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Some Leading Ideas of Peirce's Semiotic
(Ver. 2.0 of November 20, 1997)

Joseph Ransdell
Dept of Philosophy, Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas 79409, U.S.A.

Ransdell's home page

This is a lightly revised version of the paper originally published in Semiotica 19, 1977, pp. 157-178. The changes are stylistic rather than substantive. Some minor points of substantive revision will be made as time permits in the near future, but will consist chiefly in qualifications rather than corrections: the present version is deficient chiefly in what it omits rather than what it contains, and I do not regard its defects as serious.
The numbers that appear in the text in brackets are the page numbers in the original, inserted in this version to maintain consistency of reference across versions. Numbers in parentheses are textual references in the manner usual in Peirce scholarship and are explained in the endnotes.
If you wish to quote from or refer to this version of the paper in a scholarly context please use the URL of its location on the Arisbe website:


[157]       Suppose we take the papers contributed to the present conference1 as a sample of the various kinds of inquiries which associate together under the term 'semiotics'. If we leave to one side those papers which -- like the present paper -- are concerned with foundational aspects of semiotics in general, there seem to be three major (and non-exclusive) topics under which the rest would fall: communication, meaning, and inference. I put to one side those papers concerned with foundational aspects of semiotics in general because one of the things we'll be concerned with here is whether there really is or can be such a thing as semiotics in general, in the sense of a foundational theory capable of bringing these topics -- communication, meaning, and inference -- into a genuine theoretical unity. Although we will not address the question itself we will see that this is what Peirce's semiotic attempts to do and see how he goes about it.

      Let me say initially that I see no need to postulate or believe in such a unified theory in order to justify speaking of semiotics in general or organizing conferences and promoting research under this label. There is obviously both a conceptual and an empirical overlap in these three topics, and I should think this overlap is sufficiently extensive to warrant fully the use of a blanket term, such as 'semiotics', whether or not there should be any truly unified and foundational theory. But still, the fact of the overlap naturally suggests that there is a unity to semiotics that runs deeper than and accounts for this overlap -- that matters of communication, meaning, and inference are not just accidentally conjoined in this and that particular subject-matter, but can ultimately be understood in terms of the same basic theoretical relationships, which is why so much interest is being shown at this conference -- and rightly so -- in the philosophy of Charles Peirce. For Peirce not [158] only treated all three of these concerns in a unitary way, he did so with a comprehensiveness of scope, a penetration to fundamentals, and a devotion to the detail of theoretical development which is still unparalleled. He wrote tens of thousands of pages on this topic -- a good ninety percent (if not more) of his prodigious philosophical output is directly concerned with semiotic2 -- and he did so as the development of a unitary system of thought which was present in its rudimentary form from the time of his earliest published philosophical writing.3 For Peirce, everything was grist for semiotic:

Know that from the day when at the age of 12 or 13 I took up, in my elder brother's room a copy of Whately's "Logic," and asked him what Logic was, and getting some simple answer, flung myself on the floor and buried myself in it, it has never been in my power to study anything, -- mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, gravitation, thermodynamics, optics, chemistry, comparative anatomy, astronomy, psychology, phonetics, economic, the history of science, whist, men and women, wine, metrology, except as a study of semiotic.4

If fundamental ideas towards a comprehensive semiotic theory are wanted, Peirce's work is obviously the place to start looking. Within Peirce's work the place to start looking is not, however, the sign-classification system, which is usually what comes first to mind when his semiotic is referred to. As important as this classification system is, its effective use is necessarily limited by the extent to which one understands something of the philosophical ideas at its basis. It is the latter which I want to concentrate primarily upon here.


Let us begin by distinguishing between general and special semiotic.5 General semiotic is a part of philosophy. It is that part of philosophy which deals with those problems that are currently dealt with in the Anglo-American tradition under such labels as 'logic', 'philosophy of logic', 'theory of meaning', 'philosophy of mathematics', 'philosophy of mind', 'philosophy of science', and 'epistemology'. Peirce's philosophy attempts to bring a unity to these apparently diverse philosophical concerns by approaching all such problems in terms of a single and generic conception and the distinctions that can be made on its basis: the conception of thought as a sign-interpretation process exhibiting an essentially triadic relation between sign, object, and interpretant. Peirce believed that the perspective afforded by this basic [159] conception, or at least by some similar conception, is capable of throwing light into many obscure corners of philosophy proper. But general semiotic is also intended to be a foundational theory, foundational for a scientific metaphysics and -- more to our purpose here -- for that part of natural science which he called 'psychics' or 'psychical science', but which would be better called 'the semiotical sciences', or, perhaps still better, 'special semiotic'. (The term 'psychical' has acquired misleading associations having nothing to do with Peirce's idea, and the term 'science' carries connotations to the Anglo-American ear which would tend to restrict Peirce's conception to a much narrower application than he had in mind.)

      These inquiries which I am calling collectively 'special semiotic', and which are abundantly represented at this conference, are said by Peirce to be concerned with mental phenomena: with the laws, manifestations, and products of mind. (1.189) But Peirce used such terms as 'mind' and 'thought' in a very liberal or extended sense, by no means limited to human thought or intelligent behavior, which is only a special case. Thus he explicitly extended it to the behavior of devices of the type which are now commonly referred to as 'artificial intelligence', on the one hand, and to the behavior of very primitive forms of life, on the other. Indeed, mentality, intelligence, and life are generally equated by him. (This is no doubt why he called the study of the embodiments of mind the 'psychical sciences', the word 'psyche' being the classical Greek term for the principle of life in living beings generally.) Peirce also believed that the evolutionary process in general is a manifestation of mind, and those acquainted with the metaphysical dimension of his philosophy will be aware that he did not shrink from asserting that the universe itself "is a great poem," "a vast representamen, a great symbol of God's purpose, working out its conclusions in living realities." (5.119) But one need not follow Peirce so far here to see that he envisioned a potential scope of application for semiotic concepts at least as extensive as anybody now contemplates, if not more so.

      On the other hand, the basic model for mind is anthropomorphic, though not psychological. By saying that it is not psychological I mean that Peirce did not derive his generic conception of mind -- another word for which is 'semiosis' -- from an empirical, natural-scientific study of intelligence in human beings (though he did some work along this line), nor did he believe that it should be based on any such study. His method was instead to develop an ideal conception of mind, derived from an analysis of what is implicit in the tendency toward truth in human life. Since truth is the controlling ideal [160] of all science (possibly apart from pure math), as well as of many pursuits not ordinarily regarded as scientific, its analysis is not the job of any special science but rather of philosophy. And of course Peirce draws upon his vast knowledge and magisterial grasp of the Western philosophical tradition, as well as his extensive experience as a scientist, to develop a theoretical explication of this controlling ideal. The basic model of truth-seeking which Peirce develops is then to have application to whatever subject-matter it is found to have application, and Peirce's belief was that if one understood it well enough to know how to apply it one would find it to have extensive application indeed.

      Prima facie it may sound absurd to suppose that a conception of mind derived from an analysis of human truth-seeking will have fruitful application to such sub-human entities as, let us say, amoebas or slime molds, or to such global processes as evolution. That it should have at least some application to human behavior and to the products of human art is reasonable enough in view of the fact that it was originally derived from a conception of a human activity. And of course it is not difficult to see how such a conception might have application to artificial intelligences, since they are usually constructed on an anthropomorphic basis to begin with. But the far wider application indicated may initially seem dubious indeed. In fact, it is not so implausible as it may at first seem, in view of the way Peirce construes truth.

      But first it is worth pointing out that, in the application of this model, the subject to which it is applied need not exemplify every aspect of the model. Peirce himself gives an example which might illustrate what I will call an 'attenuated' application. I have in mind here his example of the decapitated frog which, when one leg is burned with acid, repeatedly attempts to scratch the injured place with the foot of the other leg through a purely 'reflex' action. This is, Peirce says, virtually the performance of a syllogism in Barbara. (2.711; 6.286, 144) The stimulus is, as it were, the minor premise; the habit of response is, as it were, the major premise or, differently construed, the material leading principle; and the particular scratching reaction is, as it were, the conclusion. I say "as it were" because there is of course an analogy here. But this is only to say that there is an isomorphism -- a point of formal identity -- between that form of deductive inference and that form of behavior. And this sameness of form naturally suggests that there may be further isomorphism here as well.

      Let us vary the example slightly in order to bring this out. Suppose [161] the frog is stimulated by something, say a thorn, which can be removed by the action of the other foot. I don't know what actually happens in such a case, but if it should turn out that the responding leg-movements tend to get increasingly accurate and finally result in the dislodging of the offending object, if the responses quickly cease with its removal, and if a habit-change is brought about such that a thorn at the same spot in the future is removed with markedly greater efficiency, then we would have an analogue of the inductive process as well, as Peirce conceived it. An attenuated analogue for the hypothetical form would be implicit in the first attempt the frog makes at locating the offending object. And so on. I call this an 'attenuated' application of the concept of mind because it seems doubtful that one would find analogues for the entire conception which Peirce developed. In order to understand this relatively simple phenomenon it probably would not be necessary to bring everything in the theoretical model to bear. But to the extent that such analogies do in fact prove fruitful in suggesting further isomorphism of mind there will be a real gain in understanding, and the partiality or attenuatedness of the application is not in itself any defect either in theory or in application.

      What Peirce has done, in short, is to provide a highly articulated model, capable of even further development, but which may be more developed as it stands than is required for many of its applications. Moreover, there is no need even to speak of application by analogy here once the Peircean conception of mind is translated into the technical semiotic terminology he developed, which is intended to be neutral as regards the subject-matter to which it applies. In other words, the mentalistic terminology is dispensable, in any case, and it is in fact dispensed with when the term 'mind' is replaced by the term 'semiosis', the term 'thought' by such terms as 'sign', 'interpretant', 'symbol', and so on. Nevertheless, I believe that anyone who wishes to explore the potentialities in Peirce's semiotic should understand that it is originally conceived by Peirce as an explication of the concept of mind.


But this still leaves open the question of what reason there is for thinking it may indeed have fruitful application -- attenuated or otherwise -- to the vast range of phenomena Peirce envisioned, or which a contemporary semiotician might envision. In order to see why there is some reason for thinking this, let us now consider [162] Peirce's concept of truth. If we turn to the classic account in the pragmatism papers of 1877-88 (5.358-410) we see that Peirce conceives truth from the beginning in terms of a more generic and more universally applicable conception, namely the conception of a goal-directed activity which normally moves from a state of dissatisfaction to a state of satisfaction. Such a process, considered in regard to its overall form as an orderly process, is characterized by him in many of his writings as exemplifying final causation. Thus Peirce says:

Mind has its universal mode of action, namely, by final causation. The microscopist looks to see whether the motions of a little creature show any purpose. If so, there is mind there. Passing from the little to the large, natural selection is the theory of how forms come to be adaptive, that is, to be governed by a quasi purpose. It suggests a machinery of efficiency to bring about the end -- a machinery inadequate perhaps -- yet which must contribute some help toward the final result. But the being governed by a purpose or other final cause is the very essence of the psychical phenomenon, in general. (1.269)

Since we've all learned early on in our intellectual careers that final causes went out with Aristotelian science, and good riddance at that, it may be a bit disconcerting to find that Peirce thought of semiotic as precisely the development of a concept of a final cause process and as a study of such processes. I suppose this is why the topic of final causation is so strangely absent in criticisms and explanations of Peirce's conception of semiotic and semiosis, though certainly not in his own writings. His commentators have no doubt found it an embarrassment, a sort of intellectual club foot that one shouldn't be caught looking at, much less blatantly pointing out to others. Peirce himself did not regard it as an affliction, of course. A sign, he says,

... stands in Reaction with the world of reactions, the real world, the 'material' world. It does not, however, react in the same manner in which a physical mass reacts upon another, in gravitation, in electrical induction, etc. Its causality is of an altogether different kind; and the non-recognition of this other kind of causation -- now going the length of a downright denial, now simple ignoring, now admitting with an emotional 'merely' attached to it -- has been and still is productive of more philosophical error and nonsense than any or than every other source of error and nonsense. If there is any goddess of nonsense, this must be her haunt.6

I do nor myself think there can be any reasonable doubt about the centrality of the concept of final causation in Peirce's theory. The important question is, rather, what did he mean by it? It was [163] characteristic of Peirce to use terms and phrases from the ancient and medieval philosophical tradition whenever he thought he could rehabilitate them for use in contemporary contexts, and we should not assume that Peirce had in mind a causational process of the sort we would immediately think of when we hear the term "final causation".

      First of all, Peirce is talking about the overall form of a process, not about the relation of a process to something external to it. He is talking about the tendency toward an end-state, and the general al features of such a tendency in whatever medium the process may be realized. There is nothing obscurantist in his conception since the presence or absence of this form in a process is empirically ascertainable. Moreover, the idea that living processes exemplify some such form is widely recognized nowadays under other and currently more acceptable labels, such as 'cybernetics' and 'homeostasis'. In any case, I do not think the question is really so much whether living things exhibit processes of this type as whether Peirce's conception is an adequate one.

      One question which immediately arises, though, is whether the application of a final cause conception is compatible or is competitive with an explanation of phenomena in terms of physical or efficient causation. (Part of the resistance to final causational conceptions is no doubt rooted in the belief that the one kind of causation precludes the other.) On this point Peirce is quite explicit. Not only are they compatible, the final causational form of a process can be realized only through efficient causation, and in that sense presupposes the possibility of a physical explanation as well. Peirce says this in one of the quotations above, for example, when he says that "a machinery of efficiency to bring about the end ... must contribute some help toward the final product." (1.269) It is also expressed at some length in the following passage:

... we must understand by final causation that mode of bringing facts about according to which a general description of result is made to come about, quite irrespective of any compulsion for it to come about in this or that particular way; although the means may be adapted to the end. The general result may be brought about at one time in one way, and at another time in another way. Final causation does not determine in what particular way it is to be brought about, but only that the result shall have a certain general character. Efficient causation, on the other hand, is a compulsion determined by the particular condition of things, and is a compulsion acting to make that situation begin to change in a perfectly determinate way; and what the general character of the result may be in no way concerns the efficient causation. For example, [164] I shoot at an eagle on the wing; and since my purpose -- a special sort of final, or ideal cause -- is to hit the bird, I do not shoot directly at it, but a little ahead of it, making allowance for the change of place by the time the bullet gets to that distance. So far, it is an affair of final causation. But after the bullet leaves the rifle, the affair is turned over to the efficient causation, and should the eagle make a swoop in another direction, the bullet does not swerve in the least, efficient causation having no regard whatsoever for results, but simply obeying orders blindly.... (1.211-212)

Final causality cannot be imagined without efficient causality; but no whit the less on that account are their modes of action polar contraries. (1.213; see also 1.392;2.66,86;6.71,101; 7.366;8.272)

In short, Peirce's conception of final causation or purposiveness supposedly involves neither an appeal to anything super-empirical nor to anything contradictory of physical explanation. In fact, the rationale of it is quite similar, to a point at least, to Ross Ashby's attempt, in his Introduction to Cybernetics, to articulate the formal structure of cybernetic processes without regard for the particular media in which such processes might be realized, be they mechanical, electronic, chemical, social or whatever. According to Ashby:

Cybernetics started by being closely associated in many ways with physics, but it depends in no essential way on the law of physics or on the properties of matter ... The materiality is irrelevant, and so is the holding or not holding of the ordinary laws of physics.... The truths of cybemetics are not conditional on their being derived from some other branch of science. Cybernetics has its own foundations. Cybernetics stands to the real machine -- electronic, mechanical, neural, or economic -- much as geometry stands to a real object in our terrestrial sphere.7


But let us return to the specific process from which Peirce derives the basic model, namely, the truth-seeking tendency in human life. Now, the critically self-conscious or self-aware pursuit of truth is what Peirce calls 'science', for Peirce did not construe science primarily in terms of its intellectual products -- the formulation of laws and theories -- but rather regarded these products as the normal result of a certain form of life, and it is this form of life which the term 'science' primarily denotes for him. But the only basic difference -- though it is a most significant difference -- between the scientific and the unscientific pursuit of truth is that the scientific pursuit involves [165] a controlling awareness on the part of the pursuer that he or she is pursuing the truth, with a consequent reflection upon and conformity to the method of procedure entailed by such a pursuit. This is, the scientific pursuer of truth has a methodological concern and commitment as well as a substantive one, whereas the non-scientific pursuer of truth is in fact following a method (perhaps rather poorly) but does not reflect upon the method itself. (This is an overly abbreviated statement of a matter which is too complex for us to pursue adequately here, where we will have to content ourselves with some of its implications.)

      Peirce frequently uses the Medieval terms 'logica utens' and 'logica docens' in this connection. 'Logic' here means method, and a logica utens is a logical method actually in use in the pursuit of truth. Peirce contended that all persons have such a logic-in-use, which is simply to say that everybody does in fact rely upon a certain general method for acquiring truth, even if they are unaware of doing so and a fortiori unaware of what that method is. 'Logica docens', on the other hand, means a logic which is teachable, which means a theoretically developed logic or method of pursuing truth. Peirce held that the latter -- theoretical logic -- is or should be only our universal logic-in-use made explicit, rendered coherent, and refined and developed in such ways as are necessary to cope with the increasingly complicated problems involved in truth-seeking. The idea here is, I think, that our instinctive logic-in-use is more or less adequate to a very primitive and simple type of life, but that it must be made explicit and receive theoretical development in order for us to cope not only with the vastly more complicated type of life which man now leads, but also with the increasingly more difficult truth-questions which man now asks himself. But this theoretically developed logic -- the result of the logician's and scientist's work -- is or should be rooted firmly in the instinctive logic-in-use. In other words, the logician does not -- or rather should not -- be attempting to invent a general method for the pursuit of truth but should instead be discovering and developing that method which he and everyone else already uses, and which human beings always have used and indeed always will use, even if theoretical logic and science should cease to exist.

      Human beings naturally pursue truth, then, in the sense that it is characteristic of human life that it would tend toward truth, even if there were no science, though with what degree of efficiency is another matter. Science is a conscious refinement or sophistication of that tendency, and theoretical logic is or should be only its articulation and development. It is possible, however, for human beings [166] to adopt, more or less consciously, a false logic, in the sense of a method the following of which involves no real tendency toward truth. In that case it would be better to rely upon our instinctive logic-in-use. Thus Peirce once remarked that the worst reasoners are to be found among the class of logicians, owing to their attempt to conform themselves to false theories of reasoning.8 (So in saying above that human beings "always have used" the method upon which theoretical logic is to be founded, it is not meant that it has always been used upon all occasions. The point is rather the one that Peirce made in saying that "everybody uses the scientific method about a great many things, and only ceases to use it when he does not know how to apply it." (5.384) There is not, I suppose, any more difficulty in explaining this than in explaining human self-destructive and suicidal tendencies generally. But the fact that such a deformation is possible (even common), however it be explained, is one of the reasons Peirce regarded logic as a normative, and not merely a descriptive science. In the sense indicated above, we 'naturally' do conform to a sound logical method; but we are capable of deviating from it and, insofar, we need a sound theoretical logic, functioning normatively, to guide us back on the right track.

      This raises a question, though, about the use of Peirce's model in understanding psychotic, neurotic, and other 'irrational' thought processes, as well as the many varieties of human stupidity. As a rationality model, what application can it have to the irrational, for example, beyond simply identifying it as such? Now if rationality consisted simply in conformity to the valid forms of deductive inference, I don't see that there would be a great deal of use for it in these connections. It might, I suppose, provide some help in the classification of certain types of 'irrational' thought patterns, but this would have about as much scientific value as the theory of fallacies, which isn't much. Peirce's conception of rationality, however, is far richer than this. It involves, for example, the identification of three distinct types -- -or, perhaps better, dimensions -- of inference (hypothesis formation, deductive development, and inductive testing), the integration of these three in a single overall inferential process, and the grounding of every aspect of this process in an understanding of the various modes of signification and interpretation, of the various properties of signs (such as vagueness, precision, generality, individuality, and [167] so on), and of the various reflexive operations of signs upon signs (such as are involved in abstraction, second-intentionality, and other semantic level shifts). In Peirce's treatment, rationality is not conformity to a few simple logical forms, but is rather a comprehensive techne of living which includes creative, intuitive, judgmental and moral elements which are capable of great variation, perfection, and perversion. All of this would provide an extraordinarily rich and supple conceptual apparatus for the diagnosis of mental disorders and incapacities, I should think.

      But to return to our central theme: The tendency toward truth can be otherwise described as a tendency to make effective contact with reality, since reality is defined by Peirce as the object of a true belief. By "making effective contact with reality" I mean that the believer of the true belief is, insofar, capable of acting or behaving in an effective manner relative to a relevant goal. That is, the truth of the belief and the fact that reality is grasped in the belief are the same thing, and they are equivalent to the fact that the believer can act effectively, given certain material or environmental conditions, in the bringing about of some desired end. The possession of truth (the grasp of reality) is, in short. behavioral competence. Knowledge is virtue, in the Greek sense of 'virtue' (arete), meaning that which enables a person to live effectively. Or in Baconian terms, knowledge is power.

      This does not mean that the pursuit of truth is always motivated by a desire for the behavioral competence -- the practical power -- which truth is. On the contrary, some people derive great satisfaction of other sorts, intellectual and emotional, not only from the acquisition and possession of truths (or rather from what are thought to be truths) but also from the pursuit itself. And the pursuit of such satisfactions may be the actual motive behind any given truth-pursuit, or even behind all truth-pursuits. Peirce himself held that the most effective scientist is always motivated in this way, rather than by the desire to acquire practical power. Indeed, he was particularly emphatic about the way in which theoretical pursuits are subverted when they are pursued out of chiefly practical aims.

      Nevertheless, these felt satisfactions are not of the essence of truth itself but are rather phenomena which accompany it. For such feelings of satisfaction also accompany the acquisition of beliefs which turn out to be false. Thus what makes truth truth is, on Peirce's view, the behavioral competence, even if the accompanying feeling of satisfaction constitutes the actual motive for its pursuit. If, then. truth or grasp of reality is behavioral competence, and [168] the tendency toward truth is a tendency toward the acquisition of competence, the pursuit of truth in human beings is generically the same as something to be found in life generally, namely, the tendency to learn. Wherever such tendency exists, however minimal or limited or attenuated it may be, we have an analogue to the pursuit of truth in human beings, and an instance of what Peirce calls a final causational process. Such a process is also what he calls 'semiosis.'


