Among the logical functions which are closely entwined with the social phenomenon of language, one of the key instruments of high-level anticipation is the process of abstraction. The product of this process is an ens rationis. Since the Latin age, philosophers have made a common distinction between an ens rationis and an ens reale or really existing thing. According to Peirce,
An ens rationis may be defined as a subject whose being consists in a Secondness, or fact, concerning something else. Its being is thus of the nature of Thirdness, or thought. Any abstraction, such as Truth or Justice, is an ens rationis. That does not prevent Truth and Justice from being real powers in the world without any figure of speech.
Lowell Lectures. 1903. Lecture 5. Vol. 1 | MS [R] 469:8. Term in M. Bergman & S. Paavola (Eds.), The Commens Dictionary: Peirce’s Terms in His Own Words. New Edition. Retrieved from http://www.commens.org/dictionary/term/ens-rationis, 04.02.2017.
This kind of abstraction, called ‘hypostatic’ by Peirce to distinguish it from other uses of the term, is a vital process: in order to conceive of a concept’s implications for future conduct – that is, of its meaning – we have to objectify its depth. ‘When we speak of the depth, or signification, of a sign we are resorting to hypostatic abstraction, that process whereby we regard a thought as a thing, make an interpretant sign the object of a sign’ (Peirce, EP2:394). ‘That wonderful operation of hypostatic abstraction by which we seem to create entia rationis that are, nevertheless, sometimes real, furnishes us the means of turning predicates from being signs that we think or think through, into being subjects thought of’ (CP 4.549, 1906).
The question of whether apparently mind-created things can be real was the crux of debate between the scholastic realists and the nominalists, and Peirce declared himself (here as elsewhere) on the realist side by saying that entia rationis are ‘sometimes real.’ But why bother to think about thought-signs at all? Because consciousness of semiosis (i.e. semiotic awareness) enables higher grades of self-control. Abstraction is ‘the basis of voluntary inhibition, which is the chief characteristic of mankind’ (EP2:394); and ‘self-control of any kind is purely inhibitory’ (EP2:233).
If it seems a bit strange to say that voluntary inhibition (rather than voluntary action) is ‘the chief characteristic of mankind,’ reflect that in practice we cannot choose to do anything unless we can imagine a range of possible actions, or at least some ideal of practice which can be compared to the action contemplated. The person who reacts automatically to any situation, without stopping to think whether another response might be better, is incapable not only of self-control but of any deliberate act. The ability to choose a better course of action implies a more or less conscious comparison with some ideal standard of conduct. The more consciously choices are made, the higher the grade of self-control, as Peirce explains in a 1905 passage (CP 5.533):
To return to self-control … of course there are inhibitions and coördinations that entirely escape consciousness. There are, in the next place, modes of self-control which seem quite instinctive. Next, there is a kind of self-control which results from training. Next, a man can be his own training-master and thus control his self-control. When this point is reached much or all the training may be conducted in imagination. When a man trains himself, thus controlling control, he must have some moral rule in view, however special and irrational it may be. But next he may undertake to improve this rule; that is, to exercise a control over his control of control. To do this he must have in view something higher than an irrational rule. He must have some sort of moral principle. This, in turn, may be controlled by reference to an esthetic ideal of what is fine. There are certainly more grades than I have enumerated. Perhaps their number is indefinite. The brutes are certainly capable of more than one grade of control; but it seems to me that our superiority to them is more due to our greater number of grades of self-control than it is to our versatility.
Logic itself, as a normative science – one which can distinguish between good and bad reasoning, or strong and weak inference – is a means of exercising control over control of self-control. ‘Logic regarded from one instructive, though partial and narrow, point of view, is the theory of deliberate thinking. To say that any thinking is deliberate is to imply that it is controlled with a view to making it conform to a purpose or ideal’ (EP2:376). In Peirce’s view, recognition of that ideal is ultimately an esthetic judgment, to which most people (not being philosophers or logicians) give little critical attention. They settle instead for conformity to ‘a particular ideal’ which is ‘nothing but a traditional standard’ (EP2:377), and thus do not rise to the highest grade of self-control. This kind of conformity is often the most reliable guide in practical matters, and certainly stabilizes the community, but it has very little transformity. Social information is generated by the dynamic tension between individual and society – between internal and external guidance systems.