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Sentiment, entelechy, and text in Irish-language song tradition

Steve Coleman <scoleman@may.ie>

Department of Anthropology, National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

Paper presented in the session "Rethinking the Symbol" (organized by S. Coleman and J. B. Bate) at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco, November 1996.[*]


In C.S. Peirce's semeiotic, the work of symbols creates worlds of habit and sentiment. Contrary to a 'symbolist' view of sentiment as mere emotional tone or substance evoked by contemplation of a symbol, Peircian sentiment is a cognitive orientation towards both texts and the objects of these texts, which regulates their own development (as texts and objects) and that of the semeiotic subject. Sentiment, in this partially realized entelechy of the symbol, is embodied in texts, traditions, and communities of interpreters. Sentiment organizes and regulates habits of feeling, thought and conduct. This paper investigates the relevance of Peirce's formulation for a study of the Irish sean-nós tradition: Irish-language lyric songs, felt to embody multiple, esoteric, sedimented narratives. The interpretive tradition of sean-nós imposes narrativity on these texts through the separate transmission of sets of often contradictory accompanying stories. Culturally specific theories and practices of listening, performance and composition link the subject with an orientation to (familiarity with) the songs' historically and locally specific objects. Orientation is expressed in the creation and understanding of the song's melodic ornamentation. Musical form thus understood becomes a medium which brings together speech, social relations, and sentiments, gaining a moral force--the ability to constitute participants as moral subjects. Sentiments thus understood encompass layers of possible narrative significance and poetic indeterminacy, accommodating many changes in the 'mode of cultural production' without imposing 'coherence' in the usual sense of creating single unified narrative objects for songs.

By tracing the role of Peircean sentiment in one interpretive tradition we can explore the question of its realization or embodiment — an exploration which also casts light on the nature of both the symbol and the text more generally.

In Irish-speaking communities, the repetition of attributed witticisms, along with stories that set the scene, is one of the first steps in transforming an ordinary situation into a performance situation. In sean-nós (old-style) singing, the speech reported is that of the poets, and the accompanying narrative 'stories' which identify a song's protagonists, are often left unspoken. Lyric sung verses thus stand out as dramatic dialogue in the context of narrative discourse. Songs lack explicit quotation framing; song performance thus has a ritual quality as characters' utterances are animated by here-and-now performers.

Singing involves an act of orientation — putting oneself in the place of the song's protagonist. In the words of the sean-nós singer Joe Heaney (Seosamh Ó hÉinniú),

... I judge it by the way I feel. Do I feel this song, do I put myself in the man's name that this particular song was written about. Am I suffering the labors he did, can I go through that or have that picture before me; if I can't follow that man, the journey he took, [...] I don't follow the song and I don't do it justice. [1]

The most important thing about the song tradition to Joe was that 'songs tell stories'. The meaning of a song's 'story' — events of long ago in the lives of the song's protagonists — becomes manifest in the song's melodic form. The singer's emotional participation in the 'story' creates a desire to 'hold on' to lines of the song, drawing them out in melodic ornamentation. As Joe Heaney said,

the ornamentation came from... that the people wanted to hold onto this particular line. They didn't want to let it go. They wanted to hold onto it as long as they could. [2]

Joe often used the word 'story' to refer, not to any specific narrative, but to the original events themselves, the situation in which the song was made and first uttered. But these 'stories' lie hidden beneath the surface of the song:

they're turning back the clock, to when this time was -and each song tells a story. Because when most of the songs were composed, the people couldn't speak about their feelings, they had to put it over in song so [...] the common enemy wouldn't understand what they were talking. [3]

Thus songs conceal as much as they reveal.

Irish-language songs, as quoted speech, lend themselves to multiple interpretive frameworks. [4] Many songs have more than one 'story', as in the so-called aisling or dream-vision genre. Part of what Joe Heaney called the 'secret' of these songs is that there is more than one participation framework — more than one possible set of characters in the dialogue — two lovers conversing or a poet being addressed by the goddess of sovereignty (Éire herself). A 'literal' reading confined to any one level fails to do a song justice, flattening out its true meaning, which happens between all the possible readings — meanings from one framework "leak" into those from another.

A song is thus a set of contingent (ie, indexical) relationships between the various instantiations of its text, historically true, imagined, or implied. As Luke Gibbons argues, such relations are allegorical. [5] Allegory in this sense involves complex relations within discourse histories.

Irish allegorical texts are fundamentally different than allegorically 'realist' texts as described by James Clifford. In Clifford's description of allegory in reading and writing,

realistic portraits [...] are extended metaphors, patterns of associations that point to coherent (theoretical, esthetic, moral) additional meanings. [6]

In the Irish sean-nós tradition, however, songs may be little more than loosely connected sets of verses invoking episodes in what may or may not be coherent underlying narratives. Songs are reports of speech events, rather than "realistic portraits," jumping between one image and another in a manner reminiscent more of mixed metaphor than of narrative [7].

It is the veiling of reference, as well as its multiplicity and complexity, which gives Irish allegorical texts their ability to convey powerful and complex emotions. This is an instance of a more general phenomenon in the tradition, in which an enigmatic form is the manifestation of an underlying narrative or memory of a person, and is felt to embody its sublimated essence. [8]

Allegory in Irish performance traditions emphasizes indexical links between contexts more than it emphasizes coherent narratives. Connecting or lamination of contexts on the one hand, and mixing metaphors on the other, creates a great possibility for complexity in song performance. Singers can, subtly or dramatically, direct songs 'at' a particular audience member, by looking directly at him or her, by taking his or her hand, or by choice of a song whose narrative background, performance history or even a proper name or placename in the text, can be made to connect them in some way with that person. This projects the here-now participant framework onto that of the dramatic scene of the song's 'story'. All of this can also be instigated by the 'target' or by other audience members. Complex pragmatic effects take over as comments on the song and compliments to the singer begin to flow. Depending on the mood of the occasion, the whole interaction may be carnivalised with singers even changing the song's words to meet the needs of the moment. Performance re assembles contingent possibilities, bringing forth new and surprising facts. [9]

In Peirce's theory, thought and feeling are not opposed entities but rather, different aspects of the same process, one in which meaning develops and becomes progressively embodied in an evolving hierarchy of habits which constitute a person's mental-emotional life. Feelings are maximally "degenerate" symbols, or as Peirce mentions, "cognitions too narrow to be useful" (5.292). Emotions are more fully symbolic, being associated with norms; they are themselves types of feeling. They are indexes of their objects, although the iconic element (present in every index) is well developed. Sentiments are "enduring and ordered systems of emotions." [10] Sentiments organize and regulate habits of feeling, thought and conduct. Thus, they are "higher" than thought: just as a symbol tends toward its embodiment as a habit of thought or action, the emotional/aesthetic aspect of thought tends toward its own embodiment as sentiment. Peirce mentions that "the value of this world" is made by

the generalization of intellect and the more important generalizations of sentiment. ... It is the instincts, the sentiments, that make the substance of the soul. Cognition is only its surface, its locus of contact with what is external to it. [11]

Symbols, habits, and sentiments tend to become more general, shared among members of a community.

How does the sean-nós tradition embody sentiment? Taken in themselves, sean-nós songs exemplify persons and their emotional responses to situations. [12] A penumbra of 'stories' about a song acts as a meta-text; stories identify the subject of a song and by contextualizing it, give an explanatory interpretation of the meaning and appropriateness of a song's utterances. A series of performances over time amounts to an evolving social interpretation of a text, as a developing (but not necessarily coherent) symbol in social discourse.

Such a description of sentiment privileges the role of meta-discourses which socially 'construct' the meaning of the text. One of the most challenging aspects of Peirce's semeiotic, however, is to regard semiosis as due to the agency of the sign itself rather than to the agency of an interpreter. [13] Peirce does not distinguish radically between the subject and object of semiosis; the subject or self is only a moment in a wider process of semiosis — the locus of "ignorance and error" [14] when the functioning of habit is interrupted by the surprising facts of the world. In the encounter between performers and song-texts, the constraints of the material leave a degree of agency inherent in the texts themselves: Indexical elements in the text project singers and listeners into the point of view of a song's protagonist(s).

At the same time, songs are mysterious, 'edifying by puzzlement' to use James W. Fernandez' term. The indeterminacy and sketchiness of song's texts pushes performers and audiences to make indexical connection to other contexts. [15] As incomplete symbols, sean-nós texts invite interpreters to connect with familiar objects. [16] Thus sean-nós texts construct their own contexts, including within themselves our own emotional and imaginative musings as well. These same texts are the product of a culture of speaking with a tradition of extemporaneous verse composition and of a sense of poeticdiscourse as being fundamentally dialogic and dramatic, as a powerful response to a situation in medias res.

Sentiments also are part of ourselves, our habits of feeling, the creation of what Paul Friedrich calls "felt consubstantiality between music, language and myth." [17] The musical and textual form of a performed song condenses the participants' responses to its 'story' as a set of hidden narratives. Learning to sing and appreciate the songs introduces one into a world of Joycean epiphany, of indexical icons which call forth images of other persons, times and places. These are what Peirce would call degenerate [18] aspects of a symbolic order which is never fully realized as an explicit argument — the future of sean-nós is located in the past. [19] This refusal of closure leaves us only with our sense of what Peirce calls mentality — the emotional tone or quality of the discourse of sean-nós, "the peculiar flavor or color of mediation" for which, as Peirce says "we have no really good word." This mentality is Peircean sentiment: "the idea of a quality that consists in the way something is thought or represented;" [20] an all encompassing aesthetic sense which regulates the development of reason itself: "...it is by the indefinite replication of self-control upon self-control that the vir is begotten, and by action, through thought, [man] grows an esthetic ideal [...] as the share which God permits him to have in the work of creation." [21]

Although symbols habitually produce interpretants, they are not fully determinate — symbols are more or less vague and thus capable of further growth or determination. The essential teleology of the symbol is this propensity to growth. In Peirce's words, "A symbol is an embryonic reality endowed with power of growth into the very truth, the very entelechy of reality." [22] Sentiments are part of the socially-constructed world, the partially-realized entelechy of the symbol.

We build our social world out of habits, including habits of thought and feeling. This world itself develops through the development of traditions of interpretation and composition. [23] The discourse of sean-nós, as an "enduring and ordered system of emotions," embodies sentiment. Emotion is thus a general phenomenon, like personality, which participates in the ongoing realization of reason in the world. [24] We learn how to feel from our cultural world, insofar as it is the manifestation of sentiment, which is to say, embodied [ways of] feeling.


* Due to time limitations at the AAA conference, this paper presents a very inadequate and truncated account of Irish-language song and narrative tradition. Readers wishing to know more are referred to Ó Canainn (1978), Shields (1993), and Ó Laoire (1996), and to two other papers of mine, one available here [Note by B.U.: Ireland On-Line link is broken and the Wayback Machine lacks: http://homepages.iol.ie/~huma/aai/vol1/coleman.html; but does have the table of contents listing Coleman's paper, which turns out to be "Joe Heaney Meets the Academy"], and the other recently published: Coleman, Steve. 1997. Joe Heaney and Style in Sean-nós Singing. In Blas: the Local Accent in Irish Traditional Music, edited by T. M. Smith and M. Ó. Súilleabháin. Limerick: Irish World Music Centre, University of Limerick.

1. (Heaney 78-15.2)

2. Heaney 78-15.1

3. Heaney 78-15.5.

4. cf Irvine 1992.

5. "For allegory to retain its critical valency, it is vital that there is an instability of reference and contestation of meaning to the point where it may not be at all clear where the figural ends, and the literal begins. ... [T]he instability of reference is such that it may not always be possible, on textual grounds alone, to decide whether a work is functioning allegorically or not, and hence we have to go 'outside' the text itself, to its historical conditions of meaning, in order to give full scope to its semantic potential. The multiple references are not, in the strict sense, inherent in the text, nor are they simply added by ingenious critics in retrospect: rather they derive from the historical contiguity of the text to other narratives and symbolic forms that are working their way through the culture" (Gibbons 1996:20-21, his emphasis).

