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date: 20 November 2017

Peirce, Charles Sanders

Encyclopedia of Semiotics

Joseph L. Esposito

Peirce, Charles Sanders 


American philosopher, scientist, polymath, and pioneer in the modern study of semiotics. Although raised in an intellectual environment with strong currents of Anglo‐American empiricism such as that of David Hume, Thomas Reid, and Sir William Hamilton, Peirce never accepted the notion that knowledge was a natural outcome of the result of a knowing faculty or that truth is what is knowably evident. Rather, Peirce studied the history of epistemology as an ethnologist studies a foreign culture, as an outsider trying to understand and make sense of an activity that appears at first blush to be uncomplicated, natural, spontaneous, and yet on reflection largely unintelligible. Peirce had to develop a new vocabulary for this new general science of knowing—the study of signs, or semiotics—a task that took a lifetime to even clarify.

As a freshman at Harvard in 1855, Peirce was strongly influenced by Friedrich Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) and Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In 1857, he developed his first of many versions of a triadic system of categories: this one consisted of the I, which he identified with reason, goodness, and permanence; the thou, reflected in love, beauty, and causality; and the it, manifested in sensation, truth, and community. During the 1860s, Peirce struggled with various Kantian problems: how can the mind have a concept of infinity if it knows only what is particular? If knowledge is particular, how is metaphysics possible? If reasoning follows the structure of the syllogism, how is hypothetic inference possible? As he reflected on these questions, he moved from materialism and empiricism to transcendentalism and idealism and then back again. He never fully adopted either traditional theory because he rejected foundationalism and the possibility of metaphysics based on ultimate, unchanging primal truths.

Out of his reflections on the history of epistemology, one truth seemed to emerge: the structure of the knower's relation with the known, as well as both the structure of the process of knowing and the content of whatever is known in particular, is governed by the invariable form of triadic relations. To be is to be in relation to something else; to exist is to exist as a sign of something for something. If God holds the blueprint of creation, it is a short list of relational categories that operate iteratively, creating quality out of quantity and complexity out of simplicity. This notion gives rise to the view that there are two lists of categories, a short list for formal relations, which Peirce calls firstness, secondness, and thirdness, and a long list of categories that are the iterated instantiations of the formal categories. Examples of the latter include, on the level of computation, Unity, Plurality, and Totality; on the level of cognition, Thinking, Thought of, and Abstraction; on the level of the form of language, Subject, Predicate, and Meaning; on the level of communication, Language, Expression, and Meaning; on the level of philosophical reflection of cognition, Sensation, Existence, and Reality. Abstraction, Meaning, and Reality are examples of thirdness: they are the result of a synthesis of opposites, as well as a condition for the synthesis. For example, language, as a First, consists of distinguishable marks and noises; as a Second, it is modified by the style in which the marks are inscribed or inflected; as a Third, it becomes the vehicle to carry meaning to express the energy that originates from the need for articulation.

Peirce's metaphysical speculations test the limits of language. Since he uses language outside of its generally utilitarian context, he devised new terms to capture his insights. This struggle itself heightened awareness of the need to study language and systems of notation extensively. Peirce calls the ability of a language to express meaning its plasticity, which exists when the symbols are physically capable of expressing meaning and when that meaning can be understood. Plasticity, in turn, produces “regulation”—that is, the ability of language to govern personal and social conduct in the form of commands and commandments, scientific formulas, statutes and laws, and so forth. “Influx” was the name Peirce coined for the cosmic process that continually joins Firsts and Seconds to make Thirds. Taking Kant's lead, Peirce abandoned the commonsense notions of linear time and physical causality. In Peirce's view of creation, everything happens at once, and time and space are merely perspectival. This view at first appears ironic—in 1858, Peirce had begun a thirty‐year association with the United States Coast Survey—but upon deeper reflection reveals the surveyor's acceptance that fixed points are mere conventions and that all measurements are estimates. By the mid‐1860s, Peirce had turned from the arduous tasks of metaphysics to logic and scientific explanation. In 1863, he wrote an article for the American Journal of Science and Arts entitled “The Chemical Theory of Interpenetration.” The theory of chemical combination must have seemed a small, attainable goal for him after his early efforts to explain the general workings of creation at large. He proposed that chemical combination could not be explained in terms of the physical shapes of molecules because the shapes themselves were combinations of atoms, and that furthermore the hypothesis of atoms ultimately explains nothing. Instead, Peirce proposed a general theory of chemical combination based on dynamic concepts of energy and equilibrium.

