Saturday 10 June 2017

Albert Atkin on Peirce

I have always been a little bit reticent about Peirce's semiotics. It's become another kind of theoretical 'coat-hanger' which media theorists, communication scholars, educationalists, informational scholars, musicologists, and much postmodern theory has draped 'explanations' which, it seems to me, don't explain very much. My suspicion, as with many social and psychological theories, is that the clergy are a pale imitation of the high-priests. It's the same story with James Gibson and affordance theory. And whilst believing that there's much more to Peirce than meets the eye of someone surveying this academic noise, I haven't yet found a way into it. Until now.

I'm reading Albert Atkin's recent book on Peirce. He articulates exactly how I feel about the sign theory, when he first of all points out that philosophy has largely ignored the sign theory - partly due to unreflective criticisms of analytic philosophers (most notably Quine), whereas

"Interest is much livelier outside of philosophy, but a similar problem lurks nearby. One finds interest in and mention of Peirce's sign theories in such wide-ranging disciplines as art history, literary theory, psychology and linguistics. There are even entire disciplinary approaches and sub-fields - semiotics, bio-semiotics, cognitive semiotics - which rest squarely on Peirce's work. Whilst this greater appreciation of Peirce's semiotic marks a happier state of affiars than that which we find in philosophy, there is still a worry that, as the leading scholar of Peirce's sign theory, T.L. Short, puts it, 'Peirce's semiotics has gotten in amongst the wrong  crowd'. Short's complaint may be a little hyperbolic, but his concern is well founded considering the piecemeal and selective use of Peirce's ideas in certain areas. From a cursory reading of much work in these areas, one might think Perice had only ever identified his early tripartite division of signs into icons, indexes and symbols." (Atkin, "Peirce", p126)
Peirce's biography, which Atkin covers elegantly, is extremely important in understanding how Peirce's logic, mathematics, sign theory and metaphysics fit together. A combination of intellectual isolation - he lost his University position in 1884 and never gained another one - and a unique inheritance from his mathematician father Benjamin Peirce, together with power intellectual life in the family home, set the scene for a radical redescription of logic, mathematics, cognition and science. The simple fact is that the extent to which this redescription is truly radical remains underappreciated - not helped by noisy dismissals by the academic establishment - not only of Peirce himself, but also of some of the foundational work which Peirce built on (he gained his interest in Hamilton's Quaternions from his father; Hamilton's work too suffered some careless dismissals).

If people think they know Peirce, or they know the semiotics, they should think again. I strongly suspect the time for this true original is yet to come. 

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