The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 20, Issue 1/4, 2004

John Deely
Pages 211-253

The Intersemiosis of Perception and Understanding

The doctrine of signs consisting in triadic relations irreducible to the subjective or objective terms that relation of signification brings into unity is a decisive refutation of the central doctrine of Nominalism only individual subjects exist independently of considerations of the finite mind. The imperceptibility of relations as such in their distinction from related things no doubt was (and is) the main source for the credibility of nominalist doctrine denying mind-independent status to relations as such, and perhaps even for the late-blooming of semiotics itself in the long history of philosophy, inasmuch we now realize that precisely the unique being of relation as a suprasubjective mode of being is what gives the sign its indifference to contrast between what is mind-dependent (ens rationis) and mind-independent (ens reale), what is inner (the psychological states which sustain relations of sign) and what is outer (the material things of the environment which themselves sustain relations of sign independently of psychological states). By this unexpected route, the “way of signs”, we are thus led across yet another surprise: a wholly new approach to establishing the distinction between “sense” (as including perception along with outer sense) and “intellect” (or ‘understanding’, the intuitive capacity of ‘reason’ to ‘see’ in objects of experience aspects of ‘reality’ — such as a judge or an officer, a photon or an angel — which cannot be reduced anything directly manifested by external sensation). This subject, of whether humans as “rational animals” differ in kind or (as Hume and many empiricists have held) only in degree from the intelligence of “brute animals”, has been a matter of dispute over the entire history of philosophy. Semiotics, with the discovery that all animals use signs but only human animals come to know that there are signs, suprasubjective triadic relations in their irreducibility to related things which alone sense perception can objectively reveal, thus, is led not only to the species-specific definition of humans as “semiotic animals”, but also to a decisive demonstration of the difference between sense and intellect. Anthony Russell (22 November 1922–1989 April 12) proposed that an essay addressing this point from the perspective of semiotics would be “the first essay worth reading on the subject since the days of Locke and Hume”; whence it is to Russell’s memory that this essay is dedicated.