Coextension, Occlusion, & Plurality: Reading the Handwriting on the Wall, from Edwards to Miller, Milikan, & Cavell

Vincent Colapietro


Reflection on signs is coextensive with philosophical thought in the United States.  However, its pervasiveness no less than its centrality has been occluded by the traditional preoccupations of academic philosophers, especially narrowly trained and ideologically zealous ones.  An unbiased look at the diverse traditions of philosophical thought in the US, however, reveals nothing less.  As implied in this claim, it reveals a plurality of traditions preoccupied with signs and symbols.  On this occasion, notes for sketches of three possible narratives will be presented: those pertaining to the story of the role of signs in the interpretation of religious (and other) affections, from Jonathan Edwards, through Morton Prince (1854-1929) and James Jackson Putnam (1846-1918), to Jonathan Lear and Stanley Cavell; notes for the story of a thoroughly naturalistic account of anthroposemiosis, as it unfolds in the writers of Alexander Bryan Johnson, Charles Peirce, George Santayana, Susanne Langer, Charles Morris, Justus Buchler, Thomas Sebeok, Ruth Millikan, & Terrence Deacon; and, finally, ones for the abidingly relevant contribution of the largely occluded traditions of philosophical idealism, both antedating and succeeding Royce's monumental achievement.  The first story cannot be adequately reconstructed without including an account of the reception and influence of psychoanalysis in this country.  Indeed, this facet of the narrative will, on this occasion, be the focus of my concern.  The second story lands us in the midst of  contemporary debates about mind, consciousness, language, and much else.  The third encompasses the themes of temporality, historicity, interpretation, textuality, metaphor, and art in such a way as to connect readily with some of the dominant concerns of contemporary Continental thought.  In the middle decades of the twentieth century, W. M. Urban and J. W. Miller are pivotal figures in the development of this tradition after Royce.  These stories are distinct, but not separable.  They are (to use a Peircean metaphor) the interwoven strands of a lengthy cable, deriving its strength not from any single strand but rather from the tightly interwoven character of quite diverse ones.  Such, at least, is what I hope to render plausible in my presentation.