Sign Relations • Comment 10

Re: Peirce List DiscussionJFS

Three-Headed Dogs and Triadic Sign Relations

Peirce’s “Sop to Cerberus” got tossed about quite a bit in our discussions across the Web this millennium.  Here’s a record of one occasion from the days when our discussions bridged over multiple perspectives, in this instance the Peirce List and its parallel Arisbe List, the French SemioCom, and the Standard Upper Ontology Working Group:

There is a critical passage where Peirce explains the relationship between his popular illustrations and his technical theory of signs.

It is clearly indispensable to start with an accurate and broad analysis of the nature of a Sign.  I define a Sign as anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which effect I call its Interpretant, that the latter is thereby mediately determined by the former.  My insertion of “upon a person” is a sop to Cerberus, because I despair of making my own broader conception understood.  (Peirce 1908, Selected Writings, p. 404).

I have long connected this passage with Peirce’s much earlier “metaphorical argument” where he changes the addressee of a word — that to which it stands for something — from a person, to that person’s memory, to “a particular remembrance or image in that memory”, to wit, “the one which is the mental equivalent of the word … in short, its interpretant.”

Here is a passage from Peirce that is decisive in clearing up the relationship between the interpreter and the interpretant …

I think we need to reflect upon the circumstance that every word implies some proposition or, what is the same thing, every word, concept, symbol has an equivalent term — or one which has become identified with it, — in short, has an interpretant.

Consider, what a word or symbol is;  it is a sort of representation.  Now a representation is something which stands for something.  I will not undertake to analyze, this evening, this conception of standing for something — but, it is sufficiently plain that it involves the standing to something for something.  A thing cannot stand for something without standing to something for that something.  Now, what is this that a word stands to?  Is it a person?

We usually say that the word homme stands to a Frenchman for man.  It would be a little more precise to say that it stands to the Frenchman’s mind — to his memory.  It is still more accurate to say that it addresses a particular remembrance or image in that memory.  And what image, what remembrance?  Plainly, the one which is the mental equivalent of the word homme — in short, its interpretant.  Whatever a word addresses then or stands to, is its interpretant or identified symbol.  …

The interpretant of a term, then, and that which it stands to are identical.  Hence, since it is of the very essence of a symbol that it should stand to something, every symbol — every word and every conception — must have an interpretant — or what is the same thing, must have information or implication.  (Peirce 1866, Chronological Edition 1, pp. 466–467).

As I read the long arc of Peirce’s work, the greater significance of the transformation he suggests at these points is not the shift from one type of interpreter to another, however compelling the consideration of life-forms in general as sign-processing agents may be, but the change of perspective that pulls our exclusive focus on representative agents of semiosis back to a properly relational point of view and the triadic sign relations that generate competent semiotic conduct.  But Peirce made this transformation early on in his work, and even more strikingly in its first trials.  Viewed in that light I think I share Peirce’s despair that its full impact has yet to be felt.


  • Peirce, C.S. (1866), “The Logic of Science, or, Induction and Hypothesis”, Lowell Lectures of 1866, pp. 357–504 in Writings of Charles S. Peirce : A Chronological Edition, Volume 1, 1857–1866, Peirce Edition Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1982.
  • Peirce, C.S. (1908), “Letters to Lady Welby”, Chapter 24, pp. 380–432 in Charles S. Peirce : Selected Writings (Values in a Universe of Chance), Edited with Introduction and Notes by Philip P. Wiener, Dover Publications, New York, NY, 1966.


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7 Responses to Sign Relations • Comment 10

  1. Pingback: Survey of Pragmatic Semiotic Information • 4 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

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