john deelyThe world lost one of its keenest philosophical minds when John Deely passed away on January 7, 2017. As a philosopher, John developed his insights by working within the fertile soil of the Catholic intellectual tradition. The influence of the great French Thomist Jacques Maritain was immense, not only in John’s professional life, but also deeply within his personal life. John’s most treasured photograph was a picture of his young self with Maritain himself. John was one of the founding members of the American Maritain Association, of which he remained a devoted member throughout his life.

Most importantly, John met his wife Brooke Williams Deely, herself a noted Maritain scholar, at a meeting of the American Maritain Association. Throughout their married life, John and Brooke remained close collaborators in John’s philosophical work.  Brooke’s devotion to John’s vocation as a philosopher is a moving testimony to a wife’s deep and mature love. The two of them together remind me of the husband and wife team of Jacques and Raissa Maritain.

John’s seminal legacy is his lifelong promotion of the works of John Poinsot (also known as John of St. Thomas) as an explicit link between Baroque Thomism and the emerging philosophical perspective of semiotics. It is a legacy that ties John’s efforts not only to the work of the great semioticians Charles S. Peirce and Thomas Sebeok, but also to the historic Benedictine Order.

The Abbey of Solesmes is the publisher of the critical edition of Poinsot’s writings. John’s move near the end of his life to St. Vincent Archabbey College and Seminary was an act that joined together both his devotion to Dominican scholasticism and to the ancient Benedictine order. It thereby paralleled the intellectual and spiritual union of these two religious orders in the lives of St. Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain, who was himself a Benedictine Oblate for whom Poinsot was the Thomistic commentator with whom he fell in love.

Born in Chicago on April 26, 1942, John was educated at the Pontifical Faculty of Philosophy of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in River Forest, Illinois, receiving a Ph.D. in 1967. After briefly holding several academic posts, John’s first major career accomplishment was his close work with Mortimer Adler at the Institute for Philosophical Research from 1969 to 1974.

A fruitful disagreement between John and Mortimer over key issues in semiotics resulted in John going his own way in order to continue unhampered his investigations into the history of semiotics in the Middle Ages. “I am indebted to him and regret that unresolved differences of opinion between us about certain aspects of a theory that we otherwise share prevent him from associating his name with mine in the authorship of this book,” wrote Adler in the preface to Some Questions about Language: A Theory of Human Discourse and Its Objects, which they had originally begun writing together in collaboration.

John continued his intense and innovative work in semiotics as he went on from Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research to work as full Professor at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa (1976–1999). In 1999, John became a professor of philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and went on to hold the Rudman Chair of Graduate Philosophy there from 2007 to 2015. From 2015 to the time of his death, John was Philosopher in Residence at St. Vincent Archabbey College and Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. His untimely death cut short his plans to continue joining together the Benedictine and Dominican traditions with his work in the Philosophy department there.

John’s books, more than thirty in number, are complemented by over 200 articles and a number of book series that he edited. Two of his most important achievements are his bilingual edition of John Poinsot’s Tractatus de Signis, which upon publication received the featured book review in The New York Times (Easter, 1986), and his Four Ages of Understanding (2001), a history of philosophy which presents a full-scale demonstration of the centrality of the theory of signs in philosophy’s history, thereby rigorously establishing a semiotic philosophical orientation for the twenty-first century.

When recently asked whom he would like to be his eulogist, John conceded only slight ground to the request: He said that he desired his eulogist to be his faithful canine companion, Bruno. In response, Bruno is reportedly working with John and Brooke’s other rescue dog, Bella, on the next translation of John’s masterful introduction to semiotics, Basics of Semiotics, a seminal text which has been published around the world in nine different editions and translated from English into Portuguese, Romanian, Japanese, Spanish, Ukrainian, Italian, Estonian, Chinese, Russian, and French. No doubt their project will prove to be a fitting memorial for a man who wrote most perceptively about the talent that is species-specific to humans, in an epoch-defining book called Semiotic Animal.[2]

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


[1] With contributions by Gary Shank, as this remembrance draws in part upon the text of the obituary published in the Greensburg Tribune Review on Jan 12, 2017 with the permission of Brooke Williams Deely. A modified version of this remembrance is also published in The American Journal of Semiotics.

[2] For more on this nascent Semiotic Age, see the 2016 Special Issue on the Semiotic Animal from The American Journal of Semiotics.


All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email