The meaning of any utterance or any sign is the response to that utterance or sign: this is the fundamental proposition behind Morse Peckham’s Explanation and Power. Published in 1979 and now available in paperback for the first time, Explanation and Power grew out of Peckham’s efforts, as a scholar of Victorian literature, to understand the nature of Romanticism. His search ultimately led back to -- and built upon -- the tradition of signs developed by the American Pragmatists. Since, in Peckham’s view, meaning is not inherent in word or sign, only in response, human behavior itself must depend upon interaction, which in turn relies upon the stability of verbal and nonverbal signs. In the end, meaning can be stabilized only by explanation, and when explanation fails, by force. Peckham’s semiotic account of human behavior, radical in its time, contends with the same issues that animate today’s debates in critical theory -- how culture is produced, how meaning is arrived at, the relation of knowledge to power and of society to its institutions. Readers across a wide range of disciplines, in the humanities and social sciences, will welcome its reappearance.
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