design practice and theory
|(Peirce (1839-1914) was a highly intelligent and sensitive
we can understand from his formidable, extensive works, which even
are not entirely published. These works treat of the most varied
from chemistry and astrology to mathematics and philosophy, from
to theology, the connecting underlying idea being the creation of a
system of signs, a semiology. Being a difficult and original person he
ended, even coming from the top echelon of the US society, as a lonely
and poor man, his works practically forgotten till after the second
war. Recently however a real peirce-cult has risen, as the dedicated
web sites can testify. This is astonishing in a way because reading
can be a tedious task, especially his elaboration of formal logic. He
early, what is common knowledge today, namely that no truthful
of reality can be made outside the limits of human perception and
should start with the analysis, the classification and interpretation
the sign systems implicated in the acquisition, elaboration and
of these perceptions. This is perhaps one of the reasons for his actual
popularity, our society being ever more characterized and determined by
Peirce was well prepared for the classification business
having as a
student to sort out fossil brachiopods for his professor Agassiz,
of an essay on classification. Moreover he had read, as Fisch
reports, Whately's ‘Elements of Logic’ (as he was eleven years
and Kant's ‘Critic of the Pure Reason’. In 1867 he publishes his
‘New List of Categories’ that later evolved to a full-fledged pan
System, as Eco calls
of basically ten different species
of Signs assorted in three main categories or types:
Floyd Merrell is a good
for those that want to enter in the quite complex peircian Theory of
In this page I refer mainly to his ‘Semiosis in the Postmodern Age’,
University Press, Indiana, 1995. He gives on p.95 the following list of
the ten fundamental peircian ‘classes of signs’ (as he calls
together with some most elementary examples:
observes, Peirce was interested in the medieval obsession with language
theory, universal grammar and the relative classification of signs, and
the names of many illustrious medieval
philosophers occur in his writings.
The use of diagrams to present the relations between
categories or objects
has been popular in all times so that we can even speculate if these
are not really antecedent to the formulation of ideas in general. It is
a visual means of classifying, just as Peirce intended: "I do not think
I ever reflect in words: I employ visual diagrams, firstly because this
way of thinking is my natural language of self-communion, and secondly,
because I am convinced that it is the best system for the purpose" (MS
620:8). We can also mention his fascination with the number 3: he
that any classification can in extremis be reduced to three
Furthermore he converted, though not always an active communicant (1),
to the trinitarian theology of the Episcopalian church and, as we can
in his Lowell Lectures, he does not hesitate to recognize the
for his Theory of Signs:
These remarks are tantamount to a confession of the existence of a geometric and numerical relation between Peirce’s classification of signs and his metaphysics and probably to the influence of medieval thought as well. If we take the fact that he mentioned ‘wisdom’ ,which corresponds to ‘chockmah’, a category in cabalistic sign system as we will see later, something keeps telling me that Peirce was interested in the medieval cabbala and probably used it as a guideline for his classification of signs. Floyd Merrell did not mention this, as far as I know, but he came very near to it when he analyses the configuration of the ten terms of the Peircian sign system, especially talking about the genesis or semiosis or generacy of signs.
Let us take a look at the cabbala as it is known among jewish
as christian thinkers, in the middle ages and later. The cabbalah
says, to an impressive complex of writings and orally transmitted
of Hebraic mysticism, especially dedicated to the exegesis of the most
important of them: the Torah or Pentateuch (the first five books of the
Bible). The Torah is considered a cryptic revelation, by means of the
signification of its characters, of the meaning of all being: to the
a hidden and living God is manifest in the combinatory of its letters
their numerical meaning.
Colin's Hermetic Kabbalah Page informs us as follows:
The Tree is composed of 10 states or sephiroth (sephiroth plural, sephira singular) and 22 interconnecting paths. The age of this diagram is unknown: there is enough information in the 13th. century "Sepher ha Zohar" to construct this diagram, and the doctrine of the sephiroth has been attributed to Isaac the Blind in the 12th. century, but we have no certain knowledge of its origin. It probably originated sometime in the interval between the 6th. and 13th. centuries AD. The origin of the word "sephira" is unclear - it is almost certainly derived from the Hebrew word for "number" (SPhR), but it has also been attributed to the Greek word for "sphere" and even to the Hebrew word for a sapphire (SPhIR). With a characteristic aptitude for discovering hidden meanings everywhere, Kabbalists find all three derivations useful, so take your pick.Colin Low's site provides also a list of links on the Kabbala.
