20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy and Cognitive Science

Peirce, Virtuality, and Semiotic

Peter Skagestad
University of Massachusetts - Lowell

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: The adjective 'virtual,' practically unheard-of a few years ago, has become a primary buzzword of the 90's. Yet the word 'virtual' is nothing new, although its ubiquity is new, as is perhaps its current meaning or meanings. In 1902 the word was defined by Charles Peirce as follows: 'A virtual X (where X is a common noun) is something, not an X, which has the deficiency (virtus) of an X.' Peirce also references Scotus's concept of virtual knowledge, the concept of virtual velocity in physics, and Edmund Burke's doctrine of virtual representation, which is not representation but is supposedly as good as. The concept of virtuality is deeply embedded in Peirce's doctrine of signs and hence in his semiotic doctrine of mind. In this Peircean doctrine, which has been more recently echoed in the writings of Wittgenstein and Popper, we find the most promising philosophical framework available for the understanding and advancement of the project of augmenting human intellect through the development and use of virtual technologies.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

The adjective "virtual," practically unheard-of a few years ago, has without a doubt become the number one buzzword of the nineteen-nineties. Virtual reality has become a catch phrase for the interactive multimedia technologies that have supplanted desktop publishing at the cutting edge of personal-computer graphics technology. The virtual communities which for years have flourished in comfortable obscurity on the Internet, have recently been thrust into the glare of publicity as commercial gateways have opened up the net to the public, while virtual corporations have transformed the world of business.

Yet the word "virtual" is nothing new; although its ubiquity is new, as is perhaps its current meaning or meanings. In his admirable glossary of cyberterms, the philosopher Michael Heim defines "virtual" as: "A philosophical term meaning 'not actually but just as if'," and he notes that the term in this sense goes back to the thirteenth-century philosopher John Duns Scotus. (1) The word "virtuality" may have been first used to describe interactive computer systems by Theodore Nelson (the inventor of the term "hypertext"), who proposed this definition, in 1980: (2)

By the virtuality of a thing I mean the seeming of it, as distinct from its more concrete "reality," which may not be important. ... I use the term "virtual" in its traditional sense, an opposite of "real". The reality of a movie includes how the scenery was painted and where the actors were repositioned between shots, but who cares? The virtuality of a movie is what seems to be in it.

While this may at first blush seem equivalent to Heim's later definition, Nelson's definition is in fact somewhat more specific and represents a significant meaning shift from the traditional sense, as becomes clear when we contrast it with the definition offered in 1991 by the media philosopher Paul Levinson. Paraphrasing Levinson slightly, we may say that he defines a "virtual" X as what you get when the information structure of X is detached from its physical structure. (3) Levinson's examples include virtual - i.e. electronic - classrooms, libraries, and books, and these certainly do not have the look and feel of actual classrooms, libraries, or books. As I have noted elsewhere, the two definitions coincide in the case of virtual reality - the information structure of reality as a whole includes its look and feel - but this is a coincidence; the two definitions represent different concepts. (4)

These two different concepts may, by the way, be taken to reflect two different types of virtuality, understood as cultural phenomena. While Heim's definition is a perfectly general one, Levinson's definition takes virtuality to consists in functional equivalence, whereas Nelson's definition locates virtuality in equivalent appearance. The former type of virtuality has for the past two decades been exemplified principally by online communications, in which a variety of social and cultural relations have been mediated by the "coolest" of media (using MacLuhan's classification), namely plain, unadorned, unformatted text. This, of course, is also a sphere in which Levinson has long been an active participant. (5) Nelson's virtuality, by contrast, may be exemplified by the increasing verisimilitude being built into computer user interfaces over the past decade. Starting with WYSIWYG (What-you-see-is-what-you-get) word processing, evolving through GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) and desktop publishing with sophisticated graphics capabilities, and ultimately culminating in "virtual reality," this type of virtuality has until recently existed exclusively off-line. Now that the graphics revolution has gone online via web-browsers, it remains an open question whether we will be facing a fusion of the two types of virtuality and, if so, what will be the implications for the concept of virtuality. But I think it would be premature to tackle that question quite yet.

Of the two definitions, Levinson's turns out to be closer to the traditional one, at least if we take as authoritative the dictionary definition of "virtual" in J.M. Baldwin's 1902 Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology: "A virtual X (where X is a common noun) is something, not an X, which has the efficiency (virtus) of an X." (6) The dictionary entry also references Scotus's concept of virtual knowledge, the concept of virtual velocity in physics, and Edmund Burke's doctrine of virtual representation, which is not representation but is supposedly as good as. According to this definition, a thing has an "efficiency" or "virtus," a concept which may be problematic from various perspectives, but which is clear enough in the case of artifacts, be they classrooms, libraries, books, or typewriters, and which is clearly different from the seeming, the look, or the feel of these artifacts. It so happens, to give Nelson his due, that the efficiency or virtus of a movie is its seeming, but it does not follow that this is what we should in general take "virtuality" to mean. In what follows, then, we shall use the words "virtuality" and "virtual," in the sense given by Baldwin's dictionary definition, a definition which is consistent with Heim's general definition, although more precise.

The dictionary definition of "virtual" was penned by none other than Charles Sanders Peirce, the universally acknowledged founder of modern semiotic, and it is to Peirce's semiotic - that is, his general doctrine of signs - that we shall turn as an interpretive framework for understanding the phenomenon of virtuality in contemporary culture and technology.

By a "sign" Peirce meant, broadly speaking, anything capable of standing to somebody for something in some respect. (7) There is thus an irreducibly triadic relation among the sign, its object, and the somebody to whom the sign stands for its object. This somebody, by the way, need not be a person, but could be a nonhuman animal. To stand in this relation to somebody is to be subject to interpretation in this person's mind, and this process of interpretation, Peirce held, is the creation in the interpreter's mind of a new sign, which Peirce labeled the "interpretant" of the original sign. (8) For instance, if a particular sensation leads me to infer that a given object is red, the sensation will have served as a sign to me of the object in respect of color. To say that it has served as a sign to me is to say that I have interpreted it; i.e. it has been replaced, in my mind, by a different sign of its object, to wit, by the perceptual judgement: "The object is red". This judgement is in turn a sign, capable of further interpretation by myself or, should I choose to utter it, by other minds. The capacity to be thus transformed into a new sign is an essential attribute of signhood. Peirce may not have coined the phrase "Every decoding is another encoding," but he certainly conceived the idea and made it a centerpiece of his theory of signification, cognition, and discourse. (9)

Finally, in Peirce's view as in John Locke's before him, thoughts are signs, and semiotic thus implies a complete philosophy of mind, in which cognition is thematized as the development of signs, and not as a succession of conscious states of mind. (We should note in passing that this "semiotic model of the mind," and its bearing on the prospects of artificial intelligence, have in recent years been brilliantly articulated by James Fetzer, (10) Peirce never denied the existence of consciousness, and he did not deny that we may have introspective knowledge of our conscious mental states, but he simply did not regard cognition as consisting of such conscious states. Cognition consists in the manipulation of signs which may be externally embodied; as each sign is what it is by virtue of its possible later interpretations - i.e. virtually - so the mind itself is virtual. As Peirce put it in one of his classic 1868 articles in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy: (11)

Finally, no present actual thought (which is a mere feeling) has any meaning, any intellectual value; for this lies not in what is actually thought, but in what this thought may be connected with in representation by subsequent thoughts; so that the meaning of a thought is altogether something virtual. ... At no instant in my state of mind is there cognition or representation, but in the relation of my states of mind at different instants there is.

In a letter to the editor, William T. Harris, Peirce elaborated: (12)

I do not say that we are ignorant of our states of mind. What I say is that the mind is virtual, not in a series of moments, not capable of existing except in a space of time - nothing in so far as it is at any one moment.

Without wishing to venture deeply into the very tricky question of the relation of Peirce's thought to that of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, I cannot forbear to note that Peirce is here making a point similar to one which Wittgenstein was later to make as follows: (13)

We say "I am expecting him", when we believe that he will come, though his coming does not occupy our thoughts. (Here "I am expecting him" would mean "I should be surprised if he didn't come" and that will not be called the description of a state of mind.)

As I understand Peirce, he would agree with Wittgenstein's parenthetical comment, but perhaps not with the sentence that precedes it. Even when NN's expected arrival does occupy my thoughts, Peirce's view is that what it means for his arrival to occupy my thoughts is my later surprise should NN not show up, and not the conscious state ("a mere feeling") experienced while expecting NN; in other words, what occupies my thoughts is not a state of mind. In Peirce's view, that is, thoughts are inherently dispositional, a view echoing that of Scotus and in turn later echoed by Karl Popper, who held knowledge to reside exosomatically, in books, articles, and the like, rather than in the conscious experience of the authors or readers of said books, etc. That conscious experience - in Popper's view as in Peirce's - was rendered dispensable for the analysis of knowledge or of mind by that inherently dispositional nature of knowledge which allows knowledge to be exosomatically embodied. In Popper's words, which strikingly recall Peirce's definition of 'sign', presented above: (14)

It is its possibility or potentiality of being understood, its dispositional character of being understood or interpreted, or misunderstood or misinterpreted, which makes a thing a book. And this potentiality or disposition may exist without ever being actualized or realized.

Finally, just as Wittgenstein emphasized - and perhaps exaggerated - the dependence of thought on the public rules of a language, and Popper emphasized the epistemic importance more specifically of written language, (15) so Peirce emphasized the dependence of thought on signs, and thus on external sign vehicles, both "hard" vehicles such as books, paper, and ink, and "soft" vehicles, such as alphabets, and mathematical and logical notations, as well as on external tools for sign production, as in this famous passage from 1905: (16)

A psychologist cuts out a lobe of my brain (nihil animale a me alienum puto) and then, when I find I cannot express myself, he says, 'You see, your faculty of language was localized in that lobe.' No doubt it was; and so, if he had filched my inkstand, I should not have been able to continue my discussion until I had got another. Yea, the very thoughts would not come to me. So my faculty of discussion is equally localized in my inkstand.

I want to make two observations regarding this passage. First, I take it that Peirce is not only making the point that without ink he would not be able to express his thoughts, but rather the point that thoughts come to him in and through the act of writing, so that having writing implements is a condition for having certain thoughts - e.g. those thoughts that issue from trains of thought too long to be entertained in human consciousness. This would seem to be the point of saying, "the very thoughts would not come to me," and it is also consistent with the central Peircean doctrine that thoughts are signs. In this respect Peirce's semiotic doctrine of mind gives aid and comfort to some version of the thesis, articulated in various forms by Eric Havelock, Harold Innis, and Walter Ong, among others, that literacy enables modes of thought, and hence contents of thought, unavailable to a purely oral culture. Peirce's own frequent insistence on the cognitively empowering role of specific types of logical and mathematical notation is echoed in Havelock's insistence on the similar function of the Greek alphabet.

I hasten to add that I am aware that the 'literacy' thesis is controversial, and that it probably still awaits a precise formulation that can withstand criticism without surrendering so much of its content as to rob the thesis of its interest.

Second, Peirce's quotation is echoed in Popper's claim, noted above, that human knowledge depends on the evolution of exosomatic organs, such as pens, pencils, typewriters, and computers; in Einstein's dictum, cited by Popper, that his pencil was smarter than he himself was; and in Douglas Engelbart's "Neo-Whorfian" hypothesis that our capability for intellectual activity is affected by the means by which we control the external manipulation of symbols. Engelbart's own role as a pioneer of e.g. hypertext and networking highlights the relevance of current virtual technologies as a concretization of sign development as understood in the Peircean perspective.

Peirce's own reflections on the relationship between the mind and the logic machines of his day have been documented by Ketner, as well as by the present writer. (17) Suffice it here to note two salient features of Peirce's thinking on the subject. First, Peirce thought that some types of reasoningÑspecifically the drawing of simple inferencesÑcould be observed not only in logic machines, but in any kind of machine, including blocks of wood dragged through water by yacht designers to determine hydrodynamic properties. Second, though, he recognized that the logic of relations, i.e. the polyadic predicate logic, required a type of deduction he called "theorematic", which require imaginative experimentation and which are therefore not algorithmic. Jaakko Hintikka has noted, with particular reference to the predicate logic, that the realm in which theorematic deductions are made is the realm of mixed quantifiers, and he has defined a theorematic deduction as one which increases the number of layers of quantifiers. (18) While Peirce, as far as I know, did not actually prove the claim that predicate logic requires theorematic deductions in his sense, it has, of course, been proven independently by Church and by Turing, and is nowadays known as Church's Theorem. To say that the polyadic predicate logic requires theorematic deductions is to say that the construction of proofs in this system requires creative experimentation, i.e. that there is no algorithm for proof generation or, a fortiori, for determining provability.

So, in Peirce's view, reasoning in the fullest sense of the word could not be represented by an algorithm, but involved observation and experimentation as essential ingredients. Peirce, who died in 1914, does not appear to have made up his mind whether a machine could ever be constructed which would be capable of reasoning in the full sense of making theorematic deductions, although Peirce did note that the logic machines of his day, including Babbage's Analytical Engine, were incapable of this feat. (19) The question whether future machines might be able to reason was explicitly left open by Peirce. (20) On the other hand, Peirce made it abundantly clear that human reasoning depends on a variety of machinery, including blocks of wood, cucurbits, alembics, pendulums, telescopes, and pens and ink.

To sum up: Not only did Peirce clearly articulate the Scotistic concept of virtuality; he also made it a centerpiece of his semiotic doctrine of mind, knowledge, and language. In addition, he adumbrated a potential critique of artificial intelligence, and formulated an alternative conception of the cognitive role of machines. In this conception human reasoning, being the manipulation of internal and external signs, essentially involves the use of machinery, including hard machinery, such as pens and inkstands, and soft machinery, such as alphabets and logical and mathematical notations. In Peirce's thought, then, we find the most promising philosophical framework available for the understanding and advancement of the project of augmenting human intellect through the development and use of virtual technologies.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1993, p 160; cf. also p. 132.

(2) Quoted in Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, Simon & Schuster, New York 1991, p. 177.

(3) Paul Levinson, Review of Harvey Wheeler's The Virtual Society, Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 14[3], 1991, pp. 363-366.

(4) Peter Skagestad, 'Virtuality, in Reality and Knowledge', Review essay on Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16[1], 1993, pp. 99-105.

(5) Levinson's participation in the online culture, e.g. through offering online courses, is one of the themes covered in his Electronic Chronicles: Columns of the Changes in Our Time, Anamnesis Press, Tallahassee, FL 1992.

(6) James Mark Baldwin, Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, Macmillan, New York 1902, vol. 2, p. 763. Reprinted in Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur Burks, The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1935, 1958, Vol. 6, ¤372. This paper follows the established convention of referencing the Collected Papers by volume and paragraph numbers.

(7) Peirce, op.cit., 2.228.

(8) Ibid.

(9) David Lodge, Small World, 1985, pp. 25,28.

(10) James Fetzer, Artificial Intelligence: Its Scope and Limits, Kluwer 1990.

(11) Peirce, op.cit., 5.289.

(12) Ibid., 8.248.

(13) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, Macmillan 1958, p. 152E, (577.

(14) Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Oxford 1972, p. 116.

(15) Wittgenstein, op.cit., p. 109E, (399; Popper, op.cit., p. 96.

(16) Peirce, op.cit., 7.366.

(17) Kenneth L. Ketner, 'The Early History of Computer Design: Charles Sanders Peirce and Marquand's Logical Machines with the assistance of Arthur F. Stewart,' The Princeton University Library Chronicle, 45(3), 1984, pp. 187-211; 'Peirce and Turing: Comparisons and Conjectures, Semiotica, 68(1/2), 1988, pp. 33-61. Peter Skagestad, 'Thinking With Machines: Intelligence Augmentation, Evolutionary Epistemology, and Semiotic,' Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(2), 1993, pp. 157-180.

(18) Jaakko Hintikka, 'C.S. Peirce's 'First Real Discovery' and its Contemporary Relevance,' The Relevance of Charles Peirce, Eugene Freeman (ed.), The Monist Library of Philosophy, LaSalle, IL, 1983, pp. 107-118. Cf. also Peirce, op.cit., 5.641.

(19) Peirce, op.cit., 3.618.

(20) Peirce, 'Logical Machines,' American Journal of Psychology, 1(1), 1887, pp. 165-170.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage