Peircean Semiotics and the Need for Metaphysics

In Semiotics. Legas 37-46 (2009)
The notion that we live, or should live, in a “post-metaphysical” age is prevalent, with semiotics displacing metaphysics in many quarters; in other words, the study of meaning has supplanted the study of being. Charles Peirce, a founder of contemporary semiotics, seems to agree with this view on occasion; claiming, for example, “The demonstrations of the metaphysicians are all moonshine.” (Peirce c.1897: 1.7) On the other hand, Peirce consistently reserved a place for metaphysics within his classification of the sciences, serving in part as a bridge between philosophy and the special sciences. Thus, while Peirce consistently argues that metaphysics must rest upon logic/semiotic – citing the exemplars of Aristotle and Kant – a properly Peircean metaphysics is irreducible to, and irreplaceable by, semiotics (cp. Peirce c.1902: 2.121). This paper will explore Peirce’s understanding of metaphysics in relation to his semiotics, focusing on the following issues. First, I will analyze some of Peirce’s claims concerning the relationship between semiotics and metaphysics within his classification(s) of the sciences. Second, I will address Peirce’s claim that metaphysics is unavoidable, for “[f]ind a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics…and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticized metaphysics with which they are packed.” (Peirce 1905-1906: 1.129) Third, I will explore briefly the relationship between metaphysics and the special sciences. Answering these questions, and stimulating new ones, should help us begin to understand why such a thoroughly semiotic thinker as Peirce maintains the need for metaphysics.
Keywords Charles Peirce  semiotics  metaphysics
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DOI 10.5840/cpsem200614
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