The Third Trichotomy. Thought of the Day 121.0


The decisive logical role is played by continuity in the third trichotomy which is Peirce’s generalization of the old distinction between term, proposition and argument in logic. In him, the technical notions are rhema, dicent and argument, and all of them may be represented by symbols. A crucial step in Peirce’s logic of relations (parallel to Frege) is the extension of the predicate from having only one possible subject in a proposition – to the possibility for a predicate to take potentially infinitely many subjects. Predicates so complicated may be reduced, however, to combination of (at most) three-subject predicates, according to Peirce’s reduction hypothesis. Let us consider the definitions from ‘Syllabus (The Essential Peirce Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2)’ in continuation of the earlier trichotomies:

According to the third trichotomy, a Sign may be termed a Rheme, a Dicisign or Dicent Sign (that is, a proposition or quasi-proposition), or an Argument.

A Rheme is a Sign which, for its Interpretant, is a Sign of qualitative possibility, that is, is understood as representing such and such a kind of possible Object. Any Rheme, perhaps, will afford some information; but it is not interpreted as doing so.

A Dicent Sign is a Sign, which, for its Interpretant, is a Sign of actual existence. It cannot, therefore, be an Icon, which affords no ground for an interpretation of it as referring to actual existence. A Dicisign necessarily involves, as a part of it, a Rheme, to describe the fact which it is interpreted as indicating. But this is a peculiar kind of Rheme; and while it is essential to the Dicisign, it by no means constitutes it.

An Argument is a Sign which, for its Interpretant, is a Sign of a law. Or we may say that a Rheme is a sign which is understood to represent its object in its characters merely; that a Dicisign is a sign which is understood to represent its object in respect to actual existence; and that an Argument is a Sign which is understood to represent its Object in its character as Sign. ( ) The proposition need not be asserted or judged. It may be contemplated as a sign capable of being asserted or denied. This sign itself retains its full meaning whether it be actually asserted or not. ( ) The proposition professes to be really affected by the actual existent or real law to which it refers. The argument makes the same pretension, but that is not the principal pretension of the argument. The rheme makes no such pretension.

The interpretant of the Argument represents it as an instance of a general class of Arguments, which class on the whole will always tend to the truth. It is this law, in some shape, which the argument urges; and this ‘urging’ is the mode of representation proper to Arguments.

Predicates being general is of course a standard logical notion; in Peirce’s version this generality is further emphasized by the fact that the simple predicate is seen as relational and containing up to three subject slots to be filled in; each of them may be occupied by a continuum of possible subjects. The predicate itself refers to a possible property, a possible relation between subjects; the empty – or partly satiated – predicate does not in itself constitute any claim that this relation does in fact hold. The information it contains is potential, because no single or general indication has yet been chosen to indicate which subjects among the continuum of possible subjects it refers to. The proposition, on the contrary, the dicisign, is a predicate where some of the empty slots have been filled in with indices (proper names, demonstrative pronomina, deixis, gesture, etc.), and is, in fact, asserted. It thus consists of an indexical part and an iconical part, corresponding to the usual distinction between subject and predicate, with its indexical part connecting it to some level of reference reality. This reality needs not, of course, be actual reality; the subject slots may be filled in with general subjects thus importing pieces of continuity into it – but the reality status of such subjects may vary, so it may equally be filled in with fictitious references of all sorts. Even if the dicisign, the proposition, is not an icon, it contains, via its rhematic core, iconical properties. Elsewhere, Peirce simply defines the dicisign as a sign making explicit its reference. Thus a portrait equipped with a sign indicating the portraitee will be a dicisign, just like a charicature draft with a pointing gesture towards the person it depicts will be a dicisign. Even such dicisigns may be general; the pointing gesture could single out a group or a representative for a whole class of objects. While the dicisign specifies its object, the argument is a sign specifying its interpretant – which is what is normally called the conclusion. The argument thus consists of two dicisigns, a premiss (which may be, in turn, composed of several dicisigns and is traditionally seen as consisting of two dicisigns) and a conclusion – a dicisign represented as ensuing from the premiss due to the power of some law. The argument is thus – just like the other thirdness signs in the trichotomies – in itself general. It is a legisign and a symbol – but adds to them the explicit specification of a general, lawlike interpretant. In the full-blown sign, the argument, the more primitive degenerate sign types are orchestrated together in a threefold generality where no less than three continua are evoked: first, the argument itself is a legisign with a halo of possible instantions of itself as a sign; second, it is a symbol referring to a general object, in turn with a halo of possible instantiations around it; third, the argument implies a general law which is represented by one instantiation (the premiss and the rule of inference) but which has a halo of other, related inferences as possible instantiations. As Peirce says, the argument persuades us that this lawlike connection holds for all other cases being of the same type.

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