How do you mean? Vaguely.

This netbook documents an inquiry guided by the question How do you mean?. The root question is how meaning happens, or how semiosis works.

Writers, thinkers and scholars have been asking this kind of question for a long time, but their work doesn’t get a lot of attention because most of us are too busy committing our acts of meaning to reflect on how we do it, or don’t see the point of thus reflecting. A century ago, C. S. Peirce and Victoria Welby were both looking into the nature of meaning, but they didn’t learn of each other’s work until near the end of their lives. The correspondence between them began in 1903, and parts of it are among the clearest explanations of Peirce’s mature semiotics. Most of it was published in 1977 under the title Semiotic and Significs (cited as SS).

In one of his earliest letters to Welby, Peirce explained why the study of what we mean, important as it is, should not be taken too far:

I fully and heartily agree that the study of what we mean ought to be the … general purpose of a liberal education, as distinguished from special education, – of that education which should be required of everybody with whose society and conversation we are expected to be content. But, then, perfect accuracy of thought is unattainable, – theoretically unattainable. And undue striving for it is worse than time wasted. It positively renders thought unclear.

SS 11 (1903)

When a semiotic theorist like Peirce says that ‘perfect accuracy’ is theoretically unattainable, he is saying that it is unattainable because of the way semiosis works. The very logic of meaning guarantees that all language is necessarily vague to some degree. Here’s a fuller explanation of the point, written a year or two later (CP 5.506):

No communication of one person to another can be entirely definite, i.e., non-vague. We may reasonably hope that physiologists will some day find some means of comparing the qualities of one person’s feelings with those of another, so that it would not be fair to insist upon their present incomparability as an inevitable source of misunderstanding. Besides, it does not affect the intellectual purport of communications. But wherever degree or any other possibility of continuous variation subsists, absolute precision is impossible. Much else must be vague, because no man’s interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man’s. Even in our most intellectual conceptions, the more we strive to be precise, the more unattainable precision seems. It should never be forgotten that our own thinking is carried on as a dialogue, and though mostly in a lesser degree, is subject to almost every imperfection of language. I have worked out the logic of vagueness with something like completeness, but need not inflict more of it upon you, at present.

Readers who want a more precise definition of vagueness, or a more specific definition of generality, might consult Peirce, EP2:350-53 (or CP 5.446-450, 1905).

When Peirce says that ‘no man’s interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man’s,’ he is talking about what i call polyversity (in Chapter 2). In the earlier stages of writing this book, i collected quite a few examples of what i took to be statements of the same idea expressed in diverse ways. But there’s a limit to the usefulness of that, just as there’s a limit to how exactly you can say what you mean. Indeed, as Peirce said, ‘the multiplication of equivalent modes of expression is itself a burden’ (SS 20).

The exact logician holds it to be, in itself, a defect in a logical system of expression, to afford different ways of expressing the same state of facts; although this defect may be less important than a definite advantage gained by it.

The present writer doesn’t claim to be an exact logician, but can hope that the reader gains some advantage from the polyversity of Turning Signs.

The element of ‘trust’ in genuine dialogue includes a willingness to let most of the meaning process work implicitly – trusting that it can become explicit, can bear the spotlight beam of attention, if that becomes necessary. Genuine dialogue requires a finely tuned sense of what needs to be explicated and what needs to work implicitly.


There’s no hard line between technologies and intimologies. We are not only social animals and expert manipulators but, as Andy Clark puts it, Natural-Born Cyborgs. Our lives are so thoroughly pervaded with ‘mind-expanding technologies’ that ‘it becomes harder and harder to say where the world stops and the person begins’ (Clark 2003, 7). Nothing is more natural for humans than these artificial extensions of ourselves.

It is because our brains, more than those of any other animal on the planet, are primed to seek and consummate such intimate relations with nonbiological resources that we end up as bright and as capable of abstract thought as we are. It is because we are natural-born cyborgs, forever ready to merge our mental activities with the operations of pen, paper and electronics, that we are able to understand the world as we do.

— Clark (2003, 6)

And, of course, that same characteristic enables us to wreak untold damage on the biosphere; to enclose ourselves in a cocoon of denial as we do; and, perhaps, to break out of that cocoon by recognizing that we are the biosphere. We are extensions of it just as technologies are extensions of us.


Peirce laid the groundwork for (what is now called) biosemiotics by devising a diagrammatic model of thought processes which not only clarified human ways of meaning but also aimed to ‘represent every variety of non-human thought’:

Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the shapes, etc., of objects are really there. Consistently adhere to that unwarrantable denial, and you will be driven to some form of idealistic nominalism akin to Fichte’s. Not only is thought in the organic world, but it develops there. But as there cannot be a General without Instances embodying it, so there cannot be thought without Signs. We must here give ‘Sign’ a very wide sense, no doubt, but not too wide a sense to come within our definition. Admitting that connected Signs must have a Quasi-mind, it may further be declared that there can be no isolated sign. Moreover, signs require at least two Quasi-minds; a Quasi-utterer and a Quasi-interpreter; and although these two are at one (i.e., are one mind) in the sign itself, they must nevertheless be distinct. In the Sign they are, so to say, welded. Accordingly, it is not merely a fact of human Psychology, but a necessity of Logic, that every logical evolution of thought should be dialogic. You may say that all this is loose talk; and I admit that, as it stands, it has a large infusion of arbitrariness. It might be filled out with argument so as to remove the greater part of this fault; but in the first place, such an expansion would require a volume — and an uninviting one; and in the second place, what I have been saying is only to be applied to a slight determination of our system of diagrammatization, which it will only slightly affect; so that, should it be incorrect, the utmost certain effect will be a danger that our system may not represent every variety of non-human thought.

If we identify ‘thought’ with teleodynamic process (as we do in Chapter 10), we can agree that at least the reference to crystals was ‘loose talk,’ since the growth of a crystal is only a morphodynamic process in Deacon’s terms. However, Thirdness is implicit in any process, though perhaps not as prominent as it is in semiosis. Peirce refers to the work of crystals, and Deacon (2011) shows that teleodynamic work can indeed be described in purely physical terms, so there is a definite connection between Peirce on ‘thought’ and Deacon on emergence. There could be a hint of this connection in the manuscript reading of ‘inorganic’ rather than ‘organic’ in the sentence above, which was printed as: ‘Not only is thought in the organic world, but it develops there.’ (See Houser 2005, ‘The Scent of Truth’.) This does not imply that everything existing or occurring in the physical universe is a sign, only that it has the potential to be read as a sign by an observer who recognizes it as participating in a process.

I and I

Conversation is taking turns playing First and Second (person).
A Dialog is Third: it says something that neither person could say alone.

If your reading of this text is part of a real dialog, it is not a reading of the author’s intended meaning, or of your own, but a joint reading of the world (i.e. of that face of the world which is currently in focus). A complete comprehension of the author’s intention here is of no importance; what matters is the spark of interaction between two views of a reality which is independent of both views.

We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it. What is seen with one eye has no depth.

— Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 29

Turning takes

A path is made by people walking on it; a path discovers itself by crossing with other paths.

Reader, I beg you will think this matter out for yourself, and then you can see — I wish I could — whether your independently formed opinion does not fall in with mine.

— Peirce, CP 4.540 (‘Prolegomena’, 1906)

Once a person has escaped the cage of his own opinions by entering into the quest for truth, even the internal monologue, the stream of consciousness expressed as a train of thought, can be a dialogue, or even a dialog (for the difference, see the obverse of this chapter). What counts is the sense of mission, the spirit of inquiry. The logic of this, as Peirce saw it, is that each thought is addressed by the self you are now to the self you will be momentarily: past self addresses future self through present semiosis, and the former future self proceeds to test the received idea. A philosophical writer like Peirce will typically test an idea in this way, sometimes for years, before she considers it worthy to launch into the great conversation for further testing.

The appearance of monologue, then, can be deceptive. The difference between an ordinary conversation and the reading of a text like this one is mostly a matter of medium (spoken, written, printed, electronic, etc.) and of time scale. The great conversation among authors is simply a macro-dialog, in which each partner can take years, or a lifetime, to consider and deliver his reply to what’s been said before. Since a partner does not have to wait her turn, and can reply to any number of prior texts all at once, this conversation is ‘wired’ in parallel rather than series – it’s a network rather than a train of thought. Even readers who never write are involved in this conversation, to the extent that their reading makes a difference in how they live their lives. True, the reader/author relationship is not symmetrical in ‘real time’ like the partnership in a face-to face conversation, because the text of a book does not change in response to the reader’s contribution – but the meaning certainly does. A book on the shelf means nothing at all. Don’t think that the meaning is all in the text, or all in your mind. The meaning is in the relationship, the intimate space, between you and me. Regardless of scale or medium, dialog is always talking through together.

Growing meaning

When we read the primary scripture, the Book of Nature, scientifically, we assume that its development was continuous and consistent – that the Mind of its Creator does not contradict itself, but changes itself continuously (evolves), so that throughout any measurable span of spacetime, at least some of its legisigns continue to govern unfolding events. In science, when well-documented facts or observations appear to be mutually contradictory, we guess that there is something wrong with the theoretical framework(s) within which some of those facts have been hitherto understood.

Likewise, when a systematic philosopher such as Peirce appears to make an assertion incompatible with some previous assertion of his own, without giving any indication that the new assertion is a correction or improvement of the older one, our first guess should be that our interpretation of at least one of his statements is faulty. We could call this the principle of hermeneutic fallibilism. The next step is to look for a more comprehensive interpretation of the author’s work, whereby the statements in focus appear complementary rather than contradictory, or occupy different contextual niches in a consistent meaning space, or represent different stages in the development of a single consistent system. If we do come up with a more comprehensive interpretation, it may bear fruit in future readings of this writer’s work, revealing more of its depth, breadth and complexity – perhaps more than its author himself recognized. Or the hypothetical framework may prove incompatible with subsequent readings, and have to be discarded in its turn. If no such comprehensive interpretation seems to work, then the next hypothesis to try is that the author has changed his mind on the subject without giving notice of the change – or that his system is not so consistent as we thought.

Of course, all this deep reading requires sustained attention, which means not turning attention to other possible objects in the meantime.

What you think

If you don’t argue with me, I don’t know what I think.

We speak, not only to tell others what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think.

— J. Hughlings Jackson (Dennett 1991, 194)

“How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

— the old lady in the anecdote related by E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, Chapter 5

… the thinking subject himself is in a kind of ignorance of his thoughts so long as he has not formulated them for himself, or even spoken and written them, as is shown by the example of so many writers who begin a book without knowing exactly what they are going to put into it.

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 206)

So see we so as seed we sow.

Finnegans Wake (250)

Deeper logic

When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip (Thoreau). Or as Eugene Gendlin put it a century later,

the chief malaise of our society is perhaps that it allows so little pause and gives so little specifying response and interpersonal communion to our experiencing, so that we must much of the time pretend that we are only what we seem externally, and that our meanings are only the objective references and the logical meanings of our words.

— Gendlin (1962/1997, 16)

As Goffman (1959) demonstrated, ‘pretending that we are only what we seem’ is crucial to the maintenance of social roles, “team” membership and morale – our personae or masks. This is probably true of all societies, not only ‘ours,’ but especially in this age of proliferating information we need ways to dip into deeper, more intimate meanings: we need intimologies, which entail a resurrection of the body as meaning space, and a deepening of “logic” into the study of semiosis (the process of meaning) as pioneered by Peirce.


“Faith” can be invested either in conscious beliefs or in implicit grounding principles (presuppositions); what they have in common is an element of implicit trust which motivates application of the principles.

Let’s say I ask you to define the meaning of the word ‘experience.’ Whatever definition you offer will use at least several other words, but it’s the word ‘experience’ which is in focus because it’s the word being defined. The other words are all in the background, which implies that their meanings must remain both implicit and stable: both of us have to trust those words to have definite meanings, otherwise the definition is not going to be of any use to us. We must also have faith in each other, as with all acts of communication between people: we have to assume a certain level of honesty and good will, for instance.

We might call this ‘implicit faith.’ But observe what happens when we shift the focus of the dialog, for instance by trying to define one of the words that played a supporting role in the definition of ‘experience.’ Once a word is raised into focus, then its meaning can be called into question. We can (and often do) decide that the usual or assumed meaning is no longer good enough, and we have to override it to come up with a better one; and in the new process of defining the term, we have to rely on a host of implicit supports just as we did before. So implicit faith is inescapable in acts of meaning generally, yet our faith in any specific meaning is ad hoc and ceases to operate implicitly as soon as we make it explicit.

One can of course refuse to override one’s default assumptions, so that the defaults become permanent fixed settings unalterable by circumstance. The result is dogmatism or “blind faith.” But making this move in conversation entails breaking faith with one’s partners. If you have explicit faith that your usage of a word is ‘correct’ from some absolute point of view, and your partner’s usage differs from that one in some way, then you have already lost faith that your partner may have some insight to offer you.

Explicit expression of belief is the visible tip of an iceberg floating deep in the sea of implicit faith.