What Do Signs Do?June 26, 2021
According to Peirce, signs appear in every field, from the most primitive communication in the living world to the most complex languages. The distinguishing feature of the signs is that they have a triple structure. A sign stands for an object according to an interpreter.
Being a sign includes these three elements. “A sign points to an object.” say is not enough. “A sign points to an object according to an interpreter.” it is more correct to say. Using this triple structure, it is possible to identify different sub-branches of language philosophy. Here, Peirce does not mean people, conscious interpreters, by the term “interpreter”. For example, when a bird is flying in a flock in a certain order, the head of the flock reacts to a sound coming out of its beak and moves to move to another order, which is the interpreter of the sound (sign).
The relations of the signs with each other, their sequence, which sequences form a language, etc. subjects of syntax; semantics of what the signs stand for, what they represent and what they signify; the consequences and effects of signs for those who use and interpret those signs constitute the subject of pragmatics.
Let us briefly consider some of Peirce’s classifications on the semantics of signs. Peirce states that there are three different kinds of relations between a sign and the object pointed out. Peirce first speaks of indexes (or contextual indicators). In this case, there is a causal relationship between the sign and the signified. Like smoke pointing to fire, like five red fingerprints on one cheek pointing to a slap. Secondly, he talks about icons (or visual indicators). In this case, there is a similarity relation between the sign and the object pointed out. Finally, it distinguishes symbols (or symbolic signs). In this case, the relation between the signifier and the signified is conventional or accidental. For example, the word “book” has no relation that would require it to refer to the book you are reading.
Peirce thinks that a sign cannot point to an object without an interpreter. At this point, he distinguishes three different types of interpreters. First, emotional interpreters experience intense emotions when they encounter signs. For example, a fan feeling excited when they see an object with the colors of the football team. Here, the emotion in question is itself a sign. The enthusiasm or sense of pride in question indicates the favored team. Second, energetic interpreters perform a certain physical action when they encounter a cue. Peirce gives them soldiers who perform certain movements on the orders of a sergeant. Third come the logical interpreters. It is these interpreters that Peirce particularly stresses. First of all, logical interpreters are also signs. For example, the dictionary equivalent of a word is the logical interpreter of the word (sign) and is itself a sign. However, the pointing process does not end at this point. In other words, the word’s equivalent in the dictionary cannot be the final or final interpreter. As a sign itself, it refers to other interpreters. Is there an end to this pointing process? In other words, is there a final interpreter?
For Peirce, the ultimate interpreter is a habit or a disposition. Here, we encounter an answer consistent with the situation we encounter in the process of clarifying intellectual concepts. The final interpretation we arrive at when we want to encompass the meaning of a sign is a habit or disposition, just as having a belief means we have a certain habit or disposition. It consists of encompassing the meaning of an intellectual concept, mastering its meaning, knowing the logical interpreters and finally developing a certain behavioral habit.
An important result of all this discussion is that signs have a meaning within a system of signs. One cannot speak of the meaning of a sign in isolation from the others. Another important result is that our intellectual activity is defined in relation to actions and the purpose of our intellectual life is to develop habits and behavior patterns that meet our needs. The concept of harmony with the environment, which is at the core of Darwin’s theory of evolution, gives its main color to pragmatism, as Peirce advocates.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook