Manuscript for Journal Article 1994
Mutual Interest Marriage between Psychology and Semiotics
51 / 64 KB Last revised 98.10.25
Original longer version submitted on invitation; final edited version published under the title: Toward a mutual interplay between psychology and semiotics , in: Journal of Accelerated Learning and Teaching 19 (1) 1994 45-66.
© 1998 by Alfred Lang
Scientific and educational use permitted
Questions are raised as to commonalities, mutual offerings and possible influences between the two scientific fields. They seem to share a largely similar interest sphere, yet their relationship appears less than optimal. Four different families of approaches to semiotics are briefly outlined. One of them is further detailed, elaborating the framework of Peircean semiotics. It focuses on sign processes or sign effects which are understood as a general type of causation particularly suitable for use in psychological problems. Some issues are dealt with in particular: Perception and action, although phenomenally quite different, can be semiotically construed as equivalent structure formation processes. In addition, the structures formed within the person as mind-brain and those built up outside as culture carry equivalent functions. A prospect is finally given towards a semiotic understanding of the person and self.
There are as many semiotics as there are psychologies. Both fields of scientific endeavor are characterized by extreme pluralism. Both have a long past and a short history.
Also, both disciplines claim central positions in the total scientific field. Whereas psychologists, to sharpen the point, are to explain human action, semioticians contend to account for human culture. And both have grown explosively in the recent past, psychology since World War II, semiotics mostly since the seventies. Yet both enjoy a mixed reputation in scientific and public opinion.
Have psychology and semiotics deeper commonalities? Can they offer something to each other? If yes, how can the two fields mutually impregnate and improve?
Short characterization of the two fields
It is impossible to say in a few lines what psychology is. So let me just laconically characterize how I for one prefers to understand the field.
I see it as an ecological science. The greek word "oikos" refers to the household in a wide sense, i.e. both a product and an agency of culture, building upon vital and social instincts and comprising people in context.
In fact, psychology cannot investigate isolated subjects, because such cannot exist. Thus it is, in my understanding, the science of the relationship between humans and their environment, on the level of information exchange rather than matter-energy metabolism. It studies humans as a part of nature who, in historical, social, and personal processes, develop themselves as creators and creatures of their culture.
Since semiotics is less well known, I have to particularize a bit. Quite often, both semioticians and lay people cultivate an impression of semiotics that might be characterized as pars praeter totum, i.e. they do not put but rather take some part for the whole. For example, semantics of word meaning is sometimes taken for all of semiotics. Often in discussions with semiotically interested yet not well informed people, I am tempted to ask them to forget for the moment what they know about semiotics.
A reasonable layout of the field might differentiate among four families of semiotic approaches. Naturally, chalking them out will not do justice to the hundreds of versions and distinctions that have been and are discussed in the literature.
There is a bit of content related specialization also in semiotics as it compartimentalizes psychology. You can make out semioticians oriented towards linguistics, literature, the visual or auditory arts, philosophical, biological, or computational topics, public relations, fashion etc. etc. But those applied distinctions are less important here; so basic or formal distinctions are ruling the present layout.
Semiotics is often defined as the study of signs. This is on a similar level as when psychology is defined as the science of behavior. In both cases, that does not say much. Depending of what you mean by sign or by behavior and depending on what aspects you emphasize in that study, you get quite different (sub-)disciplines which, by the way, need not be exclusive of each other. For an inclusive reference both in terms of topics and traditions of present-day semiotics and also including large bibliographies, I recommend Sebeok (1986) or Noeth (1990).
Studying signs can focus (a) on signs as a special kind of objects, (b) on the meaning of signs, (c) on the use of signs, and (d) on the effects of signs.
(a) Signs as Objects.
Still quite common in semiotics of today are variants of the classical approach going back to Aristotle, Augustine, Locke, Leibniz and many others. Signs are seen as special objects which have a special meaning and which can, in some respect, represent or substitute other objects.
Aliquid pro aliquo, something for another thing, is a famous formula. A sign or signifier stands for something signed or signified. The distinction between signifiant and signifié of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure of around 1900 has strengthened as well as opened that approach.
