Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was one of the foundational theorists of pragmatism and semiotics. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Benjamin Peirce, a Harvard University mathematics professor who helped found the US Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Smithsonian Institute.
He attended Harvard, graduating in 1859 with a degree in philosophy, and in 1863 received a degree in chemistry. He took a position at the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, which he held until 1891; he taught mathematics intermittently at Harvard and, for a short period in the early 1880s, at Johns Hopkins University.
Most accounts describe a figure at odds with the academy, working outside it just as philosophy was becoming a profession in America. Some of his academic colleagues, however, like his friend William James, revered him and promoted his career. His position at Harvard was due in part to his friendship with James, from whose pragmatism Peirce sought to distinguish his own theory by calling it “pragmaticism.” In Peirce's view, pragmatism was a historical construct driven by an implicit logic. His concern for methodology - for example, how hypotheses took shape - owed much to his background in mathematics and science. Moreover, his interest in the intersection of science and religion led to an awareness that belief could create methodologies for interpretation and standards for meaning. His understanding of the role of language in “fixing” beliefs helped to determine his understanding of logic, which he believed to be another name for semiotic, “the quasi-necessary, or formal, doctrine of signs” (1956: 98). He believed that a process of abstract observation of signs led to “statements, eminently fallible … as to what must be the characters of all signs used by a ‘scientific’ intelligence”; this “faculty … of abstractive observation is one which ordinary people perfectly recognize, but for which the theories of philosophers sometimes hardly leave room.” In this way, Peirce pursued, in the name of philosophy, a logic suited to “an intelligence capable of learning from experience” (98). Though his pragmatism focused on what “ordinary people” recognize, the erratic nature of his publishing - indeed, much was left unpublished - and the interdisciplinary nature of his methodologies contributed to a pervasive sense of enigmatic intellectualism.
Through his study of statistics, quantification theory, and set theory, Peirce made profound advances in logic and mathematics at the same time as the German mathematician Richard Dedekind was making advances in abstract algebra and algebraic number theory and the Russian mathematician Georg Cantor was developing the principles of set theory. The combination of language theory and mathematical logic led Peirce to construct a statistical, quantifiable system that prefigured information theory and cybernetics. From the morphic framework of Peirce's inferential logic, innovative notions of growth, progression, and development arose. He believed that language possessed its own logic and was fundamentally mathematical in its ability to determine the condition of things, particularly the comprehension of event perceptions. His investigation of semiotics (the study of signs and their functions) not only included written language, but elements of the material world and sounds - all the physical indices in one's environment. This conception of semiotics was embedded in his theory of logic, which was the means by which Peirce understood not only the function of signs, but equally important, the effects of logic on individuals and, by extension, the greater community of users that participated in the ongoing creation of meaning and the processes by which beliefs become habit.
Peirce's understanding of language and its adherence to logic means that language is indexical. Signs establish relations - the probable connections marking “the junction between two portions of experience”: “Thus a tremendous thunderbolt indicates that something considerable happened, though we may not know precisely what the event was” (Peirce 1956: 109). Signs accomplish this relation-making process through a system of relations between the three general sign-types: “icon,” “index,” and “symbol.” In “A sketch of logical critics,” Peirce writes:
I had observed that the most frequently useful division of signs is by trichotomy into firstly Likeness, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves; secondly, Indices, which represent their objects independently of any resemblance to them, only by virtue of real connections with them, and thirdly, Symbols, which represent their objects, independently alike of any resemblance or any real connection, because dispositions or factitious habits of their interpreters insure their being so understood. Of sensuous qualities and, indeed, of Feelings generally, Icons are the sole possible ultimate signs. (1998b: 459-60)
The triadic division, by refusing to allow for syntheses and equivalencies associated with Hegelian dialectics and traditional syllogistic logic, opened up the possibilities for signification. Peirce's syllogisms help to explain the possibilities of grouping and redistribution, the logical mechanisms by which thoughts develop and take new shapes. It is this “room” for possibilities - indeed, for the infinite - that makes possible the generation of thought along a continuum which Peirce called “synechism,” an inferential process determined by the structures of mathematical and semiotic logic.
For Peirce, the possibility for growth extends well beyond the individual mind, for “A symbol, once in being, spreads among the peoples. In use and experience, its meaning grows” (1956: 115). Clearly, his model of the potential development of the sign was not the static one of classical analysis; the idea of change, specifically social change, lies at the heart of Peircean logic. “Logic,” he wrote, “is rooted in the social principle” (1998a: 73). John Dewey, the American philosopher and psychologist, described Peirce's notion of the potential for change in logic as “creative evolution” (Peirce 1998a: xxv). This conception of the sign and signification contrasts dramatically with the structural theory of signifier/signified relations in the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. To some degree, Peircean semiotics looks forward to poststructuralist theories of language, particularly with respect to the vexed question of the relation between subjectivity and language. Language is quantifiable, statistical material, capable of shaping as much as being shaped by human social experience. Communication is more than a static, performative iteration, Peirce insists; language requires users, who are caught up in the endless chain of cause and effect. Only habit can arrest the possibly infinite acts of interpretation - that is, of sign making - and the creation of meaning.
According to Peirce's semiotic logic, interpretation is a process of argumentation structured along the lines of inference. Inferences - deduced, abducted, induced - were abstractions by which meanings and beliefs were created. He argued that “consciousness, the entire phenomenal manifestation of mind, is a sign developing according to the laws of inference” (1956: 248). With his theory of mind in which the “phenomenal manifestation of a substance is the substance” (248) - a manifestation governed by the laws of inference - Peirce moved beyond deductive and analytic reasoning toward a form of synthetic inference. His revision of Immanuel Kant's transcendental idealism, which placed “substance” outside the realm of “phenomenal manifestations” in the mind, coupled with adjustments to Boolean algebra and logic, enabled him to fashion an inference-producing logic by way of a tangible, statistical, and quantifiable method of knowing. Unlike classical analysis, synthetic inference could activate growth. He called the awareness of this mode of inference “reflexional experience,” which accounted for the indexical, communal nature of language use. It was the process of making an assertion in terms of “abstractive observation.” The inherent growth capability of an open-ended logic of abstraction created an awareness of dynamism by the generation of “chance,” which for Peirce meant the probabilities by which one could aim at an ideal.
Peirce's thought had a profound effect on American philosophy, especially in the pragmatic tradition of William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. He also influenced major figures in British analytic philosophy, including Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. Roman Jakobson, who began to study Peirce when he arrived in the US in 1941, mediated the Saussurean and Peircean strands of semiotics, which guaranteed Peirce's longstanding presence in late twentieth-century literary theory. Finally, in the later twentieth century, we see Peircean ideas behind the cybernetics of Norbert Weiner and others in a process of “abstractive observation” that accounts for both logical structure and phenomenal change.
SEE ALSO: Dialectics; Eco, Umberto; Jakobson, Roman; Kristeva, Julia; Poststructuralism; Saussure, Ferdinand de; Semiotics; Semiotics/Semiology; Structuralism
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