The poet Joseph Brodsky remarked that a study in genealogy “normally is owing to either pride in one’s ancestry or uncertaintly about it” (1989:44). Indeed, most contemporary American workers in semiotics proudly trace their lineage, or try to, as do growing numbers abroad, to Peirce, whom Max Fisch once justly characterized as “the most original and versatile intellect that the Americas have so far produced” (1980:7). In this, he perhaps echoed Peirce’s student and sometime collaborator in the early 1880s, Joseph Jastrow, who called his teacher “one of the most exceptional minds that America has produced” and “a mathematician of first rank” (1930:135).
Of course, intimations of Western semiotics—sometimes under the distinctly indexical nom de guerre “sem(e)iotic”—which, in a sense, culminated with Peirce, gradually sprouted out of the haze of millennia before him. And the doctrine of signs, to which Peirce imparted so critical a spin, today clearly continues to flourish almost everywhere. His reflection, that “human inquiries,—human reasoning and observation,—tend toward the settlement of disputes and ultimate agreement in definite conclusions which are independent of the particular stand-points from which the different inquirers may have set out” (8.41, 1885), holds surely no less for semiotics than it applies in other domains of study and research.
Fourteen years ago this month, The Johns Hopkins University hosted The Charles Peirce Symposium on Semiotics and the Arts. Featuring invited lectures by Eco, Jakobson, Geertz, and others, the papers were delivered in the presence of many distinguished discussants. My particular assignment had been to give the opening address, on a topic of my choice. Having had in mind at the time to prepare an interlinked trio of papers—one on iconicity, another on indexicality, a third on the symbol; in brief, to review the overall question: How do different categories of signs signify their objects?—I opted, because the time seemed ripe for this in Baltimore, to explore the mysteries of iconicity (Sebeok 1976; cf. Bouissac et al. 1986).
Here, I should like to present some thoughts concerning the second category, indexicality. (The third subject has, at least for the nonce, been preempted by Eco’s detailed analysis [1984, Ch. 4].)
It should go without saying that this Peircean category, like every other, cannot be well understood piecemeal, without taking into account, at much the same time, the veritable cascade of other irreducible triadic relational structures which make up the armature of Peirce’s semiotic—indeed, without coming to terms with his philosophy in its entirety. But this ideal procedure would be mandatory only were I bent on exegesis rather than engaged—taking Peirce’s ideas as a kind of beacon—in a quest of my own. I should nonetheless give at least one example of the dilemma of selectivity, and do so by noting how Peirce tied together his notions of deduction and indexicality:
An Obsistent Argument, or Deduction, is an argument representing facts in the Premiss, such that when we come to represent them in a Diagram we find ourselves compelled to represent the fact stated in the Conclusion; so that the Conclusion is drawn to recognize that, quite independently of whether it be recognized or not, the facts stated in the premisses are such as could not be if the fact stated in the conclusion were not there; that is to say, the Conclusion is drawn in acknowledgment that the facts stated in the premisses constitute an Index of the fact which it is thus compelled to acknowledge . . . [2.96, c. 1902].
It was Rulon Wells who, in an article that even today amply rewards close study for its extraordinary fecundity, argued the following three interesting claims (1967:104): (1) that Peirce’s notion of the icon is as old as Plato’s (namely that the sign imitates the signified); (2) that Peirce’s notion of the symbol is original but fruitless; and (3) that it is “with his notion of index that Peirce is at once novel and fruitful.” I discussed some implications of the first of these statements in 1975; this is not the place to debate the second.
The third assertion is, I enthusiastically concur with Wells, doubtless true. Peirce’s views on the index may in truth have been historically rooted in his interest in the realism of Scotus; “hic and nunc,” he once observed, “is the phrase perpetually in the mouth of Duns Scotus” (1.458, 1896). “The index,” he later amplified, “has the being of present experience” (4.447, c. 1903). Whatever the attested sources of his ideas on this topic may have been, his innovativeness in respect to the index is, as Wells noted (ibid.), due to the fact that Peirce saw, as had no one before him, “that indication (pointing, ostension, deixis) is a mode of signification as indispensable as it is irreducible.”
Peirce contended that no matter of fact can be stated without the use of some sign serving as an index, the reason for this being the inclusion of designators as one of the main classes of indexes. He regarded designations as “absolutely indispensable both to communication and to thought. No assertion has any meaning unless there is some designation to show whether the universe of reality or what universe of fiction is referred to” (8.368n23, from the undated “Notes on Topical Geometry”). Deictics of various sorts, including tenses, constitute perhaps the most clear-cut examples of designations. Peirce identified universal and existential quantifiers with selective pronouns, which he classified with designations as well (2.289, c. 1893).
Peirce called his other main class of indexes reagents. Since reagents may be used to ascertain facts, little wonder they became the staple of detective fiction, as was dazzlingly demonstrated in the famous Sherlock and My croft Holmes duet in “The Greek Interpreter,” and thereafter replayed by Conan Doyle’s countless copycats.
