In Memoriam: John Deely (1942–2017)

By Jamin Pelkey

Photo by Don Favareau

John Deely devoted his life to exploring the philosophy of signs and engaging with a network of semioticians around the world. Following his recent retirement in 2015 as Rudman Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, John moved to St. Vincent College, La Trobe, Pennsylvania, with his partner and colleague Brooke Williams Deely. There he served as Professor of Philosophy in residence until his death on Saturday, January 7, 2017. He will be remembered as a prolific writer and a formidable thinker. Across the preceding five decades, he published more than 50 volumes as author or editor and authored more than 200 articles and chapters exploring themes in semiotic philosophy. His book Four Ages of Understanding (University of Toronto Press, 2000) is an attempt to rewrite the very history of philosophy with the stated expectation that future generations will come to recognize the central relevance semiotics holds for the evolution of human understanding. This anticipated re-evaluation process is also congruent with Deely’s own proposed definition of the sign—“anything that can be used to change the relevance of past to present via some prospective future” (Purely Objective Reality, De Gruyter 2009: 142). Known for his jokes and provocations as much as his ideas and publications, Deely’s legacy will live on in the many lives he influenced and in the many writings he made available for ongoing inquiry into the dynamic nature of sign relations, past and present.


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