The Quotable Morse Peckham
On Literature, Life, and Beyond

Topic

"Because of the disparity between an orientation and the data it is called upon to organize, the individual, if he is to adapt successfully to his environment, must perceive a disparity between the order affirmed by orientation and his actual experience of randomness."
["Toward a Theory of Romanticism: II. Reconsiderations" (1960), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 28.]

"'Cause,' then, is something in the orientation with which we relate ourselves to and control the data our senses give us, not something in the data. It is in our minds, not in the public and objective world. ... Thus 'cause' turns out to be a very handy word, because it is useful in selecting from our sensory data something we can manipulate and use to our benefit."
[Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1962), 20-1.]

"The mass of mankind wants its existing orientations reinforced, no matter how outworn and false they may be; for new ideas are uncomfortable and disturbing. The market for the exhausted and dead is limitless; the market for the new and the real is tiny, and profitless. Only a fraction of mankind can endure either novelty or a little more reality than they are adapted to."
[Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1962), 28.]

"Heaven is, of course, a symbol of perfect orientation, a place where identity is never threatened, where everything, including oneself, is radiant with value, and where the world is totally ordered, a place where a complete system of relations is immediately apprehensible, with no loss of time and no expenditure of energy."
[Beyond the Tragic Vision: The Quest for Identity in the Nineteenth Century (New York: George Braziller, 1962), 42.]

"Our various semiotic systems, verbal and nonverbal, with which we interpret the situation and communicate our interpretations, are both categorial and conventional. The consequence of the first is that we understand any configuration only in categorial terms; we cannot know what it really is, only how it may be categorized. ... Hence there is no empirical test for the adequacy of the semiotic categories. Since our whole tendency is to believe that the categories are derived from the data, are immanent within the data, from which we draw them, it follows that on the whole we have very little control over categorial application. Consequently every situation for which there is a semiotic response (that is, all situations) introduces innovation in the attributes of the category, the range of phenomena which the categories cover, and the ways the categories are bundled or logically structured together."
["The Current Crisis in the Arts: Pop, Op, and Mini" (1967), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 238-39.]

"Once the magical theory of language has taken root, as it has in all living humans who have progressed through infancy, any utterance becomes a sign the response to which entails conforming one's behavior to a set of conventions appropriate to a situation. Thus, in any sign response there are two ingredients, the sign and the conventionalized behavior patterns. By the magical theory of language, or immanent meaning, we ascribe to the sign the attributes of those behaviors. Thus, in responding to a sign we neglect the complementary circumstance that we are responding to a sign and its situation. To put it another way, the sign on which we focus in but one of many situational signs, it is but one in a constellation of signs. Since all signs are polysemous, that is, since all signs can be, theoretically, responded to by all possible behaviors, the only limit being the conventions we have learned, the sign on which we focus loses its compelling and unitary function to the degree to which we neglect the other signs in the situational constellation of signs."
["The Intentional? Fallacy?" (1968), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 432.]

"Every semiotic response involves interpretation, since we do not respond to a meaning immanent in the sign."
["The Intentional? Fallacy?" (1968), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 438.]

"All the word 'interpretation' does is to draw attention to the actuality and possibility of difference of response to a given sign, or, more generally, to difference in sign response. 'Mind,' then, categorizes all responsive activity which exhibits differences in sign response, that is, for reasons suggested earlier, all responsive activity, which is all activity."
["The Intentional? Fallacy?" (1968), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 438.]

"'To infer an intention' means to make a linguistic construct of an historical situation so that by responding to the semiotic constellation of that constructed situation we may gain additional instructions for deciding the appropriate verbal response to an utterance to which our initial response was decisional uncertainty."
["The Intentional? Fallacy?" (1968), in The Triumph of Romanticism (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 441.]

"The ascription of 'meaning' is an act of 'interpretation,' and interpretation is a mode of 'explanation.'"
[Art and Pornography: An Experiment in Explanation (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 128.]

"The problem of what a sign is, is not too difficult so long as we do not think very hard about it, and so long as we do not ask what is not a sign."
["Is the Problem of Literary Realism a Pseudoproblem?" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 182.]

"Perhaps it is possible to differentiate between man-made objects that are signs and such objects that are not, but such a differentiation must be purely conventional and arbitrary, for once we consider the response to the sign, the distinction disappears."
["Is the Problem of Literary Realism a Pseudoproblem?" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 182-83.]

"When we consider responses to the world, the world, so far as human beings are concerned, consists of signs."
["Is the Problem of Literary Realism a Pseudoproblem?" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 183.]

"If we consider what is going on in human activity, it is clear that signs do not refer. Human beings refer. A man uses a sign in order to refer to something else. Or sometimes he just uses the sign. ... One may, then, respond to a sign by referring to something else, or one may not. It still remains a sign so long as one responds with some behavioral sequence; and experiment has shown that it is virtually impossible not to so respond to any configuration that the subject can discriminate as a configuration, that is, just about any configuration imaginable, after—in circumstances of extreme disorientation—a usually momentary condition of no response at all."
["Is the Problem of Literary Realism a Pseudoproblem?" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 183-84.]

"There is no necessary connection between sign and response; strictly speaking, any sign can be culturally linked to any response. Thus, the meaning of any sign ... can be all possible meanings. Terrifying as this conclusion is, it at least serves to explain why human beings spend so much time disagreeing with each other."
["Is the Problem of Literary Realism a Pseudoproblem?" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 184.]

"A sign is a configuration for which different families of responses are observable or possible, that is, constructible. But that, of course, means all configurations. Hence, insofar as a configuration is a configuration—that is, discriminable from its ground&mdashit is a sign, even though the perceiver of that sign may be unable to respond because he cannot ascribe any attributes. If he feels an impulse to respond, but cannot, the configuration is nevertheless a sign. The only immanent meaning in any stimulus is that it is a stimulus because there are responses to it."
["The Virtues of Superficiality" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 255.]

"We use the word 'sign' to call attention to the fact that a configuration is capable of eliciting a responsive range—or families of responsive behavior, including verbal behavior."
["The Virtues of Superficiality" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 256.]

"We use 'signal' to indicate that it is appropriate to refuse the possibility of any response but one or, at its most liberal, but one family of responses. We use 'sign,' then in situations in which we recognize that differing families of response are possible but only one family is appropriate. We use 'symbol' in situations in which we recognize the appropriateness of employing two or more families. And we use 'irony' in situations in which we exploit that possibility of the appropriateness of several families but wish to assert that at least one is in fact inappropriate to the situation."
["The Virtues of Superficiality" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 256.]

"Signs, then, are stimulus terms, and the corresponding response term is 'orientation.' ... Sign and orientation are inseparable, for a sign requires an orientation to be responded to, while an orientation requires a sign to be elicited."
["The Virtues of Superficiality" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 257.]

"When the figure emerges from the ground, then error and illusion begin."
["The Virtues of Superficiality" (1969), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 261.]

"The world consists of semiotic systems, each element of which, such as a tree or a cloud or a stone, is capable of eliciting a wide range of responses, all of which have to be learned, together with the conventions governing their appropriateness. Insofar as a human being is capable of responding to anything, it is because and only because that thing is a sign. 'The world means,' Browning said, but what he should have said is that the world consists of signs linked to responses established and maintained by convention."
["Arts for the Cultivation of Radical Sensitivity" (1971), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 296.]

"The world, then, consists of directions for performance."
["Arts for the Cultivation of Radical Sensitivity" (1971), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 296.]

"Human behavior may be thus reduced to two aspects, directions and performance -- aspects, because any performance is a set of directions and any set of directions established by human agency, including those found in nature, is a performance, even though it may be only a covert performance or a mere emotional performance."
["Arts for the Cultivation of Radical Sensitivity" (1971), in Romanticism and Behavior: Collected Essays II (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 297.]

"Man became master of the world ... by developing non-verbal semiosis into verbal semiosis, into language. Though signs in mammals are arbitrary they are nevertheless specific. But language is non-specific. It turns the whole world into signs. Any word can literally be used to mean anything, as Lewis Carroll long ago pointed out. ... Thus language enormously increased the human possibility for randomness of response, and in consequence increased the size and complexity of the brain. And in further consequences, man's survival increasingly depended less upon genetically controlled responses than upon learned responses, that is, upon culture as learned instructions for response. ... Values are those cultural instructions to which we ascribe value and which we think should control everyone's behavior."
["Valuing," Pre/Text 10/3-4 (1989): 216.]