sign, symbol, and meaning

From: Jay Lemke (
Date: Sat Jan 08 2005 - 13:48:25 PST

I'm sure mike does not expect a simple answer to his simple question about
sign, symbol, and meaning as terms in relation to AT and semiotics.

Some thoughts.

For Peirce, and usefully for many influenced by his semiotics, SIGN is the
most general term, and SYMBOL is a special case (contrasted usually with
"index" and "icon") where the interpretation or construal of a relation
between the symbol (as form, i.e. signifier, aka representamen) and what
it's taken to be a symbol of or for is based on a culturally conventional
and otherwise arbitrary relationship unrelated to any physical-causal
connection or to any formal similarity.

SIGNs are not just symbols, but all possible types of 3-way relationships
in which something (1) interprets a relationship between (2) one item
(form, event, thing, whatever) and (3) another, which is not reducible to a
simple sum of pairwise relations.

It is not usually clear whether ANY sort of irreducibly ternary
relationship can constitute a sign. Peirce usually says that (1) has to
construe a relationship in which (2) "stands for" (3). One could also say
that (1) interprets (2) as having a MEANING that essentially involves (3)
-- i.e. that depends on some relationship to (3). Some people, but not me,
would say that (2) has to "represent" (3). (I don't say this because I
agree with Bickhard and others that the notion of "representation" is
internally incoherent, mainly because it is defined as a binary relation,
without the essential element (1) that creates the connection between the
representing and represented items. Bickhard substitutes a notion based on
interaction, or process, not unlike Peirce, with an active interpreting

MEANING for me, too, as semiois for Peirce, is most fundamentally a PROCESS
(or practice, another term Mike is always trying to find a good definition
for!). It is the process of "making meaning" , the construing (Halliday's
term) or interpreting (ala Peirce) process that makes connections between
what we count as signs and what we count as whatever they "stand for
according to some principle of relationship".

My best effort at teasing this out (which Halliday has always rather liked,
but most people don't understand) is based on Bateson's notion of
meta-learning. I call it meta-redundancy. Redundancy is a binary
relationship, a sort of basic mathematical version of the concept of
"association". Notionally, it means that members of two sets do _not_ have
equal probabilities of going together pairwise (one from each set) in all
possible combinations. Think of the first set as the signs, the second as
the items they "stand for" or are construed as being in some special
relationship with. Now imagine that there are MANY possible patterns of
association or redundancy among these two sets, and so we have a question:
Which one, when? that takes us to the META level, and a true MEANING
relation is actually a redundancy that takes the set of all sets of
first-order relations (among the original two sets we started with) as one
set, and now connects it to a new third set (the rules of interpretation or
principles of construal of first-order sign-object relationships). Of
course we are now confronted with the same question again: which
interpretive principle applies, when? And this is an infinite regress,
though the human mind refuses to deal with it for more than about four
iterations. Going up the meta-hierarchy, we find contextualization,
meta-contextualization, etc. and we can call one of the higher sets
something like CULTURES. In some sense a specific culture gives you a way
to tell which principles of interpretation apply in particular contexts.
The infinite, or open-ended regress, is why I am still some sort of a
post-modernist. The meta-redundancy model of meaning actually helps make
sense of a lot of things in social-functional linguistics and cultural
theory, but it may be too abstract for the tastes of most people who are
attracted to these approaches. It is also one possible instantiation of
what Peirce meant by an irreducible ternary relation.

In AT the basic function of a "sign" is mediation, between an agent and a
goal (actor and object-ive), it is part of what constitutes meaningful
actions as part of larger (or longer term) activities. This is a different
function from the function in semiotics of mediating a relationship between
a signifier (representamen) and signified (object) for some interpreter (or
interpreting system). Combining the two notions together (i.e. assuming
they are complementary), we are led to see semiosis as an aspect of
meaningful action. At a first level, what makes an object (bare object) an
objective (or goal) for an actor is its meaning for him/her/it. What makes
an action a relevant part of an activity is the fact that in some community
we construe it as being so (meaning again). In this sense an action can be
a sign of an activity, and an interpreted-object can be a sign of a
goal-directed action.

The value of sign-mediation in AT, I think, is that sign-mediation allows
us to imagine many possible paths to a goal, many possible actions that can
constitute an activity that results in an outcome. We can re-construe and
re-interpret (bare) objects as the objects of many different actions. (Of
course there are no "bare" objects, that notion is an abstraction we
construct on the basis of conventional similarities among many
interpreted-objects; every object is always-already interpreted, though we
can wonder over the sense in which pre-language, pre-symbol-using bodily
interactions do some kind of proto-semiosis or "interpreting".) What gives
sign-mediation this power in AT is precisely the fact that there is no
forever-fixed one-to-one relationship between signs and meanings, objects
and meanings, signs and objects. It always depends. On context, on culture,
on the act of construing and interpreting according to some principles,
some kind of relationship made. Hence the multiplicity of imaginable

Well, that's a start!


Jay Lemke
University of Michigan
School of Education
610 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Tel. 734-763-9276

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