design language practice and theory 




Peirce and the cabbala


updated: april 2007
(Peirce (1839-1914) was a highly intelligent and sensitive person as we can understand from his formidable, extensive works, which even today are not entirely published. These works treat of the most varied arguments: from chemistry and astrology to mathematics and philosophy, from psychology to theology, the connecting underlying idea being the creation of a comprehensive system of signs, a semiology. Being a difficult and original person he ended, even coming from the top echelon of the US society, as a lonely and poor man, his works practically forgotten till after the second world war. Recently however a real peirce-cult has risen, as the dedicated many web sites can testify. This is astonishing in a way because reading Peirce can be a tedious task, especially his elaboration of formal logic. He understood early, what is common knowledge today, namely that no truthful description of reality can be made outside the limits of human perception and therefore should start with the analysis, the classification and interpretation of the sign systems implicated in the acquisition, elaboration and transmission of these perceptions. This is perhaps one of the reasons for his actual popularity, our society being ever more characterized and determined by multi-medial informatics. 

Peirce was well prepared for the classification business having as a student to sort out fossil brachiopods for his professor Agassiz, author of an essay on classification. Moreover he had read, as Fisch reports, Whately's ‘Elements of Logic’ (as he was eleven years old!) and Kant's ‘Critic of the Pure Reason’. In 1867 he publishes his ‘New List of Categories’ that later evolved to a full-fledged pan semiotic System, as Eco calls it,  of basically ten different species of Signs assorted in three main categories or types: 
yellow the first and most immediately perceivable group (4 species) is iconically highlighted
green dot the second group (3 species) determined by inductive relations is indexically highlighted
light blue dot the third (3 species) entering the reach of metaphysics is symbolically determined
Icon, Index and Symbol are just some of the names with which Peirce labeled his categories, others, still more difficult to understand, signify the single sign species in further detail . 

Floyd Merrell is a good guide for those that want to enter in the quite complex peircian Theory of Signs. In this page I refer mainly to his ‘Semiosis in the Postmodern Age’, Perdue University Press, Indiana, 1995. He gives on p.95 the following list of the ten fundamental  peircian ‘classes of signs’ (as he calls them) together with some most elementary examples: 

1 Qualisign A Sensation of "Blue"
2 Iconic Sinsign A Self-contained Diagram
3 Rhematic Indexical Sinsign A Spontanious Cry
4 Dicent Sinsign A Weathervane
5 Iconic Legisign A Diagram, Apart from its Self-containment
6 Rhematic Indexical Legisign A Demonstrative Pronoun
7 Dicent Indexical Legisign A Commonplace Evocation or Expression
8 Rhematic Symbol A Term
9 Dicent Symbol A Proposition
10 Argument A Syllogism

It is a speculation why Peirce, who admitted the existence of an infinite number of sign species, opted for ten categories: Aristotle's, that indefatigable classifier, choose also ten but they were of a totally different nature as Peirce himself affermed.  Kant choose twelve and they have some relation to the peircian categories, Hegel contented himself with nothing less than 60! 

As Roman Jakobson  observes, Peirce was interested in the medieval obsession with language theory, universal grammar and the relative classification of signs, and the names of many illustrious medieval philosophers occur in his writings. 
I am not informed if Raimondo Lullo (1235-1315), another famous philosopher of that age, is mentioned by Peirce; this spanish thinker said that the simple elements that are at the foundation of all reality, such that science and logic, are identical and that they are a ‘book from which we can learn to understand God’. He classifies ten universal categories, both logical and ontological, in his ‘Ars Brevis’ by means of characters and other symbols organized in concentric circles and other geometrical figures. 
diagramma di Lullo from a XVI. Cent. edition of ‘Ars Brevis’ by R.Lullo

The use of diagrams to present the relations between categories or objects has been popular in all times so that we can even speculate if these figures are not really antecedent to the formulation of ideas in general. It is a visual means of classifying, just as Peirce intended: "I do not think I ever reflect in words: I employ visual diagrams, firstly because this way of thinking is my natural language of self-communion, and secondly, because I am convinced that it is the best system for the purpose" (MS 620:8). We can also mention his fascination with the number 3: he affirms that any classification can in extremis be reduced  to three categories. Furthermore he converted, though not always an active communicant (1), to the trinitarian theology of the Episcopalian church and, as we can read in his Lowell Lectures, he does not hesitate to recognize the implications for his Theory of Signs: 

"Here, therefore, we have a divine trinity of the object, interpretant, and ground. . . . In many respects, this trinity agrees with the Christian trinity; indeed I am not aware that there are any points of disagreement. The interpretant is evidently the Divine Logos or word; and if our former guess that a Reference to an interpretant is Paternity be right, this would be also the Son of God. The ground, being that partaking of which is requisite to any communication with the Symbol, corresponds in its function to the Holy Spirit." 

