Actions of signs and acts of meaning

As explained in Chapter 15, mental activities (such as walking and thinking) are both semiotic and systemic. ‘The system must be, to some degree, indeterminate in order to be sculpted by the dynamic movement context, which includes not only internal and external forces but changes in the goals and intentions of the mover’ (Thelen and Smith 1994, 77). Likewise the semiosic process or action of determination can only occur in a context of prior indeterminacy. Many of Peirce’s late definitions of ‘sign’ emphasize that its triadic action is partly being determined (by its dynamic object) and partly determining (its interpretant):

a sign endeavours to represent, in part at least, an Object, which is therefore in a sense the cause, or determinant, of the sign even if the sign represents its object falsely. But to say that it represents its Object implies that it affects a mind, and so affects it as, in some respect, to determine in that mind something that is mediately due to the Object. That determination of which the immediate cause, or determinant, is the Sign, and of which the mediate cause is the Object may be termed the Interpretant.

CP 6.347 (c.1909)

It seems that the representation of the Object by the sign is inseparable from the determination (or causation) of the sign by the Object, and from the determination of the Interpretant by the sign. In the last sentence of the quote above, the ‘determination’ which ‘may be termed the Interpretant’ is the result, or effect, of the determining actiondetermination in that sense – by the sign which ‘affects a mind.’ In Peirce’s usage, this term does not refer only to human minds, as every animal has a mind adapted to its requirements (CP 5.603, 1903). For our purposes we may define a mind (or ‘quasi-mind,’ as Peirce sometimes calls it) as anything capable of being determined by a sign to an interpretant.

A similar Peircean definition says that a sign

is anything, of whatsoever mode of being, which mediates between an object and an interpretant; since it is both determined by the object relatively to the interpretant, and determines the interpretant in reference to the object, in such wise as to cause the interpretant to be determined by the object through the mediation of this “sign.”

The object and the interpretant are thus merely the two correlates of the sign; the one being antecedent, the other consequent of the sign.
EP2:410 (MS 318, 1907)

That which is antecedent to something is before it in time, place or logical order; the consequent of it follows ‘as an effect or result, or as a necessary inference’ (CD). Reasoning proceeds from antecedent to consequent, and normally attributes the same sequential order to cause and effect (RLT 201ff.). The object being antecedent and the interpretant consequent of the sign attributes that same sequential order to the determination of the sign by its dynamic object and its interpretant by the sign, and to the mediate determination of the interpretant by the object. Thus determination as the essential sign-action takes time – yet the mediate determination must take place at the same time as the other two determinations involved in a moment of semiosis.

When we represent this moment as a step in semiosis (analogous to a step in walking), we regard sign, object and interpretant as the three correlates of a triadic relation, as if the three were separate entities or subjects connected by the one relation. The transitive action of determining a subject causes it to become determinate in some respect in which it was indeterminate before. Peirce defines this in logical terms:

A subject is determinate in respect to any character which inheres in it or is (universally and affirmatively) predicated of it, as well as in respect to the negative of such character, these being the very same respect. In all other respects it is indeterminate.

CP 5.447, EP2:350

Predication is a kind of sign-action, specifically the action of a proposition (sign) upon its subject (the sign’s object). Determination moves in the opposite direction: object (antecedent) determines sign to determine interpretant (consequent). As we have seen above, this directionality also applies to what Peirce called ‘the logic of events’ (RLT) – and in Peirce’s view, the concept of causal sequence is derived from the concept of logical consequence.

Even a future event can only be determinate in so far as it is a consequent. Now the concept of a consequent is a logical concept. It is derived from the concept of the conclusion of an argument. But an argument is a sign of the truth of its conclusion; its conclusion is the rational interpretation of the sign.


‘New Elements’ (1904) is another essay where Peirce points to the entanglement of causal conceptions with the logical concepts of argument, truth, conclusion and interpretation. Logic, he writes,

speaks of an antecedent as that which, being known, something else, the consequent, may also be known. In our vernacular, the latter is inaccurately called a consequence, a word that the precise terminology of logic reserves for the proposition expressing the relation of any consequent to its antecedent, or for the fact which this proposition expresses. The conception of the relation of antecedent and consequent amounts, therefore, to a confusion of thought between the reference of a sign to its meaning, the character which it attributes to its object, and its appeal to an interpretant. But it is the former of these which is the more essential. The knowledge that the sun has always risen about once in each 24 hours (sidereal time) is a sign whose object is the sun, and (rightly understood) a part of its signification is the rising of the sun tomorrow morning. The relation of an antecedent to its consequent, in its confusion of the signification with the interpretant, is nothing but a special case of what occurs in all action of one thing upon another, modified so as to be merely an affair of being represented instead of really being. It is the representative action of the sign upon its object. For whenever one thing acts upon another it determines in that other a quality that would not otherwise have been there.


The ‘representative action of the sign upon its object’ is the cognitive determination of the object, as when the scientific investigator determines the probable truth or falsity of a hypothesis. In a sense, then, cognitive determination (inquiry), as an action upon the object, is the reverse of the semiosic determination of the sign (and interpretant) by the object, as if it were the other side of the same coin. Cognitive determination is essentially triadic, while ‘action of one thing upon another’ is essentially dyadic; yet Peirce says that cognitive (i.e. semiotic) determination ‘is nothing but a special case of’ causal determination. This accounts for the ‘confusion of the signification with the interpretant,’ or confusion of representative action with interpretive action. This confusion results naturally from the nature of the argument, which is the main semiotic instrument and embodiment of inquiry, because this kind of sign actually fuses causal with cognitive determination.

According to Peirce (above), ‘an argument is a sign of the truth of its conclusion’ – not the sign of its conclusion, but of the truth, which it thus takes to be its object. Now a dynamic object, ‘since it is conceived to act upon the sign, … must be conceived as singular, not general’ (EP2:404).

Indeed, all propositions refer to one and the same determinately singular subject, well-understood between all utterers and interpreters; namely, to The Truth, which is the universe of all universes, and is assumed on all hands to be real.

CP 5.506 (c.1905)

In other words, the genuine proposition (like any genuine symbol) must involve a genuine index, a sign causally or dyadically determined by its object, as the orientation of a weathercock is by the weather (to use Peirce’s favorite example). An index does not act as a sign until it determines an interpretant, but when it does act semiosically, its indexicality (its ‘real relation’ to its object) is antecedent to its acting as an index. Indeed the dyadic action of its object upon it may precede the triadic action of reading it by many thousands of years, in archaeology for example. Yet the interpretive action is triadic because it involves the determination of the index by its object, so that the proposition involving that index represents its object as real.

Turning from the proposition to the argument, we find another layer of involvement: the argument must involve a proposition (CP 2.253, EP2:293), just as the proposition involves an index (which in turn must involve an icon in order to convey information). Indeed the argument, being also a symbol and a legisign, involves in its action all of the other sign types listed in Peirce’s tenfold classification of them (in his 1903 ‘Syllabus’). This might explain Peirce’s claim that the Universe, ‘being precisely an argument’ (EP2:194), is ‘perfused with signs’ (EP2:394), assuming that the Universe perfused with signs is the same ‘universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as “the truth”’ (EP2:394). But does it explain how the object of an argument can be ‘the truth’ (of its conclusion), if the object ‘must be conceived as singular, not general’ (EP2:404), while at the same time the ‘Argument must be a Symbol, or Sign whose Object is a General Law or Type’ (EP2:293)? This apparent contradiction arises partly from another ‘confusion’ related to the concept of an object, which Peirce unravels in MS 318 (EP2:404-9); but mostly it arises from the nature of the Argument.

To repeat the remark quoted above from Peirce’s ‘New Elements’:

The conception of the relation of antecedent and consequent amounts, therefore, to a confusion of thought between the reference of a sign to its meaning, the character which it attributes to its object, and its appeal to an interpretant. But it is the former of these which is the more essential.

