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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Michael Shapiro keynote - "Style as a Cognitive Category" (update)

Originally posted on January 28, 2014, 6:49 p.m. E.S.T.

UPDATE: Keynote address has been re-scheduled to April 11, 2014. End of update.

Michael Shapiro (Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Semiotic Studies, Brown University;
Adjunct Professor, Society of Senior Scholars, Columbia University)

"Style as a Cognitive Category"

Keynote address, panel on "Semiotic Perspectives on the Arts and Cognition"
Winthrop University, February 14, 2014


Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) is the modern founder of the theory of signs, otherwise known as SEMIOTICS. This theory takes signs as anything that is capable of signifying a MEANING, thereby placing meaning (what Peirce called semeiosis) and COGNITION at the center of human inquiry. Peirce's whole philosophy, of which his semiotics is the capstone, is an immense synthesis of the key ideas of modern science with the classical logical paradigm that traces its origins from Aristotle through the Stoics, Locke, and Kant. Peirce's great achievement is the addition of the THEORY OF INTERPRETATION, of which his conception of the interpretant as a law or rule, invariably instantiated in individual signs, is his most radical advance and provides a systematic understanding of the way signs signify.

Although Peirce was a mathematician, logician, and scientist, his sign theory recognizes the importance of feeling, emotion, sensation, sentiment, action. Put another way, his semiotics not only enables us to understand science as a human enterprise but offers us an approach to literature and the arts, to religion, to society, to the whole of the world that lies between the private incommunicable interior and the vast spaces of the exterior universe.

Peirce's concept of the interpretant, with its emphasis on significative effects, provides just the conceptual bridge necessary for style to be understood in a global sense encompassing all its manifestations. Style suffuses so much of what it means to be human and has been the subject of so much analysis that in order to move style away from problems of introspection and self-awareness one needs to redirect the age-old discussion into a more public arena where the contrast with custom allows insight into the STRUCTURE OF HUMAN ACTIVITY IN GENERAL. This can be accomplished when style as a phenomenon that cuts across disciplinary boundaries is viewed TROPOLOGICALLY as a fundamentally cognitive category.

About the speaker

Michael Shapiro was born in Yokohama, spent World War II in Japan, and grew up speaking Russian, Japanese, and English. He earned degrees in Slavic Languages and Literatures at UCLA (A.B., ‘61) and Harvard (A.M., ‘62; Ph. D. ‘65). Besides Brown and Columbia, he has taught at UCLA, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and Green Mountain College, in a career that now spans half a century. He is the co-author, with his late wife the medievalist and Renaissance scholar Marianne Shapiro, of Figuration in Verbal Art (1988) and The Sense of Form in Literature and Language (2nd ed., 2009). His 2007 book, Palimpsest of Consciousness, is a set of authorial annotations of his only work of fiction, the novel My Wife the Metaphysician, or Lady Murasaki’s Revenge (2006). His most recent book, The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage, was published in 2012.

[more information at and ]

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Shapiro on Christakis on the social sciences

Here is Michael Shapiro's letter (which went unpublished) to the New York Times editor about the essay "Let's Shake Up the Social Sciences."


            Nicholas A. Christakis's essay, "Let's Shake Up the Social Sciences" ("Gray Matter," Sunday Review, July 21st, p.12), is only the latest installment in a series of recent attempts to reorient the study of human beings in society by examining the biological basis of behavior along lines pursued in the new century by neuroscience. It is noteworthy that Dr. Christakis does not mention linguistics among the social sciences that need retooling, even though language is the basis of human thought and communication, and has been during the last 200,000 years of evolution. As with psychology, the recent vogue for the label 'cognitive' among linguists has given rise to the idea that there is something genuinely scientific only to disciplines conducted under the cover of this label, as if the exploration of the neurophysiological processes involved in speech (both its production and understanding) were the key to language and its use. But as Charles Sanders Peirce, America's greatest philosopher-scientist and the modern founder of sign theory, emphasized, the sign has no chemistry. As social beings, we transact our behavior by thinking in and exchanging signs, a process Peirce called 'semeiosis'. Semeiosis is always at bottom a matter of interpretation, the ability to assign and understand meaning. If we are to explain the thought processes that underlie intentionality and purposive behavior, which are at the root of the social sciences, it will only be by developing sign theory in the spirit of Peirce's whole philosophy, including his great achievement, the working out of the theory of interpretation. No matter how deep our knowledge of neural networks, synapses, and the prefrontal cortex, such knowledge will always be fundamentally beside the point because it will explain neither semeiosis nor interpretation.

