[FOM] C.S. Peirce on "General" and "Vague"

Jon Awbrey jawbrey at att.net
Tue Mar 3 11:32:13 EST 2009

FOM Listers,

Charles Sanders Peirce presents us with an interesting case of a logician
who appears to be thoroughly classical in his principles for logic proper,
a normative science that he often defines as the "formal theory of signs",
and yet who is willing to explore the utility of relaxing the classical
Aristotelian laws when it comes to logic's extensions into the theories
of information, probability, and signs beyond the realm of what he took
to be symbols proper.

Some of those explorations led Peirce to formulate definitions of
"general signs" and "vague signs" that I think might be relevant
to several recent discussions on the FOM List.

I have a set of quotes that I think it best to post in pieces.
Here is one of Peirce's earliest discussions of the difference
between general signs and vague signs:

[Martin, if the formatting below messes up,
  let me know and I will try it another way.]

| Accurate writers have apparently made a distinction
| between the 'definite' and the 'determinate'.  A subject
| is 'determinate' in respect to any character which inheres
| in it or is (universally and affirmatively) predicated of
| it, as well as in respect to the negative of such character,
| these being the very same respect.  In all other respects it
| is 'indeterminate'.  The 'definite' shall be defined presently.
| A sign (under which designation I place every kind of thought,
| and not alone external signs), that is in any respect objectively
| indeterminate (i.e., whose object is undetermined by the sign itself)
| is objectively 'general' in so far as it extends to the interpreter
| the privilege of carrying its determination further.  'Example':
| "Man is mortal."  To the question, What man? the reply is that the
| proposition explicitly leaves it to you to apply its assertion to
| what man or men you will.
| A sign that is objectively indeterminate in any respect
| is objectively 'vague' in so far as it reserves further
| determination to be made in some other conceivable sign,
| or at least does not appoint the interpreter as its deputy
| in this office.  'Example':  "A man whom I could mention seems
| to be a little conceited."  The 'suggestion' here is that the
| man in view is the person addressed;  but the utterer does not
| authorize such an interpretation or 'any' other application of
| what she says.  She can still say, if she likes, that she does
| 'not' mean the person addressed.  Every utterance naturally
| leaves the right of further exposition in the utterer;  and
| therefore, in so far as a sign is indeterminate, it is vague,
| unless it is expressly or by a well-understood convention
| rendered general.
| C.S. Peirce, 'Collected Papers', CP 5.447
| http://stderr.org/pipermail/inquiry/2004-December/002201.html

Jon Awbrey

CC: Arisbe List, Inquiry List

inquiry e-lab: http://stderr.org/pipermail/inquiry/
mwb: http://www.mywikibiz.com/Directory:Jon_Awbrey
knol: http://knol.google.com/k/-/-/3fkwvf69kridz/1

More information about the FOM mailing list