Since icons are the means of representing qualities, they generally constitute the predicative side of more complicated signs:
The only way of directly communicating an idea is by means of an icon; and every indirect method of communicating an idea must depend for its establishment upon the use of an icon. Hence, every assertion must contain an icon or set of icons, or else must contain signs whose meaning is only explicable by icons. The idea which the set of icons (or the equivalent of a set of icons) contained in an assertion signifies may be termed the predicate of the assertion. (Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce)
Thus, the predicate in logic as well as ordinary language is essentially iconic. It is important to remember here Peirce’s generalization of the predicate from the traditional subject-copula-predicate structure. Predicates exist with more than one subject slot; this is the basis for Peirce’s logic of relatives and permits at the same time enlarging the scope of logic considerably and approaching it to ordinary language where several-slot-predicates prevail, for instance in all verbs with a valency larger than one. In his definition of these predicates by means of valency, that is, number of empty slots in which subjects or more generally indices may be inserted, Peirce is actually the founder of valency grammar in the tradition of Tesnière. So, for instance, the structure ‘_ gives _ to _’ where the underlinings refer to slots, is a trivalent predicate. Thus, the word classes associated with predicates are not only adjectives, but verbs and common nouns; in short all descriptive features in language are predicative.
This entails the fact that the similarity charted in icons covers more complicated cases than does the ordinary use of the word. Thus,
where ordinary logic considers only a single, special kind of relation, that of similarity, – a relation, too, of a particularly featureless and insignificant kind, the logic of relatives imagines a relation in general to be placed. Consequently, in place of the class, which is composed of a number of individual objects or facts brought together by means of their relation of similarity, the logic of relatives considers the system, which is composed of objects brought together by any kind of relations whatsoever. (The New Elements of Mathematics)
This allows for abstract similarity because one phenomenon may be similar to another in so far as both of them partake in the same relation, or more generally, in the same system – relations and systems being complicated predicates.
But not only more abstract features may thus act as the qualities invoked in an icon; these qualities may be of widely varying generality:
But instead of a single icon, or sign by resemblance of a familiar image or ‘dream’, evocable at will, there may be a complexus of such icons, forming a composite image of which the whole is not familiar. But though the whole is not familiar, yet not only are the parts familiar images, but there will also be a familiar image in its mode of composition. ( ) The sort of idea which an icon embodies, if it be such that it can convey any positive information, being applicable to some things but not to others, is called a first intention. The idea embodied by an icon, which cannot of itself convey any information, being applicable to everything or nothing, but which may, nevertheless, be useful in modifying other icons, is called a second intention.
What Peirce distinguishes in these scholastic standard notions borrowed from Aquinas via Scotus, is, in fact, the difference between Husserlian formal and material ontology. Formal qualities like genus, species, dependencies, quantities, spatial and temporal extension, and so on are of course attributable to any phenomenon and do not as such, in themselves, convey any information in so far as they are always instantiated in and thus, like other Second Intentions, in the Husserlian manner dependent upon First Intentions, but they are nevertheless indispensable in the composition of first intentional descriptions. The fact that a certain phenomenon is composed of parts, has a form, belongs to a species, has an extension, has been mentioned in a sentence etc. does not convey the slightest information of it until it by means of first intentional icons is specified which parts in which composition, which species, which form, etc. Thus, here Peirce makes a hierarchy of icons which we could call material and formal, respectively, in which the latter are dependent on the former. One may note in passing that the distinctions in Peirce’s semiotics are themselves built upon such Second Intentions; thus it is no wonder that every sign must possess some Iconic element. Furthermore, the very anatomy of the proposition becomes just like in Husserlian rational grammar a question of formal, synthetic a priori regularities.
Among Peirce’s forms of inference, similarity plays a certain role within abduction, his notion for a ‘qualified guess’ in which a particular fact gives rise to the formation of a hypothesis which would have the fact in question as a consequence. Many such different hypotheses are of course possible for a given fact, and this inference is not necessary, but merely possible, suggestive. Precisely for this reason, similarity plays a seminal role here: an
originary Argument, or Abduction, is an argument which presents facts in its Premiss which presents a similarity to the fact stated in the conclusion but which could perfectly be true without the latter being so.
The hypothesis proposed is abducted by some sort of iconic relation to the fact to be explained. Thus, similarity is the very source of new ideas – which must subsequently be controlled deductively and inductively, to be sure. But iconicity does not only play this role in the contents of abductive inference, it plays an even more important role in the very form of logical inference in general:
Given a conventional or other general sign of an object, to deduce any other truth than that which it explicitly signifies, it is necessary, in all cases, to replace that sign by an icon. This capacity of revealing unexpected truth is precisely that wherein the utility of algebraic formulae consists, so that the iconic character is the prevailing one.
The very form of inferences depends on it being an icon; thus for Peirce the syllogistic schema inherent in reasoning has an iconic character:
‘Whenever one thing suggests another, both are together in the mind for an instant. [ ] every proposition like the premiss, that is having an icon like it, would involve [ ] a proposition related to it as the conclusion [ ]’. Thus, first and foremost deduction is an icon: ‘I suppose it would be the general opinion of logicians, as it certainly was long mine, that the Syllogism is a Symbol, because of its Generality.’ …. The truth, however, appears to be that all deductive reasoning, even simple syllogism, involves an element of observation; namely deduction consists in constructing an icon or diagram the relation of whose parts shall present a complete analogy with those of the parts of the objects of reasoning, of experimenting upon this image in the imagination, and of observing the result so as to discover unnoticed and hidden relations among the parts.
It then is no wonder that synthetic a priori truths exist – even if Peirce prefers notions like ‘observable, universal truths’ – the result of a deduction may contain more than what is immediately present in the premises, due to the iconic quality of the inference.