by Joseph L Esposito

Peirce’s Theory of Semiosis: Toward a Logic of Mutual Affection

Course Description

This is a course on the development of Peirce’s theory of signs (semiotics), focusing on various writings of Peirce in more or less chronological order. Just about as soon as Peirce began to philosophize he was using the concept of a ‘sign’ to help clarify his thoughts. The course begins with the philosophical tradition Peirce as a young Harvard student inherited and ends with our own speculations on Peirce’s legacy. Our study is guided by the concept of reciprocity in Peirce’s thought. Our aim is to attain a more philosophically refined understanding of the concept and at the same time acquire a deeper appreciation of Peirce’s semiotics, and semiosis as a form of reciprocity, as we review the various formulations of the concept in his work. In refining the concept of reciprocity illustrations of working uses of the concept in a variety of disciplines will be sought for analysis and reflection Thus, the course will function as a true community of inquirers believed by Peirce to be best way for knowledge to increase.

Course Outline

As a young man, when he was not engaging in mind teasers with his mathematician father, Benjamin Peirce, Peirce had three main intellectual interests: Mathematics/Logic, Philosophy, and Chemistry. The more or less simultaneous study of each discipline influenced his view of the others. From the study of Mathematics and Logic Peirce learned that systems of notation could make possible precise and useful discourse about imprecise topics like probability and infinity. From reading the philosophy of his day, Peirce sought a way around the intellectual roadblocks of conventionalism, foundationalism, and scepticism. He believed that philosophy could progress without reliance on faith or apodictic faculties sought a system of notation akin to logic to help it do so. From his study of Chemistry, Peirce noted the limitations of a largely descriptive but experimentally useful scince in need of theoretical and notational restructuring. While thinking about and working in all three subjects Peirce was searching for improved tools of philosophical and scientific analysis. He found that an important tool for mental work was the concept of a sign-relation between sign and signified. For example, Peirce believed that such a concept helped refine the concept of logical reference by studying existing logics as psychological manifestations of various logician’s creative work. The concept also was useful in the analysis of metaphysical categories because metaphysics was a linguistic enterprise and needed to come to grips with how language operated to give expression to philosophical conceptions before it could, if ever, achieve its pronounced goals of universality.

A second important, and closely related tool was the concept of reciprocity, although Peirce seldom directly focused on that term when discussing sign-action (semiosis) or the processes studied by metaphysics. Reciprocity is a form of causality involving some sort of “feedback.” The following relationships involve reciprocity to one degree or another:

A affects B and then B affects A
A affects B because B affects A
A only affects B if B affects A
the capacity for A to affect B results from B affecting A
A brings about B so that B will affect A

These and similar reciprocal relationships will be used as templates to examine Peirce’s views on relational metaphyics and semiosis. The course will attempt to answer the question why reciprocity was an important concept for Peirce and why, in particular, semiosis became an important illustration of reciprocity. During our study students are encouraged to develop their own notions and illustrations of reciprocity both in ordinary language and logical notation.

Reading Material

The new edition of Peirce’s writings, Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition is currently in preparation. Five volumes are available through Indiana University Press: Vol 1 (1857-1866), Vol. 2 (1867-1871), Vol. 3 (1872-1878), Vol. 4 (1879-1884), Vol. 5 (1884-1886). Scholars interested in Peirce should seek them out. They contain many small but meaty selections, particularly from a notebook Peirce kept over many years on logical topics. years. References to selections from the Writings will be made during the course.

Course assignments will be taken from the following:

Hoopes, James (ed.) (1991) Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hardwick, Charles (ed.) (1977) Semiotic and Significs Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hookway, Christopher (1985) Peirce, London: Routledge.


  1. Peirce’s Inherited Philosophic Standpoint Circa 1860 – The Influence of Kant and “the Classical German Schools” on Peirce; Peirce’s struggle with empiricism and idealism. The ideas of Whately, Whewell, Hamilton, Kant, Schiller, Schelling, and Hegel will be examined in relation to Peirce’s early writings.
  2. Peirce’s Early Explorations in Triadic Metaphysics – Peirce’s Efforts to Create a System of Non-Formal Triadic Categories. Peirce ties to fulfill Kant’s promise that a long list of categories is may be generated recursively out of a short list of categories.
  3. The “New List” of Categories: Peirce Refines the Short List of Categories – The New List of Categories: Peirce refines the short list of categories.
  4. Man’s Glassy Essence – Peirce analyzes cognition as a semiotic process.
  5. Objective Logic and the General Theory of Categories – Peirce attempt a formal derivation of his triadic categories.
  6. The Philosophic Significance of Signification – Classification of signs as a schema of reciprocating systems.
  7. Semiosis and the Proof of Pragmaticism – The Reciprocity of Action and Semiosis: Pragmatism as a theory of justification based upon the view that reciprocity is an objective semiotic relation among objects in the world.
  8. Toward a Logic of Mutual Affection – Remarks Toward a the Logic of Mutual Affection: Our attempt to formalize Peircean recipro-semiotic relations further.

Joseph L Esposito | Biography

Joseph L. Esposito received his Ph.D in Philosophy from New York University in 1970. Among his books are Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature and Evolutionary Metaphysics: The Development of Peirce’s Theory of Categories. He has also published numerous articles in philosophy, including a number on Peirce and semiotics in Semiotica. Send comments or questions to Joseph L Esposito: 630 N. Craycroft Rd. Suite 250 Tucson, Arizona 85711 fax: 520-748-1800