Space permits but a single cited exemplification here of how this detectival method of abduction (alias “deduction”) (cf. Eco and Sebeok 1983) works in some detail. The rei signum of my choice (Quintilian 8.6.22) involves (as it turns out) a bay mare, or yet another a horse, an animal which, for obscure reasons, has been favored in this context by dozens of novelists from the 1747 episode of the king’s horse in Voltaire’s Zadig, via the chronicle of Silver Blaze, John Straker’s racehorse and the many ensuing racehorses of Dick Francis, to Baskerville’s incident of the abbot’s horse, by Eco (cf. Sebeok 1990a). My parodic pick comes from the Dorothy L. Sayers novel Have His Carcase (1932:209-210).
In Chapter 16, Harriet Vane hands over to Lord Peter Wimsey a shoe she has just found on the beach. He then proceeds to reconstruct—ex alio aliud etiam intellegitur (Quintilian 8.6.22)—a horse from this synecdoche:
He ran his fingers gently round the hoop of metal, clearing the sand away.
“It’s a new shoe—and it hasn’t been here very long. Perhaps a week, perhaps a little more. Belongs to a nice little cob, about fourteen hands. Pretty little animal, fairly well-bred, rather given to kicking her shoes off, pecks a little with the off-fore.”
“Holmes, this is wonderful! How do you do it?”
“Perfectly simple, my dear Watson. The shoe hasn’t been worn thin by the ‘ammer, ‘ammer, ‘ammer on the ‘ard ‘igh road, therefore it’s reasonably new. It’s a little rusty from lying in the water, but hardly at all rubbed by sand and stones, and not at all corroded, which suggests that it hasn’t been here long. The size of the shoe gives the size of the nag, and the shape suggests a nice little round, well-bred hoof. Though newish, the shoe isn’t fire-new, and it is worn down a little on the inner front edge, which shows that the wearer was disposed to peck a little; while the way the nails are placed and clinched indicates that the smith wanted to make the shoe extra secure—which is why I said that a lost shoe was a fairly common accident with this particular gee. Still, we needn’t blame him or her too much. With all these stones about, a slight trip or knock might easily wrench a shoe away.”
“Him or her. Can’t you go on and tell the sex and colour while you’re about it?”
“I am afraid even I have my limitations, my dear Watson.”
. . . .
“Well, that’s quite a pretty piece of deduction. . . .”
Peirce pointed out that “A scream for help is not only intended to force upon the mind the knowledge that help is wanted, but also to force the will to accord it” (2.289, 1893). Perhaps Peirce’s best known example of a reagent—although a disconcerting one, for it seems exempt from his general rule that an index would lose its character as a sign if it had no interpretant (Ayer 1968:153)—involved “a piece of mould with a bullet-hole in it as a sign of a shot; for without a shot there would have been no hole; but there is a hole there, whether anybody has the sense to attribute it to a shot or not” (2.304, c. 1901).
Here belong motor signs as well, when, as is commonly the case, they serve to indicate the state of mind of the utterer; however, if a gesture serves merely to call attention to its utterer, it is but a designation.
An index, as Peirce spelled this out further, “is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object” (2.248, c. 1903)—where the word “really” resonates to Scotus’ doctrine of realitas et realitas, postulating a real world in which universals exist and general principles manifest themselves in the sort of cosmos that scientists try to decipher.
Peirce specified that, “insofar as the Index is affected by the Object, it necessarily has some Quality in common with the Object, and it is in respect to these that it refers to the Object” (2.305, c. 1901). He further noted that “a sign, or representation, which refers to its object not so much because of any similarity or analogy with it, nor because it is associated with general characters which that object happens to possess, as because it is in dynamical (including spatial) connection both with the individual object, on the one hand, and with the senses or memory of the person whom it serves as a sign, on the other hand.” (Let it be recalled that all objects, on the one hand, and the memory, being a reservoir of interpretants, on the other, are also kinds of signs or systems of signs.)
Thus indexicality hinges on association by contiguity (a technical expression Peirce understandably disliked [3.419, 1892]), not, as iconicity does, by likeness; nor does it rest, in the manner of a symbol, on “intellectual operations.” Indexes, “whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact, . . . direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion” (1.558, 1867).
A grisly instance (only recently laid to rest) of association by contiguity was the right arm of the Mexican General Alvaro Obregon. Lost at the elbow during a battle in 1915, the limb had for fifty-four years, until the summer of 1989, been on display in a jar of formaldehyde at a large marble monument in Mexico City, where it acquired talismanic qualities referring to the ruthless former president. When the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez suggested (Rohter 1989) that “they should just replace [the decaying appendage] with another arm,” he was effectively advocating that the limb be transfigured from an index with a mystical aura into a symbol with historical significance.
Iconicity and indexicality were often, although never by Peirce, polarized with the same or comparable labels in the most various fields as if the two categories were antagonistic rather than complementary (Sebeok 1985a: 77, 132)—so that, for instance, James G. Frazer contrasted homeopathic with contagious magic, “the magical sympathy which is supposed to exist between a man and any severed portion of his person”; the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer set apart a “factor of similarity” from a “factor of proximity”; the neuropsychologist Alexander Luria distinguished similarity disorders from contiguity disorders in aphasic patients; linguists in the Saussurean tradition differentiated the paradigmatic from the syntagmatic axis, opposition from contrast; and so forth.
Contiguity is actualized in rhetoric, among other devices, by the trope of metonymy: the replacement of an entity by one of its indexes. The possessive relation between an entity and its index is often realized in grammar by the genitive case (Thom 1973:95-98), as in these two Shakespearean couplets: “Eye of newt, and toe of frog / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog” (Macbeth), with a preposition; and “O tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide” (King Henry VI), without a preposition. The pars pro toto proportion is also at the core of the anthropological and, in particular, psychosexual semiotic category known as “fetish” (cf. Ch. 12, above). In poetics, entire genres have sometimes been professed, as lyric verse, to be imbued with iconicity, and, contrastively, epics with indexicality.
The closely related notion of ostension, launched by Russell in 1948, and later developed by Quine, in the sense of “ostensive definition,” should be alluded to here, at least in passing. The Czech theater semiotician Ivo Osolsobě extensively analyzed this concept in the somewhat different context of “ostensive communication” (for example, in 1979). This is sometimes also called “presentation” or “showing.” Osolsobe wants to distinguish sharply ostension from indexicality, deixis, natural signs, communication by objects, and the like. However, I find his paradoxical assertion that “ostension is the cognitive use of non-signs,” and his elaboration of a theory of ostension as a theory of nonsigns, muddled and perplexing.
Temporal succession, relations of a cause to its effect, or vice versa, of an effect to its cause, or else some space-time vinculum between an index and its dynamic object, as Berkeley and Hume had already discovered but as Peirce went much further to elaborate, lurk at the heart of indexicality. Thus epidemiologists, responsible for investigating the outbreak of a disease (that is, an effect) impinging upon a large number of people in a given locality, seek a source carrier (that is, a causative agent), whom they call, in the root purport of their professional jargon, an “index case,” who, and only who, had been exposed, say, to an unknown viral stockpile. It is in this sense that a Canadian airline steward, Gaetan Dugas, aka the infamous Patient Zero, was supposedly identified as the index case for AIDS infection in North America.
A given object can, depending on the circumstance in which it is displayed, momentarily function, to a degree, in the role of an icon, an index, or a symbol. Witness the Stars and Stripes: iconicity comes to the fore when the interpreter’s attention fastens upon the seven red horizontal stripes of the flag alternating with six white ones (together identical with the number of founding colonies), or the number of white stars clustered in a single blue canton (in all, identical to the number of actual states in the Union); in a cavalry charge, say, the flag was commonly employed to point imperatively, in an indexical fashion, to a target; and the debates pursuant to the recent Supreme Court decision on the issue of flag burning behold our banner as an emotionally surcharged emblem, being a subspecies of symbol.
Peirce once stated uncommonly loosely that a sign “is either an icon, an index, or a symbol” (2.304, c. 1901). But this plainly cannot be so. Once Peirce realized that the utility of his trichotomy is greatly enhanced when, to allow for the recognition of differences in degree, not signs but rather aspects of signs are being classified, he emended his statement thus: “it would be difficult if not impossible, to instance an absolutely pure index, or to find any sign absolutely devoid of the indexical quality” (2.306, c. 1901) (although he did allow demonstrative and relative pronouns to be “nearly pure indices,” on the ground that they denote things but do not describe them [3.361, 1885]). Ransdell rightly emphasized that one and the same sign can—and, I would insist, must—“function at once as an icon and symbol as well as an index” (1986:1.341); in other words, that all signs necessarily partake of Secondness, although this aspect is prominently upgraded only in certain contexts.
Peirce, who fully recognized that an utterer and an interpreter of a sign “need not be persons” at all (MS 318:205, c. 1907), would not in the least have been shocked to learn that semiosis, in the indexical relationship, or Secondness—along with its elder and younger siblings, Firstness and Thirdness—appeared in terrestrial evolution about 3.6 × 109 years ago. Too, in human ontogenesis, Secondness is a universal of infant prespeech communicative behavior (Trevarthen 1990). The reason for this is that the prime reciprocal implication between ego, a distinct sign maker, and alter, a distinguishable sign interpreter—neither of which, I repeat, need be an integrated organism—is innate in the very fabric of the emergent, intersubjective, dialogic mind (Braten 1988).
Signs, inclusive of indexes, occur at their most primitive, on the singlecell level, as a physical or chemical entity, external or internal with respect to the embedding organism as a reference frame, which they may “point” to, read, or microsemiosically parse—in brief, can issue functional instructions for, in the manner of an index. Such an index, which may be as simple as a change in magnitude, a mere shape, a geometric change in surface area, or some singularity, can be significant to a cell because it evokes memories, that is, exposes previously masked stored information.
The following striking example, from the life of the ubiquitous prokaryotic bacterium E. coli, was provided by Berg (1976), here paraphrased after an interpretation by Yates (in press). This single-celled creature has multiple flagellae that it can rotate either clockwise or counterclockwise. When its flagellae rotate clockwise, they fly apart, causing the organism to tumble. When they rotate counterclockwise, they are drawn together into a bundle which acts as a propeller to produce smooth, directed swimming. Roaming about in your gut, the bacterium explores a chemical field for nutrients by alternating—its context serving as operator—between tumbling and directed swimming until it finds an optimally appropriate concentration of chemical attractant, such as sugar or an amino acid, for its replication. In doing so, it relies on a memory lasting approximately 4 seconds, allowing it to compare deictically, over short times and distances, where it was with where it is. On that basis, it “decides,” with seeming intentionality, whether to tumble (stay in place) or swim, searching for another indexical match somewhere else.
It may be pertinent to note that, with respect to their rhythmic movements, the hie et nunc that we humans perceive has a duration of 3 seconds. Poets and composers appear to have been intuitively aware of this fact (proved by Ernst Poppel) in providing proper “pauses” in their texts. Recent ethological work in societies the world over on ostensive and other body posture movements of an indexical character revealed that there are no cultural differences in the duration of these kinds of behaviors, and that the time intervals last an average of 2 seconds for repeated gestures and 2.9 seconds for nonrepeated gestures. According to the researchers, the 3-second “time window” appears to be fully used up in these circumstances.
Jakob von Uexküll, laboring in Hamburg in a very different scientific tradition and employing a discrepant but readily reconcilable technical jargon, was laying down the foundations of biosemiotics and setting forth the principles of phytosemiosis and zoosemiosis at roughly the same time as Peirce was elaborating general semiotics in the solitude of Milford. Unfortunately, neither knew of the other.
It fell to a contemporary German semiotician, Martin Krampen, in collaboration with Uexküll’s elder son, Thure, to show in detail why and precisely how the Peircean distinctions apply to plants. Krampen wrote in part:
If one wants to extend this trichotomy to plants on the one hand, versus animals and humans on the other, the absence of the function cycle [which, in animals, connect receptor organs via a nervous system to effector organs] would suggest that, in plants, indexicality certainly predominates over iconicity. . . . Indexicality, on the vegetative level, corresponds to the sensing and regulating, in a feedback cycle, of meaningful stimulation directly contiguous to the form of the plant [1981:195-196].
After all, as Peirce once mused, “even plants make their living . . . by uttering signs” (MS 318:205, c. 1907).
Indexical behavior is found in abundance in animals, too. Here I must restrict myself to citing just a single avian example (one which I described in detail in Sebeok 1986a:136-139). The bird I speak of was presciently named Indicator indicator by its ornithologist taxonomer; its English name is “black-throated honeyguide.” The honeyguide’s singular habit of beckoning and pointing various large mammals, including men, toward nests of wild bees was first noted in Southeast Mozambique in 1569. When the bird discovers a hive, it may seek out a human partner, whom it then pilots to the hive by means of an elaborate audio-visual display.
The display proceeds in roughly the following manner. The normally inconspicuous honeyguide calls out, emitting a continuous sequence of churring notes. Then it flies, in stages, to the nearest tree, lingering motionless on an easily seen branch until the pursuit recommences. When embarking on a flight—which may last from two to twenty minutes, and extend from 20 to 750 meters—the bird soars with an initial downward dip, its white tail feathers saliently outspread. Its agitated ostensive comportment continues until the vicinity of the objective, a bees’ nest, is reached. Avian escorts and their human followers are also capable of reversing their roles in this indexical pas de deux: people can summon a honeyguide by mimicking the sonancy of a tree being felled, thereby triggering the behavior sequence described.
Such words as “symptom,” “cue,” “clue,” “track,” “trail,” and so forth, are among the high number of English quasi synonyms of “index.” Peirce’s telling example of Secondness—that the footprint Robinson Crusoe found in the sand, “and which has been stamped in the granite of fame, was an Index to him that some creature was on his island” (4.531, c. 1906)—implies, in such a typical case, a key attribute of indexicality, to wit: that the operation Jakobson dubbed renvoi, or referral, directs Robinson Crusoe back to some day, presumably prior to Friday, in the past. The index, as it were, inverts causality. In Friday’s case, the vector of the index points to a bygone day in that a signans, the imprint of some foot in the sand, temporally rebounds to a signatum, the highly probable presence of some other creature on the island. Thom (1980) has analyzed some fascinating ramifications of parallels, or the lack of them, between semiotic transfers of this sort and physical causality, and the genesis of symbols—that footprint which, Peirce noted (ibid.), at the same time “as a Symbol, called up the idea of a man.”
At least twice in his career, Peirce became entangled in true-life encounters with multitudes of indexical signs: once, in the company of his father, in 1867, in the Case of the Witch of Wall Street, for which the world is not yet prepared; and in 1879, in the singular adventure of the Tiffany lever watch. Alas, time does not now allow me to dwell on those fascinating experiences. But I intend to return elsewhere soon to the earlier episode; and we previously used the latter, a real detective story—a genre which, by the way, Caprettini (in Eco and Sebeok 1983:136) aptly defined as “a tale which consists of the production of symptoms”—as a springboard to provide a modest entry into Peirce’s semiotic (Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok, 1980).
The historian Carlo Ginzburg (1983) has exposed commonalities among art historians who study features of paintings by means of the so-called Morelli method, medical diagnosticians and psychoanalysts bent on eliciting symptoms, and detectives in pursuit of clues. Ginzburg invokes a canonical trio of physicians—Dr. Morelli, Dr. Freud, and Dr. Conan Doyle—to make out a very convincing case for their and their colleagues’ parallel dependence on indexical signs. He shows that, as to their historical provenance, features, symptoms, clues, and the like, they are all based on the same ancient semiotic paradigm: the medical.
That model is, of course, implicit in the Hippocratic writings, as in the marvelous depiction of the facies Hippocratica, with its perhaps gruesome catalogue of indicial symptoms, in all sure signs of our mortality; and in this classic, everlasting, well-nigh exhaustive inventory of iatrical indexes, which I cannot refrain from quoting at length (from Epidemics I, after Heidel 1941:129):
The following were the circumstances attending the diseases, from which I formed my judgments, learning from the common nature of all and the particular nature of the individual, from the disease, the patient, the regimen prescribed and the prescriber—for these make a diagnosis more favorable or less; from the constitution, both as a whole and with respect to the parts, of the weather and of each region; from the customs, mode of life, practices and age of each patient; from talk, manner, silence, thoughts, sleep or absence of sleep, the nature and time of dreams, pluckings, scratchings, tears; from the exacerbations, stools, urine, sputa, vomit, the antecedents of consequents of each member in the succession of diseases, and the absessions to a fatal issue or a crisis, sweat, rigor, chill, cough, sneezes, hiccoughs, breathing, belchings, flatulence, silent or noisy, hemorrhages, and hemorrhoids. From these things we must consider what their consequents also will be.
The same model was later made amply explicit by Galen (c. A. D. 130-201), who not only systematized semiotics in one of his treatises as one of the six principal branches of medicine, but who also showed in the same chapter how the formulation of a clinical diagnosis, with an eventual prognostic extrapolation therefrom, based on subjective symptoms and objective “signs” yoked together into coherent syndromes, mandate strict causal thinking by means of indexical signs.
Indexes included for Peirce “all natural signs and physical symptoms. . . . a pointing finger being the type of the class” (3.361, 1885). The “signs which become such by virtue of being really connected with their objects” comprehended for him “the letters attached to parts of a diagram” as much as “a symptom of disease” (8.119, c. 1902). Writing to Lady Welby, he contrasted “the occurrence of a symptom of a disease, . . . a legisign, a general type of a definite character,” with its “occurrence in a particular case [which is] a sinsign” (8.335, 1904). This surely means that a symptom is a type, or an indexical legisign, apart from its individual expression, but that it becomes a token, or indexical sinsign, when displayed in an actual, particular patient. (See also Short 1982.)
Ginzburg adroitly traces the origins of this medical model based on the decipherment and interpretation of clues, clinical and otherwise, to two coupled sources: early man’s hunting practices, as he retrogressed from the effects, an animal’s tracks and other leavings—“prints in soft ground, snapped twigs, droppings, snagged hairs or feathers, smells, puddles, threads of saliva”—to their actual cause, a yet unseen quarry; and Mesopotamian divinatory techniques, progressing magically from an actual present cause to a prognosticated future effect—“animals’ innards, drops of oil in water, stars, involuntary movements” (1983:88-89).
Ginzburg’s subtle arguments, which make learned use of the overarching medieval and modern comparison between the world—metaphorically, the Book of Nature—and the book, both assumed to lie open ready to be read once one knows how to interpret indexical signs, draws comprehensively upon Old World sources. But he could as easily have cited nineteenth-century American fiction, such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking saga or other mythic accounts of Noble Savages, to illustrate their dependence on sequences on indexical cues, available to immediate perception, which enabled the art of pathfinding through the wilderness landscape. Thus alone Uncas, the last of the Mohicans, is able to read a language, namely, the Book of Nature, “that would prove too much for the wisest” of the white men, Hawkeye; so also Uncas’s crucial discovery of a footprint, in one of Cooper’s novels, makes it possible for Hawkeye confidently to assert, “I can now read the whole of it.” (Cf. Sebeok 1990.)
So also Robert Baden-Powell, who, in his military manual Reconnaissance and Scouting (1884), adapted Sherlock Holmes’s technique of “deduction,” that is, inferring important conclusions from seemingly insignificant clues, when teaching his young troopers how to interpret enemy locations and intentions by studying indexic topographical signs, including footprints.
For the farmer, forester, and professional gardner, it is essential, if only for reasons of economy, to be able to sort out animal tracks (for details, see Bang and Dahlstrom 1972). We know from contemporary field naturalists’ accounts that Nature continually provides, printed in the ground for anyone who cares to follow it, a record of the previous night’s activities. Thus Tinbergen used to spend many an hour “in ‘countryside detection’, reading these stories written in footprint code, revelling in the patterns of light and shade in the stillness of early morning” (Ennion and Tinbergen 1967).
The body of any vertebrate, including human, is composed of a veritable armamentarium of more or less palpable indexical markers of unique selfhood. Certain mantic practices, such as haruspication from patterns of liver flukes, and palmistry, but also some highly consequential pseudosciences—graphology today (Furnham 1988), phrenology in the past—hinge pivotally on Secondness, as when, according to Kevles’s awesome account (1985:6), the chief of the London Phrenological Institution told Francis Galton, himself to become no mean biometrician, that men of his head type—his skull measured twenty-two inches around—“possessed a sanguine temperament, with considerable ‘self-will, self-regard, and no small share of obstinacy,’ ” and that “there is much enduring power in such a mind as this—much that qualifies a man for ‘roughing it’ in colonising.”
Some forms of entertainment, such as stage conjury and circus animal acts, rely crucially on the manipulation of indexical signs. So do certain crafts, such as handwriting authentication (à la Benjamin and Charles Peirce); and of course identification, criminal or otherwise, by fingerprinting (Moenssens 1971), mentioned no less than seven times by Sherlock Holmes, according to a phenotypic system devised by Galton in the 1890s. In 1894, Mark Twain’s fictional character Pudd’nhead Wilson became the first lawyer in the world to use fingerprints in a criminal case, antedating Scotland Yard by eight years. Such indexes are called in the business “professional signs”; the distinguished sociologist Erving Goffman called them “positive marks” or “identity pegs” (1963:56). Preziosi (1989:94-95) further connects the methods of Morelli, Voltaire’s Zadig, Sherlock Holmes, and Freud with Hyppolyte Taine’s petits faits, or his system of cultural and artistic indexes, and with Peirce.
All such devices likewise richly hinge on Secondness, as was already evident in such protosemiotic works as Alphonse Bertillon’s Service de signalements (1888) and Instructions signalétiques (1893). He dubbed his system of measurements of parts of the body “anthropometry.” On the genotypic plane, so-called DNA fingerprinting can (arguably so) now in fact identify with a discrimination far beyond anything available in forensics heretofore, in fact with absolute certainty (if properly used), every individual (excepting an identical twin), even by a single hair root on a small piece of film displaying his or her unique sequence of indexical DNA molecules.
Natural sciences in general work empirically by decoding indexes, then interpreting them. The crystallographer Alan Mackay (1984) in particular has shown how his field shares with divination “a belief that nature can be made to speak to us in some metalanguage about itself, a feeling that nature is written in a kind of code,” and how augurers decode nature’s indexical messages by magic, scientists by logic. Crystallographers are strongly and consciously influenced by techniques of decryption and they have heavily borrowed from the semiotic vocabulary of the cryptographers; for example, they speak of X-ray diffraction photographs as message texts.
The study of the distinctive pheromonal function (cf. Toller and Dodd 1989), nowadays subsumed under a newly designated scientific rubric, “semiochemistry,” of human chemical signatures, has in fact been compared with individual fingerprints. Patrick Stiskind based his novel Das Parfum entirely on the indexical facets of human semiochemistry with its devastating repercussions. This field encompasses the study of odors,1 of which Peirce wrote in an amazingly lyrical yet seldom remembered passage that these “are signs in more than one way,” which “have a remarkable tendency to presentmentate themselves . . . namely, by contiguous association, in which odors are particularly apt to act as signs.” He continued in this personal vein:
A lady’s favorite perfume seems to me somehow to agree with that of her spiritual being. If she uses none at all her nature will lack perfume. If she wears violet she herself will have the very same delicate finesse. Of the only two I have known to use rose, one was an artistic old virgin, a grande dame; the other a noisy young matron and very ignorant; but they were strangely alike. As for those who use heliotrope, frangipanni, etc., I know them as well as I desire to know them. Surely there must be some subtle resemblance between the odor and the impression I get of this or that woman’s nature [1.313, c. 1905].
