And your point is...

The skeptic's mudball.
Perfect symmetry and rationality is impossible either in long-lived coherent thought structures or in human utopias. Dostoevsky's nihilistic underground man sat in his dank garret and sneered at the nineteenth century's attempts to build a magnificent Crystal Palace of knowledge; this century's answer, the Unabomber, lashed out at the technological structure of knowledge altogther.

Peirce posits the need to make a complete survey of knowledge before any coherent philosophical system can be constructed. How can this be reconciled with his later claim that "arbitrary heterogeneity is the feature of the universe most manifest and characteristic"? How can be believe, as Murray suggests, that logic requires a specific philosophical position? This seems one of the strangest contradictions in his philosophy; an insistence on an absolutely ordered architectonic philosophical structure and a simultaneous recognition of the power of chance and evolution in the universe as a whole.

Approaching the question of formalism from a somewhat more theoretical and critical viewpoint, the deconstructionist critique is particularly interesting in its total embrace of process. One of its most prominent proponents, Derrida, writes:

"Henceforth, it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse- provided we can agree on this word -that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences."
Hence there is no center. The house has no walls. Derrida and Peirce can't both be right, can they? Is the answer somewhere in between? Maybe the search itself is what validates the whole endeavor.

In light of this, can we still believe Cassirer's claim to have developed a full-fledged philosophy of symbolic forms? If Saussure is right, the sign (or signifier, as he calls it) is completely arbitrary in any case. How can we base an entire philosophy on an accidental conjugation of meaning and symbol? It doesn't seem to me like philosophy can claim to find a place above this canvas to judge it. A systemic system of culture such as both Peirce and Cassirer seem to advocate is ultimately stifling to any diversity of meaning. The crystal spheres were lovely to behold, and it was comforting to know that each thing had its place in the Great Chain of Being. Yet when they were shattered, mankind's horizons increased immeasurably.

Back to Cassirer.

More on Peirce.

Return to the Architectonic

this page written by Sheri Simmons '99

May 25, 1996