On types of semiotic (1300+ words)

Alfred Lang (lang who-is-at psy.unibe.ch)
Mon, 29 Jan 1996 09:06:08 +0100

see message on Vygotsky's and Peirce's semiotic.

=46rom: Alfred Lang (1994) Toward a mutual interplay between psychology and
semiotcs, JALT 19(1) 45-66.

German version: Eine Semiotik f=FCr die Psychologie - eine Psychologie f=FC=
die Semiotik. Pp. 664-673 in: Leo Montada (1993, Ed.) Bericht =FCber den 38.
Kongress der Deutschen Gesellschaft f=FCr Psychologie in Trier 1992. Vol. 2.
G=F6ttingen, Hogrefe.

[Introduction and short section on psychology]

Pp. 47-53 -


Since semiotics is less well known, I need to go into a bit
more detail. There is also quite a bit of content related
specialization in semiotics. You can make out semioticians
oriented towards linguistics, literature, the visual or auditory
arts, philosophical, biological, or computational topics, public
relations, fashion etc. etc. But those applied distinctions are
less important here; so basic or formal distinctions only will
concern us in this exposition.

Semiotics is often defined as the study of signs. This is
similar to defining psychology as the science of behavior. In
both cases, not much is said. Depending of what you mean by
sign or by behavior, and depending on what aspects you
emphasize in that study, you get quite different sub-disciplines
which, by the way, need not be exclusive of each other. For an
inclusive reference both in terms of topics and traditions of
present-day semiotics and also including a large bibliography, I
recommend Sebeok (1986).

Studying signs can focus; a) on signs as a special kind of
object, b) on the meaning of signs, c) on the use of signs, and
d) on the effects of signs.

a) Signs as Objects:

Still quite common in semiotics of today are variants of the
classical approach going back to Aristotle, Augustine, Locke,
Leibniz and many others. Signs are seen as special objects
which have a special meaning and which can, in some respect,
represent or substitute other objects.

The classical approach can be characterized by the famous
phrase Aliquid pro aliquo, or "something for standing for
another thing". A sign or signifier stands for something
signified. The distinction between signifier and signified drawn
by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure around 1900 has
strengthened as well as expanded the traditional approach.
If you look at signs as objects, you can then "botanize"
signs, classify them and investigate whether the coordination
between sign objects and sign meaning obeys rules and, if so,
what kinds of rules.

Beyond linguistic signs, such as phonemes, letters, words or
sentences, all kinds of matter and energy configurations in
general and their components in particular can be treated as
signs. By way of example, we can look at such phenomena as
gestures (from everyday behavior to artful dance), exchange
objects (from souvenirs to money), buildings (from huts to
cities), and many other cultural codes (from traffic signs to

It is as useful and desirable as it is problematic and
sometimes deadly to explore all kinds of lists of signs, with
pointers to their respective meanings. Used with care, such
encyclopedias of meaning are indispensable aids. All of us, in
fact, have partial versions of such "lists" in our heads.
However, the problems of this approach should also be obvious.
Naturally, everything has its meaning or meanings; it just
depends. In fact, the "signs-as-objects" approach goes astray
in its attempts to multiply distinctions and definitions: signs
against non-signs, this sign class against that, this variant of
meaning, and so on. Furthermore, any classification is in a
sense arbitrary, and can therefore be replaced by any other
arbitrary classification.

b) The Meaning of Signs:

By looking at the discussion above, we can easily understand
attempts at turning the object approach "upside down" .
Semiotics as the science of meaning is both a development of
and a reaction to the centrality of the sign-object pairing.
Variants of structuralism, to be seen as the principal movement
of this approach, are based on the conception of distinctive
features (inaugurated by Saussure and developed by Roman
Jakobson, Jurij M. Lotman, Algirdas J. Greimas and others). The
central tenet of this approach is a general notion of "text",
referring to any phenomenon, including its elements and their
relations, as if it were "composed". Structures of distinctions
within texts, and beyond in contexts, constitute meaning and
signs, and not vice versa.

