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A more developed version of this paper can be found in

Santaella, Lucia & Nöth, Winfried (2004). Comunicação & semiótica. São Paulo: Hacker.


Lucia Santaella

Post-Graduate Program in Communication and Semiotics

São Paulo Catholic University


This paper is divided into three parts. The first part will deal with the aspects in which Peirce´s semiotics goes beyond a theory of communication. The second part will deal more specifically with semiotics as a theory of communication. The argument will be based on the idea that the triad of semiosis, namely, object, sign, and interpretant, can be considered as a very general construct abstracted from the logically cruder notion of the sender, message, and receiver (Peirce MS 318). The third part will argue that semiotics as a theory of communication expands into a triadic theory of objectivation (relation of the sign to its objects), signification (relation of the sign to itself), and interpretation (relation of the sign to its interpretants).


1. The scope of Peirce´s semiotics

The extreme complexity of Peirce´s work is notorious. His writings spread into the most diverse fields of knowledge, from mathematics to history, from philosophy and linguistics to chemistry, from literature to physics and astronomy, etc. In the apparently heterogeneous body of his work, however, there is a kind of heart to which all his inquiries converged. That is his semiotics conceived of as logic in a much broader sense than logic used to have at his time, and still in a broader sense than the one it continues to have until nowadays.


1.1 Semiotics as a scientific philosophy

Before anything, it is necessary to emphasize that above all, Peircean semiotics or logic is a philosophy which is conceived of as a scientific philosophy. It has all the necessary generality of a philosophical body of thought. His conceptions were treated with the same kind of care for precision of a mathematician, and "with a comprehensiveness of scope, a penetration to fundamentals, and a devotion to the detail of theoretical development which is still unparalleled" in the history of philosophy (Ransdell 1977: 158). As far as I can see, this is a necesssary starting point when we introduce Peirce´s ideas. When the phenomenological and epistemological foundations which support his thought are ignored, one runs the risk of taking his semiotics merely as a set of complicated terminology, a mere technicality to deal with instrumentalist applications of knowledge.

Contrary to that, general semiotics is a part of philosophy, that part which deals with the abstract questions of ontology, philosophy of logic, theory of meaning, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and epistemology. His general semiotics attempted to bring, by means of the logic of the sign, "a unity to these apparently diverse philosophical concerns". He meant to approach "all such problems in terms of a single and generic conception and the distinctions that can be made on its basis, namely, the conception of thought as semiosis, that is, as a sign interpretation process exhibiting an essentially triadic relation between sign, object, and interpretant" (ibid.: 158). Thus, Peirce conceived of semiosis as a synonym for intelligence, continuity, growth, and life. His logic or semiotics was a kind of method for the development of a highly abstract concept of mind derived from all that is implicit in the tendency for truth which inhabits the core of human life.

Briefly stated, this is the most general desideratum of Peirce´s philosophy. Having this in mind, within his work the place to start looking is not the sign classification systems and their immediate applications, "which is usually what comes to mind when his semiotic is referred to" (ibid.: 158).


1.2 The role of the systems of classification

When seen in the light of their philosophical foundations, Peirce´s definitions and classifications of signs will not appear as classifications strictu sensu, but as patterns which include all the ontological and epistemological aspects of the sign universe, such as the problem of reference, of reality and fiction, the question of objectivity, the logical analysis of meaning and the problem of truth (Buczynska-Garewicz 1983: 27).

Mihai Nadin (1983: 163) also says that the tipology of the classes of signs (the 10, 28, and 66 classes), as they were confirmed by the mathematical theory of the categories, has to be understood as a web of fundamental points of reference in a generalized semiotic field. When this tipology is transformed into an end in itself, it leads only to a formalistic semiotics. To give a name to a sign, to identify it does not solve the problem of the way it acts semiotically. The sign can only be conceived of and interpreted within the spectrum of the logic of uncertainty with the participation of the doctrine of the continuum. Fuzzy categories, the extension of the mathematical concept of categories, fulfil this need and improve the table of the signs through the image of the continuum and, consequently, the dynamics of the sign processes.


