Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Ways and Means

 When John Locke introduces the term 'semeiotike' for his science of signs, he introduces it as concerned with "the ways and means whereby the knowledge of both the one and the other of these is attained and communicated" (Essay IV.21.1). It's easy to let that go by quickly, but "ways and means" is an interesting phrase here. 

The Committee on Ways and Means was formed in the Parliament in 1641; the Essay was published in 1689. The parliamentary Committee was abolished in 1967 (although the role of Chairman of Ways and Means still exists, due to incidental non-committee roles that the position had picked up), but the United States House of Representatives still has its Committee on Ways and Means, which is one of the oldest legislative committees in Congress. As with the original version of U. S. imitation, the original British Committee on Ways and Means had control over taxation and spending. (In the U. S., spending was split off to a separate Appropriations Committee in the nineteenth century.) The name seems to be due to Xenophon, whose work, Ways and Means (which I discussed here) is a philosophical discussion of how to raise revenue and budget for large-scale projects in the city-state. The 'ways' are how to get the revenue, and the 'means' are the organization of the revenue itself.

When Locke speaks of semiotics as concerned with "the ways and means" of the discovery and communication of knowledge, then, he is not using the phrase as a mere hendiadys for 'method', but using a monetary metaphor. Signs are the 'money' of inquiry and communication; you use signs to 'budget' and 'fund' inquiry and communication. Semiotics is being put forward as the field of knowledge that studies and makes possible the accounting for inquiry and communication.