E-Papers >Peirce

The Portuguese version of this paper can be found in - Santaella, Lucia (2002). Semiótica aplicada. São Paulo: Thomson.




Lucia Santaella Braga

São Paulo Catholic University




In his book De l´Esprit des Lois (book XIX, chap. IV, apud François Bourricaud 1990: 388), trying to define the general spirit of a nation, Montesquieu observed that ‘men are ruled by many things: climate, religion, laws, the maxims of the governors, the examples of past events, moral and customs’. Although Montesquieu was not using the word institutions, his observation can give us an idea of the ambiguity and richness of the classical notion of institutions. The idea of institution referred then to the set of laws by which a city was ruled, that is, to the modes through which public power and private power were divided, and to the sanctions and resources that regulated their exercise. At that time, a question became also classical: are those rules arbitrary, particular, or are they universal, legitimate representatives of a natural order?

In modern times, at least since the second half of last century, there seems to be no more doubts about the conventional, arbitrary, and historical character of institutional laws, but the issues raised in the study of institutions, accompanying the growth of complexity of modern societies, have also increased their complexity.

Before receiving many different interpretations in contemporary sociology, the study of institutions was a well defined province in the so-called structural-functional theory of social systems that attained a very organized form in the work of Talcott Parsons (1951 [1970]).

Parsons´ analysis of social system is based on an action frame of reference. His fundamental starting point is the concept of social systems of action, in which individual actors are considered as social objects and the interaction of individual actors is treated as a system. ‘Action is a process in the actor situation system which has motivational significance to the individual actor, or, in the case of a collectivity, its component individuals. This means that the orientation of the corresponding action processes has its bearing on the attainment of gratifications or the avoidance of deprivations of the relevant actor. [...] Only in so far as his relation to the situation is in this sense motivationally relevant’, it is considered ‘as action in a technical sense’ (ibid.: 3-5).

On the basis of these general features of action, Parson discusses the institutional integration of action elements. For him, ‘a concrete action system is an integrated structure of action elements in relation to a situation. This means essentially integration of motivational and cultural or symbolic elements, brought together in a certain kind of ordered system. Two important aspects have to be kept in mind for the undertanding of institutional integration: (1) It is inherent in an action system that action is normatively oriented; (2) the basic condition on which an interaction system can be stabilized is for the interests of the actors to be bound to conformity with a shared system of value-orientation standards. Relative to the actions of a plurality of actors and from the point of view of any given actor in the system, in so far as conformity with a value-orientation standard is both a mode of fulfillment of the actor´s dispositions and a condition of optimizing the reactions of other significant actors, that standard will be said to be institutionalized A value pattern in this sense is always institutionalized in an interaction context (ibid.: 36-38).

From the interaction context, another important concept of the institutional integration of action elements is derived: the concept of role. There is always a double aspect of the expectation system: on the one hand, ‘there are the expectations which concern and in part set standards for the behavior of the actor, ego, who is taken as the point of reference, these are his role expectations. On the other hand, from his point of view there is a set of expectations relative to the contingently probable reactions of others (alters) --- these will be called sanctions, which in turn may be subdivided into positive and negative according to whether they are felt by ego to be gratification-promoting or depriving. The relation between role-expectation and sanctions then is clearly reciprocal. What are sanctions to ego are role-expectations to alter and vice-versa. A role then is a sector of total orientation system of an individual actor which is organized about expectations in relation to a particular interaction context, that is integrated with a particular set of value-standards which govern interaction with one or more alters in the apropriate complementary roles’. In this conceptual context, ‘an institution will be said to be a complex of institutionalized role integrates (namely, status-relationships) which is of strategic cultural signiticance in a given social system’ (ibid.: 38-39).

To complete this conceptual panorama, it is important to distinguish institution from collectivity. ‘A collectivity is a system of concretely interactive specific roles. An institution, on the other hand, is a complex of patterned elements in role expectations which may apply to an indefinite number of collectivities. Conversily, a collectivity may be the focus of a whole series of institutions’ (ibid.: 39).

A more synthetical and simplified version of the functionalist tradition in social studies declares that functionalism draws ‘a basic distinction between the structures and the processes in a society analogous to the physical and organic structures of an organism and the activities which these perform. Thus social institutions are seen as the structural components of a society through which essential social activities are organized and social needs are met. They can take the form of organizations, groups or practices of an enduring kind, to which there is a high level of social commitment that integrates, orders and stabilizes major areas of social life, providing approved procedures and forms for the articulation of relationship and interests’ (Wallis 1996: 417-18).

Despite the intricate cohesion of Parson´s theory, despite the pervasiveness of the functionalist approach in the sociological millieu, there has been a decline of persuasion in functionalism as an explanatory theory. The reasons why this theoretical model got old are many. One of these reasons lies in the over simplification of Parson´s psychological concepts. They sound like a baby stattering when compared with the complexities of Freud´s discoveries. Due to this psychological superficiality, to functionalists, institutions appear as good things, assisting society to perform its necessary activities. But it has also become important to examine the obscure sides of institutions that were out of site of functionalism.

‘While routine and predictability, stability, and persistence are features without which social life would be largely impossible,[...] the structures thus engendered come to posses a life of their own; they impose themselves upon social actors and may constrain their choices. A once helpful routine may become an inflexible requirement; a formerly intrumental pattern of action may become an empty formalism; once meaningful expressions of sentiment or value may become a rigid dogma. As they become institutionalized, ideas, actions, and relationships may lose their excitement, their vitality, their idealism, and come to be valued simply because they are familiar’ (Wallis 1996: 418)

In their social psychological aspect, institutions run the same or even more serious risks. Our century has given us too many examples of institutions whose routine imposition of sanctions turned into the most dramatic acts of violence.

Other reasons for the dawn of functionalism can be seen in the complexity of the web of institutional interchanges, in the speed of institutional changes, in the unpredictable rhythm through which new institutions are born and old ones disappear in contemporary societies. All these factors bring with them basic changes in the ways of conceiving of institutions themselves. The emphasis that was previously given to structures is now given to processes.

‘Indeed, it has become clearer that institutions are always in the course of formation, negociation and decline, and that this process is itself of major significance as a focus of analysis. In this new account, institutions may be simply patterns of behavior which persist and crystallize in the course of time and to which people become attached as a result of their role in the formation of identity, or through investiments of energy or social interests. Thus social activities or patterns of behavior are more or less institutionalized, that is, involve greater or lesser degrees of formalization, infusion of value and emotional attachment, and therefore, of resistance to change and orientation to their survival’ (Wallis 1996: 417-18).

Thus instead of speaking of institutions as given, constant, self-contained entities it is now more instigating to talk about the process of institutionalization and to look at it as a process of continuous crystallization of different types of norms, organizations and frameworks which regulate the processes of social exchanges. Institutionalization as a process is understood to a great extent as the challenging processes of inovation of various institutional norms and organizational frameworks, as well as processes of setting up, beyond structural cores and pre-existing organizational settings, new types of frameworks (Eisenstadt 1968: 409-21).

The studies of institutions are a major field in the social sciences and they range from research on the institutional spheres, such as the sphere of family and kinship, the economical, political, cultural spheres, the sphere of stratification and their interdependence to research on institutional resources, from institutional interaction and the norms, media and channels for their exchange to the comparison of institutional variations in the cultures of different countries.

However, the mapping of research on institutions in sociology is not the scope of this paper. On the contrary, my aim is to discuss the concept of institution itself in the light of Peirce´s phenomenological and semiotic category of thirdness. Let us begin this discussion with the presentation of thirdness in the context of the three categories.

It took Peirce exactly thirty years, from 1867 to 1897, to complete his theory of the categories. These were originally stated in 1867, in ‘On a new list of categories’ (CP 1545-59, also published in W2 49-59 and in Peirce 1992: 2-10), but ‘it was only in 1897 that Peirce added the possible as a mode of being and -- in so doing, gave up his long held, Mill-inspired frequency theory of probabilities and his scheme of categories was fundamentally complete’ (Houser et al. 1992: xxvi). It was only in 1902 that Peirce adopted his categories, then called phaneroscopic categories, as the general basis for all his logical doctrine.

As Peirce stated in 1902 (L 75: B 8), there are three points of view from which the categories should be studied before they can be clearly apprehended. They are the points of view of 1. Qualities, 2. of Objects and 3. of Mind. From the ontological point of view of qualities, namely, from the point of view of firstness, the categories appear as: 1.1. quality or firstness [that is, the being of positive qualitative possibility], 1.2. reaction or secondness [that is, the action of actual fact],and 1.3. mediation or thirdness [the being of a law that will govern facts in the future (CP 1.23)]. From the point of view of Objects or secondness, namely from the point of view of the existent, they are: 2.1. qualia [that is, facts of firstness], 2.2. relations [that is facts of secondness], and 2.3. representation [that is, signs, or facts of thirdness]. From the point of view of Mind or thirdness, they are: 3.1. feeling or immediate consciousness [that is, signs of firstness], 3.2. sensation of a fact [that is, sense of action and reaction, or signs of secondness ] and 3.3. conception or mind itself [that is, sense of learning, or mediation, or signs of thirdness] (Santaella 1992: 75, Houser et al. 1992: xxvii).