"a Divine Eternal Trinity of Father, Mother and Only Son; the 'Mother' being veiled throughout the Scriptures under the terms 'The Spirit,' 'Wisdom,' 'The Holy Ghost,' 'The Comforter,' and 'The Woman clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars and with the moon under her feet'." 

"A Sign mediates between its Object and its Meaning. . . Object the father, sign the mother of meaning." That is, he might have added, of their son, the Interpretant.

These remarks are tantamount to a confession of the existence of a geometric and numerical relation between Peirce’s classification of signs and his metaphysics and probably to the influence of medieval thought as well. If we take the fact that he mentioned ‘wisdom’ ,which corresponds to ‘chockmah’, a category in cabalistic sign system as we will see later, something keeps telling me that Peirce was interested in the medieval cabbala and probably used it as a guideline for his classification of signs. Floyd Merrell did not mention this, as far as I know, but he came very near to it when he analyses the configuration of the ten terms of the Peircian sign system, especially talking about the genesis or semiosis or generacy of signs. 

Let us take a look at the cabbala as it is known among jewish as well as christian thinkers, in the middle ages and later. The cabbalah belongs, as Gershom Scholem  says, to an impressive complex of writings and orally transmitted traditions of Hebraic mysticism, especially dedicated to the exegesis of the most important of them: the Torah or Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). The Torah is considered a cryptic revelation, by means of the mystical signification of its characters, of the meaning of all being: to the initiated a hidden and living God is manifest in the combinatory of its letters and their numerical meaning. 
This is in other words a medieval version of the classification of signs that represent reality and through realty, divinity. These signs are classified in categories called sephiroth, ten of them (Such is the revelation by Avraham Abulafi, Joseph Gikatulla, Moseh De Leòn, and other theosophs of the cent.). God manifests himself through these attributes or areas of emanation, fundamental archetypal powers of al being. The ten sephiroth moreover are divided in four ‘worlds’, ‘emanation’, creation’, ‘formation’ and ‘production’. 
At the same time a graphical representation of the ten sephiroth as parts of a ‘tree of life’ became popular. We can read about this tree in the first book about the cabbala ‘Bahir’ from the Languedoc in southern France by an anonymous author (1180) 

Colin's Hermetic Kabbalah Page informs us as follows: 

The  Tree is composed of 10 states or  sephiroth  (sephiroth plural,  sephira singular) and 22 interconnecting paths.  The age of  this diagram is unknown:  there is enough information in  the 13th.  century "Sepher ha Zohar" to construct this  diagram,  and the  doctrine of the sephiroth has been attributed to  Isaac  the Blind in the 12th.  century,  but we have no certain knowledge of its  origin.  It  probably originated sometime  in  the  interval between the 6th.  and 13th.  centuries AD. The origin of the word "sephira"  is unclear - it is almost certainly derived from the Hebrew word for "number" (SPhR),  but it has also been attributed to the Greek word for "sphere" and even to the Hebrew word for  a sapphire (SPhIR).  With a characteristic aptitude for discovering hidden meanings everywhere, Kabbalists find all three derivations useful, so take your pick. 
Colin Low's site provides also a list of links on the Kabbala.
We read  on the tree of life in the site of Auriel Kabbalah as follows:
"The primary glyph of Kabbalism, the Tree of Life or Otz Chiim, is the key to mastering the symbolism and the secrets of Kabbalah. All qualities, ideas and objects can be attributed a place on the tree and the tree serves as a mnemonic device for the Kabbalist.A symbolic guidebook to other realms, a theology treatise and a practical meditation manual are all contained in symbolic form in the spheres and paths of the Tree of Life." 
a sephirot tree from the XIIth cent.  a sephiroth tree from a transcription of 
the ‘Zohar’ (the book of radiance), from 1280
look at the famous  Tree of Life by Kircher 
The ten Sephiroth are described in a highly recommendable book on the cabbala by Daniel C. Matt  as follows: 
The first sephirah is more commonly called Keter or Ayin, the crown. It is the crown on the head of Adam Qadmon, Primordial Adam. According to the opening chapter of Genesis, the human being is created in the image of God. The sephirot constitute the divine archetype of that image, the mythical paragon of the human being, our original nature. Another depiction of the sephirot is that of a cosmic tree growing downward from its roots above, from Keter, "the root of roots." 
2 Out of the depths of Nothingness shines the primordial point of Hokhmah, Wisdom, the second sephirah
3 This point expands into a circle, the sephirah of Binah, Understanding. Binah is the womb, the Divine Mother. Receiving the seed, the point of Hokhmah, she conceives the seven lower sephirot. created being, too, has its source in her; she is "the totality of all individuation." 

