E-Papers >Peirce



Lucia Santaella


There are some statements made by Peirce concerning mind and thought that have been continuously puzzling his interpreters. Among these statements the one that has been much quoted is the following:


Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world; and one can no more deny that it is really there, than that the colors, the shapes, etc., of objects are really there. Consistently adhere to that unwarrantable denial, and you will be driven to some form of idealistic nominalism akin to Fichte's. Not only is thought in the organic world, but it develops there. (CP 4.551)


The first and immediate conclusion that comes to our minds after reading the above apparently awkward passage is that it implies that there is thought in crystals (see Johansen 1993: 190). But Peirce goes even further when he says: "I will define the essence of Mind and the Law of Final Causation, together with its application to non-biological phenomena" (CP 7.374). As this vision of thought and mind not restricted within an anthropological frame is a constant in Peirce's writings especially after 1900, the first step to try and understand what he intends to mean by those two words is to acknowledge that we have to get rid of their conventional meaning and search for the new semantic field in which Peirce has inserted them. The main tracks to accomplish this task may be found in "Philosophy of Mind" (CP 7.362-7. 688). Peirce begins it with a criticism addressed to his contemporary psychologists, but his criticism still holds true to most of the trends of psychology nowadays:

To begin with the psychologists have not yet made it clear what Mind is. I do not mean its substratum; but they have not even made it clear what a psychical phenomenon is. Far less has any notion of mind been established and generally acknowledged which can compare for an instant in distinctness to the dynamical conception of matter. Almost all the psychologists still tell us that mind is consciousness. But to my apprehension Hartman has proved conclusively that unconscious mind exist. What is meant by consciousness is really in itself nothing but feeling. Gay and Hartley (...) thought there may be, and probably is, something of the general nature of feeling almost everywhere, yet feeling in any ascertainable degree is a mere property of protoplasm, perhaps only of nerve matter. Now it so happens that biological organisms, and especially a nervous system are favorably conditioned for exhibiting the phenomena of mind also; and therefore it is not surprising that mind and feeling should be confounded. But I do not believe that psychology can be set to rights until the importance of Hartman's argument is acknowledged, and it is seen that feeling is nothing but the inward aspect of things, while mind on the contrary is essentially an external phenomenon (CP 7.364).


Once again emphazised in the above passage is the enlarged concept of mind so as to be amenable to a broad range of phenomena, in this case, any nervous system. Together with mind, and connected with it, the concept of feeling is also enormously broadened. As it is, the passage is still far from clear. But it is in the two next paragraphs that the enlightening explanations begin to emerge, when consciousness, feeling, and mind are more clearly differentiated.


What the psychologists study is mind, not consciousness exclusively. Their mistake upon this point has had a singularly disastrous result, because consciousness is a very simple thing. Only take care not to make the blunder of supposing that Self-consciousness is meant, and it will be seen that consciousness is nothing but Feeling, in general, --- not feeling in the German sense, but more generally, the immediate element of experience generalized to its utmost. Mind, on the contrary, when you once grasp the truth that it is not consciousness nor proportionate in any way to consciousness, is a very difficult thing to analyze. I am not speaking of Soul, the metaphysical substratum of Mind (if it has any), but of Mind phenomenally understood. To get such a conception of Mind or Mental phenomena, as the science of Dynamics affords of Matter, or material events, is a business which can only be accomplished by resolute scientific investigation. But the psychologists have been prevented from making that investigation by their delusion that Mind is just Consciousness, a simple affair, as far as the mere phenomenon goes, about which there is no room for error or doubt (CP 7.365).


The psychologists say that consciousness is the essential attribute of mind; and that purpose is only a special modification. I hold that purpose, or rather, final causation, of which purpose is the conscious modification, is the essential subject of psychologi sts' own studies; and that consciousness is a special, and not universal, accompanment of mind (CP 7.366).


