Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Peirce and Embedded Philosophy of Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_353


Peirce’s contribution to educational philosophy is embedded within his phenomenological construct. This educational philosophy is general enough to provide for nearly all learning needs and interests, yet specific enough to provide for widespread testing and verification (Hechinger 1960). Peirce’s phenomenology provides a sturdy foundation for the development of educational practices that can elicit essential and overarching learning capabilities in young children through adults (Chiasson 2008a, b).


Phenomenology is descriptive; it is the study of appearances, which requires facility with proto-reasoning skills, the skills of a good phenomenologist (Peirce 1935, Vol. 5, para. 41). These are skills required for eventual facility with critical thought.

Thus, a good critical thinker in a Peircean sense is first of all a good phenomenologist; that is, someone who can observe without judging, relate in multiple ways, and interpret without deciding. Facility with these pre- (or proto-) reasoning capabilities can then lead into insightful but untested hypotheses. Hypothesis construction (by means of retroduction) is the very essence of critical thinking, requiring an interplay of Peirce’s three sorts of inference types: abduction, deduction, and induction.

Peirce’s unique phenomenological construct suggests these proto-reasoning capabilities, which he identifies as necessary for achieving the insights necessary for proto-abductive inferences, must also be necessary for the eventual development of effective critical thinking skills. In Peirce’s sense then, a good phenomenologist is someone who possesses the pre-/proto-reasoning skills necessary for engaging thoughtfully and deliberately with not only plans and processes but with possibilities as well.

Phenomena are comprised of things and their qualities. Qualities are the properties of things (including ideas and events), which describe them and/or distinguish one thing from another. Peirce contends that a phenomenologist becomes expert by learning to observe carefully among the qualitative similarities and differences of things without placing judgment upon them (Peirce 1935, Vol. 5, para. 43).

Mastery of critical thinking skills, the psychological equivalent of Peirce’s normative sciences, requires that one first master the proto-reasoning skills of a competent phenomenologist. Proto-reasoning skills include the ability to notice, analyze, and then interpret/reinterpret phenomena. From a Peircean point of view, mastery of these phenomenological skills is essential prior to even attempting to develop the semiotic skills of logic and reasoning (Peirce 1932, Vol.1, para. 186). By mastering proto-reasoning skills, even very young children learn to become observers and chroniclers of phenomena, preparing them for the eventual mastery of critical thinking skills.

As with all learning, proto-reasoning skills can only be mastered experientially. For, as Peirce writes “[We] can know nothing except what we directly experience. …All the creations of our mind are but patchworks from experience” (Peirce 1935, Vol. 6, para. 492). While the acquisition of facts and examples are a sort of experience, they cannot substitute for direct and deliberate experience with phenomena.

Proto-reasoning skills enhance direct and deliberate experiences because they enable the suspension of judgment while deliberately engaging with phenomena by:
  1. 1.

    Qualifying (noticing/identifying the qualities of things)

  2. 2.

    Relating (comparing and contrasting qualities of things)

  3. 3.

    Representing (expressing/interpreting things) (Peirce 1935, Vol. 5, para. 436)


Thus, the basis for Peirce’s embedded philosophy of education (which is a sort of design for thinking) is the same basis as for his philosophy overall: that is, his particular version of phenomenology, which he also termed the Doctrine of Categories. By developing verbal and nonverbal facility with these overarching Categories, individuals can gain the ability to engage more effectively with specific learning requirements in both the cognitive and practical worlds.


Qualification is the first platform of Peirce’s embedded philosophy of education. Quality, the category that Peirce named “Firstness,” provides the basis for the development of proto-reasoning skills. Qualities fall into three broad types, which Peirce called “modes of being” (Peirce 1932, Vol. 1, para. 23). Those types are (1) affective (feeling based); (2) sensory (sense-based perceptions); and (3) rational (reason based). Learning the language of qualities is essential for learning the language of relationships (or signs), which in turn are necessary for learning to think critically.

Qualities are the properties, or characteristics, of things. There can be no thing (nothing) without qualities to define it. Thus, qualities are whatever a thing has that enables an observer to identify it in some way. If someone says that Seattle is a large city, then that person is using the rational quality of size to sort it into the category of large cities as opposed to medium-sized or small cities.

Qualities allow people to identify a thing as a kind of (or sort of) something. Peirce maintained that properties are true of every real thing, whether anyone ever comes to know that something is real. In this sense, the property (or quality) of motion having to do with the earth orbiting the sun – instead of the other way around as people used to believe – would still be real (or true) had no one ever determined this to be true.

Types of Qualities

Affective Qualities

When children learn to express feelings, they are learning to express qualities of affect. However, qualities of affect are much more than just learning to express play yard feelings such as anger or joy.

Peirce contended that all of scientific discovery depends upon the ability to sense a kind of feeling – a “hunch” and that beliefs arise from a sense of “satisfaction” with whatever truths a person feels he or she has found (Poggiani 2014, pp. 538–39). (Both hunches and satisfactions are affective states.) Peirce also held that motives for doing things fall into higher or lower ethical classes (Peirce 1935, Vol. 5, para. 585) depending upon one’s ability to shape the qualities of the affective mode of being. Below are just a few examples of affective states and a few words that describe them:















Education in the qualities and language of affect is a necessary first step in bringing learners into the world of aesthetic and ethical inquiry that proceeds learning to think “rightly” (critically) in a Peircean sense. Perhaps, “first step” is not the right term to use here, since affective education is a long-term process and does not end, even as introduction into the other sorts of qualities begins.

Affective education involves understanding and experiencing the range between good and bad feelings; between beautiful and ugly surroundings; between good and evil; between boredom and intense focus. This is the foundation of Peirce’s optimistic philosophy. “Love,” he wrote, “recognizing germs of loveliness in the hateful, gradually warms it into life and makes it lovely” (Peirce 1935, Vol. 6. para 289).

Every point along the continuum of each of these states is part of the affective state of the human condition and must reside at the foundation of learning in a Peircean-based educational program.

Sensory Qualities

Peirce contended that aesthetics must inform ethics and ethics must inform reason for right reasoning to occur. The qualities of sensation provide the empirical qualities necessary for informing aesthetic sensibilities. In turn, these are mediated by sentiment (affect) for determining personal value. Qualities of sense may be much easier to for learners to absorb than qualities of affect. For example, red – a quality of vision – is indisputable (to anyone who is not colorblind), while compassion takes a lifetime of experience to experience and understand. Qualities of sense fall into the categories of the normal five senses, plus two others relating to skin sense (or touch) – balance and muscle sense. Below are a few examples of qualities that fall within some of these categories:










Skin sense









Rational Qualities

Rational qualities have to do with making objective, measurable observations. Something is larger than another is. One event occurs before another. Size, time, space (or location), matter and energy, shape, quantity, and change are just some of the rational qualities. Others include generality, opposition, elasticity, complexity, simplicity, etc. The table below lists a few examples.


Little, tiny, miniature, big, large, huge, mammoth,

Long, short, high, tall, slim, wide, narrow


Duration, moment, interval, instant, second, minute,

Hour, day, year, now, past, present, future, then,

Thinking in terms of qualities provides a valuable philosophical perspective for everyone. Instead of asking: “What is this?” or “What is this for?” learners can begin to wonder, “What does this smell like?” or “Look like” or “How does this make me feel?” “How might it seem to someone (or something) else?”


The second platform of a Peircean-based philosophy of education is relating things based upon qualities (Peirce 1932, Vol. 1, para. 575). Deliberately relating phenomena based upon their qualities can be done by diagrammatic (or relational) thinking. The tools of diagrammatic thinking require facility with qualification skills, since sorting factors are the qualities, or properties of things. The tools of diagrammatic thinking range from simple sorting practices to much more complex analysis forms. Peirce put great stock into what is now termed “diagrammatic thinking.” Today, many careers require diagrammatic thinking. For example, all computer programmers have mastered diagrammatic thinking, as have engineers, architects, many writers, and individuals in myriad other careers. Engaging young learners in these relational tools provides them with a way to respond deliberately in situations that most adults may incorrectly think are well beyond the scope of young people.

