Are you sure?

a short essay in Content and Context (TS ·15) – it includes plenty of links you can use for more context or disambiguation.

As a companion piece, i recommend a podcast (‘Frankly’ #60) by Nate Hagens, where he asks the question “What (if anything) are you absolutely certain of?” – and lists 17 answers of his own. On Youtube it’s at

If you’d like to participate in a small-group discussion of this excerpt from Turning Signs, send Gary an email proposing a date and time that’s good for you, and we’ll see who else is available at that time, and i’ll send everyone a Zoom link for it.

For a while we had a series of regular sessions to confer about the chapters of Turning Signs in order, and we might revive that if enough people can make a long-term commitment to a regular time slot for this purpose. Let me know if you’re interested. Meanwhile we can try having single sessions on stand-alone points from the book at any time you choose.


And they leap so looply, looply, as they link to light.

Finnegans Wake 226

Symbols (and even natural or non-symbolic dicisigns as self-representing signs) are the semiotic equivalent, or mental manifestation, of the brain processes that appear as consciousness. This self-representation is a feedforward-feedback cycle like the meaning cycle. Thomas Metzinger explains:

In conscious visual processing, for example, high-level information is dynamically mapped back to low-level information, but it all refers to the same retinal image. Each time your eyes land on a scene (remember, your eye makes about three saccades per second), there is a feedforward-feedback cycle about the current image, and that cycle gives you the detailed conscious percept of that scene. You continuously make conscious snapshots of the world via these feedforward-feedback cycles. In a more general sense, the principle is that the almost continuous feedback-loops from higher to lower areas create an ongoing cycle, a circular nested flow of information, in which what happened a few milliseconds ago is dynamically mapped back to what is coming in right now. In this way, the immediate past continuously creates a context for the present— it filters what can be experienced right now. We see how an old philosophical idea is refined and spelled out by modern neuroscience on the nuts-and-bolts level. A standing context-loop is created. And this may be a deeper insight into the essence of the world-creating function of conscious experience: Conscious information seems to be integrated and unified precisely because the underlying physical process is mapped back onto itself and becomes its own context. If we apply this idea not to single representations, such as the visual experience of an apple in your hand, but to the brain’s unified portrait of the world as a whole, then the dynamic flow of conscious experience appears as the result of a continuous large-scale application of the brain’s prior knowledge to the current situation. If you are conscious, the overall process of perceiving, learning, and living creates a context for itself— and that is how your reality turns into a lived reality.

— Metzinger 2009, 31-32

Wild wide web

The semiotic point of view is the perspective that results from the sustained attempt to live reflectively with and follow out the consequences of one simple realization: the whole of our experience, from its most primitive origins in sensation to its most refined achievements of understanding, is a network or web of sign relations.

— John Deely (1990, Chapter 2)

The knights who know knit

In the marvelous thirteenth-century legend called La Queste del Saint Graal, it is told that when the Knights of the Round Table set forth, each on his own steed, in quest of the Holy Grail, they departed separately from the castle of King Arthur. “And now each one,” we are told, “went the way upon which he had decided, and they set out into the forest at one point and another, there where they saw it to be thickest” (la ou il la voient plus espesse); so that each, entering of his own volition, leaving behind the known good company and table of Arthur’s towered court, would experience the unknown pathless forest in his own heroic way.

— Joseph Campbell (1968), 36

But by writing thithaways end to end and turning, turning and end to end hithaways writing and with lines of litters slittering up and louds of latters slettering down, the old semetomyplace and jupetbackagain from Ham Let Rise till Hum Lit Sleep, where in the waste is the wisdom?

The Restored Finnegans Wake, 90-1

Wild goose chase: 2. fig. An erratic course taken or led by one person (or thing) and followed (or that may be followed) by another (or taken by a person in following his own inclinations or impulses); in later use (the origin being forgotten) apprehended as ‘a pursuit of something as unlikely to be caught as the wild goose’ (Johnson); a foolish, fruitless or hopeless quest.

Oxford English Dictionary

The point of the probe is always in the heart of the explorer: What is my answer to the question of the nature of knowing? I surrender to the belief that my knowing is a small part of a wider integrated knowing that knits the entire biosphere or creation.

— Gregory Bateson (1979, 98)

Awakening symbols

Is it possible for one person to be “enlightened” separately from others? We might ask the same question about a single symbol.

Is it possible that one single symbol could be awakened in isolation from all others? Probably not. Just as objects in the world always exist in a context of other objects, so symbols are always connected to a network of other symbols. This does not necessarily mean that symbols can never be disentangled from each other. To make a rather simple analogy, males and females always arise in a species together: their roles are completely intertwined, and yet this does not mean that a male cannot be distinguished from a female. Each is reflected in the other, as the beads in Indra’s net reflect each other.…

The fact that a symbol cannot be awakened in isolation does not diminish the separate identity of the symbol; in fact, quite to the contrary: a symbol’s identity lies precisely in its ways of being connected (via potential triggering links) to other symbols. The network by which symbols can potentially trigger each other constitutes the brain’s working model of the real universe, as well as of the alternate universes which it considers (and which are every bit as important for the individual’s survival in the real world as the real world is).

Hofstadter (1980, 359-60)

On this page, Hofstadter is referring to the instantiation of symbols in the brain, perhaps as ‘a neural network plus a mode of excitation.’ But what he says here is consistent with the concept of ‘symbol system’ in Turning Signs, with Peirce’s use of the word ‘symbol,’ and with his remarks about the ‘perfect sign.’

Dharma thoughts

Peirce: we should say that we are in thought, not thoughts in us. Thought, insofar as it is determinate, is the context of our thinking. But thought as legisign, as the Type of which our thoughts are tokens (instances, replicas), ‘does not exist; it only determines things that do exist’ (CP 5.537) and events that actually happen, including mental events. Thought as a ‘definitely significant Form’ (Peirce) determines the content of all signs; this determining Thought is the universal logos – or in Dogen’s terms, the all-encompassing buddha-dharma.

All things speak this dharma. Who can hear it?

Investigate this question in detail throughout your life, throughout many lives. The question also can work as a statement. This statement is the skin, flesh, bones, and marrow.

— Dogen (Tanahashi 2010, 552)

Actually, hearing dharma is not limited to ear sense and ear consciousness. You hear dharma with complete power, complete mind, complete body, and complete way from before your parents were born, before the Empty Eon, through the entire future, the unlimited future. You can hear dharma with body first and mind last.

Such ways of hearing the dharma are all effective. Don’t think that you are not benefited by hearing the dharma if it does not reach your mind consciousness. Effacing mind, dropping body, you hear the dharma and see the result. With no mind and no body, you should hear dharma and benefit from it. Experiencing such moments is how all buddha ancestors become buddhas and attain ancestorhood.

Ordinary people cannot understand that dharma power transforms body and mind. The boundary of body and mind cannot be encompassed. When the effect of hearing dharma is planted in the field of body and mind, it never decays. It is bound to grow and bear fruit.

Foolish people may think that when we hear dharma, if we do not advance in understanding and cannot remember the teaching, there will be no benefit from it. They say it is essential to learn broadly and memorize extensively with our entire body and mind. They think that forgetting the teaching, absentmindedly leaving the place of instruction, creates no benefit and no accomplishment. They think in this way because they have not met a genuine teacher and encountered themselves. One who has not received authentic transmission face to face cannot be a genuine teacher. A genuine teacher is one who has received transmission authentically from buddha to buddha.

Indeed, to memorize in mind consciousness and not to forget is exactly how the power of hearing the dharma encompasses the mind and encompasses consciousness. At the very moment when this is done, you realize the power of encompassing body; encompassing past body, encompassing mind; encompassing past mind, encompassing future mind; encompassing cause and condition, action and result; encompassing form, essence, body, and activity; encompassing buddha; encompassing ancestor; encompassing self and other; and encompassing skin, flesh, bones, and marrow. The power of encompassing speech and encompassing sitting and lying down is manifest throughout the entire earth and sky.

— Dogen, SBGZ ‘Mujo Seppo’ (Tanahashi 2010, 553-4)

Gebrauch in der Sprache

For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

— Wittgenstein (PI I.43)

What a word means also depends on where and when you use it. ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ is one of several popular names for the common weed Daucus Carota – in North America. In England, ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ is the name of an entirely different plant, Anthriscus sylvestris (Heiser 2003, 44).

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.

Variability evolves

Variables can be evaluated only in relation to constants. But constancy is relative to the scale of the context.

A process is constant relative to the variables named in a description of it. Some terms of description may be constant within the framework of the description. But these constants may become variables when the context is a living process.