The Riddle of Semeiotic Causation

  • Menno Hulswit
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 90)


In contemporary Peirce scholarship, there is a consensus that Peirce conceived semeiosis or sign-action as a teleological process, that is to say, as a process directed toward the complete interpretation of the sign.2 If semeiosis is indeed some sort of teleological process, then it must, according to Peirce, involve a combined action of final causation, efficient causation, and chance.3 However, the secondary literature on Peirce's semeiotic does not provide a clear and unambiguous view of the roles of these causal elements within semeiosis. The objective of this chapter then is to clarify the roles within semeiosis of, respectively, final causation, efficient causation, and chance. For the sake of clarity, I will use the expression 'semeiotic causation' for the role of causal elements within semeiosis.4


Dynamic Object Objective Chance Causal Concept Efficient Causation Causal Element 
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  1. 2.
    See Colapietro (1989); Hausman (1993); Hookway (1985); Kruse (1986; 1990); Liszka (1996); Pape (1993); Ransdell (1977; 1981; 1986); Rosenthal (1994); Savan (1988); Seager (1988); Short (1981b).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    The term’ semeiotic causation' was introduced by Ransdell (1981). I think that, though he does not formulate the problem in terms of the respective roles in semeiosis of final causation, efficient causation, and chance, my formulation of the problem agrees with his view.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    For a detailed description, see CP 2.227 (c.1897).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    There are some earlier thinkers, such as John Poinsot (1589-1644), who conceived the sign triadically. See Deeley 1994.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    &quote;... the causation may be either from the object to the sign, or from the sign to the object, or from some third thing to both; but some causation there must be&quote; (W3: 82; 1873).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    See, for example, CP 2.274-3.308 (1895 and later).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    I owe this insight to Short (1986, 491), who also gives the following references: CP 2.242, 274, 275, LW: 111.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Undated, but probably after 1903. The dynamical object cannot be directly experienced; it cannot be expressed by the sign, but it can only be indicated by the sign (8.314). Moreover, &quote;The sign can only represent the Object and tell about it. It cannot furnish acquaintance with or recognition of that Object; for that is what is meant (...) by the Object of a Sign; namely that which presupposes an acquaintance in order to convey some further information concerning it&quote; (CP 2.231). Thus, for example, we can only discuss’ semeiotic causation' if we have some image or notion of what semeiotic causation is about. This image, which we have gained by &quote;collateral experience,&quote; is the immediate object. The sole function of the immediate object is &quote;the identification of the actual or supposed previous experience with which the new meaning, conveyed in the sign, is to be attached&quote; (MS 318:00342-43). The real object is that conception of semeiotic causation &quote;which we should have ultimately in our minds as the result of sufficient information and reflexion&quote; (MS 318:00342).Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    For example, in 1906 Peirce writes about the final interpretant: &quote;I confess that my own conception of this third interpretant is not yet quite free from mist&quote; (CP 4.536).Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    T. L. Short has strong arguments to consider both distinctions as quite different (see Short 1996, esp. 494-6). Short refers to CP 5.475 in which Peirce wrote that in some cases the emotional interpretant is &quote;the only proper significate effect that the sign produces,&quote; and where he gives the appreciation of a musical performance as an example. Because this effect is actually produced, Short concludes, &quote;there is no indication (...) that an emotional interpretant is merely potential&quote; (p. 495). The emotional interpretant cannot therefore be identical with the immediate interpretant, which is merely potential. However, in MS 318 Peirce seems to emphasize that emotional meanings (he used the terms 'meaning' and 'interpretant' as synonymous) are yet mere possibilities, which is an argument to treat both trichotomies as identical. According to Peirce: The emotional meaning corresponds to the immediate object, inasmuch as it is involved in the mere presentation of the sign. Only, it is what that presentation brings and not what it finds. It is what is conveyed strictly in the presentation itself without any reflexion, or abstraction, or analysis, or other efficient element. It is not, (to make a very fine point,) even the feeling the sign brings, since that is an actual fact, and so belongs to the existential meaning. This is only the quality of feeling. Because no analysis is involved, it is the total consciousness at the time; and for the same reason there can be no similarity between two emotional meanings. Each is sui generis; and the immediate meaning is, in all ways, strikingly analogous, if it be not identical with, the living personal consciousness, which likewise, be it noted, resembles nothing else. Practically, however, these extreme characteristics are enormously softened by the circumstance that we lack the mental energy which would be required to inhibit analysis, etc. So that the purest emotional meaning that we can recognize in the case of an intellectual concept is the plausible feeling of perfectly comprehending the purpose and purport of a sign, in a remarkably clear but as remarkably indistinct an idea of its implications. (MS 318:00344-45)Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    LW: 111, ftn. 6. Quoted in Short 1981b, 213.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    LW: 111, ftn. 6. Quoted in Short 1981b, 213.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Short apparently does not consider the dynamic object as the final cause, for he gives two examples in which the dynamic object is different from the final cause of semeiosis: (1) a Paramecium following a chemical trace which leads toward food; the trace is a sign of the food, which is the object of the sign. The final cause or end is not the food itself, but nourishment or survival. (2) The flight of a deer elicited by a noise. The deer interprets the noise as being a sign of a predator, which implies danger. The goal of the deer, which is safety, does not coincide with the object of the sign, which is danger (Short 1981b, 207-08).Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Short 1981b, 207.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    Correspondingly, Short describes semeiotic as &quote;a science both of human thinking and of animal behavior&quote; (Short 1981b, 199).Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    Short 1981a, 371.Google Scholar
  17. 21.
    From: Joseph Ransdell. The Meanings in Things. The Basic Ideas of Charles Peirce’s Semiotic; forthcoming.Google Scholar
  18. 22.
    Though Ransdell does not state explicitly in his 1986 paper that the dynamic object is the final cause of the semeiosis process, he did so in two earlier papers. Thus, in his 1977 paper he writes for example that &quote;... what is meant in saying that every sign has an object is that every sign-interpretational process tends toward an end state, that is, has a final causational form. That end state is the object of the process&quote; (Ransdell 1977, 168). In his 1981 paper he writes that the term 'object' should be understood primarily in the sense of &quote;the generic aim of the semiosis process&quote; (Ransdell 1981, 203). There are also some other Peirce scholars who mention the dynamic object as the final cause of semeiosis: Kruse 1990, 214; Pape 1993; Rosenthal 1994, 49.Google Scholar
  19. 23.
    Inasmuch as the chain of efficient causation is not determined by the general purpose that we had in view, it is still determined by some physical laws, which are final causes too. Even after the bullet has left the rifle, it conforms to a general law, the causality of which is of the order of final causation (CP 1.212).Google Scholar
  20. 24.
    In Ransdell’s own words: the immediate interpretant is the &quote;range of possible interpretants of a given sign at a given time;&quote; the dynamic interpretant is &quote;simply the actually occurring interpretant;&quote; the final interpretant is &quote;the range of possible interpretants that would be definitely established with the ultimate cessation of all growth in the powers of the sign as such.&quote; The distinction between immediate and final interpretant is purely conceptual; qua content they are indistinguishable (Ransdell 1986, 682).Google Scholar
  21. 26.
    About the indeterminacy of signs Peirce writes: &quote;... it is impossible that any sign [...] should be perfectly determinate. If it were possible such sign must remain absolutely unconnected with any other&quote; (CP 4.583; 1906).Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    The same holds for the following parallel passages: W2: 467-70 (1871); W3: 77-81 (1873).Google Scholar
  23. 30.
    MS 318:00037; also CP 5.473; both 1907.Google Scholar
  24. 31.
    &quote;A symbol [...] cannot indicate any particular thing; it denotes a kind of thing&quote; (CP 2.301). Consider also the following passage: &quote;when people say that so and so is a 'mere' word, that adjective 'mere' betrays a grave misconception of the nature of a symbol. A word may be likened to a decree of a court. I has not itself the sheriff’s right arm; but it is able to create a sheriff, and to impart to his arm the courage and energy that makes it effective&quote; (MS 478:48; 1903).Google Scholar
  25. 33.
    See note 1.Google Scholar
  26. 34.
    See also CP 2.228.Google Scholar
  27. 35.
    It also agrees with Short’s interpretation, which entails that what is essential to all semeiosis, is not the triadic production of signs, but the triadic production of interpretants (see section 2).Google Scholar
  28. 36.
    See note 21.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Menno Hulswit
    • 1
  1. 1.Heyendaal InstituteUniversity of NijmegenThe Netherlands

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