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Toward a Doctrine of Signatures

To: alt.magick
From: (Robert Scott Martin)
Subject: Re: Toward a Doctrine of Signatures
Date: 17 Jun 2003 17:07:16 -0400

In article ,
Tom  wrote:

[rotting hermaphrodite essay moved to bottom for reference]

>Is Paracelsus saying that the name is a Platonic Ideal?  If not, how does
>it differ?
>Is Russell saying that a person who tastes something I call "cheese" will
>inevitably call it "cheese", too?  If not, what more is a name than a
>convenient label for an experience?

Let's take the second one first.

A man of sophisticated tastes, Russell would never purposely imply that 
"cheese" is a universal label for the experience of tasting pressed curd, 
since he obviously also ate stuff called "fromage," "kaerse,"" illegal 
nun-crafted double creams," and so forth. Much like an elephant among 
grabby blind men, a shared experience can still acquire multiple names, 
none of them logically necessary or privileged in themselves. None of 
these names are "true and genuine" in the Paracelsan sense.

However it's an interesting line because in the act of backing off the 
connection between a particular name and the thing named, Russell puts 
his weight on the notion that words do necessarily reflect 
extra-linguistic experience (what Lacan would call the "real") in order 
to have relevance beyond being otherwise empty noises we use as 
convenient labels for that tasty thing over there. That is, before 
"cheese" had meaning, we were eating pressed curd. Before the Word was 
the Deed.

This two-step allows Russell to engage in linguistic (analytic) 
philosophy without worrying about being irrelevant -- he wants his 
analysis of words to have the weight of synthetic knowledge about the 
world we live in, or at least ring true to other people outside himself. 
Unfortunately, unless he provides us with ways to test and compare our 
experience of pressed curd (so we can prove or disprove that "cheese" 
equals "fromage") this is also the weak link in his assertion. How do I 
know his moldy milk tastes like mine? Even if I found out, would I think 
to call it "cheese?"

Linguists, meanwhile, avoid talking about extra-linguistic experience 
(pressed curd) entirely, instead simply pointing out that anyone can 
understand the word "cheese" if he or she understands the system of 
relationships we call the English language well enough to know that 
"cheese" is defined as "pressed curd food." 

To the linguists, the taste (experience) of cheese is irrelevant; in 
fact, as Jakobson notes, nobody has ever tasted "cheese" so comparisons 
are unhelpful. Cheeses are eaten; words have meaning (point to things and 
each other). Perhaps the taste of cheese *is* its "meaning," since taste 
is the medium through which the mind is introduced to cheese, but that's 
another story.

In trying to ground his modern semiotic understanding of labels in 
extra-linguistic reality, Russell approaches the semiotic turf normally 
reserved for "primitive" or magical thinkers like Paracelsus. There's 
this ineffable THING out there that casts its shadows onto the screen of 
language, and for those clever enough to manipulate those shadows -- its 
names (or in Russell's terminology, "the linguistic aspects of 
traditional philosophical problems") -- privileged knowledge of its 
nature is allegedly possible. Gnosis, after all, is both untranslatable 
and universal.

Ironically enough, the Paracelsus material fascinates me because it moves 
in the opposite direction. Although the Big P is obviously relying on the 
terminology of 16th century occult thought (much like Russell relies on 
high modern analytic philosophy), his conclusions are strikingly 
reminiscent of high modern semiotics. Are they compatible? Nobody 
conversant in both languages has emerged to tell us.

On the surface, Paracelsus takes the superficial occultist approach to 
the sign. Yes, "true and genuine" names are something akin to Platonic 
Ideals, in both the common sense of being "essential" and in the more 
rarefied (and striking) sense of being a collective pattern or archetype 
on which individual members of a class are defined. They are, after all, 
"based upon a true and definite foundation, not on mere opinion." And 
they flow from the Hebrew language, which all good occultists know is the 
privileged Language of God and power.

However, having gotten that off his chest, Paracelsus turns to the topic 
that really seems to interest him: how to build signs that reveal secret 
knowledge about the things they point to. How can I become not just a 
passive reader of signs handed down in moldy books, but a "signator," a 
person who gives names that stick so much that rocks and plants will 
answer when called?

Interestingly, the classes of natural signs he comes up with look a lot 
like the list pioneered in the 1860s by ur-semiotician Charles Sanders 
Peirce. Let's take a look:

PARACELSUS                               PEIRCE

Many herbs and roots got their names   | The ICON acts chiefly by a factual
not from any one inborn virtue and     | similarity between its signans and
faculty, but also from their figure,   | signatum, between the picture of an 
form and appearance.                   | animal and the animal pictured; the
                                       | former stands for the latter "merely
                                       | because it resembles it."