To simplify all these minute differentiations, we may say that the basic characteristics of firstness, which is the monadic category, are chance, originality, spontaneity, possibility, uncertainty, immediacy, presentness, quality, and feeling. In secondness, which is the dyadic category, we find ideas related to polarity, such as brute force, action and reaction, effort and resistence, dependence, conflict, surprise. Thirdness, or the triadic category, is linked to the ideas of generality, continuity, law, growth, evolution, representation, and mediation.

Although the categories are omnipresent and cannot be clearly separated in any given phenomenon, there is always a predominance of one of them over the other two, and this predominance can be perceived when the phenomenon is under analysis. That gets very clear when we have before us phenomena of the kind of institutions. Let us take a detailed description of the common features, those features that are always present in the concept of institution. Every institution is a form of social organization, common to all societies. The patterns of behavior which are regulated by institutions (which are institutionalized) deal with some perennial, basic problems of any society. Institutions involve the regulation of behavior of individuals in society according to some definite, continuous, and organized patterns. These patterns involve a definite normative ordering and regulation: that is, regulation is upheld by norms and by sanctions that are legitimized by these norms (Eisenstadt 1968: 409).

In all aspects, institutions are predominatly phenomena of thirdness. From the ontological point of view of the categories, namely, from the point of view of firstness or quality, institutions have the character of laws that govern facts in the future. What are laws in Peirce´s sense? They are general principles to which real events truly conform. By the word conform in this context, we should understand that, if experience shows that a general principle applies to a given event, then the result will be confirmed by experience. Hence, laws are not reducible to the mechanical uniformity between two things, but are rather an influence in the course of development of events in the natural, social or psychological world . Laws determine which results among several possible ones will result (NEM 4:251-2). In the psychosocial world of institutions, such conception of law, corresponds to the aspect of normative ordering and regulation of institutions. They are systems of social roles and norms which regulate behavior in organized patterns.

From the point of view of objects or secondness, the point of view of the existent, all institutions exist as representations, that is, as a place of convergence of problems and interests of social and not individual concern. As such, internally, an institution functions for each individual as a real representative of the collective interests to which that individual is committed. Externally, an institution functions as an entity that represents, for the whole of a society, the interests that it defends, such as religious, educational, political interests etc.

From the point of view of mind or thirdness, institutions are mediations, abstract signs of the kind of thoughts, and thoughts here should be understood as the general ideas about the institution internalized in the mind of its members. Without general and shared ideas the members of an institution would not pursue common objectives. The abstract thoughts that turn a multitude of institutional members into a cohesive unity are responsible for the continuity and permanence of values, without which institutions are bound to die.

Another important topic to be mentioned in respect to Peirce´s categories is that the eventual predominance of one category over the others does mean only a predominance. The others are still present in any phenomenon. Hence, the real and daily existence of an institution in a given society, its interactions and interchanges with other institutions are aspects of secondness, as are, from the point of view of the members of an institution, their investiment of energy, their effort in favor of an institution, the intensity of their commitment to it.

Aspects of firstness can be perceived in what is metaphorically called the social image of an institution, its peculiar quality and value. From the point of view of its members, firstness is in their emotional attachment, and even more indefinite than that, in their feeling of identification to the ideals of an institution without which institutions could not exist.

The gradations of secondness and firstness within thirdness can also guide us to understand some subtle distinctions such as between institutions and associations, and also between these latter and the informal interpersonal exchanges and relations. While an institution with its established forms or procedures of a group activity is more genuinely third, an association, as a group organized to pursue some interests (MacIver and Page apud NEB: 371), is more subjected to the contingential aspects of secondness. Although interpersonal relations are also ruled by cultural conventions, the aspects of firstness, such as affection, attachment, sympathy, hate, fear, love, desire,friendship, perform an important role in them.

The most important topic concerning Peirce´s categories, however, is that they are universal, that is, they are present in any phenomenon of whatever kind. The categorical concepts are extremely general and abstract. As such, they are powerful as means of description but powerless as means of analysis. Peirce himself stated that his category suggest a way of thinking. This is all they pretend to do (CP 1.351). In a further passage he continued with the same idea saying that ‘perhaps it is not right to call the categories conceptions; they are so intangible that they are rather tones or tints upon conception’ (CP 1.353). That is why, for Peirce, phaneroscopy or phenomenology is a quasi-science, just the entrance door of his philosophical architecture. Although the phenomenological categories are a necessary starting point for the analysis of a given phenomenon, the real analytical tools do not come from

them, but from the semiotic concepts.

