Peirce: Metaphysics 1

In this post and the next, I am concerned with C. S. Peirce’s metaphysics (Atkin, 2016, Chapter 6) and–as it has been my aim throughout this Peirce series–with drawing connections between the philosopher’s work and the recent work in general psychology (Jens Mammen and Niels Engelsted).

Peirce’s method for metaphysical inquiry has something to do with phenomenology or, perhaps more accurately, introspection. Given that phenomenology taps into what every person can find in their experience, given that his/her experience “is so saturated” with the data of phenomenology that s/he “usually pays no particular attention to them”, metaphysical inquiry can yield results that are both novel and open to evaluation. It is worth noting that Peirce distinguishes his own approach to metaphysics (i.e., pragmatic, laboratory philosophy) from what he calls the “seminary” approach to metaphysics (i.e., inconsequential and not open to evaluation).

Prototype Theory, Black Swans, & Cultural Evolution

There are several triadic conceptual sets at work in Peirce’s metaphysics. I will discuss one of them in this post, and leave the other to my last entry in the series. Let’s begin with the most esoteric: tychism-synechism-agapism.

If you are familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s notion of Black Swan events, ontological (as opposed to epistemological) randomness, and the assumption that models of past events are necessarily erroneous in their prediction of future events, then tychism would not be a completely new concept. Tychism is the anti-mechanistic and anti-deterministic assumption that there is an element of chance inherent to reality. In defense of tychism, Peirce lists: growth and diversity [in nature], laws [of nature], and consciousness. A mechanistic worldview might take the existence of these four for granted and offer causal explanations of them, but it is not concerned with their emergence. As such, the mechanistic framework is blind to the growth and diversity of the future, the laws currently unforeseen, including those related to consciousness. This is closely related to general psychology–the fragmented subfields of psychology could be motivated within a mechanistic-causal framework, but their blindspots cannot be neglected once we consider their relation to each other, and to the broader context of human concerns.

The dimensions of general psychology, outlined in Niels Engelsted’s (2017) work (sentience, intentionality, mind, and consciousness) represent qualitative leaps in evolutionary history. They are the results of Black Swan events, i.e., low-probability and highly consequential events that gave rise to locomotion, mammals, and human surplus labor. General psychology requires an assumption similar to tychism both regarding humanity’s past, i.e., the story of how we are equipped with our particular capacities, and regarding our future (see, e.g., Engelsted’s final chapters in his Catching up with Aristotle), i.e., how our capacities, or their uses and expressions, might change in the future with subsequent Black Swans.

Next, synechism, is described as the assumption of continuity, holding that our discriminations between categories, such as mind and body, culture and nature, conscious and unconscious, do not involve sharp and impassable boundaries. More radically, I believe, synechism can be described in the form of a prototype theory of concepts, namely: that category memberships always involve an element of failure (a residual that doesn’t fit in the category). In other words, the categories we employ to describe objects do not exhaust the objects, an idea that evokes Jens Mammen’s (2017) choice categories (see my first post about choice categories and my interview with Jens Mammen). We might say, and I think Peirce would agree with this, that there is no perfect prototypical member of a category. He even went so far as to claim that certain claims in Euclidian geometry (the sum of the measures of the 3 angles of any triangle…) are, strictly speaking, approximations.

Last in the triad, agapism, refers to the assumption that there exists a purposeful force in the process of evolution, which guides the process via “evolutionary love” (agape; the love that nurtures, cultivates, humanizes, civilizes, etc.). Here, again, we can draw a connection to Mammen’s choice categories–loving someone (an offspring, a student, or a friend), in the sense of agape, requires keeping track of them in time, being open to and encouraging their growth and transformation.

It appears that Peirce has anthropomorphized nature–or, perhaps more precisely politismo-morphized it–projecting the capacity for culture, cultural evolution, and parental-societal investment onto nature. On the other hand, some version of agapism might apply to natural processes. If organism O was selected to thrive in environment E, then (in retrospect) it seems as if E is providing agape for O. This “agape”, we ought to keep in mind, has come at the cost of many other organisms O’, O”, …, not having survived in E. Mother nature might be wise, but her wisdom is the product of a history of blind tinkering, producing variations (potential solutions), and the sacrifice of failed solutions.

In the hands of human civilization, however, agape acquires genuine meaning. We might be inclined to ascribe only the purest and best of intentions to the force of agape, the “evolutionary love”, that sustains human consciousness, but Peirce (probably, given his ideas about authoritarian fixation of beliefs) and Engelsted (most definitely, given his Marxian perspective) would encourage skepticism with regard to this characterization. That is because what we call agape is the same kind of process that brings about the “fall” of human individuals into collective false consciousness, mindless collectivism, various inherited biases and conformities.

Thus, in short, the tychism-synechism-agapism triad–despite its esoteric appearance–gives us a foundation upon which we can build a general psychology and the story of human evolution, with its decisive Black Swan events. In the next post, I will discuss another triad (qualities-relations-representations), before closing the Peirce series.


Atkin, A. (2016). Peirce. Routledge.

Engelsted, N. (2017). Catching up with Aristotle: A journey in quest of general psychology. Springer.

Mammen, J. (2017). A new logical foundation for psychology. Springer.

Prestige Economy

Thoughts on JBP-Milo

The following video was recently released, in which Professor Doktor Jordan B. Peterson, world-renowned médecin de l’âme, talks with Milo Yiannopoulos. My concern with the video is very selective. I won’t entertain the question of whether the illustrious doktor-professor was, for an hour and 45 minutes, evading certain Castalian elephants in the rooms. It is beyond my ability and ambition to analyze the mind of the great Jungian professor-prophet. I am going to discuss, instead, a theme that Milo brought up, because I find it personally relevant. Although the greatness and virtues of the professor-prophet exceed my limits, and I cannot relate to them, I can relate to some of his alleged vices and flaws. So I was motivated to write this partly because I believe an unreflective attitude toward prestige can render anyone vulnerable to traps and manipulations.

Jordan Peterson and Milo Yiannopoulos (Starting at 50:00)


At around 50:00 Milo introduces the phrase “prestige economy” into the conversation and stresses that (1) JBP operates within that economy and, (2) perhaps as a consequence, JBP prefers to fix universities rather than seeing them annihilated. The two statements are, indeed, connected: If you are rich within a game of monopoly, you’d rather continue the game than to end it. JBP responds, not to the more fundamental claim (1) but to the follow-up (2). He says, “generally speaking, fixing things is better than burning them to the ground”. A good tactic for evading the deeper subject, but Milo presses on.

At 52:07 JBP responds to claim (1): “What do you mean by the prestige economy, exactly?” / Milo replies: “Position, recognition, titles, […]. You want to be part of ‘the church’, and I don’t. […] I cannot imagine anything more awful than to make the sorts of constant compromises in what I say and do in order to maintain a position, because I know it’s doomed anyway.”

Milo’s response is opaque. His one-word responses (“position”, “recognition”, …) are akin to saying “dollars”, “land”, “bank account”, and so forth. Standing on their own, these individual concepts alone only hint at the bigger picture. They do not expose the super-ordinate system within which the currencies (“position”), responses (“recognition”), and sub-ordinate systems play a part.

When we take them together, however, Milo’s hints are useful. His reference to power and control, for instance, is quite useful in clarifying how participating in the prestige economy sensitizes us, such that we can be controlled. If someone wants to control our actions, they can succeed in doing so when they know what we value (an idea that is elaborated in Marken & Carey’s book, Controlling People). This justifies Milo’s statement that not being a participant in the prestige economy gives him power.

But orienting and sensitizing its participants isn’t a unique feature of the prestige economy. We value many things, in turn becoming responsive or “vulnerable” to control. It is not a vice to value or to participate in systems where particular things, such as prestige, are valued. What is the problem with prestige? Is the prestige economy intrinsically bad? Before going further, let’s put a simple definition on the table: Prestige economy is a feature of social systems in which prestige is recognized, valued, pursued, and exchanged for other valuable assets. It creates asymmetries. For instance, a young and talented student who chooses a doctoral program in a prestigious institute is paying into the economy, exchanging his hard work and talent for prestige, and the institute/adviser are gaining from it.

Signs vs. Objects

Let’s divide the world simplistically into objects and signs. Objects are those things with which we are directly concerned. We value, want, and pursue them for what they are in themselves, not for what they indicate or promise. They have “use value” for us and their pursuit is intrinsically meaningful. Food and shelter are obvious examples of “objects”, but let’s also include other less tangible things into this category, such as belonging to a group, cooperative alliances, and protection.

Signs, on the other hand, indicate the presence of what we value, want, and pursue. Signs themselves are not, at least in principle, our concern. We are concerned with them in so far as they enable us to infer the presence or absence of important objects. The function of signs depend on regularities and co-occurrences. If a tasty-and-safe fruit was red in all instances in the past, we might take redness as a sign of a tasty-and-safe fruit. If a group of talented and hardworking employees, or a group of groundbreaking scientists, were all Harvard graduates in the past, then we might take ‘Harvard graduate’ as a sign of talent, hard work, and inevitable success.

But we have the inverse inference problem: We cannot jump–without a risk–from “All A’s are B’s” to “All B’s are A’s”. There could be a poisonous red fruit or a Harvard graduate that breaks the regularity, which is to say: The signs are not always reliable. The problem of inverse inference applies to status, social proof, and prestige. Prestige is a sign, not the thing itself, it is a promise and not the delivery of the promise, indicating that the person holding prestige has certain desirable characteristics. We rely on prestige because a more direct judgment of character requires conditions that are relatively rare (e.g., a crisis), but it is good to remember that, first, what I ought to aim to cultivate in myself is character, not overt signs of character; and, second, what I ought to value and encourage in others is also character, not overt signs of character.

Reward vs. Instrument

Our sign/object distinction corresponds to the distinction between primary and secondary reinforcers. A primary reinforcer (e.g., food, comfort, sex, pain-avoidance, play and exploration) is intrinsically rewarding, by virtue of the organism’s evolutionary-phylogenetic history. A secondary reinforcer (e.g., my favorite coffee mug) is rewarding by virtue the organisms’ individual-ontogenetic history, and through its association with a primary reinforcer. A secondary reinforcer can promise reward, but because of its infusion with the primary reinforcer it eventually becomes an object of value in its own right. In the absence of countervailing brute evidence (Black Swan observations) it takes reflection and meta-cognition to disentangle a secondary reinforcer from a primary reinforcer.

Through deliberate reflection, we can arrive at a position that recognizes the status of prestige as a secondary reinforcers, but we would also recognize its role–as a sign–within a shared communal perspective. This would allow you to use your Harvard degree instrumentally, recognizing that the instrumental value of such prestige is ultimately fragile, dependent on arbitrary conditions. The ethical stance, in my opinion, is to present one’s prestige-related commodities with a promissory and provisional tone. Rather than thinking, “They must value me, because I am a Harvard graduate!”, you could think, “They could trust me, provisionally, because I have already done something, even though it may not be relevant, at all, to what I will do in the future.”

Such a mindset prevents prestige from becoming a top priority. It tames and domesticates the desire for prestige, it prevents us from sacrificing all other values in favor of prestige, while keeping an eye on values for which we are willing to leverage, risk, and sacrifice our prestige. Finally, it confines the role of prestige to a sign, a secondary reinforcer, and fragile indicator of what we are truly concerned with (e.g., character).

Prestige Fetishism

Within the prestige economy, prestige is a currency and an instrument. A total immersion in the prestige economy–if one ceases to participate in other economies, if one ceases to recognize values that are higher than prestige, or if one allows prestige to monopolize one’s life–then prestige economy turns into prestige fetishism. This is what we ought to avoid: Pursuing empty signs for their own sake, ending up at a position where we desire signs regardless of whether they indicate what is truly good.

It is not a vice to care about the opinion of others. We are social by nature and we tacitly understand the practical implications of having good standing in the community–in a crisis, it is preferable to be surrounded by others willing to stand by your side. We understand that prestige–at least as long as our faith in the institutes that grant them is not completely undermined–is a useful shorthand/sign. We ought to supplement these views with the recognition of the fragility of prestige (and the fragility of the institutes that grant them), the recognition of its possible misuse, its potentially misleading role, and the trap of prestige fetishism. Falling into the trap of prestige fetishism can turn a person into a tool, stripped of his autonomy. And that is worth being mindful of.

Let me end on a practical note. When confronted with a choice between two collaborators, two institutes, two opportunities, two writing outlets/publishers, two media engagement, we can compare the options along many different dimensions, including prestige, but we ought not to be blinded by prestige and ignore other values. This, I believe, is the power Milo is referring to–the power (or at least option) to exercise integrity and character. Given that JBP enjoys a great deal of prestige at the moment, he has all the more opportunities to demonstrate character by spending into the prestige economy, and show that he is driven by other values. To a lesser degree, many of us have such opportunities.

Grant Franks on C.S. Peirce

Here is an introductory lecture by Grant Franks, the very charming comedian-philosopher, discussing Peirce as following in the footsteps of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and modern sciences. The lecture covers Peirce’s overall view of the world, the modes of thinking (deduction, induction, and abduction), though it does not directly cover Peirce’s pragmatism or logic, and its coverage of semiotics is also in the service of discussing Peirce’s overall metaphysics. But it does cover a lot of ground.

Video title: What Distinguishes a Person from a Word? C. S. Peirce’s Thought

Concerning epistemology and metaphysics, here is an excerpt:

Consider carefully that everything you see, hear, feel is an inference based on other inferences preceding into dimness that we cannot penetrate. Nothing presents itself with immediate directness and if it did you wouldn’t be able to know it. Inference follows inference, clue connects to clue, without apparent beginning or end.

If we accept this image of the world, we have to redefine what we mean when we talk about “direct contact” or “direct access” to objects in the world. It is not enough to say direct contact is impossible and that it is all indirect. We must also proceed to clarify what distinguishes the conditions where we are inclined to say, in common everyday talk, that we have different degrees of inference or different degrees of access.


Regarding abduction (hypothesis), we hear this useful example:

  • All humans are mortal
  • Socrates is mortal
  • Therefore, Socrates is human

We can compare this with the following, which has the same form (abductive reasoning) though with additional strength:

  • All humans are mortal, typically walk on two legs, and can communicate with language
  • Socrates is mortal, walks on two legs, and communicates with language
  • Therefore, Socrates is human

Reality of Thought

We also hear a discussion of realism, particularly with regard to general principles, abstract/logical concepts, something we can also refer to as super-ordinate categories. Peirce takes a realist (anti-nominalist) position regarding the status of super-ordinate concepts and propositions.

Excerpt from the lecture: realism holds that “general ideas that embrace and coordinate a multitude of sensations have a reality that individual sensations do not.”

If you and I watch an event (e.g., a murder, a robbery) from two different perspective, or if we see different parts of the events, our experiences differ with regard to our sensations of the event, but we can come to the same super-ordinate conclusion. The same can be said about general principles of reasoning and shared abstract concepts. The concept of jealousy is associated with different experiences in the minds of different people, though we can come to agree about the higher-order meaning of this concept. Indeed, “the manifolds of sensations we encounter is unreal for us until we find universals in it.”

Peirce: Signs 2

While reading Atkin’s Chapter 4 on Peircean semiotics, I learned that the 3 aspects of a sign (sign-vehicle, object, and interpretant) are not different entities. Rather, they are interdependent and are parts of a single whole. It is difficult to see the interpretant as a “thing”, something that is easier in the case of sign-vehicle and object, as the interpretant seems more like a process, something that happens (the “immediate object” is similarly closer to a passing impression than a stable entity).

“The importance of the interpretant for Peirce is that signification is not a simple dyadic relationship between sign and object, as it is for someone like Saussure. Rather, a sign signifies an object only in the course of being interpreted.” (Atkin, 2016, p. 128).

Similar to how a sign is determined by its object, a sign “determines an interpretant by using certain features of the way the sign signifies its object to generate and shape our understanding. So the way that smokes generates or determines an interpretant sign of its object, fire, is by focusing our attention upon the physical connection between smoke and fire.” (Atkin, 2016, p. 131)

What is still puzzling to me, is (something I wrote about in the previous post) this: “… every interpretant is itself a further sign of the signified object.” (p. 135)

Icon, Index, & Symbol

I should also note that my simplistic understanding of icon, index, and symbol, which I had since the early days of graduate school didn’t hold up. I used to think about the three as different kinds of things and clearly distinguishable. A picture of a bird was an icon, a bird nest was an index, and an opaque line-drawing could be a symbol of birds. It would be more apt to see them as corresponding to three different functions, functions that could be served–to varying degrees–with one and the same sign. I think we can see icons, indices, and symbols as different modes of presentation (Frege) for objects.

  • An icon emphasizes a particular qualities of an object. I could use a peacock feather as a symbol of the bird, but by virtue of emphasizing featheredness of the bird, however, the feather also functions as an icon. Thus, the mode of presentation related to icons brings objects qualities into focus.
  • An index, by contrast, emphasizes an existential fact about an object (its presence, its history, etc.). The feather could be a gift from a childhood friend. By showing the feather, I could be telling my friend that, despite all the years passed, I still have his gift. Thus, the mode of presentation related to indices brings into focus the objects’ existence, identity, history, and so forth. The concept of gift is, of course, mixed as it relates to conventions and symbols, which leads us to the third category.
  • A symbol emphasizes a particular convention related to, or signified by, the object. The feather could stand in for birds in general or for peacocks according to the local conventions of a game. It could also signify membership in a particular community.

The relation between Jens Mammen’s (2016, 2017) logical foundation and Peircean semiosis is now clearer to me. To recall, Mammen divides our capacity to categorize into two sub-domains: (1) the capacity to categorize objects with respect to a general feature and (2) the capacity to categorize individual objects regardless of their features. Indices are most clearly connected to choice categories. Both choice categories (Mammen) and indices (Peirce) prevent infinite semiosis and the trap of idealism (i.e., no contact with real objects). Both frameworks require:

“… singular propositions and individual variables for objects that cannot be picked out by definite descriptions. Peirce treated these non-general signs as indices, which in turn led him to identify the index as an essential part of logic.” (Atkin, 2016, p. 141)

“… Peirce sees the indexical signs as serving a very particular indicative purpose, that if creating connection with its object.” (Atkin, 2016, p. 149)

Thus, choice categories seem to result from, and require, indexical signs. It would be an intriguing task to try to connect the function of symbols (and the corresponding domain of conventions) to choice categories. In one respect, when we are within a convention (taking it for granted) symbols would appear to have general features (i.e., Mammen’s sense categories). In another respect, just prior to entering into a convention, adopting its rules and symbols, we can recognize the particularity and arbitrariness of symbols (the view from outside a given convention).

I am not going to discuss the important concepts of immediate object (~profile) and dynamic object (~object in itself), or the interesting connection between these two and phenomenological themes (varieties of presence). For now, let me just note that the recognition of the difference between immediate objects and dynamic objects corresponds, respectively, to the recognition between sense categories and choice categories (Mammen, 2017).


Atkin, A. (2016). Peirce. Routledge.

Mammen, J. (2016). Using a topological model in psychology: developing sense and choice categories. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science50(2), 196-233.

Mammen, J. (2017). A new logical foundation for psychology. Springer.

Peirce: Signs 1

Finally, we are on the topic of signs (Atkin, 2016, Chapter 4). I might have to revise my initial impressions discussed in this post. We shall see.

The first thing that surprised me was that the “interpretant” element does NOT represent a person. It represents the understanding, the translation, which enables the link between the object and the sign (or, sign-vehicle). The second thing that surprised me was that Interpretant itself is potentially a sign in another triad. This seems to have to be conditional on how an agent is treating the sign-triad. Here is an example:

“An intruder makes a noise which starts my dog barking, alerting me to the presence of the intruder. The intruder is the object, the particular noise is the sign-vehicle, my dog’s barking is the interpretant. But notice, my dog’s barking functions as a further sign of the intruder, my response to the dog’s barking, as an interpretant. And we could continue.”

(Atkin, 2016, p. 131)

What makes the first interpretant possible is the dog’s conditioning. He is able to detect something else (the intruder) THROUGH (or with the help of) the noise. The dog’s conditioning translates the sign into the object. Moreover, the dog’s response makes the object (intruder) more available for the human who is accompanying the dog. Similarly, what makes the dog’s barking a sign is the human’s understanding of what the barking represents. What is crucial here is the final statement, “And we could continue.”

Let’s look at the triangle from an angle that would (1) turn the 2-dimensional image of into a 1-dimensional image and (2) place the “interpretant” in the middle of the other two elements.

This makes it easier to see the infinite-regress problem, because we can now more vividly see that the interpretant’s relation to the object (now as a sign) is mediated by another interpretant, which quickly gives rise to a Zeno-type paradox, and the apparent impossibility that we ever get in contact with the object.

But the impression of an infinite regress, manufactured by our rigid categories, is not the same as the actual possibility of an infinite regress. We might get the impression that “we could continue” ad infinitum and, indeed, this impression might be intrinsic to the structure of the signs. However, digging further and further into sub/superordinate sign triads must eventually lead us somewhere outside of the domain of signs. We might, as Dennett would say, begin to see things that are sorta-signs (neural activity), before getting to things that are clearly not signs (physical events).


Atkin, A. (2016). Peirce. Routledge.