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Peirce, Charles Sanders

 Charles Sanders Peirce, pronounced "purse" (1839-1914), the founder of pragmatism and a pioneering theorist of Semiotics, was one of America's most important and most original philosophers. His scope and range are perhaps wider than that of any philosopher since Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. He made fundamental contributions to probability theory, symbolic logic, the philosophy of science, mathematics, and semiotics, while publishing numerous papers on astronomy, physics, chemistry, and scientific method. Peirce generally described himself as an experimentalist and a "logician," a term that expanded in scope from his earliest papers to encompass virtually the whole enterprise of organized thought and inquiry.
 Despite being frequently recommended for university appointments, Peirce served only as a part-time lecturer in logic at Johns Hopkins University from 1879 to 1884 and for three years as a special lecturer in the philosophy of science at Harvard. Although he was a prolific writer, only two books appeared during his lifetime: Photometric Researches (1878), which established him as one of the leading astrophysicists of his day, and Studies in Logic (1883), a collection of essays by Peirce and his students at Johns Hopkins. A selection of his work (Collected Papers) was published between 1931 and 1935, with additional volumes in 1958; a new chronological edition published by Indiana University Press had, by 1992, produced 4 of a proposed 30 volumes. Peirce's main employment was with the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, from his graduation from Harvard in 1859 until he retired to Milford, Pennsylvania, in 1887. From that time until his death Peirce lived in severe poverty, illness, and isolation, though his work on philosophical papers and essays continued.
 In recent years Peirce has attracted considerable interest among literary critics and theorists for his contributions in three areas, sometimes treated separately- for his role in the development of pragmaticism, his pioneering work on semiotics and the sign, and his contributions to philosophical method. Examination of Peirce's papers shows clearly, however, that there is no plausible way to separate these interests without serious distortion of his thought. Partly for this reason, literary theorists with strong interests in American pragmatism have frequently found Peirce less congenial than John Dewey and William James, while others more concerned with semiotic questions have tended to rely more heavily upon Ferdinand de Saussure and later Continental linguists influenced by him. This is particularly so because Peirce's evolving project of articulating his philosophy in the form of a comprehensive theory of signs sometimes makes it difficult to fashion usable analytical tools that seem appropriate to a literary critic's concern with texts.
 The general tendency in recent literary criticism to move from the explication of single texts toward more general theoretical concerns, however, puts Peirce in a singularly interesting light. In many varieties of contemporary critical theory, a dominant concern has been the critique of metaphysics, particularly in the light of linguistic analysis and speculation, just as the speculative questions that arise from efforts to relate literature to other disciplines, to society, and to history create a considerable pressure to rethink fundamental philosophical problems.
 Christine Ladd-Franklin, one of Peirce's students, noted ironically that Peirce in his lectures had defined metaphysics as "the science of unclear thinking," though he went on to propose that "we should form . . . a Metaphysical Club" (quoted in Bosco 345). The anecdote neatly captures one of the most salient features of Peirce's philosophical commitments- to bring logical clarity to traditional metaphysical issues. Although he was both drawn to and repelled by G. W. F. Hegel, Peirce cites Immanuel Kant's critiques and the scholastic realism of Duns Scotus as major influences (see Collected 1, secs. 3-6).
 While philosophical commentators may wish to "ignore the metaphysical side of Peirce's thought" (Nauta 121), it was crucial for Peirce, whose persistent complaint about metaphysics since René Descartes was that it was unclear, self-contradictory, or confused--not that one could get rid of it or otherwise deconstruct it. His turn to Duns Scotus, the subtlest medieval defender of realism, combined with his study of Kant, led to a version of critical realism in which he rejects the nominalism he finds in virtually all modern philosophers since Descartes (1, secs. 18-19).
 In general, Peirce took the view that "nominalism" involves a metaphysical reduction of modes of reality to the existence of individual entities (1, sec. 21), thereby hopelessly obscuring the dependence of thought and inquiry on diverse forms of representation and so ensuring in all intellectual pursuits, but especially in experimental science, a chronic state of crisis or confusion over the status of truth claims, as well as the proliferation of destructive and not merely critical forms of skepticism. In Peirce's view, reality cannot be characterized without recourse to three modes of being, on grounds examined briefly below. As John Sheriff has pointed out, in this Peirce anticipates Jacques Derrida's thoroughgoing deconstructive critique of the binary signifier-signified relation in structuralist linguistics, without himself being forced to inhabit it or endlessly reiterate it (Sheriff 53-62).