In 1865, Peirce gave a series of Harvard lectures on the logic of science. His first lecture concerned logic in general, which he defined as the science of the conditions that enable symbols to refer to objects, while he defined “symbolistic” or semiotics as the science of the formal conditions of intelligibility of symbols. Subsequent lectures were concerned with deductive and inductive inference, providing Peirce with the opportunity to tell his audience that inferences may be made that are neither inductive nor deductive but are hypothetic insofar as the particular inference may suggest a theory about itself, as in scientific invention and creativity.

Peirce also introduced his Harvard audience to the most recent variants of his metaphysical vocabulary of triadic forms: Thing, Representation, and Form; and Signs, Copies, and Symbols. By Form, he referred to the way in which a thing can be represented, while a thing was the bare “it” of the representation, and “representations” were unities of Thing and Form insofar as they have singular identities, as do Things, but also refer beyond themselves to Things themselves. Representations are always known directly because there is nothing to know about them except as they represent, even if intersubjective agreement about what they represent is not possible. Peirce called the ability to distinguish representations from the represented and from the manner of representation “precission.” Thus, the color blue may be thought of (prescinded) apart from the color red, and space may be prescinded from color, but color may not be prescinded from space, nor red from color. The triadic categories are prescindable, but that does not mean that each has a discrete existence as an entity apart from the others.

The second triad follows the logic of the first. Signs are representations that are connected to their objects by a simple, direct, and particular connection; they are fixed by convention. Representations that are copies, on the other hand, share a form with what they represent through similarity or congruence. Symbols, however, stand in relation to the represented by their power to suggest other symbols, which Peirce called semiosis—the energetic process of symbolizing activity we commonly know as thought or intelligence.

In a later lecture that year, Peirce elaborated on the manner or Form of representation, again in its prescinded triadic manifestation: Reference to Subject, Reference to Object, and Reference to Ground. Ground itself contains three marks of determination: reference to subject, reference to object, and reference to representation. The last is immediate, the others intermediate. Representation cannot take place unless there is a Ground that “thinks” the triadic forms together. There can be no representation by instinct or constant conjunction. What is separate remains separate. Peirce calls this ground “reason.”

The following year, 1866, Peirce delivered another series of public lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston, this time describing his two sets of triadic categories as quality, relation, and representation and as ground, correlate, and interpretant. Here, the ground is a pure form or abstraction of which a concrete thing is only an incarnation. A correlate is the thing related to, and the interpretant is the mediating representation between ground and correlate.

In 1867, Peirce's associations with the Coast Survey deepened; he became assistant to the superintendent and later took a position with the Harvard Observatory, making spectroscopic measurements and publishing the results in scientific journals. He also plunged into the study of medieval logic and the works of John Duns Scotus. His library at the time on this subject surpassed Harvard's. Meanwhile, the first philosophical journal in English, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, was inaugurated by the Saint Louis Hegelians and edited by William Torrey Harris. Peirce began subscribing and submitted several papers.

During this period, Peirce never lost interest in the question of the referential capacity of terms. As a youth, he wondered how the term infinity could refer to what could not be known or comprehended in any empirical way and yet still be a term about which mathematical reasoning could be possible. He also wondered how we could speak of God and not obviously believe that we were speaking nonsense. In his quest to understand and resolve this problem of the reference of certain symbols, he studied the works of the post‐Kantian logicians Ernst Reinhold, Heinrich Ritter, Johann Herbart, Jakob Fries, Moritz Drobisch, Friedrich Adolph Trendelenburg, and Friedrich Uberweg, as well as the logical works of George Boole, Augustus De Morgan, and William Thomson. Peirce was probably one of the most knowledgeable American scholars of the European philosophical tradition. From his investigation, he concluded that nothing could be thought that did not impart to the thinker some quality of the thing thought of. Without this notion as the first condition of thought, thinking would be nothing but an empty series of meaningless relations. But Peirce did not mean that whatever could be thought is true; rather, he meant that whatever could be thought contains a referent that may be prescinded from the thought itself and that is in some way separate from our thought of it. The implications of this view are sweeping: accepting it means accepting the notion that the sheer activity of thought reflecting continually upon itself will lead to a greater comprehension of what reality is truly all about. Knowledge starts to perfect itself as soon as it becomes systematic—that is, as soon as it begins to study itself in disciplines such as psychology and logic. At that point, it becomes clear that knowing cannot be reduced to deduction or induction or a combination of both. It also becomes clear that knowing is never immediate but always requires the act of making an inference, even when it has the character of being immediately evident. Being evident is merely being able to make the inference naturally and without effort.

