Concerning the Division of the Plane by Continua

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Alert: Bus delays and cancellations. Read more. The deadline for nominations is November The deadlines for nominations are noted in the correspondence forwarded to schools. View Announcements. Events Summary View Calendar. All Day. Orange Shirt Day. Saussure declares that 'the entire linguistic system is founded upon the irrational principle that the sign is arbitrary'. This provocative declaration is followed immediately by the acknowledgement that 'applied without restriction, this principle would lead to utter chaos' Saussure , ; Saussure , If linguistic signs were to be totally arbitrary in every way language would not be a system and its communicative function would be destroyed.

He concedes that 'there exists no language in which nothing at all is motivated' ibid. Saussure admits that 'a language is not completely arbitrary, for the system has a certain rationality' Saussure , 73 ; Saussure , The principle of arbitrariness does not mean that the form of a word is accidental or random, of course. Whilst the sign is not determined extralinguistically it is subject to intralinguistic determination.

For instance, signifiers must constitute well-formed combinations of sounds which conform with existing patterns within the language in question. Furthermore, we can recognize that a compound noun such as 'screwdriver' is not wholly arbitrary since it is a meaningful combination of two existing signs.

Saussure introduces a distinction between degrees of arbitrariness:. Here then Saussure modifies his stance somewhat and refers to signs as being 'relatively arbitrary'. Some subsequent theorists echoing Althusserian Marxist terminology refer to the relationship between the signifier and the signified in terms of 'relative autonomy' Tagg , ; Lechte , The relative conventionality of relationships between signified and signifier is a point to which I return below.

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It should be noted that whilst the relationships between signifiers and their signifieds are ontologically arbitrary philosophically, it would not make any difference to the status of these entities in 'the order of things' if what we call 'black' had always been called 'white' and vice versa , this is not to suggest that signifying systems are socially or historically arbitrary. Natural languages are not, of course, arbitrarily established, unlike historical inventions such as Morse Code.

Nor does the arbitrary nature of the sign make it socially 'neutral' or materially 'transparent' - for example, in Western culture 'white' has come to be a privileged signifier Dyer Even in the case of the 'arbitrary' colours of traffic lights, the original choice of red for 'stop' was not entirely arbitrary, since it already carried relevant associations with danger.

As part of its social use within a code a term which became fundamental amongst post-Saussurean semioticians , every sign acquires a history and connotations of its own which are familiar to members of the sign-users' culture. Saussure remarked that although the signifier 'may seem to be freely chosen', from the point of view of the linguistic community it is 'imposed rather than freely chosen' because 'a language is always an inheritance from the past' which its users have 'no choice but to accept' Saussure , ; Saussure , Indeed, 'it is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition, and [it is] because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary' Saussure , 74 ; Saussure , The arbitrariness principle does not , of course mean that an individual can arbitrarily choose any signifier for a given signified.

The relation between a signifier and its signified is not a matter of individual choice; if it were then communication would become impossible. From the point-of-view of individual language-users, language is a 'given' - we don't create the system for ourselves. Saussure refers to the language system as a non-negotiable 'contract' into which one is born Saussure , 14 ; Saussure , 14 - although he later problematizes the term ibid. The ontological arbitrariness which it involves becomes invisible to us as we learn to accept it as 'natural'.

The Saussurean legacy of the arbitrariness of signs leads semioticians to stress that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is conventional - dependent on social and cultural conventions. This is particularly clear in the case of the linguistic signs with which Saussure was concerned: a word means what it does to us only because we collectively agree to let it do so.

Saussure felt that the main concern of semiotics should be 'the whole group of systems grounded in the arbitrariness of the sign'.

He argued that: 'signs which are entirely arbitrary convey better than others the ideal semiological process. That is why the most complex and the most widespread of all systems of expression, which is the one we find in human languages, is also the most characteristic of all. In this sense, linguistics serves as a model for the whole of semiology, even though languages represent only one type of semiological system' Saussure , 68 ; Saussure , He did not in fact offer many examples of sign systems other than spoken language and writing, mentioning only: the deaf-and-dumb alphabet; social customs; etiquette; religious and other symbolic rites; legal procedures; military signals and nautical flags Saussure , 15, 17, 68, 74 ; Saussure , 16, 17, 68, Saussure added that 'any means of expression accepted in a society rests in principle upon a collective habit, or on convention - which comes to the same thing' Saussure , 68 ; Saussure , However, whilst purely conventional signs such as words are quite independent of their referents, other less conventional forms of signs are often somewhat less independent of them.

Nevertheless, since the arbitary nature of linguistic signs is clear, those who have adopted the Saussurean model have tended to avoid 'the familiar mistake of assuming that signs which appear natural to those who use them have an intrinsic meaning and require no explanation' Culler , 5. At around the same time as Saussure was formulating his model of the sign, of 'semiology' and of a structuralist methodology, across the Atlantic independent work was also in progress as the pragmatist philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce formulated his own model of the sign, of 'semiotic' and of the taxonomies of signs.

In contrast to Saussure's model of the sign in the form of a 'self-contained dyad', Peirce offered a triadic model:. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.

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That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen' Peirce , 2. The interaction between the representamen , the object and the interpretant is referred to by Peirce as 'semiosis' ibid. Within Peirce's model of the sign, the traffic light sign for 'stop' would consist of: a red light facing traffic at an intersection the representamen ; vehicles halting the object and the idea that a red light indicates that vehicles must stop the interpretant.

Peirce's model of the sign includes an object or referent - which does not, of course, feature directly in Saussure's model. The representamen is similar in meaning to Saussure's signifier whilst the interpretant is similar in meaning to the signified Silverman , However, the interpretant has a quality unlike that of the signified : it is itself a sign in the mind of the interpreter. Peirce noted that 'a sign The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign' Peirce , 2.

Umberto Eco uses the phrase 'unlimited semiosis' to refer to the way in which this could lead as Peirce was well aware to a series of successive interpretants potentially ad infinitum ibid. Elsewhere Peirce added that 'the meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation' ibid. Any initial interpretation can be re-interpreted. That a signified can itself play the role of a signifier is familiar to anyone who uses a dictionary and finds themselves going beyond the original definition to look up yet another word which it employs.

This concept can be seen as going beyond Saussure's emphasis on the value of a sign lying in its relation to other signs and it was later to be developed more radically by poststructuralist theorists. Another concept which is alluded to within Peirce's model which has been taken up by later theorists but which was explicitly excluded from Saussure's model is the notion of dialogical thought. It stems in part from Peirce's emphasis on 'semiosis' as a process which is in distinct contrast to Saussure's synchronic emphasis on structure Peirce , 5. Peirce argued that 'all thinking is dialogic in form.

Your self of one instant appeals to your deeper self for his assent' Peirce , 6. This notion resurfaced in a more developed form in the s in the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin Bakhtin One important aspect of this is its characterization even of internal reflection as fundamentally social. Peirce, clearly fascinated by tripartite structures, made a phenomenological distinction between the sign itself [or the representamen] as an instance of 'Firstness', its object as an instance of 'Secondness' and the interpretant as an instance of 'Thirdness'.

Such unfamiliar terms are relatively modest examples of Peircean coinages, and the complexity of his terminology and style has been a factor in limiting the influence of a distinctively Peircean semiotics.


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Variants of Peirce's triad are often presented as ' the semiotic triangle' as if there were only one version. The broken line at the base of the triangle is intended to indicate that there is not necessarily any observable or direct relationship between the sign vehicle and the referent. Unlike Saussure's abstract signified which is analogous to term B rather than to C the referent is an 'object'. This need not exclude the reference of signs to abstract concepts and fictional entities as well as to physical things, but Peirce's model allocates a place for an objective reality which Saussure's model did not directly feature though Peirce was not a naive realist, and argued that all experience is mediated by signs.

