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Semiotics

sign signs relation object

Definition: Semiotics, or semiology, is the discipline that studies systems of signs.

One of the precursors of semiotic was a debate, around 300BC, between the Stoics and the Epicureans about the difference between “natural signs” (freely occurring in nature, such as the signs of a disease that were, for the Stoics, the quintessential signs), and “conventional” signs (those designed for the purpose of communication). The interest in signs resounded well with the philosophical interests of the late classic era and the middle ages; St. Augustine was maybe the first to see signs as a proper subject of philosophical investigation, and narrowed it to the study of signa data , conventional signs, an emphasis that was to be retaken and exacerbated in the late middle ages by William of Ockam and, in the early modern age, by John Locke.

The birth of modern semiotics is traditionally found in the work of Charles Saunders Pierce, and in Ferdinand de Saussurre’s Cours the linguistique générale.

Saussurre considers signs as composed of two elements: the signifier (more or less the phenomenological impression of the sign, such as the sound of a word), and the signified (roughly the mental object associated to the sign), and starts from the consideration that the relation between the two, that is, the signification relation, is arbitrary. There is nothing that makes the sequence of three letters /d/, /o/, and /g/ stand for the mental concept dog; as a matter of fact, different languages use different signifiers for the same signified (perro, chien, cane, hund, etc.). If the relation is arbitrary, then the only characteristic that allows us to identify “dog” is its difference from other signs of the language: “dog” is what it is because if is not bog , or dot or, for that matter, cat. This leads Saussurre to formulate the structuralist basis of his linguistics: in a sign system there are only differences, without positive terms.

Saussurre divides the field of semiotics along two main axes: one is the difference between la langue and la parole . La langue refers, more or less, to the linguistic system in which the speech acts are possible, while la parole is the study of the individual speech acts. Saussurre claims that the proper goal of linguistics (and, by extension, of semiotics) is the study of la langue. The other distinction is between the diacronic study of language—the study of the changes and evolution of language in time—and its synchronic study—the study of the linguistic system “frozen” at an instant in time. In this case, Saussurre claims the synchronic study as the proper object of linguistics.

Saussurre recognizes two important classes of relations between signs, which he calls syntagmatic and paradigmatic . In a phrase such as “the cat is on the mat,” the signs “cat,” “is,” or “mat,” stand in a syntagmatic relation: they are related by juxtaposition and their relation contributes to the meaning of the phrase. On the other hand, one could, in the same syntagmatic structure, replace “cat” with “dog” or “mat” with “couch.” Replaceability constitutes a paradigmatic relation. This can be represented in a schema where the horizontal relations are syntagms, while the vertical are paradigms.

Charles Saunders Peirce developed his “semeiotic” independently of Saussurre and with a less linguistic perspective. He considers a sign as composed by three elements: a representamen (the material component of the sign), an object (more or less corresponding to Saussurre’s signified), and the interpretant . The concept of the interpretant is difficult, and it must be stressed that the Peircean interpretant is not the “interpreter,” but can be seen, roughly, as the proper significant effect of the sign, a sign in the mind that is the result of the meeting with the sign.

This sign can in itself have an interpretant, which has an interpretant, and so on to generate the process that Pierce calls unlimited semiosis . Unlimited semiosis is only a potential, of course, since at one point the necessities of practical life demand that the interpretation stops. A mathematician could say that unlimited semiosis is a converging series, an idea with which Peirce would, in all likelihood, substantially agree.

Peirce considers three classes of signs, which he classifies depending on the relation between the sign and its object: a sign is iconic if it signified by virtue of its similarity with an object (as in the case of a picture of Bishop Tutu, which “means” Bishop Tutu); it is indexical if it stands in a causal relation with its object (as in the case of the smoke being a sign of fire, or of red dots on the skin being a sign of measles); it is symbolic if the relation between the sign and its object is arbitrary (as in the case of language).

This is the best known of Peirce’s triadic distinctions, but his system is more complex: at the level of the representamen a sign can be a qualisign (a representamen made up of a quality, e.g. a color), a sinsign (a representamen made up of an existing physical reality, e.g. a road sign on a specific street), or a legisign (a representamen resting on a law, e.g. the sound of a referee in a football match). At the level of the object, the sign can be, as seen, an icon, an index, or a symbol. At the sign of the interpretant, a sign can be a rheme (the sign is represented as a possibility, e.g. a concept), a dicent (the sign is represented as a fact, e.g. a descriptive statement), or an argument (the sign is represented as a reason, e.g. a proposition).

These categories interact and overlap in signs.

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