Once, there was nothing there, nothing moving on its own, just data and people shuffling it around. Then something happened, and it … it knew itself.
Here’s the skinny on the big three types of signs. Despite its simplicity, or maybe because of it, the larger implications for the interpretive character of sign typing still go widely missed.
There are three principal ways a sign may denote its objects. The modes of representation are often referred to as kinds, species, or types of signs but it is important to recognize they 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 denotes its objects by virtue of a quality it shares with its objects.
- An index denotes its objects by virtue of an existential connection it has to its objects.
- A symbol denotes its objects solely by virtue of being interpreted to do so.
One of Peirce’s early delineations of the three types of signs affords a useful 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, Lecture 7, 467–468).
- Peirce, C.S. (1866), “The Logic of Science, or, Induction and Hypothesis”, in Writings of Charles S. Peirce : A Chronological Edition, Volume 1 (1857–1866), Peirce Edition Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN, 1982. Lowell Lectures of 1866, 357–504.
- Awbrey, J.L., and Awbrey, S.M. (1995), “Interpretation as Action • The Risk of Inquiry”, Inquiry : Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines 15(1), 40–52.
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- Semeiotic • Sign Relations • Triadic Relations • Relation Theory
- Survey of Semiotics, Semiosis, Sign Relations