Pragmaticism and Semiotics

In this article I shall examine some convergences between Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and contemporary semiotics, with particular reference to the Umberto Eco’s theory of general semiotics, rooted in Charles Sanders Peirce’s normative theory of inquiry, pragmaticism. [1] I shall first discuss how some central themes in the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle color the work of Peirce and Whitehead, especially their treatments of notions such as continuity and teleology, matter and mind, structure and process. I shall then consider how similar themes also color Eco’s philosophical approach, thus qualifying general semiotics as a mature philosophy of language capable of understanding all types of meaning negotiation in terms of inferentially based communication and signification processes.

1. Whitehead, Peirce, Plato and Aristotle

Whitehead and Peirce, as the scientist-mathematician-philosophers they both were (albeit with rather different views regarding the need for empirical research[2]), had a keen perception of the need to situate their philosophical projects within a broad cultural framework of the history of the sciences, philosophy and religion. Consequently, Plato and Aristotle were the inspiration for many of their most fundamental notions. In the two following sections we shall look more closely at possible intersections in this respect.

1.1. Whitehead, Peirce and Plato

Well known is Whitehead’s succinct comment at the beginning of the first chapter of Section II of Process and Reality: “[t]he safest characterization of European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (PR 39). He then goes on to underline the extent to which his philosophy of organism is indebted to the general current of ideas stimulated by Plato’s thought. Alluding to the latter’s “wealth of general ideas” as “an inexhaustible mine of suggestion,” Whitehead writes:

Thus, in one sense, by stating my belief that the train of thought in these lectures is Platonic, I am doing no more than expressing the hope that it falls within the European tradition. But I do mean more: I mean that if we had to render Plato’s general point of view with the least changes made necessary by the intervening two thousand years of human experience in social organization, in aesthetic attainments, in science, and in religion, we should have to set about the construction of a philosophy of organism (PR 39).

Peirce would no doubt have agreed with Whitehead that Plato was one of the most significant figures in the history of philosophy and natural sciences. However, he seems to have differed somewhat regarding the Platonic Forms or Ideas. While Whitehead weaves the Platonic Forms into his notion of “eternal objects” (PR 42-43, and see below), Peirce does not seem to conceive of such forms as eternal, but refers to them rather as “potentiality of […] some quality” (CP 6.220).[3] He sees the process of cosmic evolution in some sense as “prior” to the Forms or Ideas, a vital living potential for birthing quality in the universe, capable of spawning spontaneous change and growth, as well as the Platonic Forms. Peirce writes: “The evolutionary process is […] not a mere evolution of the existing universe, but rather a process by which the very Platonic forms themselves have become, or are becoming developed” (CP 6.194). We shall return to Peirce’s conception of the evolutionary process in more detail later.

Peirce has other clearly voiced opinions regarding Plato. One example is to be found in a manuscript for his Philosophy and the Conduct of Life, the first of eight Cambridge Conferences Lectures given in February-March 1898. Speaking of a proposed general classification of the sciences, Peirce places mathematics at the top of his list of theoretical sciences of research, since it requires the most abstract forms of reasoning.[4] Philosophy he ranks second in this respect. He continues:

Having thus presented to you a schedule of all the sciences, a very imperfect one, I dare say […] we come to the question, what is the upshot of all these sciences, what do they all come to? Now in minor particulars I am hostile to Plato. I think it most unfortunate that he should in his most brilliant works have eviscerated his Ideas of those two elements which especially render ideas valuable. But in regard to the general conception of what the ultimate purpose and importance of science consists of, no philosopher who ever lived, brought that out more clearly than this early scientific philosopher (EP 2, 37).

The “two elements which especially render ideas valuable” that Plato, according to Peirce, “eviscerated” from his Ideas, are the same two external causes that Aristotle had criticised Plato for ignoring, namely Efficient Cause and Final Cause (or End). Plato’s positing of an intimate relationship between Form and Matter to cope with the question of being is not seen by Peirce (or Aristotle) as particularly problematic, and, indeed, he lauds Plato for his “correction of that error of Heraclitus which consisted in holding the Continuous to be Transitory and also from making the Being of the Idea potential” (EP 2, 37). The main problem, he continues, is that “[…] not only does Plato only recognize internal causes, but he does not even recognize Matter as anything positive. He makes it mere negation, mere non-Being, or Emptiness, forgetting or perhaps not knowing that that which produces positive effects must have a positive nature” (EP 2, 37).[5] He complains too, that “Although Plato’s whole philosophy is a philosophy of Thirdness […] he himself only recognizes duality, and makes himself a disciple of Dichotomy,— which is a misunderstanding of himself.” Peirce winds up this little diatribe with a gentlemanly rhetorical flourish, noting that “It is a characteristic of the man that he sees deeper into the nature of things than he does into the nature of his own philosophy, and it is a trait to which we cannot altogether refuse our esteem” (EP 2, 37).

