E-Papers >Peirce



Lucia Santaella

São Paulo Catholic University




This paper is an extension of another paper with a similar title, which I published almost two decades ago (Santaella 1986), in Cruzeiro Semiótico, the Portuguese journal of semiotics edited by Norma Tasca. In the previous paper, I presented a general comparison between Peirce´s three universal phenomenological categories (firstness, secondness, thirdness) and Lacan´s three registers, also called conceptual categories of the human reality (the categories of the imaginary, the real and the simbolic).

This comparison was encouraged by at least two facts, on the one hand, the fact that Peirce´s categories are universal, which means that they appear in any phenomenon whatsoever. Even more evident is the presence of the categories when a phenomenon has a triadic nature such as Lacan´s three registers, and before him, Freud´s division of the psychical dynamics into conscious, unconscious and subconscious, in his first topic, later substituted by the division into ego, id and superego in his second topic.

On the other hand, my comparison was encouraged by the fact that Lacan himself declared that the logic that underlies his three registers was influenced by Peirce´s triadic logic. Lacan´s statement runs as follows: "C. S. Peirce constructed a logic of his own. As a result of the emphasis he put on relation, this led him to the creation of a triadic logic. This is the view I am inside when I call those things that are under the name of the simbolic, the imaginary, and the real" (Lacan, apud Balat 1984).

The aim of the present paper is to go some steps further into the comparison between Peirce and Lacan by showing that the logic of the third category which is the logic of the sign can function as a guiding map towards the understanding of the complex interactions that the three registers, the imaginary, the real and the simbolic entertain with each other. This will be preceded by an updated version of the content of the previous paper.


1. Peirce´s universal 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, for example, the mere possibility of quality in itself, let us say, redness, with no relation to anything else, before anything in the world is red. (1.2) Reaction or secondness, that is, the action of actual fact, any event in its hic et nunc, its pure eventness, the fact in itself with no consideration of any causality or any law that might determine it, for example, a stone that falls from a mountain. (1.3). Mediation or thirdness, the being of a law that will govern facts in the future (CP 1.23), any general regulating principle that governs the occurrence of a real event, for instance, law of gravity governing the falling of the stone from the mountain.

From the point of view of Objects or secondness, namely from the point of view of the existent, the categories are: 2.1. qualia, that is, facts of firstness, for example, the sui-generis quality of red in the sky in a given twilight. (2.2) Relations, that is facts of secondness, as the friction on the ground of the stone that fell from the mountain; the relation concerns here the brute polarity, effort of the stone against the resistence of the ground. (2.3). Representation, that is, signs, or facts of thirdness, for instance, the word sky as a sign of the sky, a picture of the sky as a sign of the sky or a painting of the sky as a sign of it.

From the point of view of Mind or thirdness, the categories are: (3.1). feeling or immediate consciousness, that is, signs of firstness, for example, the mere vague and indefinite quality of feeling that the red twilight produces in a certain observer. (3.2) Sensation of a fact, that is, sense of action and reaction, or signs of secondness, for example, being surprised at an unexpected fact. (3.3) Conception or mind itself, that is, sense of learning, or mediation, or signs of thirdness, for instance, this paragraph that I wrote and to which you are listening now (Peirce L75: B8 apud Santaella 1992: 75, Houser et al. 1992: xxvii).

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. Peirce himself stated that his categories 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).

This means that these universal categories do not substitute neither exclude the infinite variety of the other more particular and material categories that can be found in every phenomenon. They are just general ideas that indicate the logical profile within which some classes of ideas are included. Hence, in the category of firstness are included the ideas of chance, originality, spontaneity, possibility, uncertainty, immediacy, presentness, quality, and feeling. In secondness, we find ideas related to polarity, such as brute force, action and reaction, effort and resistence, dependence, conflict, surprise. Thirdness is linked to the ideas of generality, continuity, law, growth, evolution, representation, and mediation.

From this we can conclude that the categories logically underlie the three psychoanalitical registers of the human condition but they are not responsible for the specific content of these registers since this specificity can only come from the field of psychoanalysis. I shall briefly descrive the content of each register before showing their level of correspondence to the phenomenological categories.


2. The three psychoanalytical registers


2.1 The imaginary


The imaginary is the psychical register which corresponds to the ego, whose libidinous investment was called narcissism by Freud. "The ego is just like Narcisus: it loves itself, it loves its own image. An image that it projects on the other. This projection on the other, on the world, is the source of love, of passion, of the desire to be recognized, but it is also the source of aggressiveness and competition" (Quinet 1995: 7). In his "Introduction to Narcissism", Freud (1968: 1083-1096) had already recognized that, at the beginning, there is no unity which is compatible to the ego so that the ego has to be constructed. Basically following Freud´s idea, in his famous text on the mirror stage, Lacan (1971) developed his theory of the constitution of the ego according to the function of the subject in the specular relation.

This stage refers to the interest that, at the age between six and eighteen months, a baby shows towards its image in a mirror. Lacan explained this singular interest of the infant, following Bolks´s idea that the human baby is phisiologically premature by nature, which is the cause of its forsaken situation. The infant experiences an intra organic unconformity. If the infant rejoices at its recognition in the mirror image, this happens because the completeness of the form is an anticipation of this recognition. The image is certainly its own, but at the same time, it is an image of the other, since the baby is in a shortage in relation to the image completeness. Due to this gap, the image, in fact, captures the infant in an overwhelming identification. This led Lacan to the conclusion that the imaginary alienation, that is, the identification to the image of another, is constitutive of the ego. The human development is scanned by ideal identifications (Miller 1977: 16-17).

The constitution of the ego is given during the "mirror stage", that is, from the mirror image, where its identity is captured within a paradoxical game in the oscillation between the self and the other. Master and servant of the imaginary, the ego projects itself onto the images where it is mirrored: imaginary of the nature, imaginary of the body, of the mind, of the social relations. Looking for itself the ego believes to be in the mirror of the others just to be lost in what is not itself. This situation is fundamentally mythical, a metaphor of the human condition, since we are always looking for a completeness which continuously fails to be found, endlessly captured in mirages which stage senses where a sense is at all times missing.

The correspondence of the imaginary with firstness is not difficult to be perceived. Any identification is imaginary on every occasion. To identify is to erase the distinctions between the subject and the object of the identification. It is to dissolve the frontiers that could separate the ego from the other. Because it obliterates distinctions, every identification corresponds to a monadic state, aiming to be total, complete, sufficient in itself. The imaginary is a monad which feeds itself in the mirage of the other, a mirage in the iminence of dissipation and loss. To be the self being the other is an idilic and at the same time a death situation, since one of the poles of this pretense unity is always on the brink of disappearance. This iminence of dissipation is one of the main characteristics of firstness.


2.2 The real


The psychical register of the real cannot be confused with the current notion of reality. For Lacan, the real is that which inevitably remains of the imaginary and which the symbolic is impotent to capture. The real is the impossible. The impossible to be symbolysed and hence that which is impenetrable to the subject of desire to whom reality is entirely of a phantasmatic nature. The real is that before which the imaginary quibles and the simbolic stumbles. It is that which is missing in the symbolic order, the remainings, the rests which cannot be eliminated in every articulation of the signifier. That which can be approximated, but never captured.

Lacan came to recognize that there is not pour l´être parlant any adequacy between the object and its image, between the parts of the body and the image that we can have of it. How can our disordered imagination fullfil its function? How can the imaginary and the real be articulated in the psychical economy of the subject? Well, this breaking point, polarity between the imaginary and the real, between the symbolic and the real corresponds exactly to the category of secondness. The real is always brute and abrupt. It is causation without the govern of the law of the concept. The real resists to the symbolic because it insists, en souffrance, waiting, lurking, to bump into the symbolic.


2.3. The symbolic


The register of the symbolic is the place of the fundamental code of language. It is law, regulated structure without which there could be no culture. Lacan calls it the great Other. The writing of Other with a capital letter was adopted to show that the relation between the subject and the great Other is different from the relation to the small other, that is the other which is reciprocal and simetrical to the imaginary self. Miller (1987: 22) gives us an enlightening presentation of the symbolic in the following passage:

"The Other is the great Other of language that is always already there. It is the Other of the universal discourse, everything that has already been said. It is the Other of Borges library, the total library. It is also the Other of truth, that Other that is a third in relation to every dialogue,[...] it is the Other which is supposed at the moment when someone talks or listens to somebody else. [...] It is the direction of the discourse beyond the person to whom it is addressed. I speak to those who are here, but I also speak to the coherence that I try to sustain.

The correspondence of the symbolic register to thirdness is so obvious to dispense any further discussion. The great Other in all its senses is always a third. It is law, mediation, regulated structure that prescribes the subject.

The above phenomenological analysis of the three psychoanalitical registers exemplify an important characteristic of Peirce´s universal categories. Although these 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 is why firstness, secondness and thirdness can be clearly distinguished in the analysis of the imaginary, the real and the symbolic respectively.


3. The omnipresence of the categories


One important extension that can be derived from the correspondence of the phenomenological categories with the three registers is based on the principle of recursiveness. If the categories are omnipresent, the real and the symbolic should also appear in the register of the imaginary. In the same way, the imaginary and the real should be present in the register of the symbolic, as much as the symbolic and the imaginary should be present in the register of the real.

The imaginary is the psychoanalitical category of the demand for love. The real is the category of sexual drive and the symbolic is the category of desire. The analysis of the demand for love, in fact, reveals that the human demand depends on language, there is no demand for love without language. The human demand is expressed by way of signs, or by that which Lacan called the signifier chain. Alienated in language, the human demand is caught into the infinite displacement of the metonimic chain of desire, that is, the signifier chain of the simbolic. At the same time, the demand for love is harassed by the obscure vicissitudes of sexual drive. Despite the predominance of the demand for love (or firstness) which characterizes it, the imaginary also presents the face of the symbolic (thirdness) and the face of the real (secondness).

Let me analyse the role performed by the symbolic and the imaginary in the register of the real which is under the dominance of sexual drive. The word drive (trieb, in German, a much better word than drive) in itself indicates the great divide between human and animal sexuality. Drive is a necessity that can never be entirely satisfied. Due to the mediation of the symbolic, for human beings there can be no bare necessity, but only the endless circular course of drive. Concerning the role that the imaginary performs in sexual drive, this can be perceived in the fantasy that accompanies the human search for safisfaction.

The register of the symbolic, under the government of desire, is no less triadic than the other two registers. Without the stuffing of the imaginary, the symbolic would be nothing else than an empty, endless, and displacing chain of signifiers. Without the real of the body, it would be nothing else than a desimbodied machinery of patterns and rules.

3. From phenomenology to semiotics


Another extension in the comparison between Lacan´s and Peirce´s concepts can be developed when we advance from Peirce´s phenomenology to his semiotics. 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.

This does not mean that phenomenology and semiotics are separated. On the contrary, they are closely connected, but their differences cannot be neglected. 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. 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.

From this follows my hypothesis that the definition of the sign can provide us with further logical devices for the analysis of the three psychoanalitical registers. According to the triadic logic of the sign, the imaginary, the category of the demand for love, occupies the logical position of the ground of the sign. The real, the category of sexual drive, occupies the logical position of the dynamical object while the symbolic, the category of desire, occupies the logical position of the interpretant. This analysis can be even more detailed when the three kinds of ground, the two kinds of object, immediate and dynamical, and the three kinds of interpretant, immediate, dynamic and final are taken into consideration for the understanding of the imaginary, the real and the symbolic. However, for lack of time, this analysis cannot be accomplished now. It will be left for another occasion. My only hope is that this next occasion will not take more than ten years to arrive.





Balat, Michel (1986). La triade en psychanalyse: Peirce, Freud et Lacan. PhD dissertation. University of Perpignan.


Freud, Sigmund (1968). Obras Completas. Madrid: Ed. Biblioteca Nueva.


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


Lacan, Jacques (1971). El estadio del espejo como formador de la función del yo tal como se nos revela en la experiencia psicoanalítica. In Lectura Estructuralista de Freud, translated by Tomás Segovia, México: Siglo Veinteuno.


Miller, J-A. (1977). Recorrido de Lacan. Argentina: Edited by el Tercer Encuentro del Campo Freudiano.


------------ (1987). Percurso de Lacan. Uma introdução, translated by Ari Roitman. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.


Peirce, C. S. (1931-58). Collected Papers, Hartshorne, Weiss, and Burks (eds.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. MS and L refer to Peirce´s unpublished manuscripts and letters as paginated by the Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism, Lubbock, Texas. W. refers to Writings of Charles S. Peirce. A Chronological Edition, Max Fisch et al. (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


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


--------------- (1992). The Essential Peirce. Volume 1, N. Houser et al. (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Santaella, Lucia (1986) AS três categorias peircianas e os três registros lacanianos. Cruzeiro Semiótico 4, Porto, 25-30.


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