With all this in mind let us now turn to the general form of that process, described by Peirce as a sign-interpretational process which maintains a continuous reference to an object. Peirce's conception of the semiotic object -- the second term of the generic sign-object-interpretant relation -- is, I think, the least understood aspect of his basic conception of semiosis. Fundamentally, though, what is meant in saying that every sign has an object is that every sign-interpretational process tends toward an end-state, that is, has a final causational form. That end state is the object of the process. (I do not mean that this is the only way in which the concept of the semiotic object is to be characterized; the point is rather that this is the fundamental way to understand it for our purposes here.) Since Peirce's basic model for semiosis is human inquiry (the pursuit of truth) we can see what this means most clearly in that connection.

      Peirce regarded scientific inquiry as ultimately a single comprehensive semiosis process in which all mankind is cooperating, albeit mostly unconsciously, and of which this or that particular inquiry -- say this or that particular science, or the line of investigation of this or that particular person -- is really only a part. It is important to bear this grander conception in mind, and in a more comprehensive study of his theory it would be indispensable to grasp the import of this. But let us here think of a single line of inquiry as if it could be complete in itself. If we assume the inquiry to be conducted in accordance with a sound method, and to be about a real subject matter, then taking the line of inquiry as a whole it will exhibit a development from a primitive and meager conception of its object to a sophisticated and rich conception of its subject matter. (This is a tautology, for Peirce, since a persistent failure in development would mean either that the method is bad, or that the subject-matter is unreal, or both.) If we dip into the inquiry at any particular point in its process, provided it is neither the first nor the final point, we [169] will thus find, on the one hand, an idea of the object of inquiry as it has been developed to that point, and , on the other hand, the presumed future course of inquiry wherein that idea will become increasingly more developed. To be more exact: at whatever point we take, we will find a sign, which is something about to be interpreted. The point following it in the line of inquiry will of course be the interpretation of it, the interpretant of that sign. And the prior point in the line will be the resultant of all past interpretation, which is the immediate object of the sign. The immediate object is, in other words, the funded result of all interpretation prior to the interpretation of the given sign. It is what we suppose ourselves to know of the object of that sign at the time of the interpretation of it.

      The immediate object is the object as it appears at any point in the inquiry or semiosis process. The real object, however, is the object as it really is.9 These must be distinguished, first, because the immediate object may involve some erroneous interpretation and thus be to that extent falsely representative of the object as it really is, and, second, because it may fail to include something that is true of the real object. In other words, the immediate object is simply what we at any time suppose the real object to be, but of course what we think to be so will usually in some way be inadequate as a representation of that object. But what access do we have to the real object besides our access to the immediate object, that is, our understanding of it at a given time? Can we somehow get outside of our own minds, our own semiosis, to compare the real object to our idea of it to see to what extent the latter is a faithful and adequate representation of the former? Of course not. Consequently, either the real object is forever unknowable -- a Kantian Ding an sich -- or else it is that which is present to us in the immediate object when the latter is satisfactory.

      Peirce held that no reality is in principle unknowable. Hence, the final point on the line of inquiry, the end-state in which the process ultimately terminates, the last interpretation -- in Peirce's phrase, "the ultimate opinion" in inquiry -- must be at once the immediate and the real object.10 At this point there can be no distinction between them. This is also called 'the truth' and it is the end of inquiry, both in the sense of its ultimate terminus and its intrinsic goal. At any given point prior to that -- and we are always in fact at some point prior to that11 -- we must maintain the distinction between the object as we think it and as it really is, the immediate and the real object. But, on the other hand, to the extent that the immediate object at any time is identical with the ultimate immediate [170] object, the ultimate interpretation, it is the real object as it really is. It is not as though one has to wait until the unreachable end of time in order to access the real as it really is! In philosophical terminology, this can be called a doctrine of 'immediate perception' or it can be called 'idealism', both of which terms Peirce applied to himself.

      But it is the assumption that the inquiry or semiosis process conforms to a valid form or method of procedure which alone gives any assurance that our endeavors are indeed moving us any closer to the ideal goal of "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." And the only form of procedure which could do that would be one which was developed from the very beginning as an analytical explication of what is meant by truth or reality, considered as the object of pursuit. This is how the principles of logic, or more generally, principles of semiotic, are in fact developed by Peirce. As I've pointed out earlier, his conception of the generic form of mind or semiosis is his analysis of what is implicit in the pursuit of truth, and as I've also indicated, this ideal or normal form of thought is a final causational model. Now, Peirce's theory of inquiry fairly cries out for a competent and detailed comparison with present day cybernetic, homeostatic, and general systems models, but there are others better qualified than myself to make such a comparison. Nevertheless, it does not require much sophistication in this area to see that Peirce's theory is of this general type -- perhaps the first of this type.

      In accordance with his penchant for terminology which others scorn, Peirce likes to speak of 'fate' or 'destiny' in this connection: "A final cause may be conceved to operate without having been the purpose of any mind. That supposed phenomenon goes by the name of fate." (1.204) It involves the idea of the inevitable, the unavoidable, that which will come about in one way or another. (5.407n, 6.,592) Fate means, for Peirce, that the end is fixed but the means are not. He illustrates this as follows:

The fairy stories are full of such examples as this. A king shuts his daughter up in a tower because he has been warned that she is destined to suffer some misfortune from falling in love before a certain age and it turns out that the very means which he has employed to prevent it is just what brings the prophecy of fulfillment. Had he pursued a different course, the idea seems to be that that would equally have brought about the destined result. Fate then is that necessity by which a certain result will surely be brought to pass according to the natural course of events however we may vary the particular circumstances which precede the event. In the same manner we seem fated to come to the final conclusion. (7.334)

