Cooking up signs

In a Zen community, the monk in charge of cooking for the other monks is called the tenzo. Zen master Dogen, in his youth, learned some very important lessons from the tenzo of one community. Later he incorporated those lessons into a manual written as guidance for his own community. Here are two translations of a short passage from Dogen’s Tenzokyokun (Instructions for the Tenzo):

If you cannot even know what categories you fall into, how can you know about others? If you judge others from your own limited point of view, how can you avoid being mistaken? Although the seniors and those who come after differ in appearance, all members of the community are equal. Furthermore, those who had shortcomings yesterday can act correctly today. Who can know what is sacred and what is ordinary?

— Tanahashi 1985, 62

Even the self does not know where the self will settle down; how could others determine where others will settle down? How could it not be a mistake to find others’ faults with our own faults? Although there is a difference between the senior and the junior and the wise and the stupid, as members of the sangha they are the same. Moreover, the wrong in the past may be right in the present, so who could distinguish the sage from the common person?

— Leighton and Okumura 1996, 45

Charles Peirce would regard these as two interpretants of one sign. As he remarked of a proverb, ‘Every time this is written or spoken in English, Greek, or any other language, and every time it is thought of, it is one and the same representamen’ (EP2:203). In Peircean texts like this one, ‘representamen’ and ‘sign’ are two words for the same thing – which is obviously not an existing physical “thing,” since it can be embodied many times in many ways. But each translation, each embodiment, is also a sign in its own right; for ‘every representamen must be capable of contributing to the determination of a representamen different from itself’ (Peirce, same paragraph).

Each person who actually follows Dogen’s guidance has to translate it into a functional part of his or her own habit-system, an interpretant sign which will in turn determine actual behavior. That interpretant behavior may contribute to the guidance systems of other monks … and so on. If that happens, the monk’s potential to be a sign is realized. All of this is part of what it means for Dogen’s expressed thought to mean anything. And part of what it means for you to read the two translations above is to read them as interpretants of one sign even though they are two signs. Try that …


What do you consider the most important topics and/or contributions in the theory of meaning and signs?

John F. Sowa (, accessed 21 May 2017) answered this question as follows:

The single most important contribution was Peirce’s integration of the theories by the Greeks and Scholastics with modern logic, science, and philosophy. Aristotle laid the foundation in his treatise On Interpretation. His opening paragraph relates language to internal affections (pathêmata), whose existence is not in doubt, but whose nature is unknown:

First we must determine what are noun (onoma)
and verb (rhêma); and after that, what are negation (apophasis), assertion (kataphasis), proposition (apophansis), and sentence (logos). Those in speech (phonê) are symbols (symbola) of affections (pathêmata) in the psyche, and those written (graphomena) are symbols of those in speech. As letters (grammata), so are speech sounds not the same for everyone. But they are signs (sêmeia) primarily of the affections in the psyche, which are the same for everyone, and so are the objects (pragmata) of which they are likenesses (homoiômata). On these matters we speak in the treatise on the psyche, for it is a different subject. (16a1)

In this short passage, Aristotle introduced ideas that have been adopted, ignored, revised, rejected, and dissected over the centuries. By using two different words for sign, he recognized two distinct ways of signifying: sêmeion for a natural sign and symbolon for a conventional sign. With the word sêmeion, which was used for omens and for symptoms of a disease, Aristotle implied that the verbal sign is primarily a natural sign of the mental affection or concept and secondarily a symbol of the object it refers to.

The implication that ‘the verbal sign is primarily a natural sign’ and only ‘secondarily a symbol’ is very suggestive about the nature of what we call ‘natural languages.’ Peirce’s refinements of Aristotle’s semeiotic made such insights more explicit, and sometimes adapted Aristotle’s terms to that end. For instance, Peirce used Aristotle’s ῥῆμα (rhêma) to designate the first in a trichotomy of signs (representamens) which goes back to the logic of the Scholastics:

A representamen is either a rhema, a proposition, or an argument. An argument is a representamen which separately shows what interpretant it is intended to determine. A proposition is a representamen which is not an argument, but which separately indicates what object it is intended to represent. A rhema is a simple representation without such separate part.

Esthetic goodness, or expressiveness, may be possessed, and in some degree must be possessed, by any kind of representamen,— rhema, proposition, or argument.

Moral goodness, or veracity, may be possessed by a proposition or by an argument, but cannot be possessed by a rhema. A mental judgment or inference must possess some degree of veracity.


Peirce’s distinction between esthetic and moral goodness is basic to his account of the ‘normative sciences,’ which include logic as the means of judging the veracity or truth of a proposition. The observation that a rhema can possess ‘expressiveness’ but not ‘veracity’ reflects its Firstness in this trichotomy as ‘a simple representation’ which can only represent a possibility, and not a fact or a reason.

As Peirce put it later in the same year (1903), this trichotomy is a division according to how the sign’s ‘Interpretant represents it as a sign of possibility or as a sign of fact or a sign of reason’ (EP2:291). For this presentation of the trichotomy, Peirce refined the terminology: rhema became rheme (‘a Sign of qualitative Possibility’), and proposition became dicisign (‘a Sign of actual existence’). He kept the term argument for ‘a Sign of law’ (EP2:292).

In his ‘Prolegomena to an Apology for Pragmaticism’ (1906), Peirce departed still further from the traditional trichotomy:

A familiar logical triplet is Term, Proposition, Argument. In order to make this a division of all signs, the first two members have to be much widened.

CP 4.538

For this purpose Peirce coined new terms based on Greek roots, Seme and Pheme. But his explanation of Existential Graphs in that same article employed the term ‘rheme’ to denote a predicate or ‘blank form of proposition,’ where the blanks could be filled by subject-names to compose a complete proposition.

By a rheme, or predicate, will here be meant a blank form of proposition which might have resulted by striking out certain parts of a proposition, and leaving a blank in the place of each, the parts stricken out being such that if each blank were filled with a proper name, a proposition (however nonsensical) would thereby be recomposed.

CP 4.560

Through all these conceptual and terminological changes, there is a kind of continuity with Aristotle’s usage of rhema for a “verb” as distinguished from a “noun” (onoma). Peirce uses rheme for a predicate as opposed to a subject of a proposition. Both predicates and subjects can be called “terms,” but in Existential Graphs that represent propositions, rhemes are primarily signs of qualitative possibility or Firstness while the latter are primarily signs of actual existence or Secondness. The joining or copulation of predicate and subject is the key to the act of meaning performed by the proposition, just as the joining of icon and index is key to the informing power of a symbol, its genuine Thirdness.

Dialogue of love and choice

If God is the Creator, the Author of all events, then a human life ought to be a dialogue with God. Thomas Merton explains:

Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.… every expression of the will of God is in some sense a ‘word’ of God and therefore a ‘seed’ of new life. The ever-changing reality in the midst of which we live should awaken us to the possibility of an uninterrupted dialogue with God. By this I do not mean continous ‘talk,’ or a frivolously conversational form of affective prayer … but a dialogue of love and choice.

— Merton (1962, 14)

In any one brain, thoughts and intentions emerge into consciousness from the mutual interactions among billions of neurons. If we can see humanity as a single organism, then we can say that its intentional practice emerges from the mutual interactions among its myriad members. The fact that you and i are inside this gigantic pragmatic dialogue entails that our conscious understanding of what the Human Organism is up to, no matter how consensual it may be, is not an overview or god’s-eye view of its practice. Its self-control can only grow from our engagement in the dialogue, not from anyone’s overstanding of it.

In any case, the more individuals act as participants in a group mental process, the less likely they are to be consciously aware of the process.

— David Sloan Wilson (2002, 77)

If our universe is an argument, we are not conscious of its conclusion – but we can take our turns carrying on from its premisses with our own arguments, trusting rather to their multitude and variety than to the conclusiveness of any one (Peirce, EP1:29).

True dialogue

Everybody knows how hard it is to put your experience or your deeper feelings into words. Know what I mean?

But there’s no use complaining about the inadequacies of language. We can learn to live with words, maybe even communicate with them. A mutual misunderstanding can be an occasion of genuine dialogue if the participants are honestly trying to talk through it. Thomas Kuhn gives an apt description of how this can happen in science, when advocates of competing views are in the process of resolving their differences; something like this could just as well happen in matters of conscience.

Briefly put, what the participants in a communication breakdown can do is recognize each other as members of different language communities and then become translators. Taking the differences between their own intra- and inter-group discourse as itself a subject for study, they can first attempt to discover the terms and locutions that, used unproblematically within each community, are nevertheless foci of trouble for inter-group discussions.…
Having isolated such areas of difficulty in scientific communication, they can next resort to their shared everyday vocabularies in an effort further to elucidate their troubles. Each may, that is, try to discover what the other would see and say when presented with a stimulus to which his own verbal response would be different.
If they can sufficiently refrain from explaining anomalous behavior as the consequence of mere error or madness, they may in time become very good predictors of each other’s behavior. Each will have learned to translate the other’s theory and its consequences into his own language and simultaneously to describe in his language the world to which that theory applies. That is what the historian of science regularly does (or should) when dealing with out-of-date scientific theories.

— Kuhn (1969, 202)

This is the sort of thing i have tried to do with ‘out-of-date’ scriptures such as the Gospel of Thomas – though of course when this kind of reading is successful, the text in question no longer seems to be “out of date,” at least not in the same way. What Kuhn says above about dialogue in science applies just as well to dialogue between religions.

In a true dialogue, both sides are willing to change. We have to appreciate that truth can be received from outside of – not only within – our own group. If we do not believe that, entering into dialogue would be a waste of time. If we think we monopolize the truth and we still organize a dialogue, it is not authentic. We have to believe that by engaging in dialogue with the other person, we have the possibility of making a change within ourselves, that we can become deeper.

— Thich Nhat Hanh (1995, 9)


The deep and cosmic sense of the word logos has its parallel in the Sanskrit word dharma, which (like the logos of Heraclitus) can refer to the medium, the message, or its object, depending on circumstances.

Buddha-dharma, for instance, is the recorded teaching of Sakyamuni Buddha, or the universal Way of all buddhas, which all things (also called dharmas) are presently expounding to those who have ears to hear. Thus the ‘body’ or ‘system’ of the buddha’s teaching pervades the universe.

The word dharma means many things, but its underlying sense is ‘that which supports,’ from the root dhri, to support, hold up, or bear. Generally Dharma implies support from within: the essence of a thing, its virtue, that which makes it what it is.

— Eknath Easwaran (1985, 15)

But like ‘system’ (or logos), dharma also applies on a larger scale to ‘the essential order of things’ (Easwaran 1985, 15).

Real teaching

According to Hui-neng in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, real teaching (teaching that leads to realization) relies not on delivery of a preformulated message but on the spontaneous growth of meaning. A genuine dialogue flows like a mountain stream, carrying its names and forms forward. When particular symbols are used and deliberately manipulated as if their connections to dynamic objects were permanently fixed rather than continuously renewed with the flow of experience, they become obstacles like a rock in the stream, troubling it with turbulence, and the instead of flow we get ‘fluctuation.’

The Realized One’s speech and silence are both spontaneous; the words he utters are like echoes responding to sounds, occurring naturally without deliberate intent, not the same as the ordinary man preaching with a fluctuating mind. If any say that the Realized One preaches with fluctuation in his mind, they are slandering Buddha. The Sutra of Vimalakirti says, ‘Real teaching involves no preaching, no giving orders; listening to the teaching involves no hearing and no grasping.’ You realize that myriad things are empty, and all names and words are temporary setups; constructed within inherent emptiness, all the verbal expositions explain that all realities are signless and unfabricated, thus guiding deluded people in such a way as to get them to see their original nature and cultivate and realize unsurpassed enlightenment.

— (Cleary 1998, 134)

A ‘fluctuating mind’ here has a preconceived message which it is trying to ‘put over’ on others, rather than giving itself wholly and spontaneously to the flow of the dialogue. In Peircean terms, recognizing the genuine Secondness of ‘all realities’ leads to recognition of one’s original Firstness, or identity with the primal person. The Thirdness of signs is a means to the end of this beginning.

Natural dialogues with nature

Why do we engage in the kind of inquiry represented by Turning Signs? Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One offers this answer:

At least in principle, one can wake up from one’s biological history. One can grow up, define one’s own goals, and become autonomous. And one can start talking back to Mother Nature, elevating her self-conversation to a new level.

— Metzinger (2003, 634)

Your autonomy, your self-control, raises the level of nature’s self-conversation, which is our conversation with nature. ‘Successful research,’ according to Peirce (W6:386), ‘is conversation with nature; the macrocosmic reason, the equally occult microcosmic law, must act together or alternately, till the mind is in tune with nature.’ The ‘occult microcosmic law’ is your internal guidance system.

It was Prigogine who used the phrase ‘dialogue with nature’ in a book title, but the basic idea was already common. Karl Popper, for instance, describes both perception and scientific method in terms of a question-and-answer process:

… our senses can serve us (as Kant himself saw) only with yes-and-no answers to our own questions; questions that we conceive, and ask, a priori; and questions that sometimes are very elaborate. Moreover, even the yes-and-no answers of the senses have to be interpreted by us—interpreted in the light of our a priori preconceived ideas. And, of course, they are often misinterpreted.