At this point it should be mentioned that, despite their autonomy and specificity, phenomenology and semiotics are not separated but closely connected. Phenomenology describes phenomena as they appear. The result of this description are the formal and universal categories. Well, the third category corresponds to the notion of the sign. It is the sign. Hence, semiotics is born in the heart of phenomenology. But even more important than that is the fact that Peirce took the notion of the sign so far, he extended that notion so much that to function as a sign something does not need to be inherently triadic. A diadic action or reaction can function as a sign as soon as it meets an interpreter. Even a simple monadic feeling can also function as a sign as soon as it is compared to something else. This extension of the notion of the sign, in a movement of retroaction, reintroduces phenomenology inside semiotics. Not only the third category is semiotic but the second and first are degenerately semiotic. That is why it makes no sense, from the point of view of Peirce´s phenomenological semiotics, to separate the world into two distinct realms: the semiotic world on one side, and the non-semiotic one on the other side.

In sum: when we come to semiotics we are still using the same categorical basis of phenomenology. The difference between them comes from the fact that the semiotic concepts, as they result from the minutest logical analysis, they come to be interconnected sets of very distinctive ideas that may function as powerful tools for the study of any phenomenon as a sign. That means that the above description of institutions as thirdness, without loosing its basic character, can be much more detailed if we apply semiotic concepts to it. As we have no time for that in this occasion, in the following I will limit myself to present briefly what should be the itinerary for a semiotic study of institutions, or better, for a semiotic study of the concept of institution, since the semiotic itinerary for the study of institutions as historical existing entities should be different as much as should be different the semiotic itinerary for the study of the psychological processes of identification of individuals to institutions.

If we have in mind that the simplest form of thirdness is the form of a sign, if we also have in mind my description of institutions as phenomenona of thirdness, the first step for the semiotic study of the concept of institution seems obvious. It is the application of the definition of the sign for analysing the concept of institution.

Let us take, for example, Malinowski´s concept of ‘an institution as a group of people united for a purpose, with an organization or social system, a material culture, and an idea system to carry out this purpose’ (NEB: 371). The similarities of this concept with the logical features of a sign are immediatly evident. As I cannot take the comparison between both much further here, it may be enough to say that the most general character of a sign is its activity directed toward a goal. This process can be consciously purposeful or not. By the way, for Peirce, purpose does not of itself involve consciousness. The basic concept of semiotics is not that of sign but that of semiosis, namely, the action of the sign. Well, the sign action is that of producing an interpretant. The sign´s goal is to be interpreted. The source of this goal is the object of the sign. The sign is bound to be interpreted because it is an emanation of the object which determines the sign and which the sign represents.

The second step for a Peircean study of institutions should be directed toward the examination of institutions in the light of the specific elements of the sign definition, namely, the two kinds of object and the three kinds of interpretant.

The third step in the sequence of this study goes in the direction of a further specification of the definition of the sign. If institutions are phenomena of thirdness, they are necessarily symbolic legisigns. Here, the conventional nature of institutions can be studied together with the patterns of behavior that function as applications or sinsigns of laws and habits.

The nature of the interpretants that symbolic legisigns may produce, such as rhematic, dicent or argumentative would be another sequential step of this proposed study. But when we come to the stage of examining the effective interpretants that institutions may or are bound to produce we are beginning to leave the realm of thirdness and enter into the universe of live institutions, as they exist, as they are embodied. Here the itinerary changes. We move from the dominance of thirdness to secondness. But that would be another story if I had not left behind an idea which still concerns thirdness.

At the beginning of this presentation, we came to two contrasting concepts of institutions. The first concept stresses the structural, stabilizing character of institutions; the second one puts emphasis on the idea of process, innovation. From what has been said, it seems that Peirce´s thirdness can only deal with the first concept. However, when we are aware of Peirce´s understanding of law as a living power connected with the idea of the ultimate interpretant as habit change, here another story really begins. A story that we shall leave for another ocasion.




Borricaud, François (1990). Institutions. In Encyclopaedia Universalis. Corpus 12, ed. by Jean Paul Inceste. Paris, 388-391.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel (1968). Social Institutions. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Volume 14, ed. by David L. Sills. The Macmillan Company & The Free Press, 409-421.

Houser, Nathan et al. (eds.) (1992). The Essential Peirce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Parsons, Talcott (1951 [1970]). The Social System. Free Press.

Peirce, C. S. (1931-58). Collected Papers, Hartshorne, Weiss, and Burks (eds.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

--------------- (1976). The New Elements of Mathematics (NEM). Carolyn Eisele (ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Santaella, Lucia (1992). A Assinatura das Coisas. Peirce e a Literatura. Rio de Janeiro: Imago.

Wallis, Roy (1996). Institutions. In The Social Science Encyclopedia. 2nd Edition, Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper (eds.). London and NY: Routledge, 417-418.