Metaphysical Continuity in Peirce. Thought of the Day 122.0


Continuity has wide implications in the different parts of Peirce’s architectonics of theories. Time and time again, Peirce refers to his ‘principle of continuity’ which has not immediately anything to do with Poncelet’s famous such principle in geometry, but, is rather, a metaphysical implication taken to follow from fallibilism: if all more or less distinct phenomena swim in a vague sea of continuity then it is no wonder that fallibilism must be accepted. And if the world is basically continuous, we should not expect conceptual borders to be definitive but rather conceive of terminological distinctions as relative to an underlying, monist continuity. In this system, mathematics is first science. Thereafter follows philosophy which is distinguished form purely hypothetical mathematics by having an empirical basis. Philosophy, in turn, has three parts, phenomenology, the normative sciences, and metaphysics. The first investigates solely ‘the Phaneron’ which is all what could be imagined to appear as an object for experience: ‘ by the word phaneron I mean the collective total of all that is in any way or in any sense present to the mind, quite regardless whether it corresponds to any real thing or not.’ (Charles Sanders Peirce – Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce) As is evident, this definition of Peirce’s ‘phenomenology’ is parallel to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction in bracketing the issue of the existence of the phenomenon in question. Even if it thus is built on introspection and general experience, it is – analogous to Husserl and other Brentano disciples at the same time – conceived in a completely antipsychological manner: ‘It religiously abstains from all speculation as to any relations between its categories and physiological facts, cerebral or other.’ and ‘ I abstain from psychology which has nothing to do with ideoscopy.’ (Letter to Lady Welby). The normative sciences fall in three: aesthetics, ethics, logic, in that order (and hence decreasing generality), among which Peirce does not spend very much time on the former two. Aesthetics is the investigation of which possible goals it is possible to aim at (Good, Truth, Beauty, etc.), and ethics how they may be reached. Logic is concerned with the grasping and conservation of Truth and takes up the larger part of Peirce’s interest among the normative sciences. As it deals with how truth can be obtained by means of signs, it is also called semiotics (‘logic is formal semiotics’) which is thus coextensive with theory of science – logic in this broad sense contains all parts of philosophy of science, including contexts of discovery as well as contexts of justification. Semiotics has, in turn, three branches: grammatica speculativa (or stekheiotics), critical logic, and methodeutic (inspired by mediaeval trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric). The middle one of these three lies closest to our days’ conception of logic; it is concerned with the formal conditions for truth in symbols – that is, propositions, arguments, their validity and how to calculate them, including Peirce’s many developments of the logic of his time: quantifiers, logic of relations, ab-, de-, and induction, logic notation systems, etc. All of these, however, presuppose the existence of simple signs which are investigated by what is often seen as semiotics proper, the grammatica speculativa; it may also be called formal grammar. It investigates the formal condition for symbols having meaning, and it is here we find Peirce’s definition of signs and his trichotomies of different types of sign aspects. Methodeutic or formal rhetorics, on the other hand, concerns the pragmatical use of the former two branches, that is, the study of how to use logic in a fertile way in research, the formal conditions for the ‘power’ of symbols, that is, their reference to their interpretants; here can be found, e.g., Peirce’s famous definitions of pragmati(ci)sm and his directions for scientific investigation. To phenomenology – again in analogy to Husserl – logic adds the interest in signs and their truth. After logic, metaphysics follows in Peirce’s system, concerning the inventarium of existing objects, conceived in general – and strongly influenced by logic in the Kantian tradition for seeing metaphysics mirroring logic. Also here, Peirce has several proposals for subtypologies, even if none of them seem stable, and under this headline classical metaphysical issues mix freely with generalizations of scientific results and cosmological speculations.

Peirce himself saw this classification in an almost sociological manner, so that the criteria of distinction do not stem directly from the implied objects’ natural kinds, but after which groups of persons study which objects: ‘the only natural lines of demarcation between nearly related sciences are the divisions between the social groups of devotees of those sciences’. Science collects scientists into bundles, because they are defined by their causa finalis, a teleologial intention demanding of them to solve a central problem.

