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Teleology and the Autonomy
of the Semiosis Process

Joseph Ransdell

Dept of Philosophy, Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas 79409, U.S.A.

Ransdell's home page

This paper was originally delivered at a conference of the International Association for Semiotic Studies (IASS) which was held in Barcelona and Perpignan in March/April 1989. It has subsequently been published in 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, 1992)
Since there is no normal pagination on a web page, I assign in lieu of that paragraph numbers, included in brackets and placed flush right, just above the paragraph, for purposes of scholarly reference: they are not in the previously published version above. Apart from that the texts are substantially identical.

      In Peircean semiotic, the term "semiosis" refers primarily to the action of a sign in producing an interpretant of itself; but since the interpretant of a sign is itself a sign having the same sort of productive power, one can speak of semiosis processes as well. What I wish to do here is to convey some understanding of the way such processes are at once teleological and autonomous (self-governed).
      Let us note to begin with that to regard semiosis--the generation of the interpretant--as always due primarily to the agency of the sign itself rather than to the agency of an interpreter, human or otherwise, does not deny that human agency has an important role in the occurrence of meaning phenomena, in changes in meaning, in the creation of meaning, and so forth. It does mean, though, that an interpreter's interpretation is to be regarded as being primarily a perception or observation of the meaning exhibited by the sign itself--for the limited purposes of this paper we can equate the meaning of a sign with the interpretants it generates--and that such control as we do have over the powers of signs (thus over meaning phenomena in general) lies in our skill at setting them in interaction with one another in the compositional process in ways favorable to some desired result. But we can predict such results only to a limited extent, owing both to our typically incomplete understanding of what the generative powers of a given sign actually are and to the spontaneity of the signs themselves. Thus we control the order of meaning in much the same way we control the material order, and with varying degrees of success in the one sort of case just as in the other.
      It is implicit in this that we never bestow meaning on signs by acts of sheer will or intention or "stipulative" fiat. There is no creation of meaning ex nihilo . Meaning creation and change is primarily a function of the dispositions and spontaneities of the signs themselves; and although we may develop our skills of artful production, the result of our efforts is never due solely or primarily to what we do: man proposes, but the sign disposes. We can indeed successfully stipulate meaning ("lay down" a rule of meaning, establish a meaning "by convention"), if that only means that we can, for example, say something like "Let X mean such-and-such!" and then make it come about--sometimes--that X actually does acquire that meaning, provided we are clear-headed enough to know what we are doing, skillful enough to know how to do it, and resolute enough to follow through on our original resolve. But there is no such thing as a stipulation of meaning or an act of establishment of a meaning convention or of a rule of meaning which has any logical--as distinct from causal--force or effect.
      How could there be? We might forget what we stipulated immediately after stipulating it, particularly if we had a lot of such stipulation to do at one time. Or we might forget that it had been stipulated. Or we might fail to stick by our intentions in spite of trying to. (I will not take the space here to explain the further and generally well-recognized problems which arise in connection with "ostensive definition" in particular.) And what if we were to change our minds about the matter immediately thereafter? Would the change of mind automatically cancel the stipulation, or is another act of will--a volitional de-stipulation--required to undo that which the stipulative volition supposedly established? How long is a stipulation good for? Do we have to go on willing it non-stop, as it were, maintaining it in existence in the way Descartes thought God maintained the ongoing existence of the world, by a new fiat at every successive moment, or is such a fiat somehow good "until further notice"?
      Let us not pursue this absurdity further. We can of course put a sound or inscription with no prior linguistic meaning into an environment of sounds or inscriptions which already have interpretant-generating powers in the attempt to imbue the former with some such power of its own in virtue of its interaction with those that already have such powers; but whether the attempt is actually successful is a matter of contingent fact rather than of our meaning-fixing intention per se .
      It is implicit in regarding semiosis as the production of the interpretant by the sign itself that signs are not regarded as being governed by rules in the sense of "falling under" them. The idea is rather that the disposition or power of the sign to generate an interpretant is the rule, which thus does not stand over and above the sign, as it were, but is rather an immanent principle therein. This is the basis for characterizing semiosis processes as autonomous or self-governing. To get clear on this let us begin with the Peircean trichotomic distinction of qualisign, sinsign, and legisign, bearing in mind that in drawing this distinction we are not doing something analogous to sorting out things into separate piles, like taking a batch of mixed fruit and sorting it out into apples, oranges, and pears, but rather noting three distinct but systematically coordinated and mutually compatible ways in which something which is ex hypothesi a sign can be further described in semiotical terms.
      The idea is that a sign has three modal aspects: (1) it has a certain appearance; (2) it is something that actually occurs or exists (in some universe of discourse, not necessarily the real world), and (3) it has a power of generating interpretants. What makes it a sign (logically) is the third of these. Now if, because of some interest we have in something as a sign, we are thereby especially interested in an appearance property of it, we are, insofar, interested in it as a "qualisign," though it is not this appearance property of it which makes it a sign. Similarly, if, because of our interest in it as a sign, we are thereby especially interested in some existential relationship in which it stands, we are interested in it as a "sinsign," though, again, it is not in virtue of that relationship that it is a sign. If, however, we are not only interested in something as a sign, but also particularly interested in what it is that makes it to be or constitutes it as being a sign, then we are, insofar, interested in it as a legisign; for we are thereby interested in it as something having the power of generating an interpretant. And this is to say that we are interested in it as being a rule, meaning something which rules: a law determining the future course of semiosis in virtue of its specific power of generating interpretants of itself, affecting thereby the sequence of subsequent interpretation.
      Since there are three types of legisigns--iconic, indexical, and symbolic--there are three corresponding dimensions, as it were, of the self-governance implicit in a semiosis process as such: three co-operative ways in which the course of semiosis is determined--shaped, formed--in its overall contours; three basic principles of interpretation which work from within the semiosis process itself.
      Take, for example, the present essay considered as a putatively unitary whole. It is, purportedly, a single but highly complex unit of meaning made up of many sub-signs and sub-sub-signs, etc., such as, say, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, words (though this is an unrealistically crude way of isolating parts and sub-parts). On the one hand, considered as a unitary whole, it has a correspondingly unitary object, namely, that to which the title of the paper alludes: the semiosis process considered especially in respect to its teleological and autonomous character. (This, too, is a crude oversimplification. There are a number of different objects of this paper, considered as a sign: different things of which and different ways in which it is a sign.) On the other hand, it has a number of (possible or actual) unitary global interpretants as a sign of that object: one of them, for example, is that which you--in the distributive sense of "you"--come to understand about that object in virtue of your experience of this sign, i.e. in virtue of reading this paper. (To avoid complications here which would take us afield, let us assume that these various interpretants--I mean yours and his and hers and mine--are mutually compatible, as they could well be.)
      Now, insofar as any actual global interpretant achieves or approximates to such a unity, its parts or sub-units (and sub-sub-units, etc.) must all contribute in one way or another to the formation of this resultant global interpretant, which means that they must be co-ordinated throughout in such a way that the sub-interpretants they generate, which are themselves signs, can associate and enter into various combinations which generate further interpretants of which the same is true, and so forth, in such a way that the entire process will result finally in a unitary global interpretant of the whole, or at least will tend toward such a unitary and unifying interpretant. The legisigns of the three types--iconic, indexical, and symbolic--are, then, the three co-operative and co-ordinating factors in the process which are responsible for that overall tendency insofar as the agency of the tendency can be located in particular elements within the process.
      For this to be intelligible, though, one must not think of a complex written sign, such as the present essay, as being identical with the assemblage of signs on the pages of the book or journal whose space it occupies: these signs are but ordered points of entry, as it were, into a complex process whose elements include entities referred to or produced by these signs as well as these signs themselves. For the sub-signs (and sub-sub-signs, etc.) which go to make it up will typically introduce sub-objects having a variety of different relationships to the unitary object of the sign as a whole. Some of them will perhaps be parts or constituents of that global object; but a good many others will be objects which themselves function as signs of one kind and another relative either to the global object or to some other objects which have sign-value relative to the global object. And so forth. To the extent that the paper as a whole makes unitary sense, the many sub-object references it contains all contribute in one way or another, directly or indirectly, to its reference as a whole to its global object.
      The essential function of the indexical elements in the process is that of referential identification of the object; the essential function of the iconic elements is presentation of the relevant properties of that object; and the essential function of the symbolic factor is the correlation of the object indexed with the properties iconically presented, for the icon as such does not itself identify the object whose properties it iconizes (presents). It should be understood, though, that the indices proper which this or any such sign contains are themselves sinsigns, and their indicative function is not necessarily due to being replicas or instantiations of specifically indexical legisigns. (As we will see below, the same is true of icons proper.) For example, if a child simply says "ball" in the immediate presence of a ball, that sinsign--the word "ball" considered as something actually occurring--may index that ball even though the legisign it replicates is symbolic rather than indexical. If, on the other hand, the ball is indicated with the use of a pointing finger or demonstrative pronoun the indexing does indeed occur under the control of a specifically indexical legisign. In a sign as complex as the present theoretical paper, the indexical legisigns it contains--such general referential devices as relative pronouns, for example--obviously play a major role in controlling the referential elements in it in such a way as to insure that the object of the paper as a whole is always being referred to, directly or indirectly.
      But like any similar such complex sign, this paper does not merely refer indicatively to a certain object but purports also to convey something about it. In Peirce's view the latter depends upon its iconic components, which present some properties of it. It may not be obvious what the iconic elements are supposed to be in the case of the present paper, for example, because they do not appear on the printed page. But this is why it is important to bear in mind that what is on the printed page is only a part of the total sign. This paper purports to describe certain formal properties of semiosis and their formal relationships, and, in Peirce's view, anything formal has a qualitative aspect to it. Suppose, then, that I had introduced here a graphical notation for representing the structure of a text regarded as a dynamical semiosis process and had used such graphical forms throughout to convey an understanding of these relationships. In that case, some part, at least, of the iconic content of this paper would have appeared on the pages of this paper in explicit qualitative form. As it is, though, I have left it to the power of the word-signs to generate the appropriate icons required "in the imagination" of the reader.
      Supposing, then, that this paper does indeed succeed in conveying some coherent form of this kind (which is its overall and focal aim), it will be in virtue of a constructive process (within the more comprehensive semiosis process as a whole) comparable in its complexity with the index-by-index establishment of the global referential aspect of it discussed briefly above, though differing in the manner in which it is done. However, just as an index does not necessarily perform its function as such in virtue of also being an indexical legisign, so also an icon proper, which is as such a qualisign, does not always perform its semiotical function as an icon in virtue of occurring in a sign which is also a specifically iconic legisign. But whenever you do have an iconic legisign, what you have is a sign whose power of semiosis is the power of a schematic method of representation, a generative rule for producing concrete sinsigns which exhibit qualitatively the form of the icon proper, which may have many qualitative variations. (Think, for example, of the many qualitative variations of which, say, a triangular form is capable.) Thus in the case of a sign like the present paper, where the sort of iconic form which is under construction throughout is something like a graphical representation of a formal structure, the controlling function of iconic legisigns in insuring the constancy and consistency of the complex but unitary icon which is being constructed is obviously of major importance.
      Since iconic signs as such have no power of identifying the object whose properties they present with the object which is otherwise being indexed, they actually convey something about the latter only in virtue of their relationship to symbolic legisigns, which correlate what is iconized with what is indexed. Any actually occurring sign is as such a sinsign, and thus not a symbol proper but an index, though it may replicate a symbol proper (i.e. a symbolic legisign). Thus none of the marks on this page, considered as things occurring on this page (i.e. considered as sinsigns), are symbols proper, though many of them are symbol replicas. (Others are replicas of indexical rather than symbolic legisigns. If there were any graphical elements occurring on these pages they would probably be replicas of iconic legisigns.) But even though a symbol's power as such includes that of generating a further symbol as an interpretant of itself, and this is essential to the exercise of its control function, it is its introduction of an iconic sign into the process which constitutes its raison d'être, in the Peircean view. It is impossible to explain in a brief space the formal "mechanics" of the complex mode of operation of the symbol, and it will have to suffice for our limited purposes here to say simply that the job of the symbol is to effect a transition from an index to an icon in such a way that the transition has the force of a logical predication, i.e. such that the object indexed is ipso facto identified as being the object whose properties are exhibited in the icon, and that it does this in virtue of being an index in its actual occurrence as a symbol replica while at the same time having the power, as the replica of a symbolic legisign, of generating an icon. To borrow a metaphor from Plato: the symbolic principle immanent in semiosis is the principle of the shuttle which weaves together the woof and the warp--the indexical and iconic elements--of the fabric under construction in the semiosis process.
      But what about teleology? Well, there are somewhat more than 3000 word-signs on the printed pages of this paper, and these are only the entrance-way to the paper itself, which is by no means constituted by these entities alone. It is impossible to say exactly how many signs it actually consists of because there is no exact number of them to be counted (the boundaries of signs are only vaguely delimited); but there are, obviously, quite a large number of elements that must be in coordination if this paper as a whole is to have some reasonable degree of overall unity. Now I have composed it with the intention that it should add up to something more or less unitary in character, of course, and one might be inclined to think that such unity as it actually does have has somehow been imparted to it by this intention. But just as in the case of the power of the individual sign, this is true only in a causal not a logical sense: by the time you read this my compositional intention no longer has anything to do with the matter; it is up to the signs themselves to bring about such a convergence in the sign-interpretant process, and if they cannot do it there is no remedy except that of adding some more signs to it in hopes that the further semiosis they contribute will bring that end about. But if there is no such tendency to convergence to that end then there is no unitary interpretant; and if there is no unitary interpretant there is no unitary sign after all. Hence if, conversely, the sign as a whole is unitary, i.e. really is a sign, there is a real tendency to an end in the sign itself--that is, in the semiosis process--which is what is meant by saying that it is teleological. As we have seen, the type of teleology involved is tendential rather than intentional in type.

END OF:  Ransdell, "Teleology and the Autonomy of the Semiosis Process"

CONTRIBUTED BY: Joseph Ransdell
Posted to Arisbe website on Sept 21, 1997


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