Information / Communication
The quest for a semeiotic theory of information and communication
Peirce was arguably the first scientist ever to deal with the concept of information in a systematic manner. As early as 1865, he defined information as third logical quantity of symbols, in addition to denotation (extension, or also breadth) and connotation (comprehension, or also depth). During his half century of philosophical production, Peirce’s understanding of symbol evolved from a Kantian and quasi-nominalistic approach of his youth to an extreme realist position in his late writings. As one should expect, his conception of information followed this evolution pari passu. If in the early stages of his research information is considered a quantity connected only to logical terms, in the late writings information is modally understood as real possibility that Peirce often dubs as “would-be”, a formal but real and probabilistic disposition that, although habitual, maintains its vagueness and indefiniteness in a way that no multitude of instantiations can wear out its power to determine new effects in the possible future.
Around 1905, the sign is sometimes defined as the medium for the communication of these “forms”, and Universal Rhetoric is proposed as a generalized theory of communication that goes beyond traditional syllogism to propose reasoning as a dialogic production of meaning similar to a knowledge-game where information is outcome. What Peirce’s doctrine of communication could mean still waits to be fully understood, let alone accepted, because it deeply connected to his late metaphysical hypothesis. The best way to start clearing the mist around Peirce’s idea of communication is by evoking his pragmatic method. The meaning of “communication” should then be defined by the types of consequences that its adoption and uses would produce in reality if adopted by a community.
Central to Peirce’s pragmatism is that a concept depends on a shared belief about its power to influence future thoughts and actions. So the meaning of “communication” is grounded on a diffused habit of communicating among members of a community whenever they believe that doing so is the best way to solve their practical matters and store knowledge about the lessons taught by experience. “Communication” will then be taken here to be the antonymous of disharmony and conflict – be it a friction the external world against the internal beliefs (doubts), or a conflict among members as they try to coordinate their resources and vitality to survive and thrive in the most intelligent and effective way.
The ultimate aim of communication is to bring conflict to peace within oneself as individual and/or among members of a community as they struggle to live and thrive in a world that at the same time offers the possibilities and the difficulties of survival. The difficulty about this definition is that it dwells in a logical loop: we need to communicate to produce a common ground about the very meaning of the concept “communication”. If we want a scientific definition, we cannot give it a priori or impose one by any sort of hard nose opinion. It must gradually emerge and consolidate as the result of our own experiences and dialogues on the subject, in a way to gradually converge our opinions about it. We must communicate and reflect about “communication” to develop our understanding about it. It should be a science interested in inquiring about how general meaning about the real is produced from our limited individual experiences.
Unfortunately, Communication Studies have taken a different path since its first steps in the 1920’s, focusing either on the cognitive impact created by the introduction of electronic media (media studies), or on the social effects of the so called mass communication in different societies. After the political and ideological splits that followed the two great world wars of the 20th century, communication was studied mostly from the perspective of is uses in propaganda, with strategies and techniques soon converted to the marketing and selling of industrialized products to propel economic growth. Confined in the applied sciences, Communication Studies grew as an epistemological cluster more or less separated from other disciplines.
In the wake of the digital era after Second World War, Shannon’s theory of information was adopted as an efficient method of transmitting signals that made possible computers and a myriad of communicative gadgets and paved the way for researches in cybernetic, cognitive sciences, Internet and artificial intelligence, mostly with the leadership of electronic engineers and software programmers. As a result, Communication lost its most important character of a transdisciplinary endeavor to put different bits and pieces of knowledge into a greater meaningful whole.
Fisher and Shannon informations
We will present here Peirce’s concepts of information and communication in connection with his broader philosophical contributions, show how Shannon Information is a particular case of a much more comprehensive Semeiotic Information and propose that Fisher Information, a concept introduced in the 1920’s by the British geneticist and statistician Ronald Fisher, could help to explain how symbols grow because it is by definition “about” something and dependent on perception. The central difference between Fisher’s and Shannon’s theories is that Fisher Information is a measure of the ability to know an event and thus depending on local experience, while Shannon’s concept is purely formal and systemic, capturing only the gramaticality of the represented process. Fisher developed his concept of information as a way to measure the degree of confidence on observational experience.
Mathematically, Fisher Information is always about the observation of data concerning a parameter a. The data x collected during any observation varies randomly because no real measurement is totally free of noise or imperfection on the measuring device. Fisher information can be expressed as I = < [(d/dx) log p(x)] 2 >, where < > means average, and p(x) means a probability function about a variable x and d/dx its variation. The variable x is defining as data carrying information about a. Fisher Information is then a measure of the “width” of the probability function p (x), or its density. That’s why it can be also expressed as the curve of an amplitude of probability. A wide amplitude curve means less information and a narrow amplitude curve means mor information. Another importante feature is that the variation of x expressed by d/dx can be interpreted as the expression of the dynamisys in time.
Shannon Information is a measure of the number of binary distinctions that would be necessary as to bring a disordered system to a totally orderly state, or to completely describe it. Since it ultimately depends on the physical disorder of the system, it can be reduced to entropy. As the entropy of a system necessarily grows in time due to the second law of thermodynamics, the amount of information necessary to describe it increases proportionaly. And since entropy is a statistical average quantity expressed by the logarithm of the sum of probable states of a system, so is Shannon Information.
The larger the number of possible probable states, the larger the ignorance about which state is the current actual one, and the larger is the amount of information needed to describe the system by a sequence of binary distinctions. When entropy is maximal, Shanon Information is simply the log n (the logarithm of n with base 2), where n is the number of probable states. Conversely, if a well known system is in state so well ordered that it does not change at all in time (totally redundant), then no Shannon Information is needed to describe it. Another way to put it is to consider Shannon Information as a measure of the intrinsic uncertitude related to a system of event. The mininum unity of Shannon Information is the bit, which is the result of dividing the probable states of a system into two portions – since log 2 is equal to 1.
Let’s toss a coin
The coin we want to toss can be considered a very orderly system because it is designed to sit on a flat surface showing one of its two equally probable faces: either head or tale. That’s the only distinction you get by tossing a fair coin, which allow us to use it as a chance event with one bit of Shannon Information delivered at every tossing. Well, but no coin is perfectly fair because none is perfectly build (or it can be already eroded by the use in time). Not to mention that the engraved figures on the faces of a coin will always produce a slight bias towards of of the faces – which will be proven when the number of tossings becomes large enough. Besides that, no surface is totally smooth, and many other interferences can come into play during the tossing of a particular coin. Ideally, the tossing of a coin should obey a experimental design prepared to avoid all these biasing interferences.
