The First Trichotomy. Thought of the Day 119.0


As the sign consists of three components it comes hardly as a surprise that it may be analyzed in nine aspects – every one of the sign’s three components may be viewed under each of the three fundamental phenomenological categories. The least discussed of these so-called trichotomies is probably the first, concerning which property in the sign it is that functions, in fact, to make it a sign. It gives rise to the trichotomy qualisign, sinsign, legisign, or, in a little more sexy terminology, tone, token, type.

The oftenmost quoted definition is from ‘Syllabus’ (Charles S. Peirce, The Essential Peirce Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2):

According to the first division, a Sign may be termed a Qualisign, a Sinsign, or a Legisign.

A Qualisign is a quality which is a Sign. It cannot actually act as a sign until it is embodied; but the embodiment has nothing to do with its character as a sign.

A Sinsign (where the syllable sin is taken as meaning ‘being only once’, as in single, simple, Latin semel, etc.) is an actual existent thing or event which is a sign. It can only be so through its qualities; so that it involves a qualisign, or rather, several qualisigns. But these qualisigns are of a peculiar kind and only form a sign through being actually embodied.

A Legisign is a law that is a Sign. This law is usually [sic] established by men. Every conventional sign is a legisign. It is not a single object, but a general type which, it has been agreed, shall be significant. Every legisign signifies through an instance of its application, which may be termed a Replica of it. Thus, the word ‘the’ will usually occur from fifteen to twenty-five times on a page. It is in all these occurrences one and the same word, the same legisign. Each single instance of it is a Replica. The Replica is a Sinsign. Thus, every Legisign requires Sinsigns. But these are not ordinary Sinsigns, such as are peculiar occurrences that are regarded as significant. Nor would the Replica be significant if it were not for the law which renders it so.

In some sense, it is a strange fact that this first and basic trichotomy has not been widely discussed in relation to the continuity concept in Peirce, because it is crucial. It is evident from the second noticeable locus where this trichotomy is discussed, the letters to Lady Welby – here Peirce continues (after an introduction which brings less news):

The difference between a legisign and a qualisign, neither of which is an individual thing, is that a legisign has a definite identity, though usually admitting a great variety of appearances. Thus, &, and, and the sound are all one word. The qualisign, on the other hand, has no identity. It is the mere quality of an appearance and is not exactly the same throughout a second. Instead of identity, it has great similarity, and cannot differ much without being called quite another qualisign.

The legisign or type is distinguished as being general which is, in turn, defined by continuity: the type has a ‘great variety of appearances’; as a matter of fact, a continuous variation of appearances. In many cases even several continua of appearances (as &, and, and the spoken sound of ‘and’). Each continuity of appearances is gathered into one identity thanks to the type, making possible the repetition of identical signs. Reference is not yet discussed (it concerns the sign’s relation to its object), nor is meaning (referring to its relation to its interpretant) – what is at stake is merely the possibility for a type to incarnate a continuum of possible actualizations, however this be possible, and so repeatedly appear as one and the same sign despite other differences. Thus the reality of the type is the very foundation for Peirce’s ‘extreme realism’, and this for two reasons. First, seen from the side of the sign, the type provides the possibility of stable, repeatable signs: the type may – opposed to qualisigns and those sinsigns not being replicas of a type – be repeated as a self-identical occurrence, and this is what in the first place provides the stability which renders repeated sign use possible. Second, seen from the side of reality: because types, legisigns, are realized without reference to human subjectivity, the existence of types is the condition of possibility for a sign, in turn, to stably refer to stably occurring entities and objects. Here, the importance of the irreducible continuity in philosophy of mathematics appears for semiotics: it is that which grants the possibility of collecting a continuum in one identity, the special characteristic of the type concept. The opposition to the type is the qualisign or tone lacking the stability of the type – they are not self-identical even through a second, as Peirce says – they have, of course, the character of being infinitesimal entities, about which the principle of contradiction does not hold. The transformation from tone to type is thus the transformation from unstable pre-logic to stable logic – it covers, to phrase it in a Husserlian way, the phenomenology of logic. The legisign thus exerts its law over specific qualisigns and sinsigns – like in all Peirce’s trichotomies the higher sign types contain and govern specific instances of the lower types. The legisign is incarnated in singular, actual sinsigns representing the type – they are tokens of the type – and what they have in common are certain sets of qualities or qualisigns – tones – selected from continua delimited by the legisign. The amount of possible sinsigns, tokens, are summed up by a type, a stable and self-identical sign. Peirce’s despised nominalists would to some degree agree here: the universal as a type is indeed a ‘mere word’ – but the strong counterargument which Peirce’s position makes possible says that if ‘mere words’ may possess universality, then the world must contain it as well, because words are worldly phenomena like everything else. Here, nominalists will typically exclude words from the world and make them privileges of the subject, but for Peirce’s welding of idealism and naturalism nothing can be truly separated from the world – all what basically is in the mind must also exist in the world. Thus the synthetical continuum, which may, in some respects, be treated as one entity, becomes the very condition of possibility for the existence of types.

Whether some types or legisigns now refer to existing general objects or not is not a matter for the first trichotomy to decide; legisigns may be part of any number of false or nonsensical propositions, and not all legisigns are symbols, just like arguments, in turn, are only a subset of symbols – but all of them are legisigns because they must in themselves be general in order to provide the condition of possibility of identical repetition, of reference to general objects and of signifying general interpretants.

Triadomania. Thought of the Day 117.0


Peirce’s famous ‘triadomania’ lets most of his decisive distinctions appear in threes, following the tripartition of his list of categories, the famous triad of First, Second, and Third, or Quality, Reaction, Representation, or Possibility, Actuality, Reality.

Firstness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, positively and without reference to anything else.

Secondness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, with respect to a second but regardless of any third.

Thirdness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, in bringing a second and third into relation to each other.

Firstness constitutes the quality of experience: in order for something to appear at all, it must do so due to a certain constellation of qualitative properties. Peirce often uses sensory qualities as examples, but it is important for the understanding of his thought that the examples may refer to phenomena very far from our standard conception of ‘sensory data’, e.g. forms or the ‘feeling’ of a whole melody or of a whole mathematical proof, not to be taken in a subjective sense but as a concept for the continuity of melody or proof as a whole, apart from the analytical steps and sequences in which it may be, subsequently, subdivided. In short, all sorts of simple and complex Gestalt qualities also qualify as Firstnesses. Firstness tend to form continua of possibilities such as the continua of shape, color, tone, etc. These qualities, however, are, taken in themselves, pure possibilities and must necessarily be incarnated in phenomena in order to appear. Secondness is the phenomenological category of ‘incarnation’ which makes this possible: it is the insistency, then, with which the individuated, actualized, existent phenomenon appears. Thus, Secondness necessarily forms discontinuous breaks in Firstness, allowing for particular qualities to enter into existence. The mind may imagine anything whatever in all sorts of quality combinations, but something appears with an irrefutable insisting power, reacting, actively, yielding resistance. Peirce’s favorite example is the resistance of the closed door – which might be imagined reduced to the quality of resistance feeling and thus degenerate to pure Firstness so that his theory imploded into a Hume-like solipsism – but to Peirce this resistance, surprise, event, this thisness, ‘haecceity’ as he calls it with a Scotist term, remains irreducible in the description of the phenomenon (a Kantian idea, at bottom: existence is no predicate). About Thirdness, Peirce may directly state that continuity represents it perfectly: ‘continuity and generality are two names of the same absence of distinction of individuals’. As against Secondness, Thirdness is general; it mediates between First and Second. The events of Secondness are never completely unique, such an event would be inexperiencable, but relates (3) to other events (2) due to certain features (1) in them; Thirdness is thus what facilitates understanding as well as pragmatic action, due to its continuous generality. With a famous example: if you dream about an apple pie, then the very qualities of that dream (taste, smell, warmth, crustiness, etc.) are pure Firstnesses, while the act of baking is composed of a series of actual Secondnesses. But their coordination is governed by a Thirdness: the recipe, being general, can never specify all properties in the individual apple pie, it has a schematic frame-character and subsumes an indefinite series – a whole continuum – of possible apple pies. Thirdness is thus necessarily general and vague. Of course, the recipe may be more or less precise, but no recipe exists which is able to determine each and every property in the cake, including date, hour, place, which tree the apples stem from, etc. – any recipe is necessarily general. In this case, the recipe (3) mediates between dream (1) and fulfilment (2) – its generality, symbolicity, relationality and future orientation are all characteristic for Thirdness. An important aspect of Peirce’s realism is that continuous generality may be experienced directly in perceptual judgments: ‘Generality, Thirdness, pours in upon us in our very perceptual judgments’.

All these determinations remain purely phenomenological, even if the later semiotic and metaphysical interpretations clearly shine through. In a more general, non-Peircean terminology, his phenomenology can be seen as the description of minimum aspects inherent in any imaginable possible world – for this reason it is imaginability which is the main argument, and this might point in the direction that Peirce could be open to critique for subjectivism, so often aimed at Husserl’s project, in some respects analogous. The concept of consciousness is invoked as the basis of imaginability: phenomenology is the study of invariant properties in any phenomenon appearing for a mind. Peirce’s answer would here be, on the one hand, the research community which according to him defines reality – an argument which structurally corresponds to Husserl’s reference to intersubjectivity as a necessary ingredient in objectivity (an object is a phenomenon which is intersubjectively accessible). Peirce, however, has a further argument here, namely his consequent refusal to delimit his concept of mind exclusively to human subjects (a category the use of which he obviously tries to minimize), mind-like processes may take place in nature without any subject being responsible. Peirce will, for continuity reasons, never accept any hard distinction between subject and object and remains extremely parsimonious in the employment of such terms.

From Peirce’s New Elements of Mathematics (The New Elements of Mathematics Vol. 4),

But just as the qualities, which as they are for themselves, are equally unrelated to one other, each being mere nothing for any other, yet form a continuum in which and because of their situation in which they acquire more or less resemblance and contrast with one another; and then this continuum is amplified in the continuum of possible feelings of quality, so the accidents of reaction, which are waking consciousnesses of pairs of qualities, may be expected to join themselves into a continuum. 

Since, then an accidental reaction is a combination or bringing into special connection of two qualities, and since further it is accidental and antigeneral or discontinuous, such an accidental reaction ought to be regarded as an adventitious singularity of the continuum of possible quality, just as two points of a sheet of paper might come into contact.

But although singularities are discontinuous, they may be continuous to a certain extent. Thus the sheet instead of touching itself in the union of two points may cut itself all along a line. Here there is a continuous line of singularity. In like manner, accidental reactions though they are breaches of generality may come to be generalized to a certain extent.

Secondness is now taken to actualize these quality possibilities based on an idea that any actual event involves a clash of qualities – in the ensuing argumentation Peirce underlines that the qualities involved in actualization need not be restrained to two but may be many, if they may only be ‘dissolved’ into pairs and hence do not break into the domain of Thirdness. This appearance of actuality, hence, has the property of singularities, spontaneously popping up in the space of possibilities and actualizing pairs of points in it. This transition from First to Second is conceived of along Aristotelian lines: as an actualization of a possibility – and this is expressed in the picture of a discontinuous singularity in the quality continuum. The topological fact that singularities must in general be defined with respect to the neighborhood of the manifold in which they appear, now becomes the argument for the fact that Secondness can never be completely discontinuous but still ‘inherits’ a certain small measure of continuity from the continuum of Firstness. Singularities, being discontinuous along certain dimensions, may be continuous in others, which provides the condition of possibility for Thirdness to exist as a tendency for Secondness to conform to a general law or regularity. As is evident, a completely pure Secondness is impossible in this continuous metaphysics – it remains a conceivable but unrealizable limit case, because a completely discon- tinuous event would amount to nothing. Thirdness already lies as a germ in the non-discontinuous aspects of the singularity. The occurrences of Secondness seem to be infinitesimal, then, rather than completely extensionless points.