Sign (semiotics) - Triadic Signs

Triadic Signs

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) proposed a different theory. Unlike Saussure who approached the conceptual question from a study of linguistics and phonology, Peirce was a somewhat Kantian philosopher who distinguished "sign" from "word" as only a particular kind of sign, and characterized the sign as the means to understanding. He covered not only artificial, linguistic, and symbolic signs, but also all semblances (such as kindred sensible qualities), and all indicators (such as mechanical reactions). He counted as symbols all terms, propositions, and arguments even apart from their expression in particular languages. He held that "all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs". The setting of Peirce's study of signs is philosophical logic, which he defined as formal semiotic, and characterized as a normative field following esthetics and ethics, as more basic than metaphysics, and as the art of devising methods of research. He argued that, since all thought takes time, all thought is in signs, that all thought has the form of inference (even when not conscious and deliberate), and that, as inference, "logic is rooted in the social principle", since inference depends on a standpoint that, in a sense, is unlimited. The result is a theory not of language in particular, but rather of the production of meaning, and it rejects the idea of a static relationship between a sign and that which it represents, its object. Peirce believed that signs are meaningful through recursive relationships that arise in sets of three.

Even when a sign represents by a resemblance or factual connection independent of interpretation, the sign is a sign only insofar as it is at least potentially interpretable by a mind and insofar as the sign is a determination of a mind or at least a quasi-mind, that which functions as if it were a mind, for example in crystals and the work of bees—the focus here is on sign action in general, not on psychology, linguistics, or social studies (fields which Peirce also pursued).

A sign is something which depends on an object in a way that enables (and, in a sense, determines) an interpretation, an interpretant, to depend on the object as the sign depends on the object. The interpretant, then, is a further sign of the object, and thus enables and determines still further interpretations, further interpretant signs. The process, called semiosis, is irreducibly triadic, Peirce held, and is logically structured to perpetuate itself. It is what defines sign, object, and interpretant in general. As Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1990: 7) put it, "the process of referring effected by the sign is infinite." (Note also that Peirce used the word "determine" in the sense not of strict determinism, but of effectiveness that can vary like an influence.)

Peirce further characterized the three semiotic elements as follows:

  1. Sign (or representamen): that which represents the denoted object (cf. Saussure's "signifier").
  2. Object (or semiotic object): that which the sign represents (or as some put it, encodes). It can be anything thinkable, a law, a fact, or even a possibility (a semiotic object could even be fictional, such as Hamlet); those are partial objects; the total object is the universe of discourse, the totality of objects in that world to which one attributes the partial object. For example, perturbation of Pluto's orbit is a sign about Pluto, but not only about Pluto. The object may be
    1. immediate to the sign, the object as represented in the sign, or
    2. dynamic, the object as it really is, on which the immediate object is founded.
  3. Interpretant (or interpretant sign): a sign's meaning or ramification as formed into a further sign by interpreting (or, as some put it, decoding) the sign. The interpretant may be:
    1. immediate to the sign, a kind of possibility, all that the sign is suited to immediately express, for instance a word's usual meaning;
    2. dynamic, that is, the meaning as formed into an actual effect, for example an individual translation or a state of agitation, or
    3. final or normal, that is, the ultimate meaning that inquiry taken far enough would be destined to reach. It is a kind of norm or ideal end, with which an actual interpretant may, at most, coincide.

Peirce explained that signs mediate between their objects and their interpretants in semiosis, the triadic process of determination. In semiosis a first is determined or influenced to be a sign by a second, as its object. The object determines the sign to determine a third as an interpretant. Firstness itself is one of Peirce's three categories of all phenomena, and is quality of feeling. Firstness is associated with a vague state of mind as feeling and a sense of the possibilities, with neither compulsion nor reflection. In semiosis the mind discerns an appearance or phenomenon, a potential sign. Secondness is reaction or resistance, a category associated with moving from possibility to determinate actuality. Here, through experience outside of and collateral to the given sign or sign system, one recalls or discovers the object to which the sign refers, for example when a sign consists in a chance semblance of an absent but remembered object. It is through one's collateral experience that the object determines the sign to determine an interpretant. Thirdness is representation or mediation, the category associated with signs, generality, rule, continuity, habit-taking, and purpose. Here one forms an interpretant expressing a meaning or ramification of the sign about the object. When a second sign is considered, the initial interpretant may be confirmed, or new possible meanings may be identified. As each new sign is addressed, more interpretants, themselves signs, emerge. It can involve a mind's reading of nature, people, mathematics, anything.

Peirce generalized the communicational idea of utterance and interpretation of a sign, to cover all signs:

Admitting that connected Signs must have a Quasi-mind, it may further be declared that there can be no isolated sign. Moreover, signs require at least two Quasi-minds; a Quasi-utterer and a Quasi-interpreter; and although these two are at one (i.e., are one mind) in the sign itself, they must nevertheless be distinct. In the Sign they are, so to say, welded. Accordingly, it is not merely a fact of human Psychology, but a necessity of Logic, that every logical evolution of thought should be dialogic.

According to Nattiez, writing with Jean Molino, the tripartite definition of sign, object, and interpretant is based on the "trace" or neutral level, Saussure's "sound-image" (or "signified", thus Peirce's "representamen"). Thus, "a symbolic not some 'intermediary' in a process of 'communication' that transmits the meaning intended by the author to the audience; it is instead the result of a complex process of creation (the poietic process) that has to do with the form as well as the content of the work; it is also the point of departure for a complex process of reception (the esthesic process that reconstructs a 'message'"). (ibid, p. 17)

Molino's and Nattiez's diagram:

Poietic Process Esthesic Process
"Producer" Trace Receiver
(Nattiez 1990, p. 17)

Peirce's theory of the sign therefore offered a powerful analysis of the signification system, its codes, and its processes of inference and learning, because the focus was often on natural or cultural context rather than linguistics which only analyses usage in slow-time whereas, in the real world, there is an often chaotic blur of language and signal exchange during human semiotic interaction. Nevertheless, the implication that triadic relations are structured to perpetuate themselves leads to a level of complexity not usually experienced in the routine of message creation and interpretation. Hence, different ways of expressing the idea have been developed.

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