3. The final opinion and the long run
The accumulation of knowledge is based on an understanding of interpretation as a mediative sign creation process. Peirce’s view of sign is based on a tripartite structure of relations between three sign components. A sign is composed of a sign (or representamen), object, and the interpretant (see figure 1). All genuine signs are composed of these three inseparable parts. The process of interpreting a sign will create another sign which in turn becomes interpreted, thus creating another sign in the process. This chain of sign creation Peirce called semiosis. The accumulation of knowledge can be widely understood as semiosis and would continue as long as any sign becomes interpreted.
Here is what Peirce writes about the sign and the interpretation of it:
A Sign is a Cognizable that, on the one hand, is so determined (i.e., specialized, bestimmt) by something other than itself, called its Object […], while, on the other hand, it so determines some actual or potential Mind, the determination whereof I term the Interpretant created by the Sign, that that Interpreting Mind is therein determined mediately by the Object. (EP2: 492)
A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen. ‘Idea’ is here to be understood in a sort of Platonic sense, very familiar in everyday talk […]. (CP 2.228)
Suppose I awake in the morning before my wife, and that afterwards she wakes up and inquires, ‘What sort of a day is it?’ This is a sign, whose Object, as expressed, is the weather at that time, but whose Dynamical Object is the impression which I have presumably derived from peeping between the window-curtains. Whose Interpretant, as expressed, is the quality of the weather, but whose Dynamical Interpretant, is my answering her question. But beyond that, there is a third Interpretant. The Immediate Interpretant is what the Question expresses, all that it immediately expresses, which I have imperfectly restated above. The Dynamical Interpretant is the actual effect that it has upon me, its interpreter. But the Significance of it, the Ultimate, or Final, Interpretant is her purpose in asking it, what effect its answer will have as to her plans for the ensuing day. I reply, let us suppose: ‘It is a stormy day.’ Here is another sign. Its Immediate Object is the notion of the present weather so far as this is common to her mind and mine – not the character of it, but the identity of it. The Dynamical Object is the identity of the actual or Real meteorological conditions at the moment. The Immediate Interpretant is the schema in her imagination, i.e. the vague Image or what there is in common to the different Images of a stormy day. The Dynamical Interpretant is the disappointment or whatever actual effect it at once has upon her. The Final Interpretant is the sum of the Lessons of the reply, Moral, Scientific, etc. Now it is easy to see that my attempt to draw this three-way, ‘trivialis’ distinction, relates to a real and important three-way distinction, and yet that it is quite hazy and needs a vast deal of study before it is rendered perfect. (CP 8.314)
We must also note that there is certainly a third kind of Interpretant, which I call the Final Interpretant, because it is that which would finally be decided to be the true interpretation if consideration of the matter were carried so far that an ultimate opinion were reached. (EP2: 496)
Since there is a real world around us, we can reach agreement as to its nature. As I have already stated above, the object of scientific inquiry is the truth. It is worthy of more attention what Peirce has to say about it:
I call ‘truth’ the predestinate opinion, by which I ought to have meant that which would ultimately prevail if investigation were carried sufficiently far in that particular direction. (EP2: 457)
Truth is a character which attaches to an abstract proposition, such as a person might utter. (CP 5.565)
To say that a proposition is true is to say that every interpretation of it is true. (CP 5.569)
The propositional truth, then, as more or less synonymous to the final opinion, should be distinguished from reality as real, which, again, is the object of truth:
That which is such that something true about it is either true independently of the thought of any definite mind or minds or is at least true independently of what any person or any definite individual group of persons think about that truth, is real. (SS: 117)
If scientific inquiry (a conduct according to the tenets of a scientific attitude) were pursued long enough, the truth would be reached. Such an opinion would be the final one; it would lead to the disappearance of a desire caused by the need to find out the truth. All doubt, and ultimately all movement of the mind, would cease. One of the malaises of modern science is the tendency to reduce truth to the individual level. A solipsist will arrive at the assumption that her knowledge is the only interpretation of reality. This idea has lead to a more or less general acceptance of the postprocessual proverb that the past can not be reached and known to any degree of certainty. The idea of truth as something that can be reached in the long run should not be taken as a confirmation of an inevitable arrival at true propositions but as the possibility to find answers to questions. For if it were not for our faith in finding out the truth, why would we ever doubt anything in the first place. The conduct of scientific inquiry is, however, painfully slow and hard. We may never know for example what a particular material object may have meant to past people (some information will probably inevitably remain buried secrets), but we must keep doing our best to do so. Matthew Johnson (1999: 114) puts it well: ‘[A]rchaeology is very difficult.’ Archaeologists must therefore be patient. Forming knowledge takes a long time, longer than that of an individual thinker’s lifespan.