It is easy to see that, especially in fields such as literature
and the arts, an important motive for producing signs is
innovation. Catalogues of signs with fixed meaning can then
become as much of a nuisance as a support. If you want to
express something that has not been "said" before, you might
need to "blow up" existing sign classes and categories.
Examples are hard to clarify briefly. Think, perhaps, of a
piece of music or architecture. Of course, you can list myriads
of sign objects and suggest possible meanings for them. But it
can be argued that you miss the "essentials" of the piece by
following this procedure. Instead, the process of "going
through" the whole of the "text" as a structured ensemble is
assumed to generate its meaning. Therefore, this approach
advocates the primacy of meaning.

c) The Use of Signs:

The third approach is the most commonly accepted today. It
is based on some theory of communication, more or less
influenced by theories of information exchange in technical or
social systems. Here, signs are not conceived as either material
objects or as mental meaning, but rather in terms of their
function in communicative processes. Signs are considered
vehicles or carriers of meaning. Naturally they must have a
material basis, but their essence is the mediation of
information between two systems.

This approach, perhaps quite characteristic of the technical
Zeitgeist of the second half of the 20th century, owes much of
its impetus to Charles W. Morris, a psychologist-sociologist-
philosopher of American pragmatist descent. It has been taken
up world-wide. Depending on what one prefers to accept as a
communicative paradigm, there are dozens if not hundreds of
sign function models. Furthermore, I think I can presuppose
some knowledge of this approach by a psychological audience,
since psychologists are used to thinking about models of
information transfer between some sender and receiver,
whether the examples involved are part of mechanical or
computer systems or are living systems such as brain parts or
human speakers and listeners.

I think that this focus on sign processes realized in
communicative models is a great advance for semiotics. Yet
this by no means renders the "object" or "meaning" approaches
obsolete. On the other hand, the distinction and definition
problems prevalent in the "sign-object" approach are only
deferred rather than solved. Arbitrariness of initial definitions
continues to plague the field. Instead of declaring this or that
to be a sign, controversies and dogmatisms rage now over such
questions as whether the concept of communication should
include or exclude intentionality, whether or not a sender is
obligatory, or whether communication presupposes a code or not.

d) Sign Effects:

Difficulties of the kind associated with the other three
approaches have led a number of semioticians to propose or
rather reconsider a more general approach to sign processes
which might best be described as the investigation of sign

These efforts are quite deliberately grounded in pragmatic
philosophy. This comes as no surprise, since the founder of
pragmatic or action-oriented thinking, Charles S. Peirce, is
certainly the most influential modern semiotician as well. In
fact, most of the concepts used today in all of the approaches
described above (e.g. the icon-index-symbol distinction) are
based on Peirce's work. This fourth approach is hopefully his
living heritage.

Signs in this conception (similar to their definition in the
"meaning" approach), are entities that should not be defined a
priori and then classified. It is also not sufficient to
functionalize traditional sign concepts as in the communication
approach. "Signs", whatever else they are, are "born from"
signs and "procreate" other signs. A sign, for Peirce, is
anything that has the potential to, in suitable circumstances,
create other signs. Thus the focus of this approach is on the
role of "signs" in the becoming of signs. Semiotics, then, is the
study of that type of causation which is carried on by signs.
Most of what I have to say in the following about the mutual
benefits from an interplay between semiotics and psychology
should be understood as illustrating this fourth approach.


Alfred Lang Internet: lang who-is-at psy.unibe.ch
Psychology, Univ. of Bern, Unitobler, Muesmattstr. 45, CH-3000 Bern 9
Office: Tel (+41 +31) 631 40 11 Fax 631 82 12
Home (preferably): Hostalen 106, CH-3037 Herrenschwanden
Switzerland Tel+Fax (+41 +31) 302 53 42