 Also like Derrida, however, Peirce can induce a feeling resembling cognitive vertigo, because his triadic thinking generates more consequences than one can readily take into account. Perhaps the greatest difficulty for readers of Peirce, aside from the probability that they are born and bred nominalists, is that most will bring to Peirce's writing assumptions about "logic," "metaphysics," and "semiotics" or about the idea of the "sign" that may be fundamentally incompatible with the position Peirce elaborates. "Logic" for Peirce expands to cover the whole range of intelligent inquiry or associative thought for any "intelligence capable of learning by experience" (Collected 2, sec. 227) without losing the precision that made Peirce one of the fathers of modern formal logic. Similarly, "metaphysics" for Peirce does not issue in a simple ontology, nor does it lead to radical skepticism because the crucial (and subtle) question hinges on the character and function of representability, not being or existence. Thus, when Peirce argues for the "reality" of his categories, reality is already conceived as a process that can (and must) be indefinitely extended, even at the risk of infinite series (Boler, "Habits" 382-87). The problem for Peirce is not indeterminacy but multiplicity in the ways any phenomenon can be represented. That is, any particular thought or argument comes to a determinate end, but no argument could possibly exhaust its subject or claim its ground to be absolute. Thus, determinable meaning coincides with a potentially indefinite determinability in which every proposition, sign, or thought is part of an endless continuum (Collected 1, secs. 339, 447, 464, 548).
 Particularly for readers who come to Peirce with an interest in the "sign" or "semiotics," the multiplicity of kinds or classifications of signs may be, to quote Jonathan Culler, "too much for all but the most masochistic theorists" (23), among whom Culler does not, evidently, count himself. If one presupposes a notion of the "sign," following either St. Augustine or Saussure, as a twofold relation between a signifier (usually a word) and a signified (by default an object, thing, or concept), one is already likely to suppose that the privileged relation of representation is simple naming. While Augustine grounded his own doctrine of signs and their interpretation on divine charity, Saussure points out the obvious fact that the relation between signifier and signified is arbitrary (in the case of a word designating an object), since there is nothing in the word to necessarily attach it to the object, while the entire system of a language operates by differences among signifiers. Saussure's view of linguistics, then, posits "semiology" as a theoretical necessity in order to avoid the naiveté of a view of the sign as just a name, by examining signifiers synchronically (in the relation of elements of a language to each other) and diachronically (in the relation of a language to its own social history).
 While Peirce's "semiotics" may appear intriguingly similar to Saussure's proposed discipline of "semiology" (Saussure 16), it should not be overlooked that the first of many fundamental differences is that Peirce's semiotics is not based on the word as "sign" but on the proposition as that which unifies consciousness and creates intelligibility or comprehension. In this sense, Peirce's semiotics is not a theory of language but a theory of the production of meaning. As the "interpretant," the experience of intelligibility is not itself a "signified" but the result of an act of signification. It might therefore be suggested that Peirce's account of the sign offers a very powerful way by which to represent and analyze literature as argument, always concerned with and embedded in a real historical context, aware of consequences, without becoming systematically entangled in linguistic issues that are always indeterminate when considered apart from pragmatics.
 As these considerations suggest, despite the attenuated state of his papers, Peirce's logical, metaphysical, and semiotic doctrines are three aspects of an evolving, comprehensive philosophical outlook. When they are considered together, as "pragmatism," the same caveat applies for readers whose notions of pragmatism have been shaped by the pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, where Peirce's logic is replaced with psychology in the first instance and social action in the second (the logic of which Peirce singled out, in a 1904 letter to Dewey, as evincing a "debauch of loose reasoning" [Collected 8, sec. 240]). Peirce's own discomfort with what pragmatism had become after it took shape in the 1870s led him in 1905 to call his version of it "pragmaticism," a word, he said, "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers" (5, sec. 414). As "pragmatism" has entered the vernacular, one can well imagine Peirce, James, and Dewey all uneasy with definitions that take "pragmatic" to mean "concerned with actual practice, not with theory or speculation." In the case of Peirce's pragmatism--or pragmaticism--the theory, and its relation to speculation, is the heart of the matter.
 Peirce's concepts of "sign," "interpretant," and pragmaticism all arise from his conception of the categories Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, first described in print in "On a New List of Categories" (1867, Collected 1, secs. 545-67). While Peirce's theory of the categories evolved throughout his career (Esposito), his 1867 paper articulates brilliantly both the metaphysical implications of the categories and Peirce's own critical relation to past philosophers. The paper, written from a generally Kantian point of view, is explicitly modeled on Aristotle's Categories, which elaborates the conception of substance as the subject or bearer of predicates--of quality, quantity, relation, position, possession, action, or affection--which in turn are related to Kant's categories of the understanding, as the pure a priori concepts intrinsic to the faculty of understanding itself (Kant 113), and Hegel's triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (Peirce, Collected 8, sec. 267). Peirce begins from Kant's notion of the function of a conception to "reduce the manifold of sensuous impressions to unity" (1, sec. 545), not by a transcendental deduction, but as a pure act of attention within which the most universal conception is "the present, in general," or a consciousness of some "IT," which he designates "substance."
 Where Kant had argued that the deduction of the categories relied only on our capacity for comparison and discrimination, Peirce points out that the "IT" is prior to any possible comparison and "cannot itself be made a predicate" because it is the subject to which any and all predicates apply. The "IT," however, is available to cognition only on the condition that the impressions that present it can be reduced to the unity of a proposition, requiring the logical (and grammatical) function of the copula, which, according to Peirce, "means either actually is or would be, as in the two propositions, 'There is no griffin,' and 'A griffin is a winged quadruped'" (1, sec. 548).
