The Subject. Philosophical Foundations. Andy Blunden 2005/6

Charles Sanders Peirce: The Subject as Semiosis

Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced ‘purse’, 1839-1914) is a truly enigmatic figure. Born in Cambridge Massachusetts, his father was an astronomer and well-off. Peirce followed his father into natural science and developed his love for logic at a very young age. He was a true eccentric and a manic depressive. Ironically for the founder of semiotics, he was a lousy communicator and readily made enemies, with the result that he never succeeded in gaining an academic post and died in poverty.

Peirce coined neologisms like others made paragraphs. He left 80,000 pages of manuscript behind him, most of which had not been published during his lifetime, and many remain unpublished to this day. Insofar as he was known at all, he was known as a scientist and he did make original contributions in natural science. It was only after World War Two that his work became widely known and he is now remembered as a philosopher. However, he is not one of those philosophers who really belong to a later time when at last the spirit of the times catches up with them. His two friends, William James and John Dewey, both remained in close communication with him, materially supported him and repeatedly and in the strongest terms affirmed their debt to Peirce. And James and Dewey were both communicators par excellence; Dewey was an active social reformer and political player whose influence has undoubtedly contributed to shaping the modern world. In the history of philosophy and in particular in the shaping of the concept of the Subject, Peirce stands higher than both. Peirce is the originator of both Pragmatism and Semiotics.

Peirce’s works are near to impenetrable, but I am fortunate in that a magnificent little book, Peirce’s Approach to the Self. A Semiotic Perspective on Human Subjectivity by the Peirce scholar, Vincent Colapietro (1989), goes straight to the question of Peirce’s view of subjectivity and I rely largely on Colapietro in order to summarise Peirce’s views on the subject. The matters of substance which I intend to draw from Peirce, will of course be reliant upon my own reading of Peirce.

According to Colapietro:

“[Peirce]’s refusal to eliminate the acting subject along with the Cartesian cogito is one of the important respects in which Peirce’s semiotic vision is superior to the anti-humanist orientation of Saussure’s structuralist and poststructuralist offspring. For these offspring, the decentering of the subject amounts to nothing less than the liquidation of the agent; for Peirce, the repudiation of the Cartesian starting point means the recovery of flesh-and-blood actors who are continuously defining themselves through their give-and-take relationships with both the natural world and each other.” [Colapietro, Introduction]

The key concept in Peirce’s philosophy is sign and sign-activity (’semiosis’). But the meaning of ‘sign’ for Peirce is extraordinarily general, coming close to being a ‘substance’; the sign is the basic relation by means of which Peirce understands reality, though he is clear that the being of a sign transcends any and all of its instantiations, that the being of anything is not exhausted in its being a sign, and in fact, in order for anything to be a sign, it must also be something other than a sign.

Peirce takes the basic idea of a sign and generalises it. A footprint is a sign for example, of the passage of an animal across soft ground, a social movement is the sign of a particular kind of injustice, a word is a sign, as is a library, and a person is a sign.

Peirce begins with a notion which we associate with communication, and in that sense ‘sign’ is significantly different from ‘image’ or ‘concept’, which we associate with representation rather than communication. He then generalises the idea so that it becomes a category which incorporates causality, system, concept, ... Semiotics (the study of semiosis) thus constitutes an approach to the understanding of the human condition and the universe in general. Peirce is easily able to render representation in semiotic terms; the converse operation which confronts other writers, of rendering communication in terms of representation, is far less successful.

‘Semiosis’ means ‘sign-activity’ and for Peirce the Subject is semiosis, but then, so is everything else. Peirce therefore falls under that class of thinkers, ‘externalists’, who see the subject as being in mind, rather than the mind being in the subject. Mind (i.e. semiosis) is something which is essentially ubiquitous, of which a self-conscious human being is just a node. Rather than seeing thought as something in the person, a person is in thought; but Peirce does not deny or even minimise the importance of the inner life of the mind or regard consciousness as an ‘epiphenomenon’ of semiosis.

The Subject is a species of semiosis, but semiosis is a process which is going on in inorganic nature as well, even though semiosis is self-evidently a category which is pre-eminently suited to representing culture and human life. Peirce has conceived semiosis as a category of logic, so, like mathematical relations, it is seen as having a reality in the external world in no way dependent on the activity of mind. Semiosis is going on everywhere and thought is merely a species of semiosis. Rather than, for example, seeing an idea like ‘genetic code’ as a kind of anthropomorphism, we could see ‘code’, like ‘sign’, as first of all a category of objective, natural activity.

Rather than seeing communication as the transmission of thoughts from one mind to another, thought is itself essentially a kind of dialogue, inherent in the very idea of sign-activity. All those who contributed to the notion of subject up to this point, even Hegel, still oblige us to place communication at a level resting on an underlying level of being, but for Peirce communication is inherent in mind itself.

When, in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels says: “men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. Necessity created the organ [of speech]” this encapsulated an underlying prejudice which Marx and Engels shared with all their predecessors: communication pre-supposed some representation to be communicated. By making a category of communication, semiosis, the basic category or substance of his universe, of cause and effect, of being itself, Peirce gives us an approach to subjectivity which is even better suited to dealing with problems of the modern world, in which communication is so fundamental to our very existence. Subjectivity is sign activity.

Further, because Peirce’s understanding of semiosis arose from his efforts to understand the process of scientific enquiry, the idea of a sign, a ‘clue’ or anomaly which calls for further investigation, is very fruitful as a way of understanding development in the world. Signs are things which develop, take on more and more meaning through their own activity. Altogether it is a very dynamic representation of reality.

What is a Sign?

The basic schema of semiosis is the triadic relation:


“A sign ... is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” The Object could be a person who forms a sign (in respect to something they want for example) which is interpreted by someone else, the Interpretant; or the Sign could be some quality or event which is generated by some condition or event (the Object) and is interpreted by or simply affects someone or something else (an Interpretant). The Interpretant could be a person listening to a piece of music or reading a book (the Sign) expressing someone’s thought, or it could be a crop affected by a cold spell, a sign of the onset of winter; the Interpretant is the “proper significate effect” or outcome of the sign. Both Object and Interpretant are themselves Signs, but signs act only in a certain respect, and do not exhaust the being of their instantiation; for example a sign may be the shape or perhaps the motion of the Object, or whatever, not the whole object. Signs do not occupy a separate reality from Objects or Interpretants, but all are interchangeable forms of reality distinguished only by their momentary role in some semiotic relation.

This triadic process opens the door to an understanding of the development of signs in a way which is radically different from Saussure’s diadic model of signifier and signified. Saussure’s approach splits the world into two separate realms, one of which is the world of signifiers, the other a world of things. These signifiers bear only an arbitrary relationship to what is signified, so what results is a self-contained world of signs. Focussing upon the synchronic relations among signs, Saussure constructs a static structuralism, detached from the world it signifies and its own process of development. by contrast, Peirce’s triadic process avoids this kind of dualism. Sign, Interpretant and Object are all signs, and there is nothing arbitrary about their relationship to one another. Every new relationship between two signs posits a mediating sign. Semiosis thus leads to the continual accretion of meaning by signs.

Peirce’s original aim was to use logic to understand the process of enquiry. A process of enquiry is always initiated by some sign; there is then an ‘initial interpretant’ – the first thought or initial reaction to some unexpected stress or irritation; the initial reaction could be some outward action, or in the case of a human being, it could be a ‘thought experiment’. Further interpretants lead to some general pattern of coping with the stress, which becomes a habit, which according to Peirce is the ‘ultimate interpretant’. By the time an organism’s efforts to control its activity in response to some stress has become fixed as a habit, then an irreversible, material change has been made in the organism. In this way, Peirce has outlined a process of development of a sign which encompasses all kinds of learning processes – “the mind is a sign developing according to the laws of inference.”

In defence of his view of the mind as semiosis, and against the idea of mind as something existing as a condition or substance within the body of an individual, Peirce makes the point that surely the human mind could not be poorer than a word; in order to exist, just like mind, a word must take on some physical form, but it can exist in innumerable such bodies, passing from one to another; likewise, “when I communicate my thought and my sentiments to a friend ... do I not live in his brain as well as in my own – most literally?”

Peirce sees the capacity to carry out ‘thought experiments’ directed at further control of one’s actions, as the distinctively rational mode of semiosis. But he defines mind in terms of its outward manifestations rather than its inward, private appearance. He is able to derive the inwardness and autonomy of mind by the fact that people are able to subject the outward manifestations of mind to control and criticism. For Peirce, the essence of intelligence is this ability to subject its actions to self-control and self-criticism. Thus the ultimate in the development of mind is the formation of habits in which a person deliberately modifies their own semiosis, making in fact a thoroughly material change in their own body by the application of thought. In this, Peirce follows in the fine tradition of Aristotle and Kant, who also saw people’s acquisition of the habits necessary for an ethical life as the central problem of social life.

Peirce notes that all ‘deliberations that really and sincerely agitate our breasts always assume a dialogic form!’ These ‘serious’ thoughts Peirce sees as having the form of a dialogue between a ‘critical self’, on the one hand, and a spontaneous or ‘innovative self’.

“Two things here are all-important to assure oneself of and to remember. The first is that a person is not absolutely an individual. His thoughts are what he is ‘saying to himself,’ that is, is saying to that other self that is just coming into life in the flow of time. When one reasons, it is that critical self that one is trying to persuade; and all thought whatsoever is a sign, and is mostly of the nature of language. The second thing to remember is that the man’s circle of society (however widely or narrowly this phrase may be understood), is a sort of loosely compacted person, in some respects of higher rank than the person of an individual organism.” (5.421)

The critical self represents the habits a person has acquired, while the ‘spontaneous’ self is throwing up challenges to the critical self, but it is the ‘critical self’ which is the ultimate interpretant of the semiotic development of mind.

Categories of sign

Peirce categorises signs according to three ‘trichotomies’. The first trichotomy concerns what kind of thing the sign is, with qualisign, sinisign and legisign, corresponding more or less, to Hegel’s basic categorisation of Notions: particular, individual and universal. The second trichotomy is icon, symbol and index, categorising signs according manner of the connection between the sign and the object: by resemblance, by convention or by an actual connection with the object. The third trichotomy is rheme, dicent and argument, categorising signs according to the manner of the connection between the sign and the interpretant, by supposing, by exhibiting or by arguing.

For the purposes of our current study we are particularly interested in how a person or group of people, how a subject in fact, can be a sign, and how the different categories of sign that Peirce defines shed light on subject-formation. So while it is self-evident that the scope of the notion of sign in Peirce is utterly universal, what concerns us here is how a person (or group of people, social movement, institution, etc.) can be a sign of this or that category.

Let us take each trichotomy in turn.

Qualisign, sinisign and legisign

The first trichotomy depends on how the sign relates to its object. Peirce uses the term “Qualisign” for the “quality of a thing” but I think Hegel’s dialectical conception of the Particular captures this idea better. Peirce says that a qualisign must be embodied in some sinisign, and a “Sinisign” is a thing, or Individual, which in its turn will include many different qualisigns. Peirce’s conception of the relation of Quality and Thing is formal as compared to Hegel’s dialectical conception. A “Legisign” is a universal or category of thing, which may therefore include many Individuals or sinisigns. Peirce is here accepting the formal-logical conception of universals unbounded categories of elements collected in a set through sharing a common attribute. This was, during his lifetime at least, the universally accepted conception in natural science. There is no need therefore repeat what we said in the chapter on Hegel (Ch. 6) about how subjectivity exists in the world through the collaborative activity of human individuals in particular forms of activity organised around a shared understanding of universals.

Symbol, Icon and Index

Peirce’s Semiotics second trichotomy categorising signs into icon (or likeness), index and symbol is however immensely fruitful in the understanding of subjectivity.

Symbol” is derived from the Greek symbola, tablets bearing a contract which was broken in two, each party keeping one half, later a documents attesting to rights held under a treaty between two cities in which each guaranteed citizens of the other the rights they had in their own city, etc.; later it came to mean tokens and signs, symptoms and omens of all kinds, including the meaning symbol had in the 15th century English, a formal statement of belief, a summary of a religious belief of a church or sect, a confession of faith, and by about 1600 had come to mean a formula, motto, maxim, summary or synopsis, as well as something like its modern meaning, or “something that stands for something else by vague suggestion or convention” rather than likeness.

Index” on the other hand originally meant the “index finger” (1400) and came to mean a table of contents for a book, and by 1600 was a wooden pointer, the hand of a clock or sundial, in short, a pointer.

Icon” derives from the Greek eikon, likeness, image or portrait, etc., in English dates from the 1570s and meant a picture of something, especially an animal, or a portrait, as well as a solid monumental figure and a realistic representation of something in writing.

In the specialised meaning that Peirce gave to these different types of sign in the late 19th century, he was tolerably faithful to these original usages.

“Firstly, there are likenesses, or icons; which serve to convey ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating them.

“Secondly, there are indications, or indices; which show something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them. Such is a guidepost, which points down the road to be taken, or a relative pronoun, which is placed just after the name of the thing intended to be denoted, or a vocative exclamation, as “Hi! there,” which acts upon the nerves of the person addressed and forces his attention.

“Thirdly, there are symbols, or general signs, which have become associated with their meanings by usage. Such are most words, and phrases, and speeches, and books, and libraries.” [What is a Sign?, Peirce 1894]


“The likeness [i.e., icon] has no dynamical connection with the object it represents; it simply happens that its qualities resemble those of that object, and excite analogous sensations in the mind for which it is a likeness. But it really stands unconnected with them. The index is physically connected with its object; they make an organic pair. But the interpreting mind has nothing to do with this connection, except remarking it, after it is established. The symbol is connected with its object by virtue of the idea of the symbol-using mind, without which no such connection would exist.” [What is a Sign?, Peirce 1894]

In his Collected Papers we find the following further explanations:

“A pure icon can convey no positive or factual information; for it affords no assurance that there is any such thing in nature.

“... an index ... is a real thing or fact which is a sign of its object by virtue of being connected with it as a matter of fact and by also forcibly introducing upon the mind, quite regardless of it being interpreted as a sign.

“A photograph, for example, not only excites an image, has an appearance, but, owing to its optical connection with the object, is evidence that that appearance corresponds to a reality.

“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.

“Each writing of the three-letters “man” is a replica of the symbol ‘man.’ ...

“[A symbol] consists in the really working general rule that [a replica of it] seen by a person who knows [the symbol] will effect his conduct and thoughts according to a rule. Thus the mode of being of the symbol is different from that of the icon and from that of the index. An icon has such being as belongs to past experience. It exists only as an image in the mind. An index has the being of present experience. The being of a symbol consists in the real fact that something surely will be experienced if certain conditions are satisfied. Namely, it will influence the thought and conduct of its interpreter. [Collected Papers of CS Peirce, 4.447]

“The value of an icon consists in its exhibiting the features of a state of things regarded as if it were purely imaginary. The value of an index is that it assures us of positive fact. The value of a symbol is that it serves to make thought and conduct rational and enables us to predict the future. ... the most perfect of signs are those in which the iconic, indicative, and symbolic characters are blended as equally as possible.” [Collected Papers of CS Peirce, 4.448]

Looking at how we get to know about something, let us have in mind some moral panic, some epidemic or other threat to our health, some political scandal, local swindle or threat to national security, some bold new plan or scientific discovery or technical innovation, some heroic deed or worthwhile project – the kind of idea that can change the social landscape and change the nature of subjectivity everywhere.

First of all, we get to know about a thing and accept its reality through the symbolic register, when an eminent scientist or other expert or teacher – someone with a position in or certificate from an appropriate scientific institute where the socially determined practices of the relevant branch of science (or theology or whatever) are regulated and socially guaranteed – verifies the truth and nature of the thing. The question is not whether something happened or exists, but what it is. We are not ourselves experts (if we are, and we participate in the relevant regulated practices, discourses and institutions, then the relationship is somewhat different) so we only know the symbolic truth of a fact by the testimony of a person or group of people who act as symbol for the fact. This is the process, for example, whereby various talking heads appear on the television screen and present the fact to us as verified in the symbolic register, when we learn something in school, or read it in a textbook. We don’t ourselves ask to see the images from the endoscope, or the completed survey forms, computer print-outs or the relevant papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, but a certain recognisable type of person is able to represent the thing to us as a Symbol.

I hasten to add, that there is nothing of cultural relativism or scepticism in this idea. The scientific practices necessary to verify a fact are socially regulated and verified for the general community by certain kinds of images, words, certificates, practices, discourses, hierarchies, regulations, laws, etc., etc., and it is through this specific network of relations which I call the ‘symbolic register’ that this kind of knowledge is made available outside the institutions which constitute the symbolic register and is put into general circulation.

I mentioned that the semiotic activity within the relevant expert discourse or professional institute is somewhat different. It is in fact this context which Peirce had in mind when he devised the concept of semiosis, and in such a context, the categories of sign must be taken just as defined by Peirce.

What is of interest in a study of the subject is how knowledge, established within an expert discourse, forms the subjectivity of its representatives and that of others outside that discourse and their relation to one another in collaborative activity. These relations and activity in the general community are not subject to the strictures governing processes within the institutions generating expert knowledge, and nor should they be. The idea that decisions requiring expert knowledge should be made in the general community by means of the normal political processes applying in the general community, is as absurd and dangerous as the idea that the truth of things should be established within a scientific institution by the kind of cultural and political processes which operate in the general community.

But of course, the testimony of experts and official wisdom generally is never enough to either convince people of a fact or generate a real social response to a situation which is posed. Something more is always needed. Any number of warnings of global warming or flu epidemics make no impact, however many experts testify to their reality.

There is nothing like a human face; nothing testifies to the reality of something so well as a human face. The person who suffers from a disease, the victim of a crime or a natural disaster, especially if they look sympathetic, if they look just like ‘one of us’.

We are talking about an ‘icon’, a person who represents something by resembling it; it may be that the icon got to be an icon by virtue of having actually suffered the disease or experienced the disaster, but the point of the icon is that they represent the idea, the disease, the moral panic, the danger, the heroic project or whatever, by ‘resemblance’, or more generally by their form, which includes their biography, personality, moral character and so forth, as well as their image.

The icon is the role model, the personification of the project, Rosa Parkes or Nelson Mandela, the martyr or heroine, the Stakhonovite (model worker), the star patient or prototypical case, but also, the newly released paedophile who becomes the focus for a vigilante campaign, Osama bin Laden.

The mutual validation of the icon by the symbol and vice versa is important. The eminent doctor must verify that Lady Di suffered from bulimia and Princess Di needs to affirm her suffering as well. Then millions of young women recognise that they are just like Princess Di. As Fichte said, a subject can get to know themselves as a subject only by finding in the outer world another like themselves. It is one thing to read about a flood or a war or a strange new disease, but when you see someone, just like yourself, whose suffering you also recognise as your own, then you know this thing in a new way, as a reality for you.

But so long as it is just icons and symbols it is still not real. It is only when people actually recognise themselves in the icon and agree with the explanation provided in the symbolic register, the definition given to the condition, the idea, the form of suffering or aspiration for the future, when people actually put up their hand and say, in numbers, “Me too!” that you have something genuine and real. This is the index.

The index is the social movement that rallies around an idea and is summoned up by the actions of a hero, the victims of the epidemic or moral panic who all carry the symptoms of the prototypical star patient, the rank and file who put their lives on the line to follow in the footsteps of a martyr, or simply vote for the program represented by an iconic election candidate.

The most powerful signs are those who combine icon, index and symbol – the philosopher-revolutionary who is not only the iconic hero of the movement, but is also its foremost theorist, the doctor who has become a world expert in a disease they themselves suffer from.

This trichotomy discovered by Peirce correctly identifies, I believe, precisely the three elements required to give a flesh-and-blood reality to subjectivity. A person knows themself by knowing another like themself (an icon or role model), and by participating as a part of a movement, institution or group realising their identity (as an index), and by knowing that their subjectivity is validated as true (through a symbol). Being an icon or a symbol or an index of something (an ideal, a practice, a project or nation, etc.) are the various ways in which a person may relate to an idea and how they represent it as a subject, as well as how they relate to it in their relation to other people.

(Hegel deals with index, icon and symbol in the section of Subjective Spirit on Representation under the headings of Recollection, Imagination and Memory. Hegel here examines the progression of abstraction from the sensuous image of a thing, to a picture of it to a sign up to a symbol. He also considers the development of forms of representation of language from vocal to alphabetic, in which he considers the Chinese use of hieroglyphs as a stunting of the development of writing resulting from what he saw as a defective vocal language of the Chinese! He also touches on representation and symbols in his Aesthetics, but given the stage of development of art in his time, it is not surprising that he was not able to go very far.)

Rheme, Dicent and Argument

A subject (or sign) does not come instantly into the world; a thing or event may happen, and happen suddenly, but it does not thereby instantly enter into subjectivity. Peirce’s third trichotomy brings out the degrees of reality, so to speak, through which subject may pass, from pure fiction or unmediated event to being accepted and understood as a reality.

A “rheme” is how a thing could be, without asserting that it is. Before we can recognise that something is we have to be able to imagine it, and for that it will be necessary to draw on fiction, speculation, story-telling and imagination generally. The person who is able to pretend, to act out a role, even though it is not yet real, makes the first step in making something real. The rheme could be in the symbolic register, an argument that things could be such-and-such a way, or a writer of fiction and other works of the imagination; it could be an icon, as a person who performs the subject, perhaps as an actor or performer of some kind or simply as an exemplar ahead of their time. A rheme cannot be an index.

An index can be a dicent though; a “dicent” is evidence that the subject actually exists, the person who actually dies of bird flu, the child who is actually kidnapped on the way to school or the neighbour who is actually found to have been secretly in league with Osama bin Laden. But this hard evidence is not enough, for things can be accidents or anomalies, isolated events without meaning or significance. Before an isolated event, or even many such isolated events, make an avalanche, an epidemic or an invasion, there has to be an “argument” as to why something must be so, it must be understood in some way as a ‘law’, as a necessity. The argument of course cannot stand on its own, and cannot constitute a subject until there is a sign, some evidence, that it exists.

The rheme is interpreted and has the effect of demonstrating how something could be; the dicent is interpreting and has the effect of demonstrating that, however surprising and inexplicable as it might be, the thing exists; the argument is interpreted as establishing that it must be so, even if it has never been seen and is unimaginable. The artist makes the rheme, the theorist makes the argument and the observer makes the dicent.

Peirce has provided us with a range of concepts which lend themselves to an understanding of subjectivity building on the insights of those thinkers we have considered in earlier chapters. For Peirce himself, these concepts of semiotics lead to a pragmatic conception of the formation of subjects.

According to Peirce the essential function of thought is the resolution of that irritation which is caused by doubt or hesitancy, and in the production of belief, which in turn, involves the establishment in us of a rule of action, or, for short, a habit “The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.” [How to Make our Ideas Clear, 1878] The truth of our inward nature then is finally the efficacy of the actions to which it leads. The use of our imagination to subject what we do in the outer world to criticism and control, is possible because our inner world is made up of a dialogue whose terms are instantiated in the outer material world in which we live before they are embodied in signs in the inner world of our consciousness, subsequently to be turned to the fashioning and control of our actions in the outer world. Peirce’s semiotics is inseparable from his pragmatism. His concept of sign activity is well adapted to the understanding of forms of thought, and yet provides a rich means of understanding collaborative activity.

In summary, for Peirce: