I Saw the Sign
University of Colorado at Boulder
Undeniably evident is the truth that we all live in a world full of signs. In fact, whatever our eyes take in could be considered a sign, ranging from traffic signs to the constellation of stars above. We understand our world through the interpretation of these signs. Impossible to imagine would be a world without signs. Even the human being itself is a sign (Kim, 1996). However, Charles Sanders Peirce argues that the question "What is a sign?," since all reasoning is some interpretation of signs, is difficult to answer and requires deep reflection (Peirce, 1998). The purpose of this paper is to explain the concepts involving what a sign is, from Peirce’s perspective, while illustrating the usefulness of this theory of semiotics when confronted with a communication problem, while also showing where it falls short. The type of communication problem being examined here is the multiple meanings possible when giving flowers to another for Valentine’s Day.
According to Thomas Sebeok (1994), Peirce is "the most original and the most versatile intellect that the Americas have so far produced and who uniquely reinvigorated semiotics, the antique doctrine of signs, semiosis involves an irreducibly triadic relation among a sign, its object, and its interpretant" (p.5). Kim (1996) defines semiotics as a study concerned with the creation of the symbolic and its signification processes as well. Other semioticians such as Eco (1976) and Baudrillard (1988) contend that semiotics is everything and in a sense semiotic elements can be found in literature, art, architecture, science, engineering, military science, political science, zoology, sociology, astronomy, theology, philosophy and so on. Looking at just a few examples, the symptoms of diseases are essential signs for medicine. A chemical symbol of benzene is a sign that mysteriously appeared in a chemist’s dream, in which it took the form of a snake biting its own tail. In the example of Valentine’s Day the sign of love can be generated by giving flowers and candy, however, not everyone can make that connection causing communication to fail through this misinterpretation of signs.
Peirce (1998) argues the importance of recognizing the three different states of mind in order to define what a sign is. To illustrate the first state of mind he uses the example of a person in a dreamy state, because this is about as close as possible to a state of mind in which something is present, without compulsion and without reason. This is called feeling. For the second state we will continue to imagine our dreamer who suddenly hears a loud and prolonged steam whistle. At this instant he becomes startled and tries to get away by pushing his hands over his ears. This instinctive resistance of pushing his hands over his ears is necessary because it is the sense of acting and of being acted upon, which is our sense of the reality of things, both of the outward things and of ourselves. This state of mind may be called reaction and it does not reside in any one feeling, it involves two things acting upon one another. The third state also involves our now-awakened dreamer, who unable to shut out the piercing sound, jumps up and seeks to make his escape through a closed door. To his surprise the instant he opens the door the sound ceases, much relieved he thinks he will return to his seat. However, when he closes the door the whistling sound recommences. He asks himself whether the shutting of the door had anything to do with the sound starting up again. Again as the door opens the sound ceases, thus illustrating the third state of mind thinking. That is, he is aware of learning, or by going through a process by which some phenomenon is found to be governed by a rule. Moreover, in this third state of mind called thought, there exists a sense of learning and learning is the means by which we pass from ignorance to knowledge.
Let us focus our attention to the latter and explore more deeply this notion of thought when confronted with a type of communication problem. Kim (1996) uses the example of Valentine’s Day in order to frame how one person might think a sign means one thing and another interprets it in some other completely different way. Let’s assume that in this ritual girls offer flowers to boys, and boys offer chocolates to girls. Obviously a twist on our societal norms because asking for a date has traditionally been the business of males. However, this romantic holiday can encourage even a shy girl to confess her love to a boy whom she finds adorable. Thus, some unsuspecting boy may receive flowers from a girl on Valentine’s Day and in response he may present her with a box of chocolates, if he likes her. The problem is that there are several different meanings in this ritual.