Here one might be tempted to imagine that Peirce is paying tribute to his recognition in Plato of practical problems similar to those he himself as a philosopher had experienced in trying to work out and formulate a coherent system of metaphysics. As we shall see in some more detail later (Section 3), in his system of metaphysics Peirce envisions the evolution of the cosmos as a generalized gradual emergence of what he calls “concrete reasonableness” out of an initial condition of entropic disorder. This occurs initially as Firstness (pure feeling), which by way of Secondness (actualities tending to repeat themselves) enters over time into Thirdness (relational lawfulness, conceived of as relatively stable forms of habit). Matter is thus seen as a habitual form of more or less stable relational lawfulness embodying what Peirce refers to as “effete mind.” In his own words: “The one intelligible theory of the universe is that of objective idealism, that matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws” (CP 6.25). Thirdness for Peirce is the processual generator of objective and phenomenal being that makes it possible for the characteristic qualitative and quantitative aspects of Firstness and Secondness to enter into a living relation with one another.

Whitehead, too, believed Plato made too rigid a distinction between a static spiritual world and a fluent experiential world. He incorporates Plato’s notion of perfect Forms or Ideas into what he called “eternal objects,” hedging that “the entities in question are not necessarily restricted to those that he would recognise as forms” (PR 44). In fact, Whitehead postulates two general types of eternal objects that he denotes respectively as “objective” and “subjective” (PR 291; cf. Weber 2005 for discussion of this particular distinction). Like Peirce, he valorizes Aristotle’s innovative role in “naturalizing” aspects of Plato’s Forms as potentially active agents in the flow of lived experience. In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead defends the utility of the abstract notion of eternal objects in attempting to account for the consequences of the new relativity and quantum theories in physics. “Science,” he writes, “is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms, physics is the study of the smaller organisms” (SMW 103). In order to cope with the problem of the existence of “primary organisms incapable of further analysis” (SMW 103), a non-materialist theory of science must “start with the event as the ultimate unit of natural occurrence” (SMW 103). “An event,” he says “has to do with all that there is, and in particular with all other events” (SMW 103). He continues: “This interfusion of events is effected by the aspects of those eternal objects, such as colours, sounds, scents, geometrical characters which are required for nature and are not emergent from it” (SMW 103).

1.2. Whitehead, Peirce and Aristotle

In Process and Reality Whitehead portrays Aristotle as a significant interpreter and modifier of Platonic thought, since he opens up for a more active role for the Platonic Ideas in the flux of everyday life, by underlining that the only way we can hope to gain experience of Ideas or Forms, is through observing those ways in which they may affect our experience by way of the twin mediums of substance and attribute:  

Plato found his permanences in the static, spititual heaven, and his flux in the entanglements of his forms amid the fluent imperfections of the physical world. Aristotle corrected his Platonism into a somewhat different balance. He was the apostle of ‘substance and attribute’ and of the classificatory logic which this notion suggests. Aristotle in his own person expressed a useful protest against the Platonic tendency to separate a static spiritual world from a fluent world of superficial experience. The later Platonic schools stressed this tendency: just as the medieval Aristotelian thought allowed the static notions of Aristotle’s logic to formulate some of the main metaphysical problems in terms which have lasted till today (PR 209).

Peirce is generally positive towards Aristotle, especially regarding his metaphysics, categories and syllogisms. He devotes considerable attention in certain of his writings to subsequent interpretations of Aristotle by the Schoolmen, especially Duns Scotus. In a piece entitled The Seven Systems of Metaphysics (1903) he candidly shows his team colors: “I should call myself an Aristotelian of the scholastic wing, approaching Scotism, but going much further in the direction of scholastic realism” (EP 2, 180) He then goes on to discuss “two grades of being” recognized by Aristotle:

The doctrine of Aristotle is distinguished from substantially all modern philosophy by its recognition of at least two grades of being. That is, besides actual reactive existence, Aristotle recognizes a germinal being, an esse in potentia, or I like to call it an esse in futuro. In places Aristotle has glimpses of a distinction between e)ne/rgeia and e)ntele/xeia (EP 2, 180).

