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Charles Peirce on the object of a sign as cause of the sign

From unpublished MS 634 (Sept. 1909), pp. 23-28

Joseph Ransdell sent a transcription of MS 634, pp. 23-28 to peirce-l in the following post of 29 May 2008, with subject line "CSP on the object as cause of the sign (MS 634.23-28)". The underlinings, italics, and centering appear in my copy of the email but not in the public archives. It is archived at http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.science.philosophy.peirce/4345 (gmane) and at http://lyris.ttu.edu/read/messages?id=1079190#1079190 (Texas Tech) — B.U.

A frequently recurring topic in discussion of Peirce is his view that the object of a sign relates to it as cause of it, which he sometimes expresses in saying that the object "determines" the sign (or is a "determinant" of it). Among other things, this raises the question of how that can be in the case where the object of the sign does not exist prior to the occurrence of the sign. (This is, of course, a stock objection to the use of the conception of final causation in particular.) Peirce addresses that in the passage below, which is from an unpublished manuscript of 1909. I cannot say that I fully understand it and am curious as to what others think of it.

(Anything appearing within square brackets is editorial in origin. Emphasis is in the original. I have added some paragraphing to make it easier to follow the line of thought - there is no paragraphing at all in the MS - and I have occasionally altered the punctuation in the interest of perspicuity: none of these changes seemed questionable enough to warrant cluttering up the text with editorial indicators or footnotes.)

Joe Ransdell

Charles Peirce on the object of a sign as cause of the sign
 From unpublished MS 634 (Sept. 1909), pp. 23-28

  It may be asserted (vague as assertion be) that in every case an influence upon the Sign emanates from its Object, and that this emanation's influence then proceeds from the Sign and produces, and is capable of producing - and partly at least, in a mental way - an effect that may be called the Interpretant, or interpreting action, which consummates the agency of the Sign.

  The reader may hesitate to admit that the Object always influences the Sign. A New York newspaper, for instance, daily prints a prediction of what the weather in New York will be on the following day; and this subsequent New York weather is, indisputably, the Object to which that predictive Sign relates. But how, it may be asked, can the state of weather have acted on a sheet of paper that was printed, sold, used, and destroyed long before that state of things existed? Some newspapers print certain promises as to the performances at the theatres on the following night; and how can those performances have influenced promises previously made, that have caused those assemblages of the audiences without which the performances would be given up, and not take place?

  Here, in the preface, the reader can only be requested to accept the phrase as a figurative one, although when the meaning of the word "cause" comes to be analyzed later he may come to acknowledge that it is strictly true that final causes do act mentally. He will even now admit that if a given performance had not in reality been about to come off, the theatre-manager would in all probability not have had the confidence and consequent assurance to announce it; so that if the reader will only widen his concept of causation, so as to make it include logical consequence (which is never absolutely necessary when the consequent is not identically included in the antecedent), he will be able to assent to the statement that real futurity is sometimes a mental cause of the expectation of it.*
* [Peirce's footnote] A consequent in logic is a fact whose truth follows from another fact, its antecedent, while the consequence is the conditional truth in fact according to which the consequent follows from the antecedent.

  But the matter shall be further considered in the sequel. It may be well now to take the notice of another class of cases for which the reader may not at once see the aptitude of describing a Sign as something which, being influenced by an emanation from a real Object (meaning by that expression an Object really outside the Sign to which the Sign intends or pretends to conform), deflects that influence upon an interpreting mind. For suppose the sign be the order "Ground Arms!" What, it may be asked, is the real Object that such a Sign represents? The answer is that the order is to the soldier not only a stimulus to a habit of going through the commanded action of his muscles - for if it be purely spinal, so that the mind has no part at all in the action, this can hardly be considered as the Interpretant of a Sign, in the sense in which these terms will here be taken - but the order is also for the soldier the voice of rightful authority and of duty, to which he owes a hearty allegiance. If the reader objects that duty is not a real Object but only an idea, then he is entreated to read the whole of the first of the following essays, which may, it is hoped, induce him to alter this opinion.**
** [Editorial footnote (Ransdell)] The essay referred to is the first two papers of the six-paper series called "Illustrations of the Logic of Science" of 1877-78 (published in Popular Science Monthly) - in other words, "The Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear", regarded as the two parts of a single essay. Peirce was revising these and other papers during this period for purposes of a book of essays explaining the basis of the new logic as he conceived it.

  To have that effect is one of the main purposes of the book. For the writer is deeply convinced that it is an error of the gravest importance, upon which, were it consistently adhered to, as it never is, all science would go to shipwreck, and that even our day's almost universal inconsistent half-acceptance of it robs life of its greatest joy and often of the chiefest part of its value. That which is not real is a figment of some individual mind or groups of minds, and whether the soldier's conception of his duty be correct or not, duty itself, though it is an idea, is not a mistaken way of thinking.

  Besides, the phrase "the real Object of a Sign" does not imply that the Sign is altogether veracious. The word "witch" is a sign having a "real Object" in the sense in which this phrase is used, namely to mean a supposedly real Object, not the Sign, and in intention or pretension not created by the Sign, and consequently professedly real as far as the action of the Sign is concerned. It is real in the sense in which a dream is a real appearance to a person in sleep, although it be not an appearance of objects that are Real. In contradistinction to the class of signs to which the word "witch" belongs - that is, names of impossible fictions, one might take "Norse discoverer of a part of New England." To the present writer's mind it is so inconceivable, in view of the imaginative genius of that people, that the utterly prosaic diary of the voyage of Erik should be a work of imagination, that were it not for the fact that some writers (very likely acquainted with Icelandic literature, it must be confessed) have believed it to be a fiction, that the phrase would not be given as an example of a name whose Object is of doubtful existence. But considering that those persons have enjoyed a high local reputation, their opinion may be conceded to throw doubts on the truth of this very prosaic narrative.


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