Semiosis in the Postmodern Age. By Floyd Merrell. Purdue University Press 1995. 374pp. ISBN 1557530556.
Signs Grow: Semiosis and Life Processes. By Floyd Merrell. University of Toronto Press 1996. 356pp. ISBN 0802071422.
In the preface to Semiosis in the Postmodern Age Floyd Merrell, in a bit of autobiographical triangulation, traces his being "hooked on signs" (xi) to an original "dabbling in Peirce" that led to a cover to cover reading of the Collected Papers. His audacious and problematic treading of the "radically cross-disciplinary trail" in pursuit of the "evasive sign" (xi) is exemplified in the trilogy under consideration here, which is built, not intentionally, I think, on a paradox. In spite of his conviction that "semiotics cannot be that great pretender offering a science of sciences" or "a theory to end all theories" or "the ultimate method and set of analytical tools," (xi) Merrell comes dangerously close to trying to carry out just such a project. This is all the more surprising since Merrell explicitly says that "such pretension could not but end in sham" (xi). That he has nevertheless devoted three massive, rich, and deeply disturbing books to "the entire semiosic whirlpool" (Merrell 1996: 243), ransacking materials from a wide range of disciplines, indicates that he thinks he has avoided such a hyperscientific or metascientific theorizing, although even the most persistent and open-minded reader may find himself perplexed at times.
Merrell claims to be following Peirce's "incessant ransacking through the rubble of human thought in pursuit of the sign" (Merrell 1995: xiii). Accordingly, the scope of these three volumes is exceedingly broad, with an extensive, and at times envious, range of references. We find discussions (Merrell calls them "my exploratory incursions" (Merrell 1996: xi), at varying levels of technicality and clarity, of the semiotic pertinence of quantum physics and quantum logic (especially the work of Patrick Heelan), cell biology, the foundations of mathematics, the psychology of consciousness, linguistic theory, aesthetics, social and cultural theory, logic, epistemology, the philosophy of science, literary forms and literary theory, and a vast assortment of subsidiary themes, topics, and problems. The semiotic and philosophical discussions in general rely quite heavily, and perilously, on categories taken from scientific positions. The scientifico-philosophical projects of David Bohm, Archibald Wheeler, Ilya Prigogine, and numerous others play central roles in Merrell's explorations, as do those of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela on "autopoiesis and cognition" and on the "biological roots of human understanding." A cursory glance at the references to the three volumes will show that the trilogy emerges out of an overlapping, but not identical, set of materials and on practically every page of these three books we find attempts to attach the matter at hand to specific sources. No intellectual debt goes unacknowledged. Consequently, the trilogy supplies a deep vein of empirical, conceptual, and theoretical ore for readers to mine on their own for confirmation as well as for continuation, expansion, or correction of Merrell's dialogically based inquiries.
Merrell's main project in all three books is to chart the interlocked contexts -- physical, biological, epistemological, logical, social, historical, aesthetic, cultural -- of semiosis as well as the contexts of semiotics.
The physical contexts of semiosis encompass both physical processes themselves and the sciences that deal with them: physics and its indispensable tool, mathematics. Merrell devotes many pages to discussions of the philosophical and semiotic implications of the quantum revolution in physics. The development of quantum mechanics put an end, he argues, to all attempts to map a subject-free universe or subject-free access to Reality. Bohr's (Kierkegaard inspired) principle of complementarity, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Schrödinger's famous cat, Bohm's dialectic of implicate and explicate orders, Wheeler's physics as meaning, and Prigogine's development of the notion of dissipative structures all enrich as well as model the participatory and self-involving processes of our knowledge of nature. There is no way to leap over our speculative instruments and mediating organs to grasp the Real in itself. Merrell thinks the end-result of a semiotic meditation on the implications of quantum mechanics is a recognition that we only attain, under human, finite conditions, the semiotically real, that is, the real as mediated to us in the web of sign-functions in which we are embodied or embedded. Reality becomes 'reality as known.' Being=being known or being able to be known by a community of inquirers in the long term. This is the essentially Peircean position that there is in itself no uncognizable reality.
Merrell's discussions of the physical contexts of semiosis recur throughout all three volumes, with different emphases and with different degrees of explicitness and clarity. There are many useful summaries of the problem of particle/wave duality (Bohr), the impossibility of a simultaneous determination of the velocity and position of an elementary particle (Heisenberg), the indeterminacy of physical states of affairs prior to the act of observation (Schrödinger), the intrinsic relatedness to consciousness of space-time events on a cosmic scale (Wheeler), the physical conditions of the rise of consciousness itself as an 'unfolding' or 'explication' of an 'enfolded' or 'implicate' order (Bohm) or as an 'emergent' property of non-linear processes (Prigogine). The summaries are challenging, and they give body to the interwoven epistemological notions of participation, interpretation as 'seeing as,' embodiment, virtuality, framework, abduction and discovery, objectivity, and so forth, that appear throughout the trilogy. Merrell's account of the physical contexts of semiosis culminates in the notion of the physical conditions of possibility of open systems, exemplified in the revolutionary work of Prigogine (perhaps, after Peirce, Merrell's intellectual hero), which make possible on the ontological level emergence of higher-order structures, including the higher-order structure that doubles back on itself, the field of consciousness itself. On this view, consciousness is an emergent property of cosmic processes and condition of the possibility of our knowledge of these very properties. The reflexivity of consciousness is a cosmic semiosic phenomenon and of cosmic significance. Merrell sees this clearly and persistently and connects it with the logical theme of self-reference, exemplified for him in perspicuous fashion in the fictions of Borges, whose philosophical and semiotic import he rightly illuminates.
The physical order itself, however, is known by a distinctively configured biologically structured organism, living in its own semiotically defined Umwelt or surrounding semiosic field. Merrell is dependent on the work of Jakob von Uexküll, whose (1940) is both a source and a model for his own investigations. Biological systems, from tbe cell to the multi-celled culturally situated organism, are defined by the production and reception of signs and their 'worlds' are functions of the systems of filters that they both are and avail themselves of. The defining characteristic of the biological order is its ability to replicate itself and reproduce itself over time, an ability to pass on information and structure. Biological processes mirror in this respect semiosis in its 'bootstrapping' nature. Just as signs and sign systems feed on other signs and sign systems, in an unending spiral of new structures arising from old, so, following the work of Maturana and Varela, Merrell foregrounds the notion of autosemiopoiesis, the meaning-making and the self-making as meaning-making that drive biological processes to higher and higher levels of complexity until they reach the socio-cultural-historical level. The biological organism is both an embodiment of and a source of meaning, defined by 'information' and by its ability to 'cut' itself off from what is not itself, that is, to introduce 'negation' as self-signifying difference into cosmic processes. In this way Merrell is able to connect, without reduction, the logical to the biological. Bio-logic is a semiotic logic, exemplified in the genetic code, with each organism being an interpretant of the code, and passing on in its turn the 'informing information' that makes up its reality to its successors, with greater or lesser degrees of noise and loss of pregnance. Merrell's (1996) is devoted explicitly to 'semiosis and life processes,' to self-mediating structures and processes. The biotic and the semiotic are shown to be identical in nature, if not in scope, for especially on the human level biosemiosis goes over into culturally defined semioses, which rely not on the gene but on the meme, the encoded cultural unit.
The rise of consciousness and self-encoding and self-reflecting structures is a temporal process. Organisms, which are born and die, are time-binding entities situated in spatial fields. Merrell rightly connects the dynamic structures of consciousness with the multiple structures of space and time and he has extensive, elaborate, and not completely helpful discussions and schematizations of space and time and of the space-time matrices in which sign-using organisms are embedded. Following up some hints from process philosophy (especially Hartshorne) and from Peirce, Merrell thinks that we are best defined in terms of self-appropriating events and processes, rather than of substances, and that we are loci or points of intersections in a space-time continuum. In this sense we are transient 'cuts' in a self-unfolding cosmic drama or play, which is without foreseeable goal or end or ultimate pattern. This is the postmodern theme in Merrell's work, to which he has a most ambivalent relationship, for he does not reject in practice the grand narrative. His books, in fact, exemplify them. He does, however, accept the loss of foundations, the lack of some sort of epistemological bedrock. In line with the essential trajectories of Peirce's work his own project is eminently fallibilistic, a set of probes, hypotheses, models, and schemata meant to uncover the groundlines of semiosis in all its breadth and depth.
The epistemological and logical contexts of semiosis are given persistent examination in all three books. The pivot of Merrell's epistemology is the notion,already mentioned, that the real for us must always mean the semiotically real. Semiotic closure, our being suspended within "the semiosic gush of things" (Merrell 1995: 133), is both the ineluctable premise and conclusion of Merrell's investigations. There is no 'outside' defined in non-semiotic terms. Merrell, following Peirce, Popper, and Polanyi, affirms the centrality of abduction or hypothetical inference and offers rather extensive discussions of the creative leaps that drive semiosis onward. Abduction is interpretative synthesis and is paradigm-atically displayed in all acts of 'seeing-as,' which Merrell, relying on N.R. Hanson, uses to model discovery in the sciences in particular and in all cognitive transactions in general. Seeing-as 'releases' figures from grounds, which are themselves intricate webs or systems which are not thematically attended to. Merrell argues that the field of grounds that enables semiosis and which is itself of a semiotic nature become tacitly appropriated as we become more and more 'embedded' in it. Merrell rightly avails himself of Michael Polanyi's theory or model of tacit knowing to clarify the 'enfolding' of explicit knowledge and learned abilities in (and into) a tacit framework, though I do not think that by any stretch of the imagination we can equate 'embedded' with, as Merrell puts it, "automatized (that is, Polanyi's tacit knowing" (Merrell 1996: 92).
Merrell gives us numerous insightful and at times startling discussions of the various processes involved in the polymorphically stratified and semiotically defined cognitional appropriation and construction of the world. Knowledge, Merrell rightly affirms, is multi-stratal in that it is constituted by an arc that goes from perception to the highest reaches of abstraction in the physical and mathematical sciences. Take, for example, the following illuminating type of observation with respect to the often discussed Necker cube (which contains the Polanyi allusion of the preceding paragraph).
Regarding our Necker cube, certain features of experience, given our perceptive faculties, are important... Our conscious awareness of time depends on the fact that our minds operate by successive acts of attention: percepts come in packets, in quanta. On the other hand, experience appears to be in general linear. Only with difficulty can we attend simultaneously to a visual and aural piece of information, though attention can switch from one to the other in fraction of a second. Granted, two distinct activities can sometimes be combined into a single performance. Playing a drum with both hands, playing the bass drum with one foot and snare drums and symbols with the hands, juggling a few oranges while playing a harmonica, and playing a guitar while vocalizing a piece of music are prime examples. These are learned abilities, however. They become possible only when at least one of them has become embedded , automatized (that is, Polanyi's tacit knowing. (Merrell 1996: 92)
Merrell, following Bohm, gives a deep and insightful account of such phenomena in terms of alternation between, or actualization of, superposed possibilities. Thus, the epistemological peculiarities of quantum mechanics, one of the guiding clues to Merrell's investigations, are found at the very level of perception. The micro-level and the macro-level are shown to have the same structure -- one of Merrell's main themes -- and to exemplify the same processes and to teach the same epistemological lessons. Semiosis is the actualization of both a sense and asemiotically real state of affairs, the only kind of state of affairs accessible to us. This is not an idealism tout court but in fact a kind of critical realism in the semiotic mode, a consequence of the fundamental principle that there is nothing 'outside' the play of signs, though secondness, the 'outward clash,' constrains all our cognitional and existential efforts.
Merrell is well-read in the psychological literature and sees its semiotic import. Perception, for example, is shown to be both an instance of semiosis and an exemplar, and in fact Merrell's project in effect fuses bio-logic and psycho-logic into a compound bio-psycho-semio-logic. As sign-producing and sign-interpreting organisms, as ourselves 'signs becoming signs,' we are not to be defined in terms of purely 'mental' and 'incorporeal' principles or activities. We are organized and self-organizing bodies whose every dimension is defined by sets of relations and 'differences that make a difference,' a definition of information. Merrell's universe is a universe of information, a universe informed by meaning, and we are ourselves meaning-informed beings. The drive toward meaning on the organismic level, where pragmatic concerns dominate, is continued at the highest realms of abstraction, instantiated in mathematics and mathematical physics. Merrell struggles mightily to show how these two maximally formal and abstract disciplines both model and 'stop time,' both in the algebraic and the geometrical mode. The formal systems of arithmetic, geometry, algebra, the calculus, and so forth, Merrell is at pains to point out, are semiotic instruments that both 'cut' the processual flows of the universe into distinct units and display, all at once in a formal symbolism, their structural relations. Merrell schematizes the complex relationships between process and structure, the concrete and the abstract, with extensive citation of and allusion to accessible technical literature.
Merrell exploits several powerful images or metaphors to describe the scope and nature of semiosis. He takes great pains to utilize Peirce's notion of a 'book of assertions' to model both semiosis as such and the self-unfolding of the universe out of an undifferentiated state. The original 'blank book' is inscribed both by semiosis and by cosmic processes themselves, which are self-inscribing, characterized by a deep and universal reflexivity and recursivity. The 'marking' or 'cutting' of a 'surface' gives rise to 'difference' and Merrell exploits for all it is worth Peirce's great image of making a first mark on a blank chalkboard and then the continuous re-marking of the board, which is accordingly 'differentiated.' This notion is extended to the emergence of difference, structure, and relation in cosmic processes, and Merrell follows Peirce's practice in tying a phenomenological and formal account of semiosis to cosmological speculation. It is not altogether clear just what motivates the speculation, whether Merrell sees an independent confirmation of the universality of semiotic categories in scientific phenomena or whether indeed scientific phenomena, and the categories needed to 'account' for them, lead ineluctably toward or demand reformulation in semiotic terms. Just as we find with Peirce, semiotic and ontological categories are fused, pass into one another. One of the central claims of Merrell's trilogy is that the Peircean triad of firstness, secondness, and thirdness encompasses semiosis and cosmogenesis at the same time.
Merrell is certainly right in seeing a parallel between the rise of differences,relations, and laws in the realm of signs and the 'growth' of the universe, in certain spheres, toward greater and greater differentiation, complexity, and order. This is the main message of Prigogine's work on dissipative structures and the 'overcoming' of chaos by emergent stable structures, whether of life from physical processes, psychic processes from vital processes, intellectual processes from psychic processes, and valuational processes from intellectual processes. Merrell has drawn attention to the essentially stratified character of the universe and to the reality of 'emergence' while trying to find a way of modelling the relations of emergent levels to one another and at the same time maintaining, in line with Peirce, an essential synechism. The cosmic dance of chance and law has given rise to a complex self-referring universe which is not able to grasp itself as a totality. Merrell is accordingly intent, on practically every page, to avoid "heretical totalization, perverse abstraction" (Merrell 1996: 285), in line with his acceptance of the postmodern assertion of the irreducible primacy of context. There is no absolute and final context, no ultimate higher viewpoint. Semiosis is explicated from within and we are always within different sets of moving, self-moving, and historically defined contexts. "As the context goes, so also the sign" (Merrell 1995: 193). One might ask, not too agressively, what context makes Merrell's own investigations possible.