The Greek words e)ne/rgeia (energeia) and e)ntele/xeia (entelecheia) in the last period of the passage above are translatable to English as respectively “actuality” and “entelechy.” In Metaphysics IX.8 (1050a22-23), Aristotle uses  energeia to speak of a possible meaning of “actuality” in a context where motion (or activity in general) needs must be conceived of as “end.” His metaphorical example is an educational context where activity and actuality can appear to merge in the performance of a student, offering teachers a potential sign of success of their own didactic achievements. In this context he has enteleceia take on the meaning of “complete reality”:

Further, matter exists potentially, because it may attain to the form; but when it exists actually, it is then in the form. The same applies in all other cases, including those where the end is motion. Hence, just as teachers think that they have achieved their end when they have exhibited their pupil performing, so it is with nature. For if this is not so, it will be another case of “Pauson’s Hermes“: it will be impossible to say whether the knowledge is in the pupil or outside him, as in the case of the Hermes. For the activity is the end, and the actuality is the activity; hence the term “actuality” is derived from “activity,” and tends to have the meaning of “complete reality”.

In New Elements of Logic (1904) Peirce notes that “Aristotle gropes for a conception of perfection, or entelechy, which he never succeeds in making clear” (EP 2, 304). He continues: “We may adopt the word to mean the very fact, that is, the ideal sign which should be quite perfect, and so identical—in such identity as a sign may have—with the very matter denoted united with the very form signified by it” (EP 2, 304). Peirce’s appropriation here in semiotic terms of “entelechy” is interesting. He equates an “ideal sign which should be quite perfect” with a unification of “the matter denoted” and the “very form signified by it.” In this case, he says, “[t]he entelechy of the Universe of being, then, the Universe qua fact, will be that Universe in its aspect as a sign, the ‘Truth’ of being. The ‘Truth,’ the fact that is not abstracted but complete, is the ultimate interpretant of every sign.” Readers familiar with Whitehead’s notion of “satisfaction” (see below, Section 2) as the final phase in the concrescence of an actual entity or occasion, with its attendant “determination as to the realisation of possibilities” in a “concrete unity of feeling,” will doubtless be able to see some degree of convergence with Peirce’s definition of the “ultimate interpretant” as that “fact that is not abstracted but complete.” In this connection, in a process perspective, where for both Peirce and Whitehead it is only hypothetically conceivable that there could be some end to the series of potential meanings that may be developed, the notion of completeness or perfection must be taken as denoting a transitory (i.e. non-eternal) phenomenon of discreteness that forms part of the narrative history of a wider, potentially unlimited process, or semiosis, in Peirce’s terms. 

In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle also speaks of enteleceia in a way that foregrounds a completion of the unification of form and matter, which is seen as satisfying or perfecting an “appropriate” telos or end. Speaking of the soul as the actuality of some appropriate body, he writes:

it is the nature of the entelechy of each thing to be in what is potentially is and in its own matter. It is clear from all this that the soul is a kind of actuality and account of that which has the potentiality to be of the appropriate kind (De Anima, II.2 = Aristotle 1986, 161-62).

Here of course we are left with the problem of how best to understand what is meant by “appropriate kind,” especially in the light of Peirce’s conception of teleology as “developmental,” and that to such an extent that even Platonic Forms can “inherit” from the evolutionary process a potential for their own development and growth over time.

2. Whitehead: Mind, Matter and Organism

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism posits a mutual reciprocity of being and becoming—a coexistent confluence of both static and process perspectives on Being—by way of his notion of “organism.” In his “speculative cosmology,”[6] process represents a living potential for the continuous emergence of discrete, transitory, relatively stable structure—in Whitehead’s terms, “enduring objects”—out of “actual occasions.” The philosophy of organism is built around a criticism of Cartesian metaphysical dualism, with its categorical distinction between mental and material substance.

If mind and matter are seen as categorically independent, one will not require the other in order to exist. Consequently, there can be no relation of continuity between two such independent substances. This lack of mind-matter continuity requires epistemological justification if we are to link what goes on in the “internal” mental environment to what goes on in the “external,” material environment. Whitehead considers such a dichotomous conception of mind and matter a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” The concepts of mind and matter are no more than abstractions from that which is continually becoming realized as actuality emerges from process. Abstractions like mind and matter may be pragmatically useful as cognitive “technologies” for thinking and making everyday judgments, but philosophically ruinous if taken to be real entities (SMW 55).

To account in process terms for the “facts” of embodied human experience, “all the way up” from the fleeting traces of presumed subatomic “particles” studied by physicists, to “enduring” material facts like mountains, deserts, pyramids etc., to biological facts like plants, trees, animals, to human beings with their different languages,  cultural practices and institutions such as science, art, religion, politics, commerce, Whitehead posits the concept of “organism.” As he puts it: “the concept of the order of nature is bound up with the concept of organisms in process of development” (SMW 73). Organism is a “full expression of process;” it “takes the place of matter,” and “the mind involved in the materialist theory dissolves into a function of organism” (SMW 193-94). He continues: “[t]he psychological field then exhibits what an event is in itself. Our bodily event is an unusually complex type of organism and consequently includes cognition.” Consciousness, or mind, emerges from material and bodily processes, and space and time become the “locus of events.” An organism is “the realisation of a definite shape or value.” An event is “a matter of fact, which by reason of its limitation is a value for itself; but by reason of its very nature it also requires the whole world to be itself” (SMW 194).

Into the categorical vacuum created by Descartes between mental and material substance, Whitehead infuses the ontological category of “actual entity” or “actual occasion,” a defining characteristic of which is that it encapsulates a continuous mutual interdependency between being and becoming, between relative stability and process, at one and the same time. “How an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the principle of process” (PR 23). Process is “the realisation of events disposed in an interlocked community” (or “nexus”). Out of process transitory stability of identity may emerge. This is fundamental if we are to talk of “structure” or “system.” Identity is manifested as “emergent enduring pattern” and becomes “fact,” through the “stabilisation of emergent achievement” (SMW 152). This is Whitehead’s way of taking philosophical account of the scientific “fact” that the complex, slow moving processes we perceive as “enduring objects” (things, bodies), appear to us as such only because we (fallibly) attribute concreteness (or substantiality) to them. Once thus “objectified,” we begin to weave attributed meanings regarding them into increasingly complex narrative and descriptive texts and “paratexts,” sometimes rising to quite absurd levels of abstraction in the process (cf. Eco 2005).

Whitehead conceives of complex enduring objects such as human beings, their societies and cultural institutions as becoming actualized as “communities” of actual occasions, or “nexus.” All actual occasions stand in relation to all other actual occasions, be they near or far in time and space, through (1) the “ingression” of eternal objects (subjective and objective) into their concrescences (a kind of growing together), and (2) through their own “prehensions” (a kind of blind “grasping” or “feeling,” without any active exercise of consciousness) of various “aspects” that derive from the concrescences of other occasions. Actual entities are spatio-temporally located concrescences that emerge when aspects of “eternal objects” (e.g. color, space, time, mathematical form) are “prehended” by the “subjective,” “feeling” character of each actual occasion. A limited number of eternal objects enter into any given actual occasion as prehended “aspects” of these. As concrescence proceeds, a portion of the latent potential of possibility, actuality and purpose in the cosmos is in the process of becoming realized. Each process of realization in an actual occasion is thus a value in itself, since it is the “attainment” or “satisfaction” of some of this greater latent potential. Higher, complex organisms (like human beings) have developed an active consciousness of this potential, and of their own potential value in this connection, and they are also empowered to think, speak and behave in many different ways because of this self-consciousness.

3. Peirce: Mind, Matter and Synechism

Peirce’s philosophical strategy for “naturalizing” the conceptual gap between Cartesian mental and material substance is a key element in his pragmaticism that he terms synechism—the doctrine of continuity of being in experience. In Immortality in the Light of Synechism (1893), Peirce introduces synechism as follows:

The word synechism is the English form of the Greek sunexismo/j, from sunexh/j, continuous. For two centuries we have been affixing -ist and -ism to words, in order to note sects which exalt the importance of those elements which the stem-words signify. Thus, materialism is the doctrine that matter is everything, idealism the doctrine that ideas are everything, dualism the philosophy which splits everything in two. In like manner, I have proposed to make synechism mean the tendency to regard everything as continuous […]. I carry the doctrine so far as to maintain that continuity governs the whole domain of experience in every element of it (EP 2:1).

Synechism is grounded in the evolutionary cosmology developed by Peirce in the 1890’s,[7] by building on the idea that the evolution of the cosmos represents a general teleological drift towards a “growth of concrete reasonableness.” The guiding idea is of a gradual emergence of ordered matter from initial disorder, as “effete mind,” as clusters of “lawfulness” in the cosmos, actualized in their becoming “habits” through iterative forms of activity. This in fact sounds quite like Whitehead’s notion of “concrescence.” Peirce’s idea of cosmic telos is not that of a process moving inexorably towards a predetermined, stable perfection as its end. His teleology is a “developmental” one (Hausman 1993), since spontaneity or “chance” always plays an important role, since it allows for the continuing possibility of unpredictable novelty and growth in the cosmos in an indeterminate future.

Peirce argues that our minds are particularly well adapted through evolutionary selection to interpreting and understanding the world. It is this adaptation that has paved the way for our present knowledge, both acquired scientifically and otherwise. But we cannot be certain that our current adaptations to the world will remain eternally functional, since the chance element in evolution makes it impossible to predict how things will actually turn out in the long run. This is why we need a coherent theory of cosmic evolution to ground a normative theory of inquiry that is able to take account of chance, to help us develop an idea of what sorts of laws we might reasonably expect nature to follow in the longer run. If successful, this theory will offer conceptual tools for coping with the emergence of unpredictable novelty in an indeterminate future. Synechism lies at the core, built as it is around a (mathematically inspired and logically justified) doctrine of continuity between mind and matter. The physical universe is seen as “effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws” (EP 1, 293). The “creative,” “feeling” aspects of evolution facilitate the spontaneous emergence of “habits” into (natural) “laws” that govern the creation and consistent “behavior” of physical matter in nature. This behavior—i.e. the “properties” or characteristics normally associated with physical matter—is observable and can thus be studied and documented by science.

But such cosmic habit-forming processes, Peirce conjectures, can hardly be radically different from those underlying our own thought processes as we attempt to fix our beliefs as mental habits allowing us to behave reasonably, and to conduct ourselves consistently over time. The three logical patterns—of hypothesis (or “abduction”), deduction and induction, which correspond respectively to Peirce’s three phenomenological categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, and which lead to the formation of new habits of thought and thus new knowledge—must be similar to those cosmic patterns that lead the universe (to which we belong as particular instances) to create order, or “concrete reasonableness,” out of pure chance. The indeterminacy of pure chance, of which the developing universe is the most positive example, correlates with the vividness of feeling of human consciousness, and the degree of consciousness of each single being is correlated inversely with the degree to which its mind is ruled by habit, and thus concretely reasonable. The real world is the “universe of mind and matter,” real objects are aspects or elements of the mind-matter continuum that have “taken habits” and assumed specific forms.

The universe is slowly evolving towards greater concrete reasonableness out of a continuum of pure feeling, in itself indeterminate. This occurs as initial, spontaneous breaks in the continuity of feeling constitute concrete instances of a novel generalizing tendency. This generalizing tendency “wants” to repeat itself, even though it is initially a result of an unlimited, arbitrary variation of primal feeling. But once this tendency to repeat (i.e. to take habits) has appeared, there will be an increasing tendency for it to perpetuate itself. Peirce hypothesizes a general evolution of the cosmos from Firstness (pure feeling) through Secondness (actualities that repeat themselves) to Thirdness (relational lawfulness as habit). Since the universe is not subject to the same evolutionary selection and the struggle for survival that human beings and animals are, there must be some further purpose directing the evolutionary process. Peirce calls this an “agapastic development of thought […] distinguished by its purposive character, this purpose being the development of an idea” (EP 1, 369) To explain agapé, Peirce invokes St. John’s statement “God is love,” and takes the example of an idea that he himself cherishes and helps grow:

It is my creation. It is my creature […] it is a little person. I love it; and I will sink myself in perfecting it. It is not by dealing out cold justice to the circle of ideas that I can make them grow, but by cherishing them and tending them as I would the flowers in my garden. The philosophy that we draw from St. John’s gospel is that this is the way the mind develops; and as for the cosmos, only so far as it yet is mind, and so has life, it is capable of further evolution. Love, recognizing germs of loveliness in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely. That is the sort of evolution which every student of my essay “The Law of Mind” must see that synechism calls for (EP 1, 354).

Conceptually speaking, Whitehead’s treatment of teleology in cosmic evolution has much in common with that of Peirce, though it is broached in somewhat different terms. His discussion of such themes is framed by his conception of an intimate, inherently reciprocal relationship between God—a “unity of vision seeking physical multiplicity”—and the World—a “multiplicity of finites, actualities seeking a perfected unity.” God and World are seen as being in a mutually interdependent cosmic dance with one another constituting an unlimited “creative advance into novelty.” As we can see from the citation below, Whitehead’s “ultimate metaphysical ground,” which he equates with this “creative advance into novelty,” seems very close in tenor indeed to Peirce’s synechism, which intimately links the evolutionary process to an agapastic development of thought:

Opposed elements stand to each other in mutual requirement. God and the World stand to one another in this opposed requirement. God is the infinite ground of all mentality, the unity of vision seeking physical multiplicity. The World is the multiplicity of finites, actualities seeking a perfected unity. Neither God, nor the World reaches static completion. Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty. Either of them, God and the World is the instrument of novelty for the other (PR 348-49).

4. Traces of Process and Continuity in Contemporary Semiotics

In Semiotics and the philosophy of language, Eco characterizes semiotics as a philosophical discipline that takes as its main object of study “the whole of human signifying activity—languages—and languages are what constitute human beings as such, that is as semiotic animals” (1984, 12). Semiotics, he says, “studies and describes languages through languages” (1984, 12). It is “a philosophy of language, which stresses the comparative and systematic approach to languages (and not only to verbal language) by exploiting the result of different, more local enquiries” (1984, 8). In Eco’s view, the principal epistemological presupposition for general semiotics is that when we begin to ask general questions about human signifying activity in the past, present or in the future, we must always be aware that each act of questioning will influence the future course of the selfsame signifying activity being studied. Semiotics, then, like all other scientific disciplines, is constantly transforming itself and its own object of study as a result of its own epistemological, methodological and terminological assumptions (1984, 12).

Five years earlier, in A Theory of Semiotics, Eco presented a provisional, unified research model for a discipline “concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” (1979, 7). Since a sign, by Peirce’s definition, is anything that can be taken to stand (significantly) for something else—which, Eco adds, does not necessarily need to actually exist—this implies too, that semiotics “is in principle the discipline studying everything that can be used in order to lie” (1979, 7). He envisions over time a diversification of a then “disordered” field of semiotics into a vast range of more structured research sub-fields, or “specific semiotics,” all of which aim to deal with negotiation of meaning with different types of signs in different types of cultural contexts, as inferentially based communication and signification processes. Each specific semiotics must develop specialized methodologies and grammars to describe the semantic/pragmatic codes and systems that allow the interpretation and use of different types of signs in different contexts. If a specific semiotics is to aspire to be (or become) a science, it must, says Eco, like any other science, regularly address epistemological issues, and “posit its own theoretical object according to criteria of pertinence” to “account for an otherwise disordered field of empirical data” (Eco 1984, 5).

In positing general semiotics as an “improved” philosophy of language concerned with the systematic, unified study of all possible ways in which meaning can be created, negotiated and interpreted inferentially in all cultural contexts and semiotic modalities, Eco is aligning himself with Aristotle’s argument that being is best understood as that which may be “said in many ways” (cf. Eco 2000, 9ff). Indeed, he claims that all “good” philosophies of language—and here he cites as examples Cratylus, Plato, Aristotle, Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Cassirer, Wittgenstein and Russell (but not Whitehead[8])—have always tried to take account of all possible ways of “saying” being, and have thus been operating in semiotic terms. This is why contemporary philosophies of language that claim to be able to focus exclusively on verbal language, delegating the study of signification and communication processes in semiotic systems other than language, to specialized sub-domains of other sciences are somehow missing the point, he argues. General semiotics must continue to take as its principle object of study all types of cultural processes from which meaning can possibly emerge, and it must always attempt to understand these cultural processes as communication processes that depend on an underlying system of significations (Eco 1979, 8). In his view, in order to legitimize itself as an “improved” philosophy of language, general semiotics must continually address at least three main epistemological problems:

(1) Can many apparently different phenomena be treated as if they are all potential cases of signification and/or communication?

(2) Can a unified approach account for all semiotic phenomena as rule-based systems?

(3) Can a unified approach to semiotic phenomena be scientific?

The second problem, whether a unified approach can account for all possible semiotic phenomena as rule-based systems, is a quite central one for semiotics. In Eco’s approach, the notion of “rule-based system” is much closer in tenor to the event- and process-oriented metaphysics presupposed by Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, than to any form of linguistically inspired metaphysics based on propositional logic (see Eco 1979, 37, 90; 1984, 167-88; and Eco, Santambrogio & Violi 1988, 3-22). The notion of “rule” in general semiotics is embedded in a broad process conception of systemic, correlational and institutional codes that emerge initially in some socio-cultural context as potential new “habits” as concrete instances of use of language (or any other semiotic system), that over time, in replicating themselves and gaining form in other situations, become “conventionalized.” In semiotic terms the code is a “rule that controls but allows, gives the possibility of inventing beyond itself, by finding new paths, new combinations within the network” (Eco 1984, 187). It is “not only a strict germination of systems, or a correlation, but also a system of inference” (1984, 187). Formal analytical models based on truth functions that “anchor” language to world via intension and extension, are of little use here (Eco, Santambrogio & Violi 1988, 20-21). Definitions developed in propositional logics can only refer to binary values of “true” or “false.” These cannot cope with the continuous change and variation in the “grey” areas of semantic meaning that may emerge in the rich “soup” of semiotic potential represented by contemporary cultural, material and individual diversity.

