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Conception, sense, and reference in Peircean semiotics

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In his Logical Investigations Edmund Husserl criticizes John Stuart Mill’s account of meaning as connotation, especially Mill’s failure to separate the distinction between connotative and non-connotative names from the distinction between the meaningful and the meaningless. According to Husserl, both connotative and non-connotative names have meaning or “signification”, that is, what Gottlob Frege calls the sense (“Sinn”) of an expression. The distinction between connotative and non-connotative names is a distinction between two kinds of meaning (or sense), attributive and non-attributive meaning (“attributive und nicht-attributive Bedeutung”). Attributive (connotative) names denote (refer to) objects through their attributes, whereas a non-attributive name means a thing directly (“direkt”). In this paper I examine the concepts of attributive and non-attributive meaning by means of the semiotic theory of Charles S. Peirce, and compare Peirce’s account with the views of Frege, Husserl, Alexius Meinong, and David Kaplan and Gareth Evans.

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  1. However, Mr. Raimo Olkkonen, who has done genealogical research, has recently informed me that according to some sources, the name ‘Hilpinen’ is derived from the Greek name ‘Philippos’, which means (in Greek) ‘a friend of horses’ (see Mikkonen and Paikkala 1992, p. 99). Thus I could say that my name means ‘a friend of horses’ (even though I happen to be a friend of cats rather than horses). The Finnish word ‘hilpi’ is the name of a small shrub, Phippala algida, which can be found in the mountains in Lapland (Sadeniemi 1983, Part 1, 474; Part. 6, 50). I do not know whether my name is related to that word.

  2. I refer to the page numbers of Frege’s original (1892) article, reproduced in the margin of Max Black’s 1948 translation. Black has translated Frege’s expression ‘Vorstellung’ as ‘conception’, and I shall use the same word. ‘Vorstellung’ may also be translated as ‘idea’, ‘presentation’, or ‘representation’.

  3. (Frege (1892/1948), 27n) attributes this apparent variation in the sense of a name to the imperfection of natural language, not to be tolerated in demonstrative science and in a “perfect language”. Once the non-attributive character of the sense of a proper name is recognized, there is no reason to resort to such an explanation.

  4. This way of understanding the concept of sense is also suggested by Frege’s observation that

    [the sense of a proper name] serves to illuminate only a single aspect of the referent, supposing it to exist. Comprehensive knowledge of the referent would require us to be able to say immediately whether any given sense belongs to it. (1892/1948, p. 27)

    According to Kaplan (1989a, p. 485), the sense of a singular term is “a concept, something like a description in a purely qualitative language.” This characterization of the notion of sense (of a proper name) is inconsistent with Frege’s view that the sense of an object-word is not a concept, but an object, because it is the referent of an object-word in an oblique context.

  5. Given this characterization, Frege’s “Vorstellungen” seem to resemble in this respect what C. S. Peirce called “qualisigns”, qualities without identity; see (Peirce (1958), Vol. 8, Paragraph 8.334).

  6. Below the references to Peirce (1931–1935, 1958) will be indicated by ‘CP’, followed by volume and paragraph numbers.

  7. Thomas Short has pointed out in correspondence that according to the latter characterization, an interpretant need not be a sign. My feelings towards the cat Oscar have Oscar as their object, and can be regarded as signs, but what Peirce calls an “exertion” need not be a sign (cf. CP 8.332; Short 2007, pp. 226–227). However, for the purposes of the present paper I shall follow Peirce’s 1897 definition quoted above, and take an interpretant to be a sign which articulates the meaning of a representamen. For Peirce’s definitions of ‘sign’, see (Short (2007), pp. 164–172).

  8. According to Goodman (1976, p. 30), “if a picture represents k as a (or the) soandso, then it denotes k and is a soandso picture.” In Peirce’s semiotic terminology, we can say that in the sentence ‘s represents c as F’, c is the object and F is the interpretant of the sign s. It is clear that this holds in the case in which s is the sentence ‘c is F’; thus it follows that the object of such a sentence (propositional sign) is the object denoted by its subject and its interpretant is F (cf. CP 5.473).

  9. References to the microfilm edition of Peirce’s manuscripts (Houghton Library, Harvard University), catalogued in Robin (1967), will be indicated by ‘MS’, followed by the manuscript number. The page numbers used in the references to the manuscripts are those used by Peirce (and contained in the microfilm edition of the manuscripts).

  10. The type-token distinction was introduced into semiotics and the philosophy of language by Peirce, see CP 4.537. However, Peirce’s characterization of the distinction does not agree with Kaplan’s ortographic conception; see CP 8.334.

  11. Linguists call the orthographic character of a word an “orthographic word”, and its phonological character a “phonological word”. The grammatical forms (word-forms) of a lexeme are called “grammatical words”. For example, the expressions ‘write’, ‘writes’ and ‘writing’ are different grammatical, orthographic, and phonological words, but instances of a single lexeme. In the present context the expressions (generic) ‘word’ and ‘name’ should be understood as referring to lexemes. See Lyons (1968, pp. 196–200), Matthews (1974, pp. 20–36), and (Dixon and Aikhenvald (2002), pp. 6–25).

  12. A name transferred in this way from another object may be called an inspirational name (Crystal 1995, p. 144) or a commemorative name (Lehrer 1992, p. 128). ‘Valparaiso’ as the name of Valparaiso, Florida, is an inspirational name, and as the name of Valparaiso, Chile, it is presumably what might be called an “environmental” name, a name suggested by the environment of the city.

  13. Adrienne Lehrer calls lists of disembodied names name inventories, and observes: “In the case of inventories there is no reference to any particular individual,” but the names are presented as “available for reference” (1992, p. 125).

  14. Dummett (1981, p. 110) observes: “It is true that in giving examples of possible senses that may be associated with a proper name, Frege expresses these by means of definite descriptions, but this should be considered as merely a device for a brief characterization of a sense.”

  15. In his story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’ (1964), Jorge Luis Borges makes a similar distinction between a work and its textual character:

    [Pierre Menard] did not want to compose another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original, he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes. (Borges 1964, p. 39)

  16. The view about works (as well as words) formulated in (Hilpinen (1993), pp. 171–177), agrees with Judge Learned Hand’s opinion. Currie (1989, pp. 15, 120–125) and Rohrbauch (2003) have defended similar views about the ontology of all works, including works of art with multiple instances. Rohrbauch takes works to be “historical individuals”, which entails that instances of the same work must be existentially connected to each other.

  17. Goodman (1976, p. 209) identifies a literary work with its text, stating that “all and only inscriptions of the text are instances of the work”, and takes a text to be a “character in a notational scheme”; consequently the identity of a text is “a matter pertaining solely to the syntax of a language—to the permissible configurations of letters, spaces, and punctuation marks—quite apart from what the says, or otherwise refers to” (Goodman and Elgin 1988, p. 58). Goodman and Elgin distinguish a t2-text from its character (t4-text), but do not recognize the existence of the t3-text between t2 and t4. We might say that Goodman and Elgin’s ontology of works and texts is in conflict with the U.S. copyright law as interpreted by Judge Learned Hand.

  18. Words appear in several word-forms. Moreover, before the standardization of spelling in the seventeenth century and the spread of printing and publishing, the spelling of English words often reflected individual and regional differences (cf. Crystal 1995, pp. 66–67; Upward and McArthur 1992, p. 970).

  19. Peirce goes on to define a third interpretant, “the Final Interpretant”, but he notes: “I confess that that my own conception of this third interpretant is not yet free from mist” (CP 4.536). He characterizes the final interpretant in a variety of ways, for example, he states (CP 8.184):

    We must also note that there is certainly a third kind of interpretant, which I call the Final Interpretant, because it is that which would finally be decided to be the true interpretation if consideration were carried so far that an ultimate opinion were reached.

    According to this account, the final interpretant “seems to be what our understanding of the dynamic object would be at the end of inquiry, that is, if we had reached a true understanding of the dynamic object” (Atkin 2010). Thus the final interpretant can be regarded as a “final” conception of the object the sign, that is, a comprehensive and true conception of the object. In his writings Peirce defines a number of additional interpretants, e.g., “emotional”, “energetic”, and “ultimate logical” interpretant (CP 5.475–5.476), which need not be discussed in the present context. For a discussion of the Peirce’s account of various objects and interpretants and the development of Peirce’s views, see Short (2004; 2007, Chap. 7, pp. 178–206).

  20. The view of the meaning of a word as its immediate interpretant agrees with Lyons’s (1968, p. 427) definition of sense: “By the sense of a word we mean its place in a system of relationships which it contracts with other words in the vocabulary.” In Peirce’s system such relationships belong to the interpretant of the word.

  21. Peirce occasionally calls immediate objects “mental representations” (CP 5.473), which clouds the distinction between the immediate object and the interpretant.

  22. Dummett (1981, p. 180) criticizes Geach’s (1957, pp. 69–71) view about the sense of a proper name on the ground that according to Geach, all personal proper names have the same sense. According the present account, all personal proper names have the same immediate interpretant, but not the same sense, because the sense also includes the indexical connection between an utterance of the name and its object.

  23. This way of understanding the concepts of immediate object and immediate interpretant and distinguishing them from each other does not agree fully with Peirce’s characterization and use of these notions. The present account is not intended as a faithful exegesis of Peirce’s views, but as a partial reinterpretation of his conceptual system, adapted to systematic and comparative purposes. For the changes in Peirce’s views over time, see Atkin (2010).

  24. This example resembles Gareth Evans’s example about Louis (1973/1985, p. 6).

  25. In the same way, (Evans (1973/1985), pp. 13–16), who takes the reference of a name to be determined by the causal origin of the information associated with the name, suggests that there probably is some degree of fit requirement for referring (p. 13).

  26. In his manuscript ‘On some topics of logic’ (1903), Peirce gives the following example of a procedure for finding the object (or an object) of a name. Peirce notes that there are two different ways of explaining what a sign (an expression or a concept) means, namely, a definition and a precept. He uses ‘lithium’ as an example:

    If you look into a textbook of chemistry for a definition of lithium, you may be told that it is that element whose atomic weight is 7 very nearly. But if the author has a more logical mind he will tell you that if you search among minerals that are vitreous, translucent, grey or white, very hard, brittle, and insoluble, for one which imparts a crimson tinge to an unluminous flame, this mineral being triturated with lime or witherite rats-bane, and then fused, can be partly dissolved in muriatic acid; and if this solution be evaporated, and the residue be extracted with sulphuric acid, and duly purified, it can be converted by ordinary methods into a chloride, which being obtained in the solid state, fused, and electrolyzed with half a dozen powerful cells, will yield a globule of a pinkish silvery metal that will float on gasolene; and the material of that is a specimen of lithium. (CP 2.330)

    Peirce characterizes this precept as follows:

    The peculiarity of this definition—or rather this precept that is more serviceable than a definition—is that it tells you what the word lithium denotes by prescribing what you are to do in order to gain perceptual acquaintance with the object of the word. (ibid.)

    A precept describes a procedure for determining what a name refers to, and can be said to articulate the “meaning” of the name, in a loose sense of ‘meaning’, but the procedure described by Peirce can hardly said to express the sense of the name ‘lithium’.

  27. A similar duality is the basis of various versions two-dimensional semantics; see the articles in García-Carpintero and Macià (2006).

  28. See (Kaplan (1990), pp. 115–117): “Common currency words are not abstract constructions, they are natural objects.”


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The work on this paper was facilitated by a sabbatical leave granted by the University of Miami. An earlier version was presented at the workshop “Peirce and Early Analytic Philosophy” at the University of Helsinki, May 19–20, 2009, organized by the Helsinki Peirce Research Centre and the Nordic Pragmatism Network. I wish to thank the participants of the workshop for their comments, the organizers for the invitation to workshop, and Anneli Hilpinen, Kaisa Häkkinen, Raimo Olkkonen, Ahti Pietarinen, and Thomas Short for discussions and comments on names and other words and on Peirce’s theory of signs, and Anneli Hilpinen for editorial help.

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Hilpinen, R. Conception, sense, and reference in Peircean semiotics. Synthese 192, 991–1018 (2015).

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