So the euphrasia or herba ocularis is  | The INDEX acts chiefly by a factual,
thus called because it cures ailing    | existential contiguity between its
eyes. The sanguinary herb is thus      | signans and signatum. Smoke is an
called because it is better than all   | index of fire, and the proverbial 
others to stop bleeding. The same      | knowledge of "where there's smoke,
signator marks the beak and talons of  | there's fire" permits any interpreter
a bird with particular signs, so that  | of smoke to infer the existence of 
every fowler can judge its age.        | fire.

The name of a pig indicates a foul and | The SYMBOL acts chiefly by imputed,
and impure animal. A horse indicates   | learned contiguity between signans 
a strong and patient animal. Hence it  | and signatum. The knowledge of this
happens that sometimes a man is called | conventional rule is obligatory for
a pig on account of his sordid and     | the interpreter of any given symbol,
piggish life; a horse, on account of   | and solely and simply because of this
his endurance.                         | rule will the sign actually be 
                                       | interpreted.

We tend to call one type of common Peircean symbol "words." As the 
Paracelsan examples show, these are arbitrary in real terms and often 
reduce to absurdity (pigs aren't dirty by nature), but do possess 
cultural power when interpreted on the level on which they are used. 
Ascribing extra-linguistic power to these names is of course a symptom of 
the worst sort of "magical" thinking, but true wisdom lies in knowing 
where to draw the line.

Despite occasional lapses into analytical or "magical" thinking, 
Paracelsus is otherwise relatively careful to test his purely symbolic 
assertions on external experience whenever possible. For example, he 
elsewhere (Explicatio Totius Astronomiae) belittles astronomers who 
practice their science exclusively by day, rather than by night, when the 
stars and planets are physically observable. If a vision derived from 
notional or "astral" stars fails to conform to the stubborn configuration 
of the sky up there, which interpretation will win out? 

Conversely, the physical constellations, like the talons of birds or the 
effects of vegetable drugs, provide the interpreter of nature with signs 
pointing toward inner or "secret" qualities -- signata, as it were, or 
something like "Platonic Ideals." Approximations toward nomenclature, 
moving from the conventionalized quasi-nonsense of pig-men and horse-men 
(and Russell's "cheese") and other symbols toward the writerless signs of 
icon and index. Symptoms. The speech (artwork) of the cell.

That's what I want to know about, and why that last paragraph is in there 
from both authors: can the occult semiotics and the academic semiotics 
meet in the middle, in the body (index)?

[and now let's watch the hermaphrodite rot!]

>> It will be very necessary that you    | According to Bertrand Russell,
>> who boast your skill in the science   | one can understand the word
>> of signatures, who also wish to be    | unless he has a nonlinguistic
>> yourselves called signators, should   | acquaintance with cheese." The
>> rightly understand what we say. In    | meaning of the words CHEESE,
>> this place we are not going to speak  | NECTAR, ACQUAINTANCE, BUT, MERE,
>> theoretically, but practically, and   | and of any word or phrase
>> we will put forth our opinion         | is definitely a linguistic or -- 
>> comprised in the fewest possible      | be more precise and less
>narrow -- a
>> words for your comprehension          | semiotic fact. Against those who
>>                                       | assign meaning (signatum) not to
>> First of all, know that the signatory | sign but to the thing itself, the
>> art teaches how to give true and      | simplest and truest argument
>would be
>> genuine names to all things. So it    | that nobody ever smelled or
>> was that after the creation he gave   | the meaning of CHEESE or APPLE.
>> everything its own proper name --     | There is no signatum without
>> animals, trees, roots, stones,        |
>> minerals, metals, waters and the      | At all levels and in all aspects
>> Llke, as well as other fruits of the  | language, the reciprocal
>> earth, the water, air, and fire. Now  | between the two facets of the
>> these names were based on a true and  | the signans and the signatum,
>> intimate foundation, not on mere      | strong, but it is evident that
>> opinion, and were derived from a      | character of the signatum and the
>> predestined knowledge, that is to say | structuring of the signans change
>> the signatorial art. Adam is the      | according to the level of the
>> first signator.                       | linguistic phenomenon.
>> From the blood and its circulation,   | The symptoms of illnesses are
>> from the urine and the circulation    | considered signs, and at a
>> thereof, all diseases which lie hid   | point, medical semiology
>> in men are recognized.                | semiotics, the science of signs.
>> -- Paracelsus,                         -- Roman Jakobson,
>> "Concerning the Nature of Things"      "On Linguistic Approaches to
>>                                        Translation" and "The Development
>>                                        Semiotics"

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