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Peirce's Esthetics

By Nicole Everaert-Desmedt

Professor, Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis, Brussels

1. Abstract


Charles Sanders Peirce

From within Peirce's theoretical framework, we describe the process of creating and interpreting a work of art. A work of art is created using a process of abduction parallel to that used in scientific inquiry, a process congruent with the evolution of the universe. The objective of a work of art is to capture firstness, by making it intelligible. When the artist's job is finished, his work continues to evolve by opening to interpretations. The interpretation of a work of art guides the receiver toward an iconic thought, which encompasses a total quality of feeling – Peirce's pure icon.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Nicole Everaert-Desmedt (2006), « Peirce's Esthetics », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),



Peirce did not write much about art. But Anderson (1987) demonstrates that an implicit theory of artistic creativity can be found in Peirce's system by making a double analogy, first, with scientific creativity, and secondly, with divine creative evolution.


In Peirce's classification of the sciences (1931-1935, 5.121), esthetics falls within the same group as logic (Normative Sciences). Peirce describes how scholars of logic must proceed in order to make scientific progress. Similarly, esthetics should describe how an artist must proceed in his work. Both endeavours entail a cognitive process with abduction playing a central role. ABDUCTION IN SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY

According to Peirce, the process of scientific inquiry can be broken down as follows:

1. The first stage is surprise: the scientist is confronted with a surprising fact that unsettles his state of belief.

2. Next he makes an abduction, that is, he formulates a hypothesis that might explain this fact.

3. Then he applies the hypothesis through deduction, and infers the necessary consequences, which will be tested.

4. Lastly, by using a kind of induction – that is, a generalization based on a certain number of positive test results – he concludes that the results verify the hypothesis until he finds conflicting evidence. ABDUCTION IN ARTISTIC CREATION

The process used in scientific inquiry can be adapted to the creation of a work of art.

1. At the outset, the artist is in an unsettled state, not due to a surprising fact, but to an unsettling feeling. He is plunged into firstness, into a chaos of "qualities of feelings" (Peirce, 1931-1935, 1.43): a feeling arises that seems appropriate, but there is no object to which it is appropriate. This is like the feeling of "déjà vu", Peirce explains. It is like having the impression, upon meeting someone, that we have already met him, but we do not know when or where we would have met him nor who he is. The sense of recognition that arises seems appropriate, without having any object to which it is appropriate.

2. The artist begins creating the work of art by using abduction. But while scientific abduction consists in hypothesizing a solution to a conceptual problem, artistic abduction or hypothesis consists in trying to express the problem, in letting qualities of feelings arise, in trying to capture them, in "thinking" them, and considering them as appropriate.

3. Next, employing a kind of deduction, the artist projects his hypothesis into his work; that is, he is going to present the qualities of feeling by giving them form, by embodying them in an object to which they could be appropriate. In taking form as this object, the work of art creates its own referent – it is self-representing. The hypothesis, which is initially vague, becomes focused, or made more precise, through projection into a form, and can then be "tested" by induction.

4. The last stage is induction, which is the artist's judgment of his work. How can the artist test the value of his creation? Not at all in reference to any external reality, since a work of art is self-representing, but in reference to itself. A work of art is self-adequate when it presents itself as a reasonable feeling, when it is the intelligible expression of a synthesized quality of feeling (Peirce, 1931-1935, and 5.132).

Works of art are not necessarily "beautiful" in the customary sense. In order to define the esthetic ideal, Peirce replaces the notion of "beauty" by the Greek term "kalos" – what is admirable in itself – which for Peirce is the presentation of a reasonable feeling (1931-1932, 1.615).

The function of a work of art is to make qualities of feeling intelligible. Intelligible expression necessarily implies thirdness, or the use of signs, but since qualities of feeling are found at the level of firstness, they can only be expressed through iconic signs (signs that refer to their object at the level of firstness: see the chapter on Peirce's semiotics). A work of art is thus an iconic sign, which Peirce also calls a hypoicon (1931-1935, 2.276).


Peirce introduces the term "hypoicon" in order to distinguish the iconic sign from the pure icon. A pure icon belongs exclusively to firstness; it can only be a mental image, a non-materializable possibility. When an icon is materialized, it becomes a sign, and thence exists on the level of thirdness, even if the object is referred to through firstness, creating an impression of similarity.

The following table summarizes the process of creating a work of art as we have just described it.

The process of creating a work of art
The process of creating a work of art


A work of art, then, is an iconic sign that renders qualities of feeling intelligible. However, qualities of feeling are never fully embodied in a work; intelligibility is never complete, any more than the evolution of the universe is complete. This is where Anderson's second parallel enters in: the one he draws between artistic creativity and cosmological evolution (Anderson, 1987). COSMOLOGICAL EVOLUTION

Although Peirce is critical of religious dogmatism because it obstructs scientific inquiry, he does assert his faith in the reality of God. Peirce's view is that God did not create the universe in a week, but that He is still in the process of creating it and will never be finished. Peirce distinguishes three stages in cosmological evolution (1931-1935, 1.362):

The first stage of evolution is located in an infinitely distant past: this is the chaos of pure firstness, the indefinite, the total absence of regularity.

The third stage is located in an infinitely distant future: it is secondness, or the fixity of the fait accompli: in other words, death ("dead matter", in Peirce's words (1931-1935, 6.201)). It is the total triumph of law and the total absence of spontaneity, the final state of a fully evolved universe.

We exist in time, which is the second stage of cosmological evolution, that of thirdness, characterized by both regularity (laws) and diversity (spontaneity and "chance"). As the universe evolves, laws and habits develop and become more and more regular. What was originally spontaneity becomes law. But new spontaneities continue to arise, increasing the variety of the world (Peirce, 1931-1935, 6.101).

The universe will never reach the third stage of cosmological evolution (in which God would be fully revealed, and thus dead), because for Peirce, "the law of mind cannot be self-destructive", (Potter's interpretation of C.P. 6.148, cited by Anderson, 1987, p. 119). "Peirce's world can never fully crystallize; it cannot reach an end of ends". God's purpose, His "telos", then, is not "absolute reason, but the very growth of reasonableness itself" (Anderson, 1987, pp. 119-120). DIVINE CREATIVITY

Peirce presents God as an artist, and the universe as a work of art. The description Peirce gives of God's creative activity could be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the artist's approach. God does not know exactly what He is going to create before He creates it. His objective (His telos) is undetermined. To begin with, God must open himself to the variety of qualities in initial chaos, which consists of "an infinite multitude of unrelated feelings" (Peirce, 1958, 8.318). He is looking for a possibility that might suit His purpose of creating a "universe". Then He acts, calling into existence certain qualities in the form of secondness; that is, He transforms firstness into secondness by means of thirdness (His telos). An element of chance comes into His choice of qualities: God realizes, or reifies, attractive qualities, but He could have been drawn by other Firsts, or been drawn to them in some other order. The way in which God exercises control over His creation is through agape, evolutionary love: God allows the attractive qualities that He actualizes to develop their own thirdness. Out of agape, God creates men, making them free to create as well, and thus free to participate in the development of the universal mind. HUMAN CREATIVITY

Man creates in the same way God does. Just as God embodies qualities of feeling by making them present, the artist embodies qualities of feeling in his works of art. We have seen that artistic creativity, like scientific inquiry, begins with abduction: with the artist opening himself to the possibilities. He exercises cognitive control over qualities of feeling. The analogy between art and divine creativity upholds the analogy with science. Like God, the artist begins his creation with an undetermined telos: he wants to create something, but doesn't know exactly what it will be. His telos is determined by a quality of feeling that arises spontaneously. The process of creation, begun in spontaneity, or chance, continues under the artist's control, governed by agape, which is the artist's love for his work. He lets the work develop (by deduction) to its own perfection. THE OPEN WORK

When the artist judges his job to be done (the induction stage), the work of art is finished; even so, it is not complete. This incompleteness stands out in both parallels. And in fact, induction in scientific inquiry is incomplete in two ways. First, it is fallible: one may always encounter a fact that contradicts the hypothesis. Second, the hypothesis may be expanded in order to account for new facts that may be discovered. As for God's creation, it is still incomplete: God is constantly creating, and the universe is constantly unfolding. A work of art is forever incomplete in the same way: when the artist's job is done, his work remains open and able to grow; it continues to unfold by opening itself to interpretation.

Art makes qualities of feeling intelligible by means of iconic signs. Art is thus a path to cognizance, a means for intelligibility to grow. However, a work of art will never attain total intelligibility, which would be death, or dead matter.


As a sign, the work of art must be interpreted, and this interpretation requires a sort of "intellectual sympathy", according to Peirce (1931-1935, 5.113).

A work of art is received not by feeling, but by cognition, or thought. It is not a reasoning sort of thought, however, but thought at the level of firstness. Peirce struggled to find a term to designate firstness of thought: "To express the Firstness of Thirdness, the peculiar flavor or color of mediation, we have no really good word. Mentality is, perhaps, as good as any, poor and inadequate as it is" (1931-1935, 1.533).

We propose the term "iconic thought" for this kind of thought. It is the "thought that sees" (Magritte), thought that has no object other than thought, that manages to "think while thinking of nothing", to arrive at the "Mystery" through the reconciliation of opposites (in Magritte's work). Or to cite another example we have studied (Everaert-Desmedt, 1997 and 2006), it is the thought of immateriality, as elicited by the saturation of matter in Yves Klein's monochromes. Generally speaking, one could say that an iconic thought is a thought that can envision an infinite quality, which is real without being realizable.


The purpose of a work of art is to capture firstness by making it intelligible. The only way to achieve this is by means of iconic signs. However, a pure icon remains unrepresentable; it cannot be materialized. It can only be thought, or rather, "seen in thought", felt in thought, iconically thought. The work of art is a construction made of iconic signs, and leads the receiver to the iconic thought.

The model receiver for a work of art is not some absent-minded passerby. The "intellectual sympathy" of the receiver must be elicited. Reception requires attention and a cognitive process. The model receiver is a person who enters into the logic of the work. Only under this condition can its reception reactivate and pursue its ongoing creation – the continuing growth of the intelligibility of firstness.



At a collective outdoor exhibit that took place in Luxembourg in 2001, Patrick Corillon presented visitors with a walking stick equipped with an electronic card.

This work is shown on the artist's web site (http :// For a more detailed analysis, see Everaert-Desmedt, 2005 and 2006.

The visitor moves through the exhibit carrying one of these walking sticks, and when he returns, the museum attendant takes out the electronic card and inserts it into a computer, which then produces an abstract drawing that is supposed to represent the visitor's progress through the exhibit.

Drawing of Nicole Everaert-Desmedt's walking visit.
Drawing  of Nicole Everaert-Desmedt's walking visit

On the back of this drawing is the following text by Patrick Corillon [translated], which the visitor must assimilate in order to enter into the logic of the work:

From time immemorial, people have wished to preserve some memory of the landscapes through which they have passed. Movies, photographs, postcards, etchings, original drawings ... each era has had its own technique.

But this inclination has not always been about external landscapes. It is said that in times past, people on foot took a walking stick with a tiny cage on the end, in which a scarab was placed. As soon as they returned, they would dip the scarab's feet in ink and set it on a blank sheet of paper. The scarab, still stunned by his journey, would make a drawing that was supposed to be a faithful echo of the movements the walker made with his stick in response to the thoughts that had occurred to him along the way.

Although nowadays it is no longer acceptable to inflict this kind of treatment on animals, there are now computer applications we can insert into the tip of a walking stick, such as a tiny electronic card that can readily assume all of the scarab's functions.

Patrick Corillon


We can retrace the process of creating this work of art by following the stages that we have identified:

1. In this instance, the qualities of feeling to be captured are those experienced by the visitor along the way: his internal landscape.

2. Patrick Corillon makes the hypothesis that a walking stick might be an adequate sensor. The visitor moves the walking stick in keeping with his pace, his mood and his emotions, all in response to his thoughts. His thoughts are somehow materialized in the movements made with the walking stick. It follows then, that if we could record the movements of the walking stick, we would obtain an imprint, or "souvenir" of this internal landscape.

3. The hypothesis is applied by deduction. A device is installed that will record the movements of the walking stick in an adaptation of a pseudo-legend (the story of the scarab).

4. Next, the results are verified by induction. A drawing in landscape format is printed from the electronic card of each visitor, iconically representing his progress through the exhibit.


This work by Patrick Corillon consists in presenting each visitor with the tool that can make his or her visit an artistic experience. The work is thus actualized through each visitor's movements; it exists only through its own reception.

This works only if the visitor enters into the game, with the intellectual sympathy that Peirce advocates. Such a frame of mind is needed for contemporary art in particular, which at first glance does not "look like art".

The work of art is not the walking stick, nor the print. The walking sticks presented to the visitors are all different. Each one is some sort of non-artistic object designed for functional use, not at all for viewing. The walking stick is no more a work of art than the sheet coming out of the printer. When the visitor leaves afterwards with his drawing, he still is not taking away a piece of artwork. The work is not defined by an object; rather, it is what is customarily called an "artistic action".

According to Peirce (1931-1935, 1.43), there are three categories of human activity: artistic, practical and scientific.

