Type, sign and word

According to Chapter 13 of Turning Signs,

A niche in a meaning space is a type of meaning. A niche in a symbolic meaning space can only be occupied by a Legisign, ‘a law that is a Sign.… Every conventional sign is a legisign. It is not a single object, but a general type which, it has been agreed, shall be significant’ (— Peirce, EP2:291).

If we consider a language (such as English or Greek) as a semantic or meaning space, we might say that a niche in that space is occupied by a word. But we might say instead that a word, being a legisign or type and not a single object, is the meaning space, which is ‘occupied’ in actual linguistic practice by tokens of that type or instances of that word, as Peirce says (CP 4.537, 1906).

On the other hand, Peirce also says that ‘Man, homo, ἄνθρωπος are the same sign’ (MS 9), although we would not usually say that they are the same word. This would imply a cross-linguistic meaning space in which different words are instances of the same sign. This would still be a symbolic space, but we might call it a semiotic meaning space, as it is more inclusive than a linguistic one (constituted by a single language). Likewise in his fifth Harvard Lecture of 1903:

Take, for example, any proverb. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” Every time this is written or spoken in English, Greek, or any other language, and every time it is thought of it is one and the same representamen. It is the same with a diagram or picture. It is the same with a physical sign or symptom. If two weathercocks are different signs, it is only in so far as they refer to different parts of the air. … “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθʼ ὁμιλίαι κακαί are one and the same representamen. They are so, however, only so far as they are represented as being so; and it is one thing to say that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and quite a different thing to say that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” and φθείρουσιν ἤθη χρήσθʼ ὁμιλίαι κακαί are two expressions of the same proverb.


The distinction in that last sentence is essentially the distinction between a language and a metalanguage, or between use and mention – or between semiosis and semiotics.


Every moment has its momentum.
Something behind it has just been determined,
and something before it is about to be.
— if we think of time as a thing in motion, like an arrow.
But what if time is the motion itself?
Is the past then before and the future behind?

And what if time is the continuity of presence?

Phenoscopy analyzes ‘whatever is before the mind in any way, as percept, image, experience, thought, habit, hypothesis, etc.’ (Peirce).
What does it mean for something (X) to be ‘before the mind’? Most obviously, X can be an object of your attention, something you are “minding” or conscious of. The sound of the rain, say. But there must be other ways of being ‘before the mind,’ – or ‘in the mind,’ as Peirce sometimes put it. He included ‘thoughts’ and ‘habits’ in his ‘whatever’ list, but you cannot be directly conscious of either.

Thought is often supposed to be something in consciousness; but on the contrary, it is impossible ever actually to be directly conscious of thought. It is something to which consciousness will conform, as a writing may conform to it. Thought is rather of the nature of a habit, which determines the suchness of that which may come into existence, when it does come into existence. Of such a habit one may be conscious of a symptom; but to speak of being directly conscious of a habit, as such, is nonsense.

— Peirce, EP2:269

You can be indirectly conscious of a habit, by using a sign to refer to it, as this sentence has just done. The sign at the moment has to be a replica of a legisign. But habits – including the habits or “laws” of nature – are themselves legisigns. They determine the momentum of the moment by determining what comes into (or goes out of) existence at this time – just as the Thought determines where your thinking and feeling are presently going.

The only kind of sign that can embody this momentum is the argument: for ‘“urging” is the mode of representation proper to Arguments’ (Peirce, EP2:293). Likewise some kind of urging seems to be the mode of life itself, driving all the creatures in its urgent grip like ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (Dylan Thomas).

Every moment has its momentum.

Body image

The whole body senses because it is a self-organizing process. Your current experiencing is in your bodymind not as things are inside containers, but as a move is in the game, a scene in the play, an episode in the story. The game has room for more moves while you live: its emptiness is your freedom, for the time being. The ‘third-person’ view of your body from without is in another, more public process, and only from there can we talk about your brain as ‘constructor’ of your experience.

Turning Signs, Chapter 4

In his 1993 ‘Afterword’ to A Leg to Stand On (p. 192), Oliver Sacks remarks that ‘body-image may be the first mental construct and self-construct there is, the one that acts as a model for all others.’ This view seems to be corroborated by Damasio (2010, 2018) and other neuroscientists. The self-construct which is the body-image, the brain’s mapping of the body as a whole, is the ground floor, so to speak, of consciousness itself as ‘constructed’ by the bodymind.

Consciousness, thus conceived, is essentially personal: it is essentially connected to the actual living body, its location and positing of a personal space; and it is based on memory, as a remembering which continually reconstructs and recategorizes itself.

— Sacks (1984/1993, 199-200)

The brain’s construction of the body-image as a whole continues when some part of the body is cut off from the brain for some time by neurological damage. This results in the mental phenomenon called neglect, in which the person does not feel as if that part of the body is missing, but rather does not feel that any such thing exists or has ever existed. For instance, when Sacks saw his badly injured left leg (made visual contact with it), he did not feel that it belonged to his body. Brain damage can also cause such neglect of half of the visual field. When neglect of a body part collides with visual or tactile experience of it, this can lead to alienation, as when Sacks could see his leg but felt as if it belonged to somebody else, perhaps a corpse. A third-person neurological account of such phenomena can explain the experience but does not change how it feels. (Nevertheless, we sometimes resist or reject a theoretical explanation of a valued feeling, as if the theory could “explain it away.”)

If the wholeness or integrity of the body-image does ‘act as a model’ for one’s mental construct or model of the whole world, it is the primary meaning space. No wonder then that we often neglect parts of the external world, or feel them to belong to somebody else’s world, even when we know of their existence and connection to us at some intellectual level. Your world and my world are felt as wholes, even though “everybody knows” that some parts of your world are absent from mine and some parts of mine from yours. We can’t help being partial to our own point of view, but we can make some meaning space for others by allowing for the felt integrity of their experience as well as ours.


It is disease that makes health sweet and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest.

It is upon misfortune that good fortune leans,
It is within good fortune itself that misfortune crouches in ambush,
And where does it all end?

Dao De Jing 58 (Ames and Hall)


something we need
to remember but know
will sink into subsoil
its appearance up here
marked by this sinsign planted:
4 October 2016
only if ever to seedaylight
as memento of this moment of

Now it is precisely the pragmatist’s contention that symbols, owing their origin (on one side) to human conventions, cannot transcend conceivable human occasions. At any rate, it is plain that no possible collection of single occasions of conduct can be, or adequately represent all conceivable occasions. For there is no collection of individuals of any general description which we could not conceive to receive the addition of other individuals of the same description aggregated to it. The generality of the possible, the only true generality, is distributive, not collective. You perhaps do not see how this remark bears upon your question.

— from a dialogue by Peirce, CP 5.532 (c. 1905)

The distinction made here between distributivity and collectivity corresponds to the normal terminology of intension and extension.

— Stjernfelt 2007, 7


Something forgets us perfectly

— Leonard Cohen, ‘For E.J.P.’

Growing a universe

Does a universe, or a meaning space, begin vaguely and become more definite or more determinate by developing ‘habits’ (i.e. by self-organization)? Or does it begin with a perfectly orderly state which is gradually eroded by entropy, falling into chaos? As he usually did with metaphysical questions, Peirce based his answer on logical principles, and argued against the ‘prejudice’

that in thought, in being, and in development the indefinite is due to a degeneration from a primary state of perfect definiteness. The truth is rather on the side of the scholastic realists that the unsettled is the primal state, and that definiteness and determinateness, the two poles of settledness, are, in the large, approximations, developmentally, epistemologically, and metaphysically.

CP 6.348, c. 1909)

This pattern also appears in studies of how a meaning space is embodied in a developing brain (Chapter 13). In Walter Freeman’s ‘circular causality’ model, ‘the patterns of neural activity are self-organized by chaotic dynamics’ (Freeman 1995). But the circularity of the process implies that as meaning spaces and habits take on form, they tend to impose a more definite and determinate order on the chaotic dynamics of brain activity. Thomas Metzinger (2003) offers a model which places more emphasis on the ‘top-down’ aspects of the process.

As a matter of fact some of the best current work in neuroscience … suggests a view of the human brain as a system that constantly simulates possible realities, generates internal expectations and hypotheses in a top-down fashion, while being constrained in this activity by what I have called mental presentation, constituting a constant stimulus-correlated bottom-up stream of information, which then finally helps the system to select one of an almost infinitely large number of internal possibilities and turning it into phenomenal reality, now explicitly expressed as the content of a conscious representation.… Recent evidence points to the fact that background fluctuations in the gamma frequency range are not only chaotic fluctuations but contain information – philosophically speaking, information about what is possible. This information – for example, certain grouping rules, residing in fixed network properties like the functional architecture of corticocortical connections – is structurally laid-down information about what was possible and likely in the past of the system and its ancestors. Certain types of ongoing background activity could therefore just be the continuous process of hypothesis generation mentioned above. Not being chaotic at all, it might be an important step in translating structurally laid-down information about what was possible in the past history of the organism into those transient, dynamical elements of the processing that are right now actually contributing to the content of conscious experience.… Not only fixed network properties could in this indirect way shape what in the end we actually see and consciously experience, but if the autonomous background process of thousands of hypotheses continuously chattering away can be modulated by true top-down processing, then even specific expectations and focal attention could generate precise correlational patterns in peripheral processing structures, patterns serving to compare and match actually incoming sensory signals. That is, in the terminology here proposed, not only unconscious mental simulation but also deliberately intended high-level phenomenal simulations, conscious thoughts, personal-level memories, and so on can modulate unconscious, subpersonal matching processes.

— Metzinger (2003, 51-2)

This model translates easily into the Kabbalistic idiom, where the primary process of divine emanation is depicted as top-down in the standard ‘Tree of Life’ diagram. In Zohar 1:183a-b (Matt 1983, 80-83), for instance, dreams, visions and prophecy represent various levels of what Metzinger calls simulations. They are governed by the divine language but corrupted to various degrees (hence the ‘levels’) by the influence of ‘the body,’ i.e. the personal history, anxieties and limitations which darken the imagination. It is the interaction of the influences from above and below – from superpersonal and subpersonal levels, you might say – that generates phenomenal reality. Freeing the divine component from the corrupt requires interpretation, which then allows the creative power of ‘Speech’ to assume the prophetic guidance function:

every dream is from that lower level,
and Speech commands that level;
that is why every dream follows the interpretation.

— Matt (1983, 81)

It is the realization (or ‘fulfillment’) of the dream which ‘follows’ interpretation in the temporal order, and this happens because conscious experience is governed by (and thus ‘follows’) the meaning process. ‘Human interpretation is effective because its words activate the divine realm of Speech [Shekhinah], who then translates the dream into reality’ (Matt 1983, 230). Language (i.e. the symbolic order) thus acts as final cause of perception.

In the meaning cycle, of course, this ‘reality’ is followed by a new interpretation, which in turn modulates expectations and modifies practice, and so on. The top-down and bottom-up streams take turns modulating each other (though it’s all happening simultaneously in the time that is real to the system as a whole). What Metzinger (above) calls ‘fixed network properties like the functional architecture of corticocortical connections’ could be the biological substrate of meaning space, the essential structure whose finer details are determined in ‘real time’ by the incoming stream of sensory information. The structure itself has of course evolved over a much longer time scale.

We are hunters and gatherers of meaning, to the extent that we can attend to significant objects. In any given moment of perception, the significance of an object appears before the finer details of its appearance, and guides the selection of details for special attention. Hurford (2007, §4.3) argues that the way attention works is a powerful constraint on semiotic (and linguistic) structures. Specifically, he asserts the primacy of global attention over attention for details in the human cognitive process.

The general idea of the distinction between global and local attention is given by Treisman (2004, p. 541): ‘An initial rapid pass through the visual hierarchy provides the global framework and gist of the scene and primes competing identities through the features that are detected. Attention is then focused back to early areas to allow a serial check of the initial rough bindings and to form the representations of objects and events that are consciously experienced.’ The theory was pioneered by Navon (1977), whose title, ‘Forest before the trees,’ expresses the phenomenon vividly. He summarizes: ‘global structuring of a visual scene precedes analysis of local features’ (p. 353) and ‘global processing is a necessary stage of perception prior to more fine-grained analysis’ (p. 371).

— Hurford (2007, 104)

Genuine symbols

According to Chapter 7, a genuine symbol is one which actively and experientially connects an idea (or First) with some thing, event or fact (or Second), so that its Interpretant inhabits a more well-informed system. Peirce sometimes says that the symbol, ‘defined as a sign which is fit to serve as such simply because it will be so interpreted’ (EP2:307), is the ‘genuine sign,’ while the index is ‘degenerate’ and the icon doubly so (EP2:306). But he also sometimes distinguishes between genuine and degenerate symbols. In any case, the information conveyed by a symbol depends on the involvement of both icons and index in it.

A Symbol is a law, or regularity of the indefinite future. Its Interpretant must be of the same description; and so must be also the complete immediate Object, or meaning. But a law necessarily governs, or “is embodied in” individuals, and prescribes some of their qualities. Consequently, a constituent of a Symbol may be an Index, and a constituent may be an Icon. A man walking with a child points his arm up into the air and says, “There is a balloon.” The pointing arm is an essential part of the Symbol without which the latter would convey no information. But if the child asks, “What is a balloon,” and the man replies, “It is something like a great big soap bubble,” he makes the image a part of the Symbol. Thus, while the complete Object of a Symbol, that is to say, its meaning, is of the nature of a law, it must denote an individual, and must signify a character. A genuine Symbol is a Symbol that has a general meaning. There are two kinds of degenerate Symbols, the Singular Symbol whose Object is an existent individual, and which signifies only such characters as that individual may realize; and the Abstract Symbol, whose only Object is a character.

— Peirce (EP2:274-5)