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Is Peirce a Phenomenologist?
Joseph Ransdell

Dept of Philosophy, Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas 79409, U.S.A.

Ransdell's home page

This paper appeared in print in a French translation by André DeTienne as "Peirce est-il un phénoménologue?" in Ètudes Phénoménologiques, 9-10 (1989), pp. 51-75. This English-language version is the original and has never been published.
Since there is no normal pagination on a web page, I assign in lieu of that paragraph numbers, included in brackets and placed flush right, just above the paragraph, for purposes of scholarly reference: they are not in the version already published.

      Excluding contributions to formal logic, Peirce's earliest published philosophical work was his 1867 essay "On a New List of Categories," a paper which he regarded as having an extraordinary status in the corpus of his work generally, both because of its uniquely foundational role and because of the quality and importance of what he believed he had achieved therein.1 This essay is also the basic text for that part of his philosophy which he called "phenomenology"; for Peirce identified phenomenology as "the doctrine of the categories"--one of his alternative labels for phenomenology was "categorics"2--and it is in this paper that the basic categorial conceptions are conceptually isolated and their essential inter-relationships described.
      We will return to consider the content of this paper, but first the question should be raised as to whether we are justified in referring to what Peirce did therein as a contribution to phenomenology, properly speaking. Peirce himself originally had no special name for the sort of thing he was doing there, and when he temporarily adopted the term "phenomenology" for it many years later it was not with the intention of suggesting a similarity with Husserl's work, which he regarded as psychologistic in character in spite of Husserl's claim to the contrary.3 In view of Husserl's special ancestral position in this tradition, there is thus reason prima facie for regarding it as questionable whether Peirce should also be included therein; and the suspicion that it might be more misleading than helpful to do so is encouraged by Husserl's intellectual affinity with the Cartesian philosophy, which is evident not only from his explicit self-identification with that tradition and his characterization of phenomenological method as starting from a Cartesian methodic doubt process, but also from his insistence on the necessity of finding or establishing absolutes of one sort and another: absolute starting points, absolute foundations, absolute clarity, absolute indubitability, absolute certainty, absolute givenness, absolute data, absolute immanence, absolute self-evidence, and so on.
      In contrast, Peirce regarded Descartes' adoption of a supposedly uncompromising (if merely methodic) sceptical stance as a sham operation devoid of any logical force whatever, and wherever the word "absolute" occurs in Peirce's writings the chances are that it will be in the context of a denial that whatever is at issue should be regarded as capable of absoluteness of the relevant sort. One must "lop off the heads of all absolute propositions whose subject is not the Absolute, and reduce them to the level of probable and approximate statements," Peirce says, for example. (CP 6.603, 1893) And again: "I object to absolute universality, absolute exactitude, absolute necessity, being attributed to any proposition that does not deal with the Alpha and the Omega, in the which I do not include any object of ordinary knowledge." (CP 6.607, 1893) These are typical Peircean remarks, to which it might be added that the absolute Alpha and the absolute Omega, whatever specifically they might be--the absolute starting and ending points of a process, for example--almost always turn out to be limiting concepts to which nothing actual exactly corresponds, which is to say that the typical function of the conception of the absolute in the Peircean framework of understanding is that of making something intelligible in terms of approximation. The most significant exception to Peirce's general antipathy to absolutes of almost any sort (except in the qualified sense just indicated) is his recognition of absolute chance, which, however, only underscores the prima facie difference between the respective intellectual tendencies of the two philosophers.
      Much more could be said to emphasize the differences between Peirce and Husserl, nor is the case for identifying Peirce as a phenomenologist supported in any obvious way by the post-Husserlian developments in this tradition insofar as they lay stress--as they frequently do--on phenomenology as providing a way of "reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression," as Merleau-Ponty puts it.4 Now, Peirce did think it important to distinguish practical from scientific thinking, but not because of any supposed distinction between them as being, respectively, first order and second order expressions of the world, whatever exactly that might mean. The basis for the distinction which Peirce draws lies rather in the difference which is made by the fact that in practical life we typically must draw conclusions, form opinions, make decisions, etc., within a finite and often all-too-brief length of time, whereas in the pursuit of scientific understanding no such limitation can be recognized without thereby invalidating it as such.5 But this has nothing to do with the idea that science should be "put in its place" by somehow re-establishing the primacy of the nonscientific or prescientific understanding.
      This is not because of any insensitivity on Peirce's part to the spiritual deracination and desolation associated with the mechanistic- technological conception of science: science as conceived, that is, first by the ideologists of modernism of the late 16th and early 17th Century (among whom Descartes is the most notable and influential figure) and then as reconceived in still more desiccated form by the positivists of the late 19th Century (e.g. Mach, Pearson) and the first half of the 20th Century (the Wiener Kreis, Carnap in particular). But Peirce did not conceive science in that way, nor would he agree that the "wasteland" of modern times is properly or profitably diagnosed as being due to the development of the sciences, though he might very well agree that the conception of science which has reigned in modern times--often shared alike by its opponents and its advocates--has more than a little to do with it.6
