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The Fate of Meaning

The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature

Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 168
  • Book Info
    The Fate of Meaning
    Book Description:

    This succinct and lucid study examines the thought of the philosopher Charles Peirce as it applies to literary theory and shows that his concept of the sign can give us a fresh understanding of literary art and criticism. John Sheriff analyzes the treatment of determinate meaning and contends that as long as we cling to a notion of language that begins with Saussure's dyadic definition of signs, meaning cannot be treated as such any more than can essence or presence. Asserting that Peirce's less familiar position offers a way out of this difficulty, Sheriff first discusses the Saussurean-based theory of meaning and then argues for the advantages of the radically different triadic theory developed by Peirce.

    Part One of the work reviews and critiques the treatment of meaning in works by Jonathan Culler, Tzvetan Todorov, Stanley Fish, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida, among others. The focus of this section is on the treatment of meaning in structural and post-structural theories and their common basis in Saussurean linguistics. Part Two provides a readable introduction to Peirce's general theory of signs and develops comprehensively the implications of his semiotic. The substitution of his theory for Saussure's opens our eyes to new and cogent answers to many questions relevant to the meaning of texts.

    Originally published in 1989.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5997-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    Literary theory and hermeneutics have had great difficulty giving any satisfactory treatment of “meaning.” On the one hand, the volumes of argument about the meaning of texts, from the formalist theory of W. K. Wimsatt to the deconstructionist theory of Jacques Derrida, seem not to have inhibited the discussion of “what the author intended” or “the meaning of the text” in most literature courses. On the other hand, the recent preoccupation of literary studies with creating and defending theories of literature has made it necessary that any convincing treatment of meaning be a linguistical-philosophical-epistemological-phenomenological-ontological analysis that resolves the disputes and...

  5. Part One The Fate of Meaning in Structuralist Literary Theory

    • ONE Beginning with Saussure: The Sentence-Text Analogy
      (pp. 3-18)

      Presumably the first step in considering the fate of meaning in literary theory would be to define meaning. However, it is the persistent inability of linguists, philosophers, and hermeneutical and literary theorists to give a satisfactory definition of meaning that is the impetus for this study. Charlton Laird, in his prefatory article inWebster’s New World Dictionary, puts the case succinctly: “nobody knows what meaning is or how to define it.”¹ Couple that with W. V. Quine’s statement that, “pending a satisfactory explanation of the notion of meaning, linguists in the semantic fields are in the situation of not knowing...

    • TWO The Reader/Text as Indeterminate
      (pp. 19-31)

      Roland Barthes in his later writings, while still acknowledging that his, and all, structural analyses of narrative have a single scientific origin—“semiology or the systematic study of signification”—moves away from the kind of structural analysis described in the previous chapter. He says that the effort “to see all the world’s stories . . . within a single structure” is “as exhausting . . . as it is ultimately undesirable, for the text thereby loses its difference.”¹ Moreover, he adds, such structural analysis “is particularly applicable to oral narrative,” but “textual analysis” (the term Barthes applies to his own...

    • THREE Meaning Endlessly Deferred
      (pp. 32-50)

      The purpose of this chapter is not to give an introduction to or a review of deconstruction or poststructural literary theory, since others have already done that better than I could,¹ but to highlight the treatment of meaning in poststructural thought. I want to show that certain assumptions about language prefigure the treatment of meaning in deconstruction and to explain why deconstruction leaves us in despair of ever having a theory of meaning, why I have called deconstruction the “final no” to meaning—after which can come a yes. I will refer extensively to the work of Jacques Derrida because...

  6. Part Two Meaning Is a Triadic Relation

    • FOUR Starting Over: Peirce’s Theory of Signs
      (pp. 53-72)

      The nemesis of human understanding in literary theory based on the Saussurean sign, as shown in the preceding chapters, is the gap between the signifier and the signified, the word and what it represents, the statement and its meaning. If one has nothing but systems of dyadic signs whose parts have no logical, natural, or motivated relation, one is left with mystification and blindness when one tries to define the meaning of a sign. The definition or meaning of the signified is not determined by its signifier but by something else. Structuralists call this “something else” differences with other signs...

    • FIVE Art: Meaning as a Sign of Possibility
      (pp. 73-90)

      This chapter is concerned with what Peirce’s theory of signs shows us about the character of a literary text and aesthetic experience. Given the irreducible triadic sign, which includes the interpretant (a sign stands tosomebodyforsomethinginsome respect), we cannot be “objective” and “subjective” alternately; the text and our experience of it are given together. Everything is alwaysfor us.But we can show what kind of a sign a literary text is according to Peirce’s theory of signs and how near we can come to the thing-in-itself, the literary text in this case.

      In order to...

    • SIX Criticism: Meaning as a Sign of Fact
      (pp. 91-121)

      Peirce’s theory of signs provides the means by which we can get beyond the tradition of objectivist thinking about language and art that has both undercut the validity of interpretation and divorced literature from meaning and human experience. This chapter shows how a triadic definition of a sign influences our understanding of literary criticism and other interpretive acts.

      The separation of language and meaning, objects and contemplating subjects into autonomous parts in objectivist thinking has had the effect of separating literature from lived experience, from reading and criticism. Whether it is the poem that is autonomous, as I. A. Richards...

    • SEVEN Theory: Meaning as a Sign of Reason
      (pp. 122-142)

      We have shown that according to Peirce’s theory of signs a literary work is a class-8 sign (a Symbolic Rheme or Rhematic Symbol),¹ which represents “possible” objects, and that the experience of such signs is what we normally call aesthetic experience. Furthermore, we have shown that literary criticism is a class-9 sign (a Dicent Symbol, or Proposition), which “represents its object in respect to actual existence” and “professes to be really affected by the actual existent or real law to which it refers” (2.252). We are now ready to show that literary theory is a class-10 sign (an Argument), which...

  7. INDEX
    (pp. 143-149)