Meaning and Modernity

Social Theory in the Pragmatic Attitude

Eugene Rochberg-Halton [now Halton]

University of Chicago Press, 1986

Cover art: Fritz Janschka, Wohin gehst Du? (Where are you going?), 1947

In a review published in the London Times Literary Supplement, Charles Townshend said that (Rochberg-) Halton's,

answer to the dilemma of modernity is a still more striking synthesis, which he labels ‘critical animism’ (as distinct from primitive animism). Meaning and Modernity belies its conventional exterior: it is a passionate tract against the 'diabolical tyranny of the rational'...He pits his researches into the attitudes of Chicagoans to their household goods and to their city against the abstract semioticians who have emptied signs of their capacity to 'live objectively in the transactions people have with them'...Such humanism will probably strike his fellow social theorists as downright weird, but his work shows that the cracking shell of modernism will provide a rich intellectual agenda.”

From the book cover:

The twentieth-century obsession with meaning often fails to address the central questions: Why are we here? Where are we going? In this radical critique of modernity, Eugene (Rochberg-) Halton resurrects pragmatism, pushing it beyond its traditional formulations to meet these questions head on.

Drawing on the works of the early pragmatists such as John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, and particularly C.S. Peirce, Meaning and Modernity is an ambitious attempt to reconstruct concepts from philosophical pragmatism for contemporary social theory. Through a vigorous and illuminating dialogue with other perspectives in the social sciences, (Rochberg-) Halton reveals the value of the pragmatic attitude as a mode of thought, one which speaks to the contemporary hunger for significance in a world where rationalized technique has all too often severed subject and object from their living context...

Throughout the work is a sustained critique of modern culture in which (Rochberg-) Halton brings his reconstruction of the pragmatic attitude to bear on twentieth-century thought and its counterparts in the expressive arts. His engaging analysis encompasses figures as diverse as Simmel, Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, Adolph Loos, Mumford, Melville, the "Vienna School of Fantastic Realism," and Doris Lessing.

The author's semiotic approach to culture allows him to move freely and easily across many disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, communications, art, literature, and philosophy. This is a work of rare originality and power that is sure to provoke discussion, for Rochberg-Halton creates new premises for understanding the human web of meaning.

Table of Contents:

Part 1: Pragmatic Roots

1. Inquiry and the Pragmatic Attitude

2. Qualitative Immediacy and the Communicative Act

Part 2: Semiotic

3. Situation, Structure, and the Context of Meaning

4. The Foundations of Modern Semiotic: Charles Peirce and Charles Morris (with Kevin McMurtrey)

5. The Fetishism of Signs

“Contemporary semiotics, on the whole…tells us much more about the advanced culture of Abstractionism, or uprooted rationality, than about the nature and purpose of signs…A transformation is needed from our Age of Abstractionism, with its fetishism of signs, to an animism of signs in which the imagination and the signs it gives birth to will not only reconnect us with our biocultural heritage but also animate us to cultivate living purpose, not merely inert code. A healthy culture is not one in which instinct and reason are irreconcilably opposed, as the nature-versus-culture dichotomists hold, but one in which natural inclinations could find expression in and act upon the process of discursive reason. Culture is far more than the signification of rational codes and communication of ‘information.’ And semiotics is far more than the conspicuous display of the unintelligible in the name of the obscure. Semiotics must become the living attempt to render meaning clear, to make its language as supple a one as we can fashion and its ultimate object that mysterious, encompassing sign-web that is not only greater than human rationality but that animates the very nature of things” (p. 95, 105).

Part 3: A Pragmatic Theory of Culture

6. Culture Considered as Cultivation

“To say that culture lives is anathema to most contemporary social theory. The concept of culture is viewed in most quarters today as an abstract system…a meaning-system that arbitrarily or conventionally provides the values and beliefs that orient a society…Culture…is something much more than…the limited conceptual views of modern rationalisms, and in fact forms a critique of their narrowly prescribed limits of reason. In the view proposed here, reason is capable of real and living growth, and nature is capable of critical intelligence. It is in this sense that I will consider culture as cultivation” (pp 109, 110).


“…artifacts can serve as a medium for socialization and self-expression, and hence transactions with one’s cherished possessions, either actually or symbolically, can be seen as sign expressions of the self. The person, as a complex of living, feeling, sign-habits, extends into and derives from the spatiotemporal environment through signs.” (p. 137).

Part 4: Meaning, Materialism, Metropolis, and Modernism

7. Object Relations, Role Models, and Cultivation

“Even before the infant is born its parents have begun to project an environment of clothing, toys, and furnishings that will begin the socialization process. The self arises in a milieu that is constantly ‘addressing’ it, telling it who it is through its surroundings, telling it how to become he or she. Transactions with one’s cherished possessions, either actually or symbolically, can thus be seen as sign-expressions of the self. The person, as a complex of living, feeling, sign-habits, does not stop with his or her physical organism but quite literally is in continuous transaction with the broader spatiotemporal environment through signs” (p. 167).

        8. Remembrance of Things Present

        “Perhaps animism is not as primitive and obsolete a belief as the modern consciousness has claimed, once we realize that one’s relationship to valued surroundings is an animism of signs. The portrait is a family icon, a veritable ancestor totem, which lives in the remembrance of the generations who receive and come to cherish it, and in turn transmit it to their descendents. Hence when the mother says, ‘It’s part of the continuity of who I am, where I come from, where I’m going,’ she is correct not only figuratively, but ontologically as well. The portrait forms an essential element of those habits of conduct in which her self consists: it is a direct physical link with preceding family members, with her individual sense of identity, with what she will become individually, and what her family will become collectively. It is both a socializing sign and sign-expression of her self, just as other feelings, experiences, memories, and thoughts that shape her self are” (p. 171).


            “In this sense the view I am proposing might be termed critical animism. Animism has traditionally referred to the belief that certain animals, plants, or inanimate things such as ritual objects, are actually spirits, and as such should be treated as autonomous personalities. Animism is a view rather antithetical to anyone brought up in the modern Western tradition who believes that thought and things are radically different substances. Now I am not suggesting that we should believe in fairies and leprechauns, but what I am proposing is that objects are not merely inert matter but are living signs whose meanings are realized in the transactions we have with them and that need to be critically cultivated in the context of the consciousness they bring about. This critical animism of signs means that all three elements of the transaction—person, thing, and what the thing represents—are intrinsically involved in its meaning. In other words, against the idea that meaning is a disembodied conceptual entity located in a brain, cultural system, or ‘deep structure,’ it is more accurate to view meaning as including the sign-objects through which representation occurs” (p. 185).


9. The City as Living Memory

“The metropolitan environment, from this semiotic perspective, is a living sign-practice transcending the present moment and objectively situated in the minds and hearts of its inhabitants as well as forming an external dimension of their minds and hearts. The city is itself a public possession, but one which should also simultaneously possess its inhabitants by endowing them with the energy, communicative forms, and opportunities for participating in the larger drama of urban life” (p. 191).

10. Money is No Object

“Money is surely one of the purest means yet invented, paradoxically commanding its votaries to see it as purest goal. Yet money can and does act as means, and the materialist and nominalist fallacy lies in mistaking the nature of the acquisition of selfhood. In seeing character as thing purchased, externally, rather than practice cultivated, the modern consumer-self stands as persona of self-estrangement, as negation of the inherent qualities of life’s activities. Selfhood is not a product purchased, it is a gift and a craft and an inheritance. It is the unique nature we are given and determined to develop through all of life’s activities, and whose ultimate purpose is to give itself back to the community” (p. 221).

11. Reality, Community, and the Critique of Modernism