Pragmatic Semiotic Information • Discussion 12

Peter Smith, on his Logic Matters blog, queried readers about the type/token distinction and its possible origins before Peirce.  I shared the following observations:

It doesn’t help with the question of semiogenesis, which is no doubt lost to the mists of history, but Peirce being Peirce naturally discerned three shades of signs in this respect:  Tone, Token, Type.  I collected a few excerpts here:

The distinction between Original and Copy figures frequently in Plato, with echoes of still more ancient voices.  Aristotle on Categories gives an example where a word meaning both a live animal and its true-to-life image must be shorn of ambiguity prior to appearing in a court of logic.  Aristotle on Interpretation distinguishes objects from their copies, images, likenesses in the mind:

Words spoken are symbols or signs (symbola) of affections or impressions (pathemata) of the soul (psyche);  written words are the signs of words spoken.  As writing, so also is speech not the same for all races of men.  But the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs (semeia), are the same for the whole of mankind, as are also the objects (pragmata) of which those affections are representations or likenesses, images, copies (homoiomata).  (Aristotle, De Interp. i. 16a4).

From a Peircean semiotic perspective we can distinguish an object domain and a semiotic plane, so we can have three types of type/token relations:  (1) within the object domain, (2) between objects and signs, (3) within the semiotic plane.  We could subtilize further but this much is enough for a start.

Type/token relations of type (1) are very common in mathematics and go back to the origins of mathematical thought.  These days computer science is rife with them.  I’ve seen a lot of confusion about this in Peircean circles as it’s not always grasped that type/token relations are not always all about signs.  It can help to speak of types versus instances or instantiations instead.

Aristotle covers type/token relations of types (2) and (3) in De Interp., the latter since he recognizes signs of signs in the clause, “written words are the signs of words spoken”.


  • Awbrey, J.L., and Awbrey, S.M. (1995), “Interpretation as Action : The Risk of Inquiry”, Inquiry : Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines 15(1), pp. 40–52.  ArchiveJournalOnline.
  • Limited Mark Universes • Peirce’s Note “On a Limited Universe of Marks”

cc: Ontolog ForumStructural ModelingSystems Science

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4 Responses to Pragmatic Semiotic Information • Discussion 12

  1. Hey Jon – Txs for liking my latest post. You are obviously a genius. I am not. But it’s good to know some genius out there is also trying to make sense of things by simplifying a thing or two. It’s not easy to be smart, is it? And then I only have 0.1% of your intellect, I think. Any case, thanks for sharing your compassion for all sentient beings. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Survey of Pragmatic Semiotic Information • 4 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

  3. Pingback: Survey of Pragmatic Semiotic Information • 4 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

  4. Pingback: Survey of Pragmatic Semiotic Information • 5 | Inquiry Into Inquiry

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