations aren’t semiotic relations. In this regard, Matt’s making a fundamental category mistake– or drawing a poor analogy –when speaking of quantum interactions as semiotic interactions. To be sure, semiotic relations can be entangled with causal relations– clearly electro-magnetic waves must emanate from the pattern of the butterflies wings to reach the eyes of the bird and signify “predator” –such that wherever there is a semiotic relation there must also be some sort of physical, causal relation. However, the reverse isn’t the case. There doesn’t have to be a semiotic relation in order for there to be a causal relation. All sorts of causal interactions can take place without any semiotic dimension whatsoever. Suggesting otherwise is just confusing different types of relations.
In order for a relation to qualify as semiotic, two interrelated conditions must be met: 1) The sign must be capable of referring in the absence of that to which it refers, and 2) the sign must be capable of telling a lie or deceiving. Neither of these conditions are met by causal interactions. Causality can’t take place in the absence of the causal factor. For example, when you reading the writing on this page you’re not somehow causally impacting this writing, nor are the wavelengths of light reaching your eye the sense or meaning of these words; however what these words signify need not be present for them to signify. Similarly, people can have all sorts of relations to signifying phenomena pertaining to God and the gods despite the fact that neither God nor gods exist. With causality, by contrast, the causal condition has to be present for the effect to be produced.
The central issue is that there’s no way to escape ultra-correlationism within a semiotic ontology. Signs– whether they be icons, indexes, or symbols –are only signs for an observer or a subject. Take the observer or subject away and the sign disappears or no longer exists. Money, for example is only money for human beings and not for ants, aardvarks, rats, or cats. This is precisely the value of semiotics, whether of the Saussurean or Peircian variety. In the case Saussure, we can compare different universes of meaning for humans (since at this point is appears that only humans have language) and thus explore different ways of inhabiting the world; while in the Peircian framework we can explore different universes of meaning for different species, comparing the different sorts of meaning relations that structure these universes, e.g., for us the table is used to set my computer, books, meals, etc., whereas for my cats they are perches used to survey territory, hunt, find safety, etc. My cats and I exist in different umwelts in my apartment, while these umwelt converge on one another around objects. Semiotics is a thesis about observers or subjects.
This is an admirable project– indeed it will be the theme of my next book, Monad-Oriented Ontology, a study of Luhmann and Uexkull –but where it’s transformed into an ontology, it becomes a form of skepticism that suspends world and generates all of the problems I outlined my previous post about the erasure of reality. Where you make the correlationist argument that there’s just the relationship between subjects and signs, all of being is put into parentheses (doubt) and there’s no longer anything like a public world. As we watch the republicans bring the economy to the edge of collapse, the semiotic ontologist is forced to say that there’s no reality of the matter as to whether or not debt default will produce economic collapse, because the only “reality” is how subject/communities relate to signs and construct systems of signs. This was the case following 9-11 as well. We’re forced to say that for them Iraq was indeed at the core of 9-11. The semiotic constructivist begins with the well meaning thesis that seems tolerant, treating claims about reality as intolerant (because they privilege one point of view), and instead arguing that we’re all caught within semiospheres structured around the sort of subject that we are and that therefore there can be no reality claims. Seems tolerant right? The problem is that with this pluralism we next end up in a position where we’re forced to concede climate change denialism, points about economy, etc., etc., because, after all, there is no reality just different subjects that relate to world in different signifying systems. We’re left without any means to critique these things because we’ve placed all being in parentheses by suturing it to the subject or observers. What we need is a form of second-order observation that’s able to recognize both that subjects relate to being in different ways or have different semiospheres and that there is nonetheless reality. Paradoxically, the semotic constructivist has become a part of the problem and is an handmaiden for the conservative.
