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The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 36, Issue 1/2, 2020

Sebeok Fellows Issue: Vincent Colapietro and Nathan Houser

Nathan Houser
Pages 95-116

Thinking at the Edges

The field of semiotic studies requires borders to function as a discipline but as a living science it is essential that those borders be unheeded. When Charles Peirce opened the modern field of semiotic studies he understood that he was an intellectual pioneer preparing the way for future semioticians. Peirce’s decision to equate semiotics with logic would likely seem bizarre to most professional logicians today yet his decision followed naturally from his view that all mental operations are sign actions and that semiosis is inferential. Peirce’s life-long study of sign types eventually led to a detailed, though provisional, classification of sixty-six distinct varieties of semiosis, many of which generate emotions or reactions rather than thoughts. Only twenty-one classes of signs yield interpretants that carry truth values or purport to be truth-preserving; the sign actions associated with these signs constitute the sphere of intellectual semiosis. The remaining forty-five non-intellectual sign classes drive perception and dominate the often unconscious mental operations that support and enrich day-to-day life. But this is also the realm of semiosis where memes flourish, where emoji function, and where propaganda first strikes a chord. This is the semiotic sphere where communal feeling can be engendered, but it is also the sphere of mob psychology. We are in troubled times during which signs are being used strategically to create dissension and social unrest and to generate disrespect for the very institutions that maintain the intelligence and practices that are fundamental for the survival of our way of life. It is time for semioticians to join forces against the weaponization of signs and I believe an investigation of the more primitive non-intellectual sign classes that Peirce identified will help lay the groundwork for the coming battle.

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