RE: peirce and artifacts; back to Uslucan

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sun Dec 26 2004 - 20:50:44 PST

I also sometimes think Peirce wrote ironically. Certainly he had a low
opinion of many of his readers, and especially his editors. His clearest
writing I find is in his letters to respected friends.

But it's not just ironic. Peirce wants us to think, to consider both the
sense in which what he says might be literally true, and the sense in which
he might be leading us to re-intepret what he writes. He did after all
believe that the signs, the text, was only a starting point for a long
chain of interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. He sets us
going, he does not necessarily try to constrain where we wind up. Note that
this is a very different sort of rhetoric than we are used to from

I interpret this quote from Peirce (below) as mostly forward-looking,
looking in a sense down that long chain of re-interpretations stretching
on, in thought and in history, from some empirical data or sense-impression
now, to its more developed forms in the future, where more developed means
simply arising out of prior thoughts and interpretations, prior "truths".
We can take this in a Rorty-an sense as referring to the collective
judgment of the community, or in the sense of the ultimate perfectability
of knowledge ... but I think that Peirce sees no end to the chain of future
developments and re-interpretations. There is no "ultimate" decision of the
community, no final thought (no final interpretant). There is of course
action based on some decision and some interpretant, which is final for the
immediate purpose.

As to Michael's suspicion that Thirdness is better, well, yes, I think
Peirce in some sense sees it as more highly evolved in the cosmic scheme of
things, pre-supposing Secondness, which pre-supposes Firstness.
(Personally, I don't like Firstness, but that's another story.)

But our original issue, to which Michael brings us back, is the matter of
artifacts. I agree that they are in some sense "backward looking", or
rather that they are significant means by which we bridge across time, by
which what happened in the past can make a difference in the present --
other than by direct material action. We read an old diary, we worship an
old relic ... and past events are not reaching physically across time to
have causal effects on us. Rather our participation in an SI, a ecosocial
system over time, a culture, puts us in relationships with these artifacts
that make it possible to renew meanings and actions that left their traces
on them in time past. But it is meaning that mediates their revival, and
the community that puts us in touch with making the relevant meanings with
the artifacts.

It's true that among the semiotic artifacts that function to bind a
community together over time, we prominently find "sacred artifacts", and
that the control of these becomes a lever of power in the present. Perhaps
not in all times and places, but mostly so I think for us, that power is
primarily the control of the interpretation of the artifacts' meanings, and
less so of the physical artifacts themselves. Controlling the physical
artifact is a control through Secondness; control of the interpretation is
control through Thirdness. Sacredness, I think, inheres more in the latter
than the former, though other cultures may not agree.

It's interesting perhaps that our usual view in CHAT about artifacts,
mainly tools, is that they are forward-looking, used by us in the service
of activities whose objects lie in the constructable future. But we also
recognize that tools and symbols do what they do for us in large part
because of their histories. Material culture is embodied in them; all of
culture is embodied in material processes that extend over time and in
which we and our artifacts and all the culturally-relevant content of our
ecologies participate. Artifacts are one bridge across time, enabling the
past to be made useful for the future.


At 02:36 PM 12/26/2004, you wrote:
>Meant to send this to everybody,
>I wanted to tease out a quote that Don left us before his trip in hopes
>that it may shed some light on the idea of artifact - because I am no sure
>about the whole concept of artifact - or even that firstness, secondness,
>and thirdness are recursive rather than embedded not as a result of some a
>priori existence but as a result of individual activity.
>Here is the quote,
>Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be
>known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality
>depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it
>is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its
>value as thought identical with it, though more developed.
>I often feel blind when reading into Pierce and I also feel that he is
>making fun of me in his writing, which is why I tend to steer clear, but I
>think some interesting issues are being raised so I want to take each
>sentence and hope that it gets me back to the place where Tony and Mike are.
>First clause,
>Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be
>known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality
>depends on the ultimate decision of the community;
>Pierce is being sarcastic here no? He doesn't believe in any ideal state,
>let alone an ideal state where there is complete information (I think it
>is important to recognize that Pierce seems to be using ideal in a
>different way than Mike does. For Pierce ideal is not simply conceptual
>but the ideal that we strive towards. If we keep moving in the right
>direction we will reach a state of complete information which is absurd
>and the reason possibly James and Pierce hated Hegel - dialectic is
>fighting words for these guys I think). The second part of the clause
>brings us back to reality with a THUD. There is no complete information
>so reality is determined by the community. This opens us up to the type
>of political powerplays Dewey is going to talk about later. Whoever
>controls reality in a community controls meaning.
>Second clause
>so thought is what it
>is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its
>value as thought identical with it, though more developed
>So thought never really takes on any greater value because thought does
>not increase in information towards the ideal of complete information like
>we pretend (so let's stop giving those stupid doctoral
>examinations!). Each thought has the same value because each thought is
>developed to deal with a specific and immediate problem. There are
>problems in the present, but once those problems are solved thought will
>only get its value from the problems in the future. There is no building
>up of value. Thoughts do not get better in problem solving, only
>individuals become more adept at problem solving. I am wondering then if
>the idea of cultural artifact is contrary to this. The cultural artifact
>is determined by the reality of the community. However if we imbue it
>with some greater power we are giving that power to those who have control
>over the artifacts. Very simplistic example (maybe too simplistic) if I
>the community says that a certain vase has magical/religious powers no
>matter what the situation, and I control the vase then I control the power..
>So finally thought is forward looking and the recognition of artifacts is,
>in a way, backward looking.
>In firstness, secondness, thirdness, I sort of see Pierce saying that
>firstness and secondness are possible ways we can as individuals
>understand the universe but these are only partial understandings, and in
>their own ways backward looking. They are both embedded within thirdness
>and as we come to understand the universe more we will come to see that.
>Don't think I haven't thought about the idea that thirdness seems to me to
>have more value than firstness or secondness in this scheme. I'm sure
>Pierce has dealt with this, I just haven't (and probably never will)
>figure it out.
>From: Bill Barowy []
>Sent: Sat 12/25/2004 7:24 PM
>Subject: peirce and artifacts; back to Uslucan
>Mike wrote:
>"rather, the incorporation of tools into the activity creates a
> new structural relation in which the cultural (mediated) and natural
> (unmediated) routes operate synergistically;"
>I have taken this point made my Mike to be the basis for Vygotsky's method of
>dual stimulation -- using extant "structural relations" to co-create new
>ones, e.g. shown blocks called "bic", etc.
>And then, I also take there to be this similarity with Uslucan's writing:
>"semiosis relies upon the history of the interpretant, with whom
>interpretation is a putting-into-relation-of-prior-signs. "
>Or am i being mistaken?

Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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