Looking at the presentation of flowers to John from Jane, Jane has to make a sign in order to express her affection for John. In some subcultures, roses are used as a gift by females on Valentine’s Day. But merely handing a rose over to John does not make a sign. In order to make a sign two things must be present. The first being the abstract idea of "I adore you," this is called the signified. Because Jane has what she wants to say already present in her mind, a means to externalize this signified is needed. This vehicle of meaning is called a signifier. By presenting John with a rose she is attaching her signified of "I adore you" onto that signifier of the rose itself. Even still the rose is just a rose, but now it becomes a sign of love when she gives it to John in the context of Valentine’s Day. Now that Jane has properly constructed her sign of love, it is up to John to discover the hidden signified of love from it. From a communication stand point (a linear model) the sender, Jane, assumes that the receiver, John, has regenerated the meaning of love successfully. "However, meaning is not transmittable...The function of communication makes the chance of sharing meaning available to the receivers by the delivery of the sign system" (Kim, 1996, p. 7). Instead of John saying to himself "Oh, she likes me!" He grumbles what Oscar Wilde said a long time ago, "A rose has many thorns," or tells Jane that the German poet Reiner Rilke died because of a prick from a rose thorn. In this case, Kim (1996), argues that communication has failed miserably.
This example illustrates how, through our own thought processes communication can fail. Peirce would attribute this failure to the individual's mind not being able to comprehend the subtleties of the meaning embedded in the sign. Peirce provides a solid foundation on which to understand how the person mentally constructs meaning for him or herself, but doesn’t fully encompass the greater social implications that go into the personal meaning created. Whereas, from the view of another prominent semiotician Roland Barthes, this failure in communication would be attributed to the greater cultural practices which dictated a predicted response from John upon receiving Jane’s rose, which ultimately she did not receive. For this extremely hallmark holiday, the cultural norms dictate that women expect to receive flowers and candy, so Barthes would attribute this failure in communication to Jane’s misunderstanding of the cultural practices and surprising John with flowers when he should be the one giving her flowers. This illustrates how different semioticians frame communication problems. For Barthes the sign is deeply rooted in the structured systems of society and how ideologies are embedded in semiotic systems, like the media’s portrayal of certain body types, which express gender ideology. Barthes also pays attention to the literal meaning or reference of a sign called the denotation, and the connation or suggested/implied meaning of a sign (Craig, 2008).
Having an understanding of semiotics is fundamental when trying to communicate successfully, both from Peirce’s perspective and from other semioticians like Barthes. When looking from Peirce’s perspective the sign represents something other than itself. The "something" here is called a referent. For Jane the referent was the rose, which represented her affection for John. This rose is the sign, but the interpretant refers to a certain mental concept arising from a given sign. This mental concept will undoubtedly vary from person to person based on past experience of the sign and the user. For example, John may be allergic to roses and thus being presented with roses would constitute a problem. When looking from Barthes perspective there are many factors that must be investigated when trying to use signs successfully, and not create the opposite reaction than the one being sought after. Both views of semiotics are useful and both should be considered when investigating the meaning of a sign. In particular, Peirce’s view highlights where the individual might misconceive of a particular sign's meaning whilst in the thought process of moving from ignorance to knowledge. Barthes' view is advantageous when considering what the greater social implications are of producing such a sign and therefore should guide the mental construction of that meaning for each person. Where Peirce falls short, Barthes provides a much clearer picture of the sign in its context.
All in all, signs are everywhere but how we interpret them and how society wants us to interpret them are serious questions that need the help of semioticians like Peirce and Barthes. One theory is not superior to the other and therefore one should not be used over the other. Instead they should be used together in order to decipher the complex meaning of the signs we see throughout our day. Peirce contributes by examining how individual thought processes create meaning and how those meanings can be different depending upon the person. Barthes helps frame communication problems as culturally produced phenomenon. Signs can definitely have more than one meaning, so help reduce the amount of ambiguity in the signs we create by first contemplating semiotic theories like that of Peirce and Barthes.
Craig, R. T. (2008). Signs & meaning and Visual semiotics & cultural myths. Power point slides. Retrieved from http://culearn.colorado.edu on March 17, 2008.
Kim, K. L (1996). Caged in our own signs: A book about semiotics. Ablex Publishing Corporation. (pp.1-11). Norwood, New Jersey.
Peirce, C. S. (1998). What is a sign? In Peirce Editions Project (Ed.), The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writing, Volume 2 (1893-1913) (pp. 4-10). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Sebeok, T. A. (1994). An introduction to semiotics. Pinter Publishers. London, United Kingdom.