Telos and Object

The relation between sign and object as a teleological relation in the semiotics of Charles S. Peirce

by Luca Russo (Author)
©2017 Thesis 333 Pages


The semiotics of Charles S. Peirce is conceived as an essential part of a comprehensive philosophical outlook. The study of signs is carried on for its bearing on the knowledge of reality; therefore the relation of signs to objects is the core concern of Peirce’s semiotics. This study looks at this question on the background of Peirce’s philosophical system, individuating in the theories of reality and of knowledge the key issues which allow a philosophically grounded definition of the sign-object relation. The concepts of teleology and of final cause reveal themselves to be the essential conception which emerges from these two issues. The underlying teleological tendencies in the use of signs justify their gnoseological reliableness.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Aims and Conclusions
  • 2. Necessary Presuppositions to reach the Conclusion
  • 3. Semiotic Theory and Philosophical Background: The Boundary of the Present Work
  • 4. Temporal Development of Peirce’s Ideas
  • 5. The Standing of the Present Work in the Context of the Research about Peirce
  • Part I: The Philosophical Foundations of Peirce’s Semiotics
  • 1. Anti-Cartesianism: Every Knowledge is essentially mediated Knowledge
  • 2. Reality, Knowledge and the Establishment of Opinions
  • 3. The Pragmatic Maxim
  • 4. The Question of Universals and the Reality of Generals
  • 5. The Categories and Phenomenology
  • 6. Logic and its Importance for Semiotics
  • Part II: The System of Peirce’s Semiotics
  • Chapter 1: The Foundations of Peirce’s Semiotics
  • 1.1. On a New List of Categories: The Cradle of Semiotics
  • 1.2. Semiotics after the New List: Opening New Paths
  • Chapter 2: The Triadic Structure of Signs
  • 2.1. The Triadic Structure of Signs in General
  • 2.2. Some Particular Aspects of Semiotic Structure: The Ground and the Purpose
  • 2.2.1. Purpose and the Semiotic Triad
  • 2.2.2. The Ground and the Semiotic Triad
  • Chapter 3: The Essence of the Triadic Structure of Signs: The Role of the Interpretant
  • 3.1. Why does the Semiotic Structure require three Relates? A Justification of the Interpretant
  • 3.2. Interpretant, Purpose and Habit of Action: A Sufficient Explanation?
  • 3.3. Peirce’s Statements about The Interpretant
  • 3.4. An Attempt at a Theoretical Justification
  • 3.4.1. Semiosis as “Standing for” and the Interpretant as a Criterion for Substitution
  • 3.4.2. Why the Criterion for Substitution must be expressed as a Third Correlate: The Meta-theoretical and Theoretical Advantages of Peirce’s Approach
  • 3.4.3. The Function of the Interpretant is to select a Referential Relation: A Comparison with Putnam
  • 3.4.4. Interpretants and Admissible Outcomes of Semiotic Events
  • 3.4.5. Interpretation as Grasping a Potential Outcome Which is essentially dependent on the Sign
  • 3.4.6. Interpretation and Habit-Change again: The Conditions under which a Habit-Change Can be the Interpretant of a Sign are essentially implied by the Sign
  • 3.4.7. Interpretation, Selection of a Ground, Potential Outcomes and Semantic: Does this Account of Interpretant work also for Semantic Issues?
  • 3.4.8. Final Remarks
  • 3.5. Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: Interlude: The Classification of Signs in Peirce’s Later Semiotic
  • Chapter 5: Icons in Peirce’s later Semiotics
  • 5.1. Nature and Functions of Icons
  • 5.1.1. Nature and Functions of Icons: General Consideration
  • 5.1.2. Difficulties with the Concept of Icon
  • 5.1.3. Underdetermination as an essential Feature of Icons. The Class of possible Objects and the Self-Reference of Icons
  • 5.1.4. Again on the Difficulties with the Concept of Icons: Kinds of Icon and the Problem of Conventions
  • 5.2. Two Views on Peirce’s Icons
  • 5.2.1. Iconicity as a Non-Distinction between the Sign and the Object
  • 5.2.2. Advantages and Flaws of this Interpretation
  • 5.2.3. The Issue of Reference and the Attempt to reduce Icons to Symbols
  • 5.3. Conclusion
  • Chapter 6: The Index
  • 6.1. Nature and Functions of Indices
  • 6.2. The Index as Instruction
  • 6.3. Indices and Indexical Terms
  • 6.4. Indexical Terms and descriptive Content: Indices and Icons
  • 6.5. Indices and Sense: Traceability as the Main Feature of Indices
  • 6.6. Indices and the actual World: ‘Blind’ Secondness and the Role of Purpositive Processes
  • Chapter 7: Symbols
  • 7.1. The Nature of Symbols
  • 7.1.1. A new Conception of the Symbolic Ground as ‘Consisting in a Regularity’
  • 7.1.2. The Symbols as distinguished from Icons and Indices
  • 7.1.3. Symbols from a phenomenological Point of View
  • 7.2. Rhematic Symbols
  • 7.2.1. The Nature of Rhematic Symbols
  • 7.2.2. Rhematic Symbol, Icon and Index
  • 7.3. Dicent Symbols
  • 7.3.1. Dicisigns and their Components: The Symbolic Element
  • 7.3.2. Dicisigns and their Components: The Indexical Element
  • 7.3.3. The Fact as Object of the Dicisign
  • 7.3.4. Another Approach to the Object of Dicisigns
  • 7.4. Argument
  • 7.4.1. The Nature of Arguments
  • 7.4.2. Arguments and Dicisigns
  • Chapter 8: Immediate and Dynamical Object
  • 8.1. Introduction
  • 8.2. Immediate Object and Dynamical Object
  • 8.2.1. The Meaning of the Distinction
  • 8.2.2. Two Conceptions of Reality, and the Place of the Dynamical Object in the Semiotic Process
  • 8.2.3. Dynamical Object and Perception
  • 8.2.4. Dynamical Object and Collateral Experience
  • 8.2.5. Dynamical Objects which are not Existing Individuals
  • 8.3. Kinds of Object: Some Remarks
  • 8.4. Conclusion
  • Chapter 9: The Different Forms of Interpretant
  • 9.1. Introduction
  • 9.2. The Kinds of Interpretant
  • 9.3. Further Questions; Interpretants and the Teleological Nature of Signs
  • 9.3.1. Purposes and Fields of Interpretability
  • 9.3.2. Horizontal and Vertical Coordination of Interpretants
  • 9.3.3. Ultimate Interpretant and the Ultimate Normative Role of the Reference to an Object
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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1. Aims and Conclusions

