In his description of "the pragmatic imagination", Alexander (1990:325ff) argues that what saves the pragmatism of Peirce, James, Mead and Dewey from positivism is their affinity with ‘the creative,the temporal and the experimental dimensions of experience’. I want to draw some consequences from Alexander's thesis, whose import I share, namely the attribution to this philosophical current not only of the joining of meaning and action, but also, in Alexander’s (1990: 325, emphasis added, F.A.) own words, ‘a recognition of the importance of a mode of understanding whereby the actual was reinterpreted and reconstructed in the light of the possible’.
My discussion on the importance of the human imagination in the semiotic of Peirce will follow a double track. On the one hand, I will describe the relevance that Peirce ascribes to the human imagination in his semiotic writings. In order to do that I will use as a sample some of his texts published between 1878 and 1903. In this by no means exhaustive corpus, the semiotician considers in some detail the purport of the imagination in connection with belief and with the conformation of new habits, within the pragmatic frame. On the other hand, I attempt to elucidate to which specific concept of semiotic theory the imagination corresponds best. To accomplish this goal, I will make use of a rather controversial term, namely the semiotic "ground" – which is presented here as the keystone of the Peircean analytical account of the human imaginative faculty. After I had worked through many of the ideas I will discuss here, I found out that my own position concerning the semiotic ground has what I believe is a considerable affinity with the theoretical elaboration developed in the work of the Peircean scholar Corrington (1993, 1994), whereof more later.
Lastly, I will try to bring out the kinship between this semiotic account of the imagination with a concept drawn from the venerable metaphysical building of the Stagirite, a notion which constitutes a central portion of the insightful analysis that French exegete Aubenque (1962) makes of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The notion alluded to is that of the "ascending mimesis," defined by Aubenque (1962:402-11) as the teleological force which guides the human world. This particular kind of mimesis governs mankind in its endless pursuit toward the truth, construed as the supreme good. Thus I wish to do justice to the specific importance of one of the three normative sciences presented by Peirce, namely, esthetics, construed as ‘possibly the first propedeutic to logic’ (CP 2.199), being the latter equivalent to "semiotic", according to the logician of Milford. By means of this discussion, I hope to demonstrate that it is not exaggerated to talk about a "revolution", as Alexander (1990:326) does, when one evaluates historically the theoretical integration of imagination and rationality, of esthetics and action, such as it was done by Peirce and the other pragmatic thinkers referred to by Alexander. Based on this radical revision of the imagination, I aim to describe with some degree of accuracy which is the theoretical place that corresponds to this human faculty wthin the Peircean semiotic, and in our own life.
2. ON THE IMAGINATION IN THE PRAGMATIC OF PEIRCE: THE IMAGINARY TRIP OF A SEMIOTICIAN ON A RAILWAY STATION WITH ADVERTISEMENTS
| [E]very man who does accomplish great things is given to building elaborate castles in the air and then painfully copying them on solid ground. (CP 6.286)|
The image of Peirce as a pioneer is a commonplace in the secondary literature. The semiotician himself uses it in an often quoted description of his own scientific endeavours as those of a "backwoodsman" of the theoretical and philosophical overgrowth that he found in his way to laying down the foundations of semiotic as a new discipline (CP 5.488). It is not frequent, however, to think of Peirce in terms of a pioneer of the quite recent academic field of marketing, or more specifically of the systematic study of advertising. Yet that is, in fact, what the philosopher seems to be doing, on a certain day towards the end of the nineteenth century, while he is at a train station. Or at least that is what the protagonist of the story which Peirce tells us on that particular occasion appears to be doing. In order to kill time, while waiting at a railway station, this man does not think of anything better to do than to start fancying about the advertising posters that he finds there. These advertisements depict ‘different trains and different routes that [he] never expect[s] to take’ (CP 5.394). The question we might posit at this point is what kind of impact does this act of musement have in our life, and what is it its specific relevance in the theoretical building of the semiotic?3 Its importance is by no means slight, if we are to judge from the particular placement of this Peircean parable-like narrative: it is included under the title of ‘Pragmatic Maxim’, in the justly celebrated article "How to make our ideas clear". In the albeit controversial birth certificate of pragmatism from 1878, Peirce opposes this sort of "feigned hesitancy" to a real doubt concerning the kind of behaviour we are to adopt in life, either in something quite trivial, such as the choice between paying for the price of the fare with five coins of a penny or with one of five cents (CP 5.394), or in far more serious dilemmas such as those which cause considerable restlessness in every day life or in scientific inquiry. Directly, Peirce underlines the importance of this imaginative activity in the formation of a habit, that is, in the subsequent consolidation of a conduct or belief, which may be used, much later, and with full efficacy, for the attainment of palpable and even admirable effects in life or in science.
In the passage from which the epigraph of this section was extracted,4 the topic is the material base of the mental, the logical bond between the two realms. Peirce believes in the existence of a seamless continuity between mind and matter, the latter being the same as the former but in a solidified state, almost devoid of all elasticity and capacity to feel. Nevertheless, from the perspective of the doctrine of synechism,5 both mind and matter are capable of taking habits, thus the two may become predisposed to reiterate on a future occasion a path already followed in the past, and in this way they are capable of increasing their generality and, thereby, the semiotic lawfulness of the universe. This is the point where imagination and the acquisition of new knowledge and of new forms of future action come together:
[...] there is a preponderance of cases in which the path of spreading [of protoplasm] is the same as it had been the last time that a similar stimulation of the same point occurred, or as it had been in the majority of cases. The nerves are particularly ready to take and to change their habits. (CP 6.280-281).
This passage ends with a description of a more complex level of animal conduct, that which is involved in attaining pleasure and avoiding pain, if we grant Peirce’s view that there is ‘a feeling of pain at every breaking of a molecule, and a pleasure at every recomposition of such a system’ (CP 6.284). To a creature it would appear as if ‘this pleasure, or the anticipation of it, were the cause of his acting in one way rather than in another’ (ibid.). Then, the text analyzes the way in which humans beings deal with possible situations within what Peirce calls elsewhere "the Inner World" (CP 5.474), and which he describes here as human "fancy".6 Such situations we can then transform into beliefs and, finally, into habits endowed with real consequences, that is, those elements which are, writes Peirce (CP 8.191), "external" to the sign itself. It is worthwhile to consider some concrete instances of these so called "inward actions" (CP. 6.286) or "inward efforts" (CP 5.479) in some detail. The speculation about imaginary trips or railway itineraries may have the effect of helping us to actually carry out this action, at some, still undetermined time in the future. Readiness is all, as it will be seen in my next example, one which involves the speculative and practical imagination. In a similar fashion to Aristotle in his treatise on the imagination,7 Peirce extends this human faculty beyond the human world, so as to include the animal domain at large, where imagination also exists, at least in a rudimentary way.
3. FROM AN IMAGINARY ACCIDENT TO A REAL SAVIOUR
The incident with which I will deal now is part of Peirce's twenty-five year long meditation upon the imagination - from 1878 to 1903. This episode must have caused a strong impact on the young Peirce, because he narrates it, at least, twice in the material included in the Collected Papers. And Peirce even introduces a narrative variation in one of the occasions he relates it: there is a change in the cast of characters who appear in the story. In one case, the chronicle of the domestic accident involves, as a protagonist, Peirce's mother, and in the other, a neighbor plays that central role. Let's go now to the very place of the narrated events.