Measured on this definition, one has to say that Peirce himself was not modest, not only does he continuously transgress such boundaries in his production, he frequently does so even within the scope of single papers. There is always, in his writings, a brief distance only from mathematics to metaphysics – or between any other two issues in mathematics and philosophy, and this implies, first, that the investigation of continuity and generality in Peirce’s system is more systematic than any actually existing exposition of these issues in Peirce’s texts, second, that the discussion must constantly rely on cross-references. This has the structural motivation that as soon as you are below the level of mathematics in Peirce’s system, inspired by the Comtean system, the single science receives determinations from three different directions, each science consisting of material and formal aspects alike. First, it receives formal directives ‘from above’, from those more general sciences which stand above it, providing the general frameworks in which it must unfold. Second, it receives material determinations from its own object, requiring it to make certain choices in its use of formal insights from the higher sciences. The cosmological issue of the character of empirical space, for instance, can take from mathematics the different (non-)Euclidean geometries and investigate which of these are fit to describe spatial aspects of our universe, but it does not, in itself, provide the formal tools. Finally, the single sciences receive in practice determinations ‘from below’, from more specific sciences, when their results by means of abstraction, prescission, induction, and other procedures provide insights on its more general, material level. Even if cosmology is, for instance, part of metaphysics, it receives influences from the empirical results of physics (or biology, from where Peirce takes the generalized principle of evolution). The distinction between formal and material is thus level specific: what is material on one level is a formal bundle of possibilities for the level below; what is formal on one level is material on the level above.

For these reasons, the single step on the ladder of sciences is only partially independent in Peirce, hence also the tendency of his own investigations to zigzag between the levels. His architecture of theories thus forms a sort of phenomenological theory of aspects: the hierarchy of sciences is an architecture of more and less general aspects of the phenomena, not completely independent domains. Finally, Peirce’s realism has as a result a somewhat disturbing style of thinking: many of his central concepts receive many, often highly different determinations which has often led interpreters to assume inconsistencies or theoretical developments in Peirce where none necessarily exist. When Peirce, for instance, determines the icon as the sign possessing a similarity to its object, and elsewhere determines it as the sign by the contemplation of which it is possible to learn more about its object, then they are not conflicting definitions. Peirce’s determinations of concepts are rarely definitions at all in the sense that they provide necessary and sufficient conditions exhausting the phenomenon in question. His determinations should rather be seen as descriptions from different perspectives of a real (and maybe ideal) object – without these descriptions necessarily conflicting. This style of thinking can, however, be seen as motivated by metaphysical continuity. When continuous grading between concepts is the rule, definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions should not be expected to be exhaustive.

The Second Trichotomy. Thought of the Day 120.0


The second trichotomy (here is the first) is probably the most well-known piece of Peirce’s semiotics: it distinguishes three possible relations between the sign and its (dynamical) object. This relation may be motivated by similarity, by actual connection, or by general habit – giving rise to the sign classes icon, index, and symbol, respectively.

According to the second trichotomy, a Sign may be termed an Icon, an Index, or a Symbol.

An Icon is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses, just the same, whether any such Object actually exists or not. It is true that unless there really is such an Object, the Icon does not act as a sign; but this has nothing to do with its character as a sign. Anything whatever, be it quality, existent individual, or law, is an Icon of anything, in so far as it is like that thing and used as a sign of it.

An Index is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object. It cannot, therefore, be a Qualisign, because qualities are whatever they are independently of anything else. In so far 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. It does, therefore, involve a sort of Icon, although an Icon of a peculiar kind; and it is not the mere resemblance of its Object, even in these respects which makes it a sign, but it is the actual modification of it by the Object. 

A Symbol is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which operates to cause the Symbol to be interpreted as referring to that Object. It is thus itself a general type or law, that is, a Legisign. As such it acts through a Replica. Not only is it general in itself, but the Object to which it refers is of general nature. Now that which is general has its being in the instances it will determine. There must, therefore, be existent instances of what the Symbol denotes, although we must here understand by ‘existent’, existent in the possibly imaginary universe to which the Symbol refers. The Symbol will indirectly, through the association or other law, be affected by those instances; and thus the Symbol will involve a sort of Index, although an Index of a peculiar kind. It will not, however, be by any means true that the slight effect upon the Symbol of those instances accounts for the significant character of the Symbol.

