Command performance

A Sign is determined by its Object even when, ‘as not infrequently happens, the Object is brought into existence by the Sign’ (Peirce, EP2:493).

The Object of the sentence “Hamlet was insane” is the Universe of Shakespeare’s Creation so far as it is determined by Hamlet being a part of it. The Object of the Command “Ground arms!” is the immediately subsequent action of the soldiers so far as it is affected by the molition expressed in the command. It cannot be understood unless collateral observation shows the speaker’s relation to the rank of soldiers. You may say, if you like, that the Object is in the Universe of things desired by the Commanding Captain at that moment. Or since the obedience is fully expected, it is in the Universe of his expectation. At any rate, it determines the Sign although it is to be created by the Sign by the circumstance that its Universe is relative to the momentary state of mind of the officer.


The Command is a Sign whose dynamic interpretant is the action of the soldiers, which is determined by ‘the molition expressed in the command.’ Molition is Peirce’s term for ‘volition minus all desire and purpose, the mere consciousness of exertion of any kind’ (CP 8.303, 1909). The officer was conscious of the exertion which he expected, and it was the object of his attention which determined what sign he would utter in order to bring that object into the Universe of actuality.

Objects and self-reference

Semiosis, as a process, takes time. It cannot be well represented by a timeless logic, which generates self-contradictory propositions such as the ‘liar paradox’ by allowing a proposition to refer to itself as if it could exist as an individual (as the possible object of an index) before it is uttered, which in fact it cannot.

In his third Harvard Lecture of 1903, Peirce explained the relations between the subject of a proposition and the object of a sign in a way that shows why a genuine proposition cannot refer to itself. He begins by referring to the principle of excluded middle, which in classical logic says that a proposition must be either true or false – any option in between those two is excluded. He points out that this principle applies only when the subject of the proposition specifies an individual, and not when it is general.

That is, to say that the principle of excluded middle applies to S is no more than to say that S, the subject of the proposition, is an individual. But how can that be? We know very well that universal propositions have general subjects of which the principle of excluded middle is [not] true. That is, it is not true that “all men are either tall or not tall.” The logic of relatives furnishes the solution, by showing that propositions usually have several subjects, that one of these subjects is the so-called Universe of Discourse, that as a general rule a proposition refers to several Universes of Discourse, the chief of which are Singulars, and that all propositions whatsoever refer to one common universe,—the Universal Universe or aggregate of all Singulars, which in ordinary language we denominate the Truth. The analysis of the logic of relations shows that such is the fact, and by the aid of the categories we can easily see why it should be so. A proposition is a symbol which separately INDICATES its object, and the representation in the proposition of that object is called the subject of the proposition. Now to INDICATE is to represent in the manner in which an index represents. But an index is a representamen which is such by virtue of standing in a genuine reaction with its object; while a singular is nothing but a genuinely reacting object. It does not follow that the subject of a proposition must literally be an index, although it indicates the object of the representamen in a manner like the representation of an index. It may be a precept by following which a singular could be found. Take for example the proposition:

Some woman is adored by every Catholic.

This means that a well-disposed person with sufficient means could find an index whose object should be a woman such that allowing an ill-disposed person to select an index whose object would be a Catholic, that Catholic would adore that woman.

Thus the subject of a proposition if not an index is a precept prescribing the conditions under which an object is to be had.

Consequently, though the subject need not be individual, the object to which the subject of a proposition applies must be the object of a possible index and as such it must be such as it is independently of any representamen or other Third. That is to say it must be real.

Consequently, it is impossible that a proposition should relate to itself as its object, since as long as it has not yet been enunciated it possesses characters which are not independent of how they may be represented to be.


A semiotic process involving self-reference, when it takes the form of a proposition, takes its already-determined past (and not its living presence or semiotic functioning) as its object to determine its future as its interpretant. In the same way, a self-referential function in mathematics takes the result of its previous iteration to produce the result of the current iteration, which will in turn be used to produce the next result, and so on.


The concepts of symbol and object are etymologically linked because -bol- and -ject- respectively represent the Greek and Latin roots for ‘throwing.’ The object is ‘thrown against’ (indicating Secondness, which Peirce also calls ‘Obsistence’ or ‘Reaction’), while the symbol is ‘thrown together’ (representing Thirdness).

The genuine sign must represent something else, i.e. there must be a difference between object and sign. The object is thrown against your project, or your project is thrown against (‘projected onto’) the object – either way, each collides with the other in being Second to it. But entering into triadic relation transforms collision into collusion.

The objectivity of truth

According to C.S. Peirce, one of his pragmatist contemporaries, F.C.S. Schiller, held the view

that the objectivity of truth really consists in the fact that, in the end, every sincere inquirer will be led to embrace it—and if he be not sincere, the irresistible effect of inquiry in the light of experience will be to make him so. This doctrine appears to me, after one subtraction, to be a corollary of pragmatism. I set it in a strong light in my original presentation of the method. I call my form of it “conditional idealism.” That is to say, I hold that truth’s independence of individual opinions is due (so far as there is any “truth”) to its being the predestined result to which sufficient inquiry would ultimately lead. I only object that, as Mr. Schiller himself seems sometimes to say, there is not the smallest scintilla of logical justification for any assertion that a given sort of result will, as a matter of fact, either always or never come to pass; and consequently we cannot know that there is any truth concerning any given question; and this, I believe, agrees with the opinion of M. Henri Poincaré, except that he seems to insist upon the non-existence of any absolute truth for all questions, which is simply to fall into the very same error on the opposite side. But practically, we know that questions do generally get settled in time, when they come to be scientifically investigated; and that is practically and pragmatically enough.

Peirce, EP2:419-20

Meaning is believing

In order to participate fully in the ‘great conversation,’ you have to believe that it’s going somewhere, and that your contribution carries it (however slightly) forward, and that ultimately it would arrive at the whole Truth if carried forward forever. This belief cannot be based on evidence, not only because much of the conversation hasn’t yet happened, but also because it underwrites our very recognition of what counts as evidence. It’s a matter of faith, like the scientist’s faith that the universe makes sense, that the laws of nature are knowable; or like the singer’s faith in the song, the player’s faith in the play, performing as if it presented the whole moment of truth. This is what belief means in the act of meaning.

In the Great Dialog, the ultimate Truth is what you speak to; yet it’s equally true that you can only speak from the time you are living. So you strive to speak the last word for that time, to bring the Dialog up to date, even though the part of you observing the Dialog knows that your word is only one step along a way that leaves every step behind. You can also be sure that the Dialog will not last forever, and even if it did, no finite mind could ever comprehend its full text, let alone its full context. The whole of which the current conversation is a part is itself only a minute fragment of the greater Whole. Trying to catch the whole sense even of this fragment is realizing that we are like waves carried along the surface of the ocean of Thought.

Inside the external

Knowledge of ‘the external world’ can only take those forms of which the bodymind is capable, and the finer points of that knowledge are learned by each individual, not generically ‘given’. But the need to interact symbolically forces us to forget all that, for we must assume a world external to all of us, and a common language referring to it, in order to anchor our meanings in a common ground. We could hardly converse at all if we had to take into account each person’s semantic idiosyncrasies. So we cannot help feeling that we ‘share experience with one another symbolically’ (Tomasello 1999, 42). When you can’t make that assumption, you can’t communicate in the fully human, symbolic sense (though some semiotic exchange may still be possible).

You can’t perceive your perception, but you can investigate your perceptual process by making inferences from what you do perceive. Investigation, being dialogic, has a social context: you can and do assume that others perceive the same world you do, and that other perceptions of that same world differ from yours – for each individual perceiver is unique in some respect. And on top of that, polyversity virtually guarantees that perceptual differences may be either masked or exaggerated by the idiosyncratic use of common symbol systems to report those perceptions.

Percepts and objects

Percepts (considered as signs) represent a world external to the perceiver. Nevertheless, the perceptual judgments which identify what you see (as this or that type of thing) are based as much on your perceptual habits as on what’s really out there. … Consequently the objects of our attention in a genuine quest for truth must be the dynamic objects of the signs constituting our reading of reality.

Only semiosis can inform anyone, and ’every sign,—or, at any rate, nearly every one,—is a determination of something of the general nature of a mind, which we may call the “quasi-mind”’ (EP2:389).

This quasi-mind is an object which from whatever standpoint it be examined, must evidently have, like anything else, its special qualities of susceptibility to determination. Moreover, the determinations come as events each one once for all and never again. Furthermore, it must have its rules or laws, the more special ones variable, others invariable.


These “rules or laws” are what we call the habits of the system, the bodymind. As for the sign, it is determined by the situation (consisting of relevant events in the world) of which the system is informed, which we call the object of the sign. The sign

is determined by the object, but in no other respect than goes to enable it to act upon the interpreting quasi-mind; and the more perfectly it fulfills its function as a sign, the less effect it has upon that quasi-mind other than that of determining it as if the object itself had acted upon it.


In another idiom, the more perfectly functional aspect of the sign is called signal, while its effects on the quasi-mind ‘other than that of determining it as if the object itself had acted upon it’ are attributed to noise. The informable system, in order to experience either signal or noise, must embody some indeterminacy, or variable state space. The sign which conveys information determines its interpretant by virtually selecting among the possible variations which constitute the state space of the system. This enables a sentient being to orient itself with respect to the state of its Umwelt (that part of the world with which it can interact). Of course, the mental system does not need to be conscious of doing this, but it does have to perceive the relevant part of its world as the subject of a perceptual judgment, a quasi-proposition or dicisign.

Is the percept itself a sign? It depends …

The percept is … whole and undivided. It has parts, in the sense that in thought it can be separated; but it does not represent itself to have parts. In its mode of being as a percept it is one single and undivided whole.

The percept is not the only thing that we ordinarily say we “perceive”; and when I professed to believe only what I perceived, of course I did not mean percepts, since percepts are not subjects of belief or disbelief. I meant perceptual judgments. Given a percept, this percept does not describe itself; for description involves analysis, while the percept is whole and undivided. But once having a percept, I may contemplate it, and say to myself, ‘That appears to be a yellow chair’; and our usual language is that we “perceive” it to be a yellow chair, although this is not a percept, but a judgement about a present percept.

CP 7.625-6 (1903?)

This is the origin of facts as used in reasoning.

The whole question is what the perceptual facts are, as given in direct perceptual judgments. By a perceptual judgment, I mean a judgment asserting in propositional form what a character of a percept directly present to the mind is. The percept of course is not itself a judgment, nor can a judgment in any degree resemble a percept. It is as unlike it as the printed letters in a book, where a Madonna of Murillo is described, are unlike the picture itself.

EP2:155 (1903); likewise EP2:191

I am thoroughly accustomed to think of percepts or rather of perceptual judgments as the data of all knowledge, and as such having a certain imperfect reality. They exist,—the percepts themselves do. But developed reality only belongs to signs of a certain description. Percepts are signs for psychology; but they are not so for phenomenology.

CP 8.300 (1904)

For phenomenology, or phaneroscopy, percepts are not signs: they are phenomena, directly present to the mind without regard to whether they are present mediately or immediately. Perceptual judgments, on the other hand, being assertions in propositional form, are signs professing to inform perceivers about objects. The psychologist, looking into the perceptual process from outside of it, sees the percept as a sign of the object perceived; but to the perceiver of that object, it’s the object of the sign expressing his judgment about what kind of object it is. This sign is a kind of quasi-proposition, a “genuine or informational index” (EP2:172).

A proposition is a symbol which like the informational index has a special part to represent the representamen, while the whole or another special part represents the object. The part which represents the representamen and which excites an icon in the imagination, is the Predicate. The part which indicates the object or set of objects of the representamen is called the Subject or Subjects … How much shall be embraced in the predicate and how many subjects shall be recognized depends, for the ordinary analyses of logic, upon what mode of analysis will answer the purpose in hand.


… the perceptual judgment does not represent the percept logically. In what intelligible manner, then, does it represent the percept? It cannot be a copy of it; for, as will presently appear, it does not resemble the percept at all. There remains but one way in which it can represent the percept; namely, as an index, or true symptom, just as a weather-cock indicates the direction of the wind or a thermometer the temperature. There is no warrant for saying that the perceptual judgment actually is such an index of the percept, other than the ipse dixit of the perceptual judgment itself. And even if it be so, what is an index, or true symptom? It is something which, without any rational necessitation, is forced by blind fact to correspond to its object. To say, then, that the perceptual judgment is an infallible symptom of the character of the percept means only that in some unaccountable manner we find ourselves impotent to refuse our assent to it in the presence of the percept, and that there is no appeal from it.

CP 7.628 (1903?)

In place of the percept, which, although not the first impression of sense, is a construction with which my will has had nothing to do, and may, therefore, properly be called the “evidence of my senses,” the only thing I carry away with me is the perceptual facts, or the intellect’s description of the evidence of the senses, made by my endeavor. These perceptual facts are wholly unlike the percept, at best; and they may be downright untrue to the percept. But I have no means whatever of criticizing, correcting or recomparing them, except that I can collect new perceptual facts relating to new percepts, and on that basis may infer that there must have been some error in the former reports, or on the other hand I may in this way persuade myself that the former reports were true. The perceptual facts are a very imperfect report of the percepts; but I cannot go behind that record.

The data from which inference sets out and upon which all reasoning depends are the perceptual facts, which are the intellect’s fallible record of the percepts, or “evidence of the senses.” It is these percepts alone upon which we can absolutely rely, and that not as representative of any underlying reality other than themselves.

CP 2.141-3 (1902)

That last sentence explains why percepts are not signs for phenomenology, or for logic. But the perceptual judgment is the starting point of all cognition, which is always semiosic: “every concept and every thought beyond immediate perception is a sign” (EP2:402).

Is the object of a sign “whole and undivided” as the percept is for phaneroscopy? If the sign is symbolic, the singularity or plurality of its object(s) depends on the point of view:

A sign may have more than one Object. Thus, the sentence “Cain killed Abel,” which is a Sign, refers at least as much to Abel as to Cain, even if it be not regarded as it should, as having “a killing” as a third Object. But the set of objects may be regarded as making up one complex Object. In what follows and often elsewhere Signs will be treated as having but one object each for the sake of dividing difficulties of the study.

Peirce, CP 2.230 (1910)

Thus ‘Every sign has a single object, though this single object may be a single set or a single continuum of objects’ (EP2:393, 1906). Genuine cognition is the development of these signs (which are also ourselves, according to Peirce) toward the complete continuum which would be the whole truth. This development proceeds by generalization underwritten by perception.

… if there be any perceptual judgment, or proposition directly expressive of and resulting from the quality of a present percept, or sense-image, that judgment must involve generality in its predicate.

That which is not general is singular; and the singular is that which reacts. The being of a singular may consist in the being of other singulars which are its parts. Thus heaven and earth is a singular; and its being consists in the being of heaven and the being of earth, each of which reacts and is therefore a singular, forming a part of heaven and earth. If I had denied that every perceptual judgment refers, as to its subject, to a singular, and that singular actually reacting upon the mind in forming the judgment, actually reacting too upon the mind in interpreting the judgment, I should have uttered an absurdity. For every proposition whatsoever refers as to its subject to a singular actually reacting upon the utterer of it and actually reacting upon the interpreter of it. All propositions relate to the same ever-reacting singular; namely, to the totality of all real objects.


Organisms capable of uttering or interpreting propositions are in the same boat with all living organisms in this respect: we must maintain our internal continuity, our integrity, in order to engage in semiosis at all. In order to cope with our situations, we must discover some continuities in the external world as well. We do this by perceiving objects and generalizing about the relations in which they (and we) are involved. Interaction with our current situation requires semiotic mediation, but not necessarily attention to semiosis, or to signs as such. The more attention given to semiosis, so that signs become objects of attention, the more deliberate interpretation and practice become. But attention to perceived objects is the bedrock on which all cognition is built.

Objective and subjective generality

In a letter to Lady Welby (dated 1908 Dec. 14), Peirce says that he does not ‘make any contrast between Subject and Object, far less talk about “subjective and objective” in any of the varieties of the German senses, which I think have led to a lot of bad philosophy, but I use “subject” as the correlative of “predicate,” and speak only of the “subjects” of those signs which have a part which separately indicates what the object of the sign is’ (SS, 69; see Peirce’s entry in Baldwin’s Dictionary on the use of the term ‘subject’ in logic).

Another comment by Peirce on his use of these terms:

The acquiring [of] a habit is nothing but an objective generalization taking place in time. It is the fundamental logical law in course of realization. When I call it objective, I do not mean to say that there really is any difference between the objective and the subjective, except that the subjective is less developed and as yet less generalized. It is only a false word which I insert because after all we cannot make ourselves understood if we merely say what we mean.

— ‘Abstract of 8 lectures’, (NEM IV, 140)

Elsewhere, however, Peirce did use these terms without disparagement – as for instance in the following excerpt from his article ‘What Pragmatism Is’ (published 1905), on existence, reality and generality:

Whatever exists, ex-sists, that is, really acts upon other existents, so obtains a self-identity, and is definitely individual. As to the general, it will be a help to thought to notice that there are two ways of being general. A statue of a soldier on some village monument, in his overcoat and with his musket, is for each of a hundred families the image of its uncle, its sacrifice to the union. That statue, then, though it is itself single, represents any one man of whom a certain predicate may be true. It is objectively general. The word “soldier,” whether spoken or written, is general in the same way; while the name “George Washington” is not so. But each of these two terms remains one and the same noun, whether it be spoken or written, and whenever and wherever it be spoken or written. This noun is not an existent thing: it is a type, or form, to which objects, both those that are externally existent and those which are imagined, may conform, but which none of them can exactly be. This is subjective generality. The pragmaticistic purport is general in both ways.

As to reality, one finds it defined in various ways; but if that principle of terminological ethics that was proposed be accepted, the equivocal language will soon disappear. For realis and realitas are not ancient words. They were invented to be terms of philosophy in the thirteenth century, and the meaning they were intended to express is perfectly clear. That is real which has such and such characters, whether anybody thinks it to have those characters or not. At any rate, that is the sense in which the pragmaticist uses the word. Now, just as conduct controlled by ethical reason tends toward fixing certain habits of conduct, the nature of which (as to illustrate the meaning, peaceable habits and not quarrelsome habits) does not depend upon any accidental circumstances, and in that sense, may be said to be destined; so, thought, controlled by a rational experimental logic, tends to the fixation of certain opinions, equally destined, the nature of which will be the same in the end, however the perversity of thought of whole generations may cause the postponement of the ultimate fixation. If this be so, as every man of us virtually assumes that it is, in regard to each matter the truth of which he seriously discusses, then, according to the adopted definition of “real,” the state of things which will be believed in that ultimate opinion is real. But, for the most part, such opinions will be general. Consequently, some general objects are real. (Of course, nobody ever thought that all generals were real; but the scholastics used to assume that generals were real when they had hardly any, or quite no, experiential evidence to support their assumption; and their fault lay just there, and not in holding that generals could be real.) One is struck with the inexactitude of thought even of analysts of power, when they touch upon modes of being. One will meet, for example, the virtual assumption that what is relative to thought cannot be real. But why not, exactly? Red is relative to sight, but the fact that this or that is in that relation to vision that we call being red is not itself relative to sight; it is a real fact.


Objective logic

All inquiry aspires to the ‘objective logic’ of the universe, according to Peirce. He explained his use of this term as follows:

The term “logic” is unscientifically by me employed in two distinct senses. In its narrower sense, it is the science of the necessary conditions of the attainment of truth. In its broader sense, it is the science of the necessary laws of thought, or, still better (thought always taking place by means of signs), it is general semeiotic, treating not merely of truth, but also of the general conditions of signs being signs (which Duns Scotus called grammatica speculativa), also of the laws of the evolution of thought, which since it coincides with the study of the necessary conditions of the transmission of meaning by signs from mind to mind, and from one state of mind to another, ought, for the sake of taking advantage of an old association of terms, be called rhetorica speculativa, but which I content myself with inaccurately calling objective logic, because that conveys the correct idea that it is like Hegel’s logic. The present inquiry is a logical one in the broad sense.

— CP 1.444 (c. 1896)

The logic of inquiry, then, can only try to follow nature’s logic.

Every attempt to understand anything – every research – supposes, or at least hopes, that the very objects of study themselves are subject to a logic more or less identical with that which we employ.

That the logic of the universe is more rudimentary than our subjective logic is a hypothesis which may be worth examination in some stage of culture, but it is too violently at war with all the lessons which this age has learned for any man nowadays to embrace it with that ardor with which a man must embrace the theory which he is to devote his best powers to developing and bringing to the test of experience. Whatever else may be said for or against that hypothesis, that which we of these times ought to try is rather the hypothesis that the logic of the universe is one to which our own aspires, rather than attains.

Peirce, CP 6.189 (1898)

In Baldwin’s Dictionary, Peirce defined logical Truth as ‘that concordance of an abstract statement with the ideal limit towards which endless investigation would tend to bring scientific belief, which concordance the abstract statement may possess by virtue of the confession of its inaccuracy and one-sidedness, and this confession is an essential ingredient of truth.’

Facts and Happenings

Direct perception is both the intimate beginning and the ultimate ideal of Theory. Direct perception occurs immediately, ‘before mention is made’; objective thinking or inquiry, being mediated, requires sustained attention to the dynamic object of some sign. Yet the object of the inquiry game, for Peirce, is ‘ultimately to reach a direct perception of the entelechy’; the ‘purpose of every sign is to express “fact,” and by being joined with other signs, to approach as nearly as possible to determining an interpretant which would be the perfect Truth, the absolute Truth’ (EP2:304).

In the end is the beginning. Along the way, though, we have to acknowledge the difference between real occurrences and real facts.

An Occurrence, which Thought analyzes into Things and Happenings, is necessarily Real; but it can never be known or even imagined in all its infinite detail. A Fact, on the other hand[,] is so much of the real Universe as can be represented in a Proposition, and instead of being, like an Occurrence, a slice of the Universe, it is rather to be compared to a chemical principle extracted therefrom by the power of Thought; and though it is, or may be Real, yet, in its Real existence it is inseparably combined with an infinite swarm of circumstances, which make no part of the Fact itself. It is impossible to thread our way through the Logical intricacies of being unless we keep these two things, the Occurrence and the Real Fact, sharply separate in our Thoughts.

Peirce, MS 647 (1910)

An Occurrence is necessarily real but never completely known; a Fact, being a sign, is not necessarily real, but is necessarily incomplete, since it cannot represent the ‘swarm of circumstances’ inseparable from whatever reality it has. A Fact is ‘supposed to be an element of the very universe itself’ (EP2:304), and this ‘supposing,’ though fallible, is necessary to any inquiry which hopes to arrive at even a partial truth.