6. Clifford 1986:100

7. cf. Pesmen (1991), Lloyd (1993)

8. In this tradition, reference is veiled rather than sentiments (cf Abu-Lughod 1986).

9. Daniel (1995). For Irish song performance, see Ó Canainn (1978), Shields (1993), and Ó Laoire (1996).

10. Savan (1981:331).

11. Peirce NE 4.435; 1.628.

12. Cf. Mertz (1993), discussing the use of reported speech by Cape Breton Gaelic speakers to exemplify styles of code-switching: "Once again a token instance of reported Gaelic speech encapsulates complex social relations, accomplishing socially purposive functions (conveying intimacy or humour) through situationally specific indexical functioning."

13. Ransdell (1992)

14. "The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation" (5.317). The two other aspects of the Peircean self are the free play of musement in thought and the formation or deliberate creation of habits; cf. Colapietro (1989).

15. Compare Fernandez' account of Fang sermons: "As in a riddle, the images of these sermons send us elsewhere to obtain our answers. They are rich in images which must, however, be contextualized by extension into other areas of Fang culture. The interpretive task is, therefore, to move back and forth between text and context" (Fernandez 1986:181).

16. In Peirce's theory, interpreters must begin by taking their own worlds of familiar experience as the immediate object of any new sign they encounter: "The Sign can only represent the Object and tell about it. It cannot furnish acquaintance with or recognition of that Object; for that is what is meant in this volume by the Object of a Sign; namely, that with which it presupposes an acquaintance in order to convey some further information concerning it. No doubt there will be readers who will say they cannot comprehend this. They think a Sign need not relate to anything otherwise known, and can make neither head nor tail of the statement that every Sign must relate to such an Object. But if there be anything that conveys information and yet has absolutely no relation nor reference to anything with which the person to whom it conveys the information has, when he comprehends that information, the slightest acquaintance, direct or indirect — and a very strange sort of information that would be — the vehicle of that sort of information is not, in this volume, called a Sign" (Peirce 2.231).

17. Friedrich 1986:39

18. Peirce 1.521-544

19.The inverse of Peirce's argument that the facts of the past are to be determined in the future (5.543): "Consequently, the only meaning which an assertion of a past fact can have is that, if in the future the truth be ascertained, so it shall be ascertained to be."

20. Peirce 1.533-4.

21. Peirce 5.402 Fn P3.

22. Peirce NE 4:261; quoted in Shapiro 1982:104.
"Aristotle, on the other hand, whose system, like all the greatest systems, was evolutionary, recognized [...] an embryonic kind of being, like the being of a tree in its seed, or like the being of a future contingent event, depending on how a man shall decide to act. In a few passages Aristotle seems to have a dim aperçue of a third mode of being in the entelechy. The embryonic being for Aristotle was the being he called matter, which is alike in all things, and which in the course of its development took on form. Form is an element having a different mode of being. The whole philosophy of the scholastic doctors is an attempt to mould this doctrine of Aristotle into harmony with christian truth. This harmony the different doctors attempted to bring about in different ways. But all the realists agree in reversing the order of Aristotle's evolution by making the form come first, and the individuation of that form come later. Thus, they too recognized two modes of being; but they were not the two modes of being of Aristotle. My view is that there are three modes of being. I hold that we can directly observe them in elements of whatever is at any time before the mind in any way. They are the being of positive qualitative possibility, the being of actual fact, and the being of law that will govern facts in the future" (Peirce 1.22 1.23).

