C. S. Peirce & Nested Continua Model of Religious Interpretation

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Gary Slater
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


C.S Peirce and the Nested Continua Model of Religious Interpretation is a highly original and tightly argued monograph. Author Gary Slater argues persuasively that the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce offers useful resources for contemporary philosophical theologians. Slater marshals these resources to develop what he calls the “nested continua model of religious interpretation,” a description he sets out at some length in the Introduction and in the last section of the first chapter (entitled “Rules for the Nested Continua Model”).

Peirce’s work on the Existential Graphs serves as the inspiration for the nested continua model. This is Peirce’s effort to demonstrate logical relations in terms of visual diagrams rather than verbal explanations. Slater’s nested continua model is essentially a graph on which all determinate things can be plotted. Picture the surface of a broad tree stump with a series of concentric rings radiating from the center. A ring is understood as an interpretative framework that “brings into intelligible relation the entities it contains, and which itself may be brought into intelligible relation with others as a continuum nested within other continua” (1). Individual entities of all sorts can be indicated with a point. Slater allows that the nested continua model is visually plain. But, he adds, if “given the right logical and philosophical reference points,” it has “the power to serve as the starting point of a wide range of inquiries, reveal logical distinctions visually, and adjudicate among frameworks of interpretation at different levels of generality” (2). Put differently, the purpose of the nested continua model is to promote multidisciplinary inquiry into reality, which is an eminently Peircean goal.

Slater displays a sure handed grasp of Peirce’s thought. Three features in particular are fundamental to Slater’s argument. The first is Peirce’s three categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. These are at once phenomenological categories of being and experience as well as principles of logical relations. The categories “comprise all that is possible, actual, and intelligible in logic, lived experience, and the universe itself” (16), and promote Peirce’s claim (shared by Slater) that interpretation is engagement with the world. The second feature is Peirce’s theory of reference. Peirce developed three kinds of reference: iconic, indexical, and symbolic. Iconic reference stipulates that the object is like the sign in some way. Peirce uses the example of a crucifix as an iconic sign that refers to Jesus’s crucifixion. Indexical reference involves a causal connection between the interpreter and the object. Indexical references “point” (picture an emphatically jabbing index finger) at what is valuable in the object. Symbolic reference is when one sign refers to another within its semiotic system. The third feature is Peirce’s metaphysics of continuity. He calls this synechism, and argues that all existing things are continuous—that is, the world exists as a continuous whole of all of its parts, with no part being fully separate. Slater observes that synechism is one of the guiding principles of his own project insofar as the concentric circles of the nested continua model work as a metaphor precisely because there are no ontological discontinuities.

Another strength of Slater’s discussion is the way in which he draws not only from Peirce’s own writings but also from the wider community of Peircean interpreters. Substantive chapters on the work of Peter Ochs (chapter 4) and Robert Cummings Neville (chapter 5) are complemented (in chapter 6) by a comprehensive overview of the ongoing scholarly discussion regarding the contributions of Peircean pragmatism to theology and religious studies. Slater discusses the work of influential scholars such as Robert Corrington and his notion of “ecstatic naturalism,” and Michael Raposa’s work on the “theosemiotic.” He also brings in younger scholars such as Anette Ejsing, Abraham Robinson, and Brandon Daniel-Hughes, while drawing on the pioneering work of John E. Smith.

In certain respects Slater organizes his book like a stir-fry: he shows us a picture of the nested continua model at the beginning, then diligently cuts up and prepares his ingredients in the first six chapters. In chapter 7 he places everything in the wok and starts cooking. Slater’s focus in this chapter is on the human interpretive experience of God, as the divine is understood through Peirce’s categories: that is, as transcendent creator ex nihilo in absolute Firstness; as immanent purpose and judge of that which exists in absolute Thirdness; and in the experiences of love and evil throughout Secondness. In the concluding chapter, Slater outlines some general areas (mathematics/logic, metaphysics, aesthetics, history, and theology) where the nested continua model can be profitably utilized.

Slater acknowledges that his development of the nested continua model is the beginning of inquiry, not the end. The value of the nested continua model will ultimately be the degree to which Peircean inspired theologians and philosophers of religion make use of the model in their inquiries. But by developing the nested continua model, setting it firmly in its philosophical context, and offering examples of its use, Slater has accomplished much in this work. C.S Peirce and the Nested Continua Model of Religious Interpretation is at turns provocative and sophisticated. It should find a wide and interested readership.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lynchburg College.

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gary Slater is Adjunct faculty at St Edwards University.



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