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Here is Michael Shapiro's letter (which went unpublished) to the New York Times editor about the essay "Let's Shake Up the Social Sciences."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