Peirce had earlier been commenting on the remarkable fact that different scientific observers will start from different observational [171] premises but will nevertheless find themselves moving toward identical conclusions, whereupon he raises the question: "Now how is it that the springing up into the mind of thoughts so dissimilar should lead us inevitably though sometimes not until after a long time to one fixed conclusion?" (7.334) The implicit answer is that it is because of the method of science, the ideal form of semiosis, which is so structured as to lead to just such a result, regardless of the starting points. All of this is reminiscent of the way in which even relatively simple cybernetic devices, such as thermostats and automatic pilots, continually tend toward a certain goal state in spite of the variations in the observational data which are fed into them, simply because they are so constructed as to move from whatever data they ingest towards the same end. This tendency is often called nowadays 'equifinality'. The parallel in Peirce's philosophy to the principles of construction of such self-control systems is to be found in his theory of inference, in which he correlates the hypothetical, deductive, and inductive types of inference into a unified total process, exemplifying continuous self-control and self-correction in such a way as to constitute an inherent tendency toward truth. But his theory of inference is the central part of his theory of mind or semiosis:

... we may say that the purpose of signs -- which is the purpose of thought - is to bring truth to expression. The law under which a sign must be true is the law of inference; and the signs of a scientific intelligence must, above all other conditions, be such as to lend themselves to inference. Hence, the illative relation is the primary and paramount semiotic relation. (2.444n)


I have thus far been emphasizing the fact that Peirce's conception of semiosis is originally a model of mind, developed from his analysis of science as the pursuit of truth, in order to make clear that if semiotic is, from the familiar point of view, a theory of meaning or signification, it is, from another and not so familiar point of view, a theory of inference as well. That it is also a theory of communication is implicit in the fact that it is a theory of interpretation, for what is communication if not the production of signs to be interpreted? That Peirce himself conceived it as a communicational analysis is clear from his familiar dictum that all thought is to be regarded as dialogical in form, perhaps overt and occurring between two or more different persons, perhaps covert and occurring within the thought of a single person. This idea is at least as ancient as Plato: "Thinking and [172] discourse are the same thing, except that what we call thinking is, precisely, the inward dialogue carried on by the mind itself without spoken sounds."12 To underscore the dialogical structure of thought, as Peirce conceived it, we may note that in one place he derives the basic object-sign-interpretant relation from the idea of an utterer-utterance-interpreter relation by an analytical method which he characterizes as a search for the "essential ingredients" of this latter set of ideas.13 The most puzzling part of this is no doubt the derivation of the concept of 'object' from the concept of 'utterer', but if I may be allowed some interpretational freedom here I believe I can convey something of Peirce's thought on this in terms of ideas already introduced in this essay.

      From the logical point of view, the function of the utterer is to put a certain limitation on what the signs uttered can legitimately be construed as meaning. We need not here go into the complex issues involved in the relation between intention and convention in symbolic meaning in order to assume, on a common sense level, that the utterer's intention has at least some controlling function as regards interpretation. (Actually, neither the term 'intention' nor 'convention' has any basic role in Peirce's semiotic analysis, though the factors which these terms are commonly used to represent are accounted for in other terms.) Now, how can an intention actualize itself as a control on interpretation? Suppose A says something which B misinterprets. The only way in which B can become aware of his misinterpretation, and thus have any basis for correcting it, is through some other signs of A's communicational intention. These signs might actually be generated by A for this purpose (e.g., A says, "No, what I meant to say was ..."), or B may become aware of them otherwise (e.g., A says something else or does something which he probably would not have said or done had he originally meant what B thought he meant). In any case, the intention can actually perform a logically controlling function only in virtue of other signs the interpretations of which function as unquestioned in relation to the questionable interpretation hypothesized. (The interpretation of these other signs is not, of course, unquestionable in principle -- no interpretation is unquestionable in principle, in Peirce's view.)

      Consider now another sort of case, where the interpreter is interpreting 'natural' signs and there is no utterer in the ordinary sense, e.g., tracks which the interpreter construes as signs of a tiger. The [I73] utterer in the previous example is analogous to the tiger in this example since, in the latter as in the former case, the control on the interpreter construing the signs can only be exercised by further signs the unquestioned interpretation of which can go towards determining the correctness or incorrectness of the interpretation in question. Such further signs might be, for example, visual percepts of the animal, its smell, its roar, the pain felt as the interpreter's flesh is rended by its claws, and so on. Now in this case we can think of the control on interpretation as being exercised by the object through its manifestations or signs. But as regards the logical control on interpretation, the only essential difference between this case and that of the utterer qua intentional emitter is that the utterer's signs are largely symbolic in type (though not exclusively so). This is a most important difference, but I do not believe it affects the formal and functional similarity of object and utterer qua controlling factors in interpretation. (I must stress, however, that I am only attempting here to convey an intuitive sense for why Peirce could take the idea of 'utterer' as a pre-analytic base for the technical conception of 'object'. It is not intended to be a rigorous philosophical account of Peirce's line of thought.)

      Thus if we strip the concept of 'utterer' down to its semiotic essentials it turns out to be simply the general idea of that which is requisite as basis for the correction of misinterpretation, and that is really what the semiotic concept of 'object' comes down to as well. For the ultimate motivation for this concept lies, I suggest, in the need to account for the possibility of error in interpretation as a generic feature of all semiosis. If I have adequately conveyed the sense of Peirce's thought here you will see that the object can only be the "ultimate interpretation", or any interpretation destined to stand as a part of it, which I discussed in Part IV above, so that the distinction between the interpretant and the object in the sign relation is really only the distinction between an actual interpretation and the ideally correct -- which is to say ultimately unquestioned -- interpretation. I think it can also be seen that even the interpretation of nature can be regarded as an attenuated sort of communicational relationship, if we are willing to think of the natural object as 'uttering' signs.


