In his twilight years, in the course of a discussion about two kinds of indeterminacy—indefiniteness and generality—Charles Peirce explained that the former ‘‘consists in the sign’s not sufficiently expressing itself to allow of an indubitable determinate interpretation,’’ since, as he had written somewhat earlier (1906), for a sign to fulfill its office,‘‘to actualize its potency,’’ it must be compelled (he meant in a purely physiological manner) by its object. The latter, generality, he held, ‘‘turns over to the interpreter the right to complete the determination as he please.’’ These observations, which have a direct bearing upon the question of pragmaticism, and much else—in particular, the notion of duality—besides, are immediately followed by a singularly haunting passage. The title for this volume builds upon this bedazzling sentence, one that Peirce himself might have characterized as exceedingly simple yet for that very reason most difficult to grasp: ‘‘It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe—not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as ‘the truth’—that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.’’
It fell to Jakob von Uexkiill and his successors to eventually provide the theoretical biological underpinning for Peirce’s view, which is tantamount to the assertion that in man, as in all other animals, semiosis has its source in the regulatory circuits that equilibrate and thus unify every living system (Cannon’s principle of homeostasis), as well as establishes and maintains networks of stable relationships among diverse organisms (in Jacob’s ascending hierarchy of intégrons). Semiosis must, of course, conform to the universal laws of thermodynamics, as René Thom—who was strongly influenced by both Peirce and von Uexküll—has lately shown in several landmark contributions, rooted in topology, that surely betoken the most consequential turning point in the history of semiotics since Peirce.
In 1962, a conference was convened at Indiana University for a consideration of the twin topics of ‘‘paralinguistics’’ and ‘‘kinesics,’’ the results of which were published two years afterwards under the prescient title Approaches to Semiotics. (The whimsical circumstances that led to this ex post facto relabeling are related—or rationalized—in my 1976 book, Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs, pp. 21-22 and 51-52.) The contents of the work at hand represent, however, (most of) the transactions of what explicitly was planned and veridically became the First North American Semiotics Colloquium ever held in the United States. This Colloquium took place on July 28-30, 1975, at the University of South Florida, Tampa, within the wider framework of that Summer’s nine-week Linguistic Institute held under the auspices of the Linguistic Society of America. Three ‘‘pioneers,’’ Shands, Stankiewicz, and I, who took part in the earlier conference, were in Tampa too, and each is, in fact, a contributor to this new book.
The meeting was assembled for two different but closely interrelated reasons: the primary objective was to provide a formal opportunity for the founding of an organization of U.S. semioticians; an incidental but no less important purpose was to make a scholarly forum available for the ventilation of a wide range of current issues in semiotic theory and practice. The congregation was unusual—indeed, unprecedented—in that it included, over and above a large number of language scientists (among them both the 1975 and the 1976 Presidents of the LSA, the second also a recent President of the Charles S. Peirce Society) teaching or studying at the Linguistic Institute, many invited as well as volunteer North and South American and West European participants with expertise in diverse branches of semiotics, complemented by an exceptionally rich representation from Eastern Europe (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia), and the USSR (the latter in the person of Thomas V. Gamkralidze, of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, in Tbilisi). The Secretary General of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Umberto Eco, came from Italy, and Roland Posner, now the President of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Semiotik, from Germany. The Secretary of the Polish Semiotic Society, Jerzy Pelc, was there from Warsaw, as was the Secretary of the Hungarian Semiotic Society, Özséb Horányi, from Budapest, among such other prominent Continental semioticians as Solomon Marcus, from Bucharest, and Ivo Osolsobě, from Brno. Grants supporting the participation of many of our foreign visitors—both world-famous scholars and some of their burgeoning disciples—were generously provided by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Department of State's Board on Foreign Scholarships and Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, the Ford Foundation, and the International Research and Exchanges Board. To all of these private and federal agencies who helped, often acting on short notice, to enable the travel and sustenance of these colleagues, I extend, once again— this time publicly—my warmest appreciation for their timely aid.
Peirce had modestly characterized himself to be only ‘‘a pioneer, or rather a backwoodsman, in the work of clearing and opening up’’ what he called ‘‘semiotic.’’ Charles Morris, whose interest in the theory of signs began in the early 1920s, remarked half a century later that he still felt ‘‘essentially the same about [his] own work.’’ But it is from the seed sown by autochthonous giants such as Peirce and Morris, the foundational doctrine of semiotics as severally delineated by them, that we all now reap. (When Walt Whitman wrote, ‘‘Enclosed and safe within its central heart,/Nestles the seed perfection,’’ was he aware, I wonder, of the etymological resonances of sēma and sēmen, as Dante must have been in ‘‘ogni erba si conosce per lo seme’’?)
In conformity with Peirce’s belief that the entire universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs, the theme that animated the Colloquium and that, accordingly, informs the contents of this book is that of global unity underlying variety, and a spirit of ecumenicalism that, more and more, characterizes contemporary semiotics. However, the specific ways in which signs function in various human sciences are also clearly brought out in this book, which may fairly be taken as a companion volume to a further collection, Sight, Sound, and Sense, to follow shortly under the same publisher's imprint. For technical reasons, a few papers delivered viva voce could, regrettably, not be included in this volume, notably one on semiotics and the visual arts and another (which its author is expanding into a book) on semiotics and the theater.
It remains for me to report that the conference closed with a business session the principal long-range result of which was the creation, in 1976, of the Semiotic Society of America, incorporated, February last, in the State of New York. With an exceptionally successful first Annual Meeting, at the Georgia Institute of Technology, now behind us, with future meetings scheduled to be held at such centers of excellence as Colorado (1977), Brown (1978), Indiana (1979), and with hundreds of active members joining our circles daily from here and abroad, this collection should also be regarded as a celebration of this consolidating achievement, a milestone in the development of semiotics in North America and wherever, in perpetually widening circles throughout the world, the thought of Peirce is finding stronger and more sympathetic echoes.
Thomas A. Sebeok
February 1, 1977