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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.