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Peircean Semiotic Indeterminacy and Its Relevance for Biosemiotics

Part of the Biosemiotics book series (BSEM,volume 11)


This chapter presents a detailed explanation of Peirce’s early and late views on semiotic indeterminacy and then considers how those views might be applied within biosemiotics. Peirce distinguished two different forms of semiotic indeterminacy: generality and vagueness. He defined each in terms of the “right” that indeterminate signs extend, either to their interpreters in the case of generality or to their utterers in the case of vagueness, to further determine their meaning. On Peirce’s view, no sign is absolutely determinate, i.e., every sign is indeterminate to at least some degree and so exhibits some degree of generality or vagueness. If Peirce was right about this, then no instance of biosemiosis is completely determinate—every biosign must be general or vague to some degree. I show that on Peirce’s view, whether a sign is general or vague depends on its immediate object, “the idea which the sign is built upon,” and I explain how Peirce would go about identifying the immediate object of a sign lacking both a minded utterer and a minded interpreter—an identification that must be possible if any biosign is indeterminate.


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  • Genuine Sign
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  1. 1.

    Peirce wrote “indeterminate” rather than “determinate,” but as the editors of the Collected Papers note (CP 5.506n.1), this was obviously a mistake on his part. As published in the Collected Papers, the relevant sentence reads: “But that no sign can be absolutely and completely indeterminate is proved in CP 3.93 where Plutarch’s anecdote about appealing from Phillip drunk to Phillip sober is put to use.” But at CP 3.93, Peirce argued that no term is completely determinate, not that no term is completely indeterminate. (The quoted passage, reprinted at CP 5.506, occurs at R 291:16, but that page is missing from the microfilm copy of the Houghton Library papers, and so I have not been able to check what is published in the Collected Papers against a copy of the original MS).

  2. 2.

    In this contemporary sense of the word, vagueness has been an extremely popular topic among philosophers for the last several years, and the literature on this subject is vast. Two seminal works are Williamson 1994 and Keefe and Smith 1996.

  3. 3.

    2007, p. 214.Some of Salthe’s comments about vagueness, although not necessarily adhering to a Peircean concept of vagueness, do sound strikingly Peircean. For example:

    [A]ll natural systems and objects are to some degree vague (not fully determined, under construction, plastic), while our scientific discourses about them have been as crisp as possible in the interests of measurement and, ultimately, of mathematical modeling. On this score, we might note that having some physical constant to five decimal points does not preclude getting to a sixth, or seventh. The pragmatics imposed by our own material scale generally obviates the need to pursue this process of refinement further than a few decimal points. Note, however, that Nature is vague enough so that if a system much smaller than ours (or in connection with our own nanotechnology) needed to have more precise values, it (we) could in principle construct them. In this example—since measurement is the essential act of science—we discover the vagueness of Nature from a scientific point of view. (p. 210)

    This echoes Peirce’s insistence that reality itself is infinitely determinable. (CP 3.93 n.1, W 2:390-391n.8, 1870) No matter how precise a true description of the world might be, it is always possible, at least in principle, to make it even yet more precise without rendering it false. But in contrasting vagueness with generality, Salthey seems to take a position very different than Peirce’s when he asserts that “[g]enerality may be synthesized out of particulars” (p. 214). On Peirce’s view, the general is antithetical to the particular and the individual, and no general can be synthesized or composed out of any number of particulars.

  4. 4.

    Vehkavaara 2007.

  5. 5.

    Kull et al. 2009 describes how the structure of a hemoglobin molecule might represent oxygen.

  6. 6.

    I borrow this example from Short 2007b.

  7. 7.

    I adopt “concrete” as a description of the first kind of individual from Peirce’s use at W 3:235, EP 1:107, 1877. I take “strict individual” as a description of the second sort of individual from R 300, CP 4.651n1, c.1907–08; see also W 1:461, 1866, and W 3:93, 1873.

  8. 8.

    In his Century Dictionary (1889) entry for “singular,” Peirce noted that “Scotus and others define the singular as that which is here and now—that is, only in one place at one time. The Leibnitzian school defines the singular as that which is determinate in every respect.” (CD 5648) That is, Scotus et al. defined the singular as the concretely individual, while Leibniz et al. defined it as the strictly individual.

  9. 9.

    T. L. Short has proposed that the meaning of “determine” “is that of ‘to limit,’ as in, ‘The water’s edge determines where your property ends.’” (2007b, p. 167) See Short, ibid., p.168n.9 for references to the secondary literature on the question of what Peirce meant by “determine.”

  10. 10.

    Peirce also asserted that “[a]ll determination is by negation” at CP 5.294, W 2:231, EP 1:45, 1868.

  11. 11.

    As we saw above, Peirce indicated that this is what the word “singular” means when images are described as singular. Elsewhere Peirce gave the example of the retinal image of an object, which image does not inform the viewer whether or not the object is sweet. (CP 3.93, W 2:389-90, 1870) It fails to inform the viewer of this because it is general to some degree, i.e., because it is not maximally determinate.

  12. 12.

    Peirce continued to maintain this view throughout his later life. See, e.g., CP 1.191, 1903, and CP 4.551, 1906.

  13. 13.

    For uses of the Philip example, see W 3:84-85, 1873; W 3:235, EP 1:107, 1877; CP 1.494, c.1896; R 515:25, n.d.; and R 291, CP 5.506, c.1905. Peirce adopted the example from a story told by Plutarch. “When a wife petitioned Philip of Macedon on behalf of her husband, he happened to be in his cups and dismissed her. ‘I shall appeal’ she told him. ‘To whom?’ he asked, confident that there was no higher authority than himself. ‘From Philip drunk to Philip sober’ she replied, and in due course her appeal succeeded.” Wilkinson 1993, p. 394.

  14. 14.

    Peirce complained that “[l]ogicians have been at fault in giving Vagueness the go-by, so far as not even to analyze it” (CP 5.446, EP 2:350) Since Peirce himself had for years failed to recognize vagueness as a separate sort of indeterminacy, it is tempting to think that one of the logicians that Peirce had in mind was himself.

  15. 15.

    See Brock 1982 and Hilpinen 1982.

  16. 16.

    Peirce also explained the distinction in terms of the logical principles that do not apply to the two sorts of indeterminate sign: “anything is general in so far as the principle of excluded middle does not apply to it and is vague in so far as the principle of contradiction does not apply to it.” (IP, CP 5.448, EP 2:351) There is a lot to be said about this logical semantics for indeterminate signs, but here my attention is limited to the GTS. But I will note briefly that by saying that “the principle of excluded middle does not apply to” general signs, Peirce did not mean that general signs, including propositions that incorporate general terms, are neither true nor false, and in saying that “the principle of contradiction does not apply to” vague signs, he did not mean that vague signs, including propositions that incorporate vague terms, are both true and false. For more on this point see Lane 1997.

  17. 17.

    This concept is part of the classificatory triad rheme, dicisign and argument. For one explanation of this triad, see CP 2.250 ff., EP 2:292 ff., 1903.

  18. 18.

    Sometimes Peirce identified dicisigns with propositions (CP 2.357, 1902), so that the aforementioned portrait and weathervane are propositions simpliciter. But at other times he restricted “proposition” so that it referred only to symbolic dicisigns. He also sometimes used the term “quasi-proposition” (CP 2.250, EP 2:292, 1903), by which I believe he meant non-symbolic dicisigns, and the term “ordinary proposition” (CP 2.262 and 265, EP 2:295 and 297, 1903; CP 2.315, EP 2:278, 1903), by which I believe he meant symbolic dicisigns.

  19. 19.

    I use “subject-term(s)” rather than “subject(s),” since the former is less likely to be mistaken for a term for the thing(s) that the proposition is saying something about. But note that in doing so, I am using “term” in a broad sense, so that it applies not just to words or other symbols but to any sign or aspect of a sign whatsoever that, as a component or aspect of a dicisign, serves to refer to the object of that proposition, e.g., the pointing arm of a baby directed toward a flower as the baby says “Pretty.” (CP 2.357, 1902).

  20. 20.

    This example illustrates Peirce’s view that a dicisign need not be decomposable into two parts, one a sign of its object and the other a sign of the property that the object is purported, by the dicisign as a whole, to possess. Again, the sign need not actually have a part serving as the subject-term and another serving as the predicate; rather, “[i]t must, in order to be understood, be considered as containing two parts.” (emphasis added).

  21. 21.

    Peirce provided nearly equivalent definitions of “objective generality” in R 291 (“A sign is objectively general, in so far as, leaving its effective interpretation indeterminate, it surrenders to the interpreter the right of completing the determination for himself. ‘Man is mortal.’ ‘What man?’ ‘Any man you like.’” CP 5.505, c.1905) and in a letter to William James (“The general term leaves the object partly indeterminate, and leaves the person addressed… to make the further determination at his pleasure. ‘Men are mortal’ = ‘Any man you please is mortal.’” NEM 3:812, 1905).

  22. 22.

    Peirce maintained that any proposition can be analyzed in a number of different ways. In all of the examples of propositions I consider here, I analyze them such that their logical subject-terms, the aspects of the propositions that refer to the propositions’ objects, are their grammatical subjects. But for any proposition considered, Peirce would insist that alternative analyses are possible.

  23. 23.

    Peirce made the same point in R 516:39-40, n.d.: “if a term is indefinite, it is because the utterer reserves a latitude of choice as to what singular it shall be taken to denote”; and at R 9:2, c.1903: “If a sign is apt to represent many things, the option as to what single thing it shall be taken to represent may be reserved by the utterer of it, to whom it naturally belongs; in which case it may be said to be used vaguely, or not definitely.”

  24. 24.

    Elsewhere Peirce suggested that a general predicate should be understood to extend to its interpreter, not a choice from among the various interpretations associated with the terms in question, but a choice from among other objects that are agreed to have the relevant property: “[T]he… judgment ‘This chair appears yellow’ has vaguely in mind a whole lot of yellow things, of which some have been seen, and no end of others may be or might be seen; and what it means to say is, ‘Take any yellow thing you like, and you will find, on comparing it with this chair, that they agree pretty well in color.’ It thus directly invites the exercise of a freedom of choice on the part of the interpreter (any one yellow thing answering as well as any other) …” (CP 7.632, 1903) N.b., in this passage Peirce used “vaguely” when he was clearly talking about the sort of indeterminacy that he later called “generality.”

  25. 25.

    Bergman notes an important difference between subject-term vagueness (which, following Peirce’s usage on a variant page of R 283, he calls indesignance) and predicate vagueness:

    In the case of indesignance, the utterer can typically designate what the object is; it is only the degree of precision of the designation that might be open to discussion. Normally, a sufficiently precise designation leads to dynamical object determination, assuming that the experiential and discursive requirements are met; … However, [predicate] vagueness is often more contentious, as it concerns how habitual concepts might or ought to be applied. (2009, p. 154)

    As an illustration, Bergman suggests that the indesignance of the subject-term of the proposition “a certain king was immoral” is easily eliminated by the utterer, who can simply say more precisely what king he has in mind, while the vagueness of the predicate could not be so easily eliminated, since there are “indeterminate habits of sign use” regarding “immorality” that do not affect “some king.”

  26. 26.

    There is an additional way in which predicates may be general or vague. “Usually, an affirmative predication covers generally every essential character of the predicate, while a negative predication vaguely denies some essential character.” (IP, CP 5.447, EP 2:351) So a typical assertion of “Murphy is a cattle dog” will attribute all essential properties of cattle dogs to Murphy, as if the utterer were saying: choose from among all of the essential properties of cattle dogs any property you please, and you will find that Murphy has that property. Conversely, a normal use of “Murphy is not a poodle” will deny some essential property or properties of poodles to Murphy, as if the utterer is saying that there is some unspecified essential property of poodles that Murphy lacks.

  27. 27.

    This passage is from a handwritten insertion (“A Note on Collections”) that Peirce added to his typescript for “On the Logic of Drawing History from Ancient Documents, Especially from Testimonies.” That article, without the insertion, was published at CP 7.164–231, and, with the insertion, in HP 2:705–762. The insertion is available online at, accessed June 28, 2012. Later statements about semiotic determination in terms of the GTS include the following: “[H]onest people, when not joking, intend to make the meaning of their words determinate, so that there shall be no latitude of interpretation at all.” (IP, CP 5.447, EP 2:351, 1905); “[W]ords whose meaning should be determinate would leave ‘no latitude of interpretation’ … either for the interpreter or for the utterer.” (R 283, CP 5.448n, EP 2:392, 1906).

    As the passage quoted from R 690 illustrates, Peirce held that even those propositions that have indeterminate subject-terms “refer[] to something singular,” viz. “the entire universe of all things.” (R 530:18-19, c.1903; see also R 291, CP 5.506, c.1905). The point is this: in order for two parties to communicate using a proposition, it cannot be left up to the interpreter to choose whatever universe he likes and understand what’s being said in the proposition to apply to that universe. Any successful conversational exchange must assume that the subject of conversation is some one specific universe or some limited range of universes. But this does not mean that neither the subject-term nor the predicate of a proposition used in such an exchange can be indeterminate.

  28. 28.

    Peirce also maintained that “[e]verything must be, in each respect, either definite or individual.” (R 516, n.d.) As we have seen, Peirce used “definite” to mean non-vague, and he used “individual” to mean non-general. So this claim means that everything, including every sign, must be either non-vague or non-general. This is consistent with the claim that every sign it either general or vague to some degree, since every sign can be either general and thus definite (non-vague) or vague and thus individual (non-general) in any given respect.

  29. 29.

    1969, p. 345.

  30. 30.

    For more on the role of an interpreter’s collateral experience in determining the correct interpretation of a given sign, see 8.178 and 183, EP 2:493 and 495-496, NEM 3:840 and 843-844, 1909; and CP 8. 314, EP 2:498, 1909.

  31. 31.

    At least once, in a 1909 letter to William James, Peirce wrote that a sign’s DO may be “altogether fictive” (CP 8.314, EP 2:498, 1909). This may be why he, on at least one occasion, referred to the DO of a sign as its quasi-real object (R 145s:28, n.d.).

  32. 32.

    Peirce wrote in an April 1907 letter to Papini that “all signs necessarily have Immediate Objects, but not all have Real Objects.” (Ketner 1995, p. 287).

  33. 33.

    On my interpretation, the IO of a sign and the DO of that same sign are numerically distinct entities. On this point I agree with Hilpinen 2007, but my understanding of the IO/DO distinction is very different from those presented in Ransdell 1976, Short 2007a and 2007b, and Bergman 2009.

  34. 34.

    To get a bit clearer on the distinction between the external and the internal, we need to distinguish among some related concepts. While the external is that which is independent of anyone’s actual thinking, the real is that which is independent of what anyone actually thinks about it (e.g., 7CP 7.339, W 3:29, 1873). Thus, everything that is external is ipso facto real, but not everything real is external. Some things are internal but nonetheless real, i.e., some things depend upon what someone thinks but not upon what anyone thinks about them. Last night I dreamed that I was a famous musician, and this is a real fact about me: I actually did have such a dream. And since dreaming is a form of thinking, the fact that I had that dream is a fact about my thinking, and thus is dependent on my thinking; so that dream was internal (to my mind). But the fact that I dreamed about being a famous musician does not depend on whether I, or anyone else, believes that I dreamed about being a famous musician. So it is a real fact about me that I had that dream. And the content of the dream was, of course, unreal, or fictional, since I am not in fact a famous musician. Generally speaking, individual instances of thinking are internal, while sharable thought types are external, in that they have being apart from any actual instance of thinking. For more on Peirce’s distinction between external and internal thoughts, see Lane 2009, pp. 4 ff. Peirce sometimes called the DO of the sign its external object and called its IO its internal object (R 145s:28-30, n.d.; see also CP 8.354, EP 2:485, 1908). But we should not assume that Peirce was here employing the technical meanings of “external” and “internal” described above.

  35. 35.

    1986, p. 360.

  36. 36.

    Peirce distinguished a number of different types of interpretant that may be associated with a given sign. Here I am claiming that in successful communication of the sort just described, there is, in the interpreting mind, as one of the relevant sign’s interpretants, a token of the same thought-type that is tokened in the utterer’s mind. One candidate for this token idea in the mind of an interpreter is the immediate interpretant, which Peirce described as

    the immediate pertinent possible effect in its unanalyzed primitive entirety. It is for instance in the case of a sign interpreted by a mind, that idea (in a very exterior sense) which must be apprehended in order that the sign should at all fulfill its function, this idea being presented whole and unanalyzed. It may be a quality of feeling more or less vague or an idea of an effort or experience awaked by the air of previous experience and may be the idea of a form or anything of a general type. (R 399:288 recto, October 23, 1906, emphasis added).

  37. 37.

    This reflects Peirce’s Logical Semantics for indeterminate signs, according to which a vague sign is one to which “the principle of contradiction” does not apply; see note 16.

  38. 38.

    Note Peirce’s claim that a singular term represents its IO—e.g., the utterer’s token of the thought of Berlusconi—“as if a definite individual existent.” The point cannot be that the name “Silvio Berlusconi” represents the utterer’s idea of Berlusconi as being a singular existent thing; the name is a sign of the man Berlusconi, not a sign of the utterer’s idea of Berlusconi. We should read the claim that a singular sign “represents its immediate object … as if a definite individual existent” to mean that a singular sign is one that, in its connection with its IO, comes to represent a definite individual existent.

  39. 39.

    Elsewhere he made clear that general terms, such as the subject-terms of “Men are mortal” and “Pigs have great pointed snouts,” refer to “one collective object distributively taken.” (NEM 3:812, 1905), and he defined a general sign as one that “represents its Immediate Object in the logically formal character of the Tertian, which is Distributive Generality.” (R 284:61 verso, 1905).

  40. 40.