Types of Diagrammatic Thinking

Classification Analysis

A Venn diagram is one form for classification analysis. It is a more complex form of classification than a “simple sort” or a “matching sort” that would ordinarily be used with preschool and early elementary children or a “tree diagram,” which is another ordinary tool of simple classification.

Which of these things is like the others? Which is not? Those questions are verbal forms of classification. However, the nonverbal forms are just as vital to learning. Learners sort a variety of physical things into two or more groups and on down, and then identify their reasons for sorting – such as “Things that I like versus things I don’t like.” “Things that are soft and things that are not soft.” “Things that are familiar; things that are unfamiliar,” etc.

The more familiar learners are with qualitative terms, the more thorough and creative their classification sorts can be, as qualities are the sorting factors for analytic thinking. Preschool children can learn how to make simple sorts by putting away toys, or the silverware, or helping to organize a toolbox. Naturally, not all children will participate willingly or spontaneously in sorting activities, but that does not mean that sorting and classifying skills should be ignored.

Structure Analysis

The second type of diagrammatic thinking involves part/whole thinking. Some people are naturally adept at this kind of analysis and can easily imagine what something will look like when assembled. Others have a deficit in this area. However, everyone can learn how to do structure analysis.

A whole is a structure; a part is a unit of a structure. A person is a whole made up of parts such as arms and legs. The earth is a whole made up of parts such as sea, atmosphere, crust, and core. Everything that exists can be thought of as a part of the whole that we call the universe.

In the case of classification analysis, the relationships are “types of” or “sorts of” something. In structure analysis the relations are spatial.

Things normally considered parts may be thought of in other situations as wholes. A hand, for example, may be called a whole instead of a part if one is concerned with its parts. In structure analysis, the largest including thing with which one is concerned is called a whole. Its included units are called parts. Just as for classification analysis, structure analysis is best introduced to learners as physical experiences: following directions to put a toy together; figuring out how to build a birdhouse; making potholders; learning to sew; making a fort or a go-cart. The more experiences that learners have figuring out how to do things in the physical world, the better their chances at developing skills with structure analysis.

Systems Analysis

The operation of a system reflects a structure moving and/or changing in time and space. Just as structures are wholes that have parts as parts, operations are wholes that have stages and phases as parts. When someone performs a systems analysis, she has a purpose in mind that guides her selection of what she is going to identify as stages of that operation.

The words “stage,” “phase,” and “operation” indicate time-based relationships. Thus, learning to deal with systems is a vital aspect of learning to deal with time – and time is not just a matter of consequence in its ordinary sense of learning to “tell time.” Time, in a philosophical sense, is the arena in which everything occurs. Peirce even used time as a metaphor for his multidimensional doctrine of continuity. Without continuity, there can be no thought, no reality, no relationships, and no thingness of any sort. Additionally, understanding systems and systems-within-systems provides good preparation understanding the consequential thinking of pragmatism and for later introduction into vital world problems in such systems sciences as ecology, economics, political science, sociology, famine-and war prevention, world population studies – and even the personal skill of time management.

The stages and phases chosen when analyzing an operation should be those most appropriate to the purpose. Thus, when they are old enough, learners should be helped to name ordering factors for stages and phases – just as they choose sorting factors for classifications and identify factors for structure analyses – with direct reference to their purposes.

Interpreting Signs

The purpose of having a basic understanding of different kinds of qualities and different forms of analysis is to arrive at a point where learners can begin to think matters out for themselves in productive ways. By the word “relationships” Peirce meant signs, something that represents, points to, or stands in place of something else. In general, this is what Peirce means when he says, “all thought whatsoever is a sign and is mostly of the nature of language.”

Peirce does not mean the term “sign” in just the ordinary sense of that word – as say, a billboard or a stop sign. Also, notice that he says that “thought is mostly of the nature of language.” He did not say that all thought is language based. Peirce included mathematical thinking as thought – and mathematics as language. In the same sense, he would have included music as a language, as well as any other system or pattern of thought for which there is form and syntax. The particular expression (words, images, diagrams, movement, touch, etc.) by which thinking occurs depends upon the predisposition of the individual doing the thinking. Thus, a pattern of thought is a language, which occurs as signs in any affective, sensory, or rational modality – whether verbal or not.

Peirce identifies three types of signs: representations (icons), indications (indices), and symbols.

Icons (Direct Representations)

Icons are the least ambiguous of signs. They can be either replicas or likenesses. A replica looks like, sounds like, smells like, tastes like, and/or feels like what it is. For example, a video or DVD is a replica of the performance that made the movie, so is a CD a replica of the session that produced the music. A photograph is a replica of the person whose picture was taken, so is a realistic oil portrait of that person. A “scratch and sniff” sample in a magazine is a replica of the scent of the perfume. A likeness, on the other hand, is a nonliteral representation of something; say a caricature of someone or a cartoon drawing of a mouse.

Indices (Indications)

Indications (which Peirce called “indices” in the plural and “index” in the singular) point to something that is elsewhere in time and/or space. Symptoms, such as rashes, fevers, etc., that physicians observe to diagnose illness are indices, so is a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake that comes out dry indicating that the cake is done (or if coated, not done). Clouds are an indication of rain. A frown on someone’s face is an indication she is upset or angry, or perhaps has a headache, etc. Indices often provide the empirical basis for making inferences that lead to scientific discoveries, medical diagnoses, automobile repairs, search and rescue efforts, and countless other vital and practical activities.


Symbols stand in place of the thing or concept that they represent. Moreover, unlike representations (which look like what they are), symbols require agreement among minds for people to know what they mean. Religious forms, such as crosses, six-pointed stars, and crescents are symbolic. Perhaps most significantly, words and numbers are symbols. Words are the most ambiguous of all signs, meaning that they are the most easily misinterpreted and misunderstood. Peirce developed his sign theory to reduce the inherent ambiguity of language – to make language a tool for clear thinking and for effective reasoning.

Once learners master the language of qualities, the tools of analysis, and how to use signs effectively, they will be ready for developing skills for exploring the invisible realms of content, context, and meta-context (including value and purpose) for deciphering meaning.


That Charles Sanders Peirce was a polymath is not open to question. That his semiotic will continue to influence researchers and developers in many fields (including computer science, linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy) well into the twenty-first century and perhaps beyond is generally accepted.

However, few have yet recognized the value of extracting from Peirce’s philosophical construct (in particular from his phenomenology) this viable system for improving learning capabilities in learners of all ages (including those with many sorts of cognitive disabilities) (Hechinger 1960; Upton 1973; Davis and Chiasson 1981; Chiasson and Tristan 2012). This is understandable, for Peirce’s writings are difficult to read and understand. However, a Peircean-based learning model is overarching – that is, its roots are preaesthetic, prevalue, and prereason. Its applications are universal.

Fortunately, throughout the twentieth and into this twenty-first century much has already been done to express other applications of Peirce’s philosophical construct. Perhaps, his concepts can now be articulated well enough to bring them into the field of educational philosophy and from there into direct classroom practice.

Where Peirce’s philosophy was once impenetrable, it is now simple and practical enough for use even at the prereading level (Chiasson 2008a, b). Now, even young children can master age-appropriate expressions of these proto-reasoning skills. These Peircean-based proto-reasoning skills embedded within his phenomenological construct are the true basic skills, for they are the skills underlying all meaningful learning.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Davis-Nelson CompanyPort TownsendUSA