In the longer version, separated by only one year from that narrative which reappears with the above mentioned modification in its plot, and which is presented as a footnote, it is the mother of Charles Peirce who appears as the victim of a negligence which could have been fatal.8 The logician's mother, we read,
. . . spilled some burning spirits on her skirt. Instantly, before the rest of us had had time in order to think what to do,my brother, Herbert, who was a small boy, had snatched up the rug and smothered the fire. We were astonished at his promptitude, which, as he grew up, proved be characteristic. I asked him how he came to think of it so quickly. He said: "I had considered on a previous day what I would do in case such an accident should occur". (CP 5.538, c. 1902)
The conclusion that Peirce draws from this minor incident reaches far beyond the mere anecdote material: in the narrated event the bond between imagination and action stands out unmistakeably. It is a kind of relationship whose main effect is to increase the generality of the world. In the answer that Herbert gives him, and even before that, in the boy’s very reaction, Peirce (CP 5.538) believes to find an instance ‘of the act of stamping with approval, [of] "endorsing" as one's own, an imaginary line of conduct, so that that it shall give a general shape to our actual future behavior.’ The semiotician calls such an act "a resolve". Those ‘airy nothings’ which are our dreams, writes Peirce (CP 6.455) elsewhere, echoing Shakespeare, do bear real fruits in the external world. I find an interesting parallelism between the "resolve" to act in a certain way, via the imagination - a disposition which should not be confused with the individual will - and the Stoic opposition taken up by Aubenque (1962: 402) between the Greek term "télos", with its ‘sense of purpose, of project’, and the term "skópos", defined as ‘a personal goal’, in the sense of a voluntary and individual act. The telic element presupposes the vision of the achieved (to téleion), the intervention of the normative sciences, of self-control guided by a shared, community esthetic, ethic and logic, and not the merely personal impulse. One may say it is the same phenomenon considered from two different perspectives. More on this point later.
In the family incident referred to above, we witness a remarkable conjunction of the two worlds in which ‘we live’: ‘a world of fact’ and ‘a world of fancy’ (CP 1.321); there is the entrance of ‘the unexpected’ (CP 5.539), and the unending imaginary work that allows us not only to play, but also to get ourselves ready for what may occur (or not). In this manner, Peirce accounts for our earnest consideration of what has not yet happened. It is thus that we are capable of transforming what is only a possibility into something real, as a virtual dramatic game or a rehearsal which prepares us, whether we are conscious of it or not, to handle future, potential situations. Maybe this imaginative leap is the sole element which truly separates us, human beings, from the other creatures. For instance, from a frog that reasons with its body. Even when decapitated, upon receiving a drop of acid, a frog will react with a spasm that, Peirce (CP 6.286) states boldly, may be construed as a conclusion of the living syllogism which is the frog's body:
A decapitated frog almost reasons. [...] All that is of any value in the
operation of ratiocination is there, except only one thing. What he lacks
is the power of preparatory meditation.
This analysis of the imagination conceived of as an act of ‘preparatory meditation’ for our action, takes us back to the Aristotelian reflection on the necessary conjunction of imagination and desire in his treatise On the Soul. Of the former faculty, Aristotle says there is one kind which we share with animals, this is the "sensitive" imagination, and there is another kind which is characteristic of human beings, and Aristotle (III, 10, 433a 25 - 433b 25) calls it the "rational" imagination. To talk about "the desirable" and of the esthetic, in the sense that Peirce (CP 2.199) gives to whatever pertains to the said normative science, brings both thinkers closer in a decisive way. For the decapitated frog, every esthetic consideration is already, genetically, inscripted in its body, so to speak; the frog's "reasoning" is therefore infallible. In the case of a human being, the fact that his/her imagination is guided by the telos of reason, by the ever growing semiosis, leads him/her, writes Aristotle (III, 10, 433a25) ‘to be right or to be wrong’ in his or her reasoning. Desire and the desiderative faculty - tó órexis and tó orektikón, respectively - as they are analyzed by Aristotle (III, 10, 433a 10) do presuppose that kind of imaginative meditation which is previous to every action. We should bear in mind that in such context, the Stagirite talks about a "practical intelligence" pitted against the theoretical one, while Peirce (CP 5.538) chooses as the title of the section in which he reports the feat of his brother Herbert the phrase "Practical and theoretical beliefs".
We are entitled, therefore, to talk, as Alexander (1990:335ff) does in connection with the pragmatic analysis of life and of meaning, about an ‘enlarged understanding’ of any situation, whose reality, here and now, would thus be constitutively surrounded by a penumbra of possibilism, of ‘roads not taken’. Such is precisely the effect of the imagination on human action. To grasp a situation so pressing and threatening as, for instance, a house fire, not necessarily renders what Alexander (1990:338) describes as the ‘extended environment’ of the imagination useless. On the contrary, thanks to that possibilist leap, an unexpected solution is found, one which is completely unheard of, a fresh way out of that crisis which seems to confine us, in a claustrophobic manner, with the relentless oppression of its blind insistence.
The traveler on his railway platform who imagines himself making journeys that he does not plan to actually make, as he observes the advertisements that announce them, a boy who dreams awake about becoming a possible saviour of somebody who has not yet suffered an accident like the one which then, indeed, happens, and the people who dedicate their daily efforts to scientific endeavours and who have to consider professionally as possible some states of the world, if and only if certain conditions were to occur, all of them give a real endorsement to ‘an imaginary line of conduct’. Now I need to introduce the theoretical and semiotic concept which, in my opinion, can be used to achieve a better understanding of the working of the human imagination.
4. A CONTROVERSIAL GROUND FOR THE SEMIOTIC TRIAD
While no one in the community of Peircean scholars seriously entertains any doubt concerning the validity of such notions as the three coenoscopic categories which are dealt with ‘the science of phaneroscopy’ (CP 1.284), or the theoretical legitimacy of the three logical components of the semiotic triad, that is, object, sign and interpretant, this is not the case when it comes to the concept of "ground". This is a notion that emerges quite early in the theory of Peirce,9 and, which then reappears, albeit in a sporadic though noticeable way, three decades later, in one of the most often cited definitions of sign (CP 2.228), which dates from 1897, and which I here give . In this definition, the representamen is said to be ‘connected with three things, the ground, the object, and the interpretant’ (CP 2.229). Thus, Peirce aims at delimiting or specifying the type of representative function carried out by a sign; its purpose is not, he explains, that of representing the totality of the object, but of representing the object only "in some respect or capacity" (CP 2.228). I shall now give in full length the said definition from 1897:
A sign or representamen is something which stands to somebody in some respect or capacity. [...] The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen. (CP 2.228)
I ignore if this is ‘Peirce's best single definition of a sign’,10 but for reasons I give below, I disagree with Sheriff (1994:49), the scholar whose opinion I have just quoted, when he goes on to state that the ground notion which reappears after quite a long time in Peirce's writings, ought to be construed as equivalent to ‘Wittgenstein's concept of language games’.
Essentially, there are two contrasting positions in the secondary literature concerning the theoretical import, or even the legitimacy of the notion of semiotic ground in the work of Peirce. One position objects to it vigorously arguing that this concept is either a juvenile sin or, in the best of cases, an imperfect accomplishment, that is, a symptom of the immaturity of the theoretical development of the early Peirce. The other position defends the validity of the semiotic ground because it construes it as a notion of equal importance as the others referred to above (object, interpretant, etc); the motivation for doing so is the theoretical bearing of this concept as a component of the semiotic model. My own stance in this respect corresponds to the second position, i.e., to the acceptance of the ground as a basic notion on a par with the semiotic triad. To justify my conviction, I will now consider the relevance of the ground for a better understanding of the purport of the human imagination. Before formulating this idea in more detail, I deem it necessary to introduce, in a synthetic manner, the two antagonistic theoretical positions. I will do so by presenting the arguments of scholars from both fields.
