John Deely

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John Deely (2005, in Tartu)

John Deely (April 26, 1942 – January 7, 2017) was an American philosopher and semiotician.[1] He was a Professor of Philosophy at Saint Vincent College and Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Prior to this, he held the Rudman Chair of Graduate Philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies, located at the University of St. Thomas (Houston).

His main research concerned the role of semiosis (the action of signs) in mediating objects and things. He specifically investigated the manner in which experience itself is a dynamic structure (or web) woven of triadic relations (signs in the strict sense) whose elements or terms (representamens, significates and interpretants)[2] interchange positions and roles over time in the spiral of semiosis. He was 2006-2007 Executive Director of the Semiotic Society of America.

He died on January 7, 2017.[3]

Deely was married to the Maritain scholar[4] Brooke Williams Smith (now Deely).[5]


Contributions to semiotics, biographically layered[edit]

John Deely first became aware of semiotics as a distinct subject matter during the course of his work on language at the Institute for Philosophical Research as a Senior Research Fellow under the direction of Mortimer J. Adler, through reading Jacques Maritain and John Poinsot, which led to his original contact with Thomas Sebeok in 1968 with a proposal to prepare a critical edition of Poinsot’s Tractatus de Signis (1632) as the earliest full systematization of an inquiry into the being proper to signs. This proposal turned out to require 15 years to complete. Deely and Sebeok became close associates, notably in the 1975 founding of the Semiotic Society of America, in which project Sebeok had Deely function as secretary of the committee drafting the constitution.

In 1980, Sebeok asked Deely to take charge of the development of the SSA annual proceedings volumes, to which end Deely developed the distinctive SSA Style Sheet,[6] which takes as its principle foundation the fact that no one writes after they die, as a consequence of which primary source dates should always come from the lifetime of the cited source—the principle of historical layering—because it reveals the layers of discourse just as the layers of rocks reveal the history of the Earth to a trained geologist. Thus, like Sebeok, Deely fully appreciated the inevitable historicity of semiosis. In fact, Sebeok in his foreword to Deely’s 1982 Introducing Semiotics (p. x), identified Deely’s work on Poinsot’s Tractatus de Signis as

the ‘missing link’ between the ancients and the moderns in the history of semiotic, a pivot as well as a divide between two huge intellective landscapes the ecology of neither of which could be fully appreciated prior to this major publishing event.[7]

This 1982 work of Deely’s was based upon his 1981 essay, “The relation of logic to semiotics,” which won the first Mouton D’or Award for Best Essay in the Field in the Calendar Year (Semiotica 35.3/4, 193-265).

In 1990, Deely published a work titled Basics of Semiotics, which Sebeok called “the only successful modern English introduction to semiotics.” Sebeok himself, beginning in 1963, had effectively argued that the then prevailing name for the study of signs—semiology—in fact concealed a fallacy of mistaking a part for a larger whole (the “pars pro toto” fallacy).[8] Like Locke, Peirce, and Jakobson, Sebeok considered that ‘semiotics’ was the proper name for a whole in which ‘semiology’ focuses only on the anthropocentric part, and that the action of signs extends well beyond the realm of culture to include the whole realm of living things, a view summarized today in the term biosemiotics.

Deely, however, notably in Basics of Semiotics, laid down the argument that the action of signs extends even further than life, and that semiosis as an influence of the future played a role in the shaping of the physical universe prior to the advent of life, a role for which Deely coined the term physiosemiosis. Thus the argument whether the manner in which the action of signs permeates the universe includes the nonliving as well as the living stands, as it were, as determining the “final frontier” of semiotics. Deely’s argument, which he first expressed at the 1989 Charles Sanders Peirce Sesquicentennial International Congress at Harvard University, if successful, would render nugatory Peirce’s “sop to Cerberus.”[9]

Deely’s Basics of Semiotics, of which so far six expanded editions have been published across nine languages, is to be noted for dealing with semiotics in its fullest extent, avoiding the pars pro toto fallacy Sebeok leveled against Saussurean and post-Saussurean semiology, and in contrast to other popular works claiming to cover ‘basics of semiotics’ while in fact covering only ‘basics of semiology’.

In his most recent work, Medieval Philosophy Redefined, Deely employs Peirce’s notion of semiotics as a cenoscopic[10] science to show how the Latin Age, from St. Augustine to John Poinsot, marked the first florescence of semiotic consciousness—only to be eclipsed in philosophy by the modern “subjective turn” to ‘epistemology’ (and later the “linguistic turn” to ‘analytic philosophy’), which Sebeok called the “cryptosemiotic” period. The full return to semiotic consciousness, argues Deely, was launched by the work of Charles S. Peirce, beginning most notably with his New List of Categories.

In his other work of 2010, Semiotics Seen Synchronically, Deely traces semiotics (in contrast with semiology) as a contemporary phenomenon of intellectual culture consolidated largely through the organizational, editorial, and literary work of Thomas Sebeok himself, exposing the widespread but false impression that semiotics reduces to the contrast between Peirce’s triadic and Saussure’s dyadic notion of sign.


  • “Theses on Semiology and Semiotics”, The American Journal of Semiotics 26.1–4 (2010), 17–25.
  • Introducing Semiotic: Its History and Doctrine (Indiana Univ., 1982).
  • Basics of Semiotics
    • 1st ed., originally published simultaneously in English (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990) and Portuguese (as Semiótica Basica, trans. Julio Pinto and Julio Jeha [São Paulo, Brazil: Atica Editora]). Bazele Semioticii, trans. Mariana Neţ (Bucarest: ALL s.r.l, 1993). Basics of Semiotics, Japanese edition (Hosei University Press, 1994). Subsequent expanded editions listed in following entries.
    • 2nd ed., Los Fundamentos de la Semiotica, trans. José Luis Caivano and Mauricio Beuchot (Expanded 2nd ed.; Mexico City: Universidad Iberoamericana, 1996). Ukrainian edition, trans. Anatolij Karas (Lviv University, 2000).
    • 3rd ed., further expanded, Basi della semiotica, trans. Massimo Leone, with and Introduction by Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio (Bari, Italy: Laterza, 2004).
    • 4th ed., expanded again, bilingual Estonian and English, trans. Kati Lindström (Tartu Semiotics Library 4; Tartu, Estonia: Tartu University Press, 2005).
    • 5th ed., again expanded, English only (Tartu Semiotics Library 4.2; Tartu, Estonia: Tartu University Press, 2009).
    • 6th ed., yet again expanded, Chinese only, trans. Zujian Zhang (Beijing: Renmin University Press, 2011 [forthcoming]).
  • Four Ages of Understanding (Univ Toronto: 2001)
  • What Distinguishes Human Understanding (St. Augustine's: 2002)
  • The Impact on Philosophy of Semiotics (St. Augustine's: 2003)
  • Intentionality and Semiotics (Scranton: 2007)
  • Descartes & Poinsot: The Crossroads of Signs and Ideas (Scranton: 2008)
  • Augustine & Poinsot: The Semiotic Development (Scranton: 2009)
  • Semiotic Animal (St. Augustine's: 2010)
  • Semiotics Seen Synchronically: the View from 2010 (LEGAS: 2010)
  • Medieval Philosophy Redefined: The Development of Cenoscopic Science, AD354 to 1644 (From the Birth of Augustine to the Death of Poinsot) (University of Scranton: 2010).
  • Purely Objective Reality (De Gruyter Mouton: 2011)

See also pp. 391–422 of Realism for the 21st Century: A John Deely Reader, ed. Paul Cobley (Scranton Univ.: 2009) for a 285-item bibliography. See under "External links" for online works and bibliographies.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Paul Cobley’s remark, in Realism for the 21st Century: A John Deely Reader (ed. Cobley), p. 3: “While Charles Sanders Peirce is acknowledged as the greatest American philosopher, John Deely, in his wake, is arguably the most important living American philosopher.” Cf. in same volume the multifarious and world-spanning recommendations of Deely’s work from countries as diverse as Africa, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, Ukraine, and the US.
  2. ^
    • "Representamen" (properly with the "a" long and stressed: /ˌrɛprzɛnˈtmən/ REP-rə-zen-TAY-mən), is Charles Sanders Peirce's adopted (not coined) technical term for the sign as covered in his theory. Peirce used the technical term in earlier years in case a divergence should come to light between his theoretical version and the popular senses of the word "sign". Deely argues that the word "sign" is best used for the full triadic relation of representamen, significate object, and interpretant.
    • "Significate" and "significate object" are interchangeable in Deely's terminology, and correspond to that which Peirce called the semiotic object or the object. See Deely's The Green Book: The Impact of Semiotics on Philosophy, December 2000. Eprint. The object is that for which the representamen stands, its subject matter.
    • "Interpretant" is Peirce's term for a sign's meaning or ramification as formed into a kind of effect which is a further sign, for example a translation.
  3. ^ "John Deely (1942-2017)". Daily Nous. 2017-01-12. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  4. ^ Author of Jacques Maritain: Antimodem or Ultramodern? An Historical Analysis of His Critics, His Thought, and His Life, 1976, Elsevier. Director of the Women, Culture & Society program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, according to the program's Webpage as accessed August 31, 2010.
  5. ^ Seif, Farouk (2017-01-07). "John Deely: The Loss of a Dear Friend". Semiotic Society of America. Retrieved 2017-01-29. 
  6. ^ Available as PDF file at University of St. Thomas, Houston website.
  7. ^ See also Thomas A. Sebeok, “A Signifying Man,” feature review of Tractatus de Signis in The New York Times Book Review for Easter Sunday 30 March.
  8. ^ See Frontiers in Semiotics, eds. John Deely, Brooke Williams, and Felicia E. Kruse (Indiana Univ., 1986).
  9. ^ Peirce, C. S., A Letter to Lady Welby, dated 1908, Semiotic and Significs, pp. 80–1 (viewable under Sign" at Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms):

    I define a Sign as anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which effect I call its Interpretant, that the latter is thereby mediately determined by the former. My insertion of "upon a person" is a sop to Cerberus, because I despair of making my own broader conception understood.

  10. ^ Jeremy Bentham's term cenoscopy (or coenoscopy) was adapted by Peirce , starting in 1902 in his classification of the sciences, to refer to philosophy as the study of positive phenomena in general as available to any waking person at any moment, without resort to special experiences in order to settle questions, and encompassing: (1) phenomenology; (2) the normative sciences (esthetics, ethics, and the logic of signs, inference modes, and inquiry methods); and (3) metaphysics. Peirce distinguished cenoscopy as philosophia prima from science of review (which he also called synthetic philosophy), as philosophia ultima, which for its part draws on the results of mathematics, cenoscopy, and the special sciences (of nature and mind). See quotes under Philosophy and Cenoscopy at the Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms, Mats Bergman and Sami Paavola, editors, 2003 onward, Helsinki U., Finland.

External links[edit]

Deely's works online
  • Basics of Semiotics, first edition, 1990 (the 2005 edition is greatly expanded). Eprint.
  • The Red Book: The Beginning of Postmodern Times or: Charles Sanders Peirce and the Recovery of Signum, 79 pages, text prepared for the Metaphysical Club of the University of Helsinki, November 2, 2000. Helsinki U Commens "Eprint" (PDF).  (578 KiB).
  • The Green Book: The Impact of Semiotics on Philosophy, 65 pages, prepared for the First Annual Hommage à Oscar Parland at the University of Helsinki, December 1, 2000. Helsinki U Commens "Eprint" (PDF).  (571 KiB).
  • "Clearing the Mists of a Terminological Mythology Concerning Peirce", October 4, 2008. Eprint.

John Deely in libraries (WorldCat catalog)

Bibliographies online