    R 318 is a lengthy manuscript containing several variants of a “letter to the editor” that was rejected by the Nation and by the Atlantic Monthly. Overlapping portions of this MS are published in the Collected Papers (CP 1.560-562, CP 5.11-13, and CP 5.464-496) and in EP 2:398-433.

  41. 41.

    Unless, of course, the sign in question is the sign of a mental state, like the subject-term of the proposition, “The immediate object of Smith’s assertion that Berlusconi is rich is an idea in Smith’s mind.” That subject-term has as its DO an idea in Smith’s mind, which is an “essential” part of Smith qua utterer of the proposition that Berlusconi is rich.

  42. 42.

    Even in this sort of case, where the sign itself says explicitly that it is the current weather conditions in the local environment that are fine, an interpreter still needs collateral experience correctly to interpret the sign, specifically, to know that it is these weather conditions at this location that the sign has as its object.

  43. 43.

    Since the object of a dicisign is identical to the object of the subject-term (or of that which, after analysis, is identified as serving the function of subject-term) of that same dicisign, the IO of the representamen fossil is the same as the IO of the “subject-term” of the fossil (i.e., of that aspect of the fossil that serves the logical function of a subject-term).

  44. 44.

    2007b, at, for example, pp. 153, 156, 159, 160, 172, 301, and 302.Short is skeptical toward much of the biosemiotic enterprise; see, e.g., 2007 p. xiv. On Short’s reconstruction of Peirce’s theory of signs, genuine semiosis requires, not just purpose, but purposefulness, and purposefulness requires an entity that is capable of self-correction. Some non-human animals are capable of this, but not all are, and there is no purposefulness “below” the level of the behavior of non-human animals.

  45. 45.

    Peirce recognized interpretants other than mental states, e.g., the action that a solder performs upon hearing his commanding officer yell “Ground arms!” is an energetic interpretant of that commander’s words. (R 318, CP 5.475) So the clawing behavior of the bear may be an energetic interpretant of the scent of rot.

  46. 46.

    As Short states, the bear has no intentional states upon which the instance of semiosis in question depends. (2007b, p. 301)

  47. 47.

    As Short presents the example, the object of the scent is simply grubs. (2007b, p. 159)

  48. 48.

    To interpret the sign correctly, an interpreter would need to know that that sort of scent is frequently associated with grubs. But this knowledge is not the result of the kind of collateral experience that is necessary for an interpreter correctly to identify the object of a sign; it is more similar to the knowledge of a natural language that an interpreter must possess in order to understand words in that language at all: “I do not mean by ‘collateral observation’ acquaintance with the system of signs. What is so gathered is not COLLATERAL. It is on the contrary the prerequisite for getting any idea signified by the sign. But by collateral observation, I mean previous acquaintance with what the sign denotes.” (CP 8.179, EP 2:494, 1909) In the present example, the collateral experience necessary for identifying the log as the object of the scent-sign would include the experiences of the sort by which humans learn to tell the direction or object from which a scent is emanating.

  49. 49.

    This strategy suggests a way of responding to Vehkavaara’s skepticism about the idea of an IO being present in the purported biosign involved when a bacterium follows a chemical gradient:

    I have no doubt that the behavior of E. coli is purpose-oriented (self-functional) and sign-directed, but certain non-desirable conclusions will follow if we think that the nutrition gradient is the object of a chemical sign — a sign interpreted by the bacteria concluding appropriate flagellar movements. The problem is that there is no immediate object, no ground of representation for the bacterium. (2002, p. 10, emphasis in original)

    On Peirce’s hypothetical-utterer-and-interpreter strategy, if the chemical gradient is a sign of nutrition, it is not a sign of nutrition to the bacterium, but rather to a hypothetical minded interpreter.

  50. 50.

    Peirce held that humans are not the only scientific intelligence in the cosmos and not the only ones capable of intellectual understanding:

    We may take it as certain that the human race will ultimately be extirpated; because there is a certain chance of it every year, and in an indefinitely long time the chance of survival compounds itself nearer and nearer zero. But, on the other hand, we may take it as certain that other intellectual races exist on other planets, —if not of our solar system, then of others; and also that innumerable new intellectual races have yet to be developed; so that on the whole, it may be regarded as most certain that intellectual life in the universe will never finally cease. (CP 8.43, EP 1:235, W 5:227, 1885).

  51. 51.

    1986, p. 360.


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Lane, R. (2014). Peircean Semiotic Indeterminacy and Its Relevance for Biosemiotics. In: Romanini, V., Fernández, E. (eds) Peirce and Biosemiotics. Biosemiotics, vol 11. Springer, Dordrecht.

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