And here we come to the heart of Peirce's concept of mind: the coextensive concept of final causation. More and more I have come to recognize (Santaella 1992: 77-81, 112-113, and Santaella forthcoming, see also Ransdell 1977: 162) the centrality of final causation for the understanding of the uncommon generalization and abstractness of Peirce's notion of semiosis, which, as far as I can see, is a synonym to the interdependent concepts of mind, thought, intelligence, continuity, life and growth. With the exceptions of the distinguished Peirce scholars Potter (1967), J.Ransdell (see especially 1977, 1981, 1983), T.Short (1981, 1983), besides some passages in Johansen 1993, the role played by final causation in Peirce's mature and late writings on the nature of signs has not received the attention it deserves by the community of his commentators. But very recently Helmut Pape (1993) has published an article where due justice is given to final causation in a brilliant interpretation with which I entirely agree. For Pape, final causality is the general key for the comprehension of the systematic unity of Peirce's philosophy, and it is also the especial key for the understanding of semiosis. "Peirce's general definition of a sign or representamen is the most general description of the internal structure of final causality", he says. And he further adds that "there cannot be a sign process without there being a final cause actively involved in it" (pp. 593-94).

It is true that there is some consensus in Peirce scholarship as for the broad generality of the concept of sign, mind and thought, but the fact that these three concepts are correlated has not been sufficiently stressed. Peirce was clear about this when he said that he used "mind as a synonym for representation", and that "the way in which Mind acts upon matter is by imposing upon it conformity to certain peculiar Laws, called purposes; and the manner of the reaction is that Purposes themselves become modified and developed in being thus carried out"(MS 477: 19). Well, purpose, for Peirce, is a kind of final causation, or better, "it is that form of final cause which is most familiar to our experience" (CP 1.211). In another passage, he says that purpose is the conscious modification of final causation (7.366), what means that final cause is a genre of which purpose is a species. Being broader than purpose which is just the type of final cause most common to us, humans, final cause, mind or thought, may also appear in other sorts of processes not limited to the human or even the biological scope. But these distictions can only be cleared out when we compare final causation with its other pole: efficient causation.




For Peirce, there are two, and no more than two, actions in the whole universe. There is diadic action, which is mechanical or dynamic; and there is triadic action which is intelligent or signic. Diadic action was equated with efficient causation and triadic action with final causation. Peirce also called diadic action by the name of brute causation or even brute force which he defined as follows: "A compulsion determined by the particular condition of things, ... a compulsion acting to make that situation begin to change in a perfectly determinate way; and what the general character of the result may be in no way concerns the efficient causation" (CP 1.212). As it can be seen, the efficient cause is what produces the effect by its own activity, here and now. It is mere secondness. There is nothing general about it. It is brute force or compulsion (Potter 1967: 113).

As I have discussed in another work (Santaella forthcoming), the Aristotelian term "efficient causation" was used by Peirce with certain restrictions, due to the fact that from Hume on there was in it an implicit concept of causation to which Peirce only gave relative acceptation: that is the positivist analysis according to which to say that A is the cause of B is to say that things of type A are always followed by things of type B --- if A occurs therefore B occurs. Peirce's notion of brute causation, on the other hand, is an effectively brute action, blind, non-rational, belonging to the hic et nunc, singular in occasion. The necessity here involved is different from that implicit in the positivist necessity, and comes much closer to the factual compulsion expressed in the Greek word ananke (Ransdell 1983: 46-47).

The examples given by Peirce of blind and brute action, perceptive as much as they are physical, are abundant. Yet this did not lead him to deny that there are real laws, which are final causes. Hence the type of necessity involved in the laws of nature (which differ from the empirical generalizations that we make of these laws) must be analyzed in the light of the concept of tendenciality, final causation, in the realm of the third category, that is, generality, continuity, time, change and evolution, or better, semiosis. On the other hand, cases of necessity in the laws of nature, which can be expressed in propositions of the type "If A, then B" must be seen as cases at the limit of a tendency, cases in which the tendency is already completely rigid, very little open to the interference of chance and very little subject to chance. The explanation provided by Pape (1993: 589-90) about this latter case is especially clear:


