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Peirce’s semiosis and the ego

Resumo/ Abstract

Imagem: Marina Kanzian

David B. Muhlestein


Charles Sanders Peirce desired to understand the process of the mind so as to think more clearly. His desire to coherently “reduce the manifold of sensuous impressions to unity” (EP 1: 1) causes him to reject the preconceived notions of modern philosophy and base his epistemology on signs.  To overcome the errors of Descartes, Peirce clarified the understanding of sensorial data and ideas.  He concluded that Aristotle’s categories for being were insufficient and introduced the idea of thirdness.  Based on these foundations, Peirce was able to establish his understanding of signs and explain how they are used in thought and language.  At the conclusion of this paper I will discuss Peirce’s belief that the man is a sign and that thinking is a dialogue between parts of the ego.

Keywords: Peirce; semiotics; ego


That which makes a human “human” is the process of thought. Humans have the ability to have higher level thoughts and make decisions that are not based on instinct. All choices that a person makes will determine what they are and what happens to them. By thinking clearly, one is able to better make predictions about the future and make decisions that will lead them to their goals. The way to think clearly is to have clear ideas. A clear idea is that which “is so apprehended that it will be recognized wherever it is met with, and so that no other will be mistaken for it” (EP 1:24). To understand things clearly, there must be some basis for this understanding, and signs form the basis of this clear understanding.

Descartes taught that an idea is an object of thought. Ideas are thought of and then used by the mind. Since ideas are purely mental and reality is purely physical, there’s no obvious way of proving that the mental ideas correlate with the physical reality. This problem was resolved by Descartes with his proof of the existence of God. Since the idea of God exists, it must be based upon something, and since the idea of God is of something omnibenevolent, nothing evil could create such an idea in man. Because of this, God must necessarily exist or else the idea of something omnibenevolent couldn’t come, but since it is perceived, it must come from the actual God. An omnibenevolent God wouldn’t allow men to live in a world where their thoughts don’t reflect reality such that they live in a mental world that is all an illusion. Because of this, Descartes concludes that our thoughts do indeed reflect reality and that anything that is clearly and distinctly perceived is true. Peirce replies that “the distinction between an idea seeming clear and really being so, never occurred to [Descartes]” (EP 1:125).

Other philosophers throughout the modern era started with the same suppositions about the nature of thought as Descartes and each ended up with the same mind/body difficulty. Peirce, however, starts with a different supposition and states that thoughts are not thought of, but thought with. He views them as a faculty similar to eyesight or hearing. We don’t see sight or hear hearing, we see with sight and hear with hearing. This understanding eliminates modern philosophy’s difficulty with justifying the belief that our thoughts reflect reality, as it teaches that everything we perceive is directly correlated with reality.

Reality consists of individual objects that are understood by the mind, via the senses. The mind looks at objects, and then is able to focus on certain aspects of the object at the exclusion of other qualities. For example, if I were to hold and look at an apple, I could focus on the red color of the apple at the exclusion of the other qualities such as shape, size, weight, texture, and smell. The apple is the object in reality that simply exists as it is. The fact that we are able to abstract specific qualities from distinct objects shows that there is the faculty to abstract. This faculty of abstraction is what allows us to see similarities in different objects such as noting that two separate apples both share a common color.

The color red is not distinct from the apple, but the mind is able to abstract it by focusing on it. To focus on a quality, though, means there must also be something that distinguishes it. If only red the color red existed, there would be no way to abstract the concept of red because there would be no way to focus on it at the exclusion of another color.

Abstractions do not exist in a physical sense – they have no weight or smell. The blackness of the stove as applied to the stove is purely hypothetical. A pure abstraction is a quality or an attribute that isn’t dependent upon the subject. For example, the blackness of a stove and the blackness of tar are not dependent on the different subjects to be considered qualities. At the same time, all abstracted qualities must be abstracted from reality.