For Eco, meaning is a “cultural unit” (1979, 66ff). Meaning derives from living people and their various practices in connection with what they say and do together in their different communities. It is culturally evolved codes, or “the Code”: those rules that “move” us (Eco 1984, 188), that lie at the very heart of his hypothesis of a “global semantic universe,” or “global encyclopaedia.” Eco envisions the semantic universe as pragmatically organized in terms of a Peirce-inspired “infinite semantic recursivity,” or “Model Q,” an “n-dimensional model of semantic space” (Eco 1979, 121ff). But the idea of actually creating and describing such a global semantic structure completely must always “remain a mere regulative hypothesis” (1979, 128). It must be seen as an infinitely expandable, dynamic, multidimensional relational, rhizome-like labyrinth, capable of storing and managing all conceivable tokens of cultural meanings, together with all possible configurations of pragmatic instructions necessary for their (re)insertion, (re)use and (re)interpretation in any conceivable kind of context. Signs of all kinds, which can be conceived of, experientially speaking, more or less in the same vein as Whitehead’s “actual occasions,” grow and change their meanings from context to context, “mutating” from tokens to types and back again in the process, which requires, in its turn, that in any “encyclopaedic representation, semantics must translate into its own terms most of the phenomena studied by pragmatics” (Eco 1984, 69).

In process terms, Eco’s “regulative hypothesis” of a global semantic structure could be seen as a complex organism in itself, as an ever-open and growing “community” of “actual occasions” where novel aspects of ideas in nuce in continuing concrescence “feel” a flow of prehensions of one another as they grow and change: a truly “open work” (Eco 1989), with a unlimited multitude of “empirical” and “model” authors and readers (Eco 1984), mindlessly and untiringly incorporating and making available for innovation and recycling, all the novel meanings, and the rules that make their pragmatic use possible, that have emerged, and continue to emerge, from any concrete instance of signification and interpretation in any historic period, any cultural context, anywhere in the world.

Implicit in such an encyclopaedic conception of the global semantic universe is that any attempt at a complete description or analysis of the “structure” of the whole system is always “at risk,” since it will be subject to constant pressure from historical, cultural and social factors—novelty and invention in the arts, literature, the pure and applied sciences, technology and engineering, and last, but not least, from the “critical erosion to which it would have been submitted by the analysis itself” (Eco 1979, 128). But semiotics, says Eco, “must proceed to isolate structures as if a definitive general structure existed; but to be able to do this one must assume that this global structure is simply a regulative hypothesis and that every time a structure is described, something occurs within the universe of signification which no longer makes it completely reliable” (1979, 129). It is this continual need to deal epistemologically and pragmatically with the fundamental ontological imbalance and instability characterizing cultural negotiation of meaning, that puts semiotics in the same boat as scientific disciplines like physics, he emphasizes. The physical and biological sciences must operate with epistemological and methodological tools able to cope with the dynamic, processual character of physical reality at its most ephemeral and “discrete” at the atomic and subatomic levels, in the face of extreme indeterminacy and complementarity. The same is also true of semiotics. It must therefore develop an awareness of its own limits and avoid aspirations to absolute forms of knowledge. Only then can it consider itself a scientific discipline (Eco 1979).

On the basis of this first, rather crude first attempt at a synthesis of possible convergences between Whitehead, Peirce and Eco’s metaphysical world views, we might perhaps venture to conceive of our contemporary globalizing cultures, too, as living organisms where inherent synechism and process are aspects of a relentless negotiation and renegotiation of meaning, full of potential conflicts and attempts at conflict resolution, of loving and hating, understanding and misunderstanding, and perhaps even forgiving each other from time to time for our “fallibilism” or “fallacies of misplaced concreteness,” when we see only barriers, vacuums and voids where there is really only continuity and process that we all can tap into and take part in. Indeed, if we are able to constantly sharpen our (self-)critical gaze, we may all perhaps manage to see how, all the time, small “islands” of relative, temporary stability, with new visions and hopefulness emerge into view and then dissolve away again, as ever new sides of conflicts in progress, new knowledge, new ideas for new ways of living and “speaking being” together come into being, and then pass away into history. If we are only able to “feel,” and “prehend” at least some of the very best of these, nurture them and help them grow into even more “enduring objects,” into more “concrete reasonableness,” then much good can probably be won all in the long run.