Seeing them in such a way, you can "botanize" signs, classify them and investigate whether the coordination between sign objects and sign meaning obeys rules and what kind of rules.
Beyond linguistic signs like phonemes, letters, words or sentences, all kinds of matter and energy configuration in general and their components can in principle be treated as signs. By way of example, I mention phenomena such as gestures (from everyday behavior to artful dance), exchange objects (from souvenirs to money), buildings (from huts to cities), or other cultural codes (from traffic signs to law), etc.
It is as useful and desirable as it is problematic and sometimes deadly to have available all kinds of lists of signs and symptoms with pointers to their respective meaning. Also in psychology, as in medicine, it was and is a dream to be able to "read" people's attributes and behavior as a clue to their personality or potential. Used with care, such encyclopedias of meaning are indispensable aids of social life. All of us have partial and possibly idiosyncratic duplicates of such "lists" in our heads.
However, the problems of this approach should also be obvious. Naturally, everything has its meaning or meanings; it just depends. In fact, the signs-as-objects-approach goes astray in its multiplying attempts at distinctions and definitions: signs against non-signs, this sign class against that, this variant of meaning ... etc., etc. Lastly, this is an approach based on arbitrary fixations which can ever be substituted by alternative fixations.
(b) The Meaning of Signs
From the above, attempts at turning the object approach "upside down" are quite understandable. Semiotics as the science of meaning is both a development of and a reaction to the sign object centration. Variants of structuralism, to be seen as the principal movements of this approach, are based on the conception of distinctive features inaugurated by Saussure and developed by Roman Jakobson, Louis Hjelmslev, Jurij M. Lotman, Algirdas J. Greimas and others. A central role in this approach takes a general notion of "text", referring to any texture, including its elements and their relations, of whatever can be composed. Structures of distinctions within texts and beyond in contexts are what constitutes meaning and signs, not vice versa.
It is easy to see that, especially in fields such as literature and the arts, an important motive of producing signs is innovation. Catalogues of signs with fixed meaning can then become as much of a nuisance as of support. If you want to express something that has not been "said" before, you might need to blow sign classes and catalogues. So the basic tenet of this approach is the primacy of meaning.
Examples are hardly traceable in a few words. Think perhaps of a piece of music or architecture. Of course, you can list myriads of sign objects and suggest perhaps meanings for them. But it can be argued that you miss the "essentials" of the piece by exactly this procedure. The process of "going through" the whole of the "text" as a structured ensemble is assumed to generate its meaning ("parcours génératif").
Also the problems of this approach are unjustly dealt with in merely three sentences. Let me note the risk of attempting to elucidate the dark with darkness. Science of any kind needs intersubjectively demonstrable and coordinated reference objects and constructs. Yet, in the optimal case within literary or artistic traditions, commentary can itself become a kind of art.
(c) The Use of Signs
The third approach is the most commonly accepted today. It is based on some theory of communication, more or less influenced from theories of information exchange in technical or biological or social systems. Here, signs are not conceived as either material objects or mental meaning, but rather in view of their function in communicative processes. Signs or signals are considered vehicles or carriers of meaning. Naturally they must be of a material-energetic character; but their essence is the mediation of information between two systems.
This approach, perhaps quite characteristic of the technical Zeitgeist of the second half of the 20th century, owes much of its impetus to Charles W. Morris, a psychologist-sociologist-philosopher of American pragmatist descent. It has been taken up world-wide.
I think I can presuppose some knowledge of this approach in that psychologists are used to think in models of information transfer between some sender and receiver, whether the instances involved are thought to be parts of mechanical or computer systems or of living systems such as brain parts or human speakers and listeners.
Depending on what one prefers to accept as a communicative paradigm, there exist dozens if not hundreds of drawn-out sign-function-models. Some of them can be seen in a general-particular-relationhips; others are wildly competing for attention.
I tend to evaluate the functionalization or focus on sign processes realized in communicative models as a great advance of semiotics. Yet this by no means renders the object or meaning approaches dispensable.
