Book Review: Philosophy of Education in the Semiotics of Charles Peirce: A Cosmology of Learning and Loving

Book Review: Philosophy of Education in the Semiotics of Charles Peirce: A Cosmology of Learning and Loving, by Alin Olteanu

Oxford: Peter Lang. 2015. pp. 282. £29.58 ISBN 978-3034318822 (hbk)

Reviewed by John Tredinnick-Rowe

The aim of Olteanu’s book is to develop a fully semiotic theory of learning through the works of renowned polymath Charles Sanders Peirce. Olteanu focuses in particular on Pierce’s doctrine of Agapasm – the evolution of learning by the principle of love. Peirce hypothesised that there are three categories that describe the motivations for seeking knowledge: chance (Tychism/ τύχη), necessity (Anancasm/ ανάγς) and, the highest motivation of all, love (Agapasm/ Αγαπισμός). This trichotomous system, which Peirce termed Synechism/ συνεχής, is essentially a doctrine of continuity (Burch, 2014) that demonstrates learning to be on a spectrum, with love as the highest achievable motivation. This is a central tent of Olteanu’s scholastically inspired development of a cosmology of learning and loving. Given the brevity of a review, there is an inevitable gloss of the work here, but I wish to draw out some salient points nevertheless.

The book is divided into three sections. Section One starts with a reflective autobiographical account that skilfully avoids self-aggrandizement, and actually helps to clarify the connection between semiotics and education, semiotics as a topic itself, and the concept of suprasubjectivity. The stated aim of this section is to point out the close connection between the disciplines of semiotics and education, in terms of a common history. Section Two unpacks the Peircean concepts of iconicity, diagrammatic reasoning, and agapasm that are required to understand a semiotic theory of education. Section Three concludes the book and assembles all the previous elements into a Peircean theory of learning and phenomenology, while also providing possible critiques of the positions taken.

The connection between Peirce and educational philosophy is partly the development of Olteanu’s Maȋtre à penser, Andrew Stables who, along with others, has been the driving force in the recent study of the semiotics of education (often termed Edusemiotics, see e.g. Semetsky, 2014). Olteanu furthers this corpus of work by developing an iconic turn in semiotic educational theory (cf. Bundgaard and Stjernfelt, 2010; Stjernfelt, 2007), i.e. one that is more phenomenological than linguistic, which had previously been the case.

Given that this approach has some symmetry to phenomenology, and is predicated in Peirce, it comes with a few ontological strings attached. Consequently, there is a rejection of the Kantian noumenon, or Ding an sich, in favour of a form of Scotistic realism (Burch, 2014). Or, as Andrew stables puts it, an ontology that is realist, progressive and interpretive (Stables, 2012). Olteanu, drawing on Deely (2001) states that synechism as a process is suprasubjective, in that we are not making an ontological distinction between mind dependent (ens rationis) and mind independent (ens reale) being, as such signs are neither strictly subjective nor objective. Such a position allows one to circumvent stale dualist dichotomies of mind/body, or ideal/material etc.
Hence, for a Peircean theory of learning, the subjective interactions between students and teacher are collectively mediated by a third term that we might crassly call context. While the student-teacher dyad is important, it is the mediating triadic (suprasubjective) relationship that successfully drives learning, the highest form of which is agapasm qua intellectual love. The use of the word ‘love’ may unnerve some in this situation. Peirce refers to agapasm as love for truth, for example, in the pursuit of learning in science. He describes agapasm in the following way:

“If a man burns to learn and sets himself to comparing his ideas with experimental results in order that he may correct those ideas, every scientific man will recognize him as a brother, no matter how small his knowledge may be.” (CP 1.44)

Olteanu’s Peircean theory of learning and loving does not deny the impact of social or psychological factors upon the ability of a student to learn. However, from a Peircean semiotic standpoint, it is not the quality of the student-teacher relationship that maters (dyad), nor the volume of knowledge that either the student or teacher possesses, but that there is an agapic structure to the relationship (triad), i.e. that both student and teacher burns to learn as Peirce phrased it (ibid). Suprasubjectivity is the missing third term that phenomenological scholars have failed to introduce into the philosophy of education, settling instead for conceptions of subjectivity or inter-subjectivity in describing the student(s)-teacher interaction.

The construction of an educational theory rooted in suprasubjectivity does offer some interesting parallels to phenomenology. There is extensive literature in the philosophy of education on the phenomenology of Levinas (Egéa-Kuehne, 2008, Miller, 2016, Ben-Pazi, 2016), Merleau-Ponty (Pesce, 2014), Husserl (Garrison and Shargel, 1988, Morselli, 1990), and Heidegger (Peters, 2002). While Peircean semiotics cannot be equated to phenomenology sensu stricto, there is much crossover and substantial scope for reciprocal learning between the two approaches. Olteanu’s publication has a depth that invites introspection; this is not to state that the work is inaccessible, circumlocutionary, or forcibly opaque. Rather, the depth of the text can give one cause to pause for thought. For a fluid reading of the text, however, the reader should have some knowledge of Peircean semiotics, for which I would recommend Paul Cobley’s excellent, Semiotics a Graphic Guide see Cobley and Jansz (2010). This is to state that the book not an entry level text. This publication would be of interest to Peircean scholars and semioticians even more so to those with an interest in phenomenology in educational research.

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Stjernfelt, Frederik. (2007) Diagrammatology: An Investigation on the Borderlines of Phenomenology, Ontology, and Semiotics (Dordrecht, Springer).


You can read an interview with Alin Olteanu about the book here.