Sunday, January 15, 2012



[H]ow different the grammar of the verb “to mean” is from that of “to think”. And nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity! Unless, that is, one is setting out to produce confusion. (It would also be possible to speak of an activity of butter when it rises in price…) -Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p.153.

What constitutes the semiotic turn philosophically is not a reference to something individual in a particular actor, but a level of object-relatedness to another person. When another person begins to matter enough to us that we begin to study their behaviour and put together a theory of mind so as to conceptualize their motivations and desire we can form guesses about the future. Then their use of objects and their emotional reactions to others will form patterns (signifieds) to which we can add signifiers. One puts together a theory of mind about others, gleans the word that is used in a similar situation by others, and then uses it to communicate that situation when the desire takes him. There aren’t ‘varieties of interpretation’ but correct and incorrect forms of use that are illustrated in the activity of people correcting other people’s word choices. Wittgenstein is more instructive than Peirce or Saussure because he attempts to engage his reader’s phenomenology. In the Philosophical Investigations he helps us to understand the use of the sign as follows:

Suppose you came as an explorer into an unknown country with a language quite strange to you. In what circumstances would you say that the people there gave orders, understood them, obeyed them, rebelled against them, and so on? The common behaviour of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language (Wittgeinstein, Philosophical Investigations- 206).

If you imagine yourself sharing dinner with an indigenous tribe in some unknown country and you see a few bowls of liquid on the table it would be by seeing how they are used by others (i.e. they drink it, or put their hands in it, etc.) that the object would take on some significance to you. You would be able to signify it by paying attention to the gestures people make towards it and paying attention to the word that seems to be used only in reference to the bowl of liquid. For example they might say ‘Could you please pass the X’, ‘Could you please pass the Y’ and knowing the words they use in common with other objects at the table helps you to eliminate some of the possibilities. Seeing another person drink from the bowl one can understand it is something edible (i.e. be aware of the bowl of liquid as drink). However, by paying attention to the interactions of at least two others it is possible to have a rule for the sign. Additionally, as Wittgenstein points out in the example, the bowl of liquid will be embedded in the custom of dinner and will reference etiquette, and etiquette will reference differences in rank and the internalization of convention. For example, it might be polite to let the elders at the table drink from the bowls first. In this sense signs will be inseparable from a culture in which there are always different ranks between people, different codes of formality for the expressions of emotion, and different forms of possessions that grant status to an individual. In a letter to Lady Welby Peirce makes a similar claim about a sign requiring two other actors and a rule. He asks us to

analyze for instance the relation involved in ‘A gives B to C’ Now what is giving? It does not consist in A’s putting B away from him and C’s subsequently taking B up… it consists in A’s making C the possessor according to Law. There must be some kind of law before there can be any kind of giving, -- be it but the law of the strongest… In A’s putting away B, there is no Thirdness. In C’s taking B there is no Thirdness. (Peirce, Collected Papers, 8.331-2).

Phenomenologically, Thirdness in its most basic form would be seen in something like jealousy. If a child sees that another child is getting the approval of its mother then he is seeing a relation between two other people and by seeing what the other child did to be in the good graces of the mother the child can make a prediction and try to get the mother’s love for himself or try to sabotage the other child’s repeated attempt. Peirce directly relates Thirdness to ‘making some kind of prediction and… to say that a prediction has a decided tendency to be fulfilled, is to say that the future event are in a measure really governed by a law’ (ibid. 1.26)[1]. In our explorer example, the explorer will clearly make a prediction that a certain word is the right one to refer to the bowl of liquid and that will be the correct sign if it results in someone gesturing to it or passing it. Moreover, once he gets to understand the people better he may have the chance to decide whether or not he wants the good graces of the elders and will wait for them to drink from the bowl first or whether he will remain aloof as an attempt to show his power or from actual indifference. However, we can also imagine his hosts may also decide that he’s not a peer of theirs and he may have to take his meals outside of the huts or be seen as a witch.