A review of Short (1986) of some of the most representative papers presented in Amsterdam, at the Peirce Bicentennial International Congress includes a discussion which I find typical of those scholars who are firmly opposed to including the ground concept in the semiotic. For Short, the notion of ground is, if I may say so, discardable, a concept which had some explanatory value to the first Peirce, the one of "On a New list of Categories", so as to introduce his model of human understanding, but one which later, writes Short (1986:107), in his maturity, Peirce replaced by the technical expression ‘relation of sign to object’. For that reason, Short identifies the ground with the three ways in which a sign may reveal its object: the well known triadic division of ‘icon, index, symbol’. Without adopting such a belligerent attitude toward this Peircean concept, the definition of the ground proposed by Savan (1976:11) does resemble somehow that proposed by Short. Savan thinks that the ground is not to be mistaken with the sign construed as a semiotic vehicle. The latter, according to Savan (1976:10), has got ‘many characteristics, most of them irrelevant to its specific sign function’, while the ground of the sign is precisely ‘that specific characteristic which is essential to its functioning as a sign’.
From the group of semioticians who are in favour of including the ground in the semiotic theory as a central dimension for describing the process of semiosis, I choose the work of Liszka (1996:20-21) as a good representative thereof. This Peircean scholar describes the ground as one of four ‘general formal conditions of signs’, the one which Liszka (1996:18) calls "the presentative condition". In clear opposition to the analysis of Short, for Liszka (1996: 117 n.7) the ground ‘is the presentation of the object’, and he concludes that it is such a ‘presentation [which] makes representation possible’. In other words, in Liszka’s account, the ground is theoretically related to the "how" of the semiosis process, it has to do directly with the manner or way in which a sign does come to represent its object, when it does, and not with the process of establishing the bond between sign and object. It is worth remarking here that Liszka uses the same sign definition from 1897 (CP 2.228) quoted by Short, but Liszka does not regard the ground as a sort of oddity in the theoretical vocabulary of Peirce at that later period, or as a mere discardable phase in the evolution of the Peircean thought on signs. On the contrary, Liszka takes the ground to be an important achievement in that theoretical journey. In order to support this way of understanding the notion of ground, construed as an angle or perspective from which we get to know to reality via the sign, Liszka (1996:20 n5) mentions an interesting description of the semiotic ground which he extracts from the dissertation of Prower (1986:27ff), and which is worthwhile quoting at some length here:
. . . a superordinate, abstractive, selective semiotic principle which regulates the valuation and selection of linguistic elements by making pertinent [...] only those predicates of a sign's object which are relevant to the signifier of the sign.
If we only leave aside the restriction to the linguistic domain made by Prower in the above cited passage, his conception is actually quite close to that of Nesher (1984), a scholar who analyzes the ground from two different though angles, and whose work on the semiotic ground also belongs to the affirmative position concerning its significance in the Peircean model. First, Nesher (1984:309) considers the ground as ‘a formal condition for the meaning of the sign’, and also as ‘a mental presentation’, instead of a ‘mental representation’, as Eco (1981:183ff) puts it in his attempt at an analysis of semiosis which includes the ground, an approach which elicits the strong criticism of Short (1986:108-109), in the above mentioned review. Second, Nesher (1984:303-324) analyzes the purport of the ground in connection with cognitive theory. He relates thus the concept of the Peircean ground to some current studies on human perception, particularly to the work of Neisser (1967; 1975). According to these cognitive studies, concludes Nesher (1984:312), the semiotic ground ought to be linked with
Th[e] process of selection is called by cognitive psychologists filtering, and by others, attention. The functor of this process is called by Neisser schemata.
We could summarize the thesis of Nesher about the ground by means of a paraphrasis of the title of a classic work of sociology: the ground is that element which makes possible "the presentation of the (immediate) object in everyday life".11 How is it that we come to grasp something in some (particular) way, how do we ever get to confront the inner or outer world in some manner, if the facets of any portion of reality are inexhaustible? The ground is the logical device that allows us to avoid that haunting element of the wholly ungraspable or inconceivable, which is the Kantian Ding an sich. The intermediation of the imagination, coupled with the hard impact of experience, and also guided by the teleological drive of an ever growing reasonability of the world, is what enables us to grasp something in some possible way, to understand it thus, and not in any another imaginable manner. But whatever we come to understand is always surrounded by a "penumbra" of potential but discarded roads, as Alexander (1990:338) so cogently puts it.
From an intermediate posture, which is both critical, à la Short, but also sympathetic to the theoretical importance of the ground notion, Colapietro (1996: 131) proposes a "historicist reading of Peirce". To do so, he discusses the plausibility of a doctrine of "perspectival realism" at work in the triadic semiotic. Colapietro makes this move on the basis of two of the sign-object relationships which, in his opinion, the ground contributes to create: indexes and symbols. According to the said doctrine, and aided by our experience, we come to acquire a kind of knowledge, writes Colapietro (1996:134), which is ‘the cumulative result of an ongoing inquiry by which we come to glimpse some aspect of the what is really so’. The human impossibility of seizing upon the entirety of the world on any single occasion, or even through an extended succession of instants - since time intervenes to change us and the world we aim at understanding - is what a humble Uruguayan farm hand named Ireneo Funes learns at his own cost. In a short story of the Argentinian writer Borges (1980:383-390) whose title is "Funes the man of the prodigious memory",12 we become the awed witnesses of the amazing ruin of poor Funes’ life. On account of a newly and accidentally acquired ability to grasp and recollect absolutely everything around him, in the utmost, uncanny detail, after he was violently thrown off his horse, Funes just cannot understand anything at all in a sufficiently clear manner. ‘My memory, sir, is like a garbage dump’, complains bitterly the wretched Funes to the Borgean narrator (1980:387). Deprived of the selective focus or filtering prism described by Nesher (1984), which allows some quality or aspect of the real (or imagined) world to reach our cognition, while it separates or discards all the others, at every instant, we would be overflowed, literally submerged under a paralyzing chaos of raw data. Such a state of disarray is, precisely, what the dynamic object or the real considered by itself, in its brutal secondness, is for us. The real is something impossible to assimilate as such, bereft of any purpose or project, which, in turn, receives as an input a possible facet or abstracted, absolute quality. This possible quality originates in the ground, or "schemata", if we follow the already mentioned cognitivist approach used by Nesher (1984:312). Were it not for the functioning of the semiotic ground, we would be in a similar ordeal to the one of the wretched Irineo Funes, for whom, writes Borges (1980:387), ‘the present is almost unbearable because it is so eventful and so vivid’.
There is still another Peircean passage which I want to consider, in order to finish this presentation of the semiotic ground concept, even though it does not contain an explicit reference to this notion. It is a passage drawn from the Lowell Lectures of 1903 which is titled "Degenerate Cases" (CP 1.521-1.543). In it Peirce writes about the coming together of some quality with its respective interpretant. This conjunction is described in an ontological vein in a previous text of the Collected Papers: ‘the being of the reason lies in its bringing qualities and things together’ (CP 1.515, 1896). So as to account for the second degree of degeneracy of thirdness, Peirce (CP 1.538) ascribes a central function to the imagination. When we see something, Peirce (CP 1.538) warns us, in spite of the certainty that vision offers us (‘I saw it was red’), since there is no copula involved, we are only entitled to speak of a "qualitative possibility":
There was no subject or predicate in it [= an image]. It was just one unseparated image, not resembling a proposition in the smallest particular. It instigated you to your judgment, owing to a possibility of thought; but it never told you so. [...] in all imagination and perception there is such an operation by which thought springs up; and its only justification is that it subsequently turns out to be useful.
My own position concerning the ground has points in common with those of the Peircean scholars who are in favour of including this notion in the semiotic and whose work has been referred to above. And I want to describe this take on the ground by giving a summarized version of a discussion which I started in the Peirce-list in 1995, an exchange which went on for some weeks.13 The definition of the ground that I proposed then is the following:
The ground does not stand on its own next to the representamen or the sign: it is that capacity or generative power which the monadic sign possesses, which allows it, in its active role, once it has undergone passive determination by the object, to send on, as a relay, that specification to the interpretant, that other, more developed sign which simply purports to represent what the object via the sign also represents.14
To what was already expressed in that discussion on that Internet list, I would like to add now the insightful theoretical development of the ground notion, to which Corrington (1994) dedicates an entire chapter of his book on the philosophical doctrine of "ecstatic naturalism", which he presents from a semiotic perspective. In the same line than Nesher, Corrington rejects the idea of introducing a fourth element into the semiotic triad , and in a similar vein as Colapietro (1996:137), he construes the ground as the gamut of perspectives which are not to be seen as ‘prisons in which we are condemned to dwell in darkness, but truly angles of vision’. The value of the contribution of Corrington lies, in my opinion, in going further than the other specialists in his reflection on which the true function or theoretical import of the Peircean ground is. Without fearing the metaphysical implications of his analysis, which sometimes comes quite near of anthropomorfism or the mystical, Corrington returns to the early Peirce, the one who in the sixth decade of the nineteenth century proposes the "new categorial list". Thus Corrington (1994: 116-142) begins by discussing the semiotician's identification of the ground with the Holy Ghost. I agree with the solution that Corrington (1994:117) proposes for the false opposition that some specialists posit, that between having to either marr the analysis of semiosis with an undesirable and wholly unsuitable fourth term, or else having to eliminate the concept of ground from the Peircean theory:
The grounding relation is a type of between relation in that the ground is neither a sign nor an object. By the same token, the ground cannot be an interpretant. In a sense, the ground lies outside of the basic triad of signification, as one of its enabling conditions.
One of the virtues of Corrington's analysis of the ground is his construal of this notion as an "enabling condition", that is, a semiotic mechanism placed at the very borderline of semiosis. The ground functions as a limit within semiois, in much the same way as the dynamic object. Of course, we must allow for the radically different semiotic nature and way of functioning of the ground in that sign process. In his insightful analysis of the semiotic object, Ransdell (1992: ch. 10) opposes the Kantian concept of "the thing in itself" to the Peircean dynamic object, because the latter is:
essentially representable (hence cognizable) in every respect. Moreover [the dynamic object] too is in the process of semiosis, although in a different sense than the immediate object is in the sequence, namely, in the special sense in which the limit of an endless series is in the series of which it is the limiting case.
Both, ground and dynamic object function as limiting and enabling conditions, respectively, and thus their theoretical status is neither wholly extra nor entirely intrasemiotic. The purport of the ground is to open up the process of semiosis started dyadically by the object; the ground’s aim is to expand, to enlarge the situation toward a richer horizon, as Alexander (1990:338) puts it, with elements that are not yet future generalities, and which do not press from the already past of experience either. The temporal location of the ground is ‘the Nascent State of the Actual’ (CP 5.462), a fleeting instant which, in itself, is beyond our grasp, but if we were to eliminate it, we would not succeed in understanding the emergence of the new, of that which is only imaginable. The ground accounts thus for the wholly unthought of, that quality of sheer freshness which every experience may potentially bring to us, together with all that is predictable and routine-like, with all those elements which fall so smoothly in our everyday ways, that we do not even even notice them.
For Corrington, the ground is what yields the adequate milieu to perform an imaginative exploration; it is in such semiotic environment that we may dream about, as a pure possibility, some aspects of the dynamic object which have not still been appropriated by us or by the community. Besides describing the ground an ‘enabling condition’, Corrington (1994:119) also proposes the name of ‘open infinite’ for it, which he opposes to the ‘prospective infinite’, namely, semiosis considered as incorporated or assimilated into the world via the interpretants. If all possible semiosis arises from that unconscious and primeval maternal womb, which Corrington (1994:10-11;27-29) identifies with the Platonic concept of chora, then the ground ought to be construed as the chora plus the teleological drive, which is such a central element in Peircean semiotic.
Let us now go back for a moment to the domestic incident twice narrated by Peirce; it is quite obvious that there was in his family no precedent of a boy such as Herbert ever saving an adult from becoming seriously injured by an accidental fire. There was only the shared assumption of lamps which worked properly, and of children who had a natural fear of being burnt, or even had a tendency to become paralyzed with fear in the eventuality of such an accident ever happening. Human semiosis moves between a hard limit of secondness, the realm which borders on the non-semiotic, on the things and events that constrain and resist us, and a gaseous limit of firstness, one which is constituted by that which is sheer openness, an entirely creative and visionary play or musement as Peirce calls it (CP 6.452-6.466). The effect of firstness on semiosis involves the bringing in of that which still is not, and which does not consist in a probable, regularity-bearing future occasion, but only a fleeting instant, one that floats in the limbo of what may be conceivable and interpretable by us.
To enable, to render open that which is in itself opaque and silent by means of an endless series of interpretants, whereby we may come to discover what may be known about the world, such is the capacity of this protean element called ground. In spite of not being a (proper) term of the semiotic triad, the ground furnishes a genesis-like aura or, in Corrington’s (1994:140) own words, ‘a penumbra of potential meanings’ that surrounds the triad of the sign. The whole purpose of the ground is to help to maintain the triad in motion, to lure it toward an ever greater depth, if we take the latter term in its technical, logical sense of connotation (CP 3.608). While not being anything in itself - neither the represented, nor what (re) presents, nor what is interpreted - the ground functions as the key of this entire process. Actually I believe the ground is the "key" in the quite literal sense of being that theoretical device which accounts for the way in which we manage to open up the universe; it is that which makes us gain access to unsuspected aspects of the real. It is the effect of the ground to increase the depth or connotation of the sign, and thereby of our existence, as we constantly engage ourselves in that endless dialogue with life which Peirce called "semiosis".
The problem when we argue about the relevance of this theoretical notion lies in our expecting to find that which is imagined by us in the ground itself: this, by definition, will only be revealed to us later. The imagined comes to us always in a deffered way, in that sign whose role is to represent ( = representamen/sign) what of the outer or inner world (= dynamic object) is being represented in and by the sign (= immediate object) for somebody, at some future time (= interpretant). The semiotic ground is then a condition, and not a consequence of semiosis; it is an explanation or a theoretical postulate destined to furnish an answer to a central semiotic query: why do signs not simply reiterate themselves in a routine fashion, and show us always more of the same, why don’t signs disclose monotonously the world around us or our inner world? What is it that allows Herbert Peirce to embark in that prodigious transformation from being a terrified boy who stares at a fallen oil lamp which is dangerous for his family, to becoming the heroic savior of the most likely fire victim in that situation? The same element, would be Peirce’s answer, that separates us from that living syllogism which is a beheaded frog, that body which is able "to reason" all right, but which cannot bring itself to imagine anything, at least not in the way that Herbert does. A frog is that kind of being which does not have a vision of that which never was or ever will be, but which still might come to be or happen, as a sheer potentiality.
