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Peirce’s Categories and Quasi-social Interactions

How to learn a theoretical concept correctly in the age of platform?

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

Yesterday I found a Twitter account called C. S. Peirce(@CSPeirceSpeaks). I was curious about the experience of interacting with this account. So, I shared a chart below with him.

The above chart is part of a long article about creativity: The NICE Way andCreative Actions. I roughly reviewed the debate on Originality v.s. Usefulness in the creativity studies and used the above chart to summarize some keywords about creativity.

Why did I use Peirce’s Categories for the chart? I’d like to share the original section “Originality, Usefulness and the Thirdness” here since I removed the part about Peirce’s Categories from the article yesterday.

Originality, Usefulness and the Thirdness

From the basic two elements (“original” and “useful”), scholars have been debating on the definition of creativity for more than 60 years, especially the third element and even the fourth element.

Theoretical models always are represented by concepts, diagrams and formulas. In order to understand these models effectively, we have to differentiate the word and its meaning. For the first element, people tend to use “newness,” “novelty,” “original,” “originality” or other similar words, we just see them as a family for one concept. Different theorists and researchers would like to use their own words to describe the same concept. In order to learn the landscape of the domain, we should ignore these trivial variations at the surface of language. In this way, we find another family of words for the second element: “task appropriateness,” “usefulness,” “useful,” “utility,” “meaningfulness,” “value,” etc.

Though researchers have a consensus on these two core elements of creativity, they still debate on the third element, even the fourth element. Dean Keith Simonton (2012) argued that we should adopt a three-criterion framework which is based on the U.S. Patent Office evaluation standard. Simonton suggested using “Novelty”, “Utility” and “Surprise” to define Creativity and develop empirical research projects. In 2017, researchers adopted the fourth element called “aesthetics” and challenged the standard definition of creativity, the USP Patent Office definition, and the Creativity Product Analysis Model (Acar, Burnett and Cabra, 2017). Their study drew a conclusion that aesthetics was significantly related to creativity in all types of outputs but was mostly unrelated to innovation.

The limitation of two-element and three-element approaches are obvious because they only consider a small range of creative behaviors such as scientists, innovators, and artists. For example, how to think about creativity in educational settings? In 2014, Ronald A. Beghetto and James C. Connecticut published a paper titled Classroom Contexts for Creativity, they suggested, “when it comes to nurturing creativity in the classroom, however, the learning environment is one of the most important factors — determining, in large part, whether creative potential will be supported. In short, classroom context matters.”(Beghetto & Connecticut, 2014) They argued that considering original or appropriate is determined by a particular social, cultural, and historical context. In this way, creativity and context are inseparable.

There are two ways to consider the definition of a concept. One is at the theoretical research level and the other one is at the empirical research level. At the theoretical level, I’d like to suggest that we could adopt Charles Sanders Peirce’s categories for discussing creativity. Peirce used “Firstness”, “Secondness” and “Thirdness” as a new list of fundamental categories (Peirce, 1885).

One, Two, Three: Fundamental Categories of Thought and of Nature (Peirce, 1885)

It is hard to introduce Peirce’s categories in a short paragraph. In order to keep our discussion on creativity I adopt the above figure Peirce drew for his article One, Two, Three: Fundamental Categories of Thought and Nature. He said, “…the three essential elements of a network of roads are road about a terminus, roadway-connection, and branching; and in like manner, the three fundamental categories of fact are, fact about an object, fact about two object (relation), fact about several objects (synthetic fact).”

Peirce mentioned two things in the title of the article: “Thought” and “Nature”. Based on the firstness-secondness-thirdness framework, Peirce developed a fundamental elementary mode of consciousness (Thought) and a logical conception of objects (Nature). He summarized the whole idea in the last paragraph: “The conception of quality, which is absolutely simple in itself and yet viewed in its relations is seen to be full of variety, would arise whenever feeling or the singular consciousness becomes prominent. The conception of relation comes from the dual consciousness or sense of action and reaction. The conception of mediation springs out of the plural consciousness or sense of learning.”

Inspired by Peirce’s categories, I created the below figure as a knowledge curation tool for discussing Categories of Creativity. There are two layers of categories, the foundational layer is subjective creativity, intersubjective creativity and objective creativity. The phenomenological layer lists many concepts which are open to adding or removing. For example, the concept “Improvisation” is an important idea for researching performance creativity (Sawyer, 1992).

Let’s explore its potential later and return to the historical development of theoretical models of creativity.

If you want to read more about my ideas about Creativity, you can read the full article: The NICE Way and Creative Actions.

Now let’s return to my experience of interacting with @CSPeirceSpeaks on Twitter.

To my surprise, I received great feedback from @CSPeirceSpeaks and others. I quoted several tweets here and you can read the whole thread on Twitter.

I also noticed King Soma’s comments on my chart.