The key factor in Thirdness is not a reference to one’s own intentionality but to another agent’s intentionality. That intentionality may be seen as an attempt to fulfill some lack whether that lack is being hungry, or that lack is to gain recognition from others, or one lacks peace of mind and is anxious and compulsively talks to fill the silence. Our explorer will only be able to learn language to the extent that he is able to form a theory about the lack of other people. He knows that they will be hungry and need sleep like himself, but maybe he’s perplexed by how to properly use the word ‘confident’ to describe someone or can’t tell the difference between someone who is pretending to be interested in him to get something from him vs. being interested in him as a person. Many signs or ‘language-games’ will be lost on him if he has not studied, or isn’t receptive, to people’s behaviour[2]. Additionally, if he has an inferiority ‘complex’ his theory of mind may have many blind-spots. For example, if he defensively thinks that all women are really just attracted to strong men so he can feel superior to them with his intelligence he will never pay attention to what different types of women actually want[3].

Since language must reference the needs and lack in other people it is not a matter of having ‘varieties of interpretation’. Language will begin by referencing the basic needs of the body (hunger and sex) and the basic lack that creates desire for recognition, devotion, love, to do his duty, to be a good parent, and the other motivations found in language-games. What a person does for recognition, for example, may change from culture to culture depending on the available resources, the use of those resources to create technology, and division of classes and labour. However, our explorer will still be able to reference how recognition amongst the tribe is granted to the elderly who possess magic and is attached to the skill of a hunter that is demonstrated by the food he brings back. Outside of basic sustenance issues and power relations, culture becomes wrapped up with religious, philosophical, and artistic expressions for which psychoanalysis has provided the beginnings of a psychological roadmap. As I mentioned above, it is only by reverting to pre-19th century philosophical views that narrativists can claim an unbridgeable relativism between cultures and ‘varieties of interpretations’. The ability of the explorer to understand the culture of the tribe goes as deep as his ability to judge the feelings and motivations of its members.


With the use of sign and intentionality being subsumed under the requirement of a theory of mind and a certain level of object-relatedness we can now investigate Firstness and Secondness as categories in which ‘meaning’ doesn’t play a part. In other words, with Firstness and Secondness the subject is still ‘in itself’ and not yet ‘for itself’. Although an adult may condition a pre-oedipal child to use signifiers, just as a scientist can condition some varieties of ape for that matter, left on their own they will not create signs[4]. This is the condition in which we find feral children or those children raised in locked rooms with their caregivers only giving them food. However, these children, and animals in general, are still essentially ‘thinking’ and interacting with the environment[5]. The question is how are they relating to others and the environment and what are they able to take as objects in this ‘in itself’ mode. The common mistake in philosophy is to imagine that the pre-oedipal child, who hasn’t yet experienced the need for the desire of the mother and jealousy, is like the explorer from the example above. Wittgenstein writes:

Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country’ that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And “think” would here mean something like “talk to itself” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations-32).

This is essentially the view of the intentionalist who only studies self-conscious agents. The child passively receives signification from its mother and then its own rational choosing and volition kicks in and there is no worry about how the child actually arrived at the ‘for itself’ relation in language. My reader, like many analytical philosophers may have doubts about this and wonder why the child can’t be ‘for itself’ all along and merely has to learn his parent’s language so he can share his thoughts. This is where Kant’s transcendental idealism arises. Kant engages with the work of the empiricists like Hume that claim that knowledge is analytical. For example, a dog is defined as a furry animal with four legs and a tail and all these parts of the dog can be observed and be included in the definition. However, Kant brings our attention to the fact that along with analytical propositions there are also synthetic propositions as with the one’s involved in arithmetic. For example, to say 5+7=12 requires some praxis on the part of the subject. There is nothing in the 12 which can be observed to give us 5+7 and even if we consider the 12 to refer to stones on a table (in a group of 5 and 7) the question becomes what observable property in those two piles suggests the praxis of putting them together? Moreover, even if we combine the two piles, to count the stones, it becomes a question of how we remember that we’ve already counted 1 by the time we turn attention to the next 1 to give us 2. In other words, I must be able to take something in the external world as an object and this implies that my experience of the external world is something that I can hold in memory to combine with my present experience of reality. This act of memory and holding the image of one stone in mind while noting the presence of another stone and then collecting them together as ‘one and one’ things can’t be a perceptible feature of the world either and must be the work of the subject. This necessity pushed Kant to perform a ‘Copernican revolution’ and require that the subject can’t be dealing with ‘things in themselves’ but must be re-presenting the ‘appearances’ of them to himself in order to take an object in consciousness and in memory. This move is further corroborated by the necessity of a subjective experience of time and space. The naïve empiricist who takes time and space as objective realities would claim that we walk around in a ‘container’ of time and space that is the direct cause of our sense of them. However, it must be remembered that we experience time and space within dreams – no matter how quickly they shift from one frame to the next— that doesn’t come from any causation of outer reality or ‘appearances’. To say that we can form a memory of it must mean that we can represent it to ourselves and therefore there is a subjective factor. This isn’t to say that time and space don’t exist in ‘things in themselves’ because that would be a transcendental realism or pre-critical idealism[6]. Kant writes:

We are perfectly justified in maintaining that only what is within ourselves can be immediately and directly perceived, and that only my own existence can be the object of a mere perception. Thus the existence of a real object outside me can never be given immediately and directly in perception, but can only be added in thought to the perception, which is a modification of the internal sense, and thus inferred as its external cause ... . In the true sense of the word, therefore, I can never perceive external things, but I can only infer their existence from my own internal perception, regarding the perception as an effect of something external that must be the proximate cause ... . It must not be supposed, therefore, that an idealist is someone who denies the existence of external objects of the senses; all he does is to deny that they are known by immediate and direct perception (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A367 f.).

By referencing the necessity of performing a synthesis in arithmetic and that counting requiries that the subject can take objects in acts of memory and seeing that time and space lack direct causation the Copernican turn of Kant requires that we motivate the child in taking new objects within the re-presented ‘appearances’ of the ‘thing in itself’. ‘Appearances’ don’t translate straight away into the world of the explorer. The diversity of ‘appearances’ must be put together and broken apart by work done by what Kant calls the transcendental imagination. He writes:

The first thing which must be given to us in order to achieve the a priori cognition of all objects, is the diversity of the pure intuition; the synthesis of this diversity by means of the imagination is the second; but this gives, as yet, no cognition. The conceptions which give unity to this pure synthesis… furnish the third requisite for the cognition of an object, and these conceptions are given by the understanding. (ibid. A124).

Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness is Peirce’s attempt to understand how the imagination performs its work on appearances and eventually leads to the sign. Peirce acknowledges that the work of Hegel too is carrying out the same task of understanding the work of the imagination in relation to these three categories by which the subject can perform praxis on his transcendental re-presentations[7]. Kant, after making the Copernican turn, had an agenda to make morality a synthetic a priori process like arithmetic. He wanted to keep alive the possibility that our human essence was being a rational chooser and it was philosophers of the 19th century who explored the social ontology of the subject as seen above. Although, their intuitions were correct and their logic sound, Hegel and Peirce didn’t have the data that has been accumulated by psychoanalysts and zoologists to communicate their insights[8]. In the next section I will attempt to position the three Categories or stages within their findings and synthesize the two.

[1] I prefer Wittgenstein’s more innocuous ‘rule-following’ to ‘law’, which is inextricable from its political and scientific contexts. Science doesn’t exist in every culture but rules do. Moreover, Peirce also allows that categories exist beyond Thirdness which would allow for future developments of self-consciousness and the fact that science arrived very recently in civilization. Perice writes:

By way of a preface, I must explain that in saying that the three, Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, complete the list, I by no means deny that there are other categories. On the contrary, at every step of every analysis, conceptions are met with which presumably do not belong to this series of ideas (Peirce, Collected Papers, 1.525).

