Signs & Symbols

If you take all these interests of mine-- math, slide rules, radio, board games, card games, science fiction, language, Hermetic, theology, philosophy, and whatnot-- you will find that there is a common thread running through them. And that common thread is signs & symbols.

I came to realize this very gradually in my teenage years, which is when a person's interests often begin to come together in a coherent constellation. Listening to distant radio voices in the middle of the night. Playing Japanese chess. Writing in my own language. More and more, in each of these pursuits, I was able to put my finger on a common feel. It was something like the feel of the highly symbolic pictures you will find in an old Roman Catholic missal-- I can't put it any more clearly than that.

I also was reading a lot on my own, and asking myself questions. One problem I agonized over in those years was the question of how we can know anything. And how can I, here on the inside looking out, ever be truly connected with the world out there? How can I know that I am not deceived in my knowing? How can I know that I am not forever cut off and alone?

As Mister Rogers might put it, "Can you say 'Cartesian subject/object split'?"

Over the following years, I began to explore some of these issues on a more technical level. In my graduate years in math, I saw how the notion of signs and symbols bore a structural similarity to certain mathematical concepts in differential geometry. (I didn't know it at the time, but in the 1920's a man named Ernst Cassirer had a similar insight, which he developed in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.)

In seminary, I learned something more about the history of Christian thought. How do we come to know the world around us? How are the Scriptures to be interpreted? What about the sacraments? Do we find vague threefold reflections of the triune God in human beings and in the world around us? In all these questions and more, from Augustine onward the notion of signs and symbols had played an important role.

Several years later I went back to school and ended up studying the thinking of a man named Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce was a logician and philosopher of science who did his writing in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Peirce was also one of the founding fathers of modern semiotics. "Semiotics" is the study of signs and symbols. Peirce's approach was quite abstract and technical, as you can see from one of his definitions of the sign:

A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object. (Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 2.274)

For me there has never been any dividing line between this more abstract approach, and all those colorful interests of mine. I remember how when I was studying Peirce's semiotic, I would go out to the Kroger's on Hillsborough Road in Durham, North Carolina, and see Peirce's categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness reflected in the fruits and vegetables in the produce department!

I ponder the notion of signs and symbols, and I see reflected in it the world around me. I look at things around me, and I see them as a rich, densely interwoven web of signs and symbols. If you really want to follow me out any further on this, you can dig through my "pseudo-philosophical ramblings" on this site.