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Tractatus de Signis

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From The Cover

This is a corrected second impression of the original bilingual critical edition of Poinsot’s work on signs completed in 1632 but not brought to independent publication until 1985 in the edition prepared by John Deely in collaboration with Ralph Austin Powell. Besides a new “Foreword” by the translator and an errata sheet, we have some new materials and a full table of correlations between the independent Tractatus edition and the original Cursus Philosophicus volumes from which that edition was established.

This Cursus Philosophicus was one of the two great syntheses of Latin thought made in the lifetime of René Descartes. Yet only that of Francis Suarez in 1597, the Disputationes Metaphysicae, was destined to be read by the early moderns, while Poinsot’s Cursus Philosophicus was fated actually to fulfill the destiny Hume had feared his own work – falling “deadborn from the press.”

The re-emergence in our day of Poinsot’s questions on signs shows, as Thomas A. Sebeok put it, that Poinsot “belongs decisively to that mainstream 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 ancient and medieval one that stretches from Aristotle and the pre-Socratics to the time of Galileo and Descartes; and the modern landscape from that time to Einstein, Wittgenstein, and Husserl in our own “the ecology of neither of which could be fully appreciated without the other.”

Poinsot’s standpoint provided the first systematic demonstration of how an understanding of the action of signs overcomes all the traditional splits between “nature” and “culture,” “mind-dependent” and “mindindependent”
being, and in particular (the favorite modern divide) between “inner” and “outer.” Small wonder that Walker Percy, when this “message in a bottle” washed up on his shore and he had completed his reading of Poinsot’s Tractatus, wrote (in a letter dated 27 October 1986), “I have no doubt that a few years from now Poinsot will be recognized as one of the major founders, if not the founder, of modern semiotic.”

This is a work of immense erudition that synthesizes the matter of signs philosophy from Aristotle and his successors in Greece and Rome to the preeminent St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages and so on through the leading schools of Renaissance thought.

Poinsot, also known as John of St. Thomas, was instrumental in the twentieth-century revival of Thomism led by Jacques Maritain. His seminal Introduction to the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas is also available from St. Augustine’s Press.

Now, with the publication of the Tractatus de Signis, this singular crown of his achievement is available once again, in a beautiful bilingual edition fit both for the study and the coffee table.

John Deely is Rudman Chair of Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas, Houston, and author of numerous books, including The Impact on Philosophy of Semiotics, What Distinguishes Human Understanding, and The Basics of Semiotics, all from St. Augustine’s Press.

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