Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914); Biography and his famous theory of sign, semiotics

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) is an American philosopher, one of the founders of both pragmatism and semiotics. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a prominent professor of mathematics at Harvard University. He was one of the founders of the Smithsonian Institute and the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, where Peirce would later work thanks to his father’s influence. Peirce also attended Harvard, where he quickly earned a BA, MA, and MSc, following in his father’s footsteps. He had the good fortune to make the great American philosopher William James his friend while he was at Harvard, and James would be of great assistance to him throughout his life. From 1859 until 1891, Peirce was employed by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey and was by all accounts a terrible employee, using his time to pursue his own projects.

Peirce never held a tenured university position (he was a part-time lecturer at Johns Hopkins University for years, his only academic appointment) coupled with the entirely haphazard way in which he wrote and published has meant that the dissemination of his ideas has followed a slow and uncertain path. Peirce’s semiotics theory has unquestionably been the most influential in critical theory, whereas his logic theory and pragmatism have typically received more attention in philosophy. But Peirce insisted always that logic and semiotics were inseparable because thought could only occur through “signs.” Scholars like Julia Kristeva, Umberto Eco, and Gilles Deleuze were influenced by his semiotics theory.

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Peirce took what is known as a pansemiotic view of the world, which means that he believed that a semiotic perspective could be used to understand practically anything, from chemical reactions to human communication. His theory of signs was constructed with this in mind. Peirce’s work has at its core a system of three interrelated universal categories, which he simply named firstness, secondness, and thirdness. These terms are slippery, but taken together offer a powerful ontology: firstness is a mode of being which does not require reference to anything else, it exists in a state of immediacy; secondness, in contrast, is precisely a category of reference, of comparison and reflection, an intermediary state of relatedness; thirdness is pure mediation, it combines first and second things with other first and second things, as in memory and synthesis. The sign, as Peirce conceives it, belongs to the category of thirdness.

Peirce’s model of the sign has three components, rather than the basic two adopted by Saussure, which he termed the representamen, the interpretant, and the object. The representamen is something that creates in the mind of an observer an equivalent sign; that sign is in turn the interpretant, namely the observer’s representation to themselves of what they have seen; this representation in turn becomes an object, namely the significance to the observer of the original sign. Since every sign creates an interpretant, which in turn becomes a representamen to another interpretant, and so on, semiosis (the process of sign production) must be regarded as infinite. There can be no first or last sign. To distinguish between these moments in the cycle of sign production, Peirce constructed an elaborate taxonomy of the parts of the sign.

Peirce wrote voluminously on an incredibly wide range of subjects (mathematics, physics, geodesy, spectroscopy, astronomy, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, to name but a few), but published little in his own lifetime, and even today in spite of considerable editorial efforts the vast bulk of his work remains unpublished.

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