Charles S. Peirce

Richard J. Parmentier
Table of contents

One of the puzzles of the intellectual history of the ‘pragmatic’ turn in contemporary linguistics is the fact that the American mathematician and philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914), who developed a graphic formalism for evaluating the logical precision of scientific concepts, continues to be an important inspiration for the development of approaches to language that move beyond the synchronic, descriptive, and generative perspectives characteristic of the mainstream of linguistics scholarship. Many students of language first encountered Peirce’s semiotic ideas in the early 1920s in the ten pages of excerpts printed as an appendix to Ogden & Richards’ The Meaning of Meaning (1938 [1923]). The lengthy citations from Peirce’s papers and letters in this widely read text include discussions of the nature of the sign, the classification of ‘interpretants’ and ‘objects’ of signs, and the distinction between general sign ‘types’ and actual sign ‘tokens’. Roman Jakobson’s influential 1975 lecture, “A Few Remarks on Peirce: Pathfinder in the Science of Language”, reprinted in The Framework of Language (1980) and echoing points made repeatedly in teaching and writing since the 1950s, brought Peirce’s thought to the attention of general humanistic scholarship. Jakobson noted, in particular, Peirce’s notion of ‘meaning’ as a translation of one sign into a subsequent and further developed sign; that is, for Peirce meaning is a process of interpretation rather than a fixed mental entity. Equally important for Jakobson, Peirce’s analysis of the logical structure of sign relations harmonizes well with notions of ‘invariants’ being simultaneously developed in European linguistic theory.

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