The icon refers to its object solely by means of its own properties. This implies that an icon potentially refers to an indefinite class of objects, namely all those objects which have, in some respect, a relation of similarity to it. In recent semiotics, it has often been remarked by someone like Nelson Goodman that any phenomenon can be said to be like any other phenomenon in some respect, if the criterion of similarity is chosen sufficiently general, just like the establishment of any convention immediately implies a similarity relation. If Nelson Goodman picks out two otherwise very different objects, then they are immediately similar to the extent that they now have the same relation to Nelson Goodman. Goodman and others have for this reason deemed the similarity relation insignificant – and consequently put the whole burden of semiotics on the shoulders of conventional signs only. But the counterargument against this rejection of the relevance of the icon lies close at hand. Given a tertium comparationis, a measuring stick, it is no longer possible to make anything be like anything else. This lies in Peirce’s observation that ‘It is true that unless there really is such an Object, the Icon does not act as a sign ’ The icon only functions as a sign to the extent that it is, in fact, used to refer to some object – and when it does that, some criterion for similarity, a measuring stick (or, at least, a delimited bundle of possible measuring sticks) are given in and with the comparison. In the quote just given, it is of course the immediate object Peirce refers to – it is no claim that there should in fact exist such an object as the icon refers to. Goodman and others are of course right in claiming that as ‘Anything whatever ( ) is an Icon of anything ’, then the universe is pervaded by a continuum of possible similarity relations back and forth, but as soon as some phenomenon is in fact used as an icon for an object, then a specific bundle of similarity relations are picked out: ‘ in so far as it is like that thing.’

Just like the qualisign, the icon is a limit category. ‘A possibility alone is an Icon purely by virtue of its quality; and its object can only be a Firstness.’ (Charles S. PeirceThe Essential Peirce_ Selected Philosophical Writings). Strictly speaking, a pure icon may only refer one possible Firstness to another. The pure icon would be an identity relation between possibilities. Consequently, the icon must, as soon as it functions as a sign, be more than iconic. The icon is typically an aspect of a more complicated sign, even if very often a most important aspect, because providing the predicative aspect of that sign. This Peirce records by his notion of ‘hypoicon’: ‘But a sign may be iconic, that is, may represent its object mainly by its similarity, no matter what its mode of being. If a substantive is wanted, an iconic representamen may be termed a hypoicon’. Hypoicons are signs which to a large extent makes use of iconical means as meaning-givers: images, paintings, photos, diagrams, etc. But the iconic meaning realized in hypoicons have an immensely fundamental role in Peirce’s semiotics. As icons are the only signs that look-like, then they are at the same time the only signs realizing meaning. Thus any higher sign, index and symbol alike, must contain, or, by association or inference terminate in, an icon. If a symbol can not give an iconic interpretant as a result, it is empty. In that respect, Peirce’s doctrine parallels that of Husserl where merely signitive acts require fulfillment by intuitive (‘anschauliche’) acts. This is actually Peirce’s continuation of Kant’s famous claim that intuitions without concepts are blind, while concepts without intuitions are empty. When Peirce observes that ‘With the exception of knowledge, in the present instant, of the contents of consciousness in that instant (the existence of which knowledge is open to doubt) all our thought and knowledge is by signs’ (Letters to Lady Welby), then these signs necessarily involve iconic components. Peirce has often been attacked for his tendency towards a pan-semiotism which lets all mental and physical processes take place via signs – in the quote just given, he, analogous to Husserl, claims there must be a basic evidence anterior to the sign – just like Husserl this evidence before the sign must be based on a ‘metaphysics of presence’ – the ‘present instant’ provides what is not yet mediated by signs. But icons provide the connection of signs, logic and science to this foundation for Peirce’s phenomenology: the icon is the only sign providing evidence (Charles S. Peirce The New Elements of Mathematics Vol. 4). The icon is, through its timeless similarity, apt to communicate aspects of an experience ‘in the present instant’. Thus, the typical index contains an icon (more or less elaborated, it is true): any symbol intends an iconic interpretant. Continuity is at stake in relation to the icon to the extent that the icon, while not in itself general, is the bearer of a potential generality. The infinitesimal generality is decisive for the higher sign types’ possibility to give rise to thought: the symbol thus contains a bundle of general icons defining its meaning. A special icon providing the condition of possibility for general and rigorous thought is, of course, the diagram.