The analysis of the semiotic ground proposed here may appear as an exalted, romantic proclamation which advocates the placement of the imagination above the rest of the other human faculties, or even a veiled apology of the even more elusive concept of "inspiration", tinted with the same ideological bias. But it is none of the above. It is worth repeating at this point that the ground works in the process of semiosis as an "enabling condition", as Corrington (1994:117) describes it, and therefore it is neither more nor less than the other components of semiosis. Its function is to increase the depth of the sign, and therefore its information, which Peirce (CP 2.418; 3.608) defines as the logical product of breadth and of depth of the sign. The theoretical suppression of a component so closely associated to the imagination only empoverishes our understanding of how, in our daily, scientific or artistic endeavours, we come to conceive reality in the very different ways in which we actually do. If it were not for the semiotic ground, our world would be restricted only to what was and to what will or would be, but there would be no (theoretical and real) room for what may or might be. I am talking about all that which, by a conjunction of chance and the very structure of the process of signification itself, shapes and modifies our world from a diffuse but still real limit, because the possible as a modality of being is as real, for Peirce (eg. CP 1.422), as the existent.
Were it not for the "door" of possibilism, which is opened ajar by the semiotic ground, we would be in a similar ordeal to that of the wretched pilgrim who is the protagonist of one of the parable-like stories written by Kafka. Without the activity of the ground, we would be all convicted in the dreadful manner described in Kafka's (1995) narration Before the Law, from which I draw the following quote:
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone [...] he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. [...]"Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it".
If there was no ground functioning in the process of semiosis, each one of us would be forced to behave in that single manner which was forever preordained and stipulated in the remote past, and in the way in which habit tendentially regulates our lives from somewhere in the future. Where would be the exit that we dreamt about, so as to escape from present oppression? And how would we flee that kind of coercion which we fear because it is probable? Those other possible openings are, in fact, described by Peirce (CP 2.228) when we are told that the object is shown to us ‘not in all its respects, but in reference to a sort of idea’. The abstraction of the ground seems to me to be quite like freedom, though not identical with it, since in the relational triadic model, each component element is what it is because it has an inseparable link or essential correlation with the other two. Therefore, I do not prioritize or overrate the power and relevance of the semiotic ground; it only functions in the way it does in connection with the hard blow of secondness, and in pursuit of the growing reasonableness of the universe, i.e., of thirdness. In a later section of this paper, I will return to this ‘tri-relative influence’ (CP 5.484), the logical functioning of semiosis, by means of a small deviation through an aspect of Aristotelian thought, which, I hope, will bring us back, to the very heart of the semiotic theory of Peirce.
As a suggestion for future inquiries, I propose an analogy between this operation which occurs at one of the borders of semiosis, which the ground carries out, as a producer of greater connotative complexity, on the one hand, and the Freudian concept of "posteriority" (Nachträglichkeit), on the other hand. In a letter to Fliess which is dated in 1896, at almost the same time when some of the above quoted reflections of the semiotician Peirce are written down, Freud describes the process of "Nachträglichkeit" as ‘a reorganization, a reinscription’ of what the psyche stored in the past, ‘on account of new conditions’.15 The upshot of this operation is that the past is reconstructed and ‘its sense is constantly modified in terms of the project’16 of human consciousness. What I mean here may become clearer if we only substitute, in the above psychoanalytic reference, the notion of teleology or of Peircean normative sciences for that of "consciousness".
In the feat of Herbert Peirce, it is the quality of the heroic, the sublime gesture of saving a fellow human being in a bold and dexterous manner, which we admire as a positive virtue. Admirable is that power which has allowed Herbert to conceive of and perceive the lamp of the dining room in an unusual manner, not only as an obvious and mundane artifact. The relevant question to ask here is then: how does it come to be that, when looking at the same common object which also the others can see in that very place, somebody in the Peirce family was able to imagine, speculate or muse, on that original, unheard of aspect, which is the potential danger of that domestic appliance. And also how did someone come to meditate imaginatively on the most likely to succeed steps to be taken in case that risk ever became true. This deserves the name of creativity, imagination or imaginative speculation. I propose to consider the human imaginative capacity as an essential part of the formal structure described by Peirce (CP 2.228), when he postulates the existence of a semiotic ground construed as a "respect" or "capacity" in which the object is presented by the sign, for its ulterior transformation into the interpretant. How does a dynamic object become focussed on, in the sense of being apprehended or transported by the sign, so as to become an immediate object? We should not only bear in mind the realist consideration of the external, the hard blow of the world, or the feelings really had or imagined by somebody within him or herself. We should also take into account the constitutive imaginative turn, one which may sometimes tend towards zero, for example, when in an absent-minded fashion we only consider of the object the most obvious and taken for granted facets, or which may reach unsuspected peaks, whether in art, science or everyday life, as signs reveal to us the unheard or undreamt of aspects of the inner and outer world.
5. FURTHER ORIGINALITY AT A STATION OF THE METRO
In order to continue with the exposition of my own view of the semiotic ground, and trying to follow Peirce's steps, I will make use of an incident which took place much later, at another railway station. This time it is an urban, subway train, in contemporary Paris. Based on a theatre program which I read some time ago, I am able to reconstruct the creation of the play Roberto Zucco, by French playwright Koltès (1992). According to this program, the author was waiting at the subway station, when he saw a poster of a fugitive prisoner named Roberto Zucco. The fact that not two of the several images which depicted the man in that poster looked alike called Koltès' s attention. In every picture Zucco seemed to be a different person, he says. Then the idea was born in Koltès to write a play with precisely that name as its title, one which recreates theatrically the adventures of Roberto Zucco, and which starts with his getaway from prison, and which ends with his death, something which occurs while Zucco is being chased by the police.
| I may call its form Firstness, Orience or Originality. It would be something which is what it is without reference to anything else within or without it, regardless of all force and of all reason. Now the world is full of this element of irresponsible, free Originality. [...] there are cases, as in qualities of feeling, self-consciousness, etc., in which such isolated flashes come to the front. (CP 2.85, emphasis in the original)|
Without delving any deeper into the ways of artistic creation or the elusive notion of inspiration, I will now use this episode to further develop my discussion about the nature of the semiotic ground. We may construe this play, or rather, the idea of writing the play, which we are told was born after the observation of a plain, bureaucratic police poster – a wholly banal thing made with an expressly informative purpose – as its interpretant, that is, the conclusion or set of beliefs at which Koltès arrived regarding this worldly matter. The semiotic ground is the theoretical way to account for the fact that something made with the official purpose of notifying the French population about something, to warn or to even to ask for the citizens' cooperation, may also come be seen or contemplated from a wholly unusual angle. I will argue here that it is the Peircean ground which helps to bring forth the fictional, dramaturgical potentiality of that public visual sign of a real sought after criminal named Roberto Zucco.
