Charles S. Peirce (12.10.04)

Arisbe, Milford, Pa.
1904 Oct. 12

My dear Lady Welby:

Not a day has passed since I received your last letter that I have not lamented the circumstances that prevented me from writing that very day the letter that I was intent upon writing to you, nor without my promising myself that it should soon be done. But living in the country on this side of the Atlantic, unless one is a multimillionaire is attended with great friction. Though it is done more of late years, it is not yet a usual thing, and in this country one is expected to be just like everybody else. I will venture to say that your imagination could not compass the picture of the sort of domestic servant that an American girl makes. Then too an inconsiderate contract I entered into to get certain definitions for a supplement to the Century Dictionary ready by a certain time drives me like the furies. To be sure I might have scribbled a line to explain myself; but I was always telling myself that in a very few days I should get time to write as I desired, until now my idea of what it was I wanted to write is blurred. I hope, however, that you will have had faith to know that only an impossibility could have prevented my writing; for from one who lives in the country one may hope for more of that sort of faith than from a citadin.

For one thing, I wanted to express my surprise at finding you rather repelled the designation of a "rationalist", and said that as a woman you were naturally conservative. Of course, the lady of the house is usually the minister of foreign affairs (barring those of money and law) and as an accomplished diplomat is careful and conservative. But when a woman takes up an idea my experience is that she does so with a singleness of heart that distinguishes her. Some of my very best friends have been very radical women. I do not know that I dont think your recommending a serious consideration of changing the base of numeration is a bit radical.

But I wanted to write to you about signs, which in your opinion and mine are matters of so much concern. More in mine, I think, than in yours. For in mine, the highest grade of reality is only reached by signs; that is by such ideas as those of Truth and Right and the rest1. It sounds paradoxical; but when I have devolved to you my whole theory of signs, it will seem less so. I think that I will today explain the outlines of my classification of signs.

You know that I particularly approve of inventing new words for new ideas. I do not know that the study I call Ideoscopy2 can be called a new idea, but the word Phenomenology is used in a different sense. Ideoscopy consists in describing and classifying the ideas that belong to ordinary experience or that naturally arise in connection with ordinary life, without regard to their being valid or invalid or to their psychology3. In pursuing this study I was long ago (1867) led, after only three or four years' study, to throw all ideas into the three classes of Firstness, of Secondness, and of Thirdness4. This sort of notion is as distasteful to me as to anybody; and for years, I endeavored to pooh-pooh and refute it; but it long ago conquered me completely. Disagreeable as it is to attribute such meaning to numbers, & to a triad above all, it is as true as it is disagreeable. The ideas of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness are simple enough. Giving to being the broadest possible sense, to include ideas as well as things, and ideas that we fancy we have just as much as ideas as we do have, I should define Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness thus:

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.

I call these three ideas the cenopythagorean categories5.

The typical ideas of firstness are qualities of feeling, or mere appearances. The scarlet of your royal liveries, the quality itself, independently of its being perceived or remembered, is an example, by which I do not mean that you are to imagine that you do not perceive or remember it, but that you are to drop out of account that which may be attached to it in perceiving or in remembering, but which does not belong to the quality. For example, when you remember it, your ideas is said to be dim and when it is before your eyes, it is vivid. But dimness or vividness do not belong to your idea of the quality. They might no doubt, if considered simply as a feeling; but when you think of vividness you do not consider it from that point of view. You think of it as a degree of disturbance of your consciousness. The quality of red is not thought of as belonging to you, or as attached to liveries. It is simply a peculiar positive possibility regardless of anything else. If you ask a mineralogist what hardness is, he will say that it is what one predicates of a body that one cannot scratch with a knife. But a simple person will think of hardness as a simple positive possibility the realization of which causes a body to be like flint. That idea of hardness is an idea of Firstness. The unanalyzed total impression made by any manifold not thought of as actual fact, but simply as a quality, as simple positive possibility of appearance is an idea of Firstness. Notice the naiveté of Firstness. The cenopythagorean categories are doubtless another attempt to characterize what Hegel sought to characterize as his three stages of thought. They correspond to the three categories of each of the four triads of Kant's table. But the fact that these different attempts were independent of one another (the resemblance of these Categories to Hegel's stages was not remarked for many years after the list had been under study, owing to my antipathy to Hegel) only goes to show that there really are three such elements. The idea of the present instant, which, whether it exists or not, is naturally thought as a point of time in which no thought can take place or any detail be separated, is an idea of Firstness.

The type of an idea of Secondness is the experience of effort, prescinded from the idea of a purpose. It may be said that there is no such experience, that a purpose is always in view as long as the effort is cognized. This may be open to doubt; for in sustained effort we soon let the purpose drop out of view. However, I abstain from psychology which has nothing to do with ideoscopy. The existence of the word effort is sufficient proof that people think they have such an idea; and that is enough. The experience of effort cannot exist without the experience of resistance. Effort only is effort by virtue of its being opposed; and no third element enters. Note that I speak of the experience, not of the feeling, of effort. Imagine yourself to be seated alone at night in the basket of a balloon, far above earth, calmly enjoying the absolute calm and stillness. Suddenly the piercing shriek of a steam-whistle breaks upon you, and continues for a good while. The impression of stillness was an idea of Firstness, a quality of feeling. The piercing whistle does not allow you to think or do anything but suffer. So that too is absolutely simple. Another Firstness. But the breaking of the silence by the noise was an experience. The person in his inertness identifies himself with the precedent state of feeling, and the new feeling which comes in spite of him is the non-ego. He has a two sided consciousness of an ego and a non-ego. That consciousness of the action of a new feeling in destroying the old feeling is what I call an experience. Experience generally is what the course of life has compelled me to think. Secondness is either genuine or degenerate. There are many degrees of genuineness. Generally speaking genuine secondness consists in one thing acting upon another, —brute action. I say brute, because so far as the idea of any law or reason comes in, Thirdness comes in. When a stone falls to the ground, the law of gravitation does not act to make it fall. The law of gravitation is the judge upon the bench who may pronounce the law till doomsday, but unless the strong arm of the law, the brutal sheriff, gives effect to the law, it amounts to nothing. True, the judge can create a sheriff if need be; but he must have one. The stone's actually falling is purely the affair of the stone and the earth at the time. This is a case of reaction. So is existence which is the mode of being of that which reacts with other things. But there is also action without reaction. Such is the action of the previous upon the subsequent6. It is a difficult question whether the idea of this one-sided determination is a pure idea of secondness or whether it involves thirdness. At present, the former view seems to me correct. I suppose that when Kant made Time a form of the internal sense alone, he was influenced by some such considerations as the following. The relation between the previous and the subsequent consists in the previous being determinate and fixed for the subsequent, and the subsequent being indeterminate for the previous. But indeterminacy belongs only to ideas; the existent is determinate in every respect; and this is just what the law of causation consists in. Accordingly, the relation of time concerns only ideas. It may also be argued that, according to the law of the conservation of energy, there is nothing in the physical universe corresponding to our idea that the previous determines the subsequent in any way in which the subsequent does not determine the previous. For, according to the law, all that happens in the physical universe consists in the exchange of just so much vis viva ½m (ds/dt)2 for so much displacement. Now the square of a negative quantity being positive, it follows that if all the velocities were reserved at any instant, everything would go on just the same, only time going backward as it were. Everything that had happened would happen again in reserve order. These seem to me to be strong arguments to prove that temporal causation (a very different thing from physical dynamic action) is an action upon ideas and not upon existents. But since our idea of the past is precisely the idea of that which is absolutely determinate fixed, fait accompli, and dead, as against the future which is living, plastic, and determinable, it appears to me that the idea of one sided action, in so far as it concerns the being of the determinate, is a pure idea of Secondness; and I think that great errors of metaphysics are due to looking at the future as something that will have been past. I cannot admit that the idea of the future can be so translated into the Secundal ideas of the past. To say that a given kind of event never will happen is to deny that there is any date at which its happening will be past; but it is not equivalent to any affirmation about a past relative to any assignable date. When we pass from the idea of an event to saying that it never will happen, or will happen in endless repetition, or introduce in any way the idea of endless repetition, I will say the ideas is mellonized (μέλλων, about to be, do, or suffer). When I conceive a fact as acting but not capable of being acted upon, I will say that it is parelélythose (παρεληλυθως, past) and the mode of being which consist in such action I will call parelelythosiné (-ine= είναι, being). I regard the former as an idea of Thirdness, the latter as an idea of Secondness. I consider the idea of any dyadic relation not involving any third as an idea of Secondness; and I should not call any completely degenerate except the relation of identity. But similarity which is the only possible identity of Firsts is very near to that. Dyadic relations have been classified by me in a great variety of ways; but the most important are first with regard to the nature of the Second in itself and second with regard to the nature of its first7. The Second, or Relate8 is, in itself, either a Referate if it is intrinsically a possibility, such as a quality or it is a Rerelate if it is of its own nature an Existent. In respect to its first, the Second is divisible either in regard to the dynamic first or to the immediate first. In regard to its dynamic first, a Second is determined either by virtue of its own intrinsic nature, or by virtue of a real relation to that second (an action). Its immediate second is either a Quality or an Existent.

I now come to Thirdness. To me, who have for forty years considered the matter from every point of view that I could discover, the inadequacy of Secondness to cover all that is in our minds is so evident that I scarce know how to begin to persuade any person of it who is not already convinced of it. Yet I see a great many thinkers who are trying to construct a system without putting any thirdness into it. Among them are some of my best friends who acknowledge themselves indebted to me for ideas but have never learned the principal lesson. Very well. It is highly proper that Secondness should be searched to its very bottom. Thus only can the indispensibleness and irreducibility of thirdness be made out, although for him who has the mind to grasp it, it is sufficient to say that no branching of a line can result from putting one line on the end of another9. My friend Schröder fell in love with my algebra of dyadic relations. The few pages I gave to it in my Note B in the 'Studies in Logic by Members of the Johns Hopkins University' were proportionate to its importance10. His book11 is profound, but its profundity only makes it more clear that Secondness cannot compass Thirdness. (He is careful to avoid ever saying that it can, but he does go so far as to say that Secondness is the more important. So it is, considering that Thirdness cannot be understood without Secondness. But as to its applications, it is so inferior to Thirdness as to be in that aspect quite in a different world). Even in the most degenerate form of Thirdness, and thirdness has two grades of degeneracy, something may be detected which is not mere secondness. If you take any ordinary triadic relation, you will always find a mental element in it. Brute action is secondness, any mentality involves thirdness. Analyze for instance the relation involved in 'A gives B to C'. Now what is giving? It does not consist in A's putting B away from him and C's subsequently taking B up. It is not necessary that any material transfer should take place. It consists in A's making C the possessor according to Law. There must be some kind of law before there can be any kind of giving. —be it but the law of the strongest. But now suppose that giving did consist merely in A's laying down the B which C subsequently picks up. That would be a degenerate form of Thirdness in which the thirdness is externally appended. In A's putting away B, there is no thirdness. In C's taking B, there is no thirdness. But if you say that these two acts constitute a single operation by virtue of the identity of the B, you transcend the mere brute fact, you introduce a mental element. As to my algebra of dyadic relations, Russell in his book12 which is superficial to nauseating me, has some silly remarks, about my "relative addition", etc. which are mere nonsense13. He says, or Whitehead says, that the need of it seldom occurs. The need for it never occurs if you bring in the same mode of connection in another way. It is part of a system which does not bring in that mode of connection in any other way. In that system, it is indispensable. But let us leave Russell and Whitehead to work out their own salvation. The criticism which I make on that algebra of dyadic relations, with which I am by no means in love, though I think it is a pretty thing, is that the very triadic relations which it does not recognize it does itself employ. For every combination of relatives to make a new relative is a triadic relation irreducible to dyadic relations. Its inadequacy is shown in other ways, but in this way it is in a conflict with itself if it be regarded, as I never did regard it, as sufficient for the expression of all relations. My universal algebra of relations, with the subjacent indices and Σ and Π is susceptible of being enlarged so as to comprise everything and so, still better, though not to ideal perfection, is the system of existential graphs14. I have not sufficiently applied myself to the study of the degenerate forms of Thirdness, though I think I see that it has two distinct grades of degeneracy. In its genuine form, Thirdness is the triadic relation existing between a sign its object, and the interpreting thought, itself a sign, considered as constituting the mode of being a sign. A sign mediates between the interpretant sign and its object. Taking sign in its broadest sense, its interpretant is not necessarily a sign. Any concept is a sign, of course. Ockham, Hobbes, and Leibniz have sufficiently said that. But we may take a sign in so broad a sense that the interpretant of it is not a thought, but an action or experience, or we may even so enlarge the meaning of sign that its interpretant is a mere quality of feeling. A Third is something which brings a First into relation to a Second. A sign is a sort of Third. How shall we characterize it? Shall we say that a Sign brings a Second, its Object, into cognitive relation to a Third? That a Sign brings a Second into the same relation to a first in which it stands itself to that First? If we insist on consciousness, we must say what we mean by consciousness of an object. Shall we say we mean Feeling? Shall we say we mean association, or Habit? These are, on the face of them, psychological distinctions, which I am particular to avoid. What is the essential difference between a sign that is communicated to a mind, and one that is not so communicated? If the question were simply what we do mean by a sign, it might soon be resolved. But that is not the point. We are in the situation of a zoölogist who wants to know what ought to be the meaning of "fish" in order to make fishes one of the great classes of vertebrates. It appears to me that the essential function of a sign is to render inefficient relations efficient, —not to set them into action, but to establish a habit or general rule whereby they will act on occasion. According to the physical doctrine, nothing ever happens but the continued rectilinear velocities with the accelerations that accompany different relative positions of the particles. All other relations, of which we know so many, are inefficient. Knowledge in some way renders them efficient; and a sign is something by knowing which we know something more. With the exception of knowledge, in the present instant, of the contents of consciousness in that instant (the existence of which knowledge is open to doubt) all our thought & knowledge is by signs. A sign therefore is an object which is in relation to its object on the one hand and to an interpretant on the other in such a way as to bring the interpretant into a relation to the object corresponding to its own relation to the object. I might say 'similar to its own' for a correspondence consists in a similarity; but perhaps correspondence is narrower.

I am now prepared to give my division of signs, as soon as I have pointed out that a sign has two objects, its object as it is represented and its object in itself. It has also three interpretants, its interpretant as represented or meant to be understood, its interpretant as it is produced, and its interpretant in itself. Now signs may be divided as to their own material nature, as to their relations, to their objects, and as to their relation to their interpretants15.

As it is in itself, a sign is either of the nature of an appearance, when I call it a qualisign; or secondly, it is an individual object or event, when I call it a sinsign (the syllable sin being the first sillable [sic] of semel, simul, singular, etc); or thirdly, it is of the nature of a general type, when I call it a legisign16. As we use the term 'word' in most cases, saying that 'the' is one 'word' and 'an' is a second 'word', a 'word' is a legisign. But when we say of a page in a book, that it has 250 'words' upon it, of which twenty are 'the's, the 'word' is a sinsign. A sinsign so embodying a legisign, I term a 'replica' of the legisign17. 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 & is not exactly the same throughout a second. Instead of identity, it has great similarity, & cannot differ much without being called quite another qualisign.

In respect to their relations to their dynamic objects, I divide signs into Icons, Indices, and Symbols (a division I gave in 1867)18. I define a Icon as a sign which is determined by its dynamic object by virtue of its own internal nature. Such is any qualisign, like a vision, —or the sentiment excited by a piece of music considered as representing what the composer intended. Such may be a sinsign, like an individual diagram; say a curve of the distribution of errors. I define an Index as sign determined by its dynamic object by virtue of being in a real relation to it. Such is a Proper Name (a legisign); such is the occurrence of a symptom of a disease (the symptom itself is a legisign, a general type of a definite character. The occurrence in a particular case is a sinsign). I define a Symbol as a sign which is determined by its dynamic object only in the sense that it will be so interpreted. It thus depends either upon a convention, a habit, or a natural disposition of its interpretant, or of the field of its interpretant (that of which the interpretant is a determination). Every symbol is necessarily a legisign; for it is inaccurate to call a replica of a legisign a symbol).

In respect to its immediate object a sign may either be a sign of a quality, of an existent, or of a law19.

In regard to its relation to its signified interpretant, a sign is either a Rheme, a Dicent, or an Argument20. This corresponds to the old division Term, Proposition, & Argument, modified so as to be applicable to signs generally. A Term is simply a class-name or proper-name. I do not regard the common noun as an essentially necessary part of speech. Indeed, it is only fully developed as a separate part of speech in the Aryan languages & the Basque, —possibly in some other out of the way tongues. In the Shemitic languages it is generally in form a verbal affair, & usually is so in substance too. As well as I can make out, such it is in most languages. In my universal algebra of logic there is no common noun. A rheme is any sign that is not true nor false, like almost any single word except 'yes' and 'no', which are almost peculiar to modern languages. A proposition as I use that term, is a dicent symbol. A dicent is not an assertion, but is a sign capable of being asserted. But an assertion is a dicent. According to my present view (I may see more light in future) the act of assertion is not a pure act of signification. It is an exhibition of fact that one subjects oneself to the penalties visited on a liar the proposition asserted is not true. An act of judgment is the self-recognition of a belief; and a belief consists in the acceptance of a proposition as a basis of conduct deliberately. But I think this position is open to doubt. It is simply a question of which view gives the simplest view of the nature of the proposition. Holding, then, that a Dicent does not assert, I naturally hold that an Argument need not actually be submitted or urged. I therefore define an argument as a sign which is represented in its signified interpretant not as a Sign of the interpretant (the conclusion) [for that would be to urge or submit it] but as if it were a Sign of the Interpretant or perhaps as if it were a Sign of the state of the universe to which it refers, in which the premisses are taken for granted. I define a dicent as a sign represented in its signified interpretant as if it were in a Real Relation to its Object. (Or as being so, if it is asserted). A rheme is defined as a sign which is represented in its signified interpretant as if it were a character or mark (or as being so).

According to my present view, a sign may appeal to its dynamic interpretant in three ways:

1st, an argument only may be submitted to its interpretant, as something the reasonableness of which will be acknowledged.

2nd, an argument or dicent may be urged upon the interpretant by an act of insistence.

3rd, Argument or dicent may be and a rheme can only be, presented to the interpretant for contemplation21.

Finally, in its relation to its immediate interpretant, I would divide signs into three classes as follows:

1st, those which are interpretable in thoughts or other signs of the same kind in infinite series,

2nd those which are interpretable in actual experiences,

3rd those which are interpretable in qualities of feelings or appearances22.

Now if you think on the whole (as I do) that there is much valuable truth in all this, I should be gratified if you cared to append it to the next edition of your book, after editing it & of course cutting out personalities of a disagreeable kind especially if accompanied by one or more (running or other) close criticisms; for I haven't a doubt there is more or less error involved.

My wife tells me I should try to persuade you to come over and make us a visit here. I wish with all my heart you would, though I am not sure that we shall not sell out & go to France.

I have a feeling of deep guilt in inflicting your ladyship with such a dissertation.

very truly
C. S. Peirce

P. S. On the whole, then, I should say there were ten principal classes of signs

1. Qualisigns

2. Iconic sinsigns

3. Iconic legisigns

4. Vestiges, or Rhematic Indexical Sinsigns

5. Proper names, or Rhematic Indexical Legisigns

6. Rhematic Symbols

7. Dicent sinsigns (as a portrait with a legend)

8. Dicent Indexical Legisigns

9. Propositions, or Dicent symbols

X. Arguments23.


1. See Collected Papers 5.283-309 [Nota de SS].

2. Elsewhere called by Peirce "phenomenology". Not to be confused with Idioscopy. See Collected Papers 1.183-202. For the chronology of names for phenomenology see Herbert Spiegelberg, "Husserl's and Peirce's Phenomenologies: Coincidence of Interaction", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 17 (1956), pp. 164-185 [Nota de SS].

3. See Collected Papers, 1.284 [Nota de SS].

4. See Collected Papers, 1.545-567 [Nota de SS].

5. For a comprehensive analysis of these categories, see Collected Papers, 1.141-353 [Nota de SS].

6. The italicized sentence is, in manuscript, underlined in pencil. Perhaps it was underlined by Lady Welby, yet it was not her habit to annotate Peirce's letters [Nota de SS].

7. See Collected Papers, 3.571-608 [Nota de SS].

8. 'Relate', in manuscript, is underlined in pencil, hence perhaps by Lady Welby [Nota de SS].

9. See Collected Papers, 1.346-349 [Nota de SS].

10. Johns Hopkins Studies in Logic, ed. C. S. Peirce, Little, Brown, & Co., Boston, 1883. Peirce's "Note B" is on pp. 187-203. Reprinted as Collected Papers, 3.571-608 [Nota de SS].

11. Ernst Schröder, Vorlesungen über die Algebra der Logik, B. G. Teubner, Leipzig, 1890. For Peirce's review of this work see The Nation 53 (13 Aug. 1891), 129; 62 (23 April 1896), 330-332; and The Monist: "The Regenerated Logic", vol. 7 (1896), pp. 19-40; "The Logic of Relatives", vol. 7 (1897), pp. 161-217. The Monist reviews are reprinted in Collected Papers, 3.425-552 [Nota de SS].

12. Bertrand Russell, The Principles of Mathematics. See Appendix A [Nota de SS].

13. The passage referred to, from page 24 of Russell's book, is as follows: "Peirce and Schröder have realized the great importance of the subject, but unfortunately their methods, being based, not on Peano, but on the older Symbolic Logic derived (with modifications) from Boole, are so cumbrous and difficult that most of the applications which ought to be made are practically not feasible" [Nota de SS].

14. See Collected Papers, 4.347-584. For a recent study of Peirce's existential graphs see Don D. Roberts, The Existential Graphs of Charles S. Peirce (The Hague: Mouton, 1973) [Nota de SS].

15. See Appendix B [Nota de SS].

16. See Collected Papers, 2.243-246 [Nota de SS].

17. Peirce's usual term is 'sinsign'. Instead of 'replica' he sometimes uses 'token' [Nota de SS].

18. See Collected Papers, 2.247ff, and 1.558 [Nota de SS].

19. In his letter dated December 23, 1908, Peirce provides a trichotomy for the immediate object. Also, see Appendix B [Nota de SS].

20. See Collected Papers, 2.250-254 [Nota de SS].

21. Names for the items in this trichotomy are provided by Peirce in his letter dated December 23, 1908 [Nota de SS].

22. This trichotomy is modified by Peirce in his December 23, 1908 letter. The order in these two trichotomies is unusual for Peirce. If '3rd' and '1st' were interchanged, Peirce's usual order of enumeration would be restored [Nota de SS].

23. Although in the body of his letter Peirce provides conceptions for ten trichotomies, and hence sixty-six classes of signs, he enumerates here only the ten classes of signs that derive from three of his trichotomous divisions: (1) a sign considered in itself, (2) the connection between a sign and its dynamoid object, and (3) a sign as a representation for a final or significant interpretant. See Appendix B [Nota de SS].

Fin de: "L 463: Letter to Lady Welby" (12.10.04). Fuente textual en SS 22-36.

Fecha del documento: 22 de septiembre 2006
Última actualización: 1 de septiembre 2009

[Página Principal] [Sugerencias]