This distinction helps us to grasp the specifically artistic nature of the visitor's journey. Let us imagine the same kind of device – a walking stick with a recording mechanism – being used for a practical or scientific endeavour. What would be the basic differences between these activities and an artistic activity?

Consider first a walking stick-recorder for "practical" use. This stick would have been designed and built by a technician, and used "transparently" by the walker as a tool to monitor and improve his physical performance. The counter installed in the stick would yield chronometric results at the end of the walk: the total transit time, the distance gone, the pace, which would vary depending on the terrain and fatigue, and so forth. The stick would thus be interpreted in terms of the walker's action (Peirce's energetic interpretant). The stick helps the walker function effectively in the real world.

Now consider a scientific study (such as a behavioural study) in which a walking stick-recorder is used to measure the impact of the environment on the psychosomatic reactions of individuals. The researcher is the one who defines the conditions of the experiment. Let us say he wants to have a representative sample of individuals use the walking stick in the same setting, and then have the same individuals use it in different settings. As the "guinea pig", the walker must be inattentive; he is not the one controlling how the stick is used, nor the results. The results are interpreted by the scientist using a mathematical formula (Peirce's logical interpretant). The purpose of this sort of study, like any scientific activity, would be to increase our knowledge of the laws governing reality.

Now we come back to the visitor with the stick-recorder supplied by the artist. His walk can be distinguished from the two imaginary cases (practical and scientific) by the differences in the contract between the designer of the device and its user, the goal of the activity, the level on which it is interpreted and its relation to reality. The artist is the one who defines the conditions of the experience, and the visitor must be attentive. His attention is part of the very intent of the experience: capturing qualities of feeling. The visitor himself interprets his experience, and his interpretation occurs at an emotional level, by means of a fiction or metaphor. Upon completing the visit, when the visitor receives a piece of paper with an abstract image printed on it, he is given no code for deciphering the image. The story written on the back is the only interpretant he has, suggesting that the image is one of his internal landscape. This image is supposed to be the kinesic-graphic transcription of his thoughts, the indexical-iconic sign of the mental landscape through which he passed during his walking visit of the exhibit. The fictional key to interpretation helps to enrich the visitor's reality by introducing the element of possibility.

The following table summarizes our comparison of the three kinds of activity.

Art, practicality and science
Art Practicality Science


the artist
defines the conditions

the visitor
must be attentive

the technician
makes the tool

the user
uses the tool for its intended purpose

the researcher
defines the conditions

the subject
must be inattentive


to capture
qualities of

to improve

to measure


(interpreted by
the visitor)

(interpreted by the user)

mathematical formula
(interpreted by
the scientist)

Relation to reality

to enrich reality by introducing the element of

to function effectively in

to discover the
governing reality


Patrick Corillon's walking stick is a tool for transforming the visitor's journey into an artistic experience. This operation inevitably raises the question of what art is, for a "traditional" work of art (a painting or sculpture) is presented to us as such at the outset; it elicits no preliminary questions about its status: it belongs de facto to the artistic realm. Its interpretation inherently pertains to an artistic activity. Going places, by contrast, is a daily activity: every day we follow well-defined routes (in the house, on the way to work, and so on). So "going" is in fact a practical activity – even if it consists of going through an art exhibit. It is not implicitly considered to be an artistic activity. Consequently, the idea of "going" as an artistic activity requires the visitor to adopt a new way or approach, with attention given to the various elements shown in the first column of the table above.


ANDERSON, D., Creativity and the Philosophy of C.S. Peirce, Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1987.
EVERAERT-DESMEDT, N., "Voir la matière, croire à l’immatériel. Interprétation des monochromes bleus de Yves Klein", RS/SI, vol. 17, no. 1-2-3, 1997.
EVERAERT-DESMEDT, N., "Sens d’une œuvre et sens d’une exposition : le parcours du visiteur", Protée, vol. 33, no. 2, 2005.
EVERAERT-DESMEDT, N., Interpréter l'art contemporain, Brussells: De Boeck, 2006.
PEIRCE, Ch. S., Collected Papers, vol. 1-6, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-1935.
PEIRCE, Ch. S., Collected Papers, vol. 7-8, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.


A. Choose a contemporary work that does not "look like art" at first glance. Discuss why it is (or is not) art, in your opinion.

B. Consider a work of art of your choice, and specify (1) what "qualities of feeling" are involved and (2) what is the process by which the receiver is led to the "iconic thought".

C. Analyze a text in which an artist explains how his work developed. (1) How does he describe the "firstness" that he seeks to capture? (2) Can you find and describe an abductive process in his approach?

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