The present research is aimed to define and explore the nature of the relation between sign and object in the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Semiotics is the theory of signs, which, in its philosophical foundations, must take into consideration the conditions which allow something – the sign – to stand for something else, to transmit a meaning, to be used in the communication. A theory of signs must necessarily take all these aspects into consideration, because a sign – a tool which serves to refer to something else and to communicate a meaning to someone – exists on the threshold between man’s mind and its conceptions, man’s relation with the outward world and man’s relation with other men.

The emphasis on these aspects, however, can vary in importance according to different theories. Peirce’s semiotics is characterized by a great emphasis given to the sign’s relation with the object. As an interpreter of his thought pointed out:

The necessity of an objectual reference distinguishes it [Peirce’s semiotics] from other, more recent and better known, semantic theories, which nevertheless wish to make Peirce one of their precursors. They forget that the universe of signs was conceived by him as not including in itself all reality, on the contrary as necessarily indicating something beyond itself.1

Peirce was well aware of both the problems related to the internal structure of the system of signs and the issues concerning communication; valid theoretical models of communication have been developed using peircean suggestions. Yet, it must be kept in mind that Peirce introduced and developed his semiotics within the context of a theory of inquiry, thus having primarily not linguistic or communicative issues, but gnoseological ones. His semiotics was born and has been developed with a firm interest in the question of which grip our signs have on reality, or in other words which access to reality they can give us. ← 9 | 10 →

Thereofore, the nature of the sign’s relation to its object is worth being dedicated a proper research.

The conclusion that will be held at the end of the present research is that the sign-object relation, in Peirce’s semiotics, is a teleological relation. The object indicated by a sign coincides with the object which constitutes the goal of the process of inquiry to which the sign belongs. Moreover, the sign will indicate this object if and only if the fact that it indicates this sign, and not another, is necessary in order to guarantee the reaching of any aim for which the sign is used.

A double aspect of this conclusion must be stressed. On the one hand, the sign’s relation to the object is based on the object’s standing as a final cause: The sign ‘stands for’ that part of reality which the process of inquiry, to which the sign belongs, will eventually represent. On the other hand, the sign’s relation to the object is based on the bearings that this relation has on the furthering of some purpose: The sign ‘stands for’ an object in so far this standing has a positive bearing on the sign’s fitting to a purpose. In the course of the research, it will be shown how both these sides are crucial presuppositions of Peirce’s semiotics.

