///C. S. Peirce vs. G. S. Skovoroda (English Version)

C. S. Peirce vs. G. S. Skovoroda (English Version)


Translated from Russian and edited by Yeshayahu Gruber.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines “semiotics” (Greek σημειωτική, from Ancient Greek σημεῖον, “sign, mark”) as “The science of communication studied through the interpretation of signs and symbols as they operate in various fields, esp. language”.[1] Among the pioneers of this field of study were the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913).

Recently I have become enamored with the writings of the Russian-Ukrainian philosopher Gregory Skovoroda (1722-1794). The other day I happened across his contemplations on the “symbolic world” and signs (symbols, emblems, and hieroglyphs). Skovoroda’s reflections are remarkably similar to Peirce’s treatment, which was published a hundred years later.

I would like to present readers with the opportunity to judge for themselves the degree of similarity between these texts (from the semantic point of view).

Peirce writes:

Of the three Universes of Experience familiar to us all, the first comprises all mere Ideas, those airy nothings to which the mind of poet, pure mathematician, or another might give local habitation and a name within that mind. Their very airy-nothingness, the fact that their Being consists in mere capability of getting thought, not in anybody’s Actually thinking them, saves their Reality. The second Universe is that of the Brute Actuality of things and facts. I am confident that their Being consists in reactions against Brute forces, notwithstanding objections redoubtable until they are closely and fairly examined. The third Universe comprises everything whose being consists in active power to establish connections between different objects, especially between objects in different Universes. Such is everything which is essentially a Sign—not the mere body of the Sign, which is not essentially such, but, so to speak, the Sign’s Soul, which has its Being in its power of serving as intermediary between its Object and a Mind. Such, too, is a living consciousness, and such the life, the power of growth, of a plant. Such is a living constitution—a daily newspaper, a great fortune, a social “movement”.[2]

And in another essay:

§2. There are three kinds of interest we may take in a thing. First, we may have a primary interest in it for itself. Second, we may have a secondary interest in it, on account of its reactions with other things. Third, we may have a mediatory interest in it, in so far as it conveys to a mind an idea about a thing. In so far as it does this, it is a sign, or representation.

§3. There are three kinds of signs. Firstly, there are likenesses, or icons; which serve to convey ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating them. Secondly, there are indications, or indices; which show something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them. Such is a guidepost, which points down the road to be taken, or a relative pronoun, which is placed just after the name of the thing intended to be denoted, or a vocative exclamation, as “Hi! there,” which acts upon the nerves of the person addressed and forces his attention. Thirdly, there are symbols, or general signs, which have become associated with their meanings by usage. Such are most words, and phrases, and speeches, and books, and libraries.


§6. Symbols. The word symbol has so many meanings that it would be an injury to the language to add a new one. I do not think that the signification I attach to it, that of a conventional sign, or one depending upon habit (acquired or inborn), is so much a new meaning as a return to the original meaning. Etymologically, it should mean a thing thrown together, just as εμβολον (embolum) is a thing thrown into something, a bolt, and παραβολον (parabolum) is a thing thrown besides, collateral security, and υποβολον (hypobolum) is a thing thrown underneath, an antenuptial gift. It is usually said that in the word symbol, the throwing together is to be understood in the sense of to conjecture; but were that the case, we ought to find that sometimes, at least, it meant a conjecture, a meaning for which literature may be searched in vain. But the Greeks used “throw together” (συμβαλλειν) very frequently to signify the making of a contract or convention. Now, we do find symbol (συμβολον) early and often used to mean a convention or contract. Aristotle calls a noun a “symbol,” that is, a conventional sign. In Greek, a watch-fire is a “symbol,” that is, a signal agreed upon; a standard or ensign is a “symbol,” a watch-word is a “symbol,” a badge is a “symbol”; a church creed is called a symbol, because it serves as a badge or shibboleth; a theatre-ticket is called a “symbol”; any ticket or check entitling one to receive anything is a “symbol.” Moreover, any expression of sentiment was called a “symbol.” Such were the principal meanings of the word in the original language. The reader will judge whether they suffice to establish my claim that I am not seriously wrenching the word in employing it as I propose to do.

Any ordinary word, as “give,” “bird,” “marriage,” is an example of a symbol. It is applicable to whatever may be found to realize the idea connected with the word; it does not, in itself, identify those things. It does not show us a bird, nor enact before our eyes a giving or a marriage, but supposes that we are able to imagine those things, and have associated the word with them.

§7. A regular progression of one, two, three may be remarked in the three orders of signs, Likeness, Index, Symbol. The likeness has no dynamical connection with the object it represents; it simply happens that its qualities resemble those of that object, and excite analogous sensations in the mind for which it is a likeness. But it really stands unconnected with them. The index is physically connected with its object; they make an organic pair. But the interpreting mind has nothing to do with this connection, except remarking it, after it is established. The symbol is connected with its object by virtue of the idea of the symbol-using mind, without which no such connection would exist.

Every physical force reacts between a pair of particles, either of which may serve as an index of the other. On the other hand, we shall find that every intellectual operation involves a triad of symbols.

§8. A symbol, as we have seen, cannot indicate any particular thing; it denotes a kind of thing. Not only that, but it is itself a kind and not a single thing. You can write down the word “star”; but that does not make you the creator of the word, nor if you erase it have you destroyed the word. The word lives in the minds of those who use it. Even if they are all asleep, it exists in their memory. So we may admit, if there be reason to do so, that generals are mere words without at all saying, as Ockham supposed, that they are really individuals.

Symbols grow. They come into being by development out of other signs, particularly from likenesses or from mixed signs partaking of the nature of likenesses and symbols. We think only in signs. These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts. If a man makes a new symbol, it is by thoughts involving concepts. So it is only out of symbols that a new symbol can grow. Omne symbolum de symbolo [“Every symbol is from a symbol”]. A symbol, once in being, spreads among the peoples. In use and in experience, its meaning grows. Such words as force, law, wealth, marriage, bear for us very different meanings from those they bore to our barbarous ancestors. The symbol may, with Emerson’s sphynx, say to man: Of thine eye I am eyebeam.

§9. In all reasoning, we have to use a mixture of likenesses, indices, and symbols. We cannot dispense with any of them. The complex whole may be called a symbol; for its symbolic, living character is the prevailing one. A metaphor is not always to be despised: though a man may be said to be composed of living tissues, yet portions of his nails, teeth, hair, and bones, which are most necessary to him, have ceased to undergo the metabolic processes which constitute life, and there are liquids in his body which are not alive. Now, we may liken the indices we use in reasoning to the hard parts of the body, and the likenesses we use to the blood: the one holds us stiffly up to the realities, the other with its swift changes supplies the nutriment for the main body of thought.

Suppose a man to reason as follows: The Bible says that Enoch and Elijah were caught up into heaven; then, either the Bible errs, or else it is not strictly true that all men are mortal. What the Bible is, and what the historic world of men is, to which this reasoning relates, must be shown by indices. The reasoner makes some sort of mental diagram by which he sees that his alternative conclusion must be true, if the premise is so; and this diagram is an icon or likeness. The rest is symbols; and the whole may be considered as a modified symbol. It is not a dead thing, but carries the mind from one point to another. The art of reasoning is the art of marshalling such signs, and of finding out the truth[3].


Now consider what Skovoroda says in a few of his essays:

Everyone born is but a sojourner in this world, whether blind or enlightened. Is not this world a wondrous temple of the most wise God? Essentially it is three worlds. The first is the universal and inhabited world, where everything that is born resides. This [first] world comprises innumerable world-worlds; it is the great world. The other two are private and small worlds. The first of these is the microcosm, which is to say, a little world, a tiny world, a person. The second of these other worlds is symbolical, which is to say, the Bible. In any inhabited world the sun is its eye, and this eye is the sun. And even as the sun is the head of the world, so it is not astounding that a person is called a microcosm, which is to say, a small world. And the Bible is the symbolical world, inasmuch as it collects heavenly, earthly, and netherworldly figural creatures, in order that they should become monuments guiding our thought toward an understanding of the eternal nature, which is concealed in the perishable much like a drawing in its tints.


All three worlds consist of two monoconstituent substances, which are called matter and form. Plato called these forms “ideas,” which is to say, visions, appearances, images. They are essentially firstborn worlds made not by hand, mysterious cords that comprise a transient shadow – i.e., matter. In a great or a small world the material appearance lets one know of the forms which are concealed beneath it – in other words, the eternal images. The same kind of collection of creatures constitutes matter in the symbolical or Biblical world. Yet the divine substance toward which it guides the creature by its wonders is form.[4]


Thus, when it [the Bible] was made [with an orientation] toward God and for God, then this God-breathed book itself also became God. “And God was the Word,” just as the promissory note or assignation [at a certain point] became coin – or the covenant, a treasure. This Word was anciently made [with an orientation] toward God. “He was toward God from the beginning.” We should [actually] read the verse thus: “This was toward God from the beginning – which is to say, this Word (λóγoς).”[5]


And just as the [seemingly] negligible promissory note conceals an imperial [coin], so too the perishable and mortal shadow of these books and the gloom of images do hide the immaculate, the most luminous, the living.


But the inhabited world concerns creatures. We are in it, and it resides in us. The Mosaic world – the symbolical, the mysterious world of images – is the book.


Limit No. 7: Concerning symbols or images. What names did the Hellenes give them? And what names does the Bible give them?

The Hellenic lovers of wisdom named such figures, which comprehend a mysterious force, emblemata and hieroglyphica. Whereas the Bible gives them these names: miracles, wonders, ways, traces, shadow, wall, window, image, limit, seal, vessel, place, home, city, throne, steed, cherubim, which is to say, chariot, and so forth… Now these are essentially cattle, beasts, birds – clean and unclean – and the Bible is their ark. The divine paradise, simply put, is a menagerie.[6]


No tints can elucidate the rose, the lily, the daffodil in so living a manner as they themselves wondrously enable the emergence of invisible divine truth, the shadow of heavenly and earthly images. This is what engendered hieroglyphica, emblemata, symbola, mysteries, parables, fables, likenesses, proverbs… And is it not astounding that Socrates, when that internal angel who led him in all his affairs told him to write poetry, selected [of all things] Aesop’s fables? The most ingenious picture seems rubbish to the unlearned; and so it is here as well.[7]


In the second part of his book Gregory Savvich Skovoroda: Life and Teaching, in a chapter entitled “Hieroglyphica, Emblemata, Symbola,” Vladimir Ern writes:

This content, which was new for the eighteenth century, represents in part the reception of ancient and patristic conceptions. Yet this very reception – tens of centuries later – cannot but be recognized as a creative act. Skovoroda’s entire wonderful and revolutionary innovation may be encapsulated in a single phrase: He consciously restored a serious meaning to the symbol and made the symbol one of the central categories of his philosophizing.


Thus for Skovoroda, as for Plato, the language of symbols has a self-sufficient meaning.


The wholeness and multivalence of living experience lives undistorted in the symbol, and therefore the symbol is the natural language of every internal thought.


The symbol has no interior or exterior; it is a single whole. If this whole disintegrates, if the external begins to separate from the internal and overpower it, the result is a great fall, something that Skovoroda notes in the ancient religions.[8]


Ern continues with a quotation from Skovoroda that again bears a striking similarity to Peirce, who often referred to Emerson’s poem “The Sphinx.” Here is Skovoroda’s original text:

The meaning of sphinx has already been explained in the first “Conversation” [called “The Ring”]. Its name means bond or knot. The divination of this monster concealed the same force [as was inscribed at Delphi]: “Know thyself.” Failure to untie this knot meant torturous death, murder of the soul, loss of peace. Hence the Egyptians were accustomed to set up statues of that monster in the streets, like multiple mirrors catching the eye everywhere, in order to commit to memory this knot that conceals the most necessary knowledge.[9]


Ern follows this up by quoting from Skovoroda’s “Narcissus,” writing: “In order to see the all in symbols, a ‘true eye’ is needed – needed so that ‘you would be able to perceive truth in the wilderness. And [for that] your old eye will be of no use.’”[10]


I found no reference to Skovoroda in the two-volume anthology The Essential Peirce. Google searches for “Charles Peirce Skovoroda” and (in Russian) “Сковорода Чарльз Пирс” yielded nothing of relevance. The only “connection” I found was an article by Yelena Ratnikova of the G.S. Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy (Kiev), but her work contraposes Peirce with Descartes, not at all with Skovoroda himself.