The problem of consciousness and its place in the play of signs is a central theme in Merrell's trilogy. It appears in multiple guises and under multiple models. Merrell ranges from the work of Matte Blanco on consciousness as infinite sets, to Dunne's analogy of the nesting Chinese boxes, to Royce's famous map paradox, in which a map of a territory would include itself as a map mapping the territory, which would include itself...and so forth. Merrell makes much of Gödel's work as well as that of Bohm and Wheeler especially to illustrate features of the field of consciousness as such and its qualitative and formal uniqueness. Consciousness is formally recursive, able to double itself, caught in an unending spiral of interpretant signs that have no greatest upper bound. Consciousness is a widening gyre, a vortex of sign functions, whose ultimate telos is a virtual one. It is a wandering self-reflexive hole in being, constituted by temporally associated events of meaning. Merrell rightly sees a kind of confluence between process philosophy, with its severe critique of the metaphysics of substance, and the deepest philosophical insights of the Buddhist tradition, based on the critique of a substantial self. Consciousness in Merrell's analyses is approached, then, from multiple points of view, by means of multiple models, and in multiple contexts. Although Merrell claims that there is a kind of loose progression in the trilogy from firstness (volume one), to secondness (volume two), to thirdness (volume three), the problem of consciousness is central to all three volumes and, on Peircean principles, consciousness cannot be understood without the simultaneous advertence to all the categories. While admittedly we can prescind, for the sake of analysis, from all categories but one and foreground a single one, "thirdness pours in on us through every sense" and it is thirdness that defines semiosis, which is what the trilogy is all about. I wish Merrell had been a bit clearer about this.
Merrell speaks in a number of chapters about the socio-historical and cultural contexts of semiosis, especially in his discussion of the work of Baudrillard and of Deleuze and Guattari and of the whole configuration of issues grouped under themodernity/postmodernity label. I found his discussion of Baudrillard unsatisfactory and lacking bite, it never being clear to me, from Merrell's text, just what the precise point was nor just what the exact nature of his criticism of Baudrillard (who certainly can be severely criticized) was. It is clear that postmodernism has seen something important about the deep logic of socio-historical processes in a world defined by industrial, science-based technologies and hyperactive technologies of information and the image. The displacements attendant upon such new productive forms, and the productive relations built upon them, are profound and they penetrate into our most fundamental concepts and values, taking root at the deepest levels of our affective relations to ourselves and to the world. The displacement is from 'thing' to 'sign of the thing' and we find ourselves consuming signs rather than the 'realities' to which they point, which in their functional logic disappear in the whorling circulation of objects and bodies transformed into signs and symbols. However, this displacement, which is a kind of semiotic alienation, is a permanent possibility of all consciousness and is exacerbated by non-semiotic factors and conditions.
Deleuze and Guattari are shown to be helpful in establishing the universality of difference in the processes of self-formation and in the play of meanings and senses in society. Merrell's books themselves exemplify something of the nature of the rhizome that plays such a role in Deleuze's and Guattari's thought. This image of a branching system of roots is a valuable heuristic device for helping us to understand the dynamic, growing nature of semiosis, its exploratory and organic nature, and its unforeseeable twists and turns. The web of signs is no clearly constructed spider's web but a kind of labyrinth of nodes, connections, branchings, gropings in which we find ourselves becoming ourselves and out of which we can never fully emerge, even if we are, as self-interpreting animals, 'emergent' event-defined unities. Merrell's own post-modern commitments come to the fore not just in the themes treated in the trilogy but in its very format: a set of semi-independent, yet interlocked, chapters that give a variety of 'takes' on 'what there is,' namely, a 'perfusion of signs.'
As to the cultural contexts of semiosis Merrell is more focussed on the 'meaning' of culture than on the 'meanings' of culture. This is in keeping with his fundamentally formal interests. It is the logic of cultural processes that have his attention, not the actual processes themselves. This is not, in itself, an unsatisfactory or unacceptable way of proceeding. The cultural contexts are themselves embedded in physical, biological, psychological, and socio-historical contexts but they are structured by 'memes' and not by genes. Memes, and memic structures, are carried forward and embodied in sign systems of all sorts. Accordingly, one of the central tasks of Merrell's trilogy is to chart the logic of signs, understood as a typology of signs, which he does at many different places. Here Merrell functions primarily as a commentator on Peirce, with an almost fanatical profusion of diagrams and figures, a feature of the trilogy as a whole. Not all of the figures and tables are helpful, though many are. It is good to see the many analytical categories lined up and correlated, first of all in order to be able to re-identify them and secondly to see relations that otherwise would be hidden or at least overlooked. Such procedures are in accord with Peirce's own practice and his own commitment to diagrammaticthinking, but the diagrams can only be as helpful as the insights they schematize are genuine or grounded. Table 7 in Merrell (1996), for example, sharply polarizes 'experience' and 'intellect.'
