Semiotics and “The Gentlemen’s Agreement” ft. Baby Ice Cream Pt.2

Now onto to my main man, Peirce, Again I ask, bear with me. Fun posts will resume shortly…promise.

1. Basic Sign Structure
In one of his many definitions of a sign, Peirce writes:

I define a sign as 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 later is thereby mediately determined by the former. (EP2, 478)
What we see here is Peirce’s basic claim that signs consist of three inter-related parts: a sign, an object, and an interpretant. For the sake of simplicity, we can think of the sign as the signifier, for example, a written word, an utterance, smoke as a sign for fire etc. The object, on the other hand, is best thought of as whatever is signified, for example, the object to which the written or uttered word attaches, or the fire signified by the smoke. The interpretant, the most innovative and distinctive feature of Peirce’s account, is best thought of as the understanding that we have of the sign/object relation. The importance of the interpretant for Peirce is that signification is not a simple dyadic relationship between sign and object: a sign signifies only in being interpreted. This makes the interpretant central to the content of the sign, in that, the meaning of a sign is manifest in the interpretation that it generates in sign users. Things are, however, slightly more complex than this and we shall look at these three elements in more detail.

1.1 The Signifying Element of Signs
The very first thing to note is that there are some potential terminological difficulties here. We appear to be saying that there are three elements of a sign, one of which is the sign. This is confusing and does not fully capture Peirce’s idea. Strictly speaking, for Peirce, we are interested in the signifying element, and it is not the sign as a whole that signifies. In speaking of the sign as the signifying element, then, he is more properly speaking of the sign refined to those elements most crucial to its functioning as a signifier. Peirce uses numerous terms for the signifying element including “sign”, “representamen”, “representation”, and “ground”. Here we shall refer to that element of the sign responsible for signification as the “sign-vehicle”.

Peirce’s idea that a sign does not signify in all respects and has some particular signifying element is perhaps best made clear with an example. Consider, for instance, a molehill in my lawn taken as a sign of moles. Not every characteristic of the molehill plays a part in signifying the presence of moles. The color of the molehill plays a secondary role since it will vary according to the soil from which it is composed. Similarly, the sizes of molehills vary according to the size of the mole that makes them, so again, this feature is not primary in the molehill’s ability to signify. What is central here is the causal connection that exists between the type of mound in my lawn and moles: since moles make molehills, molehills signify moles. Consequently, primary to the molehill’s ability to signify the mole is the brute physical connection between it and a mole. This is the sign-vehicle of the sign. For Peirce, then, it is only some element of a sign that enables it to signify its object, and when speaking of the signifying element of the sign, or rather, the sign-vehicle, it is this qualified sign that he means.

1.2 The Object
Just as with the sign, not every characteristic of the object is relevant to signification: only certain features of an object enable a sign to signify it. For Peirce, the relationship between the object of a sign and the sign that represents it is one of determination: the object determines the sign. Peirce’s notion of determination is by no means clear and it is open to interpretation, but for our purposes, it is perhaps best understood as the placing of constraints or conditions on succesful signification by the object, rather than the object causing or generating the sign. The idea is that the object imposes certain parameters that a sign must fall within if it is to represent that object. However, only certain characteristics of an object are relevant to this process of determination. To see this in terms of an example, consider again the case of the molehill.

The sign is the molehill, and the object of this sign is the mole. The mole determines the sign, in as much as, if the molehill is to succeed as a sign for the mole it must show the physical presence of the mole. If it fails to do this, it fails to be a sign of that object. Other signs for this object, apart from the molehill, might include the presence of mole droppings, or a particular pattern of ground subsidence on my lawns, but all such signs are constrained by the need to show the physical presence of the mole. Clearly, not everything about the mole is relevant to this constraining process: the mole might be a conventional black color or an albino, it might be male or female, it might be young or old. None of these features, however, are essential to the constraints placed upon the sign. Rather, the causal connection between it and the mole is the characteristic that it imposes upon its sign, and it is this connection that the sign must represent if it is to succeed in signifying the mole.

1.3 The Interpretant
Although there are many features of the interpretant that bear further comment, here we shall mention just two. First, although we have characterized the interpretant as the understanding we reach of some sign/object relation, it is perhaps more properly thought of as the translation or development of the original sign. The idea is that the interpretant provides a translation of the sign, allowing us a more complex understanding of the sign’s object. Indeed, Liszka (1996) and Savan (1988) both emphasize the need to treat interpretants as translations, with Savan even suggesting Peirce should have called it the translatant (Savan 1988, 41). Second, just as with the sign/object relation, Peirce believes the sign/interpretant relation to be one of determination: the sign determines an interpretant. Further, this determination is not determination in any causal sense, rather, the sign determines an interpretant by using certain features of the way the sign signifies its object to generate and shape our understanding. So, the way that smoke generates or determines an interpretant sign of its object, fire, is by focusing our attention upon the physical connection between smoke and fire.

For Peirce, then, any instance of signification contains a sign-vehicle, an object and interpretant. Moreover, the object determines the sign by placing constraints which any sign must meet if it is to signify the object. Consequently, the sign signifies its object only in virtue of some of its features. Additionally, the sign determines an interpretant by focusing our understanding on certain features of the signifying relation between sign and object. This enables us to understand the object of the sign more fully.

Although this is a general picture of Peirce’s ideas about sign structure, and certain features are more or less present, or given greater or lesser emphasis at various points in Peirce’s development of his theory of signs, this triadic structure and the relation between the elements is present in all of Peirce’s accounts.

How was that, did you survive? Me neither. To reward you, here are 2 funny videos we had to analyze today, enjoy:

JOHNNIE WALKER BLUE LABEL presents Jude Law in ‘The Gentleman’s Wager’


VW STAR WARS KID (tv version)

Here is the full version:

Thanks for bearing with me guys. 

The quote of the day comes from The Dark Lord himself, Darth Vader. And he said:“I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master.”

I chose to not do the whole “father” quote because at this point it’s SUPER CHEESE, as Mr. Ivy would put it.

I’m out.


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