In any case, what is important to remember—what Plato, Aristotle, Peirce, Whitehead and Eco each in their own way manage to teach us—is that the myriad shades of meaning created, exchanged and negotiated in our rapidly globalizing cultures at any given time may never be said to be dealing with absolute truths or falsities in any “objective” sense, only with a few of the many possible ways we have for “saying being,” all more or less in concord or discord with one another, and all potentially subject to further growth and development—albeit within certain interpretational “limits” (Eco 1994) posited by the “resistances of being” (Eco 2000, 50-56)—at least as long as we can manage to “log on” to some of the creative potential and drive inherent in the “actual occasions” of “organism” and in the “unlimited semiosis” of “synechism.”


[1] Peirce coined the term “pragmaticism” to distinguish his philosophical position from that of William James, a former student of Peirce and known as one of the founders of pragmatism. Areas of disagreement between Peirce and James include free will, continuity and evolutionary theory. I build here in part on a recent article (Coppock 2005), which examines key themes in process philosophy in relation to general semiotics and systemic functional linguistics; cf. Coppock 1997.

[2] Peirce had degrees in philosophy and chemistry, and considerable first-hand experience of empirical work in astronomy, geodesy and metrology. For much of his professional life (from 1859 to 1891) he worked at the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Apart from four years (1879-1884) teaching logic at Johns Hopkins University, Peirce never held a tenured academic position. Whitehead, often described as a mathematician who evolved into a philosopher, spent his entire working life in academia, first in England—in Cambridge University, University College London and Imperial College London, where he was also involved in teaching educational reform. He later emigrated to the USA when offered a chair in philosophy by Harvard University, where he wrote Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality.

[3] In this article the acronym “CP” is consistently used to denote both components of the eight volume collection of Peirce’s writings: Peirce (1931-35) and Peirce (1958), while the acronym “EP” is used to denote both components of the two volume collection: Houser & Kloesel (Eds.) (1992).

[4] Peirce’s main criterion for ranking a science as theoretical is its degree of abstractness. This was the same criteria used by Comte, Peirce’s inspiration in this matter, and also by Whitehead (SMW 34).

[5] See also Eco’s discussion in Kant and the Platypus of “the sense of the continuum” (2000, 52-56).

[6] PR’s full title is Process and Reality: An Essay on Cosmology.

[7] Peirce’s cosmology is presented in five articles in The Monist: The Architecture of Theories (1891), The Doctrine of Necessity Revisited (1891), The Law of Mind (1892), Man’s Glassy Essence (1892) and Evolutionary Love (1893). Another particularly representative article, A Guess at the Riddle (1887-88), was never published (EP 1, 245-79 and 285-371).

[8] Eco has told me in conversation that he is well acquainted with Whitehead’s philosophy, since when working as a senior editor at Bompiani, he commissioned the Italian translation by Nynfa Bosco of Process and Reality.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Aristotle. 1986. De Anima (On the Soul), translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London, New York, Victoria, Toronto & Auckland, Penguin Books).

Coppock, Patrick John. 2005. “Systemic Functional Linguistics, Semiotics and Philosophy of Organism: Part of the same project?” in Semiotics from the North: Nordic approaches to systemic functional linguistics, edited by Kjell Lars Berge and Eva Maagerø, Eva (Oslo, Novus Press), 23-34.

Eco, Umberto 1979 [1976]. A Theory of Semiotics (Indianapolis, Indiana University Press).

Eco, Umberto 1984. The Role of the Reader (Indianapolis, Indiana University Press).

Eco, Umberto 1991 [1984]. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (London, Macmillan).

Eco, Umberto 1994. The Limits of Interpretation (Indianapolis, Indiana University Press).

Eco, Umberto 2000. Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition (London, Random House).

Eco, Umberto 2004. “Para peri epi, e dintorni in un falso del XVII Secolo,” Paratesto, 1, 137-44.

Eco, Umberto, M. Santambrogio, and P. Violi (eds.) 1988. Meaning and Mental Representations (Bloomington, Indiana University Press).

Hausman, Carl R. 1993. Charles S. Peirce’s Evolutionary Philosophy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Houser, Nathan & Christian Kloesel (eds.). 1992. The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writings. Volumes 1-2 (1867-1893) (Indianapolis, Indiana University Press).

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1931-35. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vols. 1–6, edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1958. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vols. 7–8, edited by Arthur W. Burks (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

Scotus, Duns. 1903. The Seven Systems of Metaphysics.

Author Information

Patrick J. Coppock
Department of Social, Cognitive and Quantitative Sciences
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy

How to Cite this Article

Coppock, Patrick J., “Pragmaticism and Semiotics”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.