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Phenomenology meets Semiotics: Two Not So Very Strange Bedfellows at the End of their Cinderella Sleep

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Semiotics is generally conceived as being opposed to phenomenology, but such an opposition can only result from taking too much for granted, about both phenomenology and semiotics. While recognising that semiotics and phenomenology are historically
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  Phenomenology meets Semiotics: Two Not SoVery Strange Bedfellows at the End of theirCinderella Sleep Göran Sonesson Lund Universitygoran.sonesson@semiotik.lu.se   A BSTRACT :  Semiotics is generally conceived as being opposed tophenomenology, but such an opposition can only result from taking too muchfor granted, about both phenomenology and semiotics. While recognising thatsemiotics and phenomenology are historically different traditions, the presentessay suggests that these traditions have a lot in common and that their verydifferences may give rise to fruitful phenomenological explorations. In the firstpart, we look at the similarities between Husserlean and Peirceanphenomenology, and then proceed to consider the different approaches ofthese two scholars to the nature of propositions, where the discoveries of onecan be used to rectify the neglect of the other. In the second part, we ponderDerrida’s critique of phenomenology, considered as an out-growth ofstructuralist semiotics, showing that, while Derrida’s remarks are pertinent,they miss the real issue. In so doing, we first scrutinize the Husserlean notionof sign, as understood by Derrida, as opposed to how it emerges fromHusserl’s total work, and then we embark on the grander issue of presence,which, to Husserl, is never really divorced from absence.Edmund Husserl (1970) appears to have used the term “semiotics” only once,in a text from 1890; and yet, signs loom large in Husserl’s entire work, and, ifwe broaden the sense of semiotics to cover meaning in general, which some ofus have done long ago (Sonesson 1989), it could be argued thatphenomenology is nothing but semiotics. We can be fairly sure, however, thatthe single time that Husserl used the term “semiotics”, he was not seeking arapprochement to the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, with whom heentertained a relation a mutual depreciation (Cf. Stjernfelt 2007: 141f), but nodoubt he took the term, as did Peirce, from John Locke (2004[1690]), who wasthe first to use it in modern times. None has perhaps tried harder to reconcile semiotics (identified with its Metodo. International Studies in Phenomenology and PhilosophyVol. 3, n.1 (2015)ISSN 2281-9177  42 Göran Sonesson structuralist brand) and phenomenology than Paul Ricœur (1975; 1983-85;Hénault 1994), but, in so doing, he no doubt conceived them to be two parallelapproaches that could only be wedded together in some kind of retroactivesynthesis. Indeed, Jacques Derrida (1967a, b), who came at his own, at leastsince he came to Ecole Normale Supérieur, in the ambience of phenomenology,can been argued to have blown up classical phenomenology, at least in his ownmind, taking his inspiration from Saussure, whose view of language as puredifferences he projected onto the whole world of our experience (which is ofcourse not to deny that Derrida was also inspired by, for instance, the kind of“difference” which kept Heidegger busy). Facts as these may explain that, mostof the time, the opposition between phenomenology and semiotics is taken forgranted. In this respect, Elmar Holenstein (1975; 1976), writing about one of thecultural heroes of semiotics, Roman Jakobson, was original in claiming himalso for phenomenology. A more careful consideration, however, wouldcertainly show that Jakobson, always the bricoleur , used just as much fromHusserl as could further his own objectives, just as he treated, at other times,the work of Saussure, Peirce, and others. More recent writers withinphenomenology, such as Dan Zahavi and Shaun Gallagher, excellentphenomenologists as they are, certainly are concerned with meaning, but showno interest in any continuity between this kind of meaning, on one hand, andsigns and sign systems, on the other.In the following, nevertheless, I am going to argue that semiotics needsphenomenology and vice-versa, and that, theoretically, they are not so strange bedfellows as they have been made out to be. This argument will be dividedinto two moments, one which concerns the Peircean brand of semiotics, andwhich has been, in part, anticipated in some earlier writings of mine (Sonesson2009; 2012; 2013a), and a second one, which involves structuralist semiotics,and which is exploratory on my part, although it can be connected to someearlier texts that I have written about embodiment (Sonesson 2007a, b). 1. The subject, the world, and his/her experience Peircean semiotics has its own phenomenology, but whether it is comparable inany way to Husserlean phenomenology is an issue that has caused very littledebate. If you scrutinize the description given of phenomenology asformulated by Peirce, you will easily find that it is, in many ways, practicallyidentical to what Husserl meant by this term. Husserl coined a number oflabels for the kind of mental operations that had to be applied to the stream of Metodo. International Studies in Phenomenology and PhilosophyVol. 3, n.1 (2015)  Phenomenology meets Semiotics 43consciousness in order to attain the phenomenological experience; curiously,for a person so addicted to terminology, Peirce did not. And yet Peirce’sdescription of phenomenology concerns much the same properties of thisexperience. Nevertheless, Peircean phenomenology seems curiouslyconstrained when viewed from a Husserlean perspective. On the other hand,since Peircean phenomenology serves to build the categories, the very lack ofconstraints in Husserlean phenomenology takes on the character of a defectfrom a Peircean point of view. 1.1. On the difference between the Peircean and the Husserlean systems Phenomenology, as Peirce defines it, is that part of science that “ascertains andstudies the kinds of elements universally present in the phenomenon, meaning by the phenomenon whatever is present at any time to the mind in any way”( EP  2, 259). On the face of it, this could (style apart) be a definition ofphenomenology as understood by Husserl. Representatives of both traditionshave tended to deny this, ending up with admitting some similarities. On thePeircean side, Joseph Ransdell (1989) starts out with the pronouncement thatHusserl and Peirce could not have anything in common because of theirdifferent attitude to Descartes and to science, but in the end he admits that both are phenomenologists, to the extent that this “means to considerphenomena as phenomenal only, notwithstanding such apparent’transcendence’ – both intrinsic and relational – as they may have or seem tohave” 1 . On the Husserlean side, Herbert Spiegelberg (1956: 166ff) dedicatesmuch time to pinpoint several differences between the two phenomenologies, but also recognizes that the “reflectiveness” of Husserl’s approach also ispresent in Peirce, as is the “purity” of Husserl’s method, manifested in theindependence from empirical facts and the concern for general essences. Although Peirce later on renamed his phenomenology “phaneroscopy”, it isin fact easy to recognize many of the Husserlean operations in the descriptionhe goes on to give of this branch of learning. It is, he says, a study which, supported by the direct observation of phanerons andgeneralizing its observations, signalizes several very broad classes ofphanerons; describes the features of each; shows that although they areso inextricably mixed that no one can be isolated, yet it is manifest thattheir characters are quite disparate (CP 1.286). 1This is not the place to discuss to what extent Ransdell here misconstrues Husserl’srelationship to science and to Descartes, because of aligning him with such (infidel)followers as Heidegger and Derrida. Metodo. International Studies in Phenomenology and PhilosophyVol. 3, n. 1 (2015)  44 Göran Sonesson Given Peirce’s earlier description of phenomena cited above, the “directobservation of phanerons” would seem to be equivalent to what Husserl callsthe phenomenological reduction. One may feel, however, that Husserl is muchmore meticulous in his description. Consciousness is consciousness ofsomething – and that thing it outside of consciousness. This is what, in theBrentano-Husserl-tradition, is known as “intentionality”: the contents ofconsciousness are immanent to consciousness precisely as  being outside ofconsciousness. Thus, we may describe a particular phase in the stream ofconsciousness as being an act in which something outside of consciousness becomes the subject of our preoccupation. In accomplishing such an act, we aredirected to something outside of consciousness. When we are doingphenomenology, however, we are turning our regard “inwards”: the theme isnot the object outside, but the act of consciousness itself. There are several other methodological moments to Husserl’sphenomenology (which I will rehearse here just for the purpose of comparingthem to Peirce’s description): the epoché , the suspension of belief whether theobject to which the act studied is directed exists or