The sign’s reference to the character it attributes to its object is ‘more essential’ to the function of a proposition. But equally essential to the function of an argument, or perhaps more so, is ‘its appeal to an interpretant.’ We may infer this from the following definitions of argument as given by Peirce:

An Argument is a Sign which, for its Interpretant, is a Sign of law. Or we may say that a Rheme is a sign which is understood to represent its object in its characters merely; that a Dicisign is a sign which is understood to represent its object in respect to actual existence; and that an Argument is a Sign which is understood to represent its Object in its character as Sign.

CP 2.252, EP2:292

The Interpretant of the Argument represents it as an instance of a general class of Arguments, which class on the whole will always tend to the truth. It is this law, in some shape, which the argument urges; and this “urging” is the mode of representation proper to Arguments.

CP 2.253, EP2:293

an Argument … is essentially intended to be understood as representing what it represents only in virtue of the logical habit which would bring any logical Interpreter to assent to it. We may express this by saying that the Final (or quasi-intended) Interpretant of an Argument represents it as representing its Object after the manner of a Symbol.

CP 4.572 (1906)

An Argument may be defined as a Sign which intends itself to be understood as fulfilling its function.

MS 295, 1906 (quoted by Stjernfelt 2014, 78)

The function of any action is ‘its purpose together with the general idea,—not, however, the plan,—of the means of attaining that purpose’ (EP2:389). In other words, its final cause only partially determines what actually happens, as it is itself indeterminate to a degree, just as a sign is objectively indeterminate (CP 5.447, EP2:350). Actually carrying out a function such as that of a ‘Sign of law’ requires a cooperation of efficient and final causes. Each moment of semiosis is another iteration of the meaning cycle whose function is to efficiently and continuously modify the habits (or final causes) which in turn determine subsequent (and consequent) actions (as well as their other interpretants). The argument, as the kind of sign that most explicitly ‘appeals to an interpretant,’ manifests the implicit directionality, the feeling/quality of forward motion, which is essential to reasoning, semiosis, intentionality and determination, even to the flow of time itself.

Peirce felt that the best and most iconic representation of the reasoning process was his system of Existential Graphs, considered as ‘moving pictures of thought’ (CP 4.8, 1906). As he remarked in his ‘Prolegomena to an Apology for Pragmaticism’ (1906),

this System leads to a different conception of the Proposition and Argument from the traditional view that a Proposition is composed of Names, and that an Argument is composed of Propositions. It is a matter of insignificant detail whether the term Argument be taken in the sense of the Middle Term, in that of the Copulate of Premisses, in that of the setting forth of Premisses and Conclusion, or in that of the representation that the real facts which the premisses assert (together, it may be, with the mode in which those facts have come to light) logically signify the truth of the Conclusion. In any case, when an Argument is brought before us, there is brought to our notice (what appears so clearly in the Illative Transformations of Graphs) a process whereby the Premisses bring forth the Conclusion, not informing the Interpreter of its Truth, but appealing to him to assent thereto. This Process of Transformation, which is evidently the kernel of the matter, is no more built out of Propositions than a motion is built out of positions.

CP 4.572

Accordingly, we will perhaps understand the various kinds of signs (and triadic relations) as products of analysis of that Process of Transformation which most fully represents itself in the form of the Argument. In other words, we might best understand the Proposition in terms of its functional involvement in the Argument, the Index in terms of its functional involvement in the Proposition, and so on. We might likewise understand Sign, Object and Interpretant, the three correlates of the one triadic relation, not as subjects or things in themselves, but as concepts abstracted from that Process of Transformation for the purpose of representing how triadic action works. This may be the best way of grounding Peirce’s semiotic/logic in his phaneroscopy, which likewise abstracts the concepts of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness as the indecomposable ‘elements’ of the continuous universal process of appearing. For here too the involvement of Firstness in genuine Secondness, and of both in genuine Thirdness, are essential. But for the time being, we will here conclude this particular episode in the universal process of semiosis.

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