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Tractatus De Signis : THE SEMIOTIC OF JOHN POINSOT; arranged by John Deely (UC California: $65; 607 pp.)

May 11, 1986|Richard J. Morris | Morris philosophizes at Loyola Marymount University. and

Philosophy these days has all the marks of a changing neighborhood. The neat privets and picket fences are gone, presuppositions are parked untidily on front lawns, and the exclusive brownstone mansions of old established discipline have been converted into condos. There are a lot of newcomers on the street: sociologists, historians, literary critics, anthropologists; a polyglot population without as yet a sense of community. Will they be assimilated into the opposing camps of new-wave Realism and Relativism, or will they embrace Rorty's ecumenical doctrine of philosophical edification?

In John Deely's opinion, these questions betray a narrow, unhistorical and ethnocentric vision of the new philosophical reality. There already exists a field within which this diverse population can live in polyphonic harmony: semiotics, the study of signs. Animal communication, human culture, literary theory, and exolinguistics all fall under semiotic investigation and reflection. An eclectic catch-all newly invented by anxious academics who cannot otherwise publish their work? Hardly, says Deely, as he introduces us to John Poinsot.

Born in Lisbon in 1589, Poinsot was a Dominican friar, a distinguished professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Alcala in Spain. He was a man of enormous industry, chiefly remembered as the author of multitomed college texts in both his disciplines. These works represented an extraordinary fusion of medieval and renaissance themes but went largely unnoticed by modern scholars, dazzled by the revolutionary brilliance of Descartes and Locke. That Locke's suggestion for further research into what he called "Semiotike, or the Doctrine of Signs " had already been taken up some 50 years earlier by Poinsot quite escaped them. This is hardly surprising, since that doctrine was buried in the author's massive Art of Logic, a Latin work of some complexity.

Deely has exhumed those bones from the 1930 Reiser edition of Poinsot's Philosophy Course and reassembled them as a connected discourse in parallel translation, carefully arranged and footnoted. What emerges is not a college-level survey of signs and symbols from smoke to sacrament, but an extended dissection and explanation of questions that concern semiotics today: Do animals understand signs as such? Are concepts private signs? Why are we able to talk about past and present, the real and the unreal, casting a net of significance over both?

There are many other topics of semiotic interest raised by Poinsot; but central to them all is his analysis of relation, since signs can be defined only in relational terms: "they represent something other than themselves to a knowing power." As Deely explains it, Poinsot sees signs as having no special affinity for the real or the unreal, being equally at home in signifying either. Nor are signs necessarily mind-dependent, for it is the function of a sign as such to represent, not to explain. It follows that to some extent, signs can take on a life of their own, as our words do, becoming relatively mind-independent as they are embedded in our culture by linguistic habit.

Since words are cultural signs, to translate them is to bridge cultures, bringing one way of life into contact with another: a difficult endeavor, and much more so when the translator faces technical vocabulary from a forgotten tradition in a dead language. On this score, Poinsot has been a challenge to other translators besides Deely; indeed, the learned friar's convoluted style has, as Deely notes, "been the occasion of much comment, puzzlement, and consternation over the centuries among his readers, friendly and hostile." Much the same can, in this instance, be said of Deely.

Such a reaction is anticipated in an editorial afterword in which the principles underlying the translation are defended but, in this reviewer's opinion, unsuccessfully. First, we are told that the translation is such that "each line is a commentary and not really usable except as a commentary" on the original Latin text, "the sole and only means by which the reader can at will resolve the perplexities of translation for him or her self." This I found to be absolutely the case; I was constantly forced to translate the English by reading the Latin. Second, Deely undertakes to replicate "the literary quality of the original, "duplicating in the English so far as possible (its) style and syntax," roundly condemning translations that improve the original only to distort.

Unfortunately, he follows this principle most rigidly in his own editorial comments, treating the reader to an 18-line boa-constrictor on Page 481, with many lesser examples scattered throughout. Deely's third and last principle of translation seems to be at odds with his first: achieving "maximum readability and intelligibility for the non-Latin-speaking public (which means practically everyone). . . ." But even this clarity of understanding is limited to those "willing to draw upon the historical resources of their own tongue and forsake for a time the superficial pleasures of accustomed and up-to-date literary qualities. . . ." In effect, to understand Deely's translation, one needs to be either reasonably fluent in scholastic Latin or an aficionado of archaic Latinisms which are often inelegant and inapposite.

This edition of Poinsot is a labor of love, a sign of much work and dedication, but it also signifies that much more needs to be done if these dry bones are to live again.

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