On the other hand, the distinction and definition problems prevalent in the sign as object approach are rather only deferred than solved. Arbitrariness of initial definitions plagues the field. Instead of declaring this or that for a sign, controversy and dogmatisms rages now about questions such as whether the concept of communication should include or exclude intentionality, whether or not a sender is obligatory, whether communication presupposes a code or not, etc.
d) Sign Effects
Difficulties of that kind have instigated a number of semioticians to propose or rather reconsider a more general approach to sign processes which might best be described as the investigation of sign effects.
The American original founder of pragmatic or action oriented thinking, Charles S. Peirce, is certainly the most influential modern semiotician. A large portion of concepts used today in all of the above approaches (e.g. the icon-index-symbol distinction) are owed to Peirce. Yet Peirce, having had his ideas published at lifetime and also posthumously so far in less than desirable manner (Peirce 1932ff, 1982ff), is a revolutionary of science. This fourth approach is largely his living heritage.
Signs in this conception, similar to the meaning approach, are entities that should not be a priori defined and then classified. It is also not sufficient to functionalize traditional sign concepts as in the communication approach. "Signs", whatever that is, are "born from" signs and "procreate" signs. A sign, for Peirce, is anything that has the potential to, in suitable circumstances, create other signs.
Thus the question goes as to the role of "signs" in the becoming of signs. Semiotics then is the study of that case of causation that is carried by signs.
Most of what I have to say in the following in view of mutual benefits from dialogues between semiotics and psychology is to be understood as illustrating this fourth approach. No doubt, communication is an important issue in psychology and in general. But it deserves to find its particular place within a larger field of human cognitive and actional activities.
Typologizing semiotic approaches in four families, of course, might easily obscure issues that are of impact across the families. And there are, some utterly important. Let me just mention the problem of dyadic vs. triadic sign conception or the question of language being a general model or a particular concretization of semiotic thinking. I will take up a few of such issues below.
Let me further note that, in what follows and in general, I strive to avoid using the terms "sign" and "meaning" whenever I can, because they are irreducibly polyvalent. Of course, I need them in reporting the various semiotic traditions. Otherwise, my usage is untechnical, in an everyday sense.
I. What have Psychology and Semiotics in common?
From what has been said so far, it is evident that my thesis will be, the two fields have much in common, and much deeper than the superficial similarities sketched in the introduction.
Let's look at the matter first in a semiotician's perspective.
In spite of the abstract manner the four approaches had to be described, it is obvious (to some extent also valid for the sign object approach) that semioticians investigate sign processes in the framework of systems receiving, processing and producing signs or sign-type entities. In particular, those systems refer to living beings, primarily humans.
Now, these are roughly those processes claimed by psychologists as their subject matter. Terminological discrepancies should not hide the essential identity.
Scientific psychology is unthinkable without perceptual and behavioral processes, be it as a topic itself or as a methodological requirement. Semioticians would rightly contend them to be of sign-type character.
For example, what the psychological researcher presents to his "subjects", whether conceived as so-called "stimuli" or physical or social situations, are produced or selected by the experimenter as a kind of sign and are taken as such by the subjects. Inferences or generalizations the researcher draws to real life situations imply that the experimental setting somehow represent the latter.
Similarly, what the researcher records and analyses in the form of reactions, behavioral acts or traces, have sign-type character. Whether or not the subject has insight in this state of affairs, and whether or not the researcher explicitly thematizes it, the subject cannot help but give signs to the researcher which the latter analyzes as signs, in that she infers from them something else. The researcher is not interested in the behavior as such, but rather in what it means in this or that respect.
Finally there are semioticians who claim sign-type character for inner-psychic processes as well, foremost among the Peirce himself. Note that it is of no purport for the present discussion of signs, if they are "read" or interpreted rightly or wrongly in what respect ever.
On this background, I am in pains as a semiotician to understand and accept that psychologists so widely ignore semiotics notwithstanding the fact that the latter asserts to offer a general theory of the role of signs or of information-related processes.
Things are not much better from a psychologist's point of view.
It is true that many semioticians cultivate strong interests in psychological topics. Quite a number of papers and articles at semiotic conferences or in semiotic periodicals deal with issues typical for psychological publications. However, it is not always easy for a psychologist to accept what is written in some of those semiotic contributions. Sometimes, psychological models or theories are selectively transferred or simplified. And also some semioticians tend to shield themselves from psychological data malfitting with their expectations.
It seems to me, however, that constructive reactions to this state of affairs would be most desirable from both sides. The first step might be to ask each other what they think they could offer or demand.
II. What have Psychology and Semiotics to offer each other?
Instead of listing here a considerable number of topics that would require extensive context, I propose to listen to a dialogue, a semiotically interested psychologist (P) might engage with a psychologically interested semiotician (S).
Common field, autonomous approaches
P. Could we make sure from the outset that we both consider our respective disciplines completely autonomous? Like mother earth is investigated by many geo-sciences we might need several and varied approaches to that being-and-becoming of people in their world.
S. Agreed, of course, this field of information metabolism between living and other entities in their environment requires a multifaceted set of descriptions and analyses. And it would be quite unfortunate to decree beliefs rather than observe them grow and change and make comparisons.
Difference of approach
P. Wherein do you see principal differences between the respective kinds of analyses of our two disciplines?
S. With Peirce (1902, see CP 1.242ff. and elsewhere), two broad fields of empirical or object oriented science can be differentiated, viz. the psychical and the physical sciences. Psychology along with fields such as sociology, anthropology, history or linguistics would comprise psychics at large and would certainly hold a central place in the group. In addition, psychology might take a special interest in the area of overlap between the physical and the psychical. It is quite unfortunate that in its history of roughly a century it preferred to separate itself along the big break between the physical and the psychical sciences rather than building bridges based on its "psychophysical" lookout.
S. On the other hand, semiotics should be seen primarily as a formal or normative science along with aesthetics, ethics and logic. Actually for Peirce, semiotics is a part of logic, or better its more inclusive form. Insofar entities investigated by psychics always include also physical characters, you might call semiotics the logics of psychical entities. From this you might cut out the logics of physical entities as a special case.
Formal vs. prescriptive
P. What do you mean by formal science? That it prescribes, like logic, how propositions and judgments or other sign complexes are to be formed in order to be true or valid?
S. Beware! This would be a fundamental misunderstanding. Semiotics is a strictly formal discipline, yet built upon observation of the mind in action. In distinction to the empirical sciences with their respective particular points of view, it observes on the most abstract level possible. It claims to eschew particular points of view of observation, and, instead to supply those general forms of presentation that pertain to everything. Being evaluative or normative does not include prescription but rather point out consequences in the pragmaticist sense. Pragmaticism, for Peirce, is a method for attaining apprehension of ideas from considerations of the practical bearings they might possibly have (1878, CP 5.402).
Epistemological priority of the psychical, ontological indifference
P. What you say is not easy to understand. Furthermore, you seem to contradict yourself. Having exacted semiotics as the logics of psychical entities before, you now claim for it the highest possible abstraction level. Don't you turn the world upside down? Are the psychical not special cases of the physical entities?
S. We believe to know that so, because we have become used to that belief. But where do we know from? It cannot be more than presumption or prejudice. Insofar we have produced the assumption of the priority of physical things by psychical means, you must admit, that our ideas of the physical are epistemologically subsumed by something "psychical", whatever you like to speculate about that matter ontologically.
A chance to neutralize Cartesianism
P. I see, you dismiss Cartesianism. You might be right, witness so many advances to that effect in many fields of thought. Psychology, being based on the very idea of dualism, seems to hold on strongly. And having failed with dualism, its clinging to materialistic reductionism becomes more and more obsolete. It seems in need of that Teddy to sleep well. Do you feel those eternal forms of thought ascribed to Cartesian and Kantian subjects -- substance, causation, necessity etc. -- to be fictions?
S. To be special forms of presentation, yes, but certainly not of the universal scope claimed for them. I think we should take effort to confine them to where they belong, namely with nice little closed systems constituted by our thinking. It is true, we encounter psychical and physical phenomena in our intuition; but that does not imply that our constructs to understand the world must refer to either psychical or physical realities. We should not let us catch by how things act upon us, but rather find out, with the means available to us, how they act upon each other.