Note, however, that Peirce emphasized that 'the dependence of the mode of existence of the thing represented upon the mode of this or that representation of it The inclusion of a referent in Peirce's model does not automatically make it a better model of the sign than that of Saussure. Indeed, as John Lyons notes:. The notion of the importance of sense-making which requires an interpreter - though Peirce doesn't feature that term in his triad has had a particular appeal for communication and media theorists who stress the importance of the active process of interpretation, and thus reject the equation of 'content' and meaning.

Many of these theorists allude to semiotic triangles in which the interpreter or 'user' of the sign features explicitly in place of 'sense' or 'interpretant'.

This highlights the process of semiosis which is very much a Peircean concept. The meaning of a sign is not contained within it, but arises in its interpretation. Whether a dyadic or triadic model is adopted, the role of the interpreter must be accounted for - either within the formal model of the sign, or as an essential part of the process of semiosis. David Sless declares that 'statements about users, signs or referents can never be made in isolation from each other.

A statement about one always contains implications about the other two' Sless , 6. Paul Thibault argues that the interpreter features implicitly even within Saussure's apparently dyadic model Thibault , Note that semioticians make a distinction between a sign and a 'sign vehicle' the latter being a 'signifier' to Saussureans and a 'representamen' to Peirceans.

The sign is more than just a sign vehicle. The term 'sign' is often used loosely, so that this distinction is not always preserved. In the Saussurean framework, some references to 'the sign' should be to the signifier , and similarly, Peirce himself frequently mentions 'the sign' when, strictly speaking, he is referring to the representamen.

It is easy to be found guilty of such a slippage, perhaps because we are so used to 'looking beyond' the form which the sign happens to take.

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However, to reiterate: the signifier or representamen is the form in which the sign appears such as the spoken or written form of a word whereas the sign is the whole meaningful ensemble. Symbolism reflects only one form of relationship between signifiers and their signifieds. Whilst Saussure did not offer a typology of signs, Charles Peirce was a compulsive taxonomist and he offered several logical typologies Peirce , 1. However, his divisions and subdivisions of signs are extraordinarily elaborate: indeed, he offered the theoretical projection that there could be 59, types of signs!

Peirce himself noted wryly that this calculation 'threatens a multitude of classes too great to be conveniently carried in one's head', adding that 'we shall, I think, do well to postpone preparation for further divisions until there be a prospect of such a thing being wanted' Peirce , 1. However, even his more modest proposals are daunting: Susanne Langer commented that 'there is but cold comfort in his assurance that his original 59, types can really be boiled down to a mere sixty-six' Langer , Unfortunately, the complexity of such typologies rendered them 'nearly useless' as working models for others in the field Sturrock , However, one of Peirce's basic classifications first outlined in has been very widely referred to in subsequent semiotic studies Peirce , 1.

He regarded it as 'the most fundamental' division of signs ibid. It is less useful as a classification of distinct 'types of signs' than of differing 'modes of relationship' between sign vehicles and their referents Hawkes , Note that in the subsequent account, I have continued to employ the Saussurean terms signifier and signified , even though Peirce referred to the relation between the 'sign' sic and the object , since the Peircean distinctions are most commonly employed within a broadly Saussurean framework.

Such incorporation tends to emphasize albeit indirectly the referential potential of the signified within the Saussurean model. Here then are the three modes together with some brief definitions of my own and some illustrative examples:. The three forms are listed here in decreasing order of conventionality. Symbolic signs such as language are at least highly conventional; iconic signs always involve some degree of conventionality; indexical signs 'direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion' Peirce , 2.

Indexical and iconic signifiers can be seen as more constrained by referential signifieds whereas in the more conventional symbolic signs the signified can be seen as being defined to a greater extent by the signifier. Within each form signs also vary in their degree of conventionality. Other criteria might be applied to rank the three forms differently. For instance, Hodge and Kress suggest that indexicality is based on an act of judgement or inference whereas iconicity is closer to 'direct perception' making the highest 'modality' that of iconic signs.

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