Peirce and Bakhtin: Object Relations and the Unfinalizability of Consciousness

Abstract: This paper attempts to remedy a constant lack of discussion of the importance of Peirce's notion of the object in Peirce studies by arguing that the object of a sign has more effect on consciousness than has previously been assumed." Using Bakhtin as an intermediary to establish a working notion of dialogism, this paper argues that the call and response play between the immediate object and the dynamical object can be located in two distinct valencies of human consciousness: the pull toward internal consistency and the pull toward external dynamism." This type of dialogical play, then, is used to explain the Peircean notion of unfinalizablity, not as deconstruction or deferral, but as the very essence of selfhood and the reason for the tragedy in death."

1. The Object: Semiotic Microdialogue and Macrodialogue

The category of the object of the sign is of fundamental import, but has gone largely overlooked or misrepresented in discussions of the relationship between Peirce and Bakhtin and, more largely, in Peirce studies in general, where the category of the interpretant is given most credence in discussions of consciousness." Thomas Kent (1989: 224) tells us that, "the dialogic object ["] is an absent presence[,] a dream of cooperation and universal pragmatics that is continually deferred."" This is Kent's fatal error." The dialogic object, the object of the sign, is not, in any person's language, a universal (as the object is necessarily particular); nor, in Peirce, is it continually deferred." The category of the object is what compels the sign but is insufficient, in itself, for the sign to grow any further, to have an external semiotic relationship, that is, to produce meaning." For that it needs an interpretant, but the interpretant, the thought in the mind, depends upon the object insofar as it stands as the part that links the sign with actual experience." According to Johansen, the importance of the object comes in the fact that "Peirce in almost every place links the idea of the object with experience and observation" (1993:76)." As fact underpins Peirce's ontology as Secondness, the object underpins his semiotics as the primary motivator of the sign."

Both thinkers acknowledge that the object of a sign (an object of discourse) is more complicated than a mere reflection of reality." Bakhtin (1981: 276) in "Discourse in the Novel," argues that "no living word relates to its object in a singular way."" An understanding of the object relationship is the key to the puzzle of just how Bakthin and Peirce's vocabularies work together." All signs, for Peirce, contain two types of objects: the immediate and the dynamical." "[Something is t]he immediate object, if it be the idea which the sign is built upon, the real [or dynamical]object if it be that real thing or circumstance upon which that idea is founded, as on bedrock," Peirce (1907: 407) writes in "Pragmatism."" Peirce further argues in "Excerpts from Letters to Lady Welby (1908:478) that the immediate object is the idea of the object while the dynamic object "means something forced upon the mind in perception, but including more than perception reveals." It is an object of actual Experience."" The immediate object, the idea of the object, lives internally to the sign, while the dynamical object, the object as it is pushed into perception by experience, has an external dimension, only so far as it has been pushed in on perception, the sign-world, by an object external to the person perceiving." Bakhtin, (1981: 279) in "Discourse in the Novel," explains that

The internal dialogism of the word finds expression in a series of peculiar features in semantics, syntax and stylistics that have remained up to the present time completely unstudied by linguistics and stylistics (not, what is more, have the peculiar semantic features of ordinary dialogue been studied).

Bakhtin urges linguists to acknowledge this dialogical tendency, in my view, the tendency toward a call and response type of conversational dialogism between the immediate and dynamical objects, because it provides access to the internal dynamism of the sign."

In microdialogue, which is a dialogical relation within the sign, the word/sign can be in relationship with the immediate or the dynamical (or dynamoid) object, but in most cases this microdialogue is occurring between the immediate object and the new experience presented by the dynamical object." Though it is true that Peirce, in "Excerpts from Letters to Lady Welby" (1908: 480), argues that "the Dynamoid Object determines the Immediate Object" he does not mean that they are the same thing, just that the external experience (dynamic object) calls and the immediate object (the idea of that experience) answers, rendering the sign intelligible." In my view, they are involved in a dialogic game of give and take, the game between human representation and the material, experiential world, which, as everyone knows, it impossible to communicate without the help of signs." According to Jorgen Johansen (1993:73),

[I]t is necessary to distinguish between the immediate object within the sign and the dynamical object outside it." Immediate object means the object as it is represented in and by a given sign, whereas, the dynamical object is the object which in some way determines the sign."

The dialogue occurs between this object-sign and the object-proper, as the latter molds the former into something that other minds will find intelligible." The study of microdialogical semiotics is the study of the evolving space between the immediate and dynamical objects, the evolving space where the idea (immediate object) is continually referenced in relation to a constantly growing palate of perceptions of experience (dynamic objects); it may be helpful to think of the immediate object as a long series of previously inhabited signs and the dynamical objects as a lateral series of new experiences." This immediate object becomes, to reference Bakhtin, colored from this process with its previous inflections and experience; so the immediate object, as determined by its dynamical object, has a generality that also calls the specificity of each experience into focus." For Bakhtin (1981: 279), too, the birth of the word, the birth of meaning, comes in this relationship: "[t]he word is shaped in dialogic interaction with an alien word that is already in the object."[1]" The object of reference, then, is inhabited." In order to more fully represent its dynamical object, an immediate object must always seek a future answer word, must seek to explain the dynamical object with one more chain of common space, one more chain of word/signs.

This common space is fundamental as it provides the medium in which separate minds can communicate effectively." Peirce, in his Letters to Lady Welby (1908: 478), explains that

No object can be denoted unless it be put into relation to the object of the commens" [is] a determination of " mind into which the minds of the utterer and the interpreter have to be fused in order than any communication should take place" It consists of all that is, and must be, well understood between the utterer and interpreter, at the outset, in order that the sign in question should fulfill its function" Thus the Form conveyed is always a determination of the dynamical object of the commind.

This commens, for Peirce, sets the context for shared experience and therefore shared dynamical objects." It is the field of dynamical objects that provides for scientific testing."

" Within the sign, then, the dynamical object compels the immediate object that answers it with a representation." These two objects are mediated through the word/sign or representamen and then through the interpretant." It is the dynamical object, the object that privileges the context of the outside existent world, that anticipates the future answer word." Bakhtin argues that every word looks forward to a future answer word, and therefore every word already has a germ of its answer in it." This germ, for the dynamical object, is part of what Peirce meant by context: the context, in a continuum, is not just what is at a given moment but what will be under certain conditions in the future as well or what has been under certain conditions in the past." Therefore, the future is just as important to context as the past in dialogic development." This anticipatory nature is the fundamental element of the utterance; it is that which completes the sign-object relation and mediates it through an interpretant, what Peirce called a sign in the mind." Getting to know the dynamical objects must involve the use of interpretants." However, it is impossible to have a complete sign, that is, a sign with an interpretant, if one does not have a sign with both objects taking part in a sort of conversation."

Semiotic macrodialogue takes place in between consciousnesses or within a consciousness; consciousness corresponds to Peirce's continuous category of the interpretant." Another scholar who works on the problem of the relation between Peirce and Bakhtin is Louis Francouer (1985: 127); he suggests that, "[s]ince all messages lie in signs we can deduce that the theory of the sign is also a theory of experience, and first and foremost a theory of consciousness, or better still a theory of conscious being."" Semiotic macrodialogue represents the outer functioning of semiosis in a fully triadic process; this process is consciousness, something Bakhtin calls "living conversation."" In this living conversation, a conversation that takes place between people, between signs, just as it took place between the object of the sign, meaning is made real, given flesh." Living conversation exists both in the past context of a speech (a semiotic) event as well as in its future." This relationship of past meaning to present meaning to future meaning is the exact function of the interpretant." The interpretant is the essential ingredient for "living conversation" For Bakhtin (1981: 280):

The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer's direction." Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word." Such is the situation with any living dialogue.

Simply put, consciousness is the continuous, dialogic mediation and interaction of the word with its objects and their expression through a series of interpretants. "There is no consciousness without interpretants, completely embodied, triadic signs." As Francouer (1985: 127) puts it, "[i]n the end, consciousness is maybe no more than a continuum of interpretants."" These interpretants represent the fully embodied sign, fully equipped and containing the pulls, the conversational ambivalence of both its objects (it should be clear that each object, the experiential and the immediate, both have valencies toward their respective domains of origin, the experiential toward the experiential and the representational toward the representational."" Semiotic macrodialogue involves the move to pure triadicity, continuity, consciousness, that indicates, for the first time, the effectual, meaning-producing process of triadic semiosis.

2. From Object to Consciousness: A Triadic, Dialogical Primer to the Dual Valencies of Self

For Peirce, the category of the interpretant is the category of consciousness; the interpretant, simply, is the last step in the fully embodied, fully meaningful, sign." The ontological category that Peirce used as the existent analogue to the signifying function of the interpretant was Thirdness, or continuity." "[T]he elements of phenomena in Peirce's ontological categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, are quality, fact, and thought, respectively," writes John Sheriff (1989: 78)." Sheriff (1989: 131) goes on to say that, "Firstness and Secondness are for us always already another Thirdness." Nothing comes before the mind as an object of thought except by reference to previous thought."" In simpler language: everything is mediated; even the most immediate events are mediated by signs and made intelligible in their relation to previously embodied interpretants." Louis Francouer (1985: 127) sums up the function of the interpretant nicely:

Since the interpretant is the result of a sign-representamen, it stands to reason that a sign can have a great number of effects ["] For instance, certain signs or groups of signs only determine, in the collective consciousness of the cultural Interpreter, interpretants of the first category, emotional interpretants." These interpretants are pure sensations. ["] [A]n emotional interpretant is a possibility ["] [There are also] interpretants of the second category, energetic interpretants. ["] [These are interpretants of fact, reaction, and brute force.]" [T]hird category interpretants which are either general habits of interpreting signs ["], or specialized habits ["] the same signs, or new signs similar to these, will be integrated into culture by the creation of the third category interpretants ["] [W]e can say that the "personality" of an interpreter is made up of his interpretants, because of the consistency or unity of their continuum.

At any given time, according to Peirce, a person is a sign in the process of developing by means of interpretants of feeling, reaction, or representation, or, possibility, fact, and law." Peirce (1904: 324) tells us in "New Elements" that, "the very entelechy of being lies in being representable." Since the actuality of being lies in being representable, then how signs function as dynamic utterances can be explained in terms of an utterance-based, Bakhtin-informed, process semiotics.

In order to understand the advantages of a theory of consciousness informed by Bakhtin and Peirce, it is first necessary to discuss Bakhtin's notion of the utterance because it is in the utterance that consciousness is concretely, individually, and communally manifest." The utterance, for Bakhtin is the concrete locus of the self at any given moment in time and place; it is a manifestation of the link between life and language, between the chaotic, contingent, social forces that pull outward on the individual and the forces that pull inward, toward internal consistency." In The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin (1981: 272) argues,

Every concrete utterance of a speaking subject serves as a point where centrifugal as well as centripetal forces are brought to bear." The processes of centralization and decentralization, of unification and disunification, intersect in the utterance; the utterance not only answers the requirements of its own language as an individualized embodiment of a speech act, but it answers the requirements of heteroglossia as well ["] The authentic environment of an utterance, the environment in which it lives and takes shape, is dialogized heteroglossia, anonymous and social as language, but simultaneously concrete, filled with specific content and accented as an individual utterance.

Consciousness, then, as a semiotic process, is pulled both inward and outward in a constant tug-of-war between the consistency of the self and the contingency of oppositional forces, choices, the possibilities of new habits or experiences." Vincent Colapietro (1989: 91) puts this problem in a different light that resolves this seemingly paradoxical formulation: "[t]he self as a sign in the process of developing ["] is, in essence, the self as being in dialogue with itself; this intrapersonal dialogue is potentially part of a larger context, an interpersonal dialogue." Thinking about the self-as-sign renders in Bakhtin's notion of centripetal and centrifugal forces the tentative shape of consciousness (as it is manifest in a series of utterances) as it is pulled both toward an internal dialogue with itself and an external dialogue with the world." Just as, for Bakhtin, the goal of dialogue is more dialogue, the goal for the self as sign is a continued life of semiosis: to develop is the nature and telos of the self.

If the self is a sign and the utterance is a sign, the self and the utterance, being united by the existence of a body, share a similar, primarily semiotic existence." The most important part of the self as sign and the utterance as sign is that they are both part of larger continuum if interpretants." This continuum of interpretants (ideas in the individual mind and the collective mind, the commens or commind for Peirce) resides both within and outside the individual; that is, human beings both share signs and their interpretants and make them their own as well." Experience through the embodied utterance, gives the breath of life to signs and both connects lives and distinguishes between them as well." Bakhtin (1986: 63) explains in "The Problem of Speech Genres",

To ignore the nature of the utterance or to fail to consider the peculiarities of generic subcategories of speech in any area of linguistic study leads to perfunctoriness and excessive abstractness, distorts the historicity of the research, and weakens the link between language and life." After all, language enters life though concrete utterances (which manifest language) and life enters language through concrete utterances as well.[2]

The utterance, as a mechanism that has the capability to cog consciousness in with that which it experiences, does indeed enhance the link between language and life, a primary goal for both thinkers." Bakhtin and Peirce both point, not only to the concreteness of the individual utterance, but its roots in something larger, the community contiuum." Bakhtin (1986: 67) puts it simply when he states that, "the utterance [is] a real unit of speech communion."" Communion, here, denotes the true continuous, social nature of the self: its job is to grow, to share, to partake of the blood and body of the community, to see one's self as an organism within the larger social body, to recognize the fundamental importance of the community of signifiers which serves to ground the significance of the individual, and to endeavor upon one's own series of interpretants, one's own life." For both thinkers, then, "to be individual is to be a social-communal being," says Colapietro (1989: 67)." Or, to put another way, again drawing on Colapietro (1989: 79) "the individual self is, in its innermost being, not a private sphere but a communicative agent."" The self is inherently social exactly because without the moving, dynamic continuum of the social realm, a future answer word could not be guaranteed and the utterance would be silenced, emptied of significance." It is in this continuous process of developing that the dual forces, the centripetal and the centrifugal, the simultaneous pull toward consistency and outward growth occur and form patterns; these are the habits of the self-as-sign." "While the capacity to acquire habits entails the possibility of growth," Colapietro (1989: 88) explains, "the capacity of being conscious guarantees the unity of the self."

It is no accident that these two forces do not cancel each other out." In a process that is quite the opposite of that, their ever-unfinished dialogical relationship is the fuel for the semiotic engine; it is the means by which the growth of self occurs." The mediating play of interpretants is driven by the call-and-response dialogue between the immediate object and dynamical object." It is in this way that the "self is that complex of habits that represents both a summation of the past and an orientation toward the future," writes Colapietro (1989: 94)." As Colapietro explains, the self is utterly unfinalizable." This unfinalizability constitutes the continuous nature of development: because we are all finite creatures, that is, creatures with a definite end and beginning, all that we could say can never fully be exhausted."" Colapietro (1989: 76) argues:

[S]ince personality is essentially temporal, it is not only always incomplete but also inherently unrealizable: Given the finite duration of human existence, no person ever fully realizes who he or she is ["] This is one of the reasons why death is always tragic.

The unfinalizability of the self is a product of the constant navigation between the internal world and the external world, and the human thinker occupies this marginal space." The pure unification of which is an unrealizable goal because of the brevity of human life and the conversation between internal consistency and external dynamism." The utterance guarantees what Peirce calls infinite semiosis, the infinitely long chain of signs " of which the human, in his or her brief lifetime, only has the privilege of sampling a very small part." Though death is inevitable and is always tragic because it denies people more time to deal with their complexities, it is the only type of "resolution" that can ever fully be gained from human experience because this dual valence is the essence of personhood." To resolve the human conversation is impossible, but in the wake of death, previously spoken words take on new life as they occupy, anew, the same struggle, a continuation of the same, shared breath of life."


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[1] Emphasis added.

[2] Emphasis added.