The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 37, Issue 1/2, 2021

40th Anniversary Issue

Nicholas L. Guardiano
Pages 5-45

Transcendentalist Encounters with a Universe of Signs

This essay aims to identify a semiotic consciousness found in New England Transcendentalism, consisting of the worldview that signs are pervasively present throughout nature and society. It finds that this worldview exists as a historical strand of thought stretching through the 19th century and, ultimately, further beyond, thereby making up an early movement in American semiotics. In this context, I furthermore see Transcendentalist thought informing the backdrop of Charles Peirce’s groundbreaking theory of signs later in the century, especially his metaphysical claims about a “universe . . . perfused with signs”1 (1906: EP 2.394). In order to bring into full view the presence of a semiotic consciousness in Transcendentalism, I first address the intellectual history and genealogical roots that helped shape the minds of the Transcendentalists. Relevant influences include those both local to New England and imported from abroad, in particular the theologies of Jonathan Edwards and of Emanuel Swedenborg. Next, I directly examine the ideas of the figurehead of the Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson, together with his Concord peers, Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. Taking them as my case studies, I track the different ways a like-minded interest in signs takes shape within their individual projects. Focus-ing on their descriptions of nature, we find it in their experiences of the natural environment, their understanding of phenomena as representational and poetic, and their belief in the dialogical sharing of ideas across minds and species. Along the way, I further work out some of the aspects of a general theory of signs identifi-able within the Transcendentalist perspective, as well as distinguish it from other theoretical alternatives. Ultimately, I contend that the Transcendentalists held a similar idea of nature existing as a sign representing deep and varied meanings.