In a kind of gloss on this table Merrell comments, provocatively, but not altogether felicitously, "Experience is one-dimensionally Heraclitean; intellect is n-dimensionally Parmenidean" (1996: 130). This is certainly true under one interpretation: the intellectual feat of abstraction, which Merrell foregrounds in his trilogy, sorts experience into a 'block' of relations, stopping the flow of consciousness in one simultaneous 'grasp' or 'view.' The turn to algebraic and geometrical systems of representations enables us to display -- all at once -- a complex structure or a structured process of development, even if the 'reading' or formulation of the symbolic representation takes time, the time of the mind, bionootemporality, which is supported by symbolic systems of all sorts. Merrell discusses in (Merrell 1996) the relevance of the sorely neglected work of James Bunn on the dimensionality of signs, tools, and models at some length. The connection with Merrell's theme is a strong one. Consciousness arises through the development of sets of supports or exosomatic organs which not only give us access to the semiotically real but also constitute this real, which comes into existence along with the supports. One must not talk of these extensions of the mind as if the mind were in some way able to dispense with their use and creation. The mind is defined in term of stratified processes of semiosis and on both the individual and social level is both generative source and out-come of the signs upon which it relies and which define its distinctive 'spaces' of meaning. It is the different internal 'grammars' of signs, their own distinctive dimensionalities, that 'bias' us. Merrell follows Bunn's schematization in terms of 1-D, 2-D, 3-D, and 4-D signs and sign systems. This enables him to compare spoken language, planar signs, signs in the round, including scale models, and processual signs. Each of these sign types has a specific heuristic fertility and cognitive and world-building power. By pouring ourselves into them, 'embedding' ourselves in them, in Merrell's terminology, we become one with them and, through them, with the world. The 'world' then becomes eo ipso polydimensional or, to use the Peircean metaphor, polymelodic. Looked at this way, I am not so sure that we should utilize any framework that looks upon experience and intellect as neatly divided.
Merrell could have made more out of the notion of embodiment, especially in light of his many references to the work of Michael Polanyi. Polanyi's analysis of skills and his development of the revolutionary distinction between focal and subsidiary awareness are not adequately exploited by Merrell nor, in fact, fully understood. For example, one cannot group together, as Merrell does (Merrell 1995: 142-143), the notions of the nonconscious, the involuntary, and the tacit. Nor can one draw parallels, without deep qualifications, between the "transition from generality to vagueness," the movement from "knowing that to knowing how ," the movement from " focal to subsidiary awareness," and the movement from "symbolicity to iconicity." It is not clear what it would mean to move "from" the focal to the subsidiary since Polanyi clearly points out that such attending to subsidiaries is a form of destructive analysis and that sense-giving involves "endowing" subsidiarily attended-from particulars with meaning, a act or process of creating a whole with anovel 'focus,' and what iconicity has to do with the 'subsidiary' or 'knowing how' is not made clear. In his (1995: 310n4) Merrell rightly speaks of a connection between implicit and explicit knowledge and knowing how and knowing that but the distinction between the tacit and the explicit and between the focal and the subsidiary is not identical either in nature or scope with these prior definitions. Perhaps Merrell is thinking of some connection with the category of firstness, or of quality, but I do not see how this fits either. What to Merrell looked like a real connection turns out to be forced or at least very unclear. At the same time he is right to assert that Peirce saw an essential tacit component in sign processing (Merrell 1995: 311n20). He cites the following text from MS 1476.
Every mental representation, in the widest sense, everything of cognitive character, is of the nature of a sign. "Representation" and "sign" are synonyms. Now the purpose of a sign is that it shall be interpreted. The interpretation of it is again a sign. So that the whole purpose of a sign, as such, is to determine a new sign; and the whole purport of a sign lies in the character of its intended interpretation. But in order that a sign should produce another sign, it is necessary that it should in some sense (not necessarily in this or that technical sense, but in some sense) influence or act upon something external to itself. It is only in doing so that it can get itself interpreted. Consequently, the whole purport of any sign lies in the intended character of its external action or influence. This external influence is of different kinds in different cases. Some signs are interpreted or reproduced by a physical force or something analogous to such a force, simply by causing an event; as, sounds spoken into a telephone effect variations of the rate of alternation of an electric current along the wire, as a first interpretation, and these variations again produce new sound vibrations by reinterpretation. Another case is where a sign excites a certain quality of feeling, simple or complex, which quality of feeling is a sign of anything that partakes of it, as the sound of this word "red" may make us imagine the color red.
