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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.

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