How can we be sure that our design for the tossing of a particular coin is the best possible one? Here is where Fisher Information comes into scene. We start by preparing the best possible scenario for assuring the tossing of our coin, but we also know that our coin is a real one, with some slight deviance from the ideal ½ for each side – and we want to find out this hidden parameter attached to this specific coin. We produce a series of tossings, which will be our samples. The Fisher Information will be a measure of how quickly our experimental tossings merge to express the real probability ruling our specific coin. If the merging is very quick, then our experiment can be considered a optimal one for the amount of time and resources employed were minimum.
Fisher Information will then be at its highest. If the contrary happens, then are to be shamed as bad experimenters since our design deployed a lot of time and resources and got no reliable information about the real parameter ruling that specific coin. Fisher Information is low. Fisher and Shannon informations are not unrelated because both can be explained on the basis of observation of a effect that is expected – such as the fairness of of a given coin. After a series of tossings and registrations of all scores on a datasheet, Shannon Information measures the amount of evidence about the occurrence of that effect (the fairness of the coin), that is, how much such evidence is present in the observed data. In other words, it measures how confident one can be that the coin is really fair. On the other side, Fisher Information presumes that the expected effect has happened (the degree of fairness of such coin), and it tells the observer how accurately it may be known, i.e., it measures the expected error in the best estimate of the size of the effect.
What is semeiotic information?
Let’s begin by exploring Peirce’s mentalistic notion of information in his early writings. Symbols are initially taken by him to be the terms of logic, such as subject and predicate in a declarative proposition. The breadth or extension of a symbol is the whole of all known objects the term denotes while connoting their general predicates, and the depth or comprehension of a symbol is the whole of all known predicates that signify that term, allowing it to denote its objects. Since the times of the Port Royal logic, comprehension and extension (adapted by William Hamilton as depth and breadth) were taken to be in an inverse proportional relation (depth x breadth), in a way that the growth in depth diminishes the breath, and the diminishing in depth increases the breadth. In his initial musings about information, Peirce considers it a new quantity expressing the only the excess of depth or comprehension that accompanies any logical term:
The information of a term is the measure of its superfluous comprehension. That is to say that the proper office of the comprehension is to determine the extension of the term. For instance, you and I are men because we possess those attributes — having two legs, being rational, &tc. — which make up the comprehension of man. Every addition to the comprehension of a term lessens its extension up to a certain point, after that further additions increase the information instead.
Thus, let us commence with the term colour; add to the comprehension of this term, that of red. Red colour has considerably less extension than colour; add to this the comprehension of dark; dark red colour has still less. Add to this the comprehension of non-blue — non-blue dark red colour has the same extension as dark red colour, so that the non-blue here performs a work of supererogation; it tells us that no dark red colour is blue, but does none of the proper business of connotation, that of diminishing the extension at all. Thus information measures the superfluous comprehension. And, hence, whenever we make a symbol to express any thing or any attribute we cannot make it so empty that it shall have no superfluous comprehension. I am going, next, to show that inference is symbolization and that the puzzle of the validity of scientific inference lies merely in this superfluous comprehension and is therefore entirely removed by a consideration of the laws of information. (C.S. Peirce, “The Logic of Science, or, Induction and Hypothesis” (1866), CE 1, 467).
By introducing information as the third quantity of symbols, Peirce is trying to release the lock that Kant had put in the door of philosophy by challenging the validity of any “a priori synthetic judgments”. By a priori Peirce understands universal, and by synthetic judgments he understands those inferences based on experience. In the example above, the introduction of “non-blue” as a surplus predicate of “dark red” reveals a real relation among the two colors that had not been noted yet: red and blue are both primary colors and totally dissociated from one another, and can consequently be arranged in a diagram such as Goethe’s table of colors or a graphic dispostion of the spectrum of light in separated layers. This is valided by the laws of non-contradiction which are the basis for Kant’s logic. The above works for the analysis of logical terms in themselves, but Peirce soon understood, though, that whenever two logical terms are put in a synthetic inferential relation – such as the tradicional proposition with subject and predicate -, the increase of the depth of the any of them would also produce an increase of the breadth of the other, and vice-versa. In 1867 (MS 140) he writes:
Suppose it is learned that
Any S is P
Then S receives an addition to its comprehension.
P an addition to its extension.
If we looking at an S find it to be P
Some S is P
This adds to the extension of P—supposing we know what S.
Any S is not-P
This adds to the comprehension of S—supposing we know something of not-P.
So, Peirce concludes, “(i)f we learn that S is P, then, as a general rule, the depth of S is increased without any decrease of breadth, and the breadth of P is increased without any decrease of depth.” (CP 2.420). All scientific reasoning proceeds in the same manner: we note some interesting fact in our experience (“dark red is non-blue”) and then search for an explanatory hypothesis capable of subsuming these contradistinctions into a larger and more comprehensive logical whole. Since this process of synthesis can be carried on indefinitely without ever coming to an end, Peirce’s quantity of information implies fallible state of knowledge, “which may range from total ignorance of everything except the meanings of words up to omniscience”.
This means that breadth or depth may be certain or doubtful, depending of our state of information about the matter. At the most abstract or essential level, the knowledge about the meaning of the term would be purely encyclopedic, i.e., the verbatim definitions by which all terms are explained by other terms. At the most concrete level, the knowledge would include all terms that predicate the real attributes of the denoted objects. As none of these two extremes is attainable, our state of information about anything is always incomplete and probable, ranging from the most essential to the most concrete breadth and depth.
In the 1870’s and further, Peirce’s concept of information was continuously generalized to cover the whole of experience, from perception to scientific inferences. Information is grounded on habitual forms that are not available to reason, such is the case of instinct. Peirce explains that a state of information is directly dependent of the knowledge we gather in experience, since perception, the parting point of experience, is the only door we have to let in new information. In our internal mental world, the most fundamental level of information is given by sensation. It is defined by Peirce as a non-conscious synthetic inference able to reduce a multitude of complex feelings into one generalized emotion, which becomes the general basic state of information of a particular mind. Information became then the primordial quantity of Peirce’s system of logic which grew to become his general semeiotic. From our perceptual judgments to our most complex scientific inferences, the whole process can be described as a semeiotic endeavor to capture the real forms during experience and present them as assertions composed by separated predicates and subjects (objects):
Kant gives the erroneous view that ideas are presented separated and then thought together by the mind. This is his doctrine that a mental synthesis precedes every analysis. What really happens is that something is presented which in itself has no parts, but which nevertheless is analyzed by the mind, that is to say, its having parts consists in this that the mind afterward recognizes those parts in it. Those partial ideas are really not in the first idea, in itself, though they are separated out from it. It is a case of destructive distillation. When, having thus separated them, we think over them, we are carried in spite of ourselves from one thought to another, and therein lies the first real synthesis. And earlier synthesis than that is a fiction. (W6: 449, CP 1.384, 1890).
This means that concepts aren’t produced by any transcendental synthesis that welds together sense impressions. On the contrary, they begin with feeble hypothesis that spring from unconscious inferences as undifferentiated wholes. They become perceptive assertions much later, when subject and predicate are dissociated as different quantities (breadth and depth) and then reunited by reasoning.
“The judgement (sic), ‘This chair appears yellow’, separates the color from the chair, making the one predicate and the other subject. The percept, on the other hand, presents the chair in its entirety and makes no analysis whatever” (CP, 7.631).
This reduction at uno is kind of abstraction – an important one to our survival as particular living beings, for it explains how “wild guesses” given in instinct are usually more reliable in practical matters than intellectual reasoning. The attribute synthetic means that information is conjectural and based at the most fundamental level on perceptual judgment, that is, on non-conscious processes of predication, which also means that we will find a probability law associated with every perceptual fact, or perceptual assertion. Information is something we know, including that knowledge that we are not consciously aware that we have – even that knowledge that is instinctual:
Instinct is capable of development and growth — though by a movement which is slow in the proportion in which it is vital; and this development takes place upon lines which are altogether parallel to those of reasoning. And just as reasoning springs from experience, so the development of sentiment arises from the soul’s Inward and Outward Experiences. Not only is it of the same nature as the development of cognition; but it chiefly takes place through the instrumentality of cognition. (CP 1.637)
Information as the form of the sign
Peirce’s theory of signs involves a complex network of sign types in connection o with an intricacy of philosophical and metaphysical positions regarding the nature of the real and our ability to know from experience which could be tackled only if we took a long derail into Peirce’s method of pragmatism. But this is not the aim of this paper. For our here limited purposes, if suffices to say that its most important feature is the triadicity of its relations, which bears directly on the problem of information in communication we are dealing with.
The sign, in Peirce’s doctrine, is a logical entity that could be broadly defined as a medium that conveys information from mind to mind (or quasi-mind, for mind here is also defined as a logical entity). The task of the sign is to create in the mind of an interpreter (interpretant is a better word, as we shall see bellow) a representation of something other than itself. What the sign represents takes the name of its “object”, the aspect of the sign relation that provides the sign with its “aboutness”.
The term “object” here is not necessarily and existent thing, such a chair or the falling of a rock, although it can certainly be any of these too. In the sign, the term “object” is defined as a logical position and can be translated, without losing much of its logical meaning, as the “subject” of representation. More psychologic approaches would prefer “subject” as the best term, but what Peirce stresses that once the Copernican revolution of putting thought before the thinker is done, “object” and “subject” become fundamentally identical in semeiosis. The receiver is the interpreter or, if we get rid of the psychological component, we might call it interpretant, which can be understood as the general tendency, or power, that any symbol possesses to determine certain kinds of effects, even if this tendency is never actualized, let alone developed to its full consequences.
A message in a bottle is symbol even if it is buried forever in the deep ocean. But Peirce’s extreme realism goes further and professes that a hidden fossil fish incrusted in a rock is also a potential symbol, albeit in a latent state until its possible general interpretant is eventually actualized by a proper reasoning mind:
(…) if, for example, there be a certain fossil fish, certain observations upon which, made by a skilled paleontologist, and taken in connection with chemical analyses of the bones and of the rock in which they were embedded, will one day furnish that paleontologist with the keystone of an argumentative arch upon which he will securely erect a solid proof of a conclusion of great importance, then, in my view, in the true logical sense, that thought has already all the reality it ever will have, although as yet the quarries have not been opened that will enable human minds to perform that reasoning. For the fish is there, and the actual composition of the stone already in fact determines what the chemist and the paleontologists will one day read in them. (…) It is, therefore, true, in the logician´s sense of the words, although not in that of the psychologist´s, that the thought is already expressed there (EPII: 455, 1911).
Since the object must be logically absent to be represented in the sign, the efficient cause of this representation must be a “real form”, or general potentiality, that in semeiosis becomes an actual dynamic agent – or utterer of the communicated form. The third aspect of the sign relation is the interpretant, which is consequence (possible, actual or eventual) of the representation of the object by the sign. As the effect of signification, the interpretant is taken to be the final cause of the process of semeiosis. In a more direct phrase, the function of the sign is to transmit the form of the object to the interpretant. In this sense, the sign is the medium of communication of a form per excellence:
That which is communicated from the object through the sign to the interpretant is a Form. It is not a singular thing; for if a singular thing were first in the object and afterward in the interpretant outside the object, it must thereby cease to be in the object. The Form that is communicated does not necessarily cease to be in one thing when it comes to be in a different thing, because its being is a being of the predicate. The Being of a Form consists in he truth of a conditional proposition. Under given circumstances, something would be true. The Form is in the object, entitatively we may say, meaning that that conditional relation, or following of consequent upon reason, which constitutes the Form, is literally true of the object. In the sign the Form may or may not be embodied entitatively, but it must be embodied representatively, that is, in respect to the Form communicated, the sign produces upon the interpretant an effect similar to that which the object itself would under favorable circumstances. (MS 283, partially reprinted in EP2, 371-397, 1906)
The form present in the semeiotic object is not so hidebound by strict habits as to be considered dead and then easily coded into bits, but an active one which influences and guides the whole process of semeiosis. A dead form might be usual for the automatic regulation of machines, but the form that runs in the artery of semeiosis is closer to Leibnitz’ “vis viva”, although with an important difference: it is not conservative nor does it strictly obeys the principle of the least action; on the contrary, it is in continuous development and evolution due to the very process of semeiosis which it takes part, a property which could well be called continuous self-organization, or self-formation. Information can then be considerer a process analogous to learning from experience. It is well depicted as in-formation, or the internalization of novel forms by the sign, in a process of continuous transformation of the sign.
