skip to main content

Peirce, Semiotics, And Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Title: Peirce, Semiotics, And Psychoanalysis
Author:  Muller, John and Joseph Brent (Editors)
Publisher: Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000
Reviewed By: Louis Rothschild, Winter 2003, pp. 48-49

Pragmatism is to apple pie as strudel is to psychoanalysis. One might argue that strudel and apple pie constitute discrete categories, and that a wise baker would not attempt a merger between the continental recipe and our patriotic pie. Yet, the eclectic or nouveau menu is now positively correlated with the pedestrian. Wafting in that air is a zeitgeist that provokes one to look anew toward neat taxonomies. A desire to disrespect discrete categories provokes, and the risk of a perverted merger could well reward the curious baker. Such a risk has been undertaken in Peirce, Semitoics, and Psychoanalysis, and the result most certainly satisfies the appetite. In this slim volume, John Muller and Joseph Brent have assembled ten papers that having for the most part originated in a seminar challenge each other to examine possible intersections between the work of the nineteenth century American thinker Charles Sanders Peirce and psychoanalysis.

As noted in the preface, Peirce’s work has found several homes over the past twenty years: literary criticism, philosophy, semiotics, linguistics, and philosophy of science. However, for the most part, an interest in Peirce has not been formally commandeered in hopes of illuminating issues central to psychoanalysis. The apparent prior lack of interest in Peirce among those who utilize a psychoanalytic lens may in part be understood by the comment made by several contributors to the volume under review that human behavior was simply not the area of Peirce’s primary concern. However, Peirce himself might well be bemused by this collection in which contributors range from perches philosophical to psychiatric.

The life Peirce lived is interesting in its own right, and Joseph Brent paints in vivid colors a portrait of a man who in attendance at the Metaphysical Club in Cambridge in the 1870’s gave birth to the pragmatist tradition while debating with William James and others (c.f., Hookway, 1997). That this fountainhead of American philosophy may be little known is, according to Brent, due in part to a vendetta against Peirce maintained by Harvard from 1889 to 1991. Brent further informs that Peirce used opium as an adolescent to treat pain suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, began to exhibit symptoms of bipolar disorder in his twenties, continued to experiment with drugs, and may be considered to have been something of a dandy. Such a history brings to mind Foucault’s (1988) declaration that madness may be considered the point in which one is no longer capable of contributing to a corpus of work, and that such a break provokes society with the task of restoring reason. Certainly, one may quarrel with Foucault in regard to the theoretical import of a correlation between madness and great works. However, the particular combination of illness and genius serves to make Peirce’s life a worthy subject of psychoanalysis. In line with Foucault’s observation, the volume under review attempts a restorative task in the engagement of both the man and his work.

An overall objectivist logical orientation may be considered to be a hallmark of Peirce’s work. Brent considers Peirce’s interest in logic to have been an obsession, and in his own paper, David Pettigrew wonders through Heidegger if such a logical focus runs the danger of uprooting the subject of humanness in favor of a technical analysis. Interestingly, in the last paper, Teresa de Lauretis suggests that the Peircian logical is a commonsense logic, not the logic of the syllogism. Such divergent viewpoints provide a multifaceted platform from which to view Peirce’s work. While the scope of this review cannot do justice to the work or to the nuanced points of divergent interpretation among the contributors, a brief summary may serve to entice the reader to pursue the matter further by picking up the volume itself.

Although Peirce was not interested in cognition per se, within his work on signs, there is much regarding what he called habits of inference. For Peirce as illustrated by Brent and others, signs such as sounds and body movements stand in an intelligible relation to other physical things. A definition asserting that a sign may be defined as anything that might generate an illusion is to be found in a paper by Vincent Colapietro. Within such a model, thought is a sign and self is a form of dialogue. Here trinities appear to rule the day, as taxonomies of three appear in varied forms. First, Peirce posits three types of signs: icons or likenesses, an index which is denoted by dynamic relations such as a grimace indicating pain (to use Brent’s example), and a symbol itself, which is considered by Pierce to be a conventional marker. In regard to the structure of thought another tripartite taxonomy is as follows: reasoning (or fully worked out inferences), a critical reasoning (or heuristics), and unconscious inference. Additionally, there is what Peirce referred to as the Third. The Third affords a grounding context or symbolic order, and culture is one example of such an order or context. The Third mediates between direct experience (firstness) and an experience of an object as other (secondness) to provide order or generality.

