These issues go way way back and my notes tell me I've been trying
to write something along these lines for at least a year but I was
prompted to return to the question by a post from John Sowa to the
Peirce List, so I've copied that below.
There's a better-formatted copy of this whole post on my blog:
Sign Relations • Comment 10
Re: Peirce List Discussion
Three-Headed Dogs and Triadic Sign Relations
Peirce's “Sop to Cerberus” got tossed about quite a bit in our discussions across the Web this millennium. Here's a
record of one occasion from the days when our discussions bridged over multiple perspectives, in this instance the
Peirce List and its parallel Arisbe List, the French SemioCom, and the Standard Upper Ontology Working Group:
“Sop To Cerberus” (21 May 2001)
There is a critical passage where Peirce explains the relationship between his popular illustrations and his technical
theory of signs.
It is clearly indispensable to start with an accurate and broad analysis of the nature of a Sign. I define a Sign as
anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which
effect I call its Interpretant, that the latter is thereby mediately determined by the former. My insertion of “upon a
person” is a sop to Cerberus, because I despair of making my own broader conception understood. (Peirce 1908, Selected
Writings, p. 404).
I have long connected this passage with Peirce's much earlier “metaphorical argument” where he changes the addressee of
a word — that to which it stands for something — from a person, to that person's memory, to “a particular remembrance or
image in that memory”, to wit, “the one which is the mental equivalent of the word … in short, its interpretant.”
* “Semiotics Formalization” (23 Sep 2000) • Standard Upper Ontology
Here is a passage from Peirce that is decisive in clearing up the relationship between the interpreter and the
I think we need to reflect upon the circumstance that every word implies some proposition or, what is the same thing,
every word, concept, symbol has an equivalent term — or one which has become identified with it, — in short, has an
Consider, what a word or symbol is; it is a sort of representation. Now a representation is something which stands for
something. I will not undertake to analyze, this evening, this conception of standing for something — but, it is
sufficiently plain that it involves the standing to something for something. A thing cannot stand for something without
standing to something for that something. Now, what is this that a word stands to? Is it a person?
We usually say that the word homme stands to a Frenchman for man. It would be a little more precise to say that it
stands to the Frenchman's mind — to his memory. It is still more accurate to say that it addresses a particular
remembrance or image in that memory. And what image, what remembrance? Plainly, the one which is the mental equivalent
of the word homme — in short, its interpretant. Whatever a word addresses then or stands to, is its interpretant or
identified symbol. …
The interpretant of a term, then, and that which it stands to are identical. Hence, since it is of the very essence of
a symbol that it should stand to something, every symbol — every word and every conception — must have an interpretant —
or what is the same thing, must have information or implication. (Peirce 1866, Chronological Edition 1, pp. 466–467).
As I read the long arc of Peirce’s work, the greater significance of the transformation he suggests at these points is
not the shift from one type of interpreter to another, however compelling the consideration of life-forms in general as
sign-processing agents may be, but the change of perspective that pulls our exclusive focus on representative agents of
semiosis back to a properly relational point of view and the triadic sign relations that generate competent semiotic
conduct. But Peirce made this transformation early on in his work, and even more strikingly in its first trials.
Viewed in that light I think I share Peirce’s despair that its full impact has yet to be felt.
* Peirce, C.S. (1866), “The Logic of Science, or, Induction and Hypothesis”, Lowell Lectures of 1866, pp. 357–504 in
Writings of Charles S. Peirce : A Chronological Edition, Volume 1, 1857–1866, Peirce Edition Project, Indiana University
Press, Bloomington, IN, 1982.
* Peirce, C.S. (1908), “Letters to Lady Welby”, Chapter 24, pp. 380–432 in Charles S. Peirce : Selected Writings (Values
in a Universe of Chance), Edited with Introduction and Notes by Philip P. Wiener, Dover Publications, New York, NY, 1966.
* C.S. Peirce • Upon Logical Comprehension and Extension
( http://www.iupui.edu/~peirce/writings/v2/w2/w2_06/v2_06.htm )
* Information = Comprehension × Extension
• Selection 18
* Interpreters and Interpretants
( http://intersci.ss.uci.edu/wiki/index.php/Interpreters_and_Interpretants )
On 1/20/2018 11:19 AM, John F Sowa wrote:
Edwina and Gary R,
I changed the subject line to biosemiosis in order to emphasize that
Peirce had intended semiosis to cover the full realm of all living
things. Note what he wrote in a letter to Lady Welby:
CSP, MS 463 (1908)
I define a Sign as anything which is so determined by something else,
called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which
effect I call its Interpretant, that the latter is thereby mediately
determined by the former. My insertion of “upon a person” is a sop
to Cerberus, because I despair of making my own broader conception
I believe that "despair" is the primary reason why he didn't say more.
His insistence on continuity implied that the faculties of the human
mind must be continuous with the minds (or quasi-minds) of all living
things anywhere in the universe. But if he had said that, he would
have been denounced by a huge number of critics from philosophy,
psychology, science, religion, and politics.
I do think that limiting Peircean semiosis to the human conceptual
realm is a disservice to Peircean semiosis... I won't repeat my
constant reference to 4.551.
I believe, you've had to depend on CP 4.551 as much as you have
(there are a very few other suggestions scattered through his work,
but none of them are much developed).
The reason why there are so few is that Peirce felt a need to
throw a "sop to Cerberus" in order to get people to take his ideas
seriously. I'm sure that he would gladly have written much more
if they were ready to listen.
For a very important and carefully worded quotation, see CP 2.227:
all signs used by a "scientific" intelligence, that is to say,
by an intelligence capable of learning by experience.
That comment certainly includes all large animals. In addition
to explicit statements about signs, it's important to note his
anecdotes about dogs and parrots. He observed some remarkable
performances, which implied "scientific intelligence". Although
he didn't say so explicitly, he wouldn't have made the effort
to write those anecdotes if he didn't think so.
Since Peirce talked about "crystals and bees" in CP 4.551, he must
have been thinking about the continuity to zoosemiosis, and from that
to the intermediate stages of phytosemiosis, biosemiosis by microbes,
crystal formation, and eventually to all of chemistry and physics.
He would have been delighted to learn about the signs called DNA
and the semiosis that interprets those signs in all aspects of life.
Many people have observed strong similarities with Whitehead's
process philosophy. ANW also had a continuity of mind-like things
from the lowest levels to something he called God. He wrote most
of his philosophical books at Harvard, and he also wrote some
sympathetic words about Peirce. He admitted that he hadn't read
much of Peirce's work, but Clarence Irving Lewis, the chairman of
the philosophy dept. at that time, had studied Peirce's MSS in
great detail. And Whitehead was also the thesis advisor for the
two graduate students, Hartshorne and Weiss, who edited the CP.
ANW must have absorbed much more than he cited in his references.
We should also remember that there are thousands of pages of MSS
that have not yet been transcribed and studied. Nobody knows how
much more might be discovered about all these issues. But the
fragments that do exist show that he had intended much more.
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