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Mats Bergman

Productive Signs: Improving the Prospects of Peirces Rhetoric1


Abstract
Studies of C. S. Peirces theory of signs have typically focused on the subdisciplines he branded grammar and critic, with comparably little attention
paid to the third semiotic branch, that is, to the line of inquiry he identified as
rhetoric or methodeutic. However, Peirces elevation of rhetoric to the status of
the highest division of logic should not be ignored; the future prospects of his
sign-theoretical project are arguably closely tied to the conceptualisation and
development of the third branch. This article traces the development of
Peirces rhetoric and explores the tension between the rhetorical and
methodeutic perspectives in his mature theory of signs, with the aim of
preparing the way for a re-evaluation of the hierarchy of sign-theoretical
disciplines. The article concludes with a sketch for a rhetorical approach to
Peircean sign theory.
KEYWORDS: Charles S. Peirce, Rhetoric, Methodeutic, Grammar,
Anthropomorphism
Introduction
Although Peirce, somewhat modestly, characterised himself as a pioneer of the
coming science of semiotics,2 there is still much to consider in his contributions
to and proposals for this line of study. Arguably, we have not yet caught up with
Peirce in all respects. As new studies of Peirces contributions emerge, there is a
growing appreciation not only of the part of the system he completed, but also
of the many possible paths of study he began clearing but did not fully explore.
One of these proposals, which I feel may not have been assessed as thoroughly
as it should, is Peirces claim or suggestion that rhetoric is the highest and most
living branch of logic (c. 1895: CP 2.333). Studies of Peirces semiotics that is,
1

Paper Presented at the 31st Annual Meeting of the Semiotic Society of America, 2006
Many Peircean semioticians prefer the name semeiotic, and dismiss the more common term
semiotics. The validity of this choice and the accompanying criticism of the word semiotics is
debatable (see Deely 2003). Also, contrary to an oft-repeated claim, Peirce uses semiotics at
least once in his writings. Here, I opt for semiotics, as there is no need to distinguish Peirces
theory from other semiotic points of view in this context. Semeiotic can be useful as a marker of
an explicitly Peircean approach, to clearly indicate its divergence from the semiological tradition
stemming from Ferdinand de Saussure.
2

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his logic in the broad sense have typically focused on the sub-disciplines he
branded grammar and critic, with comparably little attention paid to his third
semiotic study, that is, to the line of inquiry he identified as rhetoric or
methodeutic.
This emphasis is partly understandable in view of the fact that Peirces
writings on explicitly rhetorical issues tend to be sparse and mostly
programmatic. Yet, the usual reaction to his proposal has been a rather halfhearted acknowledgment, if not outright neglect; the centre of the Peircean
semioticians interest has primarily been grammar, as displayed by the attention
to formal relations and the taxonomy of signs. This focus is unquestionably easily
defended; there is no denying that Peirce himself finds the organization of sign
types to be one of the major tasks of semiotics. Nor do I mean to claim that there
would not have been an impressive amount of work, classifiable as semiotic
rhetoric in Peirces sense, done after his death. Furthermore, if I am not
mistaken, it is possible to discern a growing, explicit interest in Peircean rhetoric
at the moment. I have in mind recent efforts by Vincent Colapietro (2006), James
Liszka (1996; 2000), and Lucia Santaella (1999), for instance. But in spite of all
this, it would be an exaggeration to proclaim the existence of a current rhetorical
trend within Peircean semiotics.
In this article, I aim to make a couple of small contributions to the
discussion of Peirces rhetoric. Mainly, I wish to argue that we should take
Peirces elevation of rhetoric to the status of the highest branch of logic very
seriously indeed, not least because it may have significant consequences for his
semiotic project and its future viability. I wish to review the relationship between
grammar and rhetoric, and argue that certain changes in Peirces later semiotics
(which Colapietro [2006] has recently dubbed Peirces rhetorical turn) calls for
a reconsideration of the hierarchical outlook that straightforwardly prioritises
grammar over rhetoric.