Of course, neither Koltès nor any of us are able, qua human beings, scientists or artists, to grasp absolute qualities as such. In the present case, such absolute qualitative aspect is the epic or tragic dimension of the figure of the criminal depicted in the police poster. We can only seize that possibility when it is no longer such (possibility), once it has become, for instance, the satisfactory or disturbing image of a would-be play, of a theatre production, such as the one Koltès (1992) eventually came to write according to his own account. The incident which Peirce describes in his text from 1878 (CP 5.538), wherein he introduces his famous pragmatic maxim, and the story narrated by the author of Roberto Zucco to tell us about the (presumed) origin of that play, have in common the explicit presence of "Originality", a term which in Peirce’s writings is equivalent to "Firstness, Orience", that is, to the matrix of all that is ‘irresponsible, free’ (CP 2.85) in the universe. The semiotician remarks that we normally do not attend to this element which, as such, does not appear in our perception of the world. However, there would be some moments in which, writes Peirce (CP 2.85), ‘such isolated flashes come to the front’. This account, by the way, is similar to the one the logician uses to describe the dynamics of abduction (eg. CP 5.182). Let us now return to the theater program of my second example of the imagination at work.
For the case I want to make here, it is not crucial whether or not the above told imaginative creative process did happen in the way described by the French playwright Koltès in that theater program. The work of the imagination I aim to describe here does take place at all times in every human being in precisely this way. The process whereby we understand, watch, hear, and in general, get to know something real or imagined from the (external/ internal) world,17 always presupposes a random-like focalization of whatever appears before us, or before our mind’s eye. But such a phenomenon is never wholly haphazard. In order for there to be semiosis, there must be a triple coordination of logical subjects, an interaction which is made in the manner which constitutes the field of study of the three Peircean normative sciences, namely, esthetic, ethic and logic. There is something which is found to be pleasing, which satisfies, or which is found to be more adequate, without our consciously knowing it to be so, without our being capable of analyzing it, that is what is felt to be kalós (CP 2.199), the good as the wholly adequate, and without the need of any further argument.
Now, let us now suppose, for the sake of the argument, that Koltès did actually get the idea, or at least the first glimpse of his future play Roberto Zucco, on that very occasion he tells us about, when he stopped to watch that Wanted police sign at that Parisian subway station, one whose aim was to inform the public about a criminal called Roberto Zucco. How are we then to understand the actual interpretation of Koltès, as opposed to so many other equally possible interpretations to be made there (eg. a feeling of alarm, of worry or of caution, a strong desire to cooperate with the authorities, an impulse to tell others about this potential risk, etc)? It is not enough, in my opinion, to invoke the professional past or the artistic vocation of the protagonist of this episode. Even though it is not a wholly irrelevant consideration, we cannot be certain that whenever somebody with that kind of professional background looks at a poster of a criminal or at any other mundane element around him/her, the latter will be, ipso facto, transformed into an artistic work (such as the play Koltès eventually wrote). Far from this being the case, we face here a much more interesting and more general problem than the creative process of the artist or of the literary genius, namely the always qualitatively biased revelatory access to that opaque element known as the (dynamic) object in the Peircean semiotic. My example stands for the countless and less famous instances of our coming across the constraint or hard external knock of the real, the kind of impact that Peirce (CP 8.43) describes as ‘the outward clash’, a vivid depiction of the blind intrusion of secondness, construed as brutal otherness, in our lives.
The fact that somebody, in this case Koltès, may come to understand or grasp a rather peculiar notion derived from that which still would be there, silently pinned on the wall, even if the French playwright had not seen it, if he had been deeply engrossed in his own thoughts, is to be accounted for by means of a mechanism of semiotic aspectualization. To aspectualize semiotically means to highlight, to pick or single out something, some qualitative dimension of the brutal, dynamic object, which the sign metabolizes into a representation (= immediate object), so that it may, in turn, via the sign, get to determine a certain manner in which one understands the real, namely the interpretant. The resulting quality comes about because of the functioning of the semiotic ground, it is the work of that ‘betweenness’, whereof Corrington (1994: ch. 3) writes some illuminating passages. The function of the ground is to constantly give access to that which is still to come, and which thus gives a possible sense to the future, revealing to us, in a certain, always partial way, what came to be in the past. The ground unveils new dimensions so that the ‘prospective infinite’, Corrington’s (1994:119) term, never ceases to be such, and the absolute stability, which would be total negentropy, never occurs. The absolute stillness in the generation of interpretants would be somehow equivalent with the thermodynamic death of human beings, which would entail the end of mankind's semiotic breathing, so to speak. Without the semiotic ground, we would face the closure of the human capacity to bring forth the new, the original, be it daemonic or angelical, into the conversation of mankind.
7. A SMALL ARISTOTELIAN DEVIATION: ASCENDING MIMESIS OR HOW TO COMPLETE WHAT IS ALREADY COMPLETE WITHOUT REALLY TRYIING (AND HOW TO SUCCEED IN THE ATTEMPT)
I will make now a brief detour by the Metaphysics of Aristotle (1941), in order to continue with my inquiry on the imagination within the Peircean semiotic framework. My approach to the Metaphysics will be made through the fine exegesis of it made by Aubenque (1962). Thus equipped I plan to return one last time to that situation which Peirce found so fascinating, namely, the manner of behaving in the face of imminent danger displayed on a certain occasion by his young brother Herbert, as a case study of the ways of the imagination in practical as well as, mutatis mutandis, in theoretical endeavours. Insofar as semiosis involves ‘the cooperation of three logical subjects’ (CP 5.484), the three "normative sciences" of logic, ethic and esthetic do work together, in order to guide our imagination, understanding, and both our actual and virtual behavior in the pursuit of a constant - and endless - growth of the reasonableness of the world. What comes as a kind of surprise is the logical subordination or hierarchy proposed by Peirce (CP 2.199) for the activity of these normative sciences, as he is discussing the exact term for the subject matter of esthetics:
| "Our rationality is a process, then, which is driven by an aesthetic eros." For [William] James this includes a banishment of uncertainty towards the future, a harmonious anticipation of the world acting "congruously with our spontaneous powers".18 Alexander (1990: 333) |
Still "beauty" is too skin-deep. Using kalós, the question of esthetics is, What is the one quality that is, in its immediate presence kalós? Upon this question ethics must depend, just as logic must depend upon ethics.
If we accept that the unending quest of the true, of the good, and of the beautiful (in the special sense of the kalós used by Peirce) of the semiotician is the same as the one described by Aristotle as the supreme human goal in the Metaphysics, this will enable us to bring even closer together, in yet another central aspect of their work, the thought of the Greek philosopher and that of his not so distant American successor.19
In the Metaphysics, the increase of reasonableness comes about by means of a process which Aubenque (1962: 402) intriguingly calls "ascending mimesis". This kind of mimesis, we are assured, does not involve a passive copy of what is found to be admirable in the world by man, but, instead, it entails an active emulation thereof. This is a creative rather than a reproductive kind of conduct: the "ascending mimesis" is one of the sources of novelty in the human world. In a persuasive way, Aubenque (1962: 410 – emphasis added, F.A.) makes a rather subversive interpretation of the notion of the transcendent in Aristotle’s work; thus Aubenque’s interpretation shows the divine perfection to be also, and by the same token, a glaring lack on earth, a deficit that only mankind can help to partially overcome or
The God of Aristotle is an ideal, but it is no more than an ideal; he is a model to imitate, but one that he himself is unable to accomplish. [emphasis added by the author].
Paradoxically, the Aristotelian divinity only exerts its power in the sublunar world, so that in this human realm, and by means of the action of the ascending mimesis, meanings may become fulfilled, and thus unheard of, unforeseen accomplishments occur, those which mankind continuously pursues. It is through the imagination, that human beings strive to reach that goal of all goals known in Aristotelian thought, as "the achieved" (to téleion), writes Aubenque (1962: 402). The "achieved" is that which is wholly completed, but which is also absolutely still, precisely on account of its being perfectly accomplished. For mankind to imagine such an achievement – to contemplate it - is an essential requisite in order to indefinitely approach the state of its (partial) fulfilment on earth. If we only we leave aside the religious component of the following piece of Aristotelian exegesis made by Aubenque (1962:390), it is not hard to find a quite modern, Peircean idea in the following description of the quest par excellence:
There is not a descending relationship from God to the world in Aristotle, but an ascending relationship of the world to God, a bond that is neither that which goes from a principle to its consequence, nor that of a model to one of its copies, but rather one of imitation, of the yearning for a barely glimpsed ideal.