"The primary glyph of Kabbalism, the Tree of Life or Otz Chiim, is the key to mastering the symbolism and the secrets of Kabbalah. All qualities, ideas and objects can be attributed a place on the tree and the tree serves as a mnemonic device for the Kabbalist.A symbolic guidebook to other realms, a theology treatise and a practical meditation manual are all contained in symbolic form in the spheres and paths of the Tree of Life."
The ancient Cabbalah has recently attracted many as numerous sites in the internet testify; however not all of them are interesting in my view as I am allergic to mystification. But if we do find, as perhaps Peirce was, significant indications in the direction of a better understanding of semiotics, they are worth investigating. Even Umberto Eco was apparently attracted by the cabbalah as those that did read his ‘Foucault's Pendulum’ can acknowledge: the names of the different chapters correspond to the sephiroth.
It struck me that Peirce has organized his ten species in a manner analog to the sephiroth in three categories, (taking the fourth inside the third). Has he read the ‘Heptaplus’, or the ‘900 theses from the ‘Conclusiones philosophica, cabalisticae et theologicae’ both referring to the interpretative techniques of the Cabbalah, by Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) or ‘De arte cabbalistica’ by his contemporary John Reuchlin (1455-1522); or the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) or, as probable, the "Stromates" by the christian hermetic greek philosopher Clement of Alexandria (150ca-215ca), inpirator of the here above mentioned thinkers, in which he distinghuishes in the symbolism in hieroglyphic writing the same three categories, imitative, figurative and allegorical ?
For Peirce our perceptions are ineluctably signs and these
emanations of the divine creation, objects of our rational analysis.
our concepts and words are signs and signs of signs. We can illustrate
these correspondences between the peircian species and categories of
and those of the Sephiroth tree (the numeration in this tree follows
list inverting the traditional cabbalah order).
On the background one of the famous Angels by Paul Klee.
Click to have a look at this marvellous painting
The evolution of signs from their most elementary form as a Qualisign into ever more significant forms and intricate meanings towards the Iconic Legisign (that represents a general concept, e.g. its representation in the form of a diagram), and ultimately to the ‘argument’, or a self contained universe of final interpretation of reality as perceived, (a belief in the definition of Peirce), is called semiosis. Just as signs can move in that direction they can proceed in the opposite direction stripping the sign of its meanings, banalizing it. This process of de-generation of signs is the unavoidable course of our post-modern multimedial society as Jean Baudrillard gloomily asserts. It can be compared to ‘the shattering of the vases’ or Shevirah in the cosmogony of the cabbala. For the cabbalist, the divine light is to strong to be contained in the material world or ‘vases’ so that they shatter and this world is just left with the fragments and some sparks of light. It is the human task to repair or mend the pieces in a process, called Tiqqun, of restoring meaning, in other words semiosis.
As I said in the beginning, these connections between the Sephiroth and the peircian categories are merely an intuition (Peirce would have called it an ‘abduction’) and parallels with other philosophers leading to homogeneities in different metaphysical sign theories could be indicated. My option for the cabbalistic way is purely instrumental, one way to stimulate reflection. My ultimate goal is to clarify the ways of industrial design in the form of a design theory based on the (shaky) premise that also design has a proper language. In the next page I will pursue in that direction attacking it from a totally different though convergent angle: the Ur-sign.
Peirce Edition Project’, Introduction
to Volume 1.
6. Roman Jakobson, ‘Glosses on the Medieval Insight into the Science of Language’, 1974, it.tr. ‘ Lo sviluppo della semiotica’, Milan, 1978, p.71
7. Floyd Merrell,‘Semiosis in the Postmodern Age’, Perdue University Press, Indiana, 1995, p.138 ff.
8.Gerschom Scholem, ‘Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik’, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1995 p.50 ff., (1973)
9.Daniel C.Matt, ‘The essential Cabbala, the hart of Jewish Mysticism’, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1996, p.8ff
Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik’, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1995, p.121.,
extasy of Communication’ , Sylvere Lotringer, 1988
some sites about Cabbala: