Structure and Interpretation

A Semiotic Approach to Language and Action as a Foundation for a Theory of Religion

The project is directed at the design of an integrated theory of action and language, using the paradigm of interpretation and based upon the system of classification of signs as developed by Charles Peirce in 1905. Interpretation processes, according to Peirce, are structured such that a so-called ‘sign’ is being related to a so-called ‘object’, thereby producing a result, a so-called ‘interpretant.’ Accordingly, the concepts of sign, object, and interpretant are defined solely by the functional roles they play within a given process of interpretation. Peirce’s central ideas which I follow include, firstly, that this basic structure will apply to any aspect of behavior of living resp. conscious organisms, such as feeling, willing, acting, speaking, and conceptual understanding; secondly, that signs can be classified according to their own intrinsic structure, according to the kind of object they refer to, and according to the kind of interpretant they end up in, so that any interpretation process may be analyzed in terms of these three variables. A first formalization was achieved in 1903 when Peirce drafted a system of three trichotomies (sign – object – interpretant), with three subdivisions of each trichotomy (hence the name ‘trichotomy’). By 1905, Peirce had revised and extended this system to ten trichotomies, on the basis of two crucial improvements allowing much more possibilities of discrimination and thus efficiency: The object was split into the so-called immediate and the so-called dynamical one, and the interpretant underwent a a threefold differentiation between so-called immediate, dynamical, and normal interpretants. As a result, a given sign may be classified by assigning to it ten qualifications at the utmost. This is the substantial version and the very one I am going to work with. Peirce himself hardly explained how to apprehend the 10x3 subdivisons altogether; moreover, he was wavering. That’s why researchers, aside from very few exceptions, have hardly dealt with the system of ten trichotomies so far. The first half of the project will be directed towards a consistent elaboration on the ten trichotomies, especially the six interpretant trichotomies. In order to derive a theory which integrates both language and action into one theory of interpretation, the system will be submitted to modifications such as: introduction of the interpreter/speaker distinction to normal interpretants; conceptualization of immediate and dynamical objects as relations between interpreter’s self and other; differentiation of the dynamical object into the genuine dynamical object and the degenerate one.

In particular, the project aims at the expansion of Peirce’s semiotics to action theory. Actions have been considered to be choices of first targets and then means (Aristotle), or practical conclusions from premisses, or basic actions in analogy to basic sentences (A. C. Danto), or discursive exit transitions (R. Brandom). Semiotics will establish a new approach to action theory inasmuch as common paradigms like cause and effect, reasons and consequences, etc. are abandoned. Instead, actions are regarded as genuine dynamical interpretants (i.e. interpretation processes involving immediate interpretants and degenerate dynamical ones), resulting from signs being related to dynamical objects. That is to say, actions have referential character, with the objects in question being conceptualizations of the relation between interpreter’s self and other. Accordingly, subjectivity does not just evolve on the level of normal interpretants but starts out with immediate and dynamical interpretants, i.e. requires bodily existence and sociality. Conceptual understanding (language) will appear as but a more complex continuation of a structure which is already manifest in acting: Whereas actions are interpretation processes terminated by dynamical interpretants, conceptual understanding runs further on to normal interpretants. A further implication is that the presumption of a clear boundary line between concept users and non-concept users has to be dropped. Likewise, feeling/emotion has to be regarded as a prerequisite necessary for all processes of acting and thinking. In addition, by yielding a theory of consciousness, Peirce’s semiotics connects with a number of widely varying topics presently under discussion, f.e. qualia, or free will. If religion, as a product of consciousness, is to be considered a complex of different interpretation processes, i.e. a cumulation of various interpretants, then the question will have to be asked where the peculiarities of those interpretation processes lie. Which are the specific features of those immediate, dynamical, and normal interpretants constituting religion? How are religious concepts instrumental for the formation of objects? How do religious concepts originate, i.e. from which signs relating to which objects do they arise, and what is their possible use, i.e. what happens if they are taken as signs? These are the questions to be addressed in the project’s second half.

A semiotic approach to religion in this sense intends to show the following: i) Religion is not rooted in anthropological faculties (f.e. ‘feeling’ [cf. F. Schleiermacher]; ‘acting’; ‘reasoning’ [‘practical reason’, cf. I. Kant]) but in on-going interpretation processes. Religions manifest themselves as aggregations of various types of interpretants, without a single one of them (f.e. the immediate interpretant / feeling) allowing to be given structural priority over the others. So religion rests on structures given with interpretation anyway. ii) Religious concepts (including the notion of God) may function as signs as well as objects or interpretants. So, in order to establish the meanings of religious concepts, the latter ones have to be examined according both to their (supposed) genesis and their (potential or actual) use. (iii) Religion, like consciousness, has to be regarded as a social phenomenon insofar as dynamical and normal interpretants involve the interpreter’s encounter with some other. Religious communities are communities of interpretation, including interpretation through acting. By providing means of self-conceptualization, religion works as a medium of establishing group identities and group distinctions, as well as of setting up rules of behavior towards others. iv) Any rigid distinction between ‘faith’/‘belief’ and ‘reason’ as in the Kantian tradition has to be given up; instead, a gradual transition between ‘belief’ and ‘reason’, mediated by propositional understanding and non-necessary forms of justification, should be assumed. Accordingly, ‘rationality’ cannot be restricted to ‘inferentiality’ (Brandom) but includes a whole set of structures preliminary to argumentative reasoning.

Affiliated Persons


Prof. Dr. Gesche Linde

Individual Researcher