Manchester Center, Vt.
The writer is an emeritus professor of Slavic and semiotic studies at Brown University.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Shapiro to the NYT on irony

Michael Shapiro sent to me some days ago for The Peirce Blog a copy of a letter that he wrote to the New York Times about its article "How to Live Without Irony." The Times has chosen not to publish it. Here is the letter along with his comments in his post "The Promiscuousness of Irony as a Rhetorical Label" at his blog Language Lore:

Nowadays, in the print and broadcast media everything is all-too-promiscuously labeled irony and/or ironic, to the point where in its November 18th edition The New York Times gave a grotesque amount of space to an essay entitled "How to Live Without Irony" in its Sunday Review section. This low-brow divagation elicited a letter to the editor from your humble blogger, which the newspaper—characteristically—chose not to publish, so here it is for the record:


Christy Wampole's 'How to Live Without Irony' (November 18) offers food for thought but, for all its prolixity, entirely misses stating what is at the core of irony as a rhetorical strategy, namely its negativity, its inability to signify anything of positive value. In terms developed by the modern founder of sign theory (semiotics), the American philosopher-scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), irony can never go beyond being an index, merely calling attention to itself and always necessarily falling short of being a symbol, which is the only kind of sign that encompasses positive meaning.

Worse yet, irony always tends toward masking the judgmental nature of what is being paraded as fact or the inefficacy of an effete judgment. The ironic statement thus runs the risk of ending up as just another cliché. That is precisely why the contemporary generation of "temporary sophisticates" (in Wayne Booth's apt characterization of those who assume the ironic stance), with their heavy reliance on digitally-bound signification, can only comment on the object of their ironizing without ever contributing to its real substance.

Apropos, only the most dogged literalist, without any real-life experience of the situational use of the proverb cited in the preceding post ("Language as an Aesthetic Object"), could comment that the mother must have "taken umbrage" at having her child's provenience ascribed to adultery, thereby implying some kind of misplaced cosmic irony in her expressed admiration withal of the proverb's poetic form and of its utterer.


Friday, August 31, 2012

The Speaking Self, by Michael Shapiro

Michael Shapiro has just published a book The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage (Amazon link). It draws upon his blog posts and "is an attempt to reconceive linguistics in the light of pragmaticism," as he said in a message to me. He has variously authored and edited a number of books, including the Peirce Seminar Series.

Here is the book's official description:

This book is not a usage manual in the conventional sense. It is a sui generis series of compact, self-contained essays arranged into chapters by broad topic categories of problematic points of linguistic usage in contemporary American speech and writing and cast in an uncompromisingly analytical style that is nevertheless accessible to any educated reader with a love of words, an inquisitiveness about language, and an appetite for exegesis. The bias of the author is unabashedly prescriptivist. It is formed by a long-standing theoretical interest in and empirical observation of English usage, oral and written. Much of the material for analysis is drawn from the language of contemporary media, both print and broadcast. The discussion of examples frequently opens out on a perspective that takes in deeper questions of value and society in America as revealed by present-day language use. The essays that comprise the chapters are what might be called linguistic vignettes. They call attention to points of grammar and style in contemporary American English, especially in cases where the language is changing due to innovative usage, including what older generations of speakers would consider errors in speech and writing.

Anybody who has read his posts at Language Lore will be acquainted with his analysis of linguistic phenomena wherein, again and again, he brings into relief the difference made by a pragmaticist approach with its attention not just to the more obviously or narrowly linguistic factors in language but to conceivable practical implications and to real generals in their sometimes lively interplay affecting the phenomena.

Quotes on the book's back cover:

Michael Shapiro is one of the great thinkers in the realm of linguistics and language use, and his integrated understanding of language and speech in its semantic and pragmatic structure, grammatical and historical grounding, and colloquial to literary stylistic variants is perhaps unmatched today.

Who might be interested in this book? Certainly linguists, language scholars, literary theorists, novelists, poets, essayists, journalists--but also those who find the dictionary entertaining reading (there are surprisingly many of us), or simply those whose fascination with the inner workings of language knows no bounds. This book is a treasure to be shared.

— Robert S. Hatten, The University of Texas at Austin

"Michael Shapiro provides a critical review of contemporary American English usage in a richly multifarious analytical context. The result is both provocative and illuminating."

— Howard Hibbett, Harvard University

The Speaking Self at
326 pages.
ISBN-10: 1478357045
ISBN-13: 978-1478357049

From the Amazon page:

Michael Shapiro, Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Semiotic Studies at Brown University, was born in 1939 in Yokohama (Japan) and grew up speaking Russian, Japanese, and English. He immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1952 and was educated in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Michael Shapiro’s career as a teacher and scholar spans almost half a century. He has taught at several universities, including the University of California (Los Angeles and Berkeley) and Princeton, and served as president of the Charles S. Peirce Society in 1991. His articles on English usage have appeared in American Speech and Language.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Michael Shapiro letter in the NY Times Book Review

Sunday Book Review, July 12, 2012: Letter from Michael Shapiro


An American Philosophy

Published: July 12, 2012

To the Editor:

Anthony Gottlieb’s review of “America the Philosophical,” by Carlin Romano (July 1), seriously mischaracterizes what he calls “America’s principal homegrown school of philosophy,” namely the pragmatism of C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Far from being, as Gottlieb caricatures it, the doctrine that our theories “should be judged by their practical value rather than by their accuracy in representing the world,” pragmatism is a theory of inquiry — always emphatically seeking the truth in the long run — that follows what Peirce called the pragmatic maxim: “Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings we conceive the objects of our conception to have. Then our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”

Gottlieb’s assertion (citing Sidney Morgenbesser’s purported witticism) that “the ultimate fate of this idea . . . was all very well in theory but didn’t work in practice” is belied by its undeniable success in underwriting the worldwide scientific advance in the 21st century of disciplines as diverse as linguistics, biology and applied mathematics, not to speak of philosophy and logic. Traducing pragmatism as “either trivial or incoherent when you try to flesh it out” is not worthy of an otherwise sensible reviewer.

Manchester Center, Vt.
The writer is an emeritus professor of Slavic and semiotic studies at Brown University.

A version of this letter appeared in print on July 15, 2012, on page BR8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: An American Philosophy.

© 2012 The New York Times Company

B.U.: The battle seems unending against the vulgarest interpretations of Peirce's pragmatism. Kudos to Michael Shapiro for keeping it up.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Call for papers on Ransdell


of the Charles S. Peirce Society
Special Issue

“The Meaning of a Thought is Altogether Something Virtual”: Joseph Ransdell and His Legacy

Catherine Legg, University of Waikato, New Zealand
Gary Richmond, LaGuardia College – City University of New York

Joseph Ransdell (1931–2010), based for most of his career at Texas Tech University, offered a highly original and focused challenge within academic philosophy at the end of the Second Millennium. His guiding philosophical passion was truth-directed communication. This led him to think deeply about the Platonic Socrates and the Socratic Plato, and the problematics of early modern philosophy. Most of all, however, he claimed that the thought of Charles Sanders Peirce held the key not just to endorsing truth as a regulative ideal, but to showing how the ideal might be worked out in practice by means of a community of inquiry exercising critical self-control.

From early in his career Joe was concerned that professional gatekeeping was hindering progress in philosophy, and was unafraid to speak about it. From the initial evolution of the Internet he grasped its potential as a place “where people can and do critically question and challenge one another without the usual protections of office, rank, agenda, and official moderation”, something that he argued had “all but disappeared from public life — including intellectual life — in the U.S. and many other countries as well during the 20th Century”.

Thereafter he threw enormous effort and enterprise into realizing this vision, swimming against a rising tide of other kinds of institutional reward. This resulted in the email list and online community peirce-l, which he founded in 1993 and moderated in unique style until his death, and the accompanying website that he beta-launched in 1997 and called Arisbe, after the house where Peirce lived during the later years of his life and dreamed of establishing a research centre.

Joe’s exceptionally conscious and critical approach to nurturing online communication may be seen in the “How the Forum Works” guidelines that he wrote for peirce-l: Much there now seems prescient in the light of subsequent developments on the Internet, whereby ordinary persons build public knowledge resources with no thought of monetary reward. A key example is of course the astounding Wikipedia, whose success was also arguably due to its open, self-correcting development of its own processes (and who would have guessed that so many would gather there and freely give so much energy to help others learn - except perhaps Charles Peirce?)

Many felt that the mores Joe charted for peirce-l made it a unique and valuable place to do philosophy. Another noteworthy feaure of the list was the way in which its composition mirrored the polymathic and international outlook of Peirce himself. One might find, for instance, a semiotician, a theologian, a computer scientist, and a book translator discussing Peirce’s relation to Leibniz.

We are interested in papers which record, honour, explicate, and critically appraise Joe’s published writings, his online efforts and their ongoing legacy, and the relation between the two. In keeping with the spirit of peirce-l, we welcome submissions from a wealth of disciplines, although we expect philosophy to make a prominent showing.

All papers will be blind-refereed, and should be prepared as such. Submissions should follow the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society manuscript guidelines, online at: They may be submitted by email to Catherine Legg at . The deadline for submissions is September 1st, 2012.

Joseph Ransdell

“Symbols grow” – Charles Peirce

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Shapiro letter to the NY Times

The New York Times published this letter from Michael Shapiro, on the Internet October 28, 2011 and on paper on October 30, 2011 on page BR6 of the N.Y.T. Sunday Book Review.  Shapiro's letter was in response to an essay "I Was an Under-Age Semiotician" by Steven Johnson in the Sunday Book Review October 16, 2011, on the 1980s semiotics scene and some of its intellectual and verbal excesses.  For my part, I remember SemioTexte; it was such that, twenty or so years later, I balked when I started reading Peirce for his categorial work only to find him deeply focused on semiotics; but I kept reading, joined Joe Ransdell's peirce-l, and came to appreciate Peirce's sem(e)iotic as something quite different.  I don't know how Shapiro restrained himself from adding that, for Peirce, signs (including books) are indeed about things. Shapiro's letter:
To the Editor:

Having taught at Brown for 16 years, including a course on Charles Sanders Peirce, the modern founder of sign theory, I found Steven Johnson's essay to be a depressingly accurate characterization of the academic times during his college years. However, readers should know that his identification of semiotics as a field of study by linking it with Peirce, an American philosopher, and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is a serious, albeit common, misconception. Saussure's version is defective next to Peirce's, and not curable by patch-up. That it was Saussure's ideas about signs, and not Peirce's, that gave rise to the Continental form Jacques Derrida and others propagated — and gullible American academics swallowed whole — should not be so glibly elided. Peirce is the greatest intellect the Americas ever produced, and it is his whole philosophy, including his semeiotic (note the spelling and the singular number) that now bids fair to prevail as doctrine.

New York

The writer is an emeritus professor of Slavic and semiotic studies at Brown University.
Shapiro is well known among Peirce scholars as editor of the five-volume series Peirce Seminar Papers (1993–2002) and author of numerous works on linguistics and semiotics.