Our immune system utilizes approximately as large a number of cells dispersed throughout our body as the number of cells that composes a human brain. These endosymbiotic—or, as I would prefer, endosemiotic—aggregations of spirochetal remnants, functioning (as Jerne has shown ) in the open-ended manner of a finely tuned generative grammar, constitute an extremely sensitive, sophisticated repertory of indexical signs, circumscribing, under normal conditions, our unique biological selfhood. Sadly, Secondness can go awry under pathological conditions, when for instance, one is afflicted, with certain types of carcinoma, an autoimmune disease, or ultimately even when administered immunosuppressors after an organ transplant.
Most of the huge literature on indexicality has been played out either in the verbal arena or else in the visual (for one discussion of the latter, see Sonesson 1989:38-65). Peirce was right as usual in arguing for the predominance of indexicality over iconicity, in respect to the mode of production, in photographs: “they belong to the second class of signs, those by physical connection” (2.281, c. 1895). This has now been documented in Philippe Dubois’s outstanding study, L’acte photographique (1988). And it has long been obvious that metonymy—especially the indexical method of pars pro toto—far outweighs the uses of metaphor in films.
In the verbal domain, indexicality has chiefly preoccupied, although with rather differing emphases, philosophers of language and professional linguists. Surveying, by one who is not, the contributions of the philosophers—say, Hilary Putnam’s insight that lexemes (beyond such obvious deictics as personal or demonstrative pronouns) tend to have an “unnoticed” indexical component, especially as this led to Putnam’s startling convergence with Saul Kripke’s doctrine concerning natural-kind words; let alone attempting to assess the writings of classic figures of the stature of Russell, Wittgenstein, Reichenbach, Bar-Hillel, or Strawson—would be an act of supererogation, as well as carrying water, or suchlike rigid designators (alias indexical legisigns), from Twin Earth up to Cambridge.
Suffice it to say that I generally found Bar-Hillel’s conspectus (orginally published in 1954, later variously developed; see 1970, passim) personally useful. He of course knew that it was Peirce who had launched the terms “indexical sign” and “index.” He went on to remind his readers that Russell used instead “ego-centric particulars” (earlier: “emphatic particulars”), though without resolving whether Russell rediscovered indexicality independently of Peirce or simply relabeled it. He further recalled that “Nelson Goodman coined ‘indicator’, and Hans Reichenbach ‘tokenreflexive word’.” Gale later (1967) compared and contrasted Peirce’s, Russell’s, and Reichenbach’s approaches. Bar-Hillel himself, in his elegant critical investigation (mainly on the sentence level) stuck—if not to all of his claims—with Peirce’s terminology, “since it provides an adjective easily combined with ‘sign’, ‘word’, ‘expression’, ‘sentence’, ‘language’, ‘communication’ alike” (ibid.:79).
The overall interest of philosophers in indexical expressions is bound up, as I understand it, with their search for an ideal language, consisting of a set of context-free sentences as an instrument to employ for probing the universe sub specie aeternitatis.
In Ayer’s phrasing (1968:167), the argument has been about “whether language can be totally freed from dependence upon context.” Ayer was unable to decide this for himself, and I believe that the matter is still wide open. However, whether or not this indecision has any serious consequences for indexicality in general or for Peirce’s view of this matter in particular seems to me quite doubtful. For, as Ayer thought as well (ibid.), “although a reference to context within the language may not be necessary for the purposes of communication, there will still be occasions, in practice, when we shall need to rely upon the clues which are provided by the actual circumstances in which the communications are produced.”
Peirce once insisted that an index is quite essential to speech (4.58, 1893). So what do linguists mean by an index? For many of us, this term simply and broadly refers to membership-identifying characteristics of a group, such as regional, social, or occupational markers; for others, more narrowly, to such physiological, psychological, or social features of speech or writing that reveal personal characteristics as the voice quality or handwriting in a producing source. Indexicals of these sorts, sometimes also called expressive features, have been analyzed for many languages and in a wide range of theoretical contributions.
In addition, there is a vast, separate literature, not as a rule subsumed by linguists under indexicality, devoted to different types of deixis. By this, linguists refer to a whole range of commonly grammaticalized roles in everyday language behavior, that is, to the way in which interlocutors anchor what they talk about to the spatiotemporal context of their utterance. Person deixis, social deixis, place deixis, time deixis, discourse deixis are the major types distinguished in the literature (Levelt 1989:44-58). Karl Bühler (1934:149) called the relevant context of the utterance Zeigfeld, or indexical field, and the anchoring point of this hic and nunc field its Origo, or origin (ibid.:107; on Bühler’s role in the study of deictics, cf. Jarvella and Klein 1982).
Deictics can vary considerably from language to language, and can often be—as, for example, in Wolof (Wills 1990)—very knotty in structure. One examination of the typological and universal characteristics of personal pronouns in general, over a sample of 71 natural languages, claimed the existence of systems ranging from 4 to 15 persons (Ingram 1978). In this array, the English 5-person system is highly atypical, which, if true, would lead to fundamental questions about Peirce’s and other philosophers’ seemingly natural “I-It-Thou” tripartition.