For Peirce at this time, positivism was entirely false because it required concepts that would be impossible to comprehend if the tenets of positivism were true. Positivism fails to understand, Peirce argues in “Questions on Reality,” the implications of the view that every thought is a sign: that knowledge requires abstraction before it may know the particular. These notions inspired the three papers Peirce published in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy in 1868: “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man,” “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” and “Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities.”

During the late 1860s and early 1870s, Peirce primarily studied and wrote on logic, contrasting the realism of Duns Scotus with the nominalism of William of Ockham, and used some of his work in this area as the basis of another series of lectures at Harvard University. Peirce appreciated the simple, lucid approach of Ockham but knew that Duns Scotus was closer to the truth. Peirce also worked extensively on a “logic of relatives” as an elaboration of the work of DeMorgan, Boole, and W. Stanley Jevons. At this time, he also began to synthesize his views on science, logic, and metaphysics into an evolutionary whole, viewing the process of knowing as a communal rather than personal activity. Truth is not the conformity of thought and the thought of in the mind of a given knower, which his theory of signs reveals as a synthesis that can never be fully achieved; rather, the development of truth is an asymptotic process that a community of interacting knowers might achieve as long as the community continues to develop and refine the languages through which it communicates and as long as artificial barriers such as force or dogma do not impede thought.

During the 1870s, Peirce had an opportunity to witness the importance of this idea in practice: he did pendulum studies in Europe for the Coast Survey, consulted with European scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell at Cambridge, and researched medieval and Renaissance manuscripts of Ptolemy's calculations, which later gave rise to a book of his on photometry. He also participated in the activity of a philosophical society called the Metaphysical Club, which included Chauncey Wright, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Fiske, among others.

In 1877, Peirce published a series of papers in Popular Science Monthly that was intended to impress upon the readers the need to embrace the scientific method as the best way of knowing reality. Two papers, “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” expressed the ideas of early pragmatism with which Peirce later became associated. But these were popular essays designed for easy comprehension, and they do not make explicit all of Peirce's assumptions. His description of belief as merely a resting point to “appease doubt” and create habit was not a turn to subjectivity. Rather, it was a recognition that when thinking is allowed to proceed, the forces of nature govern the thinker and allow him or her to think more and more about what is true, just as the weathercock is guided by the wind, the direction of which it subsequently becomes a sign. But for it to serve as a sign, the weathercock must be free to turn. When thought is controlled by a priori dogmas or religious and political oppression, beliefs become fixed without the opportunity for the natural flow of inferential thought to take full effect. In “The Order of Nature,” Peirce makes clear that the view of mind as a purely adaptive response to experience, as described in the hypothesis of natural selection and British epistemology, is inadequate and that a grander hypothesis is required.

The Popular Science Monthly series illustrates Peirce's view that the universe and human experience result from an interplay of order and disorder. Knowledge is born when a lack of equilibrium is able to be recognized; it is achieved when order is recognized. However, the resting point of mind in a sense of order is not an objective feature of the world but a function of the capacity of the mind that knows. To a polyp, for example, that represents to Peirce the vanishing point of intelligence, all events in the universe are unrelated and appear to be the result of pure chance. On the other hand, to the most advanced human minds, such as that of Maxwell, even the random activity of the particles of a gas may be conceived so as to reveal (mathematically—i.e., semiotically) an orderly process, provided that the knower is capable of adopting and using a sufficiently complex system of signs.

In 1879, Peirce received an offer to become a lecturer in logic at Johns Hopkins University, which had opened in 1876. Among his students were John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen. By 1881, Peirce had become an established international figure in the field of logic, winning the praise of W. Stanley Jevons and John Venn in Britain. In 1883, Studies in Logic was published, consisting of essays by Peirce and his students. In spite of his intellectual successes, Peirce did not receive tenure, left the university after some controversy, and returned to full‐time duties with the Coast Survey in May 1884 as head of the Office of Weights and Measures. However, the Coast Survey at the time was also at the center of political controversies involving conflicting views of its mission, and in 1887 Peirce and his wife moved to Milford, Pennsylvania, where he spent the rest of his life.