Both for Aristotle and for Peirce, the imagination is the royal road to deploy logical and physical means, so as to bring forth new meanings, new habits to the world, theorical as well as practical. Thus we are, states Aubenque (1962:390), at the very antipode of the Platonic doctrine, of that kind of imitation which focusses on an ideal whereof the real world is nothing but ‘its negation’. The two Peirce brothers, one while he muses about unlikely or even impossible trips, while he waits on a railway platform, and the other through his dreams about becoming the hero of a dangerous situation, come to share the esthetic vision of something already achieved, but which still does not exist. However, it is something with the kind of potentiality that is necessary to open up new paths for future action which, afterwards, if certain circumstances were to come about, would probably be in fact followed, and this would entail real consequences.
In his writings, the semiotician often warns us about the dangers of incurring in the fallacy of psychologism when we try to account for mechanism of sense generation in human beings, and on at least one occasion, Peirce himself seems to fall prey to this equivocal tendency. This happens when, in an account of his semiotic, as Peirce attempts to define the interpretant of the sign to one of his correspondents,20 the logician introduces what he describes in that context as a "sop for Cerberus", that is, an obvious lapse into psychologism which is, in fact, supposed to soften the presumed impact of his unorthodox ideas at that time. In close connection with this frequent and unwarranted resort to the psychological in order to account for what is of a strictly logical nature, the move that is often criticized by Peirce, we find in the text of Aubenque a valuable notion drawn from Antiquity.
Based on a terminological distinction which Aubenque draws from the Stoic tradition, that one comprised by the lexical pair of "télos" and "skópos", Aubenque (1962: 402) argues that our modern Western languages have lost the sense of that perfectly achieved, transcendent aim described by Aristotle in the Metaphysics, a notion which may be found today only very approximately in the word "purpose", as a translation of the "télos", since the notion of "will", proposed here as a rough equivalent of Greek "skópos", is to be construed as pertaining to the psychological realm, to the domain of the individual. The latter aspect is not present in the former term, "télos", such as it was used by the Stoics. An essential aspect of the definition of the notion of "télos" is that it is ‘the lasting perfection of that which is, completely and from all times, achieved’, concludes Aubenque (Ibid), and it is worthwhile to quote him at some length on this point of his exegesis:
It is because the achieved (tó téleion) dazzles us on account of the magnificence of its achievement that we tend towards it; it is because of its being an attainment that it constitutes an end for us, and not because it is an end for us that we tend to attain it.
In the above terms, my proposal consists in understanding the import of the the semiotic ground as that element of the Peircean semiotic which, as an instance of the category of Firstness, brings us indefinitely, though not consciously, nearer to the ideal of the achieved.
It is in order to avoid the confusion between these two, quite different human endeavours which are described by the lexical pair "télos/skópos", and to stop the reduction of one to the other, that Aubenque (1962: 402) decides to adopt the term mimesis, because he believes this notion is closer to ‘somebody's calling or vocation’, rather than to an individual's will. I believe it is no coincidence that Peirce’s (CP 5.538) final comment on the episode about Herbert Peirce’s feat, one which the logician presents as a kind of corollary thereof, is that the courage and the deftness shown by his younger brother in the face of danger on that unforgettable day, were to become a true personal stamp of him during his entire adult life.21After all, the muser of the railway platform that illustrates the famous Peircean text of 1878 is not so different either from the theoretician who imagines new forms of analyzing human understanding or the cosmic order. What guides both of them is ‘the lasting perfection of that which is, completely and from all times, achieved’, that which is felt to be kalós ‘in its immediate presence’ (CP 2.199), and which goads us in a suggestive manner to emulate it, to fulfil its sense, as one of the most potent human callings.
To sum up, Aristotle's Metaphysics is a reflection on an endless and forever begun anew quest for an impossible but desirable harmony, but one of which we get a glimpse in the vision of the perfect heavens. The Peircean semiotic describes scientifically our constant exploration of the triple ideal, one that is ruled by esthetic, ethic and logic, an aim which human beings accomplish by means of the progressive and coordinate unfolding of imagination, action and reason. Our human condition is quite far from being no more than a pale reflection of that divine and forever exiled perfection; it is an unending collective achievement within the always changing borders of semiosis. There is not real achievement without an active dream about that achievement. When Herbert Peirce reacts as he does, probably he is emulating not an action he has already seen, at least not in his own house, but the alluring idea of the deliverance of another human being, maybe a notion that is related to some previous accident or important risk, whether real or fictitious. The esthetict implies the becoming at one with the feeling, the action and the understanding concerning some (semiotic) object. Herbert has imagined a similar incident, he has rehearsed it in his inner world, in order to put into action at some later time that practical belief. This is quite similar to what a scientist does, when she, diagrammatically, in her mind, by means of the imagination, works in order to put into practice or to develop her theoretical and experimental belief. Such is the infinite human endeavour: to gain access to that which is already there, to that which is accomplished in the divinity, according to Aristotle, or in the natural, cosmic order, in modernity: the perfect unity, the admirable balance of perfect stillness, which so much and so fruitfully bewilders us.
I consider that this "ascending mimesis", the always recommenced effort to attain something that is suggested imaginatively to us by the vision of such an achievement, bears an important parallelism with what Peirce (CP 2.165) concerning the effect of the imagination and the esthetic orientation of all truth pursuit:
We approve of means of bringing about purposes which we embrace, assuming it to be in our power to adopt or to reject those means. As to the purposes themselves, every man must decide for himself, though others may offer suggestions.
What purpose am I to follow? How am I to behave in the world that I see and that I think I understand? To such questions the answer comes coordinately from the three modalities of being and of knowing, namely the three coenoscopic categories, and also the three normative sciences, which are based on the former. The past is the coercion of the events and of the behavior with which we are already acquainted; it works on us as the blind or brute "Obsistency" of our experience, (CP 2.89). The present operates in our life as pure "Originality" (Ibid), that fugitive quality which we can only apprehend in the deferred and transferred effort of synthesis of these two semiotic modalities called "Transuasion" (Ibid). Our daily efforts tend towards the universe of the plausible or verisimilar, that which we find reasonable, and which we normally do not consider in a systematic or thorough manner. Thus comes into being the transuasive momentum of this logical tri-relationship or "semiosis": it is the interpretant conceived of as the "final cause", the meaningful action which brings forth more sense into the world, and which helps constitute the very semiotic agent, as the protagonist of certain events in the world.
The ground is that vague territory where, originally, certain qualitative modalities arise, in order to become associated with the immediate object, and thus they become instrumental in presenting this object to the partially determined (and for that reason always incomplete) apprehension embodied in the interpretant. The entire process is guided by that summum bonum that Peirce (CP 2.199) after some hesitation denominates the "kalós" component of our life, that is, the esthetic factor, one which goes far beyond the artistic realm or the (conventionally) beautiful, since it permeates, or "perfuses", to use a Peircean (CP 4.539) term, each one of our acts, of our collective aspirations, as human beings.