— Popper (1990, 47)

In developing his model of science as ‘enlightened common sense,’ as the formal and public equivalent of the perceptual process common to all organisms, Popper believed he had ‘refuted classical empiricism—the bucket theory of the mind that says that we obtain knowledge just by opening our eyes and letting the sense-given or god-given “data” stream into a brain that will digest them’ (Popper 1990, 49-50). He also points out that Kant had already described the dialogue with nature in his preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason: ‘our reason can understand only what it creates according to its own design … we must compel Nature to answer our questions, rather than cling to Nature’s apron strings and allow her to guide us’ (Popper 1968/89, 256).

Merleau-Ponty (1945, especially 370-374) presents perception as a dialogue between body and world—a reciprocal relationship of question and answer:

The passing of sensory givens before our eyes and under our hands is, as it were, a language which teaches itself, and in which the meaning is secreted by the very structure of the signs, and this is why it can literally be said that our senses question things and that things reply to them.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 372)

The relations between things or aspects of things having always our body as their vehicle, the whole of nature is the setting of our own life, or our interlocutor in a sort of dialogue … every perception is a communication or a communion, the taking up or completion by us of some extraneous intention or, on the other hand, the complete expression outside ourselves of our perceptual powers and a coition, so to speak, of our body with things. The fact that this may not have been realized earlier is explained by the fact that any coming to awareness of the perceptual world was hampered by the prejudices arising from objective thinking.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 373)

What Merleau-Ponty means here by ‘objective thinking’ is part of the ‘natural attitude’ arising from the unexamined assumption of a dyadic relation between words and things to which they refer. This kind of ‘objective thinking’ cuts the body out of the semiotic loop by taking at face value the perceived externality of objects, ignoring the body’s involvement in all perception. Semiotic objectivity, on the other hand, always implies a triadic relation among sign, object and interpretant. It also involves three modes or grades of meaning, as Peirce pointed out in the first of his 1903 Lowell Lectures:

A little book by Victoria Lady Welby has lately appeared entitled What is Meaning? The book has sundry merits, among them that of showing that there are three modes of meaning. But the best feature of it is that it presses home the question “What is meaning?” A word has meaning for us in so far as we are able to make use of it in communicating our knowledge to others and in getting at the knowledge that those others seek to communicate to us. That is the lowest grade of meaning. The meaning of a word is more fully the sum total of all the conditional predictions which the person who uses it intends to make himself responsible for or intends to deny. That conscious or quasi­conscious intention in using the word is the second grade of meaning. But besides the consequences to which the person who accepts a word knowingly commits himself, there is a vast ocean of unforeseen consequences which the acceptance of the word is destined to bring about, not merely consequences of knowing but perhaps revolutions of society. One cannot tell what power there may be in a word or a phrase to change the face of the world; and the sum of those consequences makes up the third grade of meaning.


Each ‘grade’ here involves the lower grades. At the second grade, the interpreter or reader of the word is always dealing with a double context and a double meaning: There’s the context in which the author intended his meaning, and there’s the context of the implicit question for which the reader seeks an answer in this text. Even at the first grade, which assumes a common language, the reader has her default meaning for any given word or phrase, and has to take the context supplied by the author into account in order to guess whether (or how much) that default is relevant to the present occasion of reading this text.

For instance, the word ‘objective’ itself refers in Merleau-Ponty’s text to the assumption that the objects of perception are the sole (or dominant) contributors to the experience of perception; ‘objective thinking’ then is a denial of the ‘communication or communion’ that constitutes perception. But if the reader is, say, a Buddhist thinker, then he might habitually use the word ‘objective’ in a very different sense; ‘objectivity’ might point to the absence of attachment or aversion toward phenomena, in which case ‘objective thinking’ is precisely the kind of thinking from which prejudices do not arise. ‘Objectivity’ for a Buddhist could be a word for the practice of interbeing.

In addition to hidden differences of meaning, the careful reader will be aware of the hidden connections working behind words. Merleau-Ponty refers above to the ‘coition, so to speak, of our body with things’. The phrase ‘so to speak’ marks this as a metaphor, but there’s more here than superficial wordplay: in English the idea of coition is linked to verbal as well as sexual ‘communication’ because we can use intercourse as a synonym for either one. The link between communication and communion is even more obvious. Nor is this merely a quirk of English: And Adam knew his wife … the link between knowing and coition in the English of the King James Bible is a faithful translation of the same link implicit in the Hebrew (Scholem 1946, 235). All of this meaning is going on behind the scenes of the text all the time, provided that the reader negotiates the text with care (with compassion, feeling-together, communion, ….. ). Negotiation too is another word for dialogue