The ‘double aspect’ of the teleological conception of the sign-object relation will be treated, as far as possible, as a conjunction of elements which are both necessary to answer in a unified manner to the question of how a sign can refer to an object. Peirce’s theory shows that the teleological character of our processes of knowledge grounds the sign-object relation; and it shows also that the purposiveness of the sign’s use is necessarily involved in the sign-object relation. The present research is based on the hypothesis that a unity of those two aspects exists, although it is not immediately evident.

The conclusion that will be held can be recasted as follows: The relation of a sign to an object is based on the fact that the object underlies teleologically every purposeful action for which the sign is used. A relation between a sign and an object emerges because it is needed for something; yet this emergence must be anchored to the obligation that every use of signs, to whatever purpose it is made, must belong at the same time to a sign chain which eventually will give rise to a final established opinion which expresses the reality of the object. Many different purposes could be pursued in human activity; different concerns could bring to the selection of different relevant aspects of reality, thus representing the same objects in different ways. Yet, Peirce’s theory holds that, whatever purpose drives the single sign’s use, whatever aspect is initially selected, nevertheless every sign chain to which the single sign belongs, if sufficiently pursued, will end with a final established opinion. Therefore, different purposes can account for differences in how the signs represent their objects, but the unity of the ← 10 | 11 → object is guaranteed by the unity of the final opinion which potentially lies at the end of every path which starts from the single sign. This is a ‘formal’ or ‘legal’ condition of the sign’s use. The use of a sign can have many consequences, but its ‘appropriate consequences’ are those which necessarily require the condition that the sign refers precisely to that object; and this condition can be fulfilled only if any single use of that sign can be included in a semiotic chain which is teleologically bound to establish a final opinion about that object.

Briefly, the conclusion is not only that the relation of the sign with the object is teleological. This relation involves not a unique linear teleological process, but the core tendency of every process in which the sign is involved to be teleologically driven by the object and therefore to contribute positively to the establishment of the final opinion. The image I wish to present is the sign’s relation to the object as being the centre of gravity of a whole nexus of different actual semiotic chains, whose condition of correctness is that they are teleologically driven to a confluence.

I will express the conclusion a first time, in a formal way, at the end of the third chapter of the second part, proposing the following definition: The relation between an entity, named the “sign”, and another entity (existent, possible or erely ideal), named the “Object”, according to a certain ground, is a semiotic relation if and only if the selection of the ground already implies a class of possible outcomes, given some relevant aims, to which the relation between the sign and the Object is essentially relevant, and in such a way that the sign cannot be understood unless at least one of these possible outcomes can be understood to be essentially dependent on the sign-Object relation.

This definition contains the formal or ‘legal’ condition for the sign’s reference to an object. It is possible if and only if the existence of such a relation makes possible the pursuing of any given aim and at the same time makes possible to understand that the sign makes the object influencing the attaining of the aim. A different statement of the same conclusion will be proposed at the end of the eighth chapter of the second part: Provided that an object can elicit many consequences in different occasions, a sign relates to an object if and only if the whole sum of possible consequences on the agent’s conduct which is the final interpretant of the sign can be considered, on the basis of this reference, to be a subset of the consequences of the object.

The teleological nature of the sign-object relation consists therefore in bridging the objects with our aims and activities, thus making the object determine the outcomes of those activities. The sign is teleologically oriented not only to cognitively reach the object, but also (in a more general sense) to realize or permit the object’s effectiveness upon our activities. The sign fulfils its ← 11 | 12 → function when the possible consequences of the grasping of the object realize the aims for which we are using that sign.

Briefly, the conclusion that will be held is that sign’s relation to the object is a teleological relation whose end is precisely that expressed in the definition above. Not only the grasping of the object is the final cause of the process of inquiry; not only the sign use is directed to some purposes; but the function proper to sign is to make the object realizing those purposes.

2. Necessary Presuppositions to reach the Conclusion

The presentation of the conclusions that will be held at the end of this work evoked two concepts that will be dealt at large in the course of the argumentation, that of ‘final opinion’ and that of ‘interpretant’. The central role of these two conceptions for Peirce’s theory of the sign-object relation can hardly be overstimated. The reader must kept those two conceptions in mind during the course of the work, and constantly check every part of Peirce’s theory against them.

The concept of ‘final opinion’ is central because of Peirce’s definition of reality, which is considered as the ‘content of a final established opinion’. This means that the real object coincides with what will be represented at the end of a process of inquiry, when all personal idiosincrasies have been overcome, all confutations met and all opinions have found a convergence. It is detatable whether this constitutes an attainable state or only an ‘ideal’ condition, to be imagined in order to define reality. The relevant point for the present inquiry is that this definition of reality justifies the idea of the object being the ‘final cause’ of the semiotic chain. The sign’s relation to the object makes the sign representative of that object not because the sign itself will show without doubt the reality of the object (as it will be shown, Peirce rejects the idea of a self-evident knowledge), but because the sign belongs to a process whose final stage will show the reality of the object. This condition involves the presupposition that there is nothing in reality beyond that which can be represented at the final stage of the process of inquiry, or in peircean words that there is not an ‘unknowable thing-in-itself’. Therefore, this theory must be made clear before the core tenets of Peirce’s semiotics can be analyzed.

The centrality of the concept of ‘interpretant’ comes from Peirce’s very definition of sign. One of the most remarkable features of Peirce’s semiotics, ← 12 | 13 → indeed, is that he conceives the signs as involving necessarily three elements: the sign itself, the object for which the sign stands, and the so-called ‘interpretant’, which has the function to express the way in which the sign stands for its object. In other words, with the concept of ‘interpretant’ Peirce expresses the need to explicitly lay down the ground and the import of the sign-object relation. It is therefore clear why the theme of the present research cannot be handled without exploring closely the nature and the characters of the interpretant. The reader will see that the conclusions which were presented above will be stated at the end of discussions about the interpretant. The reason will be clear in the course of the exposition: Even if the sign ‘aims to’ an object, the way in which it does this cannot be seen starting from the object, since the object is given through the sign. The only way to explicate how the semiotic relation can reach its target, and what this target is, is by considering the criterion underlying the relation, the explicit expression of the way in which the sign has to be read: That is, the interpretant. This is the reason why Peirce maintains that a third element of the semiotic relation is necessary, besides the sign and the object, and at the same time it is the reason why this work will use the concept of interpretant as the key to define the sign-object relation.

The centrality of these two concepts, however, raises the necessity to handle some wider philosophical questions. The interpretant is, first and foremost, a semiotic concept which must be grounded and justified as a way to explain the conception of meaning: This will be made in the second part. Yet, in the first part Peirce’s general theory of reality and knowledge will be presented, and it will be shown how the concept of interpretant rises from a specific philosophical context. In the semiotic field, the concept of interpretant marks a refusal of the idea of sign as a simple ‘one-to-one’ correspondence between signifying and signified; but, in a wider philosophical frame, it marks the refusal of the idea that the significance of a cognition can be completely given in a single act of cognition. It will be shown how Peirce introduces the interpretant when he confutes the idea that knowledge must match the object as it is in itself and embraces the idea that the object relative to the mind can and must be different from the object in its ‘external’ existence, or in other words that the mode of being relative to cognition has its own nature but still refers to something real. On the background of Peirce’s conception of interpretant there is therefore a great philosophical divide. From on the one hand, there is the idea that the more passive is the mind, the more reliable the knowledge is, and that ‘perfect’ knowledge must not admit any difference between ‘being’ and ‘being known’: This is the hidden core of ‘cartesianism’ (and empiricism) which Peirce refuses and, as it will be shown, a long-lasting legacy of Plato. ← 13 | 14 → On the other hand, there are philosophies which admits that cognition, and the activity of mind which is involved in it, gives to the known things a mode of being ‘relative to the mind’ which does not exist ‘outside’ but which is nevertheless valid and objective: This is the deep presupposition which Peirce draws from Kantian philosophy, and which he finds (although in different form) in medieval thinkers. Karl-Otto Apel speaks of a difference between a medium quod and a medium quo theory of knowledge2, the first which considers representation as being the immediate objects of knowledge and the second which considers them as being the instruments to know objects: This second one being the theory which Peirce ascribes himself to. Apel’s distiction stresses more the issue of the means of knowledge, while mine stresses more the issue of the ends of knowledge, but they amounts to the same thing. Briefly, the concept of interpretant is born in the context of a philosophical reflection which admits the necessity and positivity of the presence of the mind in the process of knowledge, and the interpretant can be considered therefore as the semiotic counterpart of this presence.

The same could be said about Peirce’s definition of reality as the content of the final opinion. This is in fact a direct consequence of his refusal of the ‘Cartesian’ hidden presuppositions and of the development of a medium quo theory of knowledge. The same nexus of philosophical discussion which leads Peirce to introduce a triadic structure of sign, therefore, grounds his overall conception of reality which gives this structure its dynamic ‘drive’ towards the reaching of the object as its final cause.

3. Semiotic Theory and Philosophical Background: The Boundary of the Present Work

The presentation of Peirce’s semiotics and the exploration of the sign-object relation involves necessarily a consideration of this wider philosophical context. It would be incomplete to consider the semiotics only as a theory of language and of communication and to discuss it as if the conceptions used by Peirce were philosophically neutral. I wish to make those conceptions as useful as possible also to thinkers who do not share Peirce’s basic tenets about ← 14 | 15 → reality and knowledge. Yet, a correct presentation of Peirce’s own theory must clarify as much as possible his standing towards these problems and their influence on his ‘technical’ analyses, better than conceiling them for the sake of a misaimed ‘neutrality’. The best service the present research can offer is to present Peirce’s semiotics against the background of his philosophical standing. The reader must keep in mind that the question, whether Peirce’s deepest philosophical tenets are to be accepted, is not forgotten, but only set apart in order to present his semiotics as the way he developed it.

Therefore, the philosophical justification of Peirce’s basic conceptions will present his own arguments, comparing them with those of his opponent but without taking a stance: the task of deciding between Peirce’s path and the opposite ‘cartesian’ one outreaches by far the scope of the present research. On the contrary, independent arguments for the proper semiotic part of the theory, for example for the concept of interpretant or to defend Peirce’s conception of icon will be furnished as often as possible. The intention is to present semiotics to the reader as a useful instrument, which could be easily updated, leaving to him or to further inquiries a decision about the validity of its philosophical foundations, which would be only described.

This explains the structure which was given to the present work. It consists in two parts. The first part will present Peirce’s general theory of reality and knowledge, his theory of categories and his logical researches, in order to furnish the reader the tools to understand Peirce’s semiotics. The exposition will be therefore as systematic as possible and will set apart as much as possible critical discussions over the validity of Peirce’s ideas. It must be also warned that this exposition will not encompass the whole of Peirce’s philosophy: There are key themes, such as his cosmology and his theory of value and of normative sciences, which will not be handled. Nevertheless, the aim of the first part is not simply propedeutical. It will also show what the central character of Peirce’s system is. In a nutshell, it can be said that this central character consists in the idea that reality has to be defined as the point of convergence or the final cause of human cognitive activity. Moreover, the relation between our cognitions and reality must be seen not as a dual correspondence, but as an interplay between three factors: The posing of a belief, the confrontation of this belief with external constrains, and the tendency of beliefs to reach a fixed state in which all contrary experiences have been taken into account. In other words, it will be shown that the structure of human knowledge is the following: ← 15 | 16 →

This representation will serve as premise for the conclusion of the second part, which is in a nutshell that the structure of semiosis, i.e. the structure of the chains of signs, mirrors and embodies the above mentioned structure of human knowledge.

The second part is therefore the semiotic one, in which all the relevant elements of a Peircean theory of signs are laid down. After a first chapter, in which the introduction of the fundamental elements of Peirce’s semiotics are seen in historical perspective, the following chapters will handle the questions in a systematic order:

First it will be asked why the sign is, according to Peirce, necessarily a relation between three elements;

In particular, a chapter will be devoted to show why a third element, besides the sign-object relation, is necessary; it will be concluded that its necessity comes from the very need to ground the sign-object relation, and to make it relevant for the general teleological tendency (the tendency to establish a final opinion) for which the sign must serve;

Then there will be an analysis of the kinds of sign, classified according to the kind of relation that they have with their objects. In fact, Peirce classified signs in different classes: according to the nature of the sign itself, according to the interpretant that they require, and according to the relation that they have with their objects. Given the theme of the present research, the third classification will be our main concern. Peirce individuates three classes of signs: Icons, Indices and Symbols. The analysis of each of these classes will not show simply how they work, but it will have also an import on the general thesis. It will be shown in fact that these signs must work together and be arranged in precise ordering, in which every one of them completes and carries on further the amount of information given by the others;

Finally, other two distinctions proposed by Peirce will be taken into account: The distinction among kinds of object and that among kinds of interpretant. Peirce distinguished between immediate object, or the object as it is represented in the sign, and dynamic object, or the real object which is the aim of the semiotic process to represent; and between immediate, ← 16 | 17 → dynamic and final interpretants. The aim of the last two chapters is to show how these distinctions express the dynamical and teleological nature of semiotic processes, the idea that objects can be adequated not by single signs but only by chains of signs teleologically driven; and how the single aims and purposes for which signs are issued are not independent from one another but partecipate to the same teleological processes.

4. Temporal Development of Peirce’s Ideas


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 333 pp.

Biographical notes

Luca Russo (Author)

Luca Russo studied philosophy at the Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Milan, and carried out his PhD study at the University of Dresden. He published papers on Peirce’s philosophy as well as the philosophical and psychological aspects of the free will debate.


Title: Telos and Object
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336 pages