 In Peirce's example, saying "The stove is black" indicates the stove as "substance, from which its blackness has not been discriminated, and the is, while it leaves the substance just as it was seen" (1, sec. 548), functions in applying blackness to it as a predicate. In this sense, "being implies an indefinite determinability of the predicate." The stove, for example, might also be iron, heavy, hot, in the corner, and so on. Peirce concludes, "Thus substance and being are the beginning and end of all conception." In this context, clearly the two terms are also the beginning and end of all predication. As Peirce puts it, "Substance is inapplicable to a predicate, and being is equally so to a subject" (1, sec. 548).
 This conclusion may be startling because it makes inescapably clear that the condition of cognition is predication, just as it asserts that being is not the same as substantive existence. When we imagine there to be, beyond or behind "appearances," some thing in itself, we have merely fallen into the trap of collapsing being and substance. The thing in itself is precisely what we do see, and since it is substance, its reality is not ever in question, only its intelligibility: we bring it into being by understanding it in some light. Peirce goes on to show that our ability to discriminate (and therefore to compare), like our ability to abstract, or prescind (1, sec. 549n), and dissociate, is not all symmetrical. Only in those cases where a conception actually does reduce the manifold sensations to unity can we abstract or prescind, and by this test Peirce is able to eliminate entirely the need for a Kantian transcendental analysis or the pursuit of a hierarchical Hegelian dialectic. The quality abstracted, that is, is not Hegelian Aufhebung but retains its character in any occurrence and is the first step toward ensuring that one can provide a real explanation for a truth claim.
 Peirce uses the example of the proposition "The stove is black" to show that blackness is a quality that can be abstracted (prescinded) from the stove, as the (precise) respect in which the experience of seeing it is available to thought. Peirce then analyzes this experience into two distinct moments: first, reference to a "ground," as in this instance singling out the color rather than, say, the weight or temperature of the stove; and second, reference to a "correlate," indicating that the specific quality is abstractable so as to be applicable to other things, such as black shoes or black pots, as comparable to what is seen in the stove (1, sec. 551).
 Thus our ability to make comparisons requires, in addition to the related thing, the ground and the correlate, a "mediating representation" or "interpretant" (1, sec. 553) that can be addressed to someone (including, in the limiting case, ourselves). This analysis provides a basis both for Peirce's theory of semiotic and for his distinctive version of pragmatism. As he later elaborated his theory of the categories, a "first" is a quality, a feeling, a possibility; a "second" is an individual, discerned by its resistance to and interaction with an environment, embodying or exemplifying a possibility as actual; while a "third" is a general term, a rule, a law, or a "habit" that represents the fallible but still determinate knowledge of a regularity or principle (8, secs. 264-69).
 Semiotically, one can then say that as signs or representations, a first may be an "icon," based on resemblance; a second may be an "index," based on correspondence to fact; and a third may be a general sign or "symbol" (4, secs. 55 ff.; Peirce, Semiotic 22-36). As Peirce developed these three terms (especially in his letters to Lady Welby), they appear as the basis for a much fuller and more specific way of using Peirce's semiotic analytically, in reference to specific texts or other signifying elements. Thus, an "icon" is a semiotic function that invites attention to some character contained in or expressed by an instance, while an "index" depends on some existential relation into which the instance enters, as smoke is an index of fire. The "symbol," then, is not connected merely to a ground or a relation to the object but is a relation to an "interpretant." "Symbol" in this sense is general, because it presupposes both the quality (in a reference to a ground) and the existential relations of a particular case, but specific in that it refers to an interpretant, a cognitive state, determined by a first and a second but not confined to either (Sheriff 67).
 Peirce's pragmaticism develops as the continuous elaboration of consequences from this account of logic-metaphysic-semiotic because it does not presume in any way that "meaning" can be determined in a binary relation. The requirement that a "first" be accessible by reference to a ground only ensures that one will note explicitly what particular aspect of a phenomenon one is noticing or representing. Peirce's pragmaticist maxim (restated to distance himself from James and Dewey) is that "the entire intellectual purport of any symbol consists in the total of all general modes of rational conduct that, conditionally upon all the possible different circumstances and desires, would ensue upon the acceptance of the symbol" (Collected 5, sec. 438).
 While this maxim appears to leave meaning infinitely deferred, it would be more accurate to say that it accepts meaning (as it does thought and reality itself) as a continuous process, which we determine, with arbitrary precision (depending on "different circumstances and desires"), in communities of inquiry. Finally, Peirce's pragmaticism, with its debt to Duns Scotus, reflects Peirce's sense that thinking is normative and in its deepest reaches ethical and aesthetic; it must be these if it is to be scientific (5, sec. 36; 8, sec. 242). According to the title phrase of one of his most widely read essays, it is by inquiry and experiment that we seek the "fixation of belief" (5, secs. 358 ff.), while the ethics of the process is profoundly summarized in the slogan that Peirce would have on "every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry" (1, sec. 135)--which is to say, no belief is ever ultimate, and no one ever gets the last word.