not, which seems to beimplied also by the phrase “direct observation of phanerons”, in conjunctionwith the definition given beforehand of phenomena/phanerons. The “eideticreduction” ,  i.e. the directedness to the general structures, rather than theindividual character, of each given act, is present in Peirce’s phrasing accordingto which phenomenology serves to “generaliz/e/ observations, signaliz/ing/several broad classes of phanerons”, although, once again, Husserl is muchmore precise. For Husserl, in order to attain this level of generality, we have togo through free variations in the imagination, also known as “ideation,” bymeans of which we vary the different properties of the phenomenon, in orderto be able to determine which properties are necessary in the constellation, andwhich may be dispensed with. There are some hints of this idea also in Peirce’sremark according to which phenomenology “describes the features of each/phenomenon/; shows that although /these phenomena/ are so inextricablymixed that no one can be isolated, yet it is manifest that their characters arequite disparate”.The difference between the Husserlean and the Peircean phenomenologies,nevertheless, becomes manifest in the part of Peirce’s definition that was notquoted above. Peirce’s text continues in the following way: “then proves, beyond question, that a certain very short list comprises all of these broadestcategories of phanerons there are; and finally proceeds to the laborious anddifficult task of enumerating the principal subdivisions of those categories” Metodo. International Studies in Phenomenology and PhilosophyVol. 3, n.1 (2015)  Phenomenology meets Semiotics 45( CP  1.286). Husserl, of course, would also expect some very broad categories to be established by this method. Nevertheless, it seems incompatible with hiswhole view of phenomenology to claim beforehand that “a short list” of such broad categories could be established. Phenomenology, Husserl stated over andover again, should be free from any prior presuppositions. Already Spiegelberg(1956) noted that, unlike Husserl, Peirce did not explicitly claim hisphenomenology to be free of presuppositions. Peirce may seem to take forgranted that we have to arrive at a small list of categories. Indeed, as Ransdell(1989) reminds us, Peirce described phenomenology as “the doctrine ofcategories,” or even “categorics.” To be more precise, Peirce even seems toanticipate which these categories are going to be. Peirce’s “short list” is in factmade up of triads comprising other triads, as well as some dyads and a fewsingle terms. This is not all, for as I have shown elsewhere (Sonesson 2009;2013a), Peirce even takes for granted the nature of these three categories,Firstness being something independent, Secondness bringing this first togetherwith something else, and Thirdness bridging it all together. A case in point if ofcourse the often quoted definition of the sign, as consisting of the“representamen,” which is Firstness lacking subdivisions, the “object,” whichis Secondness, being divided into dyads, and the “interpretant,” which isThirdness, being analysed into different kinds of triads.According to this interpretation, the recursive triadic organization is aforgone conclusion of Peircean semiotics, which is prior to anyphenomenological investigation, that is, is a priori , in the (French) ordinarylanguage sense of being decided before any observation takes place. Thus,viewing Peirce’s phenomenology from the point of view of Husserleanphenomenology, there are (at least) two postulates which have to be justified:that all categories come by threes (with the exceptions noted above), and thatthese three categories have the specific content posited by Peirce (Cf. Sonesson2013a). There is, nevertheless, another way of conceiving Peirceanphenomenology from a Husserlean standpoint: that it starts out without anypresuppositions arriving at the result that all deeper meaning takes the form oftrichotomies. The very fact that the establishment of the categories is presentedas the result of phenomenology suggests that, in his own mind, Peirceconceived of his phenomenology as being devoid of presuppositions. If takenat face value, Peirce’s phenomenology would be a member of the class ofpossible Husserlean phenomenologies, namely one which arrives at the resultthat everything comes by threes, comparable in that respect to Roman Jakobson’s work, which, at least according to Holenstein (1975, 1976), should beseen as a binary phenomenology. Elsewhere, I have suggested that there is at Metodo. International Studies in Phenomenology and PhilosophyVol. 3, n. 1 (2015)
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