Merrell then comments in a simultaneously insightful and perplexing way: "In this sense, the sign's push for its self-interpretation and for its passing away into another sign is also part and parcel of the sign-user's being compelled to intermingle with it, to become one with it, thus leading to a tacitly derived interpretation, which entails seeing as and knowing how " (Merrell 1995: 311-312n20), that is, cognitive processes that are not under full conscious or self-conscious control. Semiosis defines the total range of mind, at all levels, as Peirce noted in his famous 'consciousness is a bottomless lake' passage. Criticizing Dan Nesher's work, which Merrell claims focusses almost exclusively on self-consciousness and "self-controlled and rationally and logically meaningful cognition" (Merrell 1995: 320-321n8) and is only one side of the picture, Merrell sustains, rightly in the literal sense of the term, that most of the process of semiosic generation remains tacit. Then, in a later note (Merrell 1995: 321n4) he remarks that for him "tacit knowledge invariably exercises its force, as evidenced by Peirce's nonconscious immediacy of Firstness, Polanyi's tacit knowing, Wittgenstein's language games, and Hanson's mediated seeing as-that , to mention only a few cases." Are these 'cases' really the same? Do they exemplify the same structure or point? While I readily admit that they are all valid and important concepts I am not convinced they belong together in this way.
Merrell remains fundamentally within the Peircean schemata for constructing the typologies of signs. It is very familiar territory by now and Merrell's taxonomic and diagrammatic predilections, which he shares with Peirce, are given full rein (and, if I may say so, full reign), although, as he notes, "I would by no stretch of the imagination suggest -- nor would Peirce if he were alive today, I presume -- that a typology of signs could attain the rigor of the typology of the chemical elements" (Merrell 1995: 314n14). But the division of signs for Peirce was 'logical' and based on the categories and thus gave rise to a systematic classification scheme, which, while static in itself, was embedded in dynamic processes of sign generation and sign interpretation. Bunn's very different typology, using dimensionalities as the base of classification, cuts across the Peircean types. Certainly other forms of classification are also possible, depending on the analytical context. One could, for example, distinguish affective, motoric, perceptual, symbolic sign systems, or use the classificatory schemata developed by J.H. Randall in his marvelously synthetic essay, "An Empirical and Naturalistic Theory of Signs, Signification, Universals, and Symbols" (Randall 1958: 237-270). The explication of the Peircean taxonomies is a helpful feature of the trilogy, as is the parading of many of the most ringing and famous passages from the Peircean corpus of writings. They display the many intellectual interests of Peirce and of Merrell, their polymathic drive to grasp the "logic of things." One thing leads to another and before one knows it one is almost lost in the labyrinth.
In spite of the comprehensive scope of Merrell's investigations and their substantial sophistication, there are a number of puzzling features of the trilogy that make one wonder whether Merrell has as firm a grip on the issues as his range of references indicates.
I have already noted Merrell's tendency to see connections and parallels where it is questionable they really are, as in his highly ambiguous and incompletely realized use of Polanyi's work. But in light of Merrell investigations into the logical and formal structures of semiosis, exemplified not just in mathematics, logic, and mathematical physics but also natural languages, it is perplexing to see him write, even allowing for the context, that "natural language is actually as deceptive as it is destructive" (Merrell 1991: 148). While it is true, as Umberto Eco put it, that semiotics studies everything we can use to lie with, nevertheless Merrell is not always sufficiently far in his practice from a hermeneutics of suspicion in the Nietzschean mode. "The vicissitudes of symbolism," Merrell writes, "of language, are, so to speak, of the sign's own making: language, the human semiotic animal's sign system par excellence" (Merrell 1991: 151). It must, he claims, be embedded in the "concreteness of everyday life" and not "mummified in abstractions" (Merrell 1991: 151).
A summary passage from Aldous Huxley, cited by Merrell, encapsulates the point at issue:
Without an instrument of symbolic expression and communication we would be Yahoos, lacking the rudiments of civilization. It is because he starts by being Homo loquax that man is capable of becoming Homo sapiens . But this is a world in which everything has to be paid for. Language makes it possible for us to be more intelligent and better behaved than dumb brutes. But whereas the dumb brutes aremerely bestial, we loquacious humans, who can talk ourselves into pure reason and almost angelic virtue, can also talk ourselves down into being devils, imbeciles, and lunatics. (Merrell 1991: 151)
Merrell appears to agree with a non-apocalyptic version of the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, rejecting a merely conventional relation between language, or formal system, and reality. I say "non-apocalyptic" because in light of the overarching principle of semiotic closure "reality" cannot be either defined or accessed independently of signs and sign functions and accordingly it is, in effect, axiomatic that the "world" or "reality" is correlative to our means of signifying it and of expressing it. But Merrell seems to at times long, in the most ambiguous and perplexing manner, for a kind of immediacy or immediate knowledge that ill befits his semiotic theses and premisses, as in his opposition of symbolic (representational) to intuitive (intimate) knowledge, a position taken from Schrödinger.
Glossing Schrödinger's comment that the notions of model and picture for the conceptual constructs of science became current in the second half of the nineteenth century, Merrell writes in a most revealing passage:
"Model" or "picture" for the constructs of science, "representation" for art and philosophy, "denotation" and "reference" for logic and language, are at the outset, as symbolic (i.e., linguistic) formulations, at least at one remove from the concrete world of (immediate) experience. If this were the end of the story, perhaps the labyrinth would be two-dimensional instead of many-dimensional. But the tale goes on. As symbols accumulate, it is not simply that we are no longer dealing with the world itself; we eventually lose awareness that we are no longer doing so. The forest, so to speak, replaces the trees, and what we deludedly take to be the trees are mere shadows. The symbols are about symbols about symbols...about nothing at all. The shadows are identified with that longed-for "reality," and attention is glued to the abstracted movements on the walls of the cave with the belief that "reality" is thus understood at its lowermost level. There is no longer any awareness of that other mode, Peirce's felt or sensed qualtitative intimacy with immediate experience, which, though it cannot be represented symbolically, is more in tune with the universe (Merrell 1991: 157)
The "semiotic power of symbolicity" enables us to break away from the "thingness" of things but at the same time, Merrell fears, it can easily go off on a "tangential tap dance, constantly threatening to drag us along with it. Thus Schrödinger's observation that our artificially contrived symbolic knowledge is of a shadowy character, which is, to repeat, both the bane and boon of symbolicity" (Merrell 1991: 159). Our major means of self-defence is to recognize multiple "semiotic paths toward the 'real'" (Merrell 1991: 163), which Merrell schematizes in fundamentally Peircean terms. This is, Merrell notes, a "semiotically real" journey, "though the inconceivable end of the road is that union of all opposites, the 'real'" (Merrell 1991: 159). If semiotically defined mediation is a universal condition of all access to reality, I find it less than satisfactory to oppose the symbolic and the intuitive as Merrell has a tendency to do. If we hold to Peirce's essential thesis that the mind is a sign developing according to the laws of inference it makes no sense to make such an opposition. Peircean semiotics goes to great lengths to undercut such a way oftalking about things.
Merrell speaks on scattered occasions about the aesthetic contexts of semiosis but it is hard to locate any systematic and developed position on the nature of art as a semiotic phenomenon. He does touch upon the semiotic aspects of the development of linear perspective, the nature of 'fictions' as augmentations of our paradoxical and often self-reflexive sense of reality (exemplified in stimulating ways by the work of Borges), and, to be sure, the extensive treatments of the category of firstness, of quality, in Peirce's and others' work bears upon the distinctiveness of the aesthetic. But there is no one place in the trilogy that gives a tightly knitted and systematically framed account of the aesthetic dimension and its connection with symbolicity and with the general semiotic model of mind that Merrell is concerned to limn in the books. This is all the more surprising in that Merrell explicitly says that "since romanticism we can hardly disregard aesthetic matters" (1996: 139) and one cannot say that he does. But the discussion is diffuse, unfocussed, and rather unmotivated. Aesthetically formed semioses are among the most important paths to the real that we have. They enrich the field of consciousness by setting up new ratios among its felt qualities, in the process rescuing us from a worldview in which, to use Whitehead's words, "nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly" (cited in Merrell 1996: 139). The great and persistent goal of Merrell's trilogy is to counteract such an image of nature and of our place in it. Aesthetically defined semioses belong paradigmatically to the great class of abductive inferences. They not only discover and foreground already existing relations but they also bring them into existence. They are part of that great creative advance into novelty that marks the reality of process and the process of reality.
Merrell's trilogy is a remarkable attempt to "see connections," which Wittgenstein thought one of the essential tasks of philosophical reflection. Working my way through the three volumes I constantly saw a parade of materials that I was familiar with in other contexts. Famous passages from Peirce and many others appear in new situations and the notes are chock full of references to exciting sources. The deepest motivation behind the trilogy is the critique of mechanism and of binary thinking. Such a critique is meant to lead us to a new picture of ourselves, to a new model of knowing and of human development, and to a new approach to the various discourses of nature and of culture. Merrell makes us think about ourselves in the deepest of ways. In the course of the trilogy some of the hardest topics of human life are passed in review, and there is no way the reader can run away from them.
Merrell's trilogy succeeds as a seriation and collocation of topics and problems. This is its greatest achievement: it identifies what we are to talk about when we talk about semiosis. It shows the universal scope and relevance of semiotic analysis and of semiosis itself, which is grounded in the very processes of natura naturans . It is epistemologically engaged and relentless in its confrontation with 'hard questions. Merrell's discussion oscillates between analytical and compact descriptions of a wide range of positions and the drawing of their 'semiotic points.' But the trilogy has a kind of free-association quality to it. There is, in fact, little argument in the books and they are, in spite of the many-faceted discussions, not really expository. Perhaps it is best to call them 'ruminations' or 'schematizations.' Moreover, the trilogy'sgreatest strength is also paradoxically its greatest weakness. The admirable drive to see connections is almost drowned in a sea of hedges, qualifications, and dubious, if not downright false, parallels and correspondences. On practically every page, where highly technical issues are mooted, we are deluged by a flood of such expressions as "as it were," "somewhat typical of," "somewhat reminiscent of," "somewhat like," and so forth. Seeking 'correspondences' between widely separated domains is an intellectual adventure and a theoretical challenge, but it is only as helpful as it is precise, and not merely technical. I think that Merrell's trilogy is more technical than precise.
Consider a typical passage.
