Semeiotic

Theory of Signs

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Abstract

“Semeiotic” is a term used by Charles Sanders Peirce that serves to distinguish his theory of triadic sign relations from other approaches to the same subject matter, more generally referred to as “semiotics”.

Introduction

Semeiotic is a term used by Charles Sanders Peirce that serves to distinguish his theory of triadic sign relations from other approaches to the same subject matter, more generally referred to as semiotics.

Types of Signs

There are three principal ways that a sign may denote its objects.  These are usually referred to as kinds, species, or types of signs, but it is important to recognize that these are not ontological species, that is, they are not mutually exclusive features of description, since the same thing can be a sign in several different ways.

Beginning very roughly, the three main ways of being a sign can be described as follows:

  • An icon is a sign that denotes its objects by virtue of a quality that it shares with its objects.
  • An index is a sign that denotes its objects by virtue of an existential connection that it has with its objects.
  • A symbol is a sign that denotes its objects solely by virtue of the fact that it is interpreted to do so.

One of Peirce’s early delineations of the three types of signs is still quite useful as a first approach to understanding their differences and their relationships to each other:

In the first place there are likenesses or copies — such as statues, pictures, emblems, hieroglyphics, and the like.  Such representations stand for their objects only so far as they have an actual resemblance to them — that is agree with them in some characters.  The peculiarity of such representations is that they do not determine their objects — they stand for anything more or less;  for they stand for whatever they resemble and they resemble everything more or less.

The second kind of representations are such as are set up by a convention of men or a decree of God.  Such are tallies, proper names, &c.  The peculiarity of these conventional signs is that they represent no character of their objects.  Likenesses denote nothing in particular;  conventional signs connote nothing in particular.

The third and last kind of representations are symbols or general representations.  They connote attributes and so connote them as to determine what they denote.  To this class belong all words and all conceptions.  Most combinations of words are also symbols.  A proposition, an argument, even a whole book may be, and should be, a single symbol.  (Peirce 1866, “Lowell Lecture 7″, CE 1, 467–468).

References

  • Peirce, C.S., Writings of Charles S. Peirce : A Chronological Edition, Volume 1, 1857–1866, Peirce Edition Project (eds.), Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1982.  Cited as CE 1.
  • Peirce, C.S. (1865), “On the Logic of Science”, Harvard University Lectures, CE 1, 161–302.
  • Peirce, C.S. (1866), “The Logic of Science, or, Induction and Hypothesis”, Lowell Institute Lectures, CE 1, 357–504.

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