I conclude here my detour by the Metaphysics. This kind of telic human drive called by Aubenque "ascending mimesis" provides, I believe, an interesting angle to what Alexander (1990: 325) presents as the pragmatic ‘imaginative understanding’, one which implies a heightened ‘awareness of the role of the noncognitional or nonpropositional in all our experience, that is, of the aesthetic dimension of meaning and rationality’. In this point, precisely, lies the theoretical "revolution" whereof Alexander writes, namely, in attributing to the imagination an unexpected kind of coordination with reason, instead of maintaining the traditional antagonism supposed to exist between these two faculties. Simultaneously, we come to a richer sense of these two human domains, the logical and the esthetic, since justice is done to the creative aspect of the former, and to the possibility of approaching the true of the latter. Meaningful action is, according to Peirce, that one which is in charge of joining the two realms.
8. Conclusion: ground, imagination and esthetic.
Charles and Herbert Peirce, the scientist, the common man or the artist for that matter, are imaginative beings, and, as such, each one of them is endowed with the capacity to introduce the new into the world. Each person is guided by a pervasive and potent esthetic vision: this vision suggests to all human beings how to ascend mimetically from the precarious human condition of partial achievement, towards the supreme good, towards that which appears as wholly achieved and admirable in itself.
|We now begin to see the sense of talking of modes of being. They are elements of cooperation toward the summum bonum. (CP 2.118)|
In the end, I want to return to one of the sources of this work, to the reflection of Alexander (1990) on the pragmatic imagination. I will do so in order to express my agreement with him once again. Hopefully, this paper may have contributed with some further thoughts to Alexander's analysis of this human faculty, which should be construed as neither intuitive nor passively sensorial. The imagination, states Alexander (1990:341), is
a mode of action and as such [it] seeks to organize experience in a manner that is meaningful and satisfying. [...] it is an essential and necessary element in our perpetual project of making sense of life.
To round up my discussion, I now propose three arguments concerning the proper place of the imagination in the theoretical building of Peircean semiotic:
a. For Peirce, not only science – his main and constant concern during all the years in which he thinks and writes about semiotic – but also every day life and art, do not differ essentially insofar as the renewing and suggestive effect that the human imagination has in the development of these three kinds of human endeavour. The inevitable and intrusive clash of experience together with the subtle and suggestive work of the imagination end up in an ordered but forever to be remade world of habit, of those beliefs which become efficacious action on the external and internal world.
b. In the theoretical concept of ground, which Peirce proposes very early in his writings ( CP 1.551), and then takes up in his mature years (CP 2.228), in an occasional but decisive manner, there is to be found the enabling or empowering dimension of that ‘tri-relative influence’ (CP 5.484) called by the logician "semiosis". The concept of ground constitutes the imaginative aspect of semiosis. As a very slight but crucial wedge, this imaginative capacity singles out our own place in the animal world. From Corrington (1994), I borrow the idea that the ground is to be located, theoretically, at the very border of semiosis, from where it decisively conditions the latter. The Peircean ground functions as an authentic "key", since it is capable of inducing a progressive opening of the real. The ground is the component which accompanies, like a potent halo, all semiosis, and which helps to focus on or unveil unknown facets of the dynamic object. The latter is, in itself, an opaque, surprise or shock-laden factor of secondness, Peirce's category for analyzing the real as sheer resistance. One can only succeed in knowing or apprehending the semiotic ground in that which it is not, since its definition, as Corrington (1994: 127; 134) writes, is ‘the not yet’. We must then go to the interpretant, or rather to the net of growing complexity which the interpretants create, in order to reconstruct, or postulate tentatively, in the après coup of a growing and self-correcting inteligibillity of the world, what this absolute quality consists in. This moment coincides with what is deemed by us to be kalós, with the purpose of esthetic, one of Peirce's three normative sciences. The ground is an abstraction which presents or exhibits a possible aspect of the semiotic object, one which is destined to become an interpretant, i.e., our human understanding. Such an understanding is as ephemeral and unstable as it is vital, in order to put a (transitory) end to our doubt, and thus to build the beliefs and, eventually, the habits which put a closure, for the time being, to a cycle of human semiosis.
c. Which one of all the imagined ways, of all the qualities with which the mind muses or digresses when it deals with the real - or rather when it is taken over by it – ends up being the path which will, eventually, be projected, onto the real? Which one, of all the possible ways of feeling, acting and understanding the world, will be the one which will actually contribute to give it a certain shape, one which is never definitive, but which provisionally bring us, semiotic agents, some degree of satisfaction? It is that path which is felt to be, in a pre- or irrational way, the most adequate way of understanding and signifying the world. It is the Aristotelian mechanism that in Aubenque's (1962) analysis is called "ascending mimesis". This not an imitative but an emulatory and creative way. It is the manner which we human beings adopt as our own, in our fallible, endless and awe-filled attempt to gain imaginative, practical and rational access to that perfect stillness which, for Aristotle, is staring at us from the heavens.
From our uncertain "sublunar" world (Aristotle), over and over again, with more than a little heroism, we set to ‘building elaborate castles in the air and then painfully copying them on solid ground’ (CP 6.286), to use the beautiful image with which Peirce describes the imaginative human endeavour, one which rules esthetically over our active and fallible understanding of the world.
1 A previous, shorter version of this paper appeared in Spanish (see Andacht 1996).
2 I follow the convention of mentioning Peirce with the notation (CP x.xxx)," which refers to volume and paragraph in The Collected Papers of Charles S. Peirce (1936-58), (eds.) C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss & A. Burks.
3 On this act of creative musement see the section titled "Musement" in "A neglected argument
for the reality of God " (CP 6.452-6.466). For a discussion of the notion of "interpretive musement", see Corrington (1993:68-72; 205-209).
4 "Mind and matter" in CP 6.272-6.286, c.1893.
5 ‘Supposing matter to be but mind under the slavery of inveterate habit, the law of mind still applies to it.’ (CP 6.613).
6 There are many illustrative passages in the Collected Papers which deal with the discussion of this "internal", "inner" or " inward " realm of what we imagine: CP 1.321; 5.487; 5.479; 5.538; 6.286.
7 On the soul, III, 11. 434 to 6. I shall be quoting it in the usual manner, from the Spanish translation and edition of Calvo Martínez (1978).
8 C.P 5.487, n1, c.1903.
9 In "On a new list of categories" (CP 1.551), which was first published in 1867.
10 The remark belongs to Sheriff (1994:49).
11 The reference made here is to The Presentation of the Self in the Daily Life, which was originally published in 1959 by Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman.
12 All translations from Borges’ story, which is originally in Spanish, are mine.
13 The discussion on the theoretical status of the ground in the Peirce-list, began on October 20th, 1995 and went on until the November 5th of that year. See the Archives of the Peirce Telecommunity Project (http://members.door.net/arisbe)
14 F. Andacht (1995), "On the notion of semiotic ground," in the PEIRCE-L list, Peirce Telecommunity Project, October 26th, 1995.
15 Quoted in Laplanche and Pontalis (1981:436), as the lexical entry for Posteriority, 436
17 Or as Ransdell (1976:104) pointedly puts it, our way of becoming a medium for the expression of reality.
18 The quote within the quote from Alexander (1990:333) comes from James’ (1979) The Will to Believe.
19 The usual kind of parallelism discussed in this connexion concerns the categorial analysis of Aristotle and that of Peirce.
20 This reference appears in a letter addressed to Lady Welby, in Hardwick (1977, 81).
21 ‘We were astonished at his promptitude, which, as he grew up, turned out to be characteristic’.
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