23. Realized in the culturally, socially, and historically specific sense of the qualities of discourse (eg.,text) as a medium of representation. Cf. Jameson's ideology of form: "These dynamics ... make up what can be termed the ideology of form, that is, the determinate contradiction of the specific messages emitted by the varied sign systems which coexist in a given artistic process as well as in its general social formation. [...] At this level "form" is apprehended as content. [...formal processes are] sedimented content in their own right, carrying ideological messages of their own, distinct from the manifest or ostensible content of the works..." (Jameson 1981:98).

24. "The very being of the General, of Reason, consists in its governing individual events. So, then, the essence of Reason is such that its being can never have been completely perfected. It must always be in a state of incipiency, of growth. It is like the character of a man which consists in the ideas that he will conceive and the efforts that he will make, and which only develops as the occasions actually arise. Yet in all his life long no son of Adam has ever fully manifested what there was in him. So, then, the development of reason requires as a part of it the occurrence of more individual events than can ever occur. It requires, too, all the coloring of all qualities of feeling, including pleasure in its proper place among the rest. This development of reason consists, you will observe, in embodiment, that is, in manifestation. (1.615)"

References Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Shame in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clifford, James. 1986. On Ethnographic Allegory. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by J. Clifford and G. E. Marcus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Colapietro, Vincent M. 1989. Peirce's Approach to the Self: A Semiotic Approach on Human Subjectivity. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Daniel, E. Valentine. 1995. The "agentive" moment: A Peirceish perspective. Paper read at Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C.

Fernandez, James W. 1986. Persuasions and Performances: The Play of Tropes in Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Friedrich, Paul. 1986. The Language Parallax: Linguistic Relativism and Poetic Indeterminacy. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gibbons, Luke. 1996. Transformations in Irish Culture. Cork: Cork University Press.

Heaney, Joe. 1978. Interviews. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archive. Cassette Tapes (referenced by series:tape number).

Irvine, Judith. 1996. Shadow Conversations: The Indeterminacy of Participant Roles. In Natural Histories of Discourse, edited by M. Silverstein and G. Urban. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Methuen.

Lloyd, David. 1993. Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Postcolonial Moment. Dublin: Lilliput.

Mertz, Elizabeth. 1993. Learning What to Ask: Metapragmatic Factors and Methodological Reification. In Reflexive Language: Reported speech and metapragmatics, edited by J. Lucy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ó Canainn, Tomás. 1978. Traditional Music in Ireland. London: Routledge.

Ó Laoire, Lillis. 1996. Ar Chreig i Lár na Farraige: Traditions of Song from Tory Island. Ulster Folklife 42:79-97.

Peirce, Charles S. 1931-1958. Collected Papers. Edited by C. Hartshorne, P.Weiss and A. Burks. 8 vols. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Cited as (volume: paragraph number).

Peirce, Charles S. 1976. The New Elements of Mathematics. Edited by C. Eisele. 4 vols. The Hague: Mouton. Cited as (NE Volume:page number).

Pesmen, Dale. 1991. Reasonable and Unreasonable Worlds: Some Expectations of Coherence in Culture Implied by the Prohibition of Mixed Metaphor. In Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology, edited by J. W. Fernandez. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Ransdell, Joseph. 1992. Teleology and the Autonomy of the Semiosis Process. Signs of Humanity/L'homme et ses signes, vol. 1, eds. Michel Balat and Janice Deledalle-Rhodes, General Editor Gerard Deledalle. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Savan, David. 1981. Peirce's Semiotic Theory of Emotions. In Proceedings of the C.S. Peirce Bicentennial Conference, Amsterdam, June 1976, edited by K. Ketner et. al. Lubbock: Texas Tech. University Press.

Shapiro, Michael. 1982. Remarks on the Nature of the Autotelic Sign. In Contemporary Perceptions of Language: Interdisciplinary Dimensions, edited by H. Byrnes. Washington: Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics.

Shields, Hugh. 1993. Narrative Singing in Ireland. Dublin: Dublin Academic Press.

Short, T. L. 1982. Life Among the Legisigns. Transactions of the C. S. Peirce Society XXI (2).

END OF:  Coleman, "Sentiment, entelechy, and text in Irish-language song tradition"

Posted to Arisbe website on November 11, 1998

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