      In any case, Peirce's conception of the essential character of science proper is so different from the familiar mechanistic-technological conception of it that, for a devotee of the Peircean view who is concerned with the recovery of the fullness of experience to which modern life seems profoundly inimical, the question is not whether or how the scientific understanding and form of life is to be prevented from further befouling or obscuring "lived" experience but whether there is reason to recognize any essential limitations on its legitimate extension, even those which Peirce himself recognized. It would take us afield to pursue this topic further here, though, and I will say only that what makes it possible for Peirce to regard science as the solution rather than the problem is that he does not identify science or the scientific by reference to any special type of property of the subject-matter of the science (its "primary qualities," for example), or by reference to some special "scientific method" (in the sense in which that would usually be understood), but rather by reference to the communicational relationships of its practitioners, considered as members<--past, present, and future--of a potentially infinite community of shared cognitive concern: truth-seekers considered just insofar as they are genuinely in search of the truth about an object of common interest. In other words, a science is, as he conceives it, an established tradition of communication about some subject-matter, and the more the communication is perfected--the more a genuine community of common concern and interest is realized--the more truly scientific it is.
      These considerations--and there is, again, much more that could be said to the same effect--are cited in further support of the suggestion that there is something prima facie questionable in the idea of incorporating the Peircean philosophy in the phenomenological tradition, and should make it clear that a sceptical view of the appropriateness of doing this would not be unreasonable. Yet, in spite of this, I am inclined to believe that there is a real and sufficient basis for doing this nonetheless. Why? Because of the extraordinary importance which seems to me to attach to the proposition that the philosopher as such properly considers phenomena first of all without commitment to or concern with whatever existential or reality status they (or the objects to which they refer or otherwise signify or represent) may actually have, which means to consider phenomena as phenomenal only, notwithstanding such apparent "transcendence"--both intrinsic and relational--as they may have or seem to have. If I have succeeded in stating this principle with the appropriate degree of vagueness, then I believe it would be correct to say that this is the one principle--perhaps the only principle--which any phenomenologist would agree with, including Peirce, assuming that we really should attempt to assimilate him to this tradition.
      To be sure, disagreement will emerge as soon as an attempt is made to say more precisely what it means, in practice, to "consider" phenomena in this way: does this involve performing a "reduction" on them, for example? And if so, what exactly is a "phenomenological reduction"? But although my formulation is doubtless in need of improvement, I see no reason why we should be more precise than this in drawing a working distinction between a phenomenological and a nonphenomenological philosophy. Vagueness has its uses--it is no less legitimate and valuable than precision, generally speaking--and this is just the sort of intellectual situation in which the value of vagueness becomes especially clear. For on the assumption that some formulation roughly like the one I give above does indeed capture an alternative occurring at an important forking of the path of philosophy, it would surely be better to count such differences as would emerge from attempts at a more precise characterization of what is essential to phenomenology as differences in type within phenomenology in general, rather than as competing criteria of what phenomenology proper really is. I will not attempt here to explain why I think this choice point on the path of philosophy is of such great importance, except to remark that it is closely connected with a belief that the course of Anglo-American philosophy in this century would have been very different if the commitment to the non-phenomenological alternative had not been made early on.7
      Supposing, then, that Peirce can legitimately be accommodated within the phenomenological tradition by conceiving the essential character of phenomenological philosophy in the vague--but not therefore empty-- way suggested above, we can proceed now to a more exact and specific understanding of what sort of phenomenology Peirce has to offer without concerning ourselves further with whether we are really talking about phenomenology at all.
      As regards Peirce's philosophical aims, the starting point for understanding this should be with the fact that, on the one hand, he earned a livelihood almost exclusively in the service of the sciences (chiefly astronomy and earth measurement), was intellectually quite at home in the scientific world generally, made minor but not insignificant contributions to a number of different sciences (ranging from mathematics to experimental psychology), and was in fact a true polymath of the type of an Aristotle or a Leibniz, while, on the other hand, he always conceived his real vocation as being that of a logician whose mission it was to establish logic--and philosophy in general, but he usually conceived this primarily in terms of logic--as a genuine science by providing appropriate conceptual foundations and articulating its overall structure on that basis. He was convinced from as early as 1865 (two years earlier than any of his published work) that the proper establishment of logic would be on the basis of the conception of representation, in contrast with the increasing tendency in his time to construe logic as psychologistically based (as when it is said, for example, that the laws of logic are laws of thought). This is the original--though not the full--import of his maxim that "all thought is in signs": insofar as the logician is concerned with thought, it is always insofar as it is available as manifest in symbolic representation.
      Thus an argument inscribed on a stone in an ancient and forgotten language might never be deciphered, hence never be thought again; yet logical conceptions apply to it nonetheless. For supposing it were deciphered at some future time--and we have already allowed for that possibility in saying that it might never be deciphered--we could hardly deny then that the argument on that stone was of this or that logical type from the time when it was inscribed until the time of its decipherment: it is, perhaps, a syllogism in Barbara now, even though we cannot now say that it is--though we can say that it might be-- because we cannot now decipher it. Moreover, it is senseless, because utterly pointless, to say that an argument has been thought which can never be expressed in some medium of representation, or at least the logician must so regard the matter; but if it can be so expressed then the logician has access to it in principle as something expressible in this way or that, even if in fact it never is expressed. For the logician is not concerned with arguments as actually authored by this or that person but only as considered impersonally.