1.3 The generality of the sign

What Peirce intended to develop pressuposed a general theory of all types and aspects of signs. When we say general, however, we have to bear in mind the degree of generality which is meant. On the one side, there is the generality of the object that the theory aims to embrace. On the other hand, there is the generality of the theory itself. As far as the object of the theory is concerned, for Peirce, human beings themselves are signs. Our entire life and thoughts are signs. Yet, he went even further: any other thing that anything may be, it is also a sign. Beyond the anthropo and logocentric threshold, the generality of the concept of sign goes as far as the statement that "the entire univerve is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs" (CP 5.448, n.1, apud Fisch 1986: 360).

All these statements would sound as artificial eloquence of language, however, if Peirce had not gone into the task of evincing all their pressupositions and implications. What he had in mind was, in his own words, "to outline a thery so comprehensive that, for a long time to come, the entire work of human reason, in philosophy of every school and kind, in mathematics, in psychology, in physical science, in history, in sociology, and in whatever other department there may be, shall appear as the filling up of its details" (apud Brent 1993: 1). The first step for that is to find elementary concepts which can be applied to any subject (CP 1.vii).

Despite its complexity and intricacies, Peirce´s theory is supported on a few very abstract and refined concepts such as the three phenomenological categories and the definition and classifications of the sign. These compose an analytical scheme at the level of maximum generality which can be available to any particular science or discipline whatsoever.


2. Semiotics as a theory of communication

In the sense discussed above, besides being a scientific philosophy, general semiotics is also intended to function as a foundational theory, as a general method of and for scientific inquiry, or even as a phenomenological and epistemological guiding map to be used by any discipline whatsoever. If this is true for any scientific field or discipline, it is even truer for communication theory, since not only semiotics can be viewed as a communication theory but also we can say that Peirce´s notion of semiosis is embbeded on a communication model. Before going into the details of this statement, let me point out some relatively evident aspects which approximate semiotics and communication.


2.1 Approximations between communication and semiotics

Communication only exists when something is transported from one place to another. The aim of the transporting process is to exercise some form of influence or to produce some form of change at the destination site. There can only be transformation when what is transported contains some sort of information. All information needs to be embodied in something. This something is made up of what is called the message. The message, in its turn, exists only when it is materialized in signs of some sort, which, in order to be capable of informing, must be in some way encoded. Now, to be transported from one place to the other, from a source to its destiny, the information, materialized in a message, needs a channel. The conclusions that can be drawn from this are obvious: (a) there is no communication without transmition of information; (b) there is no information which is not embodied in a message; (c) there is no message without signs; (4) there is no trasmission of messages without a transporting channel. All these aspects are the ones which evince the interrelations between communication, semiotics, and information.

In Peirce´s semiotics, however, conceived of as a foundational logic, these interrelations are born in a deeper level. That Peirce´s semiotics is a theory of communication is implicit, in the first place, in the fact that there can be no communication without signs. In the second place, it is implicit in the fact that semiosis is above all a process of interpretation. How could there be communication if there was no production of signs to be interpreted?


2.2. Semiosis as an abstract communication model

In a deeper level, Peirce conception of semiosis as a very abstract communication model is clear in his "familiar dictum that all thought is to be regarded as dialogical in form, perhaps overt and occurring between two or more different persons, perhaps covert and occurring within the thought of a single person. [...] To underscore this dialogical structure of thought, as Peirce conceived it, we may note that in one place he actually derives the basic object-sign-interpretant relation from the idea of an utterer-utterance-intepreter relation by an analytical method which he characterizes as a search for the "essential ingredients" of this latter set of ideas (MS 318: 52-79 apud Ransdell 1977: 172). Hence, object-sign-interpretant are the triad in which utterer-utterance-interpreter are transformed when this latter triad is led to its logical essence. The technical term sign is derived from the logically cruder notion of utterance, and the notion of the interpretant is a logical refinement of the notion of interpretation (Ransdell 197?: ...) "The most puzzling part of this is no doubt the derivation of the concept of object from the concept of utterer" (Ransdell 1977: 172). Before trying to explain this puzzle, let me discuss the concept of the first member of the triad, the concept of the sign as a logical construct derived from the idea of utterance.


2.2.1 The utterance===the sign

"Peirce began where most of us begin, with a model, which, taken by itself, would suggest too narrow a definition, namely, the model of conversation between two speakers of the same language (...). With some assistance from lip movements and gestures, each interprets the sequences of sounds uttered by the other as words, phrases, clauses, sentences in the language they share" (Fisch 1986: 357). Now, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, speeches, and extended conversations are signs. So are poems, essays, short stories, novels, orations, plays, operas, jornal articles, scientific reports, and mathematical demonstrations. So a sign may be a constituent part of a more complex sign, and all the constituent parts of a complex sign are signs. Peirce´s notion of the sign did not stop at this point. It was so extended as to include images, symptoms, whole books, libraries, signals, commands, microscopes, representatives of parliament, concerts and their performance etc. (see MS 634: 18).

However, no matter how diverse the examples of signs may be, Peirce did not derive his generic conception of the sign from an inductive study of their empirical existence. His method was instead to develop a rather abstract definition of the way signs act in general so that anything whatsoever which exhibits such a mode of action is ipso facto a sign. Now, the action of the sign is a triadic action which implies the object and the interpretant.


2.2.2 The interpreter===the interpretant

Peirce´s definition of the interpretant, in its turn, is also a logical refinement of the cruder notion of interpretation. The definition is, in fact, so refined that the vague idea that we usually have of any interpretation process is precisely translated into a conceptual battery of at least twelve degrees of interpretants. This conceptual battery minutely evinces step by step the way any process of interpretation develops. This includes the potencial, the psychological, the emotional, the energetic, the logical, the habitual, and the transformative aspects of interpretation.


2.2.3 The utterer===the object

Concerning Peirce´s derivation of the concept of the object from the notion of the utterer, the explanation provided by Joseph Ransdell is very enlightening. Ultimately, he says, the utterer of any sign, of any interpretable phenomenon is reality in itself. This is true even in the case of a human utterer, when we are led to think of reality as `speaking through´ the utterer.

The philosophical implications of this argument are very complex and cannot be discussed here. Anyway, what is worthwhile stressing is the fact that Peirce´s triadic definition of the sign derived from the utterer-utterance-interpreter triad is a conceptual construct abstracted from the communication model of a conversation which may occur between humans, humans and animals, animals and animals, humans and machines, machines and machines, molecules and molecules etc.


2.3 The triad as an abstract construct

All the alternatives above sound possible when we consider the generality of any one of Peirce´s definitions of the sign of which I chose the following: A sign is anything which is so determined by something else, called its object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which effect I call its interpretant, that the latter is thereby mediately determined by the former (Nem 3: 886).

From this definition, some aspects of the triad should be highlighted, namely: (a) the sign is determined by the object, that is, the object causes the sign, but (b) the sign represents the object and that is why it is a sign, (c) the sign can only represent the object partially, and (d) it can represent it falselly, (e) to represent the object means that the sign is able to affect a mind, that is, to produce a certain effect in it, (f) this effect is called the interpretant of the sign, (g) the interpretant is immediatly determined by the sign and mediatly determined by the object, that is, (h) the object also determines the interpretant, through the mediation of the sign.

Taking into consideration the level of abstraction attained by Peirce´s triad, we are led to the conclusion that "communication does not provide the means of explaining sign-action but rather designates a phenomenon or range of phenomena to be explained by means of other, more basic conceptions" (Colapietro 1993: 34), such as semiosis, object, interpretants, and the various types of interpretant. A sign is ordinarily understood as an implement of intercommunication (MS 283: 106). This understanding, however, neglects the fact that Peirce´s concept of the sign is "the result of a series of generalizations (CP 1.82), derived by an abstractive process from our communicative practices. These generalizations have been made and integrated for the purpose of illuminating not only these communicative practices but also the various contexts in which these practices have emerged and continue to evolve" (Colapietro 1993: 25).

Moreover, the generalizations are able to insert the communication processes in a broad framework of interfaces with the triadic theories that can be extracted from the logical definition of semiosis.


3. Three theories in one

The relation of the sign to its objects gives rise to a theory of objectivation. This includes all the issues related to the referentiality and applicability of signs, factuality and reconstruction of clues, and also the intricate distinctions between reality and fiction, memory and forgetfulness etc. The internal relations of the sign to itself, that is, the different types of ground, quality, existent and law, gives rise to a theory of signification which provides us with concepts to reflect on the materiality of signs, their sensorial aspects, their forms of organization, and their systems of convention. The relation of the sign to its interpretants gives rise to a theory of interpretation which provides us with means to examine the interpretative potencial of signs, the processes of reception and the problem of truth.

In the interfaces of objectivation, signification and interpretation, processes of communication can be viewed as an interplay of a set of practices, processes by which diverse perspectives fuse into the more inclusive one of semiosis or the action of the sign.