I realized that I didn’t understand Peirce’s Categories clearly. Do I really need to adopt Peirce’s Categories to support my article? After reflecting on this issue for a while, I decided to modify the chart and remove the piece about Peirce’s Categories from the original article.

The above picture is the updated chart. I also tweeted it and shared it with King Soma and @CSPeirceSpeaks. This is a wonderful experience for me.

What did I learn from this conversation?

I learned three things from this experience. First, don’t curate too many concepts in my writings. Second, it takes time to learn theoretical concepts. Third, Quasi-social Interactions could make sense.

Don’t curate too many concepts

As a knowledge curator, I always try to curate many concepts into one long article. I want to search and find theoretical resources to support my ideas, for example, you can find many theoretical accounts from my article Life as Activity (version 0.3). I want to set a background for organizing a deep discussion, for example, the Part 4 of Platform Innovation as Concept-fit introduces six ideas as context. Sometimes, I want to present a complex process of concept development, you can find my work on the concept of Zone of Project.

Inspired by this experience, I think it’s better to keep a balance between adopting others’ theoretical concepts and developing my own concepts. I need to decide if a concept is really relevant to a particular thinking process and writing process. And, there is a difference between the thinking process and writing process. We may get some ideas from reading books and start a concept development activity, but the final outcome may don’t directly connect with the original trigger.

It takes time to learn theories

To be honest, I didn’t spend enough time on learning Peirce’s theories. One of my favorite habits is designing visual signs such as logos and diagrams. My first stage of career (1994–2001) was about advertising, marketing, and communication. At that stage, I worked on creative advertising campaigns, corporate visual identity design, brand management consulting, and marketing communication activities. I really like designing logos.

Eventually, I was attracted to semiotics, especially visual semiotics. Thus, I started to read Peirce.

However, I made a turn of my journey of learning theories. I moved from subjective meaning to ecological meaning by adopting ecological psychology. I started following James J. Gibson and his Affordance Theory, then William James and his Radical Empiricism. That’s the reason I stop following Peirce because I know there is a difference between William James and Peirce.

Before 2014, I spent most of my spare time on digital nonprofit communities as a digital activist. During the 2014 to 2015, I transformed my focus from nonprofit activities to theoretical learning. Since then, I have been spending most of my spare time on learning ecological psychology, creativity research and other related subjects. I spent five years learning Gibson’s Affordance Theory and Ecological Psychology in general. The journey guided me to learn traditional Pragmatism and contemporary embodied cognitive science. During the process, I also developed my own account: the Ecological Practice approach.

Actuality, the Ecological Practice approach focuses on action and environment. I think it echoes the vision of pioneers of Pragmatism. However, I have not adopted any theoretical concept from Peirce to support the Ecological Practice approach because I didn’t have enough time to study his ideas.

Quasi-social Interactions could matter

Last year, I wrote an article to document my experience of reading Frame Analysis. The article also introduced two ideas: Quasi-social interaction and Ecological Interaction Analysis.

Many years ago, I noticed that Wikipedia displays “Influences” and “Influenced” at the sidebar box on academic figures’ pages. The idea of “Figure Ecology” considers these “past social networks” as a special type of context for present reading and learning activities.

There is a popular learning activity called Living Wax Museum in elementary schools. Some teachers said, “Living Wax Museum is a great way to tie together reading, writing, social studies and speaking and listening skills all in one fun project.” You can find some examples on YouTube (1, 2). In 2018, I was invited to join a living wax museum activity at my son’s classroom. My son and his classmates represented some historical figures and answered guests’ questions. The idea of “Figure Ecology” was inspired by the Living Wax Museum. As a special type of context for reading and learning, Figure Ecology is important for learning social science which requires respecting theoretical traditions.

An emergent issue is the interaction between people and their figure ecology. I consider this type of interaction as “Quasi-social Interaction” since historical figures are people too but they can’t respond to us.

For contemporary theorists of social theory, HCI (human-computer interaction) and IS (information system), the meaning and definition of “Social” and “Human” is a critical challenge since the rise of AI and Robot technology. They have been debating on similar topics such as “agency” for many years. I used the idea of “Quasi-social Interaction” to bypass this complex philosophical debate.

I consider two sub-categories of Quasi-social Interaction: Person-to-Figure, Person-to-Persona.

The Person-to-Persona is for discussing digital social platforms and related social interactions. For example, Twitter allows people to register user accounts for individuals, groups, organizations, and other entities such as pets. Obviously, we can’t claim every Twitter user account is a real live person. Anders Persson also developed a theoretical framework for studying social media in his book Framing Social Interaction: Continuities and Cracks in Goffman’s Frame Analysis, he used “Persona-to-Persona Interaction (p2p)” to describe communication behavior on social media. Persson defined “Persona” as a created or an assigned representation of an individual; e.g., a username, a chosen identity, a picture etc.

Thus, the Quasi-social Interaction really matters if you want to learn theoretical concepts correctly. When you read books, you are taking the quasi-social interaction of Person-to-Figure, when you share on social platforms, you could take the quasi-social interaction of Person-to-Persona.

What if a persona represents a figure? You should try to get real experience of this magic thing.

Return to Charles Sanders Peirce

Should I return to Charles Sanders Peirce?

First, I should reflect on my understanding of Peirce’s Categories. In fact, I revisited his idea on Oct 28, 2020. I created a challenge which introduced Peirce’s Triadic Semiosis for the Concept Dynamics Project.

I also responded to the challenge with the following diagram.

I made the above diagram to reflect on my books.

I use Peirce’s triad (firstness, secondness and thirdness) to organize the development of my ideas. In 2019, I finished a book titled Curativity. In 2020, I finished a book which presents the idea of Attachance. By adopting Peirce’s triad, I consider Curativity as thirdness and Attachance as secondness. Thus, the next book should be about firstness. Yes, the next idea I am working on is Genidentity which is about an individual’s identity.

It seems that I understood Peirce’s triad as the following notions:

  • Firstness = individual, zero interaction with others, no judgement, base, foundation, core, perception…subjective creativity…Genidentity
  • Secondness = intersubjective, interaction with others, communicative, relation, context, situational actions…intersubjective creativity… Attachance
  • Thirdness = collective, form, order, structure, whole, background, law…objective creativity…Curativity

I may understand Peirce’s triad wrong. However, I just used it as a framework to sort my ideas. Today I realized that I should directly use the following diagram to organize my ideas.

The above diagram is hierarchical loops. The inner loop is about Affordance, Genidentity, and the above “Firstness” notions. The middle loop is about Attachance, Supportance, and the above “Secondness” notions. The outer loop is about Curativity, Theme of Practice, and the above “Thirdness” notions.

You can also find more details of the hierarchical loops from the diagram below.

The above diagram is organized with three levels: “logical level” or “ideal level”, “actual level” and “possible level”. This notion is the by-product of writing an article titled Activity U (VI): The Hierarchy of Human Activity and Social Practice.

In fact, each level has two sides: the Center side and the Context side. For the Ecological Practice approach, the Center side means Actors and the Context side means Environments. The diagram below represents six concepts with a 2x3 chart.

Three is a magic number. However, we should not adopt Peirce’s Categories to all list of “one, two, three”.

Secord, I have to learn Creativity and Peirce’s ideas. Today I searched and found the following resources:

After quickly viewing the above two web pages, I realized that I need to read more about this issue. For example, Nicole Everaert-Desmedt introduced the diagram below in his article.

The process of creating a work of art (Nicole Everaert-Desmedt, 2016)

I have mentioned a Dewey-inspired study about creative process in The NICE Way and Creative Actions. In 2013, Vlad Petre Glaveanu and his colleagues published a paper titled Creative as action: findings from five creative domains (Glaveanu et al, 2013). Based on the work of Dewey (1934) on arts as experience, they developed a framework about “Creative in and as Action” and challenged the traditional view of “creative process” which was considered to be mental/cognitive in nature and individual in manifestation. They pointed out that early concerns with the creative process resulted primarily in stage models, but more recent theories shifted the focus to sub-processes and the micro-level dynamic of creativity. Thus, they adopted Dewey’s terms such as “impulsion”, “doing” and “undergoing” and used these ideas to investigate creative expression in five different domains: art, design, science, scriptwriting, and music.

schematic representation of creative activity in the case of designers

The above chart is one of schematic representations of creative activity in five domains. We can see authors focus on the creative process.

Actually, my account of creative actions is not about the process of creative activity. I has claimed that we need a theoretical approach which puts action first and doesn’t consider action as “creating process” of “creative product”. In other words, what I called Action-based Creativity can be seen as a “Process as Product” approach.

Third, I want to learn Peirce’s Existential Graph.

If you pay attention to my recent writings, you probably find I am running a sprint on diagramming. What I am exploring is a system of spatial thinking. I want to develop a network of meta-diagrams in order to establish a non-text reasoning system for representing personal/social tacit knowledge.

This branch is out of the Ecological Practice approach. Maybe I should go back to Peirce since he developed Existential Graph.

Peirce’s Alpha Graph

Last year I combined Attach and Chance and coined a new term Attachance. I wrote a book with the idea. One chapter of the book introduces eight types of structure of context for understanding Attachance.

The above diagram is named “Container as Context” which means the context of Attachance is a Container. For example, a is an entity and B is a container. This structure means a attaches to B and detaches from B. In fact, this diagram is the basic model of the Ecological Practice approach.

I am also working on some meta-diagrams such as Tripartness, Dialectical Room, Interactive Zone, and Hierarchical Loops. You can find them here.

You are most welcome to connect via the following social platforms:



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Oliver Ding

Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.

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