Semiotic elements and classes of signs (Peirce)

Semiotic elements and classes of signs (Peirce)

Logician, mathematician, philosopher, and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) began writing on semeiotic, semiotics, or the theory of sign relations in the 1860s, around the time that he devised his system of three categories. He eventually defined "semiosis" as an "action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of "three" subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs" (Houser 1998, 411). This specific type of triadic relation is fundamental to Peirce's understanding of "logic as formal semiotic".

Peirce notably conceives of and discusses things like representations, interpretations, and assertions broadly and in terms of philosophical logic (which he called simply "logic"), rather than in terms of psychology, social studies, and special classes of phenomena. His semiotic is connected with his mathematics of logic. At the same time, he draws on examples familiar in experience. His semiotic is not contained in a mathematical or deductive formalism, and is about certain general aspects of positive phenomena. Peirce's semiotic, in its classifications, its critical analysis of kinds of inference, and its theory of inquiry, is philosophical [For Peirce's definitions of philosophy, see for instance "A Syllabus of Certain Topics of Logic", CP 1.183-186, 1903 and "Minute Logic", CP 1.239-241, 1902. Peirce's definitions of philosophy can be viewed at [ CDPT] under [ Philosophy] and [ Cenoscopy] .] logic studied in terms of signs and sign processes as positive phenomena in general.

emiotic elements

Here is Peirce's definition of the triadic sign relation that formed the core of his definition of logic.

Namely, a sign is something, "A", which brings something, "B", its "interpretant" sign determined or created by it, into the same sort of correspondence with something, "C", its "object", as that in which itself stands to "C". (Peirce 1902, NEM 4, 20–21).
This definition, together with Peirce's definitions of "correspondence" and "determination", is sufficient to derive all of the statements that are necessarily true for all sign relations and, in particular, to formulate the self-perpetuative logical structure whereby the interpretant sign, by fulfilling its function as a sign, determines a still further interpretant sign. Yet, there is much more to the theory of signs than simply proving universal theorems about generic sign relations. There is also the task of classifying the various species and subspecies of sign relations. As a practical matter, of course, familiarity with the full range of concrete examples is indispensable to theory and application both.

In Peirce's theory of signs, a "sign" is something that stands in a well-defined kind of relation to two other things, its "object" and its "interpretant sign". His semiotics of signs, interpretations, assertions, etc., is philosophical logic, concerned as philosophy with phenomena in general, and is not descriptive or theoretical psychology, concerned with special classes of phenomena. Although Peirce's definition of a sign is independent of psychological subject matter and his theory of signs covers more ground than linguistics alone, it is nevertheless the case that many of the more familiar examples and illustrations of sign relations will naturally be drawn from the descriptive sciences of linguistics and psychology, along with our ordinary experience of their subject matters.

To say, therefore, that thought cannot happen in an instant, but requires a time, is but another way of saying that every thought must be interpreted in another, or that all thought is in signs. (Peirce, 1868 ["Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man" ("Arisbe" [ Eprint] ), "Journal of Speculative Philosophy" vol. 2 (1868), pp. 103-114. Reprinted (CP 5.213-263, the quote is from para. 253).] )
Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the shapes, etc., of objects are really there. Consistently adhere to that unwarrantable denial, and you will be driven to some form of idealistic nominalism akin to Fichte's. Not only is thought in the organic world, but it develops there. But as there cannot be a General without Instances embodying it, so there cannot be thought without Signs. We must here give "Sign" a very wide sense, no doubt, but not too wide a sense to come within our definition. Admitting that connected Signs must have a Quasi-mind, it may further be declared that there can be no isolated sign. Moreover, signs require at least two Quasi-minds; a Quasi-utterer and a Quasi-interpreter; and although these two are at one (i.e., are one mind) in the sign itself, they must nevertheless be distinct. In the Sign they are, so to say, welded. Accordingly, it is not merely a fact of human Psychology, but a necessity of Logic, that every logical evolution of thought should be dialogic. (Peirce, 1906 ["Prolegomena To an Apology For Pragmaticism," pp. [,M1 492] -546, "The Monist", [,M1 vol. XVI, no. 4] , Oct. 1906, see [ p. 523] . Reprinted (CP 4.530-572; see para. 551). ] )

For example, one way to approach the concept of an interpretant is to think of a psycholinguistic process. In this context, an interpretant can be understood as a sign's effect on the mind, or on anything that acts like a mind, what Peirce calls a "quasi-mind". An interpretant is what results from a process of interpretation, one of the types of activity that falls under the heading of "semiosis". One usually says that a sign stands "for" an object "to" an agent, an interpreter. In the upshot, however, it is the sign's effect on the agent that is paramount. This effect is what Peirce called the "interpretant sign", or the "interpretant" for short. The interpretant may be regarded as one of the sign's roughly equivalent meanings, and especial interest attaches to the types of semiosis that proceed from obscure signs to relatively clear interpretants. In logic and mathematics the most clarified and most succinct signs for an object are called "canonical forms" or "normal forms".

Peirce held that there are exactly three basic semiotic elements:
*A "sign" (or "representamen") represents, in the broadest possible sense of "represents". It is something interpretable as saying something about something. It is not necessarily symbolic, linguistic, or artificial.
*An "object" (or "semiotic object") is a subject matter of a sign and an interpretant. It can be anything discussable or thinkable, a thing, event, relationship, quality, law, argument, etc., and can even be fictional, for instance Hamlet.A Letter to William James, EP 2, 498, 1909, viewable at [ CDPT] under [ Dynamical Object] ] All of those are special or partial objects. The object most accurately is the universe of discourse to which the partial or special object belongs. [A Letter to William James, EP 2, 492, 1909, viewable at [ CDPT] under " [ Object] ".] For instance, a perturbation of Pluto's orbit is a sign about Pluto but ultimately not only about Pluto.
*An "interpretant" (or "interpretant sign") is the sign's more or less clarified meaning or ramification, a kind of form or idea of the difference which the sign's being true or undeceptive would make. (Peirce's sign theory concerns meaning in the broadest sense, including logical implication, not just the meanings of words as properly clarified by a dictionary.) The interpretant is a sign (a) of the object and (b) of the interpretant's "predecessor" (the interpreted sign) as being a sign of the same object. The interpretant is an "interpretation" in the sense of a "product" of an interpretive process or a "content" in which an interpretive relation culminates, though this product or content may itself be an act, a state of agitation, a conduct, etc. Such is what is summed up in saying that the sign stands "for" the object "to" the interpretant.

Some of the understanding needed by the mind depends on familiarity with the object. In order to know what a given sign denotes, the mind needs some experience of that sign's object collaterally to that sign or sign system, and in this context Peirce speaks of collateral experience, collateral observation, collateral acquaintance, all in much the same terms. [See pp. 404-409 in "Pragmatism", EP 2. Ten quotes on collateral observation from Peirce provided by Joseph Ransdell can be viewed [ here] . Note: Ransdell's quotes from CP 8.178-179, are also in EP 2, 493-4, which gives their date as 1909; and his quote from CP 8.183, is also in EP 2, 495-6, which gives its date as 1909".]

" [ Representamen] " was Peirce's blanket technical term for any and every sign or sign-like thing covered by his theory. It is a question of whether the theoretically defined "representamen" covers only the cases covered by the popular word "sign." The word "representamen" is there in case a divergence should emerge. Peirce's example was this: Sign action always involves a mind. If a sunflower, by doing nothing more than turning toward the sun, were thereby to become fully able to reproduce a sunflower turning in just the same way toward the sun, then the first sunflower's turning would be a representamen of the sun yet not a sign of the sun. ["A Syllabus of Certain Topics of Logic", EP 2, 272-3, 1903] Peirce eventually stopped using the word "representamen." [A Draft of a Letter to Lady Welby, "Semiotic and Significs", p. 193, 1905]

The object determines (not in the deterministic sense, but in a sense of "specializes," "bestimmt".See " [ What Is Meant by 'Determined'] ", P 28: "Journal of Speculative Philosophy" 2 (1868):190-91] ) the sign to determine another sign -- the interpretant -- to be related to the object "as the sign is related to the object", hence the interpretant, by fulfilling its function as sign of the object, determines a further interpretant sign. The process is logically structured to perpetuate itself. From the interpretant viewpoint, every sign is an interpretant in a chain stretching both fore and aft. The relation of informational or logical determination which constrains object, sign, and interpretant is more general than the special cases of causal or physical determination. In general terms, any information about one of the items in the sign relation tells you something about the others, although the actual amount of this information may be nil in some species of sign relations. Also, when Peirce says that one thing, semiotically or otherwise, determines some other things, he means "determines in some measure", a measure that is not necessarily completely deterministic.

Peirce made various classifications of his semiotic elements, especially of the sign and the interpretant. Of particular concern in understanding the sign-object-interpretant triad is this: In relation to a sign, its object and its interpretant are either immediate (present in the sign) or mediate.

  1. "Sign", always immediate to itself — that is, in a tautologous sense, present in or at itself, even if it is not immediate to a mind or immediately accomplished without processing or is a general apprehended only in its instances.
  2. "Object"
    1. "Immediate object", the object as represented in the sign.
    2. "Dynamic object", the object as it really is, on which the idea which is the immediate object is "founded, as on bedrock" [In EP 2, 407, viewable at [ CDPT] under " [ Real Object] "] Also called the dynamoid object, the dynamical object.
  3. "Interpretant"
    1. "Immediate interpretant", the quality of the impression which a sign is fit to produce, not any actual reaction, and which the sign carries with it even before there is an interpreter or quasi-interpreter. It is what is ordinarily called the sign's meaning.
    2. "Dynamic interpretant", the actual effect (apart from the feeling) of the sign on a mind or quasi-mind, for instance the agitation of the feeling.
    3. "Final interpretant", the effect which the sign "would" have on any mind or quasi-mind if circumstances allowed that effect to be fully achieved. It is the sign's end or purpose. The final interpretant of one's inqury about the weather may consist in the effect which the true response would have on one's plans for the day which were the inquiry's purpose. The final interpretant of a line of investigation as such is truth and "would" be reached sooner or later but still inevitably by investigation adequately prolonged, though the truth remains independent of that which you or I or any finite community of investigators believe.

The immediate object is, from the viewpoint of a theorist, really a kind of sign of the dynamic object; but phenomenologically it "is" the object until there is reason to go beyond it, and somebody analyzing (critically but not theoretically) a given semiosis will consider the immediate object to be "the" object until there is reason to do otherwise.See Ransdell, Joseph, "On the Use and Abuse of the Immediate/Dynamical Object Distinction] " draft 2007, "Arisbe" [ Eprint] ]

Peirce preferred phrases like "dynamic object" over "real object" since the object might be fictive — Hamlet, for instance, to whom one grants a fictive reality, a reality within the universe of discourse of the play "Hamlet". ]

Signhood is a way of being in relation, not a way of being in itself. The role of sign is constituted as one role among three — object, sign, and interpretant sign — where the roles are distinct even when the things that fill them are not. In other words, the question of what a sign is depends on the concept of a "sign relation", which depends on the concept of a "triadic relation". This, in turn, depends on the concept of a "relation" itself. There are traditionally two ways of understanding what relations are, corresponding to definition by "extension" and definition by "intension" or "comprehension". Peirce regards these aspects of relation as necessary but not sufficient, and he adds a third approach, the way of "information" — including the idea of "change" of information — in order to integrate the other two approaches into a unified whole. For further discussion of Peirce's sign relations, see Sign relations.

Classes of signs

Peirce proposes several typologies and definitions of the signs. More than 76 definitions of what a sign is have been collected throughout Peirce's work.See "76 Definitions of The Sign by C. S. Peirce" collected and analyzed by Robert Marty, Department of Mathematics, University of Perpignan, Perpignan, France, With an Appendix of 12 Further Definitions or Equivalents proposed by Alfred Lang, Dept of Psychology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland, "Arisbe" [ Eprint] .] Some canonical typologies can nonetheless be observed, one crucial one being the distinction between "icons", "indices" and "symbols" (CP 2.228, CP 2.229 and CP 5.473). The icon-index-symbol typology is chronologically the first but structurally the second of three that fit together as a trio of three-valued parameters in regular scheme of nine kinds of sign. (The three "parameters" (not Peirce's term) are not independent of one another, and the result is a system of ten classes of sign, which are shown further down in this article.)

