A brief introduction to the Peircean semiotic, Part 1

Some more academic work, but rather basic. There are a lot of introductions to Charles S. Peirce’s sign theory out there, but I had to do one of my own in order to have some raw material to support points I’m making elsewhere. So you get the benefit of it if you so desire! Peircean semiotic has been a very important theoretical undergirding for my approach to composition, and in particular my approach to teaching science and nature writing, but I haven’t had much opportunity until recently to start demonstrating where and how. It was very trendy in the academy not that long ago, and still may be, but I no longer pay any attention to what is or isn’t. In any case, the engagement then was rather superficial, and the usefulness of his theory has hardly been scratched.

Let’s begin.

Semiotic, or semiotics, or even semiology, is the study of signs in communication. The differences in the name indicate the different inheritances and legacies of theoretical traditions, the later two deriving from the major Francophone legacies, those represented by Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure. I’ll be describing the basics of Peirce’s model of how signs function, and so prefer his term, semiotic.

I am chiefly indebted for my understanding and application of the sign theory specifically to the following two works:

John K. Sheriff. The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

Floyd Merrell. Pierce, Signs, and Meaning. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.

Also, in many respects this one:

Karl-Otto Apel. Charles Peirce: From Pragmatism to Pragmaticism. John Michael Krois, trans. Highland, NJ: Humanities, 1996.

The key thing in the Peircean model is to remember to think of things in threes. Peirce was a Kantian at heart, and a formal architectonic system that would use some basic formal relations to describe all human experience was always his goal. Through introspection, systematic analysis, and extensive reworking and revision of his basic model, he arrived at three irreducible formal categories for the functions of the sign and three corresponding phenomenological categories for the process and experience of signification.

  1. Functions of the sign

To begin with, the sign and its three functions are covered entirely in this brief definition: a sign is some thing that represents some object for another. Peirce conceived the relationship as triadic, and only and always triadic: a sign does not exist without an object to which it refers or for its own sake. Peirce developed some terminology for the functions: the sign is frequently called a representamen, to highlight its representational character, and the other for whom the sign exists gets called the interpretant, to emphasize that it is the other’s interpretation for which the sign acts. It might be useful to think of the other, the interpretant, as the meaning of the sign so long as we don’t hold to that too tightly. The sign exists for the sake of the meaning, and typically in sign theory we’re thinking of that meaning being in possession of an interlocutor. That’s not necessarily the case in Peirce’s sign theory, but we can begin there easily enough.

That covers the basic nature of the sign function as represented below:





So for instance you’re holding a ball in your hand, a fact which you wish to convey to another. The ball is the object. You say, “I have a ball,” which is a sign to the person to whom you wish to communicate this, the other. We’re presuming that the other will know what you’re talking about, and that you know or anticipate this. Without the other’s possession of the sense of what you’re saying, the sign, that thing you’re saying, won’t happen, at least not as you mean it. This is one of the important features of Peirce’s sign theory: communication presupposes a context in which it is purposeful and intelligible.

  1. The network of signs

There are two major qualifications to the model. First, while the triangle of object-sign-other covers the essence of a sign, it only begins to make full sense once we try to conceive of the sign as placed within a network of semiotic communication. In Peirce’s system, the other to whom the sign is directed, the interpretant, can be viewed as itself a sign, and this interpretant-now-a-sign represents the original sign as its object, or to be more precise, it represents as its object the relationship of the original sign to its original object.

I don’t want you to hang on too tightly to the idea that the other in the function of a sign is always and necessarily an interlocutor either.  In the case of dialogue it is the interlocutor’s understanding of the sign, certainly, but that pole of the other for which a sign is intended is a formal property of how the sign works. After all, one can be just as easily thinking to oneself as talking to another person. Signs work by generating further signs as their meanings in order to accomplish some purpose. The same formal properties that describe a chain of thought also describe the back and forth of conversation.

So for instance, smoke is the sign of fire, but of course it’s only a sign to a person for whom the fire is a matter of concern, otherwise it’s meaningless. The other or interpretant here, the meaning that is, of that smoke in appears in the mind of the observer as something like “if I’m seeing smoke, there must be a fire!” This thought also therefore itself a sign, a sign of danger that the sight of the smoke occasions in the viewer. So in this following relation that sign takes as its object that mental notion that fire leads to smoke, and the meaning of this sign to which it directs itself is likely something like “Run!” And then that thought “Run!” is itself a sign of the danger that fire represents and it is directed toward the neurophysiological processes that result in one running toward safety.

For a sign to signify it must be perpetually displaced by further signs until its purpose is completed. And while signs themselves are arbitrary in nature, it’s important to remember that in Peirce’s system even with a potentially endless displacement of sign after sign, the whole latticework depends upon a necessary and contingent relationship to a tangible, concrete reality, even if a mediated one, to which the signs refer. Each sign in a network of communication might introduce a further mediation, but each further sign preserves and even possibly refines its orientation toward the original object. Think of each sign as a sunflower turning to face the sun as its object, to bring up a popular analogy in the literature on Peirce’s semiotic. Now think of a whole field of sunflowers, each pointing to the same object, and you get a better visual image of what’s going on. And if the field were large enough, the cumulative effect of all those signs would be an even more precise idea of where and what that sun is.

Below the diagram of the sign has been modified to show in parentheses the second object-sign-other poles of the next sign relation, if needed.











The diagrams aren’t essential, though they may help fix some concepts and relations. And there is some variety and controversy in how precisely these relations should be diagrammed, so think of them as provisional, something to help fix the concept mentally but not to be explored further.

Signs can be either physical or mental: marks on the page, a mental concept, a memory or impression, a note of music, whatever has a representative capacity. And it’s best to think of them at this point as depersonalized: they don’t presume any individual, personal consciousness. Each object-sign-other relation gives rise to an immediate and closely linked object-sign-other relation in a potentially endless lattice of such relations. That latticework may be contained within a single mind as one thought leads to another about some purpose or object of contemplation, it may represent an active conversation between two people on one or many topics, or it may constitute the discourse of an entire community, or any or all of the above. Conscious thought emerges out of the process of semiosis, and not the other way around.

The second major qualification is that Peirce’s semiotic need not involve a conscious act of meaning whatsoever. Although the notion of meaningfulness presupposes the notion of a mind, as we can see in the example of the fire and the smoke the signification begins with the physical process of combustion and ends in the muscular response of flight, which then in turn might be a further sign to far-off spectators that there’s a potential threat. This latticework of signs that is dependent on the initial object of the fire weaves out from and back into mental processes, and fulfills its purpose in physical action that is nonetheless still part of the signification. Peirce envisioned his semiotic as the description of processes that might not involve any cognition whatsoever, and certainly Peirce’s basic model might cover any variety of chemical or mechanical actions. This has given rise to the provocative field of biosemiotics, which views Peirce’s sign function expressed as chemical and physical acts as integral and essential to life processes, even that of microscopic life. Peirce himself viewed the model as potentially explaining all existence.

I’m gathering up my notes on Peirce’s 1903 lectures, his only public discussion of his architectonic, and I’ll put the second part up about the phenomenology of signs as soon as I’m done.


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