John Dewey's Objective Semiotics: Existence, Significance, and Intelligence

The Pluralist 19 (2):1-22 (2024)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content: There is an abundance of scholarship on John Dewey. Dewey's writings are vast, so scholars try to find the crux that connects their many themes into a distinctive vision for philosophy and life. Many claim that the democratic way of life is the center of Dewey's philosophical vision. Others claim that Dewey's response to Darwin was the impetus for a philosophical experimentalism that could envision a better life by responding to the needs in an age of modern industry. Some claim that the crux is a dynamic and non-mechanistic naturalism that Dewey develops to critically undo the dualisms of tradition, most especially the distinction between nature and culture. There has even been an effort to interpret each of these themes within Dewey's theory about the conditions for aesthetics in life, the life of art within an experience, and an experience of life as art. Arguably, no strategy is more preferable than another because each is plausible. Each plausibly selects a crux that connects the many themes across an array of writings, since Dewey's philosophy is multimodal by design and shuns reductionism for pluralism. Even amidst plurality, through many modes of activity and existence, each of these themes and all of Dewey's writings have a concern for meaning in life and how life is a process of meaning-making. And yet, meaning, for Dewey, is irreducible to verbal or written language and is made by more than propositions, but extends beyond the divide of nature and culture to potentially encompass all of life and life's processes. This expansive conception of meaning has more in common with semiotics, especially those of Charles Sanders Peirce, than any philosophy of language. And yet almost no scholar has sought to semiotically interpret Dewey's philosophy as a whole. Perhaps, though, Dewey's multimodal and pluralistic vision for philosophy and life also has a semiotic crux that intersects with the others in ways that are fundamentally important. There are scholars who have dealt with semiotic themes or insights with implications for semiotics in Dewey's writings. None have sought to semiotically interpret Dewey's philosophy as a whole, or, as a consequence, to chronologically survey Dewey's writings to determine if there is a conceivably Deweyan approach to semiotics that might contrast with or contribute to the more dominant approaches. There is a reason scholars may not have sought a Deweyan approach to semiotics. Dewey did not have an explicit theory of semiotics. There is no attempt to devise a doctrine of signs in Dewey's writings. Never did Dewey try to classify the fundamental types of sign, analyze the relations of signification by which they differ, or methodically explain how the logic of signification works. This contrasts sharply with Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce has an explicit theory of semiotics that divides the fundamental types of sign into icons, indices, and symbols by their distinct relations of signification that are at work in the logic of inference by the categories. During his second year at Johns Hopkins, Dewey was actually Peirce's student in a class on logic. This already suggests the possibility of influence. Dewey's writings around 1883 even espouse the central thesis of Peirce's semiotics. All signs, however else their significations may differ, are triadic relations for both Peirce and Dewey. Whether and how far Peirce's logic was an influence on Dewey at Johns...

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Joseph Dillabough
University of Oregon


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