... it follows from [this] analysis that the laws of classical mechanics are not laws of nature at all. Indeed, Peirce stressed repeatedly that they are merely formulas. Correspondingly, mechanical forces are not causes in the strict sense, because "... one may reasonably object to saying that a mechanical force is cause of motion, instead of calling it the time slope of a motion" (MS 1343: 29). In the case of action as it is described by classical mechanics the final state of a system is completely due to an isomorphic transformation of what was given in terms of initial positions of the particles into the final configuration of positions. For every one initial configuration of particles and distribution of forces there is exactly one way the final state is produced by the correlated accelerations of the particles. In the case of mechanical action it makes no sense to speak of a definite end that had to be reached in a number of different ways.


Quite different from the rigidity described above, the Peircean concept of law as "living power" (Potter 1967) may be translated as the tendenciality of the universe to acquire new habits, which can only be understood in the light of the concept of final causation, the action of the sign, intelligent action. Things being thus, the inflexible law, expressed within the positivist conception of law, is only the case at the limit of a tendenciality which has lost its freshness. Brute causation, on the other hand, is not to be confused with this rigidity. It only concerns the singular instant in which brute force acts blindly. On this hic et nunc intelligent action depends to put itself into practice. But before analyzing the interrelations between these two kinds of actions, let us have a deeper look at final causation in itself. It means


...that mode of bringing facts about according to which a general description of result is made to come about, quite irrespective of any compulsion for it to come about in this or that particular way; although the means may be adapted to the end. The general result may be brought about at one time in one way, and at another in another way. Final causation does not determine in what particular way it is to be brought about, but only that the result shall have a certain general character (CP 1.211).


Final causation is, therefore, the type of causation which is exercised by laws as opposed to "forces". It is logical causation, the causation of mind (CP 1.250).


Mind has its universal mode of action, namely, by final causation. The microscopist looks to see whether the motions of a litlle creature show any purpose. If so, there is mind there. Passing from the litlle to the large, natural selection is the theory of how forms come to be adaptative, that is, to be governed by a quasi purpose. It suggests a machinery of efficiency to bring about the end --- a machinery inadequate perhaps --- yet which must contribute some help toward the result. But the being governed by a purpose or other final cause is the very essence of the psychical phenomenon in general (CP 1.269).


According to Potter's comments (1967: 118-19), Peirce identifies the nature of law with the nature of end or final cause. Wherever there is law, regularity, real potentiality, there is mind, reason, rationality, and they do not necessarily suppose consciousness, but only knowledge embodied in some form. Purpose and more particularly, human purpose, is only one kind of final cause, the one "most familiar to our experience", because final causation in general implies any kind of goal directed activity, so that mind, reason, and intelligence, for Peirce, may be embodied in other forms or processes which are not necessarily human. Ransdell (1977: 163) adds that final cause is the overall form of a process, it is the tendency toward an end-state, and "the general features of such a tendency in whatever medium the process may be realized". Moreover, he completes, "the idea that living processes exemplify some such form is widely recognized nowadays under other and more acceptable labels, such as `cybernetics' and `homeostasis'.

The aspect of highest originality in Peirce's conception of final cause, however, is that final causality does not preclude efficient causation. On the contrary: both are compatible to the extent that the final causational form of any process can only be realized through efficient causation, what implies that being goal directed does not mean that such a process is separated from the mere physical aspect. It rather means that the former depends on the brute and physical force for its realization. Although they are distinct types of action, one is diadic --- blind, the other is triadic --- intelligent, they are not separable. Peirce said that "final causality cannot be imagined without efficient causality; but no whit the less on that account are their modes of action polar contraries" (CP 1.213). Potter's (1967: 115) comments on an illustration given by Peirce are worthwhile quoting:


If you took a a corpse and dissected it very carefully, separated all the various systems of the anatomy and hung then in a cabinet, one superimposed over the other, so that each appeared to be in its proper place, this would be a very instructive specimen, but nobody would dream of calling it a man (CP 1.220). What is missing is the final causation, the unit of parts, "which is what characterizes the definitum". Final causation is what organizes the parts in a particular way, what gives them life and direction. Final causation is more than the mere sum of the parts --- merely putting back all the dissected members of the corpse does not yield the man (nor the corpse for that matter!). Thus, while final causation without efficient causation is helpless, "efficient causation without final causation ... is worse than helpless, by far; it is mere chaos; and chaos is not even so much as chaos, without final causation; it is blank nothing" (CP 1.220).


Although I do not want to let it without notice how nearly this last passage echoes another of Peirce's statement that "the universe is perfused with signs", to pursue this subject further would drive us to a different direction from the one that was designed for this paper. In order to ascertain this intended direction it is necessary to stress that Peirce not only clarified the types of relation that efficient and final causation intertain with each other, but he also discussed all the subtle gradations that range from brute to final causatily up to the most complex forms of this latter one. This appears especially in MS 1343, which was thoroughly examined by Pape (1993), who presents detailed analysis of each of the following degress: mechanical action, a comparison between purposeless with a quasi-purposeful action, action governed by mind where the exercise of mind is as stupid as possible, a comparison with quasi-intelligent systems to animal intelligence up to fully intelligent systems. Having this is mind, we can now pass to another sort of discussion meant to bring Peirce's ideas about final causality into dialogue with the contemporary debate on the sciences.




To sum up the notions that were presented above, it should be retained that when one speaks of intelligent action in the context of Peirce's thought, one should not understand the adjective within anthropocentric limits. Semiosis, or the action of the sign, is the general technical term, used to cover the semantic field of terms such as intelligence, mind, thought --- which are not just the privilege of humankind. Wherever there may be a tendency to learn, toward self-correction processes, changes of habit, wherever there may be goal directed actions, there there will be intelligence, wherever it may occur: in the pollen-grain which fertilizes the ovule of a plant (W 1: 333), in the flight of a bird, in the immunological system, in the perversity of the unconscious, or in human reason. Thus it is that final causality has to be interpreted side by side with cybernetic concepts (such as feedback), biological concepts (such as morphogenesis, teleonomy, autopoiesis), or even natural concepts (such as dissipative structures, self-organizing systems) (Short 1983, Ransdell 1983).

Like Aristotle, Peirce did not limit final causation to conscious processes, nor did he take it as being actual, but as a general type. Once again, like Aristotle he considered the processes of final causation to be observable, and he did not think them able to act without the cooperation of efficient causes. Unlike Aristotle, however, he did not attribute the influence of final causes to perfection, nor to good, nor to the pure and primaeval source of activity (Short 1981: 369-71). As Pape (1993: 603, n.3) precisely points out:


The difference between Peirce and Aristotle ultimately depends on Peirce's insight, which he was first in history to formulate, that the possibility of irreversibe developments of chance distributions is a necessary condition for all kinds of final causes, including purposes even if they are chosen because of their goodness.


Therefore, we may conclude that Peirce lost no time beating around the bush: he limited himself to a description of a logical process, the process of action of the sign (formally and technically expressed in his innumerable definitions of the sign). What we have to bear in mind is that there is nothing exclusively anthropological about this, and it is capable of describing biological and even physical processes of any and every sort, irreversible and with an asymptotic tendency toward the finalization of a state of things (see Emmeche 1991, Hoffmeyer and Emmeche 1991) If it is not potential good which moves these processes, then what does guide them? Peirce's reply began with the analysis ot non-conservative actions. statement that efficient causation (force) is incapable of explaining irreversibility.