This objective account of the form as a emanation from a dynamic object, which is ultimately the very essence of reality (its “species”, as the scholastic philosophers would put it), is the basis for Peirce’s so called “objective idealism”, an interpretation of Plato’s philosophy that accepts most of Aristotle’s contribution as much as a particular reading of Darwinism, by which chance variations in the characteristics of a “species” are fortuitous (i.e. totally undetermined) as much as “finious”, or directed to general end states. Final causation, or the law of association to produce more generalized predicates, is taken by Peirce to be as much an important logical rule in semeiotic processes as the pure chance that radical Darwinists take as to be the sole rule of natural selection. This new interpretation of Darwinism, introduced in the core of Platonism, is able to account for the growth of symbols, its continuous development and self-organization towards more complex forms that, ultimately, grants the increase of concrete reasonableness in the real. Contrary to the traditionally accepted account of the increase of entropy in the universe leading to a complete dissolution of all forms, Peirce advocates a balance between dissolution and evolution that, if in the short run condemns every particular form of life to ultimately end, in the long run would favor intelligence by multiplication of the possible types of life.
This means that semeiosis and mind, as well growth and development, are all pervasive features of our universe. Without the influx of a symbol, Peirce states, the universe would be unintelligible and deployed of life. The evolutionary laws of nature favors live and intelligibility and every thought, even if mistaken, must represent some aspect of the real and participate in this teleological process:
(…) A symbol is an embryonic reality endowed with the power of growth into the very truth, the very entelechy of reality. This appears mystical and mysterious simply because we insist on remaining blind to what is plain, that there can be no reality which has not the life of a symbol.” (EP2: 323-324)
The symbol as the vehicle of information
By symbol we understand, first, a general sign. That is, a sign that does not have an existence per se, and which reality is independent of its instantiations in replicas. The usual example is a linguistic word, which does not depend on being written or spoken by some individual to be real, although only these existential instantiations can make it effective. But a symbol must also represent some general aspects of the object that is represents - or of the complex of objects since that is generally the case. This general aspect, which is similar to the Platonic notion of “idea”, is also the general form that the symbol conveys as an interpreting power.
In a late MS, Peirce explains what he understand by the word “symbol” as to leave no doubt that he is not classifying his semeiotic as a branch of social psychology, or even anthropology at large. It is an undated but certainly late manuscript fragment (MS 797), for example, Peirce brings up the most important features of the nominalistic definition of symbol (a manmade diadic match-word, arbitrary, conventional), but then explains how he himself departs and expands from it to embrace his realistic account of signification:
“Symbols: The word “symbol” has already many meanings; and I shall ask leave to add a new one. Among its early significations, perhaps the original one, is that of a match-word, a somewhat arbitrarily adopted word or phrase, by which persons of one party recognize one another. It is nearly in this sense that the church creeds are called symbols. So a flag is a symbol, etc. I think, then, that I shall not wrench the word too much if I use it to mean a sign to which a general idea is attached by virtue of a habit, which may have been deliberately instituted, or may have grown up in a natural way, and perhaps have been acquired with one’s mother milk, or even by heredity”.
The central point is that every symbol must be a sign that has “a general idea attached to it by virtue of a habit”. As we have seen, this general idea grounding the symbol is its form or “species” in the mode of conditional future – the real “would-be” not only capable of evolution but the very leitmotif of every evolutionary process. It is Peirce’s habit. One simple but important corollary to be drawn from the above definition is that symbols must be general signs per se, independently of the habitual relation they have with their objects. This is so because only general things can represent habitually. Peirce calls them legisigns – signs that are laws either because they can be instantiated in space or in time. A piece of colored cloth hanging on a poll cannot be a flag if it is not at cognizable as such by an interpreter or community of interpreters. By spatial instantiation, replicas of the same type of flag can be found in a multitude of places throughout a nation.
Another example is the sun, which is a singular thing but nevertheless a general, for its repetitive appearances in time due to the astronomic revolutions grants the necessary cognitive generality for it to be considered as a legisign. All physical laws of nature are legisigns because their final interpretants are necessarily habitual. The principle action is the general final interpretant common to all of them. Similarly, all natural classes fall in the same typology, such as the chemical elements and biological taxonomies. They are intrinsically true and thus independent of any thinking about them. But not every thought, albeit habitual to some degree, has the same necessary nature. Actually, the nature of thought is that of being conditionally true, for its condition rests on the normativeness of logic: correct reasoning would produce in the long run habitual final interpretants, but at any stage of inquiry the provisory dynamic interpretants of any thought are all imperfect to some degree. Undeniable is their potentiality of being developed to a final true opinion, a power that is expressed by their habitual immediate interpretants.
The distinctiveness of a thought is that it has power of information, of forming itself. And it does so because the idea attached to it is an aspect of the object it professes to represent. Peirce calls this idea internal to the sign the immediate object. We see then that thought is a possible general, a potential whole waiting to be developed by the act of thinking. We may call it a holosign, or a general sign having immediate object and immediate interpretant as generals, but which maintains its generality in a potential state. Holosigns are firstness of thirdness, or real “would-bes”, habits that are vague and depending of further determinations in order to express the information they embody.
This explains why the habitual “would-be” of symbols are always modally vague and undetermined in a certain measure (not so much as to render it useless, but sufficiently as to let possibilities to creep in and produce novelty), depending on context to produce particular determinations. These determinations, as they rule out possibilities and define some range of possible types of outcomes, produce variety under invariance that can be mathematically expressed by differential equations. The symbol is then analogous to the double-faced Greek goddess Tyche (Luck). One of its faces captures information coming from the past, which is embodied by the icons inhabiting the indices of experience. In fact, what determines the symbol is the index that it must involve, which materially connects it with the concrete existential context, the hic et nunc of reality. The other face envisions the future and creates conjectures trying to bring the perceived icons and indices into the unity of an evolving concept.