These three highest sephirot (Keter, Hokhmah, and Binah) represent the head of the divine body and are considered more hidden than the offspring of Binah.



She gives birth first to Hesed (Love) and Gevurah (Power), also known as Din (Judgment). Hesed and Gevurah are the right and left arms of God, two poles of the divine personality: free flowing love and strict judgment, grace and limitation. For the world to function properly, both are essential.
6 Ideally a balance is achieved, symbolized by the central sephirah, Tifíeret (Beauty), also called Rahamim (Compassion). Il judgment is not softened by love, it lashes out and threatens to destroy life. Here lies the origin of evil, called Sitra Ahra, the other Side. From a more radical perspective, evil originates in divine thought, which eliminates waste before emanating goodness. The demonic is rooted in the divine. 

Tif'eret is the trunk of the sephirotic body. He is called Heaven, Sun, King, and the Holy one, blessed be he, the standard rabbinic name for God. He is the son of Hokhmah and Binah.


The next two sephirot are Netsah(Eternity) and Hod (Splendor). They form the right and left legs of the body and are the source of prophecy.
9 Yesod (Foundation) is the ninth sephirah and represents the phallus, the procreative life force of the universe. He is also called Tsaddiq (Righteous one), and Proverbs 10:25 is interpreted as applying to him: "The righteous one is the foundation of the world." Yesod is the axis mundi, the cosmic pillar. 
10 The light and power of the preceding sephirot are channeled through him to the last sephirah, Malkhut. Malkhut (Kingdom) is also known as Shekhinah (Presence). In earlier jewish literature, Shekhinah appears frequently as the immanence of God but is not overtly feminine. In Cabbala, Shekhinah becomes a full-fledged She: daughter of Binah, bride of Tif'eret, the feminine half of God, Shekhinah is "the secret of the possible," receiving the emanation from above and engendering the varieties of life below. The union of Shekhinah and Tif'eret constitutes the focus of religious life. Human righteous action stimulates Yesod the Righteous one, and brings about the union of the divine couple. Human marriage symbolizes and actualizes divine marriage. Sabbath eve is the weekly celebration of the cosmic wedding, and the ideal time for human lovers to unite. 

* the roman numeration is mine; the color code referrs to the sephiroth tree below (AvO) 

The ancient Cabbalah has recently attracted many as numerous sites in the internet testify; however not all of them are interesting in my view as I am allergic to mystification. But if we do find, as perhaps Peirce was, significant indications in the direction of a better understanding of semiotics, they are worth investigating. Even Umberto Eco was apparently attracted by the cabbalah as those that did read his ‘Foucault's Pendulum’ can acknowledge: the names of the different chapters correspond to the sephiroth. 

It struck me that Peirce has organized his ten species in a manner analog to the sephiroth in three categories, (taking the fourth inside the third). Has he read the ‘Heptaplus’, or the ‘900 theses from the ‘Conclusiones philosophica, cabalisticae et theologicae’ both referring to the interpretative techniques of the Cabbalah, by Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) or ‘De arte cabbalistica’ by his contemporary John Reuchlin (1455-1522); or the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ by  Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) or, as probable, the "Stromates" by the christian hermetic greek philosopher Clement of Alexandria (150ca-215ca), inpirator of the here above mentioned thinkers,  in which he distinghuishes in the symbolism in hieroglyphic writing the same three categories, imitative, figurative and allegorical ? 

For Peirce our perceptions are ineluctably signs and these signs are emanations of the divine creation, objects of our rational analysis. Even our concepts and words are signs and signs of signs. We can illustrate these correspondences between the peircian species and categories of signs and those of the Sephiroth tree (the numeration in this tree follows Peirce’s list inverting the traditional cabbalah order). 

  the 'shattering of the shells' or 

left arrow the sephirot tree
   the 'mending of the shells' or 

The  sign categories of Peirce and the cabalistic sephiroth tree
On the background one of the famous Angels by Paul Klee.
Click to have a look at this marvellous painting

the new tree click this image if you want to have a look at the new sephiroth tree with  the mention of the peircean categories
A special mention deserves the fifth sephiroth, Tipharet (Tifíaret, the sixth in cabbalah numeration), it is the central sign in the system connecting al signs with exception of the Shekhinah (which is actually a non sign presenting all matter indifferently to our perception as a Qualisign in the peircian system). It will be of interest to those that are fascinated by the I Ching and the Ho-tíu spiral mentioned by Merrell (11) that these systems of 10 categories! also pivot around the fifth sign. 

