1903 Classification of Triadic Sign-Relations
Michael H.G. Hoffmann
For Peirce, the classification of various "sign relations" has the function of comprehensively and precisely characterizing all the possible modes in which we recognize and represent the world around us.
While Peirce often and strongly modified this classification in various
stages of his philosophical development, the basic structure has remained
the same. In the following, we shall first present Peirce¹s general definition
of sign and continue by sketching his classification of possible sign
relations as it was conclusive to him about the year 1903.
1. Signs are bound into a triadic structure whose relata are determined in their relation to one another as follows:
2. This relation must be read, so-to-say, in two directions, firstly as determination, and secondly as representation: the object "determines" the interpretant, mediated by the sign, and both the sign and the interpretant "represent" the object. As Parmentier says, these are "two opposed yet interlocking vectors involved in semiosis." (p.4)
3. The concept of sign is defined by the fact that the triadic sign relation is never present closed in itself, but is necessarily integrated into a sign process: a sign is only what has an interpretant which is itself again interpreted, etc.:
As we have seen from the above sign triad, signs, for Peirce, are always integrated into triadic relations, i.e. they mediate between object and interpretant. The interpretation developed below now does not concern "signs" proper, but rather possible triadic relations in which the sign itself is only one relatum besides object and interpretant.
The differentiation of sign relations proposed by Peirce now is based on that each of the three "branches" in the above figure can be given in three modes. This means: in each possible sign relation, the object relation (OR) can be given in three different modes, and this is true for the interpretant relation (IR) and the sign itself (S) as well. One could designate OR, IR and S the "dimensions" of every sign relation, and the three modes of appearance of each sign dimension as "sign aspects:"
The basis of all these tripartitions is Peirce¹s distinction of three fundamental categories. For Peirce, categories are not, as for Aristotle, "modes of proposition," but phenomenological modes. The three categories designate all possible modes something may appear to us. Thus, they are absolutely basic for Peirce¹s epistemology and his semiotics as well. To avoid misunderstandings, Peirce names his categories simply "Firstness," "Secondness," and "Thirdness." Something may appear to us either as a "First," a "Second," or a "Third," there is no other possibility:
My view is that there are three modes of being. I hold that we can directly observe them in elements of whatever is at any time before the mind in any way. They are the being of positive qualitative possibility, the being of actual fact, and the being of law that will govern facts in the future.
Let us begin with considering actuality, and try to make out just what it consists in. If I ask you what the actuality of an event consists in, you will tell me that it consists in its happening then and there. The specifications then and there involve all its relations to other existents. The actuality of the event seems to lie in its relations to the universe of existents. A court may issue injunctions and judgments against me and I not care a snap of my finger for them. I may think them idle vapor. But when I feel the sheriff¹s hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality. Actuality is something brute. There is no reason in it. I instance putting your shoulder against a door and trying to force it open against an unseen, silent, and unknown resistance. We have a two-sided consciousness of effort and resistance, which seems to me to come tolerably near to a pure sense of actuality. On the whole, I think we have here a mode of being of one thing which consists in how a second object is. I call that Secondness.
Besides this, there are two modes of being that I call Firstness and Thirdness. Firstness is the mode of being which consists in its subject¹s being positively such as it is regardless of aught else. That can only be a possibility. For as long as things do not act upon one another there is no sense or meaning in saying that they have any being, unless it be that they are such in themselves that they may perhaps come into relation with others. The mode of being a redness, before anything in the universe was yet red, was nevertheless a positive qualitative possibility. And redness in itself, even if it be embodied, is something positive and sui generis. That I call Firstness. We naturally attribute Firstness to outward objects, that is we suppose they have capacities in themselves which may or may not be already actualized, which may or may not ever be actualized, although we can know nothing of such possibilities [except] so far as they are actualized.The essential points of these exhaustive remarks on the three fundamental categories can be summarized as follows:
Peirce¹s theory of categories forms the basis for his differentiation shown above of three sign aspects, respectively, for each sign dimension: each of the three sign dimensions can be differentiated into a "first," a "second," and a "third" sign aspect. The triadic sign relations proper (cf. the first figure above) are formed by various combinations of sign aspects, one of each of the three "branches" mentioned above, i.e. one of OR, of S, and of IR. As can be easily seen from the second figure above, 33, i.e. 27 combinations are mathematically possible. (Cf. CP 2.2264, 1903) This variety of possibilities assure a wealth of possible sign relations that really permits to characterize a multitude of modes in which we recognize and represent the world around us in a comprehensive and precise manner.
Among the mathematically possible 27 triadic combinations only 10, however, can really occur, as Peirce says. The reason for that results from combining the following points: (Cf. Lieb 1977 <1953>, p.161; Liszka, p.45)
According to Peirce CP 2.254 ff, 1903; for a description of each sign relation cf. Liszka, pp.48-52.
It should be noted that the concern here is solely to separate analytically diverse classes of sign relations, whereas, in daily life, we are always confronted with combinations of different sign relations. Thus, in concrete or "singular" signs (SR2-4) we are always simultaneously in contact with qualities and hence with "qualisigns" (SR1)‹given in the materiality of the sign,‹and lawlike signs (SR6-10), again, can only be present to us by their "replicas" or embodiments in "singular" signs (more on this below).
To present the order of these ten possible sign relation classes even more illustratively with regard to their categorical determination, a three-dimensional representation might be suggestive‹"three-dimensional" to be understood firstly in the sense of "spatial," and secondly in the sense of distinguishing between the three so-called "sign dimensions":
Every cube in this drawing represents a sign relation class (SR1-10), i.e. a triad according to the first figure above. The three sign dimensions, resp. the three subrelations of the triads, are presented as the three spatial dimensions of each cube; depth referring to the dimension of the sign for itself (S1-3), breadth referring to the relations between sign and object (OR1-3), and height referring to the relations between sign and interpretant (IR1-3). A similar three-dimensional model of the ten sign relations was developed by Farias and Queiroz (2000).
To reflect on this at first glance certainly rather abstract classification of sign relations, I should like to point out some particularly important points:
The Object Relation: Icon, Index, and SymbolIn his 1906 essay "Prolegomena to an Apology for Pragmatism," Peirce determines the three possible object relations (OR1-3) as follows:
As far as the interpretation must be given only potentially in case of the indexical sign‹as opposed to the symbol‹it is true that the indexical sign has no "meaning" in the sense proper; its only "content" being the characterization of a dyadic relation between an object and a sign; it "forces" attention, as Peirce says in the above quote, into a certain direction, but does not describe anything.
The symbol will designate something only if there is a general convention, a specific use, and this means: if there is an "interpretant" which establishes a relation between sign and object. The sign , for instance, is a symbol in the context of geometry: it can fulfill its function only if there is an interpretant who is able to mediate the relation between this sign and the object it designates. Or, vice versa: will function only if it determines an interpretant precisely so as to make this interpretant mediate the symbol with what it symbolizes. On the basis of his / her own habits, a person must be able to see a as a symbol.
The essential thing about the symbol is not, however, that it is established by convention, but that there is a "habit" which, as interpretant, constitutes a relation between symbol and object. As Peirce intends to extend the concept of habit to include "natural dispositions," also an instinctive reaction could be an interpretant. In short: only that sign is symbolic that fulfills its function of designating an object on the basis of a general law. Thus, it is clear that symbols, for Peirce, can only be lawlike signs or "Legisigns" (see below). This contradicts or usual use of language, for if we say this drawn here is a symbol, Peirce would say what has been drawn here is merely a replica of a symbol, but not this symbol itself. For Peirce, the symbol is exclusively what determines the meaning of the drawn, making possible to understand it. If it has no meaning, or if it is not understood, it is no symbol.
Considering the Sign Itself: Qualisign, Sinsign, and Legisign
A Qualisign is a quality which is a Sign. It cannot actually act as a sign until it is embodied; but the embodiment has nothing to do with its character as a sign.To demonstrate the significance of this differentiation into Qualisigns, Sinsigns, and Legisigns, e.g. for understanding learning processes, it might be useful to remind Peirce¹s distinction between "association" and "suggestion:"
Peirce confines the term "association"
to the process whereby one idea acquires the power to attract another from the depths of memory to the surface of consciousness, and to the habit resulting from this process, (Peirce MS 318, CSP 45 ff.)designating by "suggestion," as opposed to that,
the action by which, an association having once been established, that act by which, in accordance with it, one idea calls up another. (ibid.)While association "being an operation or event ... the other (is) a law or the establishment of a law." (ibid., 47) The point of this has to be seen in that, in the case of association, two ideas come to be connected completely at random‹a process which can happen within the mind, or under constraint from outside,‹while a connection of two ideas determined by a law or by a habit / convention is present in the case of suggestion.
The significance of this distinction lies in that it may serve to describe processes of learning: if a child is induced to associate six markers or six apples or six circles with the idea of "six," then every time six objects suggest to the child the idea of "six," we are not in the presence of a random connection, but rather of one determined by law.
Semiotically, this means that the interpretation of six objects by the idea of "six," or vice versa the interpretation of the idea of "six" by the idea of six objects, is mediated by a Legisign. As opposed to that, using the Arabic number "6," or the Roman cipher "VI," or the word "six" to designate six objects would be using a Sinsign that relates to the Legisign as a token to a type. It is only the "expression" of a lawlike connection, but not this law itself.
The Interpretant Relation: Rhema, Dicisign and Argument
Peirce defines the Immediate Interpretant here as
...the immediate pertinent possible effect in its unanalyzed primitive entirety. ... It may be a quality of feeling, more or less vague, or an idea of an effort or experience awaked by the air of previous experience or it may be the idea of a form or anything of a general type.
The Final Interpretant is the ultimate effect of the sign, so far as it is intended or destined, from the character of the sign, being more or less of a habitual and formal nature." (MS 339, 1906 Oct. 23, p.288r, 289r = SEM III, p.224 f.).Peirce¹s later classification of the "interpretant" may thus be presented as follows:
As becomes clear already from the concept of "significate effect," the basic idea of Peirce¹s pragmatism consists in that a sign¹s meaning cannot be separated from its effects. But a distinction has to be made between three classes of effects: the concrete significate effect as a Second, that is singular emotions, actions, or habits, as they are summarized by the concept of "dynamical interpretant;" the qualitative possibility of such effects; and the general significate effect as a Third, that is the final-logical interpretant. According to Peirce,
pragmatism says ... the meaning of any sign for anybody consists in the way he reacts to the sign. When the captain of infantry gives the word "Ground arms!" the dynamic Interpretant is in the thump of the muskets on the ground, or rather it is the Act of their Minds. ... The Final Interpretant does not consist in the way in which any mind does act but in the way in which every mind would act. That is, it consists in a truth which might be expressed in a conditional proposition of this type: "If so and so were to happen to any mind this sign would determine that mind to such and such conduct." (Peirce CP 8.315, 1909)This comparison of dynamical and final interpretant repeats what we have stated above on the relation between Secondness and Thirdness regarding the sign itself: on the one hand, the final Third interpretant consists in a totality of possible actual-dynamical-Second interpretants and is in so far inseparable from its own concrete realisations, while on the other it must not be identified with an singular or arbitrary set of such concrete effects. "No event that occurs to any mind, no action of any mind can constitute the truth of that conditional proposition," Peirce continues what has just been quoted on the conditional form of the final interpretant. While the general effect as a Third and the concrete effect as a Second are clearly distinguished in this way, they are at the same time inseparably linked to one another.