The index connects the sign directly with its object via connection in space and time; as an actual sign connected to its object, the index is turned towards the past: the action which has left the index as a mark must be located in time earlier than the sign, so that the index presupposes, at least, the continuity of time and space without which an index might occur spontaneously and without any connection to a preceding action. Maybe surprisingly, in the Peircean doctrine, the index falls in two subtypes: designators vs. reagents. Reagents are the simplest – here the sign is caused by its object in one way or another. Designators, on the other hand, are more complex: the index finger as pointing to an object or the demonstrative pronoun as the subject of a proposition are prototypical examples. Here, the index presupposes an intention – the will to point out the object for some receiver. Designators, it must be argued, presuppose reagents: it is only possible to designate an object if you have already been in reagent contact (simulated or not) with it (this forming the rational kernel of causal reference theories of meaning). The closer determination of the object of an index, however, invariably involves selection on the background of continuities.

On the level of the symbol, continuity and generality play a main role – as always when approaching issues defined by Thirdness. The symbol is, in itself a legisign, that is, it is a general object which exists only due to its actual instantiations. The symbol itself is a real and general recipe for the production of similar instantiations in the future. But apart from thus being a legisign, it is connected to its object thanks to a habit, or regularity. Sometimes, this is taken to mean ‘due to a convention’ – in an attempt to distinguish conventional as opposed to motivated sign types. This, however, rests on a misunderstanding of Peirce’s doctrine in which the trichotomies record aspects of sign, not mutually exclusive, independent classes of signs: symbols and icons do not form opposed, autonomous sign classes; rather, the content of the symbol is constructed from indices and general icons. The habit realized by a symbol connects it, as a legisign, to an object which is also general – an object which just like the symbol itself exists in instantiations, be they real or imagined. The symbol is thus a connection between two general objects, each of them being actualized through replicas, tokens – a connection between two continua, that is:

Definition 1. Any Blank is a symbol which could not be vaguer than it is (although it may be so connected with a definite symbol as to form with it, a part of another partially definite symbol), yet which has a purpose.

Axiom 1. It is the nature of every symbol to blank in part. [ ]

Definition 2. Any Sheet would be that element of an entire symbol which is the subject of whatever definiteness it may have, and any such element of an entire symbol would be a Sheet. (‘Sketch of Dichotomic Mathematics’ (The New Elements of Mathematics Vol. 4 Mathematical Philosophy)

The symbol’s generality can be described as it having always blanks having the character of being indefinite parts of its continuous sheet. Thus, the continuity of its blank parts is what grants its generality. The symbol determines its object according to some rule, granting the object satisfies that rule – but leaving the object indeterminate in all other respects. It is tempting to take the typical symbol to be a word, but it should rather be taken as the argument – the predicate and the proposition being degenerate versions of arguments with further continuous blanks inserted by erasure, so to speak, forming the third trichotomy of term, proposition, argument.

Mathematical Reductionism: As Case Via C. S. Peirce’s Hypothetical Realism.


During the 20th century, the following epistemology of mathematics was predominant: a sufficient condition for the possibility of the cognition of objects is that these objects can be reduced to set theory. The conditions for the possibility of the cognition of the objects of set theory (the sets), in turn, can be given in various manners; in any event, the objects reduced to sets do not need an additional epistemological discussion – they “are” sets. Hence, such an epistemology relies ultimately on ontology. Frege conceived the axioms as descriptions of how we actually manipulate extensions of concepts in our thinking (and in this sense as inevitable and intuitive “laws of thought”). Hilbert admitted the use of intuition exclusively in metamathematics where the consistency proof is to be done (by which the appropriateness of the axioms would be established); Bourbaki takes the axioms as mere hypotheses. Hence, Bourbaki’s concept of justification is the weakest of the three: “it works as long as we encounter no contradiction”; nevertheless, it is still epistemology, because from this hypothetical-deductive point of view, one insists that at least a proof of relative consistency (i.e., a proof that the hypotheses are consistent with the frequently tested and approved framework of set theory) should be available.

Doing mathematics, one tries to give proofs for propositions, i.e., to deduce the propositions logically from other propositions (premisses). Now, in the reductionist perspective, a proof of a mathematical proposition yields an insight into the truth of the proposition, if the premisses are already established (if one has already an insight into their truth); this can be done by giving in turn proofs for them (in which new premisses will occur which ask again for an insight into their truth), or by agreeing to put them at the beginning (to consider them as axioms or postulates). The philosopher tries to understand how the decision about what propositions to take as axioms is arrived at, because he or she is dissatisfied with the reductionist claim that it is on these axioms that the insight into the truth of the deduced propositions rests. Actually, this epistemology might contain a short-coming since Poincaré (and Wittgenstein) stressed that to have a proof of a proposition is by no means the same as to have an insight into its truth.

Attempts to disclose the ontology of mathematical objects reveal the following tendency in epistemology of mathematics: Mathematics is seen as suffering from a lack of ontological “determinateness”, namely that this science (contrarily to many others) does not concern material data such that the concept of material truth is not available (especially in the case of the infinite). This tendency is embarrassing since on the other hand mathematical cognition is very often presented as cognition of the “greatest possible certainty” just because it seems not to be bound to material evidence, let alone experimental check.

The technical apparatus developed by the reductionist and set-theoretical approach nowadays serves other purposes, partly for the reason that tacit beliefs about sets were challenged; the explanations of the science which it provides are considered as irrelevant by the practitioners of this science. There is doubt that the above mentioned sufficient condition is also necessary; it is not even accepted throughout as a sufficient one. But what happens if some objects, as in the case of category theory, do not fulfill the condition? It seems that the reductionist approach, so to say, has been undocked from the historical development of the discipline in several respects; an alternative is required.

Anterior to Peirce, epistemology was dominated by the idea of a grasp of objects; since Descartes, intuition was considered throughout as a particular, innate capacity of cognition (even if idealists thought that it concerns the general, and empiricists that it concerns the particular). The task of this particular capacity was the foundation of epistemology; already from Aristotle’s first premisses of syllogism, what was aimed at was to go back to something first. In this traditional approach, it is by the ontology of the objects that one hopes to answer the fundamental question concerning the conditions for the possibility of the cognition of these objects. One hopes that there are simple “basic objects” to which the more complex objects can be reduced and whose cognition is possible by common sense – be this an innate or otherwise distinguished capacity of cognition common to all human beings. Here, epistemology is “wrapped up” in (or rests on) ontology; to do epistemology one has to do ontology first.

Peirce shares Kant’s opinion according to which the object depends on the subject; however, he does not agree that reason is the crucial means of cognition to be criticised. In his paper “Questions concerning certain faculties claimed for man”, he points out the basic assumption of pragmatist philosophy: every cognition is semiotically mediated. He says that there is no immediate cognition (a cognition which “refers immediately to its object”), but that every cognition “has been determined by a previous cognition” of the same object. Correspondingly, Peirce replaces critique of reason by critique of signs. He thinks that Kant’s distinction between the world of things per se (Dinge an sich) and the world of apparition (Erscheinungswelt) is not fruitful; he rather distinguishes the world of the subject and the world of the object, connected by signs; his position consequently is a “hypothetical realism” in which all cognitions are only valid with reservations. This position does not negate (nor assert) that the object per se (with the semiotical mediation stripped off) exists, since such assertions of “pure” existence are seen as necessarily hypothetical (that means, not withstanding philosophical criticism).

By his basic assumption, Peirce was led to reveal a problem concerning the subject matter of epistemology, since this assumption means in particular that there is no intuitive cognition in the classical sense (which is synonymous to “immediate”). Hence, one could no longer consider cognitions as objects; there is no intuitive cognition of an intuitive cognition. Intuition can be no more than a relation. “All the cognitive faculties we know of are relative, and consequently their products are relations”. According to this new point of view, intuition cannot any longer serve to found epistemology, in departure from the former reductionist attitude. A central argument of Peirce against reductionism or, as he puts it,

the reply to the argument that there must be a first is as follows: In retracing our way from our conclusions to premisses, or from determined cognitions to those which determine them, we finally reach, in all cases, a point beyond which the consciousness in the determined cognition is more lively than in the cognition which determines it.

Peirce gives some examples derived from physiological observations about perception, like the fact that the third dimension of space is inferred, and the blind spot of the retina. In this situation, the process of reduction loses its legitimacy since it no longer fulfills the function of cognition justification. At such a place, something happens which I would like to call an “exchange of levels”: the process of reduction is interrupted in that the things exchange the roles performed in the determination of a cognition: what was originally considered as determining is now determined by what was originally considered as asking for determination.