The evolution of signs from their most elementary form as a Qualisign into ever more significant forms and intricate meanings towards the Iconic Legisign (that represents a general concept, e.g. its representation in the form of a diagram), and ultimately to the ‘argument’, or a self contained universe of final interpretation of reality as perceived, (a belief in the definition of Peirce), is called semiosis. Just as signs can move in that direction they can proceed in the opposite direction stripping the sign of its meanings, banalizing it. This process of de-generation of signs is the unavoidable course of our post-modern multimedial society as Jean Baudrillard gloomily asserts. It can be compared to ‘the shattering of the vases’ or Shevirah in the cosmogony of the cabbala. For the cabbalist, the divine light is to strong to be contained in the material world or ‘vases’ so that they shatter and this world is just left with the fragments and some sparks of light. It is the human task to repair or mend the pieces in a process, called Tiqqun, of restoring meaning, in other words semiosis. 

As I said in the beginning, these connections between the Sephiroth and the peircian categories are merely an intuition (Peirce would have called it an ‘abduction’) and parallels with other philosophers leading to homogeneities in different metaphysical sign theories could be indicated. My option for the cabbalistic way is purely instrumental, one way to stimulate reflection. My ultimate goal is to clarify the ways of industrial design in the form of a design theory based on the (shaky) premise that also design has a proper language. In the next page I will pursue in that direction attacking it from a totally different though convergent angle: the Ur-sign. 

1.Max H.Fisch, ‘The Peirce Edition Project’, Introduction to  Volume 1
2. Umberto Eco, 'Il Segno, ISEDI, Milan, 1973, p.94 
3. I use the term ‘species’ for the collection of single distinguishable items contained in a ‘category’ 
4. Some of the medieval thinkers Peirce mentioned are: 

  • Berengario (1008-1088) bishop of Canterbury,.who said that he believes only in what he can perceive with his senses; 
  • Anselmo d’Aosta (1033-1109), who anticipates the theory of suppositions that Peirce 800 years later recognized as Abduction ; 
  • Roscellino (1050-1120), who claims the diversity of the single components of the  Holy Trinity and 
  • his pupil the unruly Peter Abelardo (1079-1142), emasculated because loving a non and against the official church proclaiming the idea of ‘universality’ a purely mental operation; 
  • John of Salisbury (1110-1180) asserting in his ‘Metalogon’ the validity of logical reasoning; 
  • Duns Scoto (1265-1308), who opts for a compromise between franciscan nominalism of Roscellini and Abelardo and the universalism of the dominicans; 
  • the famous William of Occam (1280-1349) who advocates to prefer in all occasions simplicity over complicated explanations, especially in absence of proof by actual experience. 
5. Lullo knew Arabic and Hebraic texts, like the Talmud, but wisely he did not divulge this knowledge as one can understand: during his lifetime these books were vehemently discussed and in France even condemned as heretical, 24 carloads of them were burned in Paris 29. September 1242 (and other 14 later); in 1309 and 1319 other talmudic texts went to the stake. Anyway the cabbalah had large diffusion in the XII. cent. in southern France. cfr. Günter Stemberger, ‘Der Talmud, Einführung, Texte, Erläuterungen’, Beck, München, 1982,; 1989, p.410 ff. 

6Roman Jakobson, ‘Glosses on the Medieval Insight into the Science of Language’, 1974, ‘ Lo sviluppo della semiotica’, Milan, 1978, p.71

7. Floyd Merrell,‘Semiosis in the Postmodern Age’, Perdue University Press, Indiana, 1995, p.138 ff.

8.Gerschom Scholem, ‘Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik’, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1995 p.50 ff., (1973) 

9.Daniel C.Matt, ‘The essential Cabbala, the hart of Jewish Mysticism’, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1996, p.8ff 

10. Gerschom Scholem, ‘Zur Kabbala und ihrer Symbolik’, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1995, p.121., (1973). 
10a. Johanna Drucker, "The Alphabetic Labyrith. The Letters in History and Imagination", 1999 (1995) p.92

11. Floyd Merrell, ‘Signs Grow: Semiosis and Life Processes’, Toronto, 1996, p.7 

12. Jean Baudrillard, ‘The extasy of Communication’ , Sylvere Lotringer, 1988 

some sites about Cabbala: 

   andries van onck