[xmca] Tools, thought, & signs (Bruner, Peirce, Newton)

From: Tony Whitson <twhitson who-is-at udel.edu>
Date: Sun Jul 08 2007 - 16:31:52 PDT

Before we move on to the next article, there are things I've said about
tools, thought, and signs that were offered more or less as assertions,
without the explanation needed to make sense of them. This longish post
attempts to remedy that.

A much more readable version (layout, formatting, live links, and even a
photo of the inscription that was minted on the edge of Newton's coins) is
posted at
I would suggest that anybody who wants to read this post should read it
there, and come back here if you would want to discuss anything from it on
this email list.

This post relates to a discussion of Shaffer and Clinton (2007) on the
eXtended Mind, Culture and Activity discussion list (XMCA) in June and July
of 2007.

1. Bruner and tools for thought

In the toolforthoughts article, computer technology is the focus of
discussion about tools in relation to thought. Noting Levi-Strauss’
observation “that totems (e.g., animals and other natural objects) were not
chosen because they were good to eat, but because they were good to think
with,” Paul Dillon implicitly raised a question of tools for thought as
something more general than computers in the world we live in.

Other examples are suggested in Peter Dow’s account of a curriculum
development project headed by Jerome Bruner (circa 1965):

    Concern with teaching about technology had been a persistent [p. 87]
theme from the beginning at ESI Social Studies. …. Bruner linked technology
to the development of man’s conceptual powers. “What is most characteristic
of any kind of tool-using,” he wrote, “is not the tools themselves, but
rather the program that guides their use. It is in this broader sense that
tools take on their proper meaning as amplifiers of human capacities and
implementers of human activity.” ….

    Early efforts to define the technology unit and translate these general
notions into effective classroom materials bogged down in debates over how
broadly to define the term tool. Should the discussion of tools be
restricted to physical objects, or is a logarithm a tool? Is the Magna Carta
a tool? Is E = mc2 a tool? Should the technology materials include
perspectives from disciplines as diverse as mathematics and history? One of
the difficulties in trying to construct a unit on this topic was the lack of
a clear conceptual structure for defining what technology is and for
considering its social implications. Here, as with the other topics, some of
the most interesting issues and questions fell outside of the framework of
established academic categories. … (Dow, 1991, pp. 86-7)

2. Peirce, thought, & signs

Schaffer and Clinton draw from Latour’s strategy for correcting what Latour
sees as the problem of treating the human and the non-human asymmetrically.
It seems to me, though, that what Latour sees as a problem arises from an
assumed Cartesian dualism. The problem does not arise, in the first place,
within a Peircean perspective that does not presume that kind of dualism
between the human and the natural, or the human and the artificial.

Peirce recognized the world as constituted semiosically, with humans
ourselves emerging within our participation in the semiosis that was well
underway before we got here. Peirce understood the entire universe as
“perfused with signs”:

    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, … that all this universe is perfused
with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs (Peirce, CP 5.448;
cf. Whitson, 2007, p. 322 ).

Peirce says “all thought is in signs,” understanding “thought” as as an
activity of the world (not just humans), and “signs” also in a sense that’s
not limited to human communication. From Whitson (2007, pp. 296-7):

    As distinguished from semiology [i.e., in the tradition of Saussure —
including Greimas and Latour], as well as earlier historic forms of
semiotics [e.g., with the Stoics], semiotics following the work of C. S.
Peirce is today, first and foremost, the study of semiosis, or the activity
of triadic sign-relations, recognizing that

        the whole of nature, not just our experience of it, but the whole of
nature considered in itself and on the side of its own and proper being is
the subject of semiosis — the process and product, that is, of an action of
signs coextensive with and constructive of the actual world as well as the
world of experience and imagination. (Deely 1994: 187-188)

    As Peirce observed, ‘To say … that thought cannot happen in an instant,
but requires a time, is but another way of saying that every thought must be
interpreted in another, or that all thought is in signs’ (CP 5.253). Once
the semiosic character of thought is recognized, thought itself is
understood in a more general sense, such that

        Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the
work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one
can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the shapes,
etc., of objects are really there. … Not only is thought in the organic
world, but it develops there. (CP 4.551)

    What exactly is it that Peirce says is ‘really there’ in the physical
world, as undeniably as the colors and the shapes of objects? What Peirce is
referring to is the semiosic action of triadic sign-relations:

        It is important to understand what I mean by semiosis. All dynamical
action, or action of brute force … either takes place between two subjects …
or at any rate is a resultant of such actions between pairs. But by
‘semiosis’ I mean, on the contrary, an action, or influence, which is, or
involves, a co÷peration of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and
its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way
resolvable into actions between pairs. (CP 5.484; original emphasis)

What, then, are tools, or toolforthoughts? Are they different from signs,
species of signs, or what?

3. Newton, signs, and tools

rough coinageAmong the problems tackled by Isaac Newton, over the course of
his varied career, was the problem of preserving England’s currency against
counterfeiting and “clipping” (filing off precious metal from the edges of
coins). As head of the Royal Mint, Newton oversaw torture to induce
confessions, capital punishment, and even having offenders drawn and
quartered to protect the value of the royal coinage.

Newton’s mint began the practice of making coins with ridges around the edge
so that clipping could be easily detected; and also, at that time, actually
engraving the edge with the words “DECUS ET TUTAMEN” — a phrase that might
be literally translated as “an ornament and a safeguard,” but which we might
also recognize as an engraving that is announcing itself as “both a sign and
a tool.”

4. Of tools and signs (umbrella example)

Let’s try this example: Suppose I know that you always check the weather on
your computer before you go out for lunch. Today I notice you picked up your
umbrella on your way out the door. Without checking the weather for myself,
I take my own umbrella with me when I go out. From a Peircean perspective,
my action of taking my umbrella is one of the three terms in a triadic
sign-relation: My action is an interpretant determined by your action (the
representamen), interpreted as a sign of possible rain (the object-term in
this triad). Here the umbrella participates in the activity of triadic

When we get outside, either of us might be preoccupied with holding our
umbrella in the right position so it doesn’t get blown inside-out by the
wind. Now our concern is with the umbrella in its tool-relations — or simply
its instrumental use as a tool for keeping dry.

There seems no reason for trying to sort things into categories, as being
either “tools” or “signs” — the question, rather, would be whether we are
presently concerned with something as it participates in the activity of
sign-relations, or as it functions within tool-relations.

What do you think?

Dow, Peter B. Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons from the Sputnik Era. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Peirce, Charles S. Collected Papers. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1866-1913/1931-1958.

Shaffer, David Williamson, and Katherine A. Clinton. “Toolforthoughts:
Reexamining Thinking in the Digital Age.” Mind, Culture, And Activity 13,
no. 4 (2007): 283-300.

Whitson, James Anthony. “Education Ó la Silhouette: The Need for
Semiotically-Informed Curriculum Consciousness.” Semiotica 164, no. 1/4
(2007): 235-329.

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Received on Sun Jul 8 16:33 PDT 2007

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