Nonetheless, the question remains: Did Skovoroda, and later Peirce, glean their ideas about the symbolic world from a common source? Such a possibility seems likely; but I plan to address this issue in a separate essay.

Postscript: While collecting material for that new investigation, I happened across a book by Liudmila Aleksandrovna Sofronova (1941-2013) entitled The Three Worlds of Gregory Skovoroda.[11] The author mentions Peirce on page 93: “On the path to semantic analysis, G. Skovoroda divided signs into various types: indications, icons, and symbols. This shows the correspondence between his conception and the modern linguistic theory of C.S. Peirce.” Sofronova carefully analyzes Skovoroda’s life and work, his philosophical theory, etc. Her chapter “The Word: The Fourth World of the Philosopher” deals with Skovoroda’s language, which was at once metaphorical, idiosyncratic, vivid, and clear. The same chapter describes the philosopher’s proto-semiotic outlook. Skovoroda’s compositional corpus provides the material for a detailed investigation of his treatment of the word as sign, symbol, and emblem, as well as his notion of systems of cultural codes connected to somatic senses, movements, medicine, nature, art, and science. Sofronova generally cites the Ukrainian edition of Skovoroda’s complete works (Grigorii Skovoroda, Povne zibrannia tvoriv u dvokh tomakh [Kiev: Naukova dumka, 1973]), rather than the Russian edition (Grigorii Skovoroda, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh [Moscow: Mysl’, 1973]). I consider the most substantial advantage of her publication to be the appended “Guide” (Putevoditel’), a systematized index of topics along with names. This index includes mention of Jakob Böhme, whose ideas may possibly have influenced Skovoroda.

[1] “Semiotics, n.,” OED Online, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/175724 (accessed 10 Aug. 2017).

[2] C.S. Peirce, “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God,” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, ed. Peirce Edition Project, Vol. 2: 1893-1913 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 435.

[3] C.S. Peirce, “What Is a Sign?” in The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, ed. Peirce Edition Project, Vol. 2: 1893-1913 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 5-10.

[4] G.S. Skovoroda, “Dialog. Imia emu – potop zmiin. Beseduet Dusha i Netlennyi Dukh,” in Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh [Collected Works in Two Volumes], vol. 2 (Moscow: Mysl’, 1973; Philosophical Heritage series no. 56), 148-149.

[5] Here Skovoroda quotes from the Old Church Slavonic translation of John 1:1-2, which closely follows the original Jewish-Greek text in describing the Word as “toward God” (πρὸς τὸν Θεόν). English translations have instead “with God.” (Note by Dr. Yeshayahu Gruber.)

[6] G.S. Skovoroda, “Knizhechka, nazyvaemaia Silenus Alcibiadis, sirech’ Ikona Alkiviadskaia (Izrail’skii zmii),” in Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh [Collected Works in Two Volumes], vol. 2 (Moscow: Mysl’, 1973; Philosophical Heritage series no. 56), 21-22.

[7] G.S. Skovoroda, “Basni Khar’kovskie,” in Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh [Collected Works in Two Volumes], vol. 1 (Moscow: Mysl’, 1973; Philosophical Heritage series no. 55), 79.

[8] V. Ern, Grigorii Savvich Skovoroda: Zhizn’ i uchenie (Moscow: Mamontov, 1912; Russian Thinkers series), 222-226. Translated by Yeshayahu Gruber.

[9] G.S. Skovoroda, “Razgovor, nazyvaemyi alfavit, ili bukvar’ mira,” in Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh [Collected Works in Two Volumes], vol. 1 (Moscow: Mysl’, 1973; Philosophical Heritage series no. 55), 413.

[10] V. Ern, Grigorii Savvich Skovoroda: Zhizn’ i uchenie (Moscow: Mamontov, 1912; Russian Thinkers series), 228, quoting from G.S. Skovoroda, “Narkiss,” in Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh [Collected Works in Two Volumes], vol. 1 (Moscow: Mysl’, 1973; Philosophical Heritage series no. 55), 130-131.

[11]  Софронова Л. А. Три мира Григория Сковороды. // М.: Издательство «Индрик», 2002. ISBN-5-85759-170-8.