Quite obviously, then, Wheeler's "physics as meaning" entails an asymmetrization of things, the creation ultimately of differences that make a difference. And it involves primarily the semiotically real, that which is made meaningful by being put to use by someone for some purpose or other. The semiotically real, as Umwelt , is mind-stuff more than matter-stuff. The mind is a participator, says Wheeler. As mind is, matter may become; and as matter is, mind once was, says Peirce. In this sense, mind does not mutilate "reality," as certain Hindu traditions would have it. Mind participates with, and in the process creates or invents, its semiotic reality by selecting and bringing about an unfolding of difference from the nonselective and unfolded. Thus the triad of possibilia , semiotically real, and knowledge (description-interpretation) is tantamount in this respect to Firstness (brain, feeling, seeing), Secondness (consciousness, seeing as , knowing how , action and reaction), and Thirdness (the product of mind, of consciousness of, of seeing that , and knowing that ). Only at an obstinate snail's-pace have we come fully to realize the fundamental unity that this triad constitutes. United the three legs stand; divided, and the entire pyramid falls (Merrell 1995: 253-255).
The second part of this text, with its correlations of the Peircean categories, ruins the first part. It is forced and garbled. At other times Merrell even tends to think of firstness, secondness, and thirdness as distinct types of signs, when they are actually components of all signs, which are always thirds, and it is not correct to assimilate abduction to firstness, as Merrell often problematically does. It would take a gargantuan effort for the reader to extract from the trilogy the actual contribution Peirce makes to the inquiry. Formally, however, one can safely say that Peirce is (a) goad and stimulus, (b) source of key organizing schemata, and (c) participant in the ongoing dialogue carried on in the trilogy.
Merrell's three books are books of intellectual images, books of analogies, not books of argument. I have not undertaken to summarize them, and I am pretty sure that Merrell could not either. This is a merely a statement of fact and not necessarily a criticism, although in some respects it could be. There are, to be sure, many truly profound insights contained in the trilogy and many provocations to engage with the subject matter. But, in general, one has very little sense of where the books are going, and I, for one, did not find the strange conflation of high technicality and folksy tone appealing. The titles, headings, and subheadings are enticing at first glance, but border on the rhetorically precious. In the last analysis there is no sharp conceptual framework or set of categories that define the inner spaces of the trilogy. The books bear witness to Merrell's indefatigable research and have all the marks ofthe context of discovery. But it is extremely difficult to grasp a red thread, if, in fact, one exists, since the books proceed not quite by a widening gyre but rather by a kind of ebb and flow or oscillation. Suspended as he is in a kind of diagrammatic matrix Merrell runs the constant risk of giving in to "hazy topologies of the mind" (1991: 223), a danger he does not always avoid. But the trilogy is an honest and serious effort that displays a real "piety of thinking" and a strong dose of intellectual courage.
The combination of an extensive collection of materials and their attempted creative correlation marks the distinctiveness of the trilogy, which intends to disassemble at every level the isolated mind, the very idea of which is the product of a "cultural nominalism." The intrinsically dialogical nature of Merrell's project parallels the "logical socialism" that marks a Peirce-informed semiotics and theory of culture. No rugged individualist, Merrell is a thoroughly conversational and cultured being and we can apply to him and his project what Hartshorne affirmed in a text cited by Merrell (1991: 170-171).
For what is culture if not certain things which individuals do to themselves and other individuals? But all parties were assuming "identity" through time as unproblematic. To add "culture," as identical -- though also changing -- through time, to the individuals as also persistent changing identities is not sufficient. What is really "in the last analysis" there in social reality is neither culture nor individual people, but certain rather highly-ordered sequences of events characterized by the high level of symbolic functioning and creative freedom that is found on this planet only in those event-sequences which we call human beings...
Our whole Western tradition is warped and confused by the concept of individual taken as ultimate. The results are ethical and not just theoretical...The individual who now acts creatively is not simply I, or you, but I now, or you now. I yesterday, you yesterday, did not enact and can never enact our today's actions; only today's selves can do that. And since there is a new agent each tenth of a second or so, the actual momentary freedom cannot be very large. At a given moment, we are almost entirely a product, not a producer. And what productive power we have would be totally vacuous without inheritance from past actions, our own and those of countless others.
Merrell's books fully acknowledge their inheritance. Following the lead of Wittgenstein, his work consists in a double project: "making a drawing of the flower or blade of grass that has grown in the soil or another's mind and putting it into a comprehensive picture" (Wittgenstein 1980: 19). The comprehensive picture is somewhat blurred and, in light of Merrell's postmodern commitments and practice, perhaps not even attainable, as it was not attainable for Wittgenstein. But did not Wittgenstein also say of his own work, what I think Merrell would want said of his own? "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own" (1958: x). Such is the challenge issued by these books.
ReferencesRandall, John Hermann (1958) Nature and Historical Experience . New York: Columbia University Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958) Philosophical Investigations . Translated by G.E.M.Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1980) Culture and Value . Edited by Georg Henrik von Wright. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Robert E. Innis is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His books include Karl Bühler: Semiotic Foundations of Language Theory (Plenum 1982), Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology (Indiana 1985), and Consciousness and the Play of Signs (Indiana University Press 1994).
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