Semiotics, Postmodernity, and the Extent of Moral Responsibility

The recent encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI entitled Caritas in Veritate has focused on our responsibility as a one global for it is concerned with the whole of creation, thus becoming stewards of nature, to take care of it, and make sure they are not depleted for the future generation. This has been a movement in the field of philosophy, introducing what could be a possibility for the concept of a Semiotic Animal.

In this paper the researcher aims to: explain the semiotic perspective and how it takes us beyond modernity; clarify the term semiotic animals and the possibility of a semioethics; discern how successfully this new ethics can provide for a metaphysical portrait of the human person which extends toward socio-cultural interaction. Semiotics is the knowledge that arises from the study of the action of signs, called “semiosis. ” It names the knowledge that corresponds to the awareness and study of semiosis.

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This system was first established by Duns Scotus and John of St. Thomas. The seminal work of John of St. Thomas in demonstrating the importance for philosophy of a perspective which transcends the modern struggle between realism and idealism was lost to history, as it were, a vain anticipation of the further horizon of a postmodern intellectual culture and epoch that modernity, in philosophy’s unfolding history, would, by its struggle with the opposition of “idealism” to “realism”, define and show the need for.

We have come to be led to the concept that communication is something real, which becomes the starting point of philosophy. For with the substitution of the experience of communication for ideas as the point of departure for considering “the nature and extent of humane understanding”, with a belief in the occasional success of communication as the guiding notion for developing the consequences of that point of departure, postmodernism had begun.

For a postmodern future of intellectual culture is upon us, and has been for some time. Modernity reached its zenith, not its beginning, as the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth; and by the time that century of full bloom and ascendancy drew to a close, again something radically new, all unnoticed, was aborning — to wit, a postmodern turn of intellectual culture restoring to the res cogitans not merely its lost animality, but also its uniqueness among the animals.

For this postmodern turn, it was no longer a question of reason as the distinguishing mark, as it had been for the ancient animal rationale and the modern res cogitans alike, but something much broader, in which reason only participated in a distinctive way, something that linked the human self directly to the broader universe of nature not only animal but plant and purely physical as well. That something was the finally recognized action of signs, termed c. 1883 “semiosis”. Now the most remarkable thing about this finally recognized distinctive action was the typical structure of being that it revealed.

As biology is the science that arises from the study of the action of living things, so (gradually over the twentieth century, particularly in its final quarter) the knowledge that arises from the study of the action of signs (or semiosis) came to be called “semiotics”. The being revealed in this particular scenario cannot be pointed at as compared with how one can actually point to the lungs or any organ in the human body. It started to be a sign, an exemplification of one’s relation to that particular object.

Just like in hermeneutics, semiotics has been based on relationship… the relationship of the person perceiving the being from the actual being that is being exemplified. Now what is remarkable about relations in the behavior of animals is the very thing that made it possible for so many so long to deny their reality as irreducible constituents of ens reale — irreducible, that is, to the individuals and characteristics of individuals in which Ockham, for example, famously declared the whole of ens reale to consist. What is remarkable about relations, in fact, is actually twofold.

First of all there is the permeability of relations to the otherwise distinct orders of what does and what does not exist independently of finite mind. One and the same relation, existing under changing circumstances, can be one time real (ens reale) and one time unreal (ens rationis), so subtly so that the creature anchoring the relations in any given case may be quite unaware of the difference — as, for example, the lover who continues on his way to meet his beloved blithely unaware that his love had been crushed by a meteor only minutes earlier en route to the same rendezvous.

So we confront once again the difference between objects and things, but now further the difference between objects and signs. On the one hand, things are themselves, whereas objects represent themselves. On the other hand, signs represent always something other than themselves, something which they themselves are not; and they do so respecting some third element or factor with respect to which the representation takes place.

It matters not whether the signs in question be based on the psychological states of the organism, cathectic and cognitive, or on aspects of objects founding interobjective relations. In every case, the elements comprising the sign are three, and the being of the sign as such transcends the three elements by uniting them according to three respective roles, namely, the role of sign-vehicle (the element of the representation), the role of object signified (the other than the sign vehicle represented), and the role of interpretant, the term to or for which the representation is made.

In this way it can be seen that objects, normally confused with things by human animals, are not only distinct in principle from, while yet always partially involving, things, but also (what is far from evident and indeed quite surprising) that objects actually presuppose signs in order to be objects in the first place, and presuppose signs no less in order subsequently to be distinguished from things in the course of experience.

Of all living things we can say that they are semiosic creatures, creatures which grow and develop through the manipulation of sign-vehicles and the involvement in sign-processes, semio-sis. What distinguishes the human being among the animals is quite simple, yet was never fully grasped before modern times had reached the state of Latin times in the age of Galileo. Every animal of necessity makes use of signs, yet signs themselves consist in relations, and every relation (real or unreal as such) is invisible to sense and can be understood in its difference from related objects or things but never perceived as such.

What distinguishes the human being from the other animals is that only human animals come to realize that there are signs distinct from and superordinate to every particular thing that serves to constitute an individual in its distinct-ness from its surroundings. Such an animal, capable of coming to know that there are signs as well as of using signs to hunt and fish and find its way through the surroundings, is generically semiosic but specifi-cally semiotic, the only animal capable of knowing that there are signs to be studied as well as made use of to more “practical” ends.

So a definition of the human being as “semiotic animal” is not modern. In the modern understanding of the philosophers, ens reale went under erasure and ens rationis came to be the whole of objectivity. But the action of signs surpasses that frontier, and the study of signs is carried by that action precisely beyond that frontier deemed by modern philosophy to be unpassable.

That is why the understanding and definition of the human being reached by the study of semiosis, the way of signs, fluoresces early into an understanding and definition of the human being that is as distinctively postmodern as the modern definition of the human being as a “thinking thing” was distinctively postmedieval. With the definition of the human being among the animals as the only semiotic animal we locate ourselves at the beginning of a way of signs which leads “everywhere in nature, including those domains where humans have never set foot”

We have opened a new era of intellectual culture,24 for philosophy first of all, to be sure, but also for science and all the humanities, wherein the split between nature and culture, inner and outer, is no longer the last word, because the quasi-error of the external world has finally been laid to rest, and with it modern philosophy. We are, as it were, in a position to say to the epoch of modernity in philosophy what the early moderns said so emphatically to the epoch of medieval thought: Requiescat in pace. A postmodern humanism based on the notion of semiotic animal will be one deeply rooted in the Thomistic tradition.