Peirce's three basic phenomenological categories come into central play in these classifications. The 1-2-3 numerations used further below in the exposition of sign classes represents Peirce's associations of sign classes with the categories. The categories are as follows:

*The Roman numerals appear on the manuscript but were added by an editor. [See peirce-l post by [ Anderson Vinicius Romanini] (and a cached [ resume] during server problems) "Re: representing the ten classes of signs (corrected)" 2006-06-16 [ Eprint] and peirce-l post by [ Joseph Ransdell] "Re: 1st image of triangle of boxes (MS799.2)" 2006-06-18 [ Eprint] . The manuscript can be viewed (and magnified by clicking on image) [] at the Lyris peirce-l archive. The image was provided by [ Joseph Ransdell] , Professor Emeritus, Philosophy, Texas Tech University.]


* CP n.m = "Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce", vol. n, paragraph m.
* EP n, m = "The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings", vol. n, page m.
* CDPT = "The Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms"



* Hardwick, C.S. (ed.), "Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence between C.S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby", Texas Technological University Press, Lubbock, TX, 1977, 2001.
* Peirce, C.S. (1867), "On a New List of Categories", "Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences" 7 (1868), 287–298. Presented, 14 May 1867. Reprinted ("Collected Papers", vol. 1, paragraphs 545–559), ("Chronological Edition", vol. 2, pp. 49–59), (EP 1, 1–10). "Arisbe" [ Eprint] .
* Peirce, C.S. (c.1902) "Minute Logic", CP 2.1-118.
* Peirce, C.S. (c.1902) "Reason's Rules", Manuscript 599 [ Eprint]
* Peirce, C.S. "A Syllabus of Certain Topics of Logic", EP2:
** Peirce, C.S. (1903) "Sundry Logical Conceptions", EP2, 267-288.
** Peirce, C.S. (1903) "Nomenclature and Divisions of Triadic Relations, as Far as They Are Determined", EP2 289-299
** Peirce, C.S. (1904) "New Elements (Kaina Stoicheia)", pp. 235–263 in Carolyn Eisele (ed.), "The New Elements of Mathematics by Charles S. Peirce, Volume 4, Mathematical Philosophy". Reprinted (EP2, 300-324). [ Eprint] .
* Peirce, C.S. (c.1903), "Logical Tracts, No. 2", CP 4.418–509.
* Peirce, C.S. (1904), A Letter to Lady Welby, CP 8.329.
* Peirce, C.S. (1905), A Draft of a Letter to Lady Welby, "Semiotic and Significs" p. 193
* Peirce, C.S. (1906), "Prolegomena To an Apology For Pragmaticism", pp. [,M1 492] -546, "The Monist", [,M1 vol. XVI, no. 4] , Oct. 1906 (links embedded in page numbers and edition numbers are via Google Book Search, full access not yet available widely outside the USA). Reprinted (CP 4.530-572). [ Eprint]
* Peirce, C.S. (1931-1935, 1958), "Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce", vols. 1–6, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (eds.), vols. 7–8, Arthur W. Burks (ed.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1931–1935, 1958.
* Peirce, C.S (1976), "The New Elements of Mathematics by Charles S. Peirce", 4 volumes in 5, Carolyn Eisele (ed.), Mouton Publishers, The Hague, Netherlands, 1976. Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1976.
* Peirce, C.S. (1981-), "Writings of Charles S. Peirce, A Chronological Edition", Peirce Edition Project (eds.), Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN, 1981–.
* Peirce, C.S. (1992) "The Essential Peirce, Selected Philosophical Writings, Vol. 1 (1867–1893)", Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel, eds. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
* Peirce, C.S. (1998) "The Essential Peirce, Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2 (1893–1913)", Peirce Edition Project, eds. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
* [ Ransdell, Joesph] (2007 draft), "On the Use and Abuse of the Immediate/Dynamical Object Distinction", "Arisbe" [ Eprint] .


External links

* [ Arisbe: The Peirce Gateway] , Joseph Ransdell (ed.)
* [ The Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms] , Mats Bergman & Sami Paavola, eds.
* Marty, Robert (1997), "76 Definitions of The Sign by C. S. Peirce" collected and analyzed by Robert Marty, Department of Mathematics, University of Perpignan, Perpignan, France, and "With an Appendix of 12 Further Definitions or Equivalents proposed by Alfred Lang, Dept of Psychology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland, "Arisbe" [ Eprint] . Marty's [ semiotics] .

List of external links at main Peirce wiki.

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