A living symbol must them be explained as a continuously evolving sign functioning as the vehicle or medium for a flow of information that comes from the totally determined past towards a vague and undetermined future. Semeiotic information is then the development of holosigns (thoughts with general immediate interpretants) into legisigns (laws with general final interpretants). In semeiosis, this explains the growth o symbols by the always defective by also self-corrective embodiment of the forms of the dynamic objects they represent. If and when this embodiment is complete, the symbol would reach its entelechia, or the perfect final interpretant. This would be its “ultimate final interpretant” which might be defined as a habit in perfect harmony with the super-order, or super-habit, that rules the laws of nature.
Since even the physical laws are in evolution – and certainly biological classes – we must accept that the ultimate final interpretants of symbols in an evolutionary universe is to develop alongside with them, breaking old habits and embracing new ones as reality itself unfolds towards complexity and concrete reasonableness. We see them that information is process intrinsic to the symbol, although the other types of representation also play important roles as they are semeiotically involved by symbols. Icons are essential to embody the form or idea to be communicated by the symbol, while indices are needed to point out what are the objects to which this idea might be applied.
Peirce defines the denoted object as the source of information, which occupies the position of emitter or sender. Since our main concern here is information in communication, we must consider what turns a symbol into a conveyor of information, such as an assertion (the expression of a particular belief in a definite context) or a proposition (the general form of an informative symbol, usually diagrammatic, and that can be asserted in different syntaxes). These informative symbols are dicent or dicisings. One of the examples most worked out by Peirce is the weathervane (or weather-cock), a device capable of informing the direction of the wind.
The reference of a sign to its object is brought into special prominence in a kind of sign whose fitness to be a sign is due to its being in a real reactive relation,— generally, a physical and dynamical relation,—with the object. Such a sign I term an index. As an example, take a weather-cock. This is a sign of the wind because the wind actively moves it. It faces in the very direction from which the wind blows. In so far as it does that, it involves an icon. The wind forces it to be an icon. A photograph which is compelled by optical laws to be an icon of its object which is before the camera is another example. It is in this way that these indices convey information. They are propositions. That is they separately indicate their objects; the weather-cock because it turns with the wind and is known by its interpretant to do so; the photograph for a like reason. If the weathercock sticks and fails to turn, of if the camera lens is bad, the one or the other will be false. But if this is known to be the case, they sink at once to mere icons, at best. It is not essential to an index that it should thus involve an icon. Only, if it does not, it will convey no information. (MS 7, pp 17-18)
A bunch of pieces of metal or wood that compose the weather-cock conveys no information if it unassembled, rotten or broken. If working properly but placed in a locality where cannot be cognized as such, it would be a holosign expressing thought but not participating in any effective thinking. The weather-cock would be able to convey information about the wind only if it becomes a legisign, i.e., only if receives the influx of a symbol given by the community of interpreters that recognize it as an informative device about the wind conditions. A particular weather-cock becomes then the replica of a legisign and its pointing to a particular direction becomes an index – although not a pure blind one, but more appropriately understood as selective, or quantifier, capable of denoting the real direction of the wind. We could well say that the pointing of the weather-cock is a metonymy because its logical validity is grounded on the fact that it is a part of a greater whole, which is the real direction the wind is blowing.
As Peirce explains in the above quote, if the weather-cock is functioning correctly, this index also involves an icon which represents the real form of the blow of the wind. And the symbol would be true if the habitual “would-be” that accompanies it correctly represents this iconic information presented by the weather-cock. In logical terms, the symbol connotes truly what it truly denotes. Moreover, the wind that blows the weather-cock is in the past of any conceivable observer that would collect the information, while the pragmatic consequences of the assertion made by the apparatus are always in its future.
There must be then a continuous schema, or syntax, linking the real possibilities of the icon at the perceptive level to the icon of the logical consequences. The former enters the knowledge through perceptual judgments, and the latter becomes conscious information by diagrammatic reasoning, where relations are represented in the form of thinking. This flow of information from the real form of object to the general form of the interpretant in the symbol must then be continuous in time, and the logical schema of time must account for the being of a proposition.
A single Assertion has but a single Predicate; but the simplest Assertion has more than one Subject, unless it be such a statement as “It rains,” where one of the Subjects is expressed otherwise than in words. But I must explain myself more fully, and in the way which alone will be truly expressive, namely, by examples. I will, however, first remark that the Proposition that embodies an Assertion has the same Subjects and Predicate as the Assertion itself. Take the Proposition “Cain killed Abel.” This is identically the same Proposition as “Abel was killed by Cain”; it is only the grammatical dress that is different. Other things being equal, everybody will prefer the former. Why? Because it is simpler, but why is it simpler? Because in putting the cause before the effect, it in that respect diagrammatizes the truth. What are the Subjects of this Proposition. Cain, first: that is not only a Subject of the Proposition, but is the principal Subject of the Assertion which a historian would naturally make. But in the Proposition Cain and Abel are as Subjects on one footing precisely (or almost precisely, for Cain is preponderant in causality). But besides these, “killed” = committed murder upon, is a third Subject, since no study of the words alone, without extraneous experience, would enable the Addressee to understand it. What, then, is left to serve as Predicate? Nothing but the flow of causation . It is true that we are made acquainted even with that in Experience. When we see a babe, in its cradle bending its arms this way and that, while a smile of exultation plays upon its features, it is making acquaintance with the flow of causation. So acquaintance with the flow of causation so early as to make it familiar before speech is so far acquired that an assertion can be syntactically framed; and it is embodied in the syntax of every tongue. However, it is not because of this physiological fact, that it becomes proper to draw the line between Subjects and Predicate here; neither is it because of the psychical fact that human minds naturally think in a way broadly (i.e. a little) similar to the forms of syntax; nor is it even because of the metaphysical truth, that the order of syntax is the law of Time and of Becoming. This is proved by the facts, first, that it is necessary that Reasonings by which we discover and defend the order of Causation, of human thoughts, of time, and of becoming, themselves presuppose the recognition of the corresponding order in syntax; and secondly, by this, that it has not been Time, or Causation, or the structure of the human mind nor human anatomy and physiology that have, any or all of them, determined that that ought to be the order of syntax that in fact ought to be so, but precisely the contrary, it is the fact that the order of Syntax ought to be as in fact it ought to be that has determined, first, Real Being and Time to take the same form, and then, that it should become natural to the mind and should be the pattern of physical action. (MS 664, 10-13, 1910)
The result is that living symbols, capable of growth and development, must be in a dynamic process of embodying the form of its object in particular situations, through experience and in a way that the information it generates is also a continuous transformation of its own intrinsic forms. This is the kernel of Peirce’s synechism, the doctrine that professes that continuity and generality are basis of reality. Without the real continuous predicates that weld together every mind in a commens, or co-mind, no communication would be possible, because there would be no common ground among the minds of the community of interpretants that is created by very work of symbols, in a way that:
No object can be denoted unless it be put into relation to the object of the commens. A man, tramping along a weary and solitary road, meets an individual of strange men, who says, “There was a fire in Megara.” If this should happen in the Middle United States, there might very likely be some village in the neighborhood called Megara. Or it may refer to one of the ancient cities of Megara, or to some romance. And the time is wholly indefinite. In short, nothing at all is conveyed, until the person addressed asks, “Where?” – “Oh about half a mile along there” pointing to whence he came. “And when?” “As I passed.” Now an item of information has been conveyed, because it has been stated relatively to a well-understood common experience. Thus the Form conveyed is always a determination of the dynamical object of the commind. (EP 2: 478, 1906)
The assumption of a continuous flow of information that ultimately welds and fuses every intelligent mind that participates of and shares the same experience also opens what Peirce affirms to be the “lock” that Kant put in the door of philosophy when asked his most important question: how are a priori synthetic judgments possible? By “a priori”, Peirce explains, Kant meant universal, and by synthetic judgments Kant meant based on experience. Communication, or Rhetoric – as Peirce classified the third branch of Semeiotic, after Speculative Grammar and Critical Logic – is not to be understood as a mere application of semeiotic to real communicative situations, but as a core discipline to understand how knowledge can be gathered from experience and shared by a community. A science is not only logic, but also epistemologic.