It’s also important to recognize that the technology, communications, and more specialization in a political economy allow more developed cultures to grant a more developed phenomenology to certain gifted individuals (i.e. the innovating scientist). Not everyone in our culture has a scientific view on the human mind. And, even many people that claim to do so by identification and don’t have a practical understanding of the concepts involved.

[2] Wittgenstein relates receptivity to a natural sympathetic state of one’s body which will be discussed later on in relation to mimicry and the mirror stage: “Only of what behaves like a human being can one say that it has pains. For one has to say it of a body, or, if you like of a soul which some body has” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations-283). In addition to this strange phrase, ‘a soul which some body has’ we can add the equally strange phrase of ‘an object that some subject uses to think’ (Lacan, Seminar XI, p.62).

[3] Wittgenstein’s private language argument is basically that we feel sensations such as a knot in one’s stomach with fear, or melting sensations in love, our muscles tighten in anger, etc. but we don’t learn the names for these feelings by referring to these sensations. For example, I don’t say I have butterflies in my stomach and my heart is beating quickly and in a dictionary I can look this up and find out that I’ve got stage fright. We learn what we feel by our caregivers judging our emotions and labeling them for us or by judging the physical behaviour and actions of others and then being able to reflexively apply it to our own behaviours and actions. The fact that language-games for different motivations, emotions, idioms, etc. exist shows that some people have wisdom or expert judgment. Thus someone who claims to have a feeling without showing the behaviours or actions a wise person sees with others doesn’t have privileged epistemological access to ‘knowing’ what his feelings are even though the wise person thinks he is faking:

I have seen a person in a discussion on this subject strike himself on the breast and say: "But surely another person can't have THIS pain!" -- The answer to this is that one does not define a criterion of identity by emphatic stressing of the word "this". Rather, what the emphasis does is to suggest the case in which we are familiar with such a criterion of identity, but have to be reminded of it (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations-253).

[4] This isn’t to say that the child will not display any active or creative use of language- Koko the gorilla combined words in novel ways- but rather that the parents are the guarantors of language rather than the child itself (or its theory of mind).

[5] The matter of what thinking is deserves much more space and a more careful study of both Peirce and Wittgenstein’s work. However, I believe that it is safe to assume that human beings are descended from animals and that a large part of what ‘thinks’ in us is something analogous to Freud’s self-preservative instinct and taking care of basic needs. The memories of what things granted us satisfaction and the fears of those things which caused us pain provides a simple yet powerful approach to a lot of our behaviours. It is clear that besides self-preservation instincts and the internalization of an object, which drives us to preserve a certain image of ourselves in the eyes of other people, there is a form of thinking that exists in language-speaking humans that is different than animals. Wittgenstein gives interesting examples of separating instinct from thought when he writes:

It is very easy to imagine someone knowing his way about a city quite accurately, i.e. he finds the shortest way from one part of the city to another quite surely— and yet that he should be perfectly incapable of drawing a map of the city. That, as soon as he tries, he only produces something completely wrong. (Our concept of ‘instinct’.) (Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology-556).

[6] In the Stanford entry on Kant the author makes the same connection:

While Kant does clearly allude to this theoretical background, it is noteworthy that views of the sort he articulates in the Aesthetic—that space and time are transcendentally ideal, that they are mere “forms” of intuition, that they depend upon the “subjective constitution of the mind,” and so on—do not obviously make contact with the Leibniz/Newton debate (Kant’s view on time and space, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Hegel would go farther to say that we are time conscious of itself

[7] The resemblance of these three Categories to Hegel’s stages was not remarked for many years after the list had been under study… [and] only goes to show that there really are three such elements (Peirce, Collected Papers- 8.329).

[8] There might also be an issue of needing to remain unintelligible to those who would persecute them for atheism. Additionally, Hegel did write a Philosophy of Nature that was aimed at trying to articulate something of an ontogenetic development of organic life, but I have yet to read it.

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