Leroy F. Searle


Notes and Bibliography

See also Semiotics.

Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers (ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 8 vols., 1931-58, reprint in 4 vols., 1960-66), Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence between Charles S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby (ed. Charles S. Hardwick, 1977), Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition (ed. Max Fisch et al., 4 vols. to date, 1982-).

Robert F. Almeder, The Philosophy of Charles S. Peirce: A Critical Introduction (1980); John Boler, Charles Peirce and Scholastic Realism: A Study of Peirce's Relation to John Duns Scotus (1963), "Habits of Thought" (Moore and Robin); Nynfa Bosco, "Peirce and Metaphysics" (Moore and Robin); Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (1992); Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (1981); Joseph L. Esposito, Evolutionary Metaphysics: The Development of Peirce's Theory of Categories (1980); Max Harold Fisch, Peirce, Semiotic, and Pragmaticism: Essays by Max H. Fisch (ed. Kenneth Laine Ketner and Christian J. W. Kloesel, 1986); J. Fisette, Introduction à la sémiotique de C. S. Peirce (1990); Jürgen Habermas, Erkenntnis und Interesse (1968, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro, 1972); Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (trans. Norman Kemp Smith, 1965); Edward C. Moore and Richard S. Robin, eds., Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, Second Series (1964); M. G. Murphey, The Development of Peirce's Philosophy (1961); Doede Nauta, "Peirce's Three Categories Regained: Toward an Interdisciplinary Reconstruction of Peircean Frameworks," Proceedings of the C. S. Peirce Bicentennial International Congress (1981); Sandra B. Rosenthal, Pragmatism and Phenomenology: A Philosophic Encounter (1980); Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale (1916, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, 1959); David Savan, An Introduction to C. S. Peirce's Full System of Semeiotic (1987); John K. Sheriff, The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature (1989); Peter Skagestad, The Road of Inquiry: Charles Peirce's Pragmatic Realism (1981); Philip P. Wiener and Frederic H. Young, eds., Studies in the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1952).

Topics Index Cross-references for this Guide entry:
index, icon, symbol, pragmatism

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