01 December 2008

Signs and pictures, Peirce and Dogen

There is no meaning without signs, but no sign can say more than its reader can mean with it. The act of meaning is never fully determined by the sign.

C.S. Peirce makes a
distinction between the two kinds of indeterminacy, viz.: indefiniteness and generality, of which the former consists in the sign's not sufficiently expressing itself to allow of an indubitable determinate interpretation, while the latter turns over to the interpreter the right to complete the determination as he please. It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe — not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as “the truth” — that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.
— EP2:394 (1906)

What Peirce says there about signs can be compared to what Eihei Dogen says here about pictures:
Because the entire universe and all things are, as such, pictures, both humans and things actualize themselves through pictures. The Buddha-ancestors perfect themselves through pictures.
— Dogen, ‘Gabyo’ (Kim 2007, 116)

Is ‘pictures’ a sign of signs? Is ‘signs’ a picture of pictures? Consider this comment by Hee-jin Kim (2007, 118):
Dogen once wrote: ‘The monastics of future generations will be able to understand one-taste Zen based on words and letters, if they devote efforts to spiritual practice by seeing the universe through words and letters, and words and letters through the universe.’ Replace ‘words and letters’ in the above passage with ‘pictures,’ and its gist is the same — the reason is that for Dogen, picture is language and language is picture. Both in turn belong to thinking. Thus the visual and linguistic, the spatial and temporal, imagination and conceptualization, the material and the mental, the sensuous and rational coalesce in Dogen's religious method and hermeneutics.

Kim also comments that Dogen's method ‘amounted, in essence, to critical, reflective thinking as an integral part of meditation’ (Kim 2007, 122). Peirce's ‘critical common-sensism’ was likewise an integral part of his philosophical practice.

As for me, i'm taking a break from digging out after the first big snowstorm of this winter. It seems all the time i've been shovelling signs.

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