Within Peirce’s models, the sign functions as an element in a working triadic system. Thus, the sign stands for an object to an “interpretant.” The interpretant is how a sign relates to another sign. While this is not dependent on the human mind, Pettigrew observes that a sign impacts a person’s tendency toward action and may provoke a change in habit. For Peirce, the ultimate significance of a sign is the logical interpretant. Exactly how this is to be understood is a matter of some debate, and Angela Moorjani finds that there is not general agreement among Peirce’s commentators. Such an observation is extended in Vincent Colapietro’s and Teresa de Lauretis’ respective papers in which each comment on the others differing approaches. According to Colapietro, Peirce contains two distinct classifications of interpretant, and Colapietro maintains that de Lauretis blurs this distinction. For her part, de Lauretis argues that Colapietro has attempted a false alliance of deliberate agency between unconscious and conscious. The nunances of their debate, of which there is most certainly overlap, cannot be dealt with fully here. However, what is found among these papers in addition to an examination of Peirce’s work is an intimate glimpse into interpretive debate that is not commonly found in a single volume.

In addition to examination of the models of functioning signs that Peirce built, the volume attends to its integrative task. Psychoanalytic theory is applied to Peirce’s semiotic theory via connection to the human experience. Content ranges from de Lauretis’ exploration of a transsexual woman’s experience while going to a public bathroom to urinate in order to analyze the relation of habit to gender to others’ approaches to pathology including examination of psychosis. Here the reader finds much in regard to Freud’s functional understanding of conversion symptoms, and Lacan’s use of language and symbols to illustrate that semiotic understanding in itself is not new to psychoanalysis. Joseph Smith notes that Peirce’s thought on pleasure is congruent with Freud’s, as both find the desire to remove stimuli and tension (c.f. Schachtel, 2001/1959 for an alternate point of view in regard to pleasure). Furthermore, James Phillips provides illuminating session material in which the analyst is treated as a relational symbol whose meaning when corrupted by a patient, serves as a window from which to engage pathology. John Gedo follows suit here, and through focus on the analysts’ language explores the risk of being misunderstood versus mastering the semiotic codes used by the analysand that includes silence as illustrated in case material of a treatment in which the patient had suffered prior trauma. Phillips also looks to the schizophrenic as not in, but engulfed by, thoughts that terrify due to an alteration in which internal thought is confused with the state of the external world. Phillips additionally comments that it is an awareness of opacity and externality of the sign that distinguish the poet from the psychotic, and in so doing explicitly challenges earlier arguments made by Sass (1992).

As a psychologist, writing a review for a psychology newsletter, this reviewer finds it notable that James received little attention within the volume. One reason this may be the case is that James focused on conscious mental life (Flanagan, 1991) while Peirce afforded greater attention to the unconscious. In his paper, Wilfried ver Eecke notes that for Peirce, humans are multiple trains of thought occurring simultaneously and some of these move form unconsciousness to consciousness. While an increased emphasis on the unconscious may serve to make Peirce more attractive to psychoanalysis, one point in which James and Peirce diverged suggests that James’ understanding of pragmatism is not without its own attractive features. With his support of a fallible introspectionism that is personal, private, and uniquely ones’ own, James makes room for particular actions and perceptions. In so doing, Pierce found James flawed (Hookway, 1997). As Brent illustrates, for Peirce it is a mistake to privilege individual knowledge, and instead one needs to look to the community who can question if knowledge is to be adequate.

As Moorjani notes, the unconscious of Peirce is not the unconscious of Freud. For Peirce, psyche is grounded in a cosmic mind. This coupled with the fact that both Colapietro and de Lauretis give credence to a personal unconscious leaves one wondering what role Peirce may have in illuminating semiotic thought within psychoanalysis over the long term. That such an answer is not yet forthcoming suggests that more ink may need to be spilled if we are to arrive at a lucid understanding of Perice within a psychoanalytic frame. However, the current volume assembled by Muller and Brent is a lovely first course, and one can only hope that more will follow.


Flanagan, O. (1991). The science of mind. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Foucault, M. (1988). Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. New York: Vintage Books.
Hookway, C. (1997). Logical principles and philosophical attitudes: Peirce’s response to James’
pragmatism. In R. A. Putnam (Ed.) The Cambridge companion to William James. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 145-165.
Sass, L. (1992). Madness and modernism: Insanity in the light of modern art, literature, and thought. New York: Basic Books.
Schachtel, E. G. (2001/1959). Metamorphosis: On the conflict of human development and the psychology of creativity. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Reviewer Note

Louis Rothschild, PhD is in private practice in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to research on social and clinical categories, he has co-authored paper on William James and essentialism is forthcoming in the journal New Ideas in Psychology.


© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to the chair of the Publications Committee.

Date created: 2003