In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Charles Sanders Peirce and Anthropological Theory

  • Introduction
  • The Peircean Corpus and Commentaries for Anthropology
  • Philosophical Appropriations into Anthropology
  • From Symbolic to Semiotic Anthropology
  • Visual Anthropology and Material Culture
  • Archaeology

Anthropology Charles Sanders Peirce and Anthropological Theory
Mark A. Sicoli, Matthew Wolfgram
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0187


The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (b. 1839–d. 1914) has had a profound, expansive, and sometimes unrecognized impact on anthropological research and theory. Part of Peirce’s impact has been mediated through the work of philosophers influenced by Peirce’s theory of signs, and who were themselves subsequently taken into anthropological theory. But the impact of Peirce’s semiotic on anthropologists who have interpreted Peirce directly has also been transformative, in particular, in developing a surprisingly transdisciplinary theory of meaning in anthropology. This article documents the role of Peirce’s theory of signs in facilitating a semiotic approach in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology and in providing a framework to critically expand research on visual and material culture, archaeology, trans-species environmental relations, life-systems, and the evolution of language and culture. The transformative impact of Peirce’s semiotic can be understood against the history of the dominant structuralist semiotic theory that guided much 20th-century anthropology that developed from the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure called for a science of signs (termed “semiology”) that placed at its center an analysis of the arbitrary linguistic sign (constituted by an ideal binary binding concept and sound-image) and which has value as part of a system of oppositions (langue), held commonly in the minds of speakers as members of a society. A parallel model of language was incorporated into American anthropology by Franz Boas, who argued that language is a conventional system of classification for a society, and the dominant focus became the study of such systems of classification in domains such as botany, zoology, kinship, color, and so on. The structuralist concept of language as a conventional system also became a dominant model of culture in French and British anthropology, in particular through the integration of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s binary analysis of mythic and mental structures, and which was coordinated with the Durkheimian concept of language/culture as a public representation of a society’s values to itself. In contrast, Peircean semiosis does not take the idealist and arbitrary linguistic symbol as the privileged basis of semiotic analysis. Peirce’s semiotic provides a framework for understanding actions relating signs and their material qualities to their interpretations by agents (human and nonhuman) in the habit of making meaning in social-ecological contexts. Peircean semiosis focuses attention on dynamic interpretive processes and their consequences, and on the form, diversity, function, and positionality of signs in chains of actions playing out in time and space to practical, meaningful, productive, or consequential ends.

The Peircean Corpus and Commentaries for Anthropology

Peirce’s Collected Papers (CP) (Peirce 1932–1974) establishes his truly polymathic and expansive philosophical oeuvre of fundamental insights into epistemology (especially pragmatism), as well as the philosophy of mind, language, self, ethics, science, education, and religion; and, importantly, the final volume of the CP and another separate book-length bibliography—Robin 1967—provide a detailed annotation of Peirce’s large corpus of papers. Peirce is perhaps the most influential American philosopher in history and thus, a robust and expansive literature of philosophical and historical commentary is available. The Charles S. Peirce Society is dedicated to the study of Peirce’s thought, and it publishes the Society’s journal, The Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy. Peirce’s works on semiotics, in particular, has been taken up into the history of anthropological theory. Perhaps the most commonly employed source in anthropology for Peirce’s semiotic theory is “Logic as semiotic,” assembled from various writings by Justus Buchler in Philosophical Writings of Charles Peirce (Peirce 1955); however, other key writings on semiotics are collected in Peirce on Signs (Peirce 1991). In addition, Peirce’s writings on other topics relevant to anthropology, such as Peirce’s phenomenological categories, abduction, and pragmatism are collected in the two volumes of The Essential Peirce: Peirce 1992 and Peirce 1998. From among the expansive commentary literature, a number of works may be useful to help clarify key aspects of Peirce’s thought, such as Fisch 1986 for commentaries on the theory of signs, Sonesson 2013 on phenomenology, and Melrose 1995 on abduction as a form of cognition.

  • Fisch, Max. 1986. Peirce, semeiotic, and pragmatism. Edited by Kenneth Laine Ketner and Christian J. W. Kloesel. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Volume of essays of Fisch’s biographical engagement with Peirce as a polymath philosopher, mathematician, semiotician, historian, and working scientist. Essays detail the development of pragmatism out of dialogues of the “Metaphysical Club,” differences between Peirce and others in that circle (particularly William James), the logical relationship between pragmatism and Peirce’s general theory of signs; draws a parallel between Peirce’s pragmatism and the work of 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, both growing out of a dissatisfaction with Cartesian thought.

  • Melrose, Robin. 1995. The seduction of abduction: Peirce’s theory of signs and indeterminacy in language. Journal of Pragmatics 23.5: 493–507.

    DOI: 10.1016/0378-2166(94)00055-J

    This paper reviews Peirce’s systems of categorization of signs, phenomenological states, and modes of cognition, and it illustrates how they relate to his concept of “abduction”—a type of quasi-inductive inference that involves developing a theory based on proximately available evidence (which can later be evaluated through fully inductive or deductive reasoning). The paper connects the concept of abduction to other relevant traditions of linguistics and philosophy.

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1932–1974. Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Vols. 1–8. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Volume 1, “Principles of Philosophy”; Volume 2, “Elements of Logic”; Volume 3, “Exact Logic”; Volume 4, “The Simplest Mathematics”; Volume 5, “Pragmatism and Pragmaticism”; Volume 6 “Scientific Metaphysics”; both Volume 7 (“Science and Philosophy”) and Volume 8 (“Reviews, Correspondence and Bibliography”) are edited by A. W. Burks.

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1955. Philosophical writings of Peirce. Selected and edited by Justus Buchler. New York: Dover.

    An edited collection of Peirce’s essays and compilations of Peirce’s writings assembled by Buchler into article-length essays, such as “Logic as Semiotic,” which is commonly cited and used to introduce anthropology students to Peirce. “Logic as Semiotic” concisely outlines the three trichotomies of signs based on firstness (qualisign, sinsign, legisign), secondness (icon, index, symbol), and thirdness (rheme, dicent, argument), and presents the typology of Peirce’s ten classes of signs.

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1991. Peirce on signs: Writings on semiotic. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

    This volume collects twenty-one of Peirce’s essays, including works on god, metaphysics, categories, human cognition, Berkeley, signs, argumentation, James, self, and several essays on pragmatism.

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1992. The essential Peirce: Selected philosophical writings. Vol. 1, 1897–1893. Edited by Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel. Bloomington: Univ. of Indiana Press.

    First volume of a two-volume collection of Peirce’s writings, including works on phenomenological categories, cognition, logic in science, and writings from the Monist rejecting determinism and advocating for absolute chance, arguing for mind and nature as processes of growth, the laws of the universe as acquired habits, and writings on evolutionary love that critique the greed and individualism of 19th-century political economy as metaphorical ground for Darwinian evolutionary theory.

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1998. The essential Peirce: Selected philosophical writings. Vol. 2, 1893–1913. Edited by Nathan Houser, André De Tienne, Jonathan R. Eller, Cathy L. Clark, Albert C. Lewis, and D. Bront Davis. Bloomington: Univ. of Indiana Press.

    Second volume in the two-volume collection of Peirce’s writings, including works on synechism, signs, science, nature, pragmatism, abduction, and excerpts from letters to Lady Welby and William James.

  • Robin, Richard S. 1967. Annotated catalogue of the papers of Charles S. Peirce. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.

    This is a book-length annotated bibliography of Peirce’s extensive papers housed in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. It is divided into two sections: Part 1 includes manuscripts and Part 2 is correspondence by and to Peirce.

  • Sonesson, Göran. 2013. The natural history of branching: Approaches to the phenomenology of firstness, secondness, and thirdness. Signs and Society 1.2: 297–325.

    DOI: 10.1086/673251

    This paper reviews the concepts of firstness, secondness, and thirdness, contextualizes Peirce’s phenomenology in relationship to Husserlian phenomenology, structuralism, and social psychology, and identifies relationship between Peirce’s thoughts on consciousness and on semiotics.

  • The Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy. 1965–.

    Transactions is the journal of the Charles S. Peirce Society, focusing on research on the history of American philosophy. The journal is a major source of philosophical and historical commentary on Peirce’s thought.

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