The third branch of the trivium
From the point of view of Peirce’s philosophy, “communication” is a branch of logic. To be sure, it is considered its highest e liveliest ramification because every belief, opinion, work of art or scientific proposition must be ultimately shared, debated and drove to a consensus within a community. Peirce says that it is analogous to semeiosis, or the action of signs, and a general account of semeiosis must bring us also the general features of “communication”. By semeiosis we mean a dynamic process, necessarily time-dependent, by which something influences a second thing by having a third as the medium. The sign is the medium of communication by which an utterer (or emitter) transmits its influence upon the interpreter (or receiver). The action of sign is then necessarily a processing triadic relation that depends on the power of the sign to embody some aspect about the source (its representative power) and to project this embodied essence as interpretations. We might call this evolving triadic process as causation, in contradistinction with causality – a mechanical action that admits only sequences of dyadic relations similar to chocks of billiard balls.
For the purposes of this inquiry a Sign may be defined as a Medim for the communication of a Form. It is not logically necessary that anything possessing consciousness, that is, feeling of the peculiar common quality of all our feeling should be concerned. (MS 793:1, not dated)
One tenet of Peirce’s logical approach to semeiotics is that it avoids all sorts of psychologism. In fact, a fully pragmatic theory of communication should not depend on conscious minds neither should it be restricted to any specific form of life. Of major interest here are the preconditions to any communicational process. The most important of these features is that communication is to be considered a real phenomenon independent of any particular number or types of mind might think of it. Actually, the inverse is truer: particular mental process, which are all semeiotic at bottom, must be understood as the result of communication by which information about the real is represented in particular minds as a means to afford adequate habits of action and, ultimately, allow for survivor and permanence.
The core of any communicative action is the assertion. By assertion we mean an act of asserting a belief as a way to produce some effect in the interpreting mind. An assertion does not necessarily need to produce an actual effect, and much less a final consequence. A question, or an interrogation, asserts a doubt and by doing so asserts a provisory state of information about a problem leaving to future inquiry the work of determining its possible answers. It suffices to be an assertion that it has the power to represent some state of information. Also, it does not matter if the interpreting mind – the interpreter of what is being asserted – is a different mind from the one that asserts. Reasoning is an internal dialogue by which a mind asserts different things at different moments. It then brings these series of assertions under a leading principle, or general diagram, to extract from these relations a final conclusion. But it does matter the fact that the assertion is well located in the space and time and no two assertions can be exactly equal. An assertion always embraces feelings and emotional responses that participate and influence the way it is formulated as well the way it is interpreted. What is asserted is then always contextual, dependent from particular states of minds, and fundamentally a matter of opinion, subject to particular aesthetic choices and ethical preferences made by the minds involved in the communication.
Nevertheless, the essence of what is being asserted, its information, is an idea that does not depend the moods of the interpreting mind. On the contrary, it has a complex form that is purely predicative and can be analyzed by reason alone. It is simply the form of a logical proposition, which might me true or false independently of any opinion, feelings or emotions about it held by any mind or any finite multitude of minds. This form is the real aspect to be communicated in a pragmatic pursue of the truth. For example, if someone witnesses a crime and reports it to the police on the telephone, what is being reported, if real, does not depend on the linguistic choices (the proficiency in the language and the choices of enunciation), the persuasiveness of the report or the emotions involved. It is true because it embodies the real relations that describe the observed fact, even if no evidence will ever be found to convince a jury about the truth of what is being considered.
The ultimate goal of pragmatism, then, is to explain how our perceptions about the real, which are always particular and dependent on our emotional and cognitive states, can be transformed into universal propositions. Peirce’s pragmatism teaches us that inquiry would reveal its truth if an ideal community of interpreters with ideal time and resources would be able to engage in its search. These ideal conditions are never completely fulfilled though. Most past facts are buried forever, for instance. The immediate present facts, which are always relative to individual minds that perceive them, are almost nothing in themselves since they cannot bring to an intelligent their own logical validity. They can be the result of hallucinations, for instance. Only experience, which involves continuity and expectations alongside with hard facts, can set us on the path of truth. Only futurity, in the guise of conditionals, can wrap past and present into a continuous flow that is able to produce meaning.
The future is vague and general, because it is open to possible outcomes within the general laws of nature. The work of bringing the three temporal modes into harmony is done by interpretation, or signification, the mental process of reducing the complex of our experience into a single living idea. This is what synthetic inferences do, and for that reason they are called ampliative. Peirce called this primordial inference abduction. In the schema of time, our knowledge about the real grows as our conceptions as continuously renewed. The generalization of assertions in communication produces propositions, which are always general and inclined to future general consequences. This form of abstraction is also called hypostatic, the first logical step of any inquiry. Once an initial hypothesis is produced, deduction extracts its necessary consequences and delivers to induction the work of testing them against reality.
In Mathematics, abductions are purely formal and their validity is checked by deductive coherence. In natural sciences, abductions are always probable, for not only the hypothesis might be wrong but also because the very laws of nature they represent are probabilistic. If we define scientific reasoning as the method of producing general propositions about the real, animated by experience and subject to reformulation whenever novelty is perceived, then communication plays a key role in the scientific method. Actually, Peirce defines it as Methodeutic, or Universal Rhetoric, his third branch of Objective Logic (after Grammar, first, and Critical Logic, second).
Not all propositions are scientific though, for intelligent minds also produce assertions about possible worlds. Mathematicians and artists, for instance, concentrate their efforts in making hypostatic abstractions that have no a priori obligation to be evaluated by the real world we live in. On the contrary, their value resides precisely in the creative power of presenting esthetic assertions about possible relations, where the norm is solely given by interest of subsuming particulars into generals.
But the highest kind of synthesis is what the mind is compelled to make neither by the inward attractions of the feelings or representations themselves, nor by a transcendental force of necessity, but in the interest of intelligibility that is, in the interest of the synthesizing “I think” itself; and this it does by introducing an idea not contained in the data, which gives connections which they would not otherwise have had. This kind of synthesis has not been sufficiently studied, and especially the intimate relationship of its different varieties has not been duly considered. The work of the poet or novelist is not so utterly different from that of the scientific man. The artist introduces a fiction; but it is not an arbitrary one; it exhibits affinities to which the mind accords a certain approval in pronouncing them beautiful, which if it is not exactly the same as saying that the synthesis is true, is something of the same general kind. The geometer draws a diagram, which if not exactly a fiction, is at least creation, and by means of observation of that diagram he is able to synthesize and show relations between elements which before seemed to have no necessary connection. The realities compel us to put some things into very close relation and others less so, in a highly complicated, and in the [to?] sense itself unintelligible manner; but it is the genius of the mind, that takes up all these hints of sense, adds immensely to them, makes them precise, and shows them in intelligible form in the intuitions of space and time. (CP 1.383)
Politics and all applied sciences, on the other hand, are based substantially on the normative ethical consequences of adopting beliefs, foster their ideas, and develop their consequences in reality. Communication, taken as formal rhetoric, might be then understood as to cover a large spectrum of processes of signification, some more artistic in nature, other more linked practical matters, other eminently inclined to the pursuit of the truth of nature.
(…) the Grundsatz of Formal Rhetoric is that an idea should be presented in a unitary, comprehensive, systematic shape. Hence it is that many a diagram which is intricate and incomprehensible by reason of the multitude of its lines is instantly rendered clear and simple by the addition of more lines, these additional lines being such as to show that those that were there first were merely parts of a unitary system. The mathematician knows this well. We have seen what endless difficulties there are with “some’s” and “all’s”. The mathematician almost altogether frees himself from “some’s”; for wherever something outlying and exceptional occurs, he enlarges his system so as to make it regular. I repeat that this is the prime principle of the rhetoric of self-communing. Nobody who neglects it can attain any great success in thinking. (CP 4.116).
A person, as any individual living being, can be semeiotically defined as process by which past experiences recommend and guide future actions. Living beings learn by contrasting their expectations with real circumstances, and knowledge is the net outcome of this process. But from the pragmatic point of view, knowledge is just another word for habitual dispositions to act according to successful past experiences. The past is the source of information which influences our future actions, and the mind is just the medium where past and future is put into communication. Our “self” is a developing story about these relations and so must be considered as a causational relation. Mental processes are causational and the logical laws of semeiosis are also the laws of mind.
Generalizing further to achieve a social and more complex level, we must define groups of minds, usually classified by terms such as societies, organizations, classes, genus, species etc are considered by Peirce as part of a general theory of mind, by which particular specimens instantiate information gathered and shared by whole of their class. A radical naturalization of semeiosis should be able to account for a general process of internalization and sharing of information that will cover from the most basic hereditary transmission of characters to the most complex and intricate exchanges of culture. The most complex type of sign is that of a symbol, since it has the power to grow and convey information. Whenever and whatever there is increase and conveyance of information, there must be habit and symbol involved.
This is a rule of logic. Self-organizing processes, the appearance of complexity, the evolution of species are all examples of a semeiotic general process of concrete reasonableness, by which the habit of taking habits overcomes the habit of loosing habits, although there might be a balance between these two processes. Order is simply thought embodied in arrangement; and thought embodied in any other way appears objectively as a character that is a generalization of order, and that, in the lack of any word for it, we may call for the nonce, “Super-order.” It is something like uniformity. The idea may be caught if it is described as that of which order and uniformity are particular varieties. Pure mind, as creative of thought, must, so far as it is manifested in time, appear as having a character related to the habit-taking capacity, just as super-order is related to uniformity.
(…) A state in which there should be absolutely no super-order whatsoever would be such a state of nility. For all Being involves some kind of super-order. For example, to suppose a thing to have any particular character is to suppose a conditional proposition to be true of it, which proposition would express some kind of super-order, as any formulation of a general fact does. To suppose it to have elasticity of volume is to suppose that if it were subjected to pressure its volume would diminish until at a certain point the full pressure was attained within and without its periphery. This is a super-order, a law expressible by a differential equation. Any such super-order would be a super-habit. Any general states of things whatsoever would be a super-order and a super-habit.
This Metaphysical commitment, once founded on sound logic principles, completely subverts the scientific tendency to search for initial causes and chopping reality into bits and pieces looking for its atomic building blocs. But it also avoids the transcendental need for the a priori esthetical principles to bring the multitude of experience into an intelligible form. Assuming the reality of forms as evolving entities, Peirce’s pragmatic philosophy pronounces the ultimate Copernican revolution of putting thought as the logical originator of the thinker, and thinking as a process directed towards final causes, where experience and meaning play a central role. Communication, as the action of revealing the hidden relations behind common experience and bringing them to a systematic whole, is placed at the core of any meaningful account of reality:
Kant has shown that metaphysical conceptions spring from formal logic, this great generalization upon formal logic must lead to a new apprehension of the metaphysical conceptions which shall render them more adequate to the needs of science. In short, “exact” logic will prove a stepping-stone to “exact” metaphysics. In the next place, it must immensely widen our logical notions. For example, a class consisting of a lot of things jumbled higgledy-piggledy must now be seen to be but a degenerate form of the more general idea of a system. Generalization, which has hitherto meant passing to a larger class, must mean taking in the conception of the whole system of which we see but a fragment, etc., etc. In the next place, it is already evident to those who know what has already been made out, that that speculative rhetoric, or objective logic (…) is destined to grow into a colossal doctrine which may be expected to lead to most important philosophical conclusions. (CP 3.454)
Take the simplest example of an air conditioner apparatus, for instance. It is programmed to turn on if its inbuilt thermometer indicates a certain temperature. The user sets the desired temperature and by doing so divides the possible states in two: higher or lower than the setting. The program that rules the apparatus transforms the infinite continuous possible information about the real world present in the collum is reduced to only one bit. The message sent to apparatus is then a simple “on” or “off” according to the level showed by the thermometer. If the thermometer is broken, the apparatus will work as programmed, even with undesired outcomes. In other words, once coded digitally as discrete bits, the Shannon information ruling a thermostat loses its power to denote the temperature or connote (or signify, which Peirce considered a better word) is meaning to an interpreter.
Getting rid of both denotation and connotation when coded by a mathematical scalar operator, Shannon information becomes extremely useful for automatic regulation of a cybernetic system but stands largely outside of the core of semeiosis, which is based on process of causation where information is considered to be a habitual form transmitted by an efficient source through a medium as to produce some indirect effect. Half a century before Shannon Information was defined, Peirce already made clear that a
“… thermometer dynamically [...] connected to a heating and cooling apparatus, so as to check either effect, we do not, in ordinary parlance, speak of there being any semiosy, [...], but, on the contrary, say that there is an ‘automatic regulation’, an idea opposed, in our minds, to that of semiosy. (Peirce 1940, p. 275, italics in original)
In the example of a cooling apparatus, the semeiotic information covers what is bellow and above Shannon Information. At the bellow level, we have the real temperature in the environment of the thermostat, which changes constantly as an average of the energy present in the movement of the molecules of air. The real temperature is a statistical parameter to be registered by the thermometer. The thermometer, by its turn, has a limited surface and can reach only a small portion of the greater whole. What is actually read by the thermometer is a random sample that, if not biased by any malfunctioning or unwanted influences, can represent the real temperature of the whole environment. If the thermometer has a column of mercury, the mark on its scale is an index of the temperature, but this is a true representation only if the raising of the mercury is an icon that embodies the real information about the temperature.
The temperature measured and represented by the thermometer is analogous to an assertion about a real fact. It is not a full proposition, but it in undeniably an informative sign, a type of sign that Peirce calls “dicisign”, or dicent sign. This process describe a flow of information form the real to the thermometer scale. The “above” level happens when the thermostat is set to a temperature by an intelligent mind, which brings purpose into the process. This is the influx of a full-fledge symbol that sets up the “habit” or general rule that will govern the functioning of the apparatus. The whole process becomes similar to a logical argument: the desired temperature is the major premiss (rule), the assertion brought by the thermometer is the minor premiss (case), and the turning on or off of the apparatus is the conclusion of the reasoning.
The most general definition of communication states that it is a transmission of information, with no need to worry a priori about what information is, where it goes through, and the kind of transmission that is involved. It is enough to verify that some change of state, or transformation, has happened either in the world external to us or in the interior of our minds, to establish the occurrence of some kind of communication. If information flows everywhere, as physics and biology have demonstrated in the past decades, we should consider communication as an ontological component of reality.
This is the vanguard position in the studies relating communication and semiotic, whose theoretical possibilities have been attracting researchers from several fields. Communication is not the same everywhere, though. It is necessary to establish a communicational gradient that starts from the transmission of information at the basic level of matter, strongly constrained by the laws of physics, and climbs the ladder of complexity to achieve the freest and most creative forms, as those among intelligent and conscious beings. In fact, Nöth states that it is not possible to postulate a clear cut border between communicative and non-communicative phenomena in nature, but one should conceive a gradual transition which goes from the most rudimentary proto-communicative interaction towards the most complex ones (apud Santaella, 2001, p.17).
Following Peirce’s division of categories, we can say that there is a quality of communication that perfuses the whole universe. It might happen that such quality of communication is turned into local existence, allowing the transmission of information. And that single transmission might become a medium for a flow of meaning.
Therefore, we consider communication as a product of the intentionality, or “mentality”, which sprouts from the elemental levels of nature and goes up in the hierarchy of nature until it achieves its most elaborate forms in human consciousness (cf. Short, 2004, p. 14). That is the reason for adopting in this work the “grand vision” of the Peircean semiotic, which has been supported by Deely (1994). This conception of semeiotic can comprise even the physical processes of nature, considered as results of the action of signs, a phenomenon Peirce named semeiosis. It is from this point of view that we defend that semiotic and communication can be united in the same science. The reason is that the action of signs corresponds precisely to the essential definition of communication we provided above: wherever there is semeiosis, there is also a change in the state of things, which involves a flow of information. This broad conception of communication, based on a holistic approach of semeiotic, usually bristles theorists who insist on a logocentric vision of the area, not to say a mediacentric one.
They think the science of communication should be narrowed to human culture (cf. Eco, 1977); some of them restrict the field even more to concentrate only on the media of Mass Communication. This restriction is, in my opinion, a kind of intellectual perversion because it transforms the accident into the norm. Communication is not born with the drum, with the book, with the telegraph, newspaper, television or any other technology. On the contrary, these technologies are created only to widen, improve, and make more efficient a process of communication in which we are immersed and on which the survival of every organized system depends, be it a single individual or the most complex conceivable society. That was certainly the opinion of Peirce in the last years of his intellectual production. In 1903, he affirmed that the whole universe is a sign similar to an impressionistic painting (CP 5.119). In 1905, he wrote that “a sign perfectly conforms to the definition of a medium of communication” (MS 283). In 1911, he defined sign using the reading of a newspaper as an example:
“if a person reads an item of news in newspaper, his first effect will probably be causing in this mind what may conveniently be called an “image” of the object, without making any judgment about its reality” (MS 670).
From the universe to a page of newspaper or a thought, therefore, there is a flux of information that unites us all as signs.