In reality, there are tangible entities that exist. Each is distinct with form, shape, color, weight, and other physical attributes. Different entities are similar only because the mind is able to abstract different qualities and compare them and finds them to be similar. Two apples are two distinct entities (not two instances of the same object “apple”) and each has qualities that are independent of any other entity. According to Peirce, this is firstness. Firstness consists of the form of the object.

In reality, when two objects interact, there is a result. All results in the physical object are caused by the momentum of an object being transferred to another object. When I throw a Frisbee, the momentum of my arm is transferred to the Frisbee and it is able to continue forward until it is slowed by hitting a tree where the momentum of the Frisbee is translated into heat energy. All effects are the direct result of causes. This is known as secondness. Secondness consists of the relation of the object to another object.

Aristotle claimed that all types of being could be understood through firstness and secondness. While there are different types of firstness (height, weight, density, etc) and secondness (chemical energy, kinetic energy, etc), all types of entities and reactions can be explicated in terms of these qualities.

Peirce claimed that firstness and secondness are not adequate to explain everything in reality. He believed that the traditional notion of reality as being that which exists independently of the mind is inadequate because that would exclude such things as thoughts, ideas, and relationships from the realm of reality. Peirce believed that thoughts and ideas do indeed exist in reality, and introduced the concept of thirdness to explain how.

For a mental relation to be made between qualities of two different objects, the different objects must exist, and the mind must be able to abstract and recognize the different qualities of these objects and then compare them. This final relation gives rise to the actual representation of the original object because it allows it to be mentally placed in a coherent fashion such that there is the possibility of mental unity. This final understanding of the object in relation to other objects gives rise to the concept of the third – an object is related to two other objects in such a way that the first object is related to the third object in the same way that the second object is related to the third object. Thus, thirdness consists of the representation of the object in respect to other objects.

Representations, or signs, can be divided up into three categories: likenesses, indices, and symbols. Relations to an object that are mere imitations of some quality are likenesses such as the blackness of the night sky and a stove. Relations which directly correspond to an object in fact are signs such as fire being signified by heat. Symbols are relations between objects as determined by the mind such as the relation between the letters A-P-P-L-E and the fruit.

Symbols, then, are classified into three categories which correspond to the object, the relationship of the object to other objects, and to arguments. Symbols of objects are such things as the word “cow” representing a cow. The statement “the cow” can be made, but tells nothing about the actual relationship of any actual cow to anything else. Symbols relating to grounds are based on firstness – something in relation to itself based on its inherent properties.

Symbols of relationships often involve language where propositions are made to establish relationships between a ground and a correlate. These propositions can then either be true or false. By saying “the cow is in the field”, truth or falsity can be determined by seeing if the cow is actually in the field. Symbols relating to objects and relationships are based on secondness – something in relation to something else based on their individual inherent properties.

Symbols of representations are classified as arguments. This takes relationships, or suppositions, and then is able to make conclusions based upon these. By stating that a cow is in the field, and that the cow is a mammal and eating grass, it might be concluded that some mammals eat grass. The conclusion can either be true or false based on the veracity of its suppositions and the validity of the argument. The ability to take sensorial perceptions and deduce more information about the world arises from thirdness – where the actual relationship between two objects is known and applied to other situations. The existence of thirdness gives rise to the possibility of logic and reason.

All thinking is done with signs. The mind never thinks directly about an apple, but about the attributes of an apple – the thoughts are in the mind, not the physical apple.  Each relation between what you are thinking and what it corresponds to in reality is a sign. The mind is then able to take different attributes, and see how they relate to each other and to the world as a whole. Since the mind can also understand relationships (such as how two objects interact with each other), different inferences can be made about how the world actually operates. This is the beginning of logic as different statements can be made, and then unifying statements or laws can be formulated. For example, by looking at how rain falls, the inference that there is gravity can be made. The advantage of creating universal laws that apply to actual objects is that it allows people to make predictions about what will happen in the world.

Humans are goal directed.  The only reason that a man will eat when he is hungry is because he believes that it will satiate his hunger. Belief is that which a person is willing to act upon. When a person has a correct understanding of reality, the possibility of making correct choices that lead to desired goals is possible. To effectively act to accomplish goals and to successfully react to reality, a coherent understanding of the universe is necessary. Because of this, the mind is constantly trying to create a unified understanding of the world.

Language is the mind’s ability to take different sounds and or images and relate them as symbols to reality. While it seems fairly obvious that the spoken word “apple” can come to represent the fruit, it is not so apparent to a newborn that such a correlation exists. Language is learned as the consciousness develops (EP 1:18-20). Children first become aware of the outside world, and then become aware of themselves and their relationship with it. This gives rise to the concept of selfconsciousness and the child is then able to express things in terms of “I” or “me”. Only through a primary understanding of the outside world and his relationship to that world can a child become aware of his own corporeality and discover that it is indeed possible to make decisions and to react to stimuli. With this basis, a child can then understand higher level abstractions and concepts.

Language serves as a tool to represent higher level concepts. While a child may initially be able to identify such things as “mommy” or “water”, with time, the clear representations of concepts such as “government” and “humanity” can be formed. Language is a tool whereby these different concepts can be understood and applied. The value of these concepts is that they give a better understanding to the world. While “democracy” does not exist as a tangible entity, its effects and influence on human life are readily apparent, and by understanding these concepts, coherent thoughts and decisions can be made about specific moments in life.

The further use of language arises from its plasticity and adaptability. The meaning of a picture of an apple is simply that of a sign correlating to a specific object. On the other hand, language allows words to change their meaning over time and adapt to new information learned or to variations in usage. A photograph will correlate to the same entity, and will never represent a broader concept of reality. For example, my understanding of the word apple will come to include such things as colors, shape, size, weight, taste, use, sugar content, molecular makeup, etc. The more I learn about reality, the more this sign will represent to me. On the other hand, the photograph will still represent a specific instance of an apple, and only by applying my knowledge of what an “apple” is to the specific example will I be able to get more meaning from the photograph than is readily apparent.

The use of signs, or semiosis, as described by Peirce, is what dictates our thought.  All of our conjectures, opinions, and beliefs are the direct result of manipulating signs in our mind. Peirce stated that “thinking always proceeds in the form of a dialogue – a dialogue between different phases of the ego – so that, being dialogical, it is essentially composed of signs, as its matter, in the same sense in which a game of chess has the chessmen for its matter” (CP 4:6). But, he continues, “not that the particular signs employed are themselves the thought! Oh, no: no whit more than the skins of an onion are the onion” (CP 4:6). His argument, then, is that the essence of being human (the ability to think and abstract), is directly dependent upon signs. Because of this infrastructure, humans (thought) are composed of signs, and thus, humans are signs. They are not physically signs, but their meaning comes from signs, and so from the point of view of them being understood by an entity, humans are signs.

Peirce explains his concept of the dialogue of minds “that signs mostly function each between two minds, or theaters of consciousness, of which the one is the agent that utters the sign (whether acoustically, optically, or otherwise), while the other is the patient mind that interprets the sign” (EP 2:403). Peirce believes that for communication to be possible, “before the sign was uttered, it already was virtually present to the consciousness of the utterer, in the form of a thought” (EP 2:403). Thus, a thought is necessarily thought of, in terms of signs, and then is broadcast by some medium to another mind where it is interpreted and meaning may be found. For rational communication, there must be a shared understanding about the meanings of the signs that are conveyed.

It follows, then, that the process whereby new ideas are formulated comes from the internal dialectic supported by Peirce. The process of formulating new ideas would have to arise from the mind offering up an idea, and then another part of the mind responding to that idea in such a way that new meaning is associated with it. This could be as simple as combining other ideas together such as in the formulation of the concept of a centaur – a half man half horse conjunction of ideas. The problem that I see in this understanding of thought is that if thought consists of establishing ideas and then conveying them to a patient mind, no abstraction can be done on the thoughts in the mind.