      This approach can be construed as motivated in several different but compatible ways, two of which are especially pertinent here. For one thing, this makes it possible to conceive of the subject-matter of logic as publicly available, which is a conditio sine qua non for establishing logic as a science. This was, I think, the motive uppermost in Peirce's mind at the beginning of his work in this direction. However, there is another motive which can be regarded as implicit in this from early on as well, namely, the ultimate overthrow of the Cartesian mind-body metaphysics, in the service of which the principle that "all thought is in signs" would have an important role to play. For although this way of regarding the matter does not preclude regarding thought as something capable of being private, it does mean that the specific content of any thought must be regarded as essentially capable of having public status in virtue of a public expression of it. But if this is so then the way is open to arguing that it would surely be more profitable to regard the privacy of thought as the special case rather than the general rule, since it is of the essence of thought to be public rather than private. In other words, the problem becomes that of explaining how the privacy of thought is possible, not how its publicity is possible. This lays the groundwork for certain important conceptual moves which I will explain here in an abbreviated way.
      If it is of the essence of thought, logically regarded, to be publicly expressible, then thought is ipso facto essentially representative in character, and this in two ways: on the one hand, it is, of course, representative of whatever it is about: let us call that its "object"; on the other hand, it is representative of a thought about that object. For every thought, logically regarded, must be formally capable of being true or false; but it cannot be capable of being false of something unless it is formally possible to distinguish between what it represents and how it represents it. This yields a three-way distinction between (1) the representation, (2) the object represented by it, and (3) the thought which it represents about that object. But since it represents that thought, the public availability of the thought--the thought in its publicly available form--consists in the relationship of the representation to something else for which it is representative of that thought.
      In other words, insofar as the thought is available representatively, it is available to something which relates to that representation as an interpretation thereof. Now this interpretation of it, whatever exactly it might be, relates to the representation particularly as being a representation; for every representation has non-representational properties as well, since otherwise there would be no way of identifying it in such a way as to be able to distinguish it as having this representative value rather than that. Hence, the interpretation is itself a representation, namely, a representation of that representation as being a representation of that object. Such an interpreting representation is called by Peirce an "interpretant."
      Since for the logician's purposes the place of the thought is taken by the interpretant, we now have: (1) the representation, (2) the representation's object, and (3) the representation's interpretant, which is itself a representation. But since the same considerations apply to the interpretant qua representation, this implies that there is a further interpreting representation, namely, one which interprets the interpretant qua representation of the first representation of the object. The same applies to it, of course, and so on ad infinitum, which means that we now have an infinite--potentially, not actually, infinite--sequence of representations of representations of the object.
      But what about the first representation? Can it be regarded as truly first? No, because as a representation of this object rather than some other it must relate to it via something which differentiates and thus identifies it. Peirce calls this differentiating property the "ground" of the representation. But this is to say that there is some prior representation of the object which the representation in question represents as being the differentiating character of the object, which implies that the representation in question is an interpretant of that representation functioning as ground. It remains only to point out, then, that the grounding representation, as a representation of that object, itself requires a ground, which means that the sequence of representations is infinite in that direction also.
      Hence, we end up with a sequence of representations of representations as representations extending infinitely in either direction, and the conception of the object turns out to be equivalent to the conception that there are certain constraints on the representational- interpretational process, i.e. the object is that which constrains the process and its reality is recognized in the recognition of those constraints, whatever they may be.
      Since the object is available only as represented, this may seem to imply that it is never available at all in its own right, and critics of Peirce have often thought that this was a consequence--a damning consequence, needless to say--of his theory. This would be correct if Peirce recognized only one type of representation, namely, symbolic representation. But in fact he recognized from the very beginning that there is also iconic and indexical representation, and he so conceived iconic representation in particular that although it is true that there is a sense in which the object is always infinitely remote from any representation of it, namely, in the sense described above, it is by no means true that this implies that the object is infinitely remote experientially. I have addressed this topic elsewhere at length and cannot adequately address it here, but let me say two things in this connection which may help in understanding why: First, Peirce conceived iconic representation in such a way that it is possible for an object to be self-representative, meaning that it can appear in its own right, though nonetheless representatively, because it can appear as an icon of itself; and indeed, it is precisely the peculiarity of iconic representation that just insofar as something is truly representative of something in this way it is indistinguishable from it.8 Second, he conceived the relationship of iconic to symbolic representation in such a way that the latter is essentially in service to the former, as it were; that is, symbolic representation is not itself complete until it has introduced the object as it is in itself through an associated iconization. In short, the object does not disappear into the impenetrable domain of Dinge an sich but is as immediately available as common sense supposes it to be, provided symbolism is doing the job it is supposed to be doing. (This is a part of the import of Peirce's "pragmatic maxim," by the way.)
      I will not go into any detail about how Peirce develops logic on the basis of representational conceptions. I should explain, though, that the considerations I have adduced above would mostly fall under the heading of what he would himself call "philosophical grammar" ("speculative grammar," "universal grammar"), which he regarded as being the first part of logic in what he referred to as "the broad sense" of the term. In this very broad sense, logic is identified with his general theory of representation (theory of signs), for which Peirce's usual technical term is "semiotic". Logic in what he called "the narrow sense"--though it is hardly narrow in comparison with the currently reigning conceptions of logic--includes everything we customarily place under that heading and consists primarily of the theories of deductive, inductive, and retroductive (abductive, hypothetical) inference. Peirce regarded this as the second major part of semiotic (logic in the broad sense) and sometimes referred to it as "critical logic." He called the third major part of semiotic "philosophical rhetoric" ("speculative rhetoric," "universal rhetoric," "methodeutic"), which can be conceived variously as a general methodology of inquiry, as a theory about how beliefs are established when truth is sought, or as a theory about the representational process considered as an autonomous interpretant-generating process. Let me comment briefly on this last way of regarding the matter in order to make clear why I said above that this is part of the groundwork for the overthrow of the Cartesian mind/body metaphysics.
