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Díaz Nafría, José María
 Incorporated contributions
J.M. Díaz (20/07/09)
 Usage domain
transdisciplinary, semiotics, communication theory
 German Zeichen

The use frequently given in antiquity to the word sign, σημεον, corresponds to a signal, usually verbal, through which something is represented. However, it was also used in a number of more technical meanings -sometimes confronted-, such as in the realist and nominalism positions. In modernity, especially among racionalists, a sign tends to refer to ideas. However, in Empiricism, the word sign gains a significant relevancy, distinguishing its suggestive dimension –already pointed out in antiquity and medieval nominalism-. In current times, the most influential trends are perhaps the ones started by Saussure, Peirce and Husserl, being the first two more influential in linguistics, semiotics and anthropology, whereas Husserl’s influence was driven by phenomenology and →hermeneutics into a wide spectrum of social sciences. 

For Saussure, the sign (seen from a linguistic point of view) is a non-separable double-faced “psychic entity”: the acoustic image (named signifier –“significant”) and the concept (signified –“signifié”), where its bonding link is arbitrary. Structuralism extended Saussure’s concept of sign to non verbal phenomena.

Peirce designates as sign “an object which stands for another to some mind”. He distinguishes three points of view: 1) as being signs in themselves (dealt with in grammar); 2) as being related with an object (dealt with in logics); 3) as being related to subjects or “interpretants” (dealt with in pure rhetoric). He also distinguishes, depending on the relation with three types of signs: iconic (which are significant even if the object does not exist); indexes (which loss their constituting character if its object is suppressed, but not if the interpreter is missing); and symbols (which loss their constituting character if its interpreter is missing). Structuralism develops an even more elaborated classification, in which these three types pointed out by Peirce reappear, based on the established relationship between significant and signified (arbitrary, metaphoric, metonymic, etc.).

Morris –following Pierce- states that the sign is what supports a triadic relation: with other signs, with designated objects and with the subjects using the sign. Syntactics, semantics and pragmatics are concerned with the study of each of these relations respectively, whereas semiotics or semiology deal with the general study of the sign.

Husserl makes a fundamental distinction between sign and signification, according to which, even though every sign is a sign of something, not all signs have signification, i.e., it does not necessarily comprise a sense being expressed by it. Sometimes, we cannot even say that a sign designates that of which it is called a sign. For Husserl, signs can be indicative (limited to indicate, but not to signify) and significative (or expressions pointing to a signification, which is one of the elements of the intentional act, usually wider than effectuations or fulfillments, and only matching up such act if a complete adequacy is given between signification and what is signified, the intentional object). With this characterization, a stance is taken up rejecting both the signic arbitrariness of nominalism and the expressive naturalness of realism, clarifying the “ambiguous significative situation”. 

  • ECO, U. (1973). "Social Life as Sign System”. In D. Robey (ed.). Structuralism, an IntroductionOxford: Oxford University Press.
  • FERRATER MORA, J. (1994). "Signo" y "Símbolo", in Diccionario de filosofía. Barcelona: Ariel.
  • LEACH, E. (1976). Culture and Communication: The Logic by Which Symbols are ConnectedCambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • MORRIS, C.W.  (1938). Foundations of the theory of signsChicagoIll: The University of Chicago Press.
  • PEIRCE, Charles S. (1873). On the Nature of Signs. MS 214 (Robin 381): Writings 3, 66-68. [online, Arisbe: The Peirce Gateway, accessed: 10/10/09]
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