Charles Morris

A Brief Outline of His Philosophy

with relations to semiotics, pragmatics, and linguistics

by Eugene Halton (c) 1992

Charles Morris (1901-1979) was a student of George Herbert Mead at the University of Chicago and later editor of the widely known collection of Mead's lectures, Mind, Self, and Society (1934). Morris helped to create "the Viennese connection" to American philosophy in the 1930s, hoping to clarify pragmatism by making use of the foundationalist, verification model of truth promised by the logical empiricism of Rudolph Carnap and others.

Morris is most noted today for his monograph, Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938), which was the first volume of the grand project for the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. In this work he proposed his threefold divisions of a sign as consisting of sign vehicle, designatum, and interpreter, and of semiotics as consisting of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. This latter distinction became normalized in linguistics. These divisions were based on a dyadic, positivist reading of Charles Peirce's triadic semeiotic, an unacknowledged misreading of Peirce's critique of dyadic views of signs and of foundationalism.

Pragmatics, a basic field of linguistics today, originally had its roots in Morris's idea of a division of signs concerned with "the relations of signs to their interpreters" or users. Practically, this distinction seemed to legitimate the place of social context for language study, which was a crucial feature of both John Dewey and Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophies at that time, as well as of the work of Sapir, Malinowski, and others. Yet Morris's behaviorism unsemeiotically assumed that "users" of signs are not also themselves signs. Similarly, he assumed the logical empiricist "myth of the given" in viewing objects of signs--designata or denotata--as not themselves signs, but as "things" to be denoted by semantic reference. Hence what is called "pragmatics" is not only theoretically antipragmatic, but also illogical for the same reasons that Peirce showed in his critiques of immediate, dyadic knowledge. The lack of theoretical soundness in Morris's concept of "pragmatics," however, has not to date had an impact on its normalization in linguistics and related fields which employ the term.

Morris's chief publications also include the elaboration of his work in semiotics, Signs, Language, and Behavior (1946) and Signification and Significance (1964). Other works include Paths of Life: Preface to a World Religion (1942); The Open Self (1948); Varieties of Human Value (1956); and The Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy (1970). For a comparison of Morris and Peirce, see Chapter Four of my book, Meaning and Modernity (1986). See also Charles Sanders Peirce .

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