RE: signs/symbols etc

From: Cunningham, Donald J. (
Date: Mon Jan 10 2005 - 06:53:54 PST

Mike and others


There are SO MANY different analyses of sign, symbol et al. that I think
the best strategy is to find one you are comfortable with and then apply
it consistently. I was drawn to semiotics because of my great
dissatisfaction with the term "stimulus", which psychologists of my
generation used promiscuously. At the time I was studying "text"
comprehension and was troubled that the text itself seemed to be treated
like a fixed effect in an ANOVA. But that's a story for another time.


Umberto Eco once defined a sign as anything that can be used to tell a
lie. If a sign _stands for_ something else, its object, in some way, it
is not the object. It does not replace the object. The sign is only
some _aspect_ of the object. It is this incompleteness that is the
source of both the ambiguity of the sign process and its richness. It is
this _spread_ of meaning/interpretation/semiosis that creates the rich
life-worlds (Umwelten) that we experience. If a Peircean analysis of
signs helps you develop your understanding of that process, great. If
not, there are many alternatives.


One tool (artifact?) that might be helpful, especially with respect to
the issues that Peg raised, consider Jakobsen's communication model. It
starts with the basic model of communication.





Addresser--------------------------------------> Addressee




The addresser sends a message to the addressee in some context via a
channel of contact using some code they have in common. Any particular
communication often emphasizes one or another of these functions:





Emotive--------------------------------------> conative




So a communication focused on the addresser ("I'm not feeling well
today") has a different orientation than one focused on the addressee
("Clean your room!"). Of course the model is not limited to verbal
communication. Clothing can be as poetic as words!


The idea of sign runs throughout theses functions, not just in the
metalingual focus on code. How do these functions become highlighted?
Andy's use of icon, index and symbol may map out nicely here as an


Duty calls..........djc





Don Cunningham

Indiana University


-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Cole []
Sent: Sunday, January 09, 2005 12:32 PM
To: Xmca
Subject: signs/symbols etc


Jay-- This summary was helpful to me:


For Peirce, and usefully for many influenced by his semiotics, SIGN is

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

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

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.


So, would it be fair to say that Vygotsky really was talking about

sign mediation of at least the index and symbolic subvarieties? (I am

not so sure about icons because of his writing on "natural"

psychological processes where images are precursors of signs). Then

when he slips into using the term symbol as in "symbolic activity"

(see index of collected works) he is not making some new point we

should focus on?


And, what should WE really be talking about? From an earlier message,

Peg, in November,

wrote in response to a note from Peter:


The definitions you found for sign and symbol make me think of Grice's

discussion of natural and non-natural meaning. "These spots mean

is an example of natural; "Three rings of the bell means the trolley is

about to

stop" is an example of non-natural.

Tools and symbols would both be non-natural. Signs would be natural.

For language, there is also a tripartite distinction among sentence

utterance meaning, and speaker meaning. Maybe that distinction would

in handy when thinking about symbols that re-present in/for a

socio-historical community of users.


So, Peg, if we talk about a word like "water" it can operate as a

sign in the sense of Jay's para 2, but also as both "a culturally


and otherwise arbitrary relationship unrelated to any physical-causal

connection or to any formal similarity" and "symbols that re-present
in/for a

socio-historical community of users." It operates as a sign if I say

"The rain in southern

california is finally filling our reservoirs with water" but as a

symbol when I say " Water reminds us of the cycle of living matter, of

the fragility of life in southern california, and of life



But if this is a reasonable way to think two questions come to mind:

1. Are all tools only symbols and never signs?

2. The three kinds of meaning you mention do not map easily for me

onto the sense/

meaning distinction in vygotky, in particular "speaker meaning."

Wouldn't speaker meaning be sense?


As usual, confused in southern california.




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