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Nathan Houser

Review of

Literature, Criticism, and the Theory of Signs by Victorino Tejera. (Semiotic Crossroads, vol. 7. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995. x, 168 pp.)

This is a pre-publication copy contributed to Arisbe by the author. Critical comments are solicited and can themselves appear on this web page, though of course they can also be directed to the author privately. (See note on contributing to Arisbe at the bottom of this page.)

I. Introduction

Victorino Tejera's book at just over 150 pages is deceptively thin. It is a book that grows larger with each rereading. With this book, Tejera makes a substantial contribution to the semiotic categorization of works-of-art; yet if I had to say in a word what it is about, I would say it is about the aesthetics of reader response and that the aesthetics served up is based on Peirce's semiotic. But it is about a lot more. It is about valid reading, using dialogical writing as a guide; it is about the creative processes that mediate between readers and texts; it is about the limitations of authorial intent; and it is about the difference between poetic reading and critical reading. In a way, it is a demonstration and affirmation of the importance of aesthetics for philosophy. I could go on. Suffice it to say, it is a rich and provocative work.

II. Valid Reading

For this review, I will focus mainly on Tejera's theory of reading, somewhat reluctantly passing over the interesting question: "What, after all, is a work of literary art?" In one place, Tejera assigns literary works to the class of indexical-symbolic-arguments, but, strictly speaking, that is not a proper Peircean sign class. I would hazard a guess that literary works in general range over the possible kinds of symbolic-legisigns, and that a work of literary art is a rhematic-symbolic-legisign. But I do not want to get tied up with Peirce's technical terminology, so I will leave this issue for a different venue. A related and extremely interesting question is: "What is a work in contrast to an instantiation of it?" I think the issue boils down to whether or not it makes sense to posit a type/token distinction for literary works, or, more generally, for creative works of any kind. This is an important question for critical editing, and one that is illuminated here and there throughout Tejera's book, but this too is beyond the scope of the present review. Here I have chosen to consider what Tejera says about reading, but it should be born in mind that his concern is with literary art, while I have taken the general outline of his theory to apply to reading in general (and I hope that this is not a serious misreading of Tejera).

Tejera illustrates a fundamental tenet of his theory with an enlightening discussion of Plato's and Dostoyevsky's dialogues. Characteristic of these dialogues is their exhibitive, not assertive, mode of presentation--their presentation of competing voices in conversations that never demand final agreement nor reach unanimous conclusions. Aligning himself with Bakhtin, Tejera argues that true dialogue calls for a kind of reading, which Tejera calls "valid reading," that Western philosophy since Pythagoras has not encouraged. This kind of reading is characterized by what Tejera following Buchler calls "the poetic response": "As attributes of the poetic response to the world, the elements of wonder, of acceptant openness, of non-dominationist focusing, can be seen to also be attributes of the good reader" (p. 9).

Applying Peirce's categories to reading in general, we can identify levels that correspond to Firstness, where the experience of reading is fundamentally an encounter with a work as it is; Secondness, where reading calls for an active response, an action to be performed; and Thirdness, where reading is principally a rational and theoretical undertaking calling for a purely intellectual response, essentially a rethinking. From the standpoint of Peirce's semiotics one is tempted to say that the first level of reading responds to iconic elements of a work, that the second level responds to indexical elements, and that the third level responds to symbolic elements; but while this may be suggestive it is no doubt overly simplistic.

It is the first kind of reading, corresponding to Peirce's Firstness, the qualitative ground for aesthetics, that is characterized by "the poetic response." This is Tejera's paradigm for valid reading. At this level reading is pluralistic, open, accepting, non-critical. The goal is to experience what is exhibited in the work at hand. This kind of reading, according to Sartre, is "an exercise in generosity" (52).

III. Semiotics of Reading

I am convinced that Tejera is correct is assuming, as he does, that reading is a semiotic activity and, therefore, that there is a semiotics of reading. And, if that is so, it would seem to follow that an investigation of the semiotics of reading could shed much light on the nature of that preeminent human performance. We might even expect to find that there are preferred semiotic structures against which we can evaluate different types of reading. All of this is within the scope of Tejera's expectations. Of course others have held these views, and there is a growing body of research on the semiotics of reading. Tejera's originality lies in his treatment of the reader and the relative importance of poetic reading and the clarity his account brings to the distinction between poetic reading and critical or theoretical reading.

Let me begin this section by reviewing Tejera's account of the semiotics of reading. A sign, as we know, is something that stands in a certain relationship between an object and a respondent (an interpreting mind). What kind of relationship? That of representing, or standing for, the former to the latter. How does this work? Roughly, the sign determines an effect (called an interpretant) upon the respondent and this effect, or interpretant, has the same relation to the object that the sign has to that object. (See Peirce's 1909 letter to William James; NEM III: 867.)

Tejera devotes the final chapter of his book to the articulation of a Peircean semiotics of reading. A book or poem is taken to be a literary sign, the object of which is the aesthetic experience "put on exhibit" by the composition. Reading the book or poem generates an interpretant (really, of course, a succession, even a symphony, of interrelated and interactive interpretants). The immediate (or proximate) interpretant is an aesthetic experience comparable, if not identical, to the object of the sign. Subsequent articulations of this experience may be called critical (or indirect) interpretants, according to Tejera. At this point one can easily distinguish interpretants that are essentially Peircean feelings, from active or intellectual interpretants, a distinction reflected in Buchler's triad of judgments: exhibitive, active, and assertive. A work itself, according to Tejera, is motivated by a transaction between the author and the world, and this transaction is the ground of the sign.

As exhibitive constructions, signs partly determine their interpretants--the responses to them as objects experienced. However, the reader also always makes a contribution to the work at hand, this contribution being (or resulting from) the equipment and predispositions he or she brings to the reading. This is no doubt what Peirce referred to as "collateral experience." Incongruencies between the author's and the reader's collateral experiences will lead to variations between the reader's object and the author's object, but such differences can be lessened by efforts on the part of the reader to expand or sophisticate his or her collateral experience. To the extent that the reader's object coincides with the author's object the author will have succeeded in sharing his or her experience of the subject matter by means of an objective reconstruction of it in the work at hand. The fact that the object for the reader cannot in the nature of things be identical with the "signified" object opens the door for criticism.

Tejera reminds us that in a free society readers (interpreters) may respond in any way they like to a work of literary art, but he insists that if their response is to be really about the work, and not about something else, then the response must arise from interpretants determined by the intrinsic design of the composed work in transaction with the reader's literary competence. In other words, a reader must read poetically, and must take care that his or her collateral experience is sophisticated enough for the reading, in order to be confident that the object (or complex of objects) determined by the work (through the reading) will, in turn, determine a valid interpretant (or interpretants). It is this kind of interaction with a literary work, this kind of experience of it, that must ground good criticism.

This is a rough and very abbreviated account of Prof. Tejera's semiotics of reading. I have omitted many interesting details as well as most technical Peircean terminology and classifications, for which reason I urge readers not to take my account as a substitute for reading the original. But I hope my brief account is sufficient to illustrate the richness and suggestiveness of Tejera's analysis.

As much a I like Tejera's semiotics of reading I believe it fails as a fully Peircean account in a way that many recent Peirce commentaries fail. It fails because it does not adequately account for dynamical objects. I won't swear to it, but I believe there is only one reference in the book to dynamical (or dynamoid) objects. This is what Tejera says: "The mediate object (or dynamoid object, . . .) of the work . . . remains a matter of interpretation constrained by the structure or effectiveness of the work" (94). I suppose he says this because he is thinking of Peirce's dynamical object in its teleological sense as that which will appear at the end of semiotic inquiry. But even in this sense the dynamical object should not be thought of as a semiotic construction that is beholden to interpretation, but rather as the object that by its unyielding persistence in the face of mistaken or inadequate or incomplete interpretations has at last shown through in its fullness (which, of course, is an ideal moment never in fact to be realized). Carl Hausman, who also has noticed the reluctance of recent commentators to embrace a realism robust enough to admit Peirce's dynamical objects, explains their two-fold nature as follows:

The notion of the dynamical object has two roles. One is teleological, as the dynamic end on which investigation or thought in general converges. Here it is [an] ideal limit. . . . It also plays a role in Secondness, which is not teleological, although it can serve teleology. . . . Its role in Secondness is to serve as a condition of local resistances that propel thinking one way or another away from the resistance, in some positive, constraining direction. (Hausman 1993, p. 215).

How will the admission of dynamical objects as non-semiotic determinants of semiotic events affect Tejera's theory? Certainly it affects the aesthetics of his account, but does it have any practical consequences? It may appear that it does not. That is because Tejera has provided for energetic interpretants which translate semiotic processes into active performances. There is nothing to prevent Tejera from extending this part of his system to account for effective feedback loops whereby unsuccessful or less-than-optimal outcomes lead to modifications of immediate objects which will determine new interpretants and, eventually, new outcomes. But could this account for the determining role of dynamical objects which exert their influence through a stubborn resistance to misinformed actions? I don't see how. The beauty of Peirce's semiotic realism is that it is direct confrontation with the dynamical objects themselves that forces imperfect semiosis to change its course. In the end I don't believe there is any authentic way to understand "unsuccessful or less-than-optimal outcomes" except in terms of confrontations with dynamical objects.

With respect to the aesthetics of the account, according to Tejera, the determinants of the meaning or valid interpretation of signs derive either from the author's construction of the object for exhibition or from the reader's reconstruction of the exhibited object. The object that the author constructs for exhibition is the immediate object which is in fact precisely the aspect of the dynamical object that is put on exhibit in the sign. Thus we see that the construction of the immediate object is somehow determined by the reality of the object itself. Perhaps this is implied by Tejera in his claim that the author and reader are constrained by the contexts of composition and interpretation. The resistance of the dynamical object to misrepresentation and misinterpretation might thus be said to belong to the context of semiosis. But I believe that the constraining and directing influence of dynamical objects are not part of the picture Tejera had in mind. In any case, whatever constraints dynamical objects impose on the author's construction of immediate objects will not be enough to guide the ultimate outcome of semiosis.

It might be argued that dynamical objects do not play the same controlling role when semiosis involves signs that are works of art. The claim here might be that the objects of artistic signs, usually supposed to be congeries of feelings or emotions, are not the external, resistant, and public sorts of things that can guide a community of inquirers (or interpreters) toward a limiting interpretant. But this goes against Peirce's view of the matter. For Peirce, the objects of aesthetic experience can be just as real as anything else--namely, they have their own intrinsic suchness that is independent of any particular experiencer. It is true that aesthetic objects are more likely to be fictional or imaginary, and this presents a complication, but I believe it is not required to abandon dynamical objects but only to change modalities. So I conclude that the omission of dynamical objects from his semiotics of reading pushes Tejera deeper into idealism than Peirce would have condoned.

But let me hasten to add that this shortcoming, as I see it, by no means negates the positive value of Tejera's semiotics of reading. It is a rich account that exhibits very well the complex interplay of elements and participants in successful reading. I was particularly impressed with the account of the role of the reader. Although it seems to me that the absence of dynamical objects leads to a shifting of to much authority to the reader, who is characterized several times as a contributor to—even co-maker of—the work he or she reads, nevertheless it is comforting to find a forceful admonition to readers that they do have some clear responsibilities. Notable among these are the responsibility to maintain a semiotic openness that is conducive to the poetic response and, perhaps more burdensome, the responsibility of approaching a work with an appropriate level of literary competence. This latter responsibility applies especially when the reading is to be critical. I certainly do not want to give the impression that Tejera has made a weak case for the reader's participation in the creation of literary works—it is in fact quite the opposite. I doubt that one could put down Tehera's book without being convinced of the reader's essential role in completing the semiotic transaction that constitutes a literary work, and also of the reader's profound function of giving life and power to those works. Most impressive though, overall, is Tejera's achievement in demonstrating the fundamental importance of the aesthetic component in the semiotics of reading. That is what I will now briefly turn to as I approach my conclusion.

IV. The Aesthetic Ground

Let me begin this part with a somewhat extended quotation from Justus Buchler:

The philosopher who thinks that there is an ideal of literalness and an ideal of clarity to which philosophy should conform, and that "metaphor" is the instrument peculiar to poetry, is deceived. The original and basic theory of assertive meaning in the philosophy of the recent past, Peirce's pragmatism, regarded itself as a formula explaining "how to make our ideas clear." The quest for "clear and distinct ideas" was centuries old, and in a sense coincided with the birth of philosophy. The new stimulus came from developments in formal logic and from a strong insight into the nature of sign-activity. It sprang from the desire for a mode of clarity that would be impersonal and free of psychological idiosyncrasy. The model of philosophic assertion was to be scientific assertion, grounded in the compulsion of overt experimental practice. But Peirce's achievements in this regard notwithstanding, for a general theory of meaning, the notion of clarity, not to speak of any specific theory of clarity, is inadequate. So far as the exhibitive and active modes of judgment are concerned, it has small value if any at all. But even for the meaning of assertive judgment, clarity is neither primary nor normatively pursuable to the exclusion of other norms. (Buchler 1966: 184-85.)

Not surprising, this is fully in the spirit of Tejera's work. Somewhat surprising, perhaps, is that it is equally in the spirit of Peirce's work and, in fact, is a pretty good statement of Peirce's architectonic view of the relations between aesthetic (or exhibitive), active, and intellectual (or assertive) interpretants.

It is true that pragmatism, for Peirce, was concerned only with intellectual interpretants--with propositional knowledge. But it must be remembered that propositions are complex signs composed of iconic and indexical parts. Every proposition is grounded in an exhibitive element—its predicate. Indeed, every kind of sign, no matter what, must be grounded in a qualitative or exhibitive component sign. This is thoroughly Peircean and it is testimony to his recognition of the fundamentality of the aesthetic ground. But we should remember that this is not necessarily an endorsement of the importance of art in any specialist sense. Aesthetics for Peirce is not a theory of art. It is a more general theory of the relation of feelings to phenomenal objects, to exhibitions or presentations. If it is about art, it is truly a people's art, for it is about our creative and embracing encounters with what is presented to all of us when we open our senses.

V. Conclusion

Valid reading, as I understand Tejera, pays special attention to this aesthetic level of semiosis; it is reading that seeks only to resurrect in its exhibitive mode the aesthetic object constructed by the author. It is certainly in harmony with Peirce's architectonic to insist that all reading should be poetic in this sense. In this sense, perhaps every text should be treated as a work of art. But that is not to say that readers should never aspire to anything more.

Only if a work is indeed a work of art, where the author's intention is strictly to exhibit an aesthetic object, would poetic reading be valid. In other cases, reading must be poetic first, but it must not stop there. Late in life, when Peirce was writing a book on "thinking and reasoning," he began to worry that it would only be read poetically. He penned the following note about the difficulty he expected his book to pose for his prospective readers:

It will be very easy provided they ACTUALLY DO what I instruct them to do; but if, according to the habit that is sure to be engrained in each one of them that has not undergone a scientific or other practical training sufficient to counteract the tendency, they think that reading about doing a thing will suffice as a succedaneum for the actual DOING of it, they will soon find the book utterly beyond their grasp, while over the way, may-be, a nine-year-old boy, too young to have contracted that fallacious and ruinous habit,--the Literary Habit, as I will call it,--will read the volume and apply its teachings to the greater happiness of his whole life, here and hereafter. (MS 632)

Now I will not say that the "ruinous literary habit" is the result of addiction to the poetic response, but I do think Peirce's point confirms that valid reading often only begins at the aesthetic level. Perhaps this is only to say that not every text is a work-of-art. I doubt that Tejera would disagree.


This review was first presented, in a slightly different form, to the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy in Toronto on 9 March 1996.


Buchler, Justus. 1966. Nature and Judgment. Grosset and Dunlap, pp. 184-85.

Hausman, Carl R. 1993. Charles S. Peirce's Evolutionary Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Peirce, Charles S. 1849-1914. The Charles S. Peirce Papers (MS). Manuscript collection in the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

1976. The New Elements of Mathematics (NEM), ed. Carolyn Eisele. Mouton: The Hague. 4 vols. in 5 books.

END OF: Nathan Houser, Review of Tejera


Posted to Arisbe website on March 7, 1997

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