Peirce-onhood: Persons as Semiotic Animals


[2008 SAAP paper submission]



ABSTRACT: In this essay I provide a sketch of an account of personhood that draws upon the work of Charles Peirce. This account occupies a middle-ground between a Cartesian view, which takes a person to be an individual conscious mind isolated from all other minds and necessarily associated with a physical brain, and a full-blown Peircean theory, according to which personhood is a social phenomenon dependent on neither an individual organism nor on consciousness. Although my account is deeply informed by Peirce’s work, it seeks to distance itself from his less plausible claims about personhood.




            Throughout his philosophical writings, Charles Peirce makes numerous pronouncements about the nature of persons, or selves, or as he sometimes says, “man.” For example, in the cognition series of 1868-69, he wrote that “man is a sign” (5.314, EP 1:54, W 2:241).[1] Peirce, who is widely regarded as the founder of semiotics, defined a sign as, roughly, anything that stands for something to someone.[2] Peirce’s claim that man is a sign seems to mean that a person consists of her own thinking, and since that thinking is in signs, the person herself is a series of signs. But this semiotic account of personhood is far from all Peirce has to say on the subject. For example, in a late unpublished manuscript, he writes that “[b]y a ‘person,’ ... I suppose we mean an animal that has command of some syntactical language” (R 659, 1910). This later, naturalistic account is on its face quite different than his earlier, semiotic account. The story of Peirce’s theorizing about personhood is more complicated than these two passages indicate, since further, different characterizations of personhood occur throughout the Peircean corpus, most notably his description of persons in negative terms, e.g., “[t]he individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation.” (5.317, EP 1:55, W 2:241-42, 1868)[3] A question for Peirce scholars is whether he intended these different accounts to be compatible or whether the differences among them signify changes in his views.

Other commentators have done valuable work in reconstructing the development of Peirce’s views on this subject.[4] I will engage in a bit of historical reconstruction in this essay, but my aim is not to repeat that work. It is, rather, to give a rough sketch of a Peircean account of personhood (or, as my title has it, of Peirce-onhood), one that combines Peirce’s own semiotic and naturalistic accounts. It is my hope that my account avoids two opposite extremes. On one hand, I hope to avoid the excesses of Peirce’s wilder claims about persons, especially his view that some groups of human beings count as persons. And on the other, I wish not to lapse into a Cartesian account on which individual persons are absolutely discrete and discontinuous from one another, a claim that Peirce himself would find objectionable. Mine is a dual-aspect view according to which persons are both numerically distinct animals and continuous sequences of signs. If this account is correct, then persons are at the same time discrete individuals but nonetheless continuous with one another in an important way. It is my hope that my account will yield an interpretation of Peirce’s claim that “personal existence is an illusion” (4.68, 1893) on which that claim is true, despite our evident distinctness from each other.


            Again, Peirce characterizes persons as signs. And again, he defines a sign as something that represents something to someone.[5] So for Peirce, the sign relationship is triadic, in that it always involves three things: the sign itself (which Peirce also calls the representamen), the thing that the sign represents (its object), and the thing to which the sign represents that thing (its interpretant). For example, clouds can serve as a sign of rain to a person: the sign or representamen is the clouds, which signify rain (the object) to a person, in whose mind there is the thought of rain (which thought, in interpreting the clouds to mean rain, is the interpretant of the sign). There are natural signs, such as clouds, but also non-natural signs (traffic signals, weather vanes, etc.), and the latter class of signs includes all language.

On Peirce’s account, we cannot think other than in signs (5.265, EP 1:30, W 2:213, 1868). Further, the interpretant of a thought-sign—the thing to which that thought-sign represents its object—is another thought-sign: “every thought-sign is translated or interpreted in a subsequent one, unless it be that all thought comes to an abrupt and final end in death.” (5.284, EP 1:39, W 2:224, 1868)[6]  When a thought-sign is about something external to the thinker, its object is the external thing that the thought is about, and the interpretant is a subsequent thought-sign (EP 1:39-40, 5.285-86, W 2:224-25, 1868).[7] One’s mental life is a continuous process of sign generation and interpretation in which each thought-sign is interpreted by a subsequent thought-sign. In short, it is a continuous process of semiosis.[8] This idea, that each person is a continuous flow of thought-signs, reflects Peirce’s synechism, according to which “all that exists is continuous” (1.172, c.1897).[9]

The synechistic aspect of Peirce’s semiotic account is not limited to the claim that each person is a continuous sequence of signs. He also seems to maintain that different persons are continuous with each other. To understand this, we need to attend to his claim that man is, not just a sign, but an external sign:

That is to say, the man and the external sign are identical, in the same sense in which the words homo and man are identical. Thus my language is the sum total of myself; for the man is the thought. (5.314, EP 1:54, W 2:241, 1868)


By “external” Peirce means that which does not depend on how anyone in particular thinks, feels or believes.[10] An external sign is, then, a non-mental sign,[11] so Peirce is claiming that every thought is a non-mental sign. Peirce, like Frege, took a non-psychologistic view of thought on which thoughts are not person-specific mental events, or even contents limited to such events, but “the objects which thinking enables us to know.” (1.27, 1909)[12] The mental life of each person, and thus she herself, consists of a continuous sequence of thought-signs that get interpreted in subsequent thinking. This continuous interpretation of earlier thought-signs gives one’s thinking the structure of a dialogue, wherein a person at an earlier time engages in cognition that is understood by she herself at a later time. (4.6, 1898) This idea is reflected in Peirce’s claim that “[a] Person is mind whose parts are coördinated in a particular way.” (R 954, c.1892-93) The coordination just is this semiotic relationship between earlier and later thought-signs.

What’s more, Peirce’s view seems to be that thought-signs are not limited to items having a propositional structure: “whenever we think, we have present to the consciousness some feeling, image, conception, or other representation, which serves as a sign.” (5.283, EP 1:38, W 2:223, 1868, emphasis added) Although Peirce is not explicit about this, his view seems to be that, not just Fregean thoughts, but feelings and images might be external, in the sense that two individuals, in seeing the same sunset, or eating different samples of the same ice cream, might be thinking the same thing (in a very broad sense of “thinking” in which it includes non-cognitive mental processes), just as when they are both entertaining the same claim or assertion.

            The notion that a thought is something that any number of individuals can have in common underlies his view that individual persons are continuous with each other. According to Peirce, “two minds in communication are, in so far, ‘at one,’ that is, are properly one mind in that part of them.” (EP 2:389, 1905) In believing that Dennis Kucinich is the best candidate, the thought that he is the best candidate is literally part of me. It is a constituent sign in the man-sign that is the person I am, and 50 people all of whom think that Kucinich is the best candidate are, to that degree, of one mind in a very literal sense. If I share several beliefs, feelings, concepts, and sensations in common with others, then I overlap with them even more.[13] Considering the thousands of mundane beliefs that most humans share, and the thousands of feelings, sensations, etc. we also share, the degree to which our respective minds overlap—the degree to which we are continuous with one another—is astonishing.[14]

In his Principles of Psychology, William James writes that “[n]o thought even comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law.”[15] But responding to James, Peirce asks:

Is not the direct contrary nearer observed facts? ... You think there must be such isolation, because you confound thoughts with feeling-qualities; but all observation is against you. There are some small particulars that a man can keep to himself. He exaggerates them and his personality sadly. (8.81, c.1891)[16]


It is because of our shared thoughts that we are continuous with one another. “When we come to study the great principle of continuity ... it will appear that individualism and falsity are one and the same.” (5.402 n.2, 1893) The individualism that denies this synechistic connection among individual persons is a “metaphysics of wickedness ... your neighbors are, in a measure, yourself, and in far greater measure than, without deep studies in psychology, you would believe.” (7.571, EP 2:2, 1893)[17] This is one of Peirce’s most radical claims about personhood, a claim that distances him from Descartes’ picture of persons as isolated and discrete minds.

            What I have explained so far applies to persons only in their semiotic aspect. But according to some of Peirce’s other statements on the subject, there is another important aspect of personhood. Peirce seems to embrace the view of persons that Eric Olson calls animalism, the view that persons are animals.[18] As we’ve seen, Peirce states that persons are animals that have “command of some syntactical language” (R 659:10, 1910).[19] Our embodiment as physical, language-using organisms is so central to personhood that, says Peirce, the tongue is “the very organ of personality” (8.84, c.1891). The essential difference between persons and other signs is that we are living organisms. (7.588, W 1:496, 1866) Says Peirce, “the body of man is a wonderful mechanism, that of the word nothing but a line of chalk” (7.583, W 1:494, 1866).[20] That a man-sign is “connected with ... [a] physical organism” gives him “a higher degree of life than any word.” (R 290, 1905).[21] Conversely, it is our semiotic nature that enables us to transcend the status of mere organisms: “[e]ach man has an identity which far transcends the mere animal;—an essence, a meaning subtile as it may be.” (7.591, W 1:498, 1866).


The account of personhood which I advocate is, like Peirce’s own, dual-aspect. My Peircean view is that a person is an animal whose brain functions in a specific way, viz. to engage in a continuous process of sign-interpretation. Persons are, in short, semiotic animals.

At first glance it might seem that this dual-aspect view simply combines two irreconcilable accounts of personhood. It is one thing to characterize persons in naturalistic terms by saying that they are animals and quite another to say that they are semiotic continua. Peirce himself, in characterizing persons as both continuous overlapping signs and physical organisms, runs up against this objection. How can we be both signs and animals, both semiotically continuous with one another yet physically discrete from each other?

I believe that Peirce’s own theory of perception sheds light on this dual-aspect nature of personhood.[22] On Peirce’s account, a given perceptual experience, or percipuum, has two components: the percept and the perceptual judgment. (e.g., 7.629, 1903) The percept itself has two aspects. First, it is the locus of phenomenal qualities. When one is, say, tasting sweet iced tea, the percept is the aspect of the experience that encompasses the qualities of the tea, such as its coldness and its sweetness. It is not that the percept has those qualities. Rather, the percept is the experience of those qualities as they occur in the tea. It is the phenomenal presentation of those qualities to the experiencing subject. But it is not a representation of those qualities. The percept presents the phenomenal world but does not represent it.[23] In its second aspect, the percept is a “clash” between the perceiver and her environment (8.41, c.1885); it is the causal interaction between perceiver and perceived. The percept, then, is a perceiver’s direct perceptual interaction with her surroundings and the phenomenal presentation of extra-mental qualities that accompanies that interaction. The two aspects of the percept respectively correspond to Peirce’s universal categories of Firstness, or quality, and Secondness, or reaction.

The second component of the perceptual experience, the perceptual judgment, is a belief that automatically and involuntarily accompanies the percept. When I raise a glass of iced tea to my lips and drink, I automatically come to believe a number of things, e.g., that I am drinking iced tea, that it is sweet and cold, that it is not anti-freeze, etc. Unlike my percept of the tea, the perceptual judgment is a representation: it represents the world as being, e.g., such as to have a quantity of iced tea in it and in close proximity to me. The perceptual judgment corresponds to Peirce’s category of Thirdness, generality, representation.

            So a given percipuum involves both a percept and a perceptual judgment. These components of a perceptual experience are conceptually distinct, in that we can think about them separately, but neither aspect of the percipuum ever occurs apart from the other.

I suggest that we understand personhood as having a dual aspect, much like Peirce’s percipuum. A person is, on the one hand, an animal. This aspect of the person is analogous to the percept, and the double-nature of the percept is, in fact, mirrored in that of the person-as-animal. The human animal is the hub of consciousness, the lived experience (including qualitative phenomenal experience, and thus Firstness) that is, on my view, a necessary condition of personhood.[24] This is impossible without the nervous system of an animal interacting with its physical environment, i.e., without the Secondness of the embodied person. But there is an element of Thirdness to personhood as well, in that the individual’s mental life is constituted by a continuous flow of thought-signs. This flow constitutes another aspect of the individual person, one that can be partially duplicated in other, distinct embodied persons, just as you and I might make the same perceptual judgment about a glass of iced tea, even though our percepts of that tea would be distinct.

Peirce’s account of perception provides more than just a helpful analogy; it also helps to flesh-out the dual nature of personhood itself.[25] Much of an individual’s lived experience, and thus much of what makes him who he is, is constituted by his perceptual experiences. A person’s percipua just are his sensory and cognitive interactions with the world, and it is not much of a stretch to say that the consciousness required for personhood is nothing but the continuous flow of earlier percipua into later ones. A person, then, is a language-using animal who is conscious of her interaction with her environment, and that consciousness consists in part of the thoughts that she shares with other animals.

This is not dualism of a Cartesian stripe. A person-as-sign is necessarily embodied, and the only embodiment of which we are aware is the embodiment of a person as an animal. What’s more, Cartesian minds are self-enclosed, having no ontological connection with others. On my Peircean view, persons in their animal aspect are physically distinct from one another, and in that respect each has a separate identity from the rest. But in their semiotic aspect, persons are not distinct in this way. As we have seen, a person overlaps with others, in that the thought-signs that constitute who she is are shared with others.[26] Nor is this a Spinozistic view on which a person has two “modes,” neither of which is more fundamental than the other.[27] On my view, the animal aspect is primary, for two reasons. First, the semiosis which is necessary for personhood is impossible apart from an existing animal. Second, in the origination of an entity that will eventually be a person, that entity is an animal before he or she begins to engage in semiosis and thus before he or she is truly a person.[28]

My Peircean account differs from Descartes’ in yet another way. On Descartes’ account, persons are minds that are simple, in the sense that they have no component parts.[29] My Peircean account is very different, in that it maintains that in one aspect, a person is a continuous flow of thought-signs. This might be taken to mean that she is indivisible, much as a Cartesian mind. But I read Peirce as having maintained something like a middle position between Cartesianism and an empiricist view on which the mind consists of discrete ideas.[30] The signs of which a person is composed can be distinguished, but they are nevertheless not discrete. My thought that Kucinich is a good candidate is distinct from my thought that some Presidential candidates are good, but each thought is part of the same continuum of semiosis. The continuity among my distinguishable thoughts is grounded, at least in part, in the fact that a thought that is at one time an interpretant becomes the object of a later interpretant, in a later instance of semiosis. Our thoughts and feelings are necessarily connected with one another, despite the fact that they can be distinguished.[31]

But now consider the following objection to my account. If the signs of which a person consists are sign tokens rather than sign types, then my token of the thought that Kucinich is the best candidate is distinct from your token of that thought, and so the fact that we each have tokens of that type does not imply that we overlap. In fact, quite the opposite is true. My thought (i.e., my thought token) is mine, yours is yours, and James turns out to be right after all: persons are absolutely insulated from, and not at all continuous with, each other. On the other hand, if what we “share” in thinking the same thing is literally the same thought, it is unclear how the two of us might be distinct, individual persons.

This objection misunderstands the nature of the overlapping described above. My thinking that Kucinich is the best candidate is indeed a different instance of semiosis than yours, as it must be if you and I are two numerically distinct animals. But it is not the material, animal aspect of personhood that grounds our overlapping. “Overlapping” here does not mean spatial overlapping. Persons are individuated from each other by being individual animals, just as different copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are individuated from each other by being different bound volumes. But the millions of copies of that book are the same in the sense that is relevant here (recall Peirce’s comment that “the words homo and man are identical”). If you and I each own libraries, and each of our libraries contains 100 volumes, and exactly 10 of the titles in your library are the same as 10 of the titles in mine, then it is very natural to say that our libraries “overlap.” It is exactly this sort of identity that we should keep in mind when reading Peirce’s pronouncement that “personal existence is an illusion” (4.68, 1893; see also 8.82, c.1891). About this idea of Peirce’s, Vincent Colapietro has written: “One of the reasons why the denial of personality is antinominalistic is that it entails the rejection of the self as an unknowable reality; and, according to Peirce, the unknowable is a nominalist heresy.”[32] My synthesis of Peirce’s semiotic and naturalistic accounts safely avoids that heresy: neither man-as-animal nor man-as-sign is unknowable.


            In conclusion, I will describe another of Peirce’s ideas about persons, one that I think ought not to be included in an adequate account of personhood. As I indicated above, I take consciousness to be a necessary condition of personhood, and so far as we know, consciousness is a property only of individual organisms, not of groups of organisms. My Peircean dual-aspect account is compatible with the requirement of consciousness, as it attributes personhood only to individual animals. However, Peirce suggests that groups of individuals might be both conscious and persons, at least to some degree:the esprit de corps of a military company, a club, a university, a nation, is essentially of the same nature as the consciousness of a person” (R 961a:87, 1891).[33]Esprit de corps, national sentiment, sympathy, are no mere metaphors.” (6.271, EP 1:350, 1892)[34]  A person’s “circle of society (however widely or narrowly this phrase may be understood), is a sort of loosely compacted person, in some respects of higher rank than the person of an individual organism.” (5.421, EP 2:338, 1905)[35] This is something like Peter French’s corporatism, according to which a corporation can be a “metaphysically separate person,” an independent “member of the moral community” with its own rights, duties, etc. [36]

But in defending this view, Peirce seems to be giving too little weight to his own idea that persons are language-using animals. If we insist that the semiotic and natural aspects of a person are inseparable, as he himself maintains about the two aspects of the percipuum, then we can avoid his unfortunate loosening of the concept of person. What’s more, in doing this we do not undermine his emphasis on continuity, and in particular, we do not rule out the possibility that personhood comes in degrees. My own view is that the physical organism with which a given person is numerically identical comes into existence continuously rather than all at once, and I see no reason for thinking that the same cannot be true about persons as such.[37] An adequate theory of Peirce-onhood will eschew the implausible view that clubs, universities, and the like are persons without abandoning Peirce’s own synechistic emphasis on continuity, including the continuity of and among persons themselves. [38]


[1] References in decimal notation are to C. Hartshorne, P. Weiss, and A. Burks, eds., Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1931–60), by volume and paragraph number. Other references to Peirce’s works are as follows. “EP” refers to N. Houser, C. Kloesel, and the Peirce Edition Project, eds., The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, 2 vols. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992–98); references by volume and page number. “W” refers to M. Fisch, C. Kloesel, E. Moore et al., eds., Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, 6 vols. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982–); references by volume and page number. “R” refers to the Harvard manuscripts cataloged in R. Robin, Annotated Catalogue of the Papers of Charles S. Peirce (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1967) and “The Peirce Papers: A Supplementary Catalogue,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 7 (1971): 37–57; these manuscripts are available in a microfilm edition, The Charles S. Peirce Papers, produced by Harvard University Library; references are by Robin’s manuscript number and, when available, page number. “RLT” refers to K. Ketner, ed., Reasoning and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[2] Peirce’s work within semiotics (or as he wrote, “semeiotic”; e.g., 1.444, c.1896; 4.9, 1898; 8.343 and 377, 1908), was pioneering and wide-ranging, and the relevant secondary literature is vast. Representative writings by Peirce occur in the Collected Papers, the Essential Peirce and the Writings; for a single volume, see Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence between Charles S. Peirce and Lady Victoria Welby, ed. Charles S. Hardwick, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1977. Within the secondary literature, a recent notable work is T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Short recounts the historical development of Peirce’s theory of signs and its implementation in his account of thinking. The current version of the present essay does not take into account the changes in Peirce’s views described by Short.

[3] See also W 2:168-69, 1868; 5:233-35, EP 1:19-20, W 2:202-203, 1868; and R 1108, n.d. but no earlier than 1909. I do not address this negative conception of personhood in the present essay.

[4] Perhaps the scholar who has done the most in recent times to help clarify the development of Peirce’s multifaceted account of personhood is Vincent Colapietro. In Peirce’s Approach to the Self: A Semiotic Perspective on Human Subjectivity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), Colapietro traces in detail the evolution and expansion of Peirce’s account of the self, and he does an outstanding job of showing, contra some of Peirce’s other commentators, how the various aspects of Peirce’s view can be reconciled. Also noteworthy, especially with regard to Peirce’s negative conception of the self, is a recent article by Cornelis de Waal. In “Science Beyond Self: Remarks on Charles S. Peirce’s Social Epistemology” (Cognitio 7 (1) 2006, 149-63) de Waal illuminates the connections between Peirce’s negative account of self as given in the cognition papers of 1868-69 and his social account of inquiry, truth and reality as given in the “Illustrations of the Logic of Science” series of 1877-78. It was de Waal’s article that initially prompted my interest in exploring Peirce’s thoughts on personhood and that made me aware of some of the implausible aspects of Peirce’s own position.

[5] For example: “I define a Sign as anything which on the one hand is so determined by an Object and on the other hand so determines an idea in a person’s mind, that this latter determination, which I term the Interpretant of the sign, is thereby mediately determined by that Object. A sign, therefore, has a triadic relation to its Object and to its Interpretant.” (8.343, 1908) If Peirce intended to define persons simply as beings who consist of signs, then that definition, paired with his definition of signs as things that represent something to someone (viz. a person), would be objectionably circular. However, I do not take Peirce to have intended his claim that “man is a sign” to serve as a definition of persons (or selves, or man). He says many things about persons, selves and man throughout his philosophical writings, and while collectively they amount to a rich philosophical picture of personhood, none of them on its own is plausible as a definition, and to my knowledge he only once suggests that a description of persons he has given is intended as a definition, viz. when he puts forward the naturalistic account of persons as animals (R 659; see note 19, below). What’s more, Peirce sometimes states his definition of signs more broadly, such that a sign is anything that “stands for something to the idea which it produces, or modifies.” (1.339, n.d., emphasis added) Assuming that Peirce can define ideas without reference to persons, this is another reason for thinking that what Peirce says about “man” and signs is not circular.

[6] See also W 2:172, 1868; and 5.253, EP 1:24, W 2:207, 1868.

[7] On Peirce’s early account, a thought-sign that signifies an extra-mental object does so indirectly. What it signifies directly is a previous thought-sign about that same external object. (5.285, EP 1:39, W:224, 1868) T. L. Short (“The Development of Peirce’s Theory of Signs,” in The Cambridge Companion to Peirce, ed. Cheryl Misak, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2004, 214-240, pp.219-222) argues that Peirce’s early account fails to show how a thought-sign can ever signify anything other than another thought-sign, and points out that this problem is solved in 1885 when Peirce began to think of indeces as signs that refer directly to external objects. See also ch.2.7 of Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs.

[8] “Semiosis” is Peirce’s term for the triadic action of a sign. See 5.484, EP 2:411, c.1906.

[9] Elsewhere synechism turns up as less a metaphysical doctrine and more a guideline for philosophical inquiry. Peirce describes it as the “tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity as of prime importance in philosophy and, in particular, upon the necessity of hypotheses involving true continuity.” (6.169, 1902)

[10] This is in contrast to the real, which does not depend on what anyone thinks, feels or believes about it. See, e.g., 7.339, 1873.

[11] Peirce is explicit about the distinction between mental and external signs at 4.583, 1906.

[12] “One selfsame thought may be carried upon the vehicle of English, German, Greek, or Gaelic; in diagrams, or in equations, or in graphs: all these are but so many skins of the onion, its inessential accidents.” (4.6, 1898) Peirce seems to have begun using the word “thought” to refer to the non-personal content of (mental, internal) thoughts only some years after the 1868 paper in which he describes man as an external sign, but I believe the distinction between internal and external thoughts to be implicit in that paper, and the interpretation that I am proposing here is, I believe, the best way to make sense of Peirce’s claim.

[13] The thoughts that humans can have in common are not limited to beliefs. As we have already seen, Peirce includes “feelings, images, [and] conceptions” among the representations that count as thought-signs. It should be noted, though, that at times he seems to limit the representations relevant to personal identity to feelings: “All that is necessary, upon this theory, to the existence of a person is that the feelings out of which he is constructed should be in close enough connection to influence one another.” (6.271, EP 1:350, 1892)

[14] I take the term “overlap” from de Waal, who describes the Peircean community as “a multitude of dynamic minds overlapping at countless places and deriving much of their identity” from that overlapping. (2006, p.155)

[15] James, Principles of Psychology, quoted by Peirce at 8.81, 1891. Colapietro notes that “for [James], the most fundamental feature of personal consciousness is the irreducible fact of privacy whereas, for [Peirce], its most basic characteristic is the ubiquitous possibility of communication.” (1988, p.78)

[16] This overlap is so great, in Peirce’s view, that he comes close to saying that a person can be in two places at once: “A word may be in several places at once, six six, because its essence is spiritual; and I believe that a man is no whit inferior to the word in this respect.” (7.591, W 1:498, 1866) Happily, later in this same work he pulls back from embracing this consequence: “When I, that is my thoughts, enter into another man, I do not necessarily carry my whole self, but what I do carry is the seed of the part that I do not carry—and if I carry the seed of my whole essence, then of my whole self actual and potential.” (7.592, W:499, 1866)

[17] The passage continues: “Really, the selfhood you like to attribute to yourself is, for the most part, the vulgarest delusion of vanity.” In the very next paragraph Peirce refers to “the barbaric conception of personal identity” which, he says, “must be broadened.” (7.572, EP 2:3, 1893) On my reading, Peirce means to imply, not that any conception of personal identity is barbaric, but that the commonly accepted conception of personal identity is barbaric because of its narrowness. Colapietro agrees: “What is wicked and barbaric is not the concept of the self without qualification, but the conception of the self that portrays the self to be an absolute rather than a relational being.”(1988 p.78)

[18] As Olson notes, animalism “is deeply controversial. Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Hegel all denied it.” (“An Argument for Animalism,” in Personal Identity, eds. Raymond Martin and John Barresi, Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2003, 318-34, p.318.)

[19] The relevant passage in R 659 goes as follows: “By a ‘person,’ by the way, I suppose we mean an animal that has command of some syntactical language, since we neither call any of the lower animals persons, (for, though they be able to convey their meanings by various sounds, they do not combine different sounds so as to build sentences,) nor do we call an infant that cannot yet put two words together to make a sentence. One might almost define a person as an animal possessed of moral self-control; but that would not be correct unless we were prepared to call some dogs, horses, parrots, hens, and other creatures persons, which I take it nobody does, in spite of the moral respect to which they are often well-entitled. One feels that there is an injustice in our non-expression of respect for them. Yet, after all, the word person, p|e|r|s|o|n|a, has explicit reference to speech.” (R 659:10-11, 1910) Note that the page break occurs between “but that would” and “not be correct,” and that Peirce has drawn a large “X” over the whole of p.11; it is unclear why he wished to delete this page from the manuscript.

[20] In this regard, the following manuscript passage is worth noting: “...a mind may, with advantage, be roughly defined as a sign-creator in connection with a reaction-machine ...” (R 318:18, 1907; quoted in Colapietro 1988 p.95). Peirce is here making a claim about minds and not necessarily about persons, but perhaps person is one of the psychological or metaphysical senses of “mind” he refers to at 4.550, 1906.

[21] Quoted in Colapietro 1988 pp.85-85.

[22] The following account of Peirce’s theory of perception borrows from my “Peirception: Haack’s Critical Common-sensism about Perception,” in Susan Haack: A Lady of Distinctions—The Philosopher Responds to Her Critics, ed. Cornelis de Waal (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007, 109-22).

[23] Since the percept does not represent anything, it cannot misrepresent anything, and so on Peirce’s view there is no question whether the percept is true or false; it simply is.

[24] Mary Ann Warren lists six characteristics which we tend to associate with persons and maintains that an entity lacking all of them is definitely not a person. So, if an entity lacks consciousness, emotionality, reason, the capacity to communicate, self-awareness and moral agency, then it is not a person, although an entity with only some of these characteristics may well be a person. (“On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” [revised], in Ethics in Practice, 2nd ed., ed. Hugh LaFollette, Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2002, 72-82, pp.76-77) I go beyond Warren and maintain that consciousness is a necessary condition of personhood. I briefly return to this point in the final section of this paper. Peirce himself seems to acknowledge that consciousness, and thus the animal body which is a necessary condition of consciousness, is important to personhood, but he nonetheless downplays its importance: “...this consciousness, being a mere sensation, is only a part of the material quality of the man-sign” (5.313, W 2:240, EP 1:54, 1868).

[25] Peirce himself anticipates the dual nature of the percipuum in an early statement of his semiotic account of personhood:  “...everything which is present to us is a phenomenal manifestation of ourselves. This does not prevent its being a phenomenon of something without us, just as a rainbow is at once a manifestation both of the sun and of the rain. When we think, then, we ourselves, as we are at that moment, appear as a sign.” (5.283, EP 1:38, W 2:223, 1868)

[26] There are further respects in which persons embody continuity. In her capacity as an existent, physical entity (an animal), a person is continuous through time. Her existence as an organism does not occur in discrete temporal units; she does not “pop” into and out of existence—there are no instants, and no infinitesimal gaps between instants, during which she does not exist as an organism. Here I use “pop” in the same way as Warren Quinn, “Abortion: Identity and Loss,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984): 24-54; reprinted in Quinn, Morality and Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[27] It is not yet clear to me whether this aspect of my view is consistent with the “monism” Peirce argues for in “The Architecture of Theories” (1891), on which laws of mind are more primary than laws of matter.

[28] I sometimes incline toward a view that is narrower, and a bit less Peircean, than the one I describe in the body of this paper. On this narrower view, it is not the entire organism, but the brain, that is primary. That a pair of conjoined twins are two persons but only one organism is a compelling reason for thinking that persons are, not semiotic animals, but semiotic brains associated with an appropriate living body, whether or not there is another brain so associated. If I am right about this, then the question of personal identity reduces to a question of the brain’s persistence (or, as Peirce himself liked to pun, its “Peirce-istence” — see Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life, rev. and enlarged ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998, p.16)). Were brain transplants medically possible, then a brain transferred from one body to another, retaining its memories, would be the same person, despite the difference in bodies. In the relevant sense of “same,” the same sequence of interpretation cannot be instantiated by more than one brain. There is a sense in which you and I might run the same race, but your running it is not the same (in the relevant sense) as my running it, as it is your body that is running it in your case and my body that is running it in mine. Those who think one and the same person can be replicated across numerically distinct brains will, of course, disagree with this account.

[29] “...the mind is utterly indivisible. For when I consider the mind, or myself in so far as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any parts within myself; I understand myself to be something quite single and complete. ... As for the faculties of willing, of understanding, of sensory perception and so on, these cannot be termed parts of the mind, since it is one and the same mind that wills, and understands and has sensory perceptions.” Meditations on First Philosophy VI:86, in Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.120).

[30] Colapietro also emphasizes Peirce’s difference with Descartes regarding the divisibility of the self, but takes the central difference to be that, in Peirce, thinking takes the form of a dialogue between two selves. (1988 p.93)

[31] In 1893’s “Man’s Glassy Essence,” Peirce wrote: “The consciousness of a general idea has a certain ‘unity of the ego,’ in it, which is identical when it passes from one mind to another. It is, therefore, quite analogous to a person; and, indeed, a person is only a particular kind of general idea. Long ago, in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (Vol. II, p. 156), I pointed out that a person is nothing but a symbol involving a general idea; but my views were, then, too nominalistic to enable me to see that every general idea has the unified living feeling of a person.” (6.270, EP 1:350) [This passage should not be taken to indicate that Peirce was a nominalist, in the sense of denying the reality of universals (or, as he says, generals) in 1868. See my “On Peirce’s Early Realism,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 40 (4) 2004, 575-605.] Here Peirce is referring back to 1868’s “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” and he is indicating that when he wrote that article he had not yet come to think of general ideas as having “the unified feeling of a person.” What Peirce means by this is not obvious. However, I believe his point is that, in the earlier article, he had come too close to an empiricist-style atomism about thinking according to which a person is composed of discrete ideas. His later view seems to be that a person is a continuous flow of non-discrete thoughts: “... personality is some kind of coordination or connection of ideas. Not much to say, this, perhaps. Yet when we consider that ... a connection between ideas is itself a general idea, and that a general idea is a living feeling, it is plain that we have at least taken an appreciable step toward the understanding of personality.” (6.155, EP 1:331, 1892; see also R 954, c.1892-93)

[32] Colapietro, Peirce’s Approach to the Self, p.63.

[33] Quoted in de Waal 2006, p.157.

[34] Peirce goes on to give an account (which I find unconvincing) of how the reality of such a group personality or consciousness might be confirmed. His reference to “the generalization of feeling” echoes an idea from “The Architecture of Theories,” the first article in the Monist cosmological series: “The one primary and fundamental law of mental action consists in a tendency to generalization. Feeling tends to spread; connections between feelings awaken feelings; neighboring feelings become assimilated; ideas are apt to reproduce themselves.” (6.21, EP 1:291, 1891)

[35] In this same vein, see Peirce’s descriptions of individual persons as “cells” in a “social organism.” (1.647, EP 2:40, RLT 121, 1898; and 1.673, 1898) Peirce also writes that a thought “may affect a whole people or community in its collective personality, and be thence communicated to such individuals as are in powerfully sympathetic connection with the collective people” (6.307, EP 1:364, 1893).

[36] See French, “The Corporation as a Moral Person,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (3) 1979, 207-215.

[37] For example, the sign-relationship that is a necessary condition of the reality of a person need not be all or nothing. It can be a matter of degree whether a given triadic relationship is in fact an instance of the sign relation, and more specifically, whether the psychology of a young human at a given time is such as to be accurately characterized as instantiating that relationship. I take this idea to lie behind Peirce’s insistence, in the 1868-69 cognition series, that there is no first cognition of a given object, but that each cognition of an object is determined by an earlier cognition of that same object.

[38] In defense of Peirce’s attribution of personhood to groups, de Waal comments that “from a Peircean stance ... attributing personhood to individuals is an ill-conceived attempt to apply the concept of personhood to something it strictly doesn’t apply to. What personhood applies to is the individual interacting with his future self. Hence, it’s a social concept. ... Because of the dialogic nature of thought we are social even when we are alone. Mapping personhood to self-enclosed atomic individuals, as the Cartesian tradition tried to do, is misconceived.” (2006 pp.157-58) But the dialogical nature of the self justifies saying that it is a relational concept, not that it’s a social concept. “Social” connotes multiple people, whereas Peirce’s dialogical account of thought requires only that there be a single person-as-sign whose distinct (but non-discrete) “parts” are related to each other in a specific way.