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Conceptions of Rhetoric
Before considering the role of rhetoric in Peircean semiotics, it is useful to
consider how Peirce presents it as a part of the hierarchy of sciences. As so many
questions regarding Peirces semiotic project, his division of semiotics into three
branches involves many complex questions. Here, matters can be simplified by
focusing on two different conceptions of the field of the philosophical study of
signs, connected with his early and late semiotic phases.
The first recorded appearance of the term semiotic in Peirces writings
merely states that logic is a species of symbolistic, which in its turn is a branch
of semiotic, the general science of representations. For the young Peirce, logic
is not a synonym for the doctrine of signs, but rather the branch of the semiotics
of symbols that examines the relations of symbolic representations to their
objects (1865b: W 1:303). He does not pay much attention to the other parts of
semiotics. We are told that there is a science of copies and a science of signs,3
which accompany the science of symbols, and that symbolistic is divided into
grammar, rhetoric, and logic (see fig. 1); but only the logical part of semiotics is
described in any detail.

By signs, Peirce in this context means the kind of representations later named indices.
Copy is an early name for icon.

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Figure 1. Peirces classification of the sciences in Teleological Logic (1865b).

Peirces characterisation of the science of representations in his youthful writings


is rather meagre; it is not possible to form any detailed conception of its scope
and content. Nonetheless, some general features of the proposed domain of
inquiry may be discerned. In the first place, Peirces early attention to the science
of semiotics follows from an endeavour to find a definition of logic that would
avoid the pitfalls of psychologism (1865c: W 1:308). Thus, it is evident that the
representations, which the various branches of semiotic study, are not to be
explicated by an examination of the actual workings of the human mind.
The unpsychologistic emphasis is a pervasive feature of Peirces semiotics,
early and late alike. In addition, the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric can
also be found in his mature sign-theoretical writings. However, one of the
interesting traits of Peirces first efforts to characterise semiotic inquiry is that
they indicate that he was not originally all that interested in the study of all kinds
of signs; rather, what he was looking for in his earliest classification of semiotics
was a way to delimit the domain of logic, or the study of how symbols can stand
truthfully for their objects.
Nevertheless, Peirce does offer some attempts to characterise the tasks of
the different branches of symbolistic in his early writings. In Teleological Logic,
he asserts that the science of the general conditions to which every symbol is
subjected in so far as it is related to a logos is General Grammar, to a language is
General Rhetoric, to an Object is General Logic (1865b: W 1:304). In another
passage from the same period, Peirce describes the task of rhetoric as that of
investigating the laws of a symbol translating anything (1865a: W 1:274).
Now, when one turns to Peirces later writings, at least one major change
in his conception of the semiotic sciences that affects the scope of rhetoric may
be discerned. The in-between level consisting of the science of copies, the
science of signs, and symbolistic is removed. In his mature semiotics, Peirce

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actually divides logic into the three sub-disciplines or branches of grammar,


critic, and rhetoric or methodeutic.
This is related to the relatively well-known fact that Peirce changes his
mind about the relationship between semiotics and logic as his thought
develops. Whereas the young Peirce strives to carve a place for logic within the
part of semiotics he calls symbolistic, the older Peirce conceives of logic as
semiotics; and this is to include grammar and rhetoric as well as logic in the
narrow sense, or critic as Peirce most often calls the second branch of semiotics.

The term logic is unscientifically by me employed in two distinct senses.


In its narrower sense, it is the science of the necessary conditions of the
attainment of truth. In its broader sense, it is the science of the necessary
laws of thought, or, still better (thought always taking place by means of
signs), it is general semeiotic. (c. 1897a: CP 1.444)

Peirce now argues that as long as every logical relation is a semiotic relation
(which he naturally holds it to be), then the deeper comprehension of logic
requires an understanding of all forms of signs and their functions. Consequently,
he urges logicians to widen the scope of their research. Peirce even asserts that
the broader investigation is part of the duties of the logician (1909a: MS 640.10).

Logic (Semiotic)

Grammar (Syntax)

Critic (Logic in

Rhetoric / Methodeutic

the Narrow Sense)

Figure 2. Peirces Division of Logic in His Later Philosophy

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There are many motives behind this expansion, some explicitly states while
others are not, but for our purposes here three reasons are particularly striking.
Firstly, it is clear that Peirces mature conception of logic as semiotics entails that
grammar, critic, and rhetoric are not to be restricted to the study of symbols
that is, to habitual or conventional signs. They are to be concerned iconic and
indexical representations as well (1909b: SS 118). Secondly, the logician should
not restrict him- or herself to the representation of objects, as the young Peirce
proposed. In fact, logic traditionally deals with such things as definition and
signification, which are more matters of the interpretant than the object in
Peirces view (1909b: SS 118). As we have seen, already in his early studies,
Peirce suggests that rhetoric is particularly focused on the interpretant; in the
later phase, the realisation that many of the tasks of the logician are more
matters of sign-interpretant relations than of sign-object relations become a
reason to expand the scope of logic to include rhetoric. Finally, in an almost
pragmatic spirit Peirce states that the extension is needed for linguistic and
rhetorical applications (1904a: MS 693.188-190). This indicates that one reason
for facilitating productive connections between logic and other pursuits. Perhaps
it is not so odd, after all, that Peirce, the staunch defender of an unpsychological
conception of logic, suggests that the borderline between logic and psychology
need not be so strictly drawn when we come to rhetoric, the third branch (c.
1902: CP 2.107).

Rhetoric vs. Methodeutic


So far, our examination of changes in Peirces philosophy has suggested that the
importance of rhetoric grows when we move from the early logical writings to
the mature conception of logic as semeiotic. However, there are two features
of his thought that seem to limit the scope and prospects of semiotic rhetoric.
Firstly, Peirce apparently wishes to find a more clearly defined and delimited
function for the third branch as methodology. Secondly, his continued allegiance
to a certain hierarchical vision of the sciences may hinder an appreciation to the

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dual position of the rhetorical domain as the starting point as well as the
concluding field of semiotic studies.
In his later writings, Peirce first employs the term rhetoric, and defines it
as the study of the necessary conditions of the transmission of meaning by signs
from mind to mind, and from one state of mind to another (c. 1896: CP 1.444).
The task of rhetoric is to ascertain the laws by which in every scientific
intelligence one sign gives birth to another, and especially one thought brings
forth another (c. 1897b: CP 2.229). As such, the emphasis of rhetoric would
naturally be on interpretation and other semiotic effects. This conception does
not seem to differ radically from that presented in Peirces early writings, apart
from the significant divergence in scope noted above.
However, approximately in 1902, the focus of the third sub-discipline of
semiotics begins to turn toward methodological matters, something that is
reflected in Peirces new preferred name, methodeutic (see Peirce 1906: CP
4.9). The occurrence of this shift can be seen quite concretely in Minute Logic,
where the two terms still co-exist, albeit somewhat uneasily.4 About a year later,
the matter appears settled. From there on, the third sub-discipline is
predominantly defined in terms of the principles of the production of valuable
courses of research and exposition (1903a: EP 2:272).
Thus, it would appear that Peirce has replaced rhetoric with the betterdefined methodeutic, at the same time restricting its scope to the study of
effective methods. Some scholars have drawn this very conclusion; for instance,
according to Santaella (1999: 380), the third branch of semiotics develops from a
narrow to a broad sense. However, at roughly the same time as this
transformation takes place, Peirce also continues to write on rhetoric, and even
proposes a quite intricate scheme of various rhetorical studies in Ideas, Stray or
Stolen, about Scientific Writing (1904b). In this context, Peirce defines the third
branch of semiotics as the science of the essential conditions under which a sign

In one variant of the text, Peirce explicitly states that he prefers "Speculative Rhetoric" over
"Methodeutic" or "Methodology"; but in other drafts, methodeutic is used.

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may determine an interpretant sign of itself and of whatever it signifies, or may,


as a sign, bring about a physical result (1904b: EP 2:326).
In Ideas, Stray or Stolen Peirce suggests that rhetoric could be divided
into the rhetoric of art, the rhetoric of persuasion, and the rhetoric of science
(see Peirce 1904b: EP 2:329). This, in turn, could be interpreted to imply that
methodeutic is a part of rhetoric, namely the rhetoric of science.
Some reconstructive work seems to be needed. Joseph Ransdell
enumerates three principal functions of the third semiotic discipline; it can be
conceived variously as the general methodology of inquiry, as a theory about
how beliefs are established when truth is sought, or as a theory about the
representational process considered as an autonomous interpretant-generating
process (Ransdell 1997: 19). The autonomy claim is somewhat controversial,
but if we speak more broadly about a theory of interpretant generation and
communication, then Ransdells summary should be acceptable to all parties.
Taking rhetoric as an umbrella term, Liszka (2000: 470) argues that
rhetoric as speculative rhetoric (i.e., as an account of the conditions of
communication and the fixation of belief) and rhetoric as methodeutic (i.e., as a
systematic procedure for inquiry and for the systematisation of the sciences) are
reconcilable within scientific rhetoric, which works to underscore the formal
conditions of inquiry as a practice, including its presuppositions, purposes,
principles, and procedures. Apart from certain doubts that could be entertained
concerning the aptness of the term formal conditions in this context, 5 Liszkas
proposal offers a good summary of the scope of Peirces rhetoric. It retains the
notion that the study of communication is an integral part of semiotics, while at
the same time paying due heed to the scientific setting of Peirces project. At any
rate, it seems apposite to retain rhetoric as a broader category, not least because
of the possibility of pursuing a debate between Peirces semiotically charged
rhetoric and other conceptions of rhetorical inquiry.

Admittedly, Peirce sometimes describes the third logical science in such terms, but it might be
more appropriate to use theoretical or even speculative rather than formal to avoid
confusions. Moreover, it is advisable not to read conditions in a strong transcendental sense.

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Anthropomorphic Perspectives and Rhetorical Evidence


The second difficulty facing a re-evaluation of the role of rhetoric in Peirces
semiotic approach may prove more challenging and controversial. The
hierarchical point of view that permeates much of Peirces writings on the
sciences also seems to affect his conception of semiotics; clearly, he often
suggests the straightforward priority of grammar in relation to rhetoric, which
can be taken as an indication that the precarious study of rhetoric should build
on a firmer groundwork of grammar (which builds on more fundamental studies
such as mathematics and phaneroscopy).
What is problematic about such a perspective? It seems quite natural that
a grammar of signs would scientifically speaking precede the study of the use of
signs. Certainly, this is the way the division of labour has been set up in most
conceptions of syntax and pragmatics, beginning with Charles Morris (1938) and
Rudolf Carnap (1946), at least. Indeed, from a certain point of view, grammar is
to be given priority over rhetoric namely, in the sense that grammatical studies
can provide rhetorical inquiry with concepts and principles. Yet, it is important to
take this hierarchy in the right spirit: as a heuristic model of use for furthering
systematic inquiry, but not necessarily as the whole truth of the matter. A
grammar that operates in a magisterial fashion, producing elaborate systematic
structures while ignoring all questions of their applicability (a task for lesser
disciplines), is in danger of turning into a mere glass-bead game an a priori
pastime for detached intellectuals. In spite of its principled rigour, such semiotic
constructions can begin to crumble when faced with the question of upon what
base the edifice is supposed to stand or how to motivate its abstract forms and
concepts.
With the risk of building up straw men, it could be claimed that too much
of the semiotics done in a Peircean mould just accepts certain premises, and
then presents the whole theory as formally as possible, or quasi-deductively. This

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may limit the broader appeal and possibly even hamper the future usefulness of
Peirces semiotics.
The alternative path which may be viewed as a rhetorical approach into
the Peircean science of signs is to place the emphasis on those parts of Peirces
semiotics in which he not only suggests that the theory is an abstraction from
actual practices, but also derives central conceptions, such as object and
interpretant, from ordinary sign use, such as communication (e.g., Peirce 1907;
cf. Bergman 2003; 2004; 2005).
In his criticism of the Hegelians, Peirce maintains that philosophers must
not begin by talking of pure ideas, vagabond thoughts that tramp the public
roads without any human habituation, but must begin with men and their
conversation (c. 1900: CP 8.112). The point here is not that we should restrict
ourselves to signs in our minds in a nominalistic spirit, nor make a sop to
Cerberus, but rather that it is healthy to acknowledge that what we know of
signs and how they work in the world is based on what we know of the ways of
such signs that we are most familiar with and signs in communication seem to
be pre-eminently important in this regard. As Peirce puts the matter, we ought
not to think that what are signs to us are the only signs; but we have to judge
signs in general by these (c. 1903: NEM 4:297).
This suggestion may raise an eyebrow or two. A formalistic semiotician,
who embraces Peirces un-psychologistic programme, might find this contention
perilous; almost inevitably, it will lead to an anthropomorphic conception of
semiotics. That is, the properties of certain human signs are taken to be
characteristics of all signs, without any logical guarantee of the validity of the
generalisation. Adherents of biosemiotics (or more radical variants of universal
semiotics) may be equally appalled by this unexpected emphasis on the human
sphere. At the other end of the scale, humanistic thinkers could fault Peirce for
expanding the boundaries of semiotics beyond its proper human habitat, that is,
for not being anthropocentric enough.

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Peirces reply to such worries is worth quoting:

If I were to attach a definite meaning to anthropomorphism, I should


think it stood to reason that a man could not have any idea that was not
anthropomorphic, and that it was simply to repeat the error of Kant to
attempt to escape anthropomorphism. At the same time, I am confident a
man can pretty well understand the thoughts of his horse, his jocose
parrot, and his canary-bird, so full of espiglerie; and though his
representation of those thoughts must, I suppose, be more or less falsified
by anthropomorphism, yet that there is a good deal more truth than falsity
in them, and more than if he were to attempt the impossible task of
eliminating anthropomorphism, I am for the present sufficiently convinced.
(c. 1906: NEM 4:313)

In other words, the attempt to escape anthropomorphism will lead to the


postulation of things-in-themselves, beyond human reach. Peirce, who so
vehemently opposes psychologism in logic, surprisingly concludes that we can
know only the human aspect of the universe (1911: SS 141). In Pragmatism
(MS 291), Peirce claims that man is so completely hemmed in by the bounds of
his possible practical experience, his mind is so restricted to being the instrument
of his needs, that he cannot, in the least, mean anything that transcends those
limits (c. 1905: CP 5.536). This human-centred stance (as we might say for a lack
of a better term) does not lead to an absolute separation between the fields of
human mind and nature.
Furthermore, in a suggestive passage, Peirce indicates that grammar needs
to employ so-called rhetorical evidence that is, inferences drawn from our
commonplace experiences of assertions. This evidential base is formally
imperfect. Yet, it does not only provide the initial material for the inquiry, but
also constitutes the testing ground for the systematically developed analysis (c.
1895: CP 2.333). All this fits nicely with Peirces oft-repeated claim that

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philosophy ought to be based on common, everyday experience; in this dynamic


field, from which all semiotic abstractions emerge, ordinary communicative
exchanges in all their complexity are the most full-blooded semiotic
phenomena available.
This indicates that grammar must, in certain respects, lean on rhetorical
considerations which, in turn, suggests that the relationship between grammar
and rhetoric is not to be construed as a straightforward hierarchy, in which
grammarians, oblivious to the interests and worries of rhetoricians, pursue their
studies in an a priori manner, eventually handing over principles and concepts to
the lower order. The picture that begins to emerge is more multifaceted,
involving a continuous give and take between the two modes of semiotic inquiry,
and perhaps casting some doubt on the validity of pure semiotic grammar (if
such a thing is even conceivable).
Even so, the reassessment of the relationship between the semiotic
disciplines should be performed with care. While the proposal calls for a partial
overturn of old priorities, it is nonetheless not a call for an unstructured
discipline without distinctions and divisions of labour. There is certainly the
danger that we might end up in a situation in which grammar and rhetoric
support each other, like two drunken sailors (1903b: CP 8.167). The challenge
here is to find a reasonable balance, which not only avoids a vicious circle but
also provides the whole project of Peircean grammar with a rhetorical
motivation.
Nor does all this mean that we should simply turn the tables and proclaim
the dominance of rhetoric, somewhat like the renaissance humanists or some
20th century proponents of rhetoric have wanted to do. On the contrary, it is
possible to retain grammar as a quasi-formal doctrine of signs. The only thing
that the emphasis on the rhetorical approach necessitates is a healthy check on
formalistic tendencies. That is, it acts as a reminder of the fact that even the
most elegant and well-ordered semiotic concepts, classifications and theories are
abstractions from sign use, and not least that they must also stand the

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pragmatic test of possible application in rhetorical studies. From one point of


view albeit an admittedly narrow and incomplete one rhetoric is the
beginning and end of semiotics; grammar is a means for improving our rhetorical
practices, that is, our habits of communication and methodeutic of inquiry.

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