In conclusion, I would like to turn to the interpretation of symbolic signs in particular in order to bring out an important point concerning [174] human communication which is implicit in Peirce's analysis. Peirce's concept of the symbol is sometimes explicated in terms of convention, and it is true that the sorts of signs which we commonly identify as conventional -- such as linguistic signs -- are symbols, in Peirce's sense. (They are not, however, merely symbols since in their occurrence they will also partake of indexical and iconic functions. It is of the first importance for understanding Peirce's icon-index-symbol trichotomy to bear in mind -- as Thomas Sebeok has rightfully stressed at this meeting -- that the entity functioning as sign is capable of bearing and usually does bear all three semiotic functions at once.) But given the fact that conventionality is a most obscure concept, concerning which there is no real consensus, and that it is not a technically developed term within Peirce's own philosophy, this is only an explanation of the obscure in terms of the equally obscure. Moreover, Peirce does not limit symbols to conventional signs, in any case, but says rather that such a sign "depends upon a convention, a habit, or a natural disposition." (8.335) Thus the usual distinction between nature and convention really is not helpful here, for there can be natural symbols as well as conventional ones. A more helpful definition is as follows: "A symbol is a representamen whose special significance, or fitness to represent just what it does represent, lies in nothing but the very fact of there being a habit, disposition, or other effective general rule that it will be so interpreted." (4.447) The basic explicating concept here is that of an effective general rule.

      Note that Peirce says that a symbol's special significance -- i.e., what makes a sign a symbol rather than an icon or index -- lies in nothing but there being a general rule of interpretation. This effectively differentiates it from icons and indices even though the similarity relation underlying the icon and the existential relation underlying the index may themselves be functions of rules. For even though appeal to a rule may be implicit in a similarity or in an existential relation (as is often alleged), such rules are not themselves sign-interpretation rules. Neither a similarity relation nor an existential connection is as such semiotic in character, though it is characteristic of both icons as such and indices as such that their value (usefulness) as signs is based on such relations. The symbol as such, though, derives no value as a sign from anything but the fact that it will be interpreted in a certain regular way. Its meaning as a symbol is wholly constituted by this:

A symbol is a sign which would lose the character which renders it a sign if there were no interpretant. Such is any utterance of speech which signifies what it does only by virtue of its being understood to have that interpretation. (2.304) [175]

A symbol is constituted a sign merely or mainly by the fact that it is used and understood as such, whether the habit is natural or conventional, and with out reference to the motives which originally governed its selection.(2.307)

Perhaps the most succinct and penetrating definition of a symbol is that it has the meaning it has simply because it will be so interpreted.14 Notice that this implies that the meaning of a symbol at any given time, even at some future time, is given by the way it will be interpreted subsequent to that. Properly understood, this actually implies the notion of conformity to a general rule, because it means that every given symbolic interpretation is, qua symbolic sign, hostage in its meaning to interpretation subsequent to it -- a potentially infinite process which can only be conceptualized by means of a general rule. If there were time to pursue this matter here we would see that Peirce's realist (as opposed to nominalist) position is in fact logically implicit in his conception of the symbol -- a point which Peirce subtly hints at in his characterization of symbolism as involving an "effective general rule", as in the passage from 4.447 quoted on the preceding page. But we can see, in any case, that the future always determines the past in the case of symbolic meaning, which of course adds a further element to Peirce's conception of semiosis as a final cause process. The implications of this are very rich, philosophically, but since they cannot be developed here I would like to close instead by pointing out another implication which seems to me to be of great import not only for theory of communication but for its practice as well.

      The idea that the meanings of words can be established by stipulative definitions has been attacked more than once in recent decades, though usually in the specific context of ostensive definition. If Peirce's concept of the symbol proves to be a viable one, though, it will be clear that stipulation is an impossibility regardless of the type of definition. For a stipulation would be a symbolic sign which had the power of determining its future interpretation, which would be the power to determine its own meaning, which is precisely what is excluded by Peirce's characterization. (An indexical sign can perhaps be said to do this, but this is quite a different matter, and indices are not definable signs in any case.) It is, of course, possible to stipulate a meaning in the sense of saying "Let X mean Y" or something of the sort, whether to oneself or to someone else, and it often really does happen that X is then interpreted that way in the future, though by no means always. But the idea of stipulation, insofar as it is logically interesting, means more than that. It means the actual establish[176]ment of a meaning relationship by sheer force of will, which is to say that it involves the idea that a rule can come into existence solely by a human fiat: "Let there be the following rule: _______!" But the human will is not so powerful as that. Man can propose, and his proposals may actually be carried out, but he cannot infallibly dispose in this way. (This is, I think, the point to Wittgenstein's so-called "private language argument", the import of which has often been misconstrued in accordance with an implicit Cartesian distinction between the 'inner' and the 'outer' which is essentially irrelevant to the logical point.)