Only a native speaker of Hungarian can appreciate, if not always articulate, the richly differentiated set of terms of address which speakers must control to produce utterances appropriate to various roles and other contextual variables. For instance, to simplify, but not much, two academics of the same sex and approximate rank and age are unable to converse at ease in Hungarian without knowing each other’s exact date of birth, because seniority, even if by one day, strictly determines the terms of address to be used in that dialogue. (John Lyons reviewed matters of this sort in his useful 1977 compendium on semantics.)
Otto Jespersen casually coined the term “shifter” in 1922 to refer to grammatical units which cannot be defined without a reference to the message. In 1957, Jakobson reassigned shifters to the Peircean syncretic category of indexical symbols, which are, in fact, complex syncategorematic terms, where code and message intersect (1971:132).
In a remarkable study of a single four-word sentence consisting of a modal auxiliary, a person-deictic pronoun, and a verb and its complement, Fillmore (1973) hints at the incredible intricacy demanded of a linguistic theory if it is adequately to capture the conceptual richness of even the simplest sentences. Such a theory must incorporate principles for deriving at least the complete syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic description of a sentence, a theory of speech acts, a theory of discourse, and a theory of natural logic. Although all of these are foci of a considerable amount of research today, I know of no overarching theory which meets all of those demanding conditions.
Barwise and Perry (1983:32-39) coined the expression “efficiency of language” for locutions—even though these retain the same linguistic meaning—which different speakers use in different space-time locations, with different anchoring in their surroundings, capable of different interpretations. To put it another way, the productivity of language depends decisively on indexicality, which is therefore “extremely important to the information-carrying capacity of language” (ibid.:34). These authors convincingly argued that philosophical engrossment with context freedom, that is, with mathematics and the eternal nature of its sentences, “was a critical blunder, for efficiency lies at the very heart of meaning” (ibid.:32). However this may be, linguists at present have no inkling of, let alone a comprehensive theory to account in general for, how this commonplace, global human enterprise is carried out.
In my pessimistic conclusion, I return briefly to Jakob von Uexküll’s Umweltlehre (Thure von Uexküll 1989). Reality, according to Uexküll, reveals itself in Umwelten, those parts of the environment—die Natur—that each organism selects with its species-specific sense organs, each according to its biological needs. Everything in this phenomenal world, or self-world, is labeled with the subject’s perceptual cues and effector cues, which operate via feedback loop that Uexküll called the functional cycle. Nature (the world, the universe, the cosmos, true reality, and so forth) discloses itself through sign processes, or semioses. These, according to him, are of three distinct types: (1) semioses of information, emanating from the inanimate environment; (2) semioses of symptomatization, where the source is alive (this is equivalent to George Herbert Mead’s “unintelligent gestures”); and (3) semioses of communication (Mead’s “intelligent gestures”).
The first and second form indispensable, complementary steps in each biosemiosis. The observer reconstructs the exterior sign processes of the observed from the perceived stream of indexes, but never their interior structures, which necessarily remain private. The transmutation of such sign processes into verbal signs are meta-interpretations which constitute objective connecting structures that remain outside the subjective self-world of the observed living entity; these are “involved in its sign processes only as an inducing agency for its perceptual sign and as a connecting link to its operational sign” (ibid.:151).
How reference—the index-driven circuit between the semiosphere (Lotman 1984) and the biosphere (Vernadsky 1926)—is managed by sign users and sign interpreters remains, despite the best efforts of Peirce and his many followers, a profound enigma. What then of anchoring? “The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Theories of mapping and modeling have not progressed beyond disciplined speculation. Notwithstanding that I remain intuitively attracted to John Archibald Wheeler’s closed loop of the world viewed as a self-synthesizing system of existences (for example, 1988), his teacher, Niels Bohr, considered, rightly in my opinion, such questions as how concepts are related to reality as ultimately sterile. Bohr once replied to this very question: “We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down. The word ‘reality’ is also a word, a word which we must learn to use correctly” (French and Kennedy 1985:302).
1. Cf. this surprising passage in a letter by Mallarmé (1989) to his friend Henri Cazalis: “ ‘Gracious me! Madame Ramaniet ate asparagus yesterday.’ “How can you tell?’ ‘From the pot she’s put outside her window.’ . . . that ability to see clues in the most meaningless things—and such things, great gods!”
A condensed version of this invited address was read to the Charles Sanders Peirce Sesquicentennial International Congress, Harvard University, September 9, 1989, in the closing plenary session, “Peirce and Semeiotic.” It is slated to appear in a collection of plenary papers, Peirce and Contemporary Thought, ed. Kenneth Laine Ketner (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press). Versions are being translated for publication in German, Japanese, and Vietnamese.