Neglected aspects of Peirce’s writings: contributions to ethics and humanism

by Susan Petrilli 



1. New Perspectives reading Peirce; 2. Otherness in the self. The responsive interpretant, significance and value; 3. From reason to reasonableness; 4. Self between love and logic, reading together Peirce, Welby, Levinas; 5. Cosmology, semiotics and logic; 6. Enter semioethics



1. New perspectives reading Peirce


Certain aspects of Charles Peirce’s philosophical and semiotic conception have been generally neglected or misunderstood. In particular, my reference is to such aspects as the following: the question of the relation between semiosis, interpretation and quasi-interpreter; the impossibility of separating knowledge from responsible awareness, that is, knowledge from responsibility; the interconnection between body and sign; the dialogic nature of the sign and of the self; the relation to the sign to otherness; the foundation of anthropology and cosmology on agapastic relations; the critique of a monadic and egotistic conception of the social with reference to capitalist society and liberal ideology at the time Peirce was researching and writing; Peircean metaphysics as an instance of transcendence of the actual being of human beings, that is, transcendence of what they know and what they do. In other words, Peirce not only thematizes the actual being of human beings in gnoseological terms, but beyond this also in ethical terms; the idea of inferential procedure by approximation, not only when a question of the cognitive object but also for what concerns a more congruous social system, that is, for a system more responsive to human capacities and aspirations; opposition between “reasonableness” and “reason”, more specifically between “reasonableness” which does not separate logic from ethics, on the one hand, and “reason” when it tends to be absolute and dogmatic, on the other; Peirce’s unconditional refusal of pragmatism founded on the notion of utility and practice thereof. This eventually led him to invent the term “pragmaticism” in order to distinguish his own position from William James’s. All these aspects are important to consider for a rereading of Peirce that aims to free him from an oversimplified interpretation when his thought system is reduced to the gnoseological dimension. The task of this paper is to reflect on some of these aspects.


2. Otherness in the self. The responsive interpretant, significance and value


Peirce’s semiotics describes semiosis in terms of its potential for deferral and renvoi among interpretants, whether endosemiosically across interpretants forming the same sign system or intersemiosically across different sign systems. In Peirce’s approach, the sign is never something static or circumscribed to the limits of a single signifying system. On the contrary, the sign is characterized by its capacity for displacement, by what we might call the ‘flight of interpretants’, even across different sign systems.


This results in an increase in significance, as semiosic spheres in expansion pulsate ever more intensely with sense and meaning. Continuous displacement indicates to us how structural opening to otherness is a condition of sign identity, as paradoxical as this may seem. The question of otherness also  leads back to the problem of the ‘limits of interpretation’ (Eco 1990). Regarding this point, a crucial observation is that the semiotic materiality or otherness of the interpreted sign with respect to the interpretant sign is an obstacle to arbitrariness (Petrilli 2010: 49–88). The threat of relativism or of dogmatism in interpretive practice is avoided thanks to the strategies of dialogic confrontation among signs on the basis of reciprocal otherness (Ponzio 2006).