      Let me put the point another way, to bring out its practical importance. Insofar as our thoughts are symbolic in character (as linguistic thoughts largely are), they are what they are because of what will be made of them. It is thus in the creative reception of thought that its meaning lies. It is true that we cannot interpret a symbolic thought to mean just anything we want it to mean, but the reason for this does not lie where it is commonly thought to lie: in the signs themselves -- as if words have intrinsic semantic limits quite apart from all understanding of them -- or in a private Cartesian ego which invests them with meaning through an act of will. When we de-limit a thought -- give it a definite semantic contour -- by our interpretation of it, the limit upon us in doing this can only lie somehow in the fact that our interpretation is in its turn a thought which will get its semantic identity through some subsequent delimitation, and so on ad infinitum. The limits of symbolic meaning thus really lie in the generosity of future interpretation, and if we wish to maximize meaning we are obliged to be as generous in our interpretations as is feasible in view of the generosity which we can expect from our subsequent interpreters. It is really only the latter which limits us.15

      Now, these are very real limits, and such limits are essential for there to be any symbolic meaning at all ("all determination is by negation," as the classical dictum has it). But ours is not a generous age, and the meager generosity we can expect from others naturally restricts the generosity we are willing to extend to others. Hence our intellectual life is marked by a sort of stinginess, a smallness of spirit, which manifests itself in our working conception of what it means to take a critical approach to other people's thought. Thus we often utilize some variation on the interpretational strategy Peirce once attributed to Royce:

Having given us to understand that he is going to disprove [a certain proposition], he opens his argumentation by declaring that he does not know what the proposition means. Thereupon. he proceeds to propound a general maxim of [177] procedure for all cases in which one has to refute a proposition without knowing what it means. It is to begin by assigning to it its "most extreme form." This certainly does not signify the most extremely defensible meaning, but rather the most extremely indefensible meaning that the language will bear. The proposition having been refuted in this extreme sense, it will only be necessary afterwards to argue that other interpretations make no essential difference. This maxim, one would suppose, would prove very serviceable to anybody who should have any large amount of that sort of refutation to perform. (8.127)

In short, to be 'critical' often means to whittle another's thought down to the minimum, rather than to take care to make the best we can of it, even though the reduction of the meaning of others is in reality the reduction of ourselves.

      The practical moral which I imagine to be derivable from Peirce's theory of symbolic communication is that only to the extent that we are willing to grow meanings can we ourselves grow in meaning, and that true critical thinking is a pruning rather than a whittling down operation, and is essentially dependent for its human value on the nurturing activities in the service of which it properly functions.



1. This paper was originally given as an address to the First Annual Meeting of the Semiotic Society of America, Atlanta, 1976, under the title "On the Aim and Application of Peirce's Semiotic". The present version contains some changes in Part Vl and includes some additional paragraphs in Part V.

2. The manuscript material now (1997) comes to more than a hundred thousand pages. These contain many pages of no philosophical interest, but the number of pages on philosophy certainly number much more than half of that. Also, a significant but unknown number of manuscripts have been lost.

3. That is, from the time of the foundational essay of 1867, "On a New List of Categories", Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. by Hartshorne, Weiss, and Burks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931-1958), Vol. I, pars. 545-559. Hereafter, both in the text and in the footnotes, references to this edition will be abbreviated in the customary way by volume and paragraph number: e.g.,1.545-559.

4. Charles S. Peirce's Letters to Lady Welby, ed. by Irwin C. Leib (New Haven: Whitlocks 1953), p.32.

5. In Peirce's terminology, "general semiotic" is simply 'semiotic' or 'semeiotic' and "special semiotic" is 'psychics', 'psychognosy', or "the psychical sciences". For a lengthy discussion of this distinction see I .176-283.

6. Peirce unpublished manuscript 478 (as numbered in the Robin catalogue), p. 155 (counting all pages from the beginning of the manuscript, including editorial identifying pages). References to the manuscripts will hereafter be abbreviated as in this case: MS 478.155.

7. W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Science Editions, 1963), pp. 1,2.

8. MS 596.8-10

9. The distinction between the immediate and real object is discussed and referenced in my paper "Another Interpretation of Peirce's Semiotic." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 12 (1976), pp. 97-110, esp. 104-106. " 10. "For a realist [e.g. Peirce himself], the real is nothing but the immediate object of that which is true."(6.393) The identity of the final cause, the ultimate opinion, and the real object is explicit in the following passage from Peirce's writings of the early 1870's, which was brought to my attention by Kenneth Ketner: "I suppose that the fundamental proposition from which all metaphysics takes its rise is that opinions tend to an ultimate settlement and that a predestinate one. Upon most subjects at least[,] sufficient experience, discussion, and reasoning will bring men to an agreement; and another set of men by an independent investigation with sufficient experience, discussion, and reasoning will be brought to the same agreement as the first set. Hence we infer that there is something which determines opinions and which does not depend upon them. To this we give the name of the reality. Now this real may be regarded from two opposite points of view. In the first place, to say that thought tends to come to a determinate conclusion, is to say that it tends to an end[,] is influenced by a final cause. This final cause, the ultimate opinion is independent of how you, I, or any number of men think. Let whole generations think as perversely as they will; they can only put off the ultimate opinion but cannot change its character. So the ultimate conclusion is that which determines opinions and does not depend upon them and so is the real object of cognition. This is idealism since it supposes the real to be of the nature of thought." (MS 393.2) It is contextually clear that this "first view" is Peirce's own. See the parallel passage in Peirce's 1871 review of Fraser's edition of Berkeley, especially 8.12-13.

11. Peirce's view is that a semiosis process can be regarded as both beginning and ending but without the possibility of any given semiotic unit (cognition) being regarded as the absolute first or last in the process. See 5.250-253, 259-263, 284-285 for his early statements of this.

12. Plato, Sophist 263e, Cornford translation. See also Philebus 38c-39c and Theaetetus 189e-190a.

13. MS 318.52-79

14. MS 476.176.

15. I am not overlooking the role of "the language" as a factor in limiting and thus determining symbolic meaning. These remarks are in explication of it. I discuss the essentially creative function of symbolic interpretation, and the nature of the limits upon it, in somewhat different terms in "Communication and Community: Wittgenstein and Peirce", which is Ch. 12 of my introductory text. The Pursuit of Wisdom: A History of Philosophy (Santa Barbara: Intelman Books 1976).

END OF:  Ransdell, "Some Leading Ideas of Peirce's Semiotic"


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