The idea that contents of cognition are necessarily provisional has an effect on the very concept of conditions for the possibility of cognitions. It seems that one can infer from Peirce’s words that what vouches for a cognition is not necessarily the cognition which determines it but the livelyness of our consciousness in the cognition. Here, “to vouch for a cognition” means no longer what it meant before (which was much the same as “to determine a cognition”), but it still means that the cognition is (provisionally) reliable. This conception of the livelyness of our consciousness roughly might be seen as a substitute for the capacity of intuition in Peirce’s epistemology – but only roughly, since it has a different coverage.


This is a puerile dig from the archives. Just wanted to park it here to rest and rust and then probably forgotten, until a new post on structuralism as a philosophy of mathematics comes up, which, it shall soon. In the meanwhile, this could largely be skipped.


Structuralism is an umbrella term involving a wide range of disciplines that came to fruition with the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The basic idea revolves round the study of underlying structures of significations that are meaningfully derived from ‘texts’. A ‘text’ is anything that owes its existence to a document or anything that has the potential of getting documented. The analyses for the discovery of structures underlying all these significations and texts and the conditions of possibilities for the existence of these significations and texts is what structuralism purportedly does. Saussure’s ‘Course in General Linguistics’, published posthumously, and seeing the light of the day because of his students’ note taking influenced ‘Structural Linguistics’, thereby explaining the adequacy of language for describing things concrete and abstract and in the process expanding the applicability of what language could do.

The starting point of Saussure’s analysis is Semiology, a science that undertakes the study of signs in society. These signs that express ideas build up the system of language for him. Signs are comprised of langue (language) and parole (speech). Langue is an abstract homogeneous system of language that is internalized by a given speech community, whereas parole is a concrete heterogeneous act of putting language into practice. In Saussurian jargon, Langue describes the social, impersonal phenomenon of language as a system of signs, while parole describes the individual, personal phenomenon of language as a series of speech acts made by a linguist subject. Signs attain their iconic status for Saussure due to meaning production when they enter into relationships with their referents.(1) Every sign is composed of a pair, a couple viz, signifier and signified, where signifier is a sound image (psychologically considered rather than materially), and signified is a concept. Signifier is the sensible part of the sign. A signified on the other hand is a connotation, an attachment that the signifier carries, a meaning, or a mental image of an entity that somehow misses out manifesting in the proximity. In other words, the signified of a signifier is not itself a sensible part of the sign. Signifier without the signified and vice versa strips a sign of its essence and therefore any meaning whatsoever (metaphysics ruled out for the moment!), and meaningfulness of signs in any discourse is derived from internal systemic relations of difference. This is precisely what is meant when Saussure says that language is a system of differences without positive terms (for the record: this is accepted even in Derrida’s post-structuralist critique of Saussure). The positivity of terms needs deliberation here. We recognize language, or more generally the marks inhabiting the language by virtue of how each and every mark is distinct/difference from each and every other mark inhabiting the same language. This distinction or difference is neither a resident with the sensible part of the sign, or signifier, nor with the mental/insensible part of the sign, or signified. Now, if the signifier and the signified are separated somehow, then language as guided by differences connoting negativity is legitimate. But, as has been mentioned; a sign is meaningful only when the signifier and the signified are coupled together, the meaning attaches itself a positive value. This only means that language is governed by differences. In the words of Saussure,

Whether we take signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or a phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. Proof of this is that the value of a term may be modified without either its meaning or sound being affected, solely because a neighboring term has been modified.

Signs were value laden, for only then would linguistics become an actual science, and for this realization to manifest, signs in any language system were determined by other signs in the same language system that helped delimiting meaning and a possible bracketed range of usage rather than a confinement to internal sound-pattern and concept. A couple of ramifications follow for Saussure from here on viz, signs cannot exist in isolation, but emanate from the system in which they are to be analyzed (this also means that the system cannot be built upon isolated signs), and grammatical facts are consolidated by taking recourse to syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses. The former is based on the syntactic or surface structure in semiotics, whereas the latter is operative on the syntagms by means of identifying its paradigms. The syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses were what made Saussure assert the primacy of relations of difference that made any language operate. Syntagms particularly belong to speech, and thereby direct the linguist in identifying the frequency of its usage before being incorporated into language, whereas, paradigms relationalize associatively thus building up clusters of signs in the mind before finally imposing themselves on syntagms for the efficient functionality of the language.