      What I have attempted to convey thus far is that Peirce was attempting to show how thought could be construed, for logical purposes, as internal to the representational process by identifying it, in effect, with the interpretant in that process. But every representation is an interpretant, when viewed from a certain perspective, and the process itself consists wholly of representations. Hence that process is the thought process, as far as the logician is concerned: the philosophy of mind is thus reduced to semiotic. In order for this to go through, though, it is essential that the conception of mind as something apart from this process not be surreptitiously reintroduced by construing the interpretation of a representation as an interpreting act by a mind independent of the process, which is to say that the agency of interpretation must be located in the process itself. In other words, that which generates the interpretant is not a mind which is interpreting the representation but is rather the representation itself: thus semiosis is defined by Peirce as the action of the representation (sign) in generating its own interpretant. Semiosis is not a mental act of interpretation.
      This means, for example, that as you read the words on this page you are not "reading meanings into" the signs, as Peirce conceives it, but are rather perceiving the actualizations of the generating powers of the signs themselves. The power we have of "creating meanings" is not creational in that sense but only in the more modest sense in which we have the power of creating houses out of wood or pots out of clay: we take words--and, of course, other signs or representations--and put them together, i.e. arrange and rearrange them, just as we do other materials, and if we are good at this then of course we create unique artifacts, but there is no creation ex nihilo here. Given the frequent talk by phenomenologists about "constituting meanings" and the like, it seems important to stress here that one will find nothing like that in the Peircean philosophy. (This has important implications for the way in which intentionality is treated by Peirce, about which I will say only that it is not a topic of the first importance in his thought because he regards it as a conception to be explicated by more fundamental conceptions rather than as itself a fundamental explicating conception.)9
      Now let us turn to Peirce's phenomenology proper. As I remarked earlier, the essence of it is found in the 1867 paper on the categories, and I should perhaps remark before proceeding that if Peirce is to be regarded as a phenomenologist it should be understood that most of Peirce's analyses should be looked for under the heading of semiotic. For his phenomenology proper is really quite simple: the paper in question is quite short, and there is not a whole lot more to be done in phenomenology proper than what he does therein, though the line of argument certainly could be--and I believe should be--developed at much greater length and in much greater detail. Let me hasten to say that I do not mean to trivialize the matter by stressing the relative simplicity of it. The point is simply that the way Peirce conceives phenomenology it leaves most of the work to be done under other headings, and most of what Peirce himself did along these lines would properly be regarded as a part of semiotic.
      The important question is, what does he do there? Does he perform a "reduction"? No, I don't think there is anything in what he does which could fairly be called a "reduction". I am assuming that a reduction is supposed to be some sort of special act of withdrawal of belief or suspension of judgment, and Peirce doesn't do anything like that. In fact, he would regard talk of doing such a thing as mere talk, just as he regards Descartes' supposed methodic doubt as mere talk: "paper doubt," as he puts it. In any case, taking the phenomenological stance here is quite simple also: you just put no restrictions on what you are concerned with. What is phenomenology about? Anything. You name it or point it out or mark it off or identify it in any other way and phenomenology is about it.
      In brief, what Peirce does is to start from the idea of an experienceable entity of any sort whatever--anything knowable, intelligible, perceptible, memorable, understandable, learnable about, etc.--and he infers that any such entity necessarily possesses three distinct types of properties regardless of whether or not we can locate it in the space-time order we commonsensically identify as "the real world." It can be something merely dreamed, imagined, conceived, envisioned, hallucinated, or of which we are aware in any other way, provided it is referable to and describable in principle. Thus what "phenomenology" primarily meant to him was the idea that the objects of phenomenological study as such are not studied with any implicit or explicit assumptions, presuppositions, or assertions as to their reality status, which made it possible to develop semiotic or logic (in the broad sense) in a way that presupposes no metaphysical framework, and therefore involves no a priori assumptions about, say, the mental or physical status of the phenomenal entities.
      But what can you say about such things considered simply as phenomena? Not much, except that they will all be found to have three types of properties which I will describe sketchily here, without attempting to explain how Peirce arrived at the conclusion that there are these three and only these three types. The conceptions of the types are, of course, the categorial conceptions.
(1) There are the properties of the phenomenal entity as it is in itself, considered apart from any relationships it stands in with anything else. Every entity has such intrinsic properties, that is, properties describable in principle by monadic (i.e. one-term) predicates, though one might not actually be able to come up with a suitable such description in a given case. These constitute the entity's "firstness," as Peirce later called it, though his word for this in the 1867 paper is "quality." The linguistic form for the ascription of such a property to a thing would be the form of a simple one-place predicate, of course, but linguistic form, as it is given by a predication in ordinary discourse, is not in itself a reliable indicator as to the true category of a property. This category of predicates is roughly analogous--but only very roughly--to the traditional idea of "secondary qualities," though one cannot go by the traditional sorting of properties into primary, secondary, tertiary, etc. Thus what have sometimes been treated as "tertiary properties" (or "tertiary qualities"), for which Peirce's usual name is "emotional predicates," meaning our feelings about things (including all-pervasive moods, such as the dreariness of a day, and attributes of the sort we might think of as purely esthetic, such as fineness or beauty) would also fall under this heading, provided--let me stress this emphatically--they are construed as being experienced in a totally naive way as qualities of that which the feelings are about rather than as properties ascribable to ourselves as reactions to that which they are about.
      For example, insofar as one's dislike for a person is regarded simply as an immediately perceived and intrinsic qualitative characteristic of the person (as might be expressed in saying or thinking that the person is loathsome or detestable or repulsive, etc.), that property is a firstness property of that person (i.e. is being so regarded). But when it is recognized, on reflection, that the person's repulsiveness should be regarded rather as one's reactional response to him or her (perhaps a warranted one, perhaps not)--which is a way of regarding such things which requires a certain amount of sophistication and self-criticism--the property can no longer be regarded as falling under the category of firstness. Note, though, that there is an implication borne by the words "repulsive," "detestable," and "loathsome" that the property is not a firstness: one is repelled by the repulsive; a detestable or loathsome person is one who is or should be loathed; and so on. If you understand this example, then, it is because you are thinking not of what is implicit in the words but rather of the nature of the experience of repulsiveness, detestability, or loathsomeness. Bear in mind that we are concerned here with categories of properties as experienced, that is, with the categories of experience.
      (2) There are the properties of the entity as it stands in its dyadic or two-term relationships with other entities. These dyadic properties constitute its "secondness," as he later called it, though his word for it in the 1867 paper is "relation," which is somewhat misleading since he had in mind only dyadic relations. The linguistic form for the ascription of such a property to a thing would be, of course, the form of a two-place predicate, such as "x hits y". But here again the surface linguistic form of an expression is not a reliable indicator of the true category of the property given by the verbal predicate. Thus if what is meant in saying that one thing hits another is that it collides with the other accidentally, then "x hits y" is indeed a dyadic predicate signifying a dyadic property. But suppose that what is meant is, say, that a certain person deliberately collides with (or hits with the fist, or bumps into) another. In that case, "x hits y" would really mean something like "x hits y with z", where the third term of the relation would be the body or the fist which was used for the purpose of hitting the other. Only the concrete context would provide the basis for deciding what category of property is actually involved. The word Peirce favored most (after "secondness") as a name for this category in his later writings is "reaction," with emphasis on the unmediated or brute character of the relation between the two members of the dyad as such. This category of predicates is roughly analogous--though, again, only very roughly--to the traditional idea of "primary qualities."
      (3) There are the properties of the entity as it stands in its triadic or three-term relationships, which he later calls its "thirdness," though it is also called the category of "representation," both in the 1867 paper and in his later writings.10 For most purposes, at least, this can be construed in practice as meaning that implicit in any genuine triadic relation, as that which makes it genuinely triadic, is the property of being a sign or representation. In other words, a given verbal predicate may not be immediately recognizable as a representation predicate, but supposing that it really is one, an analysis of what is involved in the predication will show that something is implicitly being regarded as a sign, i.e. the property predicated falls under the category of thirdness or representation. In practice, the easiest way to ascertain whether or not a given property falls under the third category will often be to ask oneself whether the predication implicitly involves a reference to an ideal case, situation, state-of-affairs, norm, desideratum, etc. If so then it must involve, at least implicitly, a reference to a representation since that is the only mode of being which an ideal, as such, can have. Peirce usually cites instead the reference to a law or rule, and sometimes cites cases where an intention is involved; but either of these kinds of cases involves a reference to an ideal of some kind, and the latter provides a better working criterion, though I am not suggesting it as a strict formal criterion. It is possible, too, that what a given linguistic predicate represents will resolve, by analysis, into several distinct properties, some of which are of the third category and some of which are not.
      Peirce contends that no authentic triadic relation is analyzable reductively into any combination of dyadic and monadic properties, and that, similarly, no authentic dyadic property is analyzable reductively into a combination of monadic properties. He does, however, recognize a distinction between "genuine" and "degenerate" secondness, of which there is one type of "degeneracy," and a similar distinction as regards thirdness, of which there are two types of "degeneracy" (and he hints at still more subtle distinctions as well.)11
      Peirce also contends that any verbal predication of a tetradic or four-place relational form, or of any more complex form than that, is always reducible under analysis to some combination of triadic, dyadic, and monadic predication, which is to say that there are no properties which are essentially more complex than triadic relationships.
      Another important principle concerning the categories is that any actually occurring significant entity must as such also stand in some dyadic or otherness relation to something, and it cannot do this unless it has some intrinsic or monadic property. Thus representational (thirdness) properties, though never reducible to non-representational properties, presuppose the possession of them by the entities in question. This is another point that should be underscored because of the tendency in the critical literature on Peirce's theory to think of something which is a sign as if it were nothing but a sign simply because it is a sign, which is never the case in his view. To say that everything is a sign (representation) does not mean that everything thereby loses its ontological substantiality. It merely indicates a certain perspective one is taking on what there is.12
      These categories and their inter-relationships are the rudimentary conceptual elements out of which Pierce's entire philosophy is built. My brief account does not do them justice, but these three conceptions are truly remarkable and what Peirce did with them constructively is even more so. But is this sort of thing appropriately describable as phenomenology? As I said earlier, I am inclined to think so myself, but if phenomenology should turn out to go in this direction it might involve the abandonment of quite a lot which has traditionally been associated with it.


      1. William Rosensohn has documented this in The Phenomenology of Charles S. Peirce (Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1974), p. 34. Peirce's many statements to this effect are from his later years (1902 through 1908), and are such as to put it beyond doubt that Peirce himself regarded his entire corpus of work from 1867 on as fundamentally self-consistent throughout. Some Peirce scholars--myself included--agree with Peirce's self-assessment; some do not. (I have advocated a unitary interpretation of his work since my first scholarly contribution on the topic in 1966--Charles Peirce: The Concept of Representation, diss., Columbia University--which focused primarily on the line of argument in this foundational essay.) The essay itself can be found in the eight volume Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Harvard University Press), Vol. 1, pars. 545-559 (commonly cited by scholars in the form "CP 1.545-559") and also in Volume 2 of the more recent and canonical--but still far from complete--edition of his work, The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition (Indiana University Press), which is scheduled for some 30 volumes. Anyone seriously interested in following Peirce's highly compressed line of argument in the New List should avail themselves of Volume 1 of the new edition as well, which contains not only some early versions of it but also much related material which helps to make his intellectual motives and assumptions more clear than is apparent in the essay itself.

      2. The label "Categorics" was used in MS L75, an important manuscript of 1902 (see p. 355, counting pages in the order in the manuscript folder [Go to http://www.cspeirce.com/menu/library/bycsp/l75/ver1/l75v1-02.htm and scroll down — B.U.] ). He subsequently referred to it as "phaneroscopy" (with "phaneron" replacing "phenomenon") and, less frequently, as "ideoscopy" (not to be confused with "idioscopy").

      3. Peirce may have chosen the name "phenomenology" because he felt obligated to acknowledge a similarity of his categorial conceptions to Hegel's three "stages" of thought, even though he did not regard himself as having been significantly influenced by Hegel in this respect. This does not explain why he subsequently abandoned that term, though the following passage, from a 1904 letter to William James, suggests that it could have been because he decided that the similarity might be misleading: "I am not sure that it will do to call this science phenomenology owing to Hegel's Phänomenologie being somewhat different. But I am not sure that Hegel ought not to have it named after his attempt." (CP 8.298, 1904) On the other hand, if we suppose that he anticipated a possible competition with Husserl in respect particularly to the term "phenomenology" then he may have abandoned it because of his antipathy to the psychologism which he perceived in Husserl's early work, as the following passage might suggest: "How many writers of our generation (if I must call names, in order to direct the reader to further acquaintance with a generally described character--let it be in this case the distinguished Husserl), after underscored protestations that their discourse shall be of logic exclusively and not by any means of psychology (almost all logicians protest that on file), forthwith become intent upon those elements of the process of thinking which seem to be special to a mind like that of the human race, as we find it, to too great neglect of those elements which must belong, as much to any one as to any other mode of embodying the same thought." (CP 4.7, 1906) However, I know of no evidence for supposing any such anticipation on Peirce's part. The point in the text above is not affected in any case.

      4. In the preface to his Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: The Humanities Press, 1962), p. ix.

      5. That is, this is the formal basis for the distinction. More than this is involved, but the matter cannot be pursued here.

      6. Peirce believed that there is a way in which scientific understanding can be regarded as primarily teleological rather than mechanistic even in the case of the physical sciences. Roughly, his strategy was to regard mechanistic science--the paradigm for which is, of course, Newtonian mechanics--as a "degenerate" case of teleology, in a sense of "degenerate" which derives from mathematics. (See CP 6.303 and 1.365 on its mathematical sense.) His conception of teleology is closely connected with his conception of evolution, and it is more closely akin to the classical than to the modern conception of teleology in being conceived in terms of tendency rather than intention; however, it differs from both in that it involves absolute chance. I would recommend T. L. Short's "Teleology in Nature" American Philosophical Quarterly, 20 (1983), pp. 311-320, in this connection, even though it does not purport to be about Peirce's view in particular, since it expresses a contemporarily informed Peircean approach. Short is a philosopher of science who is also a Peirce scholar, and he addresses Peirce's conception of teleology in its own right in several of his other papers, among which I would especially recommend "Peirce's Concept of Final Causation" in Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, XVII (Fall 1981), pp. 369-382. As regards the way Peirce conceives the relationship of science and technology, I will only remark here that although it is true that, in his view, any successful theoretical science yields a technology of some sort as a by-product, Peirce does not equate scientific and technological ("calculative") thinking in the way Heidegger does. I address this topic myself, from the perspective of the conception of objectivity, in "Semiotic Objectivity", Semiotica 26:3/4, 1979, pp. 261-288)), reprinted in Frontiers in Semiotics (ed. Deely, Williams, and Kruse, Indiana University Press, 1986).

      7. The canonical status accorded to Bertrand Russell's analysis of the referential import of definite descriptions--or rather the assumptions underlying his analysis--in his 1905 essay "On Denoting" (Mind, XIV, pp. 479-493) is symptomatic of the extent and tenacity of this commitment. See Secs. 33-37 of W. V. O. Quine's Methods of Logic (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, Rev. edition, 1959).

      8. I first pointed out the epistemological significance of the iconic sign in making it possible to reconcile the traditionally oppositional doctrines of immediate and representative perception (by allowing for the possibility of perceptual self-representation) in my 1966 study (see note 1 above). Since then, I have addressed the topic at length in "The Epistemic Function of Iconicity in Perception," (Peirce Studies 1, 1979, pp. 51-76) and in "On Peirce's Conception of the Iconic Sign" (in Iconicity: Essays on the Nature of Culture, Festschrift for Thomas A. Sebeok, ed. Paul Bouissac, Michael Herzfeld, and Roland Posner, Stauffenburg Verlag, 1986). The topic is also discussed very briefly in "Charles Sanders Peirce" (entry for the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, 3 volumes, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter Press, 1986).

      9. The conception of tendency to an end is more fundamental than the conception of intention for him. See note 6 above.

      10. Strictly speaking, the categorial conception of thirdness is more abstract than the conception of the representation or sign relation, but for most contexts they can be regarded as equivalent for the purposes at hand. I should also remark that Peirce's view does not entail a simple identification of the conception of a sign and the conception of a representation. The idea is rather that both are alike explicated in terms of the more abstract conception of thirdness. Since this conception had never been isolated conceptually in such an abstract way before Peirce, there is no traditional philosophical terminology to draw on in discussing it in its pure form. However, this usually presents no problem since philosophers are rarely concerned with it in its most abstract form, which would, I suppose, require recourse to the terminology of number theory or something very close to that. Typically, when one is speaking apart from some special context of application one can speak indifferently in terms of signification or of representation--or in terms of meaning, reference, and so forth, as far as that goes--with the understanding that one sort of terminology might be more appropriate in some such contexts and another more appropriate in other such contexts.

      11. See CP 1.365-367 for an extended discussion of the "degenerate" forms of secondness and thirdness. Although this conception of "degeneracy" is mathematical in origin, Peirce uses it effectively in a variety of nonmathematical contexts. See note 6 above.

      12. "There are three kinds of interest we may take in a thing. First we may have a primary interest in it for itself. Second, we may have a secondary interest in it, on account of its reactions with other things. Third, we may have a mediatory interest in it, in so far as it conveys to a mind an idea about a thing. In so far as it does this, it is a sign; or representamen." (MS 278, p. 34)

END OF: Ransdell, "Is Peirce a Phenomenologist?"


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