Distracted only by his increasing poverty, Peirce spent the next decade writing on “philosophic architectonic,” a vast project to create a system of notation that would not only clarify the process of scientific discovery but accelerate it as well. He published five articles in The Monist, beginning with “The Architecture of Theories” and followed by “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined” and “The Law of the Mind.” These papers attack atomism and particularism in epistemology by arguing that knowing implies a continuum and cannot take place without it. But a continuum implies ordered relations, while every relationship contains an element, more or less complex, of representability. Therefore, the theory of signs is the foundation of all science and knowledge. Peirce called the philosophy that embraces the implications of the logical and epistemological conception of continuity “synechism.”

In his final two Monist papers, “Man's Glassy Essence” and “Evolutionary Love,” Peirce describes the process of knowing as an example of the working of a universe that favors certain kinds of relationships over others. Evolution increases not only the numbers of relations but also their quality, level of complexity, and interactive capacity. Once certain patterns of relations or “personalities” arise, they are difficult to extinguish. They become semiotic engines that are themselves complex signs to even more complex personalities.

In his later years, Peirce repeatedly refined the language of his metaphysical ideas, always needing new terms through which to express his novel conceptions. In 1896 and 1897, he developed a “logic of mathematics” that replaced firstness, secondness, and thirdness, with monad, dyad, and triad and further perfected his recursive logic of relations, the systematic iterations of relations to themselves. He also perfected his theory of signs, applying the recursive relations to his earlier trichotomy of signs. Signs seen qualitatively or monadically were qualisigns (pure qualities that represent), sinsigns (unique things or events that represent), and legisigns (pure conventions that represent). Signs that are dyads are icons (signs that represent by virtue of shared qualities), indexes (signs that represent by being affected by their objects), and symbols (signs that are related to their objects by an abstraction). Signs as triads are rhemes (signs that refer to objects that are possible), dicent signs (signs that represent actualities or facts), and arguments (signs that represent by reference to a law of logical form). From these triads, more signs may be classified. For example, a diagram of a unique thing, such as a drawing showing the way to a particular house, is an iconic sinsign because it contains the form of the spatial relation of the house to the surrounding streets but is also the sign that only stands in relation to a particular object and location. On the other hand, a schematic diagram of a mechanical device, like a lawn mower, is an iconic legisign because although its form is congruent with the form of the actual object, it does not represent any particular lawn mower. A weathercock is a dicent sinsign because it is the sign of the particular wind that affects it, and it represents that wind by being affected in a particular way.

In the remaining years of his life, Peirce tirelessly reworked his ideas but no longer with an audience. He had become convinced that the logic of triadic relations was the logic that governed the world, evolution, and the emergence of spirituality. He was also convinced that pragmatism—or, as he preferred, pragmaticism, to distinguish it from its more mechanistic cousin—was really just the realization that thinking does not take place unless something called mind is under the influence of a living fact. At the bottom of Peirce's deepest thoughts is the anthropic view that the universe exists in order to become known. Abstract unity (firstness) and concrete plurality (secondness) are but manifestations of a concrete unity (thirdness) that operates throughout nature. Establishing this hypothesis upon logical grounds would prove that pragmaticism and the scientific method are the road to truth and would make traveling on that road progressively easier and more rewarding. Peirce never accomplished his dreams for a complete philosophic architectonic, a logic of discovery, but he has inspired many generations, and his work has spread far and wide as a result.


Brent, J. Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Esposito, J. L. Evolutionary Metaphysics: The Development of Peirce's Theory of Categories. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Fisch, M. H. Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism: Essays by Max H. Fisch. Edited by K. L. Ketner and C. J. W. Kloesel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Kent, B. Charles S. Peirce: Logic and the Classification of the Sciences. Montreal: McGill‐Queen's University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Ketner, K. L., et al., eds. A Comprehensive Bibliography and Index of the Published Works of Charles Sanders Peirce with a Bibliography of Secondary Studies. Greenwich, Conn.: Johnson Associates, 1977.Find this resource:

Murphey, M. G. The Development of Peirce's Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.Find this resource:

Peirce, C. S. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1–6, edited by C. Hartshorne and P. Weiss; vols. 7–8, edited by A. Burks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931–1935, 1958.Find this resource:

Peirce, C. S. Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence between Charles S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby. Edited by C. S. Hardwick. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.Find this resource:

Peirce, C. S. Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, vol. 1, 18571866; vol. 2, 18671871; vol. 3, 18721878. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982–1984.Find this resource:

Peirce, C. S. Reasoning and the Logic of Things. Edited by K. L. Ketner. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

—Joseph L. Esposito

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