So, fundamentally structuralism is concerned with signifiers and relations between signifiers, and requires a diligent effort to make visible what is imperceptible and at the same time responsible for the whole phenomenon to exist, and that being the absent signified. The specialty of absent signified is to carry out the efficacy of structuralism as a phenomenon, without itself sliding into just another singifier, and this is where Derrida with his critique of structuralism comes in, in what is known as post-structuralism. But, before heading into the said territory, what is required is an attempt to polish structuralism by viewing it under some lenses, albeit very briefly.

Structural anthropology as devised by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his Structural Anthropology (1 and 2) studied certain unobservable social structures that nonetheless generated observable social phenomenon. Lévi-Strauss imported most of his ideas from the structuralist school of Saussure, and paralleled Saussure’s view on the unknow-ability of grammar usage while conversing, with the unknow-ability of the workings of the social structures in day-to-day life. Thought as such is motivated by various patterns and structures that show proclivities towards redundancy in these very various situations. This means that the meaning or the signified is derived from a decision that somehow happens to have taken place in the past, and hence already decided. And the very construction of thoughts, experience is what structural anthropology purports to do, but with beginnings that were oblivious to social/cultural systems and wedded to objectivity of scientific perspective. Although criticized for the lack of foundations of a complete scientific account and ignorant towards an integration of cultural anthropology and neuroscience, the structural anthropology remains embraced amongst anthropologists.

Other important political variant of structuralism is attributed to Louis Althusser, who coined the idea of structural Marxism as against humanistic Marxism by emphasizing on Marxism as a science that has ‘studying’ objective structures as its goal, as against the prison house of pre-scientific humanistic ideology embraced by humanistic Marxism. The major tenet of this school of Marxism lay in its scathing critique of the instrumentalist version that argued for the institutions of the state as directly under the control of those capitalist powers, and instead sought out to clarify the functionality of these institutions in order to reproduce the capitalist society as a whole.

After these brief remarks on structural anthropology and structural Marxism, it is time for a turn to examine the critiques of structuralism in order to pave a smooth slide into post-structuralism. The important reaction against structuralism is its apparent reductionist tendency, wherein deterministic structural forces are pitted over the capacities of people to act, thus anthropologically weakening. Within the anthropological camp itself, Kuper had this to say,

Structuralism came to have something of the momentum of the millennial movement and some of its adherents thought that they formed a secret society of a seeing in a world of the blind. Conversion was not just a matter of accepting a new paradigm. It was, almost, a question of salvation.

Another closely allied criticism is confining to biological explanations for cultural constructions, and therefore ignoring the social constructions in the process. This critique is also attached with the Saussurian version, for it was considered as too closed off to social change. This critique could not have been ameliorated for the presence of Voloshinov, who thematized dialectical struggles within words to argue for the language to happen primarily through a ‘clash of social forces’ between people who use words, and thereby concluding that to study changes in signs and to chart those changes mandates the study of class struggles within society.

(1) Back in the 19th Century an important figure for semiotics, the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, isolated three different types of sign: The symbolic sign is like a word in so far as it refers by symbolising its referent. It neither has to look like it nor have any natural relation to it at all. Thus the word cat has no relation to that ginger monster that wails all night outside my apartment. But its owner knows what I’m talking about when I say “your cat kept me awake all night.” A poetic symbol like the sun (which may stand for enlightenment and truth) has an obviously symbolic relation to what it means. But how do such relationships come about? Saussure has an explanation. The indexical sign is like a signpost or a finger pointing in a certain direction. An arrow may accompany the signpost to San Francisco or to “Departures.” The index of a book will have a list of alphabetically ordered words with page numbers after each of them. These signs play an indexical function (in this instance, as soon as you’ve looked one up you’ll be back in the symbolic again). The iconic sign refers to its object by actually resembling it and is thus more likely to be like a picture (as with a road sign like that one with the courteous workman apologising for the disruption).