Those non-conservative actions which seem to violate the law of energy, and which physics explains away as due to chance-action among trillions of molecules, are one and all marked by two characters. The first is that they act in one determined direction and tend asymptotically toward bringing about an ultimate state of things. If teleological is too strong a word to apply to them, we might invent the word finious, to express their tendency toward a final state. The other character of non-conservative actions is that they are irreversible (CP 7.471)

Then he proceeded with the recognition that efficient causation (force) is incapable of explaining irreversibility. "Uncertain tendencies, unstable states of equilibrium are conditions sine qua non for the manifestation of Mind", he said (CP 7.381), coming to the conclusion that only a general type of self-reproductive nature would be capable of governing the actualization of particulars. This is what he called law, mind or intelligent, signic action. The ways through which particulars are actualized under the power of this action can vary enormously, but the process guided toward an end, which governs them has one single logical basis. This basis is that of triadic action which, even in its most rudimentary forms, shows at least a drop of intelligence. It is invariably the tendency of a process to arrive at a result of a certain general type.

It is probable that every sign action has something of the anthropomorphic, insofar that it always involves causation through abstractions or general formations, the typical form of which is found in the self-control which the human mind is able to exercize over behavior. But what we have here is quite simply one of the typical forms of final causation, and not its exclusive form. Hence the liberalization through which Peirce caused the terms `mind', `intelligence', and `thought' to pass,to make evident the continuity which exists between human mind and other processes moved by a purpose; these exhibit some form of mentality, and include (among others) the behavior of micro-organisms, biological evolution, and even the growth of crystals. This postulation is perfectly in tune with today's theory of dissipative structures, developed by Prigogine and Stengers (1984), whereby the final causation lies in the tendency toward oder which Prigogine finds even in rudimentary types of chemical reactions.

The differences in degree between the processes of causation depends on a self-control, greater or lesser but always relative, which may be exercised over the final result. It is thus that the processes may be guided at one and the same time by self-correction, choice and chance. The recognition of objective chance as having an essential part to play in the process, and the consequent possibility of the occurrence of errors, reduces the determination of final causation, but only on the nature of the result; it does not interfere in the ways by which the result may be achieved. Chance, pure possibility, and brute or dynamic action, mediated by a general principle, a guiding principle, uniting the first infinite, chance, with the second infinite, blind action, constitutes the triad within which final causation moves.

As it can be seen, Peirce's concept of mind is very broad and liberal. But it is exactly this liberalization that would put his concept in tune with some of the most recent concernings in physics, biology and artificial intelligence. The basic logical model of semiosis, which is expressed in the definition of the sign is not only a model for the description of mind, thought, intelligence, continuity, and growth. It is also consequentially a model for the understanding of evolution, since Peirce believed that evolutionary processes in general are manifestations of mind, understood in the enlarged sense he envisioned for this word. What sounded as apparently odd and absurd at his own time, is exactly that which is sounding as the most actual in the contemporary debate of renewed ideas.





Hoffmeyer Jesper e C. Emmeche (1991). Code-Duality and the Semiotics of Nature. Em On Semiotic Modeling, Anderson and Merrell (eds.). Mouton de Gruyter, 117-166.

Johansen, J.Dines (1993). Dialogic Semiosis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pape, Helmut (1993). Final Causality in Peirce's Semiotic and the Classification of the Sciences. Transactions of the Charles S.Peirce Society, Vol.XXIX, n.4, 581-607.


Peirce, C.S. (1931-1958). Collected Papers. Hartshorne, Weiss and Burks (eds.). Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press. MS refers to the unpublished manuscripts as paginated by ISP, Texas.

Potter, V. (1967). Charles S. Peirce. On norms and ideals. The University of Massachusetts Press.

Ransdell, J. (1977). Some Leading Ideas of Peirce's Semiotic. Semiotica 19:3/4, 157-178.

-------------- (1981). Semiotic Causation. A Partial Explication. Proceedings of the C.S.Peirce Bicentennial Congress, K.L.Ketner et al. (eds.), Lubbock, Texas.

------------- (1983). Peircean Semiotics. Draft of a work in progress.

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

---------------------- (forthcoming). Semiosphere: The Growth of Signs.

Short, Thomas (1981). Peirce's Concept of Final Causation. Transactions of the Charles S.Peirce Society, Fall 1981, 368-82.

-------------- (1983). Teleology in Nature. American Philosophical Quarterly 20, n.4, 311-319.