Peirce gives several examples explaining how things can be transmitted with neither a rational utterer nor recipient, but as an example I will use modern computers. They are able to receive information that represents something else (signs) and convey this same information to other computers. The information is transferred, but there never is any meaning associated with it. 1s and 0s correlate to actions, but the data that a computer accepts and conveys does not translate into the computer having an understanding of anything. With humans, signs can be transferred from human to computer to computer to human (such as email) and in the process, ideas are transferred. The computers, though, never understand what is conveyed, they simply act as a tool of secondness in the process of transferring thirdness from one mind to the next.

The problem with this understanding comes from Peirce’s claim that thought in one mind consists of ideas being transferred from one part of the mind to the other, and then other ideas are replayed back to the mind in such a way that new ideas are synthesized. Where, then, does abstraction come from? If thinking consists of taking an existing idea and transmitting it as a sign to another location, there is no way to elicit new ideas.

It could be argued that the transmission of one idea to another could simply add one idea to an existing idea (such as combining the idea of a horse to the idea of a man and creating the idea of a centaur), but that doesn’t explain how ideas that are not simple combinations of abstractions could be formulated. For example, the idea of gravity does not arise from the combination of any concepts that arise from sensation. You can’t add any images, sounds, or sensations to arrive at the combination that there is a universal law that is applicable to all entities. For this to happen, it would necessitate the existence of some innate knowledge that laws and universal declarations are possible, and then the notion of objects falling could be coupled to the idea of laws to formulate the law of gravity. Innate knowledge, though, counters Peirce’s earlier claims that knowledge and meaning are all directly a result of experience.

The solution to this problem is to change Peirce’s understanding of thought from a dialectic between different entities to more of an idea of a plastic process whereby ideas are developed. To think is not to bounce ideas off different parts of the mind, but to take ideas and compare them with already held beliefs and then either modify the idea to conform to the beliefs or else to modify the beliefs to conform to the ideas. New ideas and creativity are possible only by relating ideas to each other, and seeing how they need to be changed to make the notion coherent.

For example, if I want to design and build a house, I must first have the concept of a house, and then have the concept that building a house is possible. With this belief, I can then take different ideas that I hold in memory and relate them in such a way that I can connect my present state with my idea of designing and building a house. The concepts of my desire for function are combined with my ideas of cost, applicability, space, and available materials to determine what I will and will not build. My concept of ownership will cause me to act in such a way as to buy the land and materials that I will use. Each of the processes whereby I am creative consists in me comparing different ideas and modifying them until I reach my volitional goal.

While communication can be viewed as a dialectic where an established idea is conveyed to another mind so that it is understood, the actual act of thinking must be viewed as a fluid process whereby ideas are compared and contrasted until the meanings correlate. All of this correlation, though, is based upon the notion of volition whereby a human is able to choose its end-directed path. The separation, then, between a device that can communicate meaning and a mind that can understand meaning is not ultimately based on whether one is able to understand signs, but on whether or not a volitional end can be chosen. The discussion of humans not as signs but as volitional entities though, must be left for another paper.


ANDERSON, D. R. Creativity and the Philosophy of C.S. Peirce. [s.l.] Springer, 1987.

ANDERSON, D. R. Strands of System: The Philosophy of Charles Peirce. [s.l.] Purdue UP, 1995.

MERRELL, F. Peirce, Signs, and Meaning. [s.l.] University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Collected Papers of Charles S. Peirce (1931-58). 8 vols. Ed. By C. Hartshorne and P. Weiss (vols. 1-6), and A. Burks (vols. 7-8). Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writings. Vol. 1 (1867-1893), edited by Nathan Houser & Christian Kloesel, 1992, vol. 2 (1893-1913), edited by the Peirce Edition Project, 1998. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP.


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