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Ontological realms and symbolic mediation of the hypoiconic metaphor


Detalhe de Le Violin de Ingres, de Man Ray

Bent Sørensen, Torkild Thellefsen


C. S. Peirce defined the metaphor as a sign of the type hypo-icon. The metaphor depends on a special kind of similarity, namely parallelism. But Peirce never gave an answer to the question “on which ontological level can the similarity of metaphor be identified?”. However, a tentative answer seems to be deducible from different text passages in Peirce’s grand oeuvre. Even though Peirce defined the metaphor as a hypoiconic sign, he only accentuated the metaphor’s most salient semeiotic mechanism, not describing the only one. Thus, the metaphor is e.g. also a symbolically mediated icon. In the following, we will try to focus on these two topics concerning the “Peircean metaphor”.

Keywords: metaphor; hypoiconicity; similarity; parallelism; symbolic mediation


C. S. Peirce define a metáfora como um signo hipoicônico. A metáfora depende de um tipo especial de similaridade, o paralelismo. Peirce não chegou a dar uma resposta à questão “em que nível ontológico pode-se identificar a similaridade da metáfora?”. No entanto, uma resposta inicial parece dedutível de diferentes passagens da sua obra. Quando Peirce define a metáfora como um hipoícone, ele está apenas destacando seu mecanismo semiótico mais proeminente, e não o único mecanismo. Assim, por exemplo, a metáfora é também um ícone simbolicamente mediado. Neste artigo, buscamos focar nestes dois tópicos concernentes à “metáfora peirceana”.

Palavras-chave: C. S. Peirce, metáfora, hipoiconicidade, similaridade, paralelismo, mediação simbólica


Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else…
A good metaphor implies the intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.

Aristotle, Poetics, XXI, XXII

A language is nothing but a necropolis of dead metaphors.
Sparshott, F.E. (1974)


Since Aristotle, there has been a semiotic discussion of metaphor (cf. NÖTH, 1995: 128). And since Aristotle, the concept of similarity has appeared as a criterion of many definitions of the trope. To Aristotle, the similarity originates from an objectivity between the things themselves (Aristotle of course identified the categories of being with the categories of language). Tesauro takes on a completely different view; to him, similarity rests on a subjective interpretation of things, while Vico localizes the similarity within a sophisticated network consisting of cultural entities (cf. ECO, 1984: 102 pp.). The above is just to mention three classical views on the matter. C. S. Peirce, the semiotician (1839-1914), also defined the metaphor in relation to a variant of similarity, namely parallelism. To Peirce, metaphor belongs to one of the three orders of signs (the two other signs being index and symbol); he placed metaphor within his famous “second sign-trichotomy”, as a sign of the type hypo-icon. Peirce did not formulate a theory about metaphor, and he only wrote few lines about the topic (cf. HAUSMAN, 1996: 195). Yet, in the following we will try to understand what characterizes and qualifies the parallelism in the metaphor ontologically, in a Peircean perspective, and show that even if Peirce defined the metaphor as a hypo-iconic sign it is also symbolically mediated.

The metaphor, some features regarding its ontological origin

Let us start by looking at how Peirce endowed the metaphorical sign with the following critical characteristics in his well-known article “A Syllabus of Certain Topics of Logic” (c. 1903):

Hypo-icons may be roughly divided according to the mode of Firstness of which they partake… those which represent the representative character of a representamen by representing a parallelism in something else, are metaphors. (CP: 2.277)

Thus, the metaphor seems to be a representation which represents the sign character of an object, since the aforementioned represents this sign character by virtue of a parallelism in something else. But how are we to understand the sign-character and the “something else” whereby the parallelism becomes possible? To this question Peirce – to our regret – gave no answer. But if we address the latter first, the Peirce-scholar D. R. Anderson suggests in his veryfine article “Peirce and Metaphor” (1984) that this “something else” may be an instance in the metaphorical semeiosis, which relates its relates (ANDERSON, 1984: 456). But that leaves us with the question: what is this instance about? Anderson proposes, drawing on an interpretation from C. M. Smith (1972), that the instance is a quality which mediates between a pair of qualitative relations, each of which is Thirdnesses (ANDERSON, 1987: 70). But is it possible to localize a mediating instance within the metaphorical semeiosis? And can we localize this mediation on the very level of Thirdness? Following Peirce, we can say that the metaphor is characterized by having a First, which is the instance “representing”, a Second (“the representative character of a representamen”), and where a First and a Second is brought into relation, it is by aid of a mediating instance, a Third, “a something else”. Or as Peirce wrote in “Lectures of Pragmatism” (1903): “category the Third is the idea of what is such as it is as being a… Medium… between a Second and a First” (CP: 5.66). This is why Anderson’s conclusion seems correct. Consequently, the Second is a Third. But can we also agree with Anderson that the mediation has to be analyzed within the framework of Thirdness? No, not when Peirce explicitly wrote about “modes of Firstness”. Rather, the mediation must take place on the level of Firstness. In his splendid work ”The Semeiosis of Poetic Metaphor”, the linguist M. C. Haley seems to put forth a parallel point, since he argues for an abstract Third among Firsts, understood as “a possible law” (HALEY, 1988: 34), operating in the metaphorical semeiosis. But is this consistent with Peirce; a kind of law which functions hypo-iconically? Does a genuine law, according to Peirce, not only operate within the physical order, as e.g. the law of gravity? The answer must be negative. As the philosopher P. Turley writes in his lucid monograph “Peirce’s Cosmology“, Peirce does not sharply separate “…the laws of nature from other kinds” (TURLEY, 1977: 31). This is by no means strange, since Peirce advocated for the doctrine of synechism, a metaphysical doctrine, or as he said in “Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology” (1902): “…that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity” (CP: 6.169). According to Peirce, the pragmaticist should regard everything as continuous; and even matter is effete mind. Therefore, Peirce could also write about genuine laws, which, as Turley stresses, “excert… a force which commonly prevails and is characterized by its gentleness”. Here, Peirce has the law about “…the association of ideas” (TURLEY, 1977: 32) in mind. Turley does not go into detail about the characteristics of this law, but, according to our interpretation, it must concern association by virtue of similarity and contiguity. In the Monist article “The law of mind” (1882), Peirce also gave us a hint regarding this matter, when he wrote as follows:

The truth is, the mind is not subject to “law” in the same rigid sense that matter is. It only experiences gentle forces which merely render it more likely to act in a given way than it otherwise would be. There always remains a certain amount of arbitrary spontaneity in its action, without which it would be dead. (CP: 6.148)

Consequently and importantly, it is not only physical processes which can be described within a scientific framework, but also the so-called mental processes; because these are subdued to “gentle forces” or forms of law (cf. MURPHEY 1993: 344). Or put in another way: the physical and the psychical phenomena are not entirely distinct. Peirce emphasized this point in the article “Immortality in the Light of Synechism” (1893) in the following way:

…the synechist will not admit that physical and psychical phenomena are entirely distinct, — whether as belonging to different categories of substance, or as entirely separate sides of one shield, — but will insist that all phenomena are of one character, though some are more mental and spontaneous, others more material and regular. (EP II: 2-3)

If it is in this perspective that Haley uses the concept of “hypo-iconical law”, a law exerting a more or less “gentle force” in the metaphorical process of meaning creation, we are convinced that Peirce would have agreed with it. But let us see what Haley writes further: “I am speaking of a possible law…in the sense of a final cause, whereby the whole calls out its parts” (CP: 1.220). According to Haley, the hypo-iconic law is a causa finalis, not a causa efficiens, which exactly accentuates the “gentle force” of the law. In connection to this, the law must be understood as a whole that “calls out its parts”. However, how does this take place? The most obvious answer must be, as also suggested by Haley, that the causa finalis is providing for the parallelism between the metaphorical representamen and its object. This does not mean, however, that the hypo-iconic law creates the metaphorical representamen, its object and the relation of parallelism, but rather that it calls the parts out in a regulating parallelism. If this “something else” in Peirce’s definition of metaphor is a hypo-iconic law, we can return to the question we left unanswered above, which is how can we understand the object of the metaphorical sign in its capacity of a representamen? The object must be a kind of iconic event or the individuality in which the hypo-iconic law becomes actualized. To Peirce, every law understood as a “causa finalis” is characterized by an inherent tendency to self-actualization. If the law never becomes actualized it remains a mere Firstness, not a genuine generality. Thus, it is the metaphorical object which the hypo-iconic law depends on if it is to be understood as a real operational principle. As Peirce wrote in “Lectures of Pragmatism” (1903): “the law is keeping and making itself real by calling forth its instances” (CP: 5.107).

Given these few Peircean notions – and with the help from Haley – we have, tentatively, been able to constitute the metaphorical hypo-icon as the unification of a First, the qualitative possible, the representamen, with a Second, the actual, the object, by virtue of a Third, the law, the interpretant. However, an important question springs to mind: which ontological status can we ascribe to these three modes of being and, in connection to this, the parallelism? Or from where does the parallelism emanate, so to speak? In his Harvard lecture “The Seven Systems of Metaphysics” (1903), where Peirce used his categories to characterize seven systems of metaphysics by which categories are admitted as important metaphysico-cosmical elements, he could conclude that he himself was an: “…Aristotelian of the scholastic wing, approaching Scotism, but going much further in the direction of scholastic realism” (CP: 5.77n1). From being a nominalistic thinker, Peirce had thus become what the Peirce-scholar M. H. Fisch very aptly names: “… a three-category realist” (1986: 195). In a draft to a letter addressed to Russell c.1908, Peirce described his (new) position in the following way:

Next, I ask, what are the different kinds of reals? They are 1st those whose being lies in the substance of the thought itself, mere ideas, objects logically possible, the objects of pure mathematical thought for example. 2nd those whose being consists in their connections with other things, existents, reacting things. 3rd those whose being consists in their connecting two or more other things; – laws, generals, signs, etc. In short the real is ultimately undeniable. (MS L387b, 00350i)

Thus, Peirce argued for the reality of all three categories claiming that each is really operative in nature not only law or habit (which will regulate events in the future) or facts are admitted to be real; Peirce also understood the potential quality as having a real being. In an attempt to describe the similarities between his own realism and James’ emphasis on real possibilities in “The Dilemma of Determinism” (1884), Peirce concluded that: “the possible is a positive universe” (CP: 8.308). To the extent that there are real Thirds, there must also be real Firsts. So Peirce rejected the nominalist view that the possible is simply and solely what we do not know not to be true. The quality is still possible, or is what it is as possibility without being actualized or made intelligible. The possible is not identical with what the actual makes it to be. If we think so, we make ourselves, according to Peirce, guilty of, as he wrote in “The Logic of Mathematics”: “an Attempt to develop my Categories from within” (c. 1896), putting the cart before the horse: “…let us not put the cart before the horse, nor the evolved actuality before the possibility as if the latter involved what it only evolves” (CP: 1.422). And compared to Thirdness, the potential quality is characterized by, as Peirce wrote in “Minute Logic” (1903-04): “a… mode of being, the characteristic of which is that things that are real whatever they really are, independently of any assertion about them” (CP: 6.349). Therefore, Peirce’s definition of metaphor should be understood in the light of his extreme realism, and with affinity to this we can say that the relation of parallelism in metaphor emanates from a real possibility; also remembering that when Peirce was defining the hypo-icon metaphor, he was indeed writing about its “mode of Firstness”. Thus, it is Firstness which is the foundation of the signification-interpretation process of the metaphor; the metaphorical parallelism depends on Firstness for its generation of sense and new knowledge. Or, it is Firstness which motivates the signification-interpretation process of the metaphor. This motivation must be understood as a particular kind of attraction where the represented mind and the interpreting mind feel an immediate attraction towards the potential quality which functions as a causa finalis. Or we are dealing with an agapastic attraction. Regarding this, Peirce wrote the following in his well-known Monist article “Evolutionary Love” (1893): “in… agapasm… advance takes place by virtue of a positive sympathy among the created springing from continuity of mind” (CP: 6.304), and he further wrote:

The agapastic development of thought is the adoption of certain mental tendencies, not altogether heedlessly, as in tychasm, nor quite blindly by the mere force of circumstances or of logic, as in anancasm, but by an immediate attraction for the idea itself, whose nature is divined before the mind possesses it, by the power of sympathy, that is, by virtue of the continuity of mind. (CP: 6.307)

In connection to this, there is not a state of “anything goes” concerning the invention and interpretation of the metaphorical sign. Thus, the metaphorical parallelism is motivated. Haley puts forth a similar interpretation.

…not just any fiat or fancy that brings two contrary objects together in an anomalous connection, however imaginative, can qualify as… a metaphor… the choice of metaphoric ”vehicle” – the icon whose… representative character is necessarily what it is by virtue of the…character of its object – is not by any means a totally free choice or a ”stylistic” option. (47)

Consequently, the metaphorical idea or the qualitative potential is real – sui generis – with close affinity to Peirce’s realistic viewpoint. But, of course, the idea only has its distinctive existence when it becomes actualized, is made an event, or becomes something particular (Secondness) that can be included in some general category in a process of reasoning or communication (Thirdness). Or maybe better put: also the indexical-referential and the symbolic conventional is at play in the invention and interpretation of the metaphorical similarity – to be meaningful a metaphor must be related to a universe of discourse, being fictive or real (a condition which relates to what might be called the representative condition of the metaphor), and represent something for someone, i.e. be based on an idea of a representamen, which is made possible by discursive registers and code-parameters (a condition which relates to what might be called the interpretative condition of the metaphor).

The metaphor as a symbolic mediated icon

To Peirce, there are no pure signs. In “The Short Logic” (c. 1893), he wrote:

A Symbol is a sign naturally fit to declare that the set of objects which is denoted by whatever set of indices may be in certain ways attached to it is represented by an icon associated with it. To show what this complicated definition means, let us take as an example of a symbol the word “loveth”. Associated with this word is an idea, which is the mental icon of one person loving another. Now we are to understand that “loveth” occurs in a sentence; for what it may mean by itself, if it means anything, is not the question. Let the sentence, then, be “Ezekiel loveth Huldah”. Ezekiel and Huldah must, then, be or contain indices; for without indices it is impossible to designate what one is talking about. Any mere description would leave it uncertain whether they were not mere characters in a ballad; but whether they be so or not, indices can designate them. Now the effect of the word “loveth” is that the pair of objects denoted by the pair of indices Ezekiel and Huldah is represented by the icon, or the image we have in our minds of a lover and his beloved. (CP: 2.295)

Consequently, even if Peirce defined the metaphor as a representamen and as an icon, he only stressed its most salient semeiotic mechanism, not the only one. Thus, the metaphor is also a symbolically mediated icon. Or, as P. Henle (1958) accentuates in his very fine article “Metaphor“, reflecting on the following lines from Virginia Woolf’s collection of poems “Between the Acts”: “An obliging thrush hopped across the lawn; a coil of pinkish rubber twisted in its beak”:

…the icon is not presented, but is merely described. In the sentence from Virginia Woolf, we are not given the coil of rubber – a piece of rubber could not be part of the sentence – rather we are giving a description of such a coil…This situation regarding the icon may be stated in a number of ways…one might say that not the icon but its essence is brought before the reader. Again, to say approximately the same thing more safely, one may say that what is presented is a formula for the construction of icons. Thus Virginia Woolf may be saying something like: “that any coil of pinkish rubber of a seize to be carried by a thrush and you have an icon of what I mean”. Metaphor then becomes a particular metaphoric statement whose differentia is the following: In a metaphor some terms symbolize the icon and others symbolize what is iconized. (176-77)

In this perspective and by virtue of its symbolic mechanism of semeiosis, the metaphor does not identify the things it refers to in themselves. It does not show us “a coil of pinkish rubber”, or performs a scene in where a “bird is picking up a coil of pinkish rubber moving like a wriggling worm”. But the metaphor presupposes that we imagine these things, i.e. that we can associate these things with the metaphorical representamen by virtue of some code-parameters and a universe of discourse. Thus, the metaphor is a kind of implicit instruction or, maybe better, formula for, as L. R. Factor writes in his fine article “Peirce’s definition of metaphor and its consequences”: “…what would be a perceived similarity, if we were to pass from the situation or event described to the situation or event actually encountered in experience” (FACTOR, 1996: 231). Henle also accentuates this important feature in the following way:

Metaphor…is analyzable into a double relationship. First, using symbols, directions are giving for finding an object or situation. This use of language is quite ordinary. Second, it is implied that any object or situation fitting the direction may serve as an icon of what one wishes to describe. (88)

In short, the hypoiconicity of the metaphor also relates to the relation of parallelism between the symbolic objects. Thus, the relation of mediation is mediated by these objects, and it can be discovered by these, but never invented. One may think the latter, since Henle writes: “…it is implied that object… fitting the direction may serve as an icon”. However, we choose not to read Henle’s description as an undermining of the ultimate reality of the relation of parallelism, that is, we understand the notion of “fitting” as concerning a recognition of the real, a notion which is fully consistent with what Factor writes above, namely: “…what would be a perceived similarity”. We only wish to stress, supported by Henle, that the metaphor also is a symbolically mediated icon, that the metaphorical representamen does not stand in an immediate, but rather mediate relation to its object. Consequently, we have not abandoned the idea that the Peircean relation of parallelism is real and, thereby, depending on: “…the nature of real possibility” (46), as Haley (1988) also accentuates. As a symbolically mediated icon the metaphorical semeiosis also expresses its particular cognitive function. According to Peirce, the metaphor understood as a new way of using language may cause a new way of thinking, or is in fact a new way of thinking (cf. SØRENSEN; THELLEFSEN & MOTH. 2007; PETRELLI, 2006). Peirce stressed the important cognitive function of the metaphor in the following way: “…a pure idea without metaphor… is an onion with a peel” (EP II: 392), and he showed how it is through the discovery of a parallelism between e.g. two different universes of experience that it is possible to gain new knowledge. In a non-identified text fragment he wrote:

We are going to shock the physiological psychologists, for once, by attempting, not an account of a hypothesis about the brain, but a description of an image which shall correspond, point by point, to the different features of consciousness. Consciousness is rather like a bottomless lake in which ideas are suspended at different depths… The meaning of this metaphor is that those which are deeper are discernible only by a greater effort, and controlled by much greater effort… The aptness of this metaphor is very great. (CP: 7.553-54)

According to Peirce, there is a salient parallelism between how ideas float around in consciousness and how objects float around in a bottomless lake. To Peirce, the metaphor seems to present a better way of understanding consciousness than any physiological hypothesis presented about the brain. This insight in parallelism consists both in thinking and in seeing. Thinking, so far as the insight causes new symbols; seeing, so far as the insight causes an understanding of the various possibilities of combination, which is suggested by the parallelism. This “aptness”, mentioned by Peirce, regards the ability of the metaphor to make parallelisms visible; a parallelism which is predestined and not produced by virtue of the metaphorical projection. So, according to Peirce, metaphor is not merely a rhetorical device or a decorative ornamentation, primarily to be found within literary and poetic discourses (a view the metaphor often has been associated with during its long and rather complicated history). On the contrary, metaphor permeates all forms of discourse and expression and takes on a privileged position in the ongoing development of signifying processes, being structural to the very process itself as a symbolically mediated icon.



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