My point in my last post was not that Saussure and Peirce are the same– every first year student knows the difference between semiology (“pan-signifierism” or “pan-linguisticism”) and semiotics (the thesis that there are many different types of signs beyond that of the signifier) –but that with both semiological ontology and semiotic ontology we end up in roughly the same place: a generalized skepticism that arises as a result of transforming everything into a correlationist relation, regardless of whether that correlation is with a non-linguistic sign such as the icon of a predator’s eyes that appears on the butterfly’s wings for the bird or a signifier that differentially structures things of the world into categories for a particular linguistic community of humans. Note that I keep emphasizing ontology. This problem only arises where we reduce being to signs. There’s is, I believe, a benign way of doing semiotics that need not make this ontological claim and that therefore doesn’t fall into this sort of skepticism. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that Matt is making this move. Between his defense of intelligent design theory through Whitehead’s account of God– yes, when you claim God selects the eternal objects that function as lures for feeling in he becoming of actual occasions, you’re making a design argument –his claim that all religion embodies a certain sort of truth, his rejection of neuro-materialist accounts of mind, and his defense of teleology, it comes as no surprise that he’d want to blur causal relations and semiotic relations in this way. Moreover, as we’ve continuously seen in the theological turn in recent decades, this sort of skepticism has endlessly been enlisted in a desperate attempt to undermine naturalist accounts of the universe (God of the gaps reasoning). The neo-theologians and obscurantists have taken Kant’s claim that we must limit reason to make room for faith to heart and everywhere deployed skepticism in the name of their mystical and obscurantist projects. Each one of these groups thinks, of course, that they’re the ones that are going to win and provide us with the finally enlightened and benign religion, when in fact they just repeat the post-Reformation grist-mill of Europe where every religious sect of Christianity was pitted against the other in warfare and atrocities against people as they each asserted they had the truth while lacking any means of determining who had the truth because of the generalized skepticism they’d advanced to sustain their religious ontologies. Religion = war.
This is why we need a distinction such as that made by Uexkull between objects and meanings. For Uexkull, a meaning is the function, use, or purpose to which a subject puts an object, and therefore only exists for those subjects. By contrast, an object is something that exists in its own right and has no dependence on a subject. An object, says Uexkull, is what exists “unrelated”. Here he’s not talking about causal, ecological relations, but signifying relations. In this connection he gives the example of a translucent, glass bowl. As an object, all of the properties of the bowl are on equal ontological footing. None is more important than the other and they’re all equally real. When a subject relates to the bowl meaningfully, by contrast, Uexkull contends that the properties become hierarchialized, with some being pulled into the foreground and others pushed into the background, or with some being treated as more important than others. For example, if the meaning I attribute to this bit of glass is “cereal bowl”, it is the shape that is drawn into the foreground, because this is what is relevant to containing the cereal and milk. The transparency of the bowl falls into the background. By contrast, if I’m a creative type and use the bowl as a window, it now its shape now recedes into the background and it’s transparency that becomes important.
Because subjects can relate to objects differently, putting them to different functions and purposes, it’s possible for there to be heterogeneous universes organized around one and the same object. The 1984 film The Gods Must Be Crazy gives a wonderful example of these clashes of semiospheres in terms of a coke bottle:
The key point not to be missed is that these differences are the work of a subject or observer– broadly construed; even corporations can be subjects or observers –and not of the object. The object is what it is regardless of how a subject or observer relates to it. Put differently, semiotic relations don’t affect objects for the very simple reason that semiotic relations are not causal relations. Any heirarchialization of properties that takes place in meaning is the work of a subject, not a feature of the object itself. It’s also noteworthy that this sort of semiotic comparative analysis isn’t even possible if we are unable to contrast semiotic systems with respect to objects that are not of the order of a semiotic system. In order to get off the ground at all, semiotic pluralisms need a “little bit of the real” as that which evades being swallowed up in semiotic relations. This, incidentally, would be one reason that phenomenology doesn’t have a whole lot to teach us about ontology and why we cannot make the inference that because things are withdrawn in a play of presencing and absencing for Dasein, that they are withdrawn in themselves. Talk of withdrawal is only relevant from the standpoint of an observer. It’s not a feature of objects themselves; at least in the phenomenological sense (as I argue, objects do indeed have all sorts of potentials that aren’t actualized at a particular point in time).