The dialogue becoming a bit philosophical here and losing itself in jargon, we halt it and add a few additional turns on more practical concerns of the two sciences.
Semiotic vs. physical conceptions of causation
S. Now we have suggested and you could agree from your psychological point of view, that you are not at all happy with the classical science conception of causation, namely the necessary and sufficient coordination of effects to causes. You are in need of a more general conception that concedes effects being caused but leaves something open for the unpredictable developments in life courses and in evolution and cultural change. It cannot be a matter of just not yet knowing all the effective causes. And, as everybody knows from personal experience, the so-called final causes produce not exactly, more often than not, what has been intended.
P. If former beliefs in universal one-to-one cause-effect-connections are given up or confined to special conditions in the physical sciences, it is indeed strange that so many psychologists still operate within deterministic assumptions and try to reduce the erratic psychical to the certain physical. On the other hand, I am similarly embarrassed by nominalistic or constructivistic proposals which supplant causative connections from concrete reality out there over into the minds of observers.
Taking serious the reality of interpretation
S. So you are pursuing a conception of causation which considers the fact of interpretation in the world itself. You are after a conception of "conditioning", in the most general sense, which sees entities like living systems not simply and merely as results of adaptation to some independently given reality. You feel that organisms, social systems, persons, and cultures can show something that is neither simply by chance nor simply preprogrammed. You are sure, they are capable, to some extent, of "making history".
P. Since you maintain that semiotics in the wake of Peirce is exactly providing conceptual means for this, I am curious to learn how it is done. Semiotics provides a general form of thought or presentation which avoids dualism and does not play the game of ontological priority of either the physical or the psychical. Epistemologically it accepts the primacy of the mind. However, it approaches it empirically, not by postulating a Kantian or other "logical" a priori.
This form of thought or presentation is of triadic nature. Sign-types do not represent a thing, but rather present the relations between entities for forming further relations.
III. How can Psychology and Semiotics mutually impregnate?
Also my third question can be served in only an exemplary fashion. What I aspire is to make plausible that old habits of thought might be broken in both fields and lead towards revision in promising ways through interdisciplinary cooperation. Notwithstanding, the engagement to bring fruits will take some time. For illustrating how impregnation could work in both directions I have chosen to deal with two topics and mention a third.
1. Perception and action can be dealt with semiotically in equivalent terms
I have tried so far to draw your attention away from the sign to the sign process, antecedents and consequences of creating sign-type entities. It is time to introduce Peirce's concept of Semiosis, by which he means "an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its Interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs" (1906, CP 5.484). Semiotics is understood thus as the study "of the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible Semiosis".
Some examples after Peirce might make the three subjects or parts of semiosis more understandable.
A piece of music can be seen as a sign (or, to use Peirce' s more precise term, a Representamen) the object of which rests in the composers or performers project and intents and the (emotional) Interpretant would to found in the listeners emotions and thoughts.
A command uttered by an officer would be the sign-representamen of his command plan as an "object"; the executed command, i.e. the soldiers' behavior, would correspond to the (energetic) Interpretant.
A word or sentence or argument is taken as the Representamen of their subject (object), including their predicative or argumentative connex; in understanding, an (logical) Interpretant emerges which might rest in the meaning attained by somebody, i.e. a mental matter.
Now it must be pointed out that such coordinations between semiosis parts and real word entities, which appear to be the game among some semioticians, are quite ambiguous and perhaps can never really satisfy for lack of consistency and unanimity.
In addition the parts of semiosis appear to refer to psychologically utterly different events. Semiosis, as can be easily seen from these and other examples, sometimes refers to perception or understanding, sometimes also actions are involved.
Finally, it seems to me, that the Cartesian split so sharply and rightly attacked by Peirce (1867/68, see CP 1.545-599 and 5.213-317), has not really been given up. Some parts of semiosis are defined materially, others, however, mentally.
On this background which cannot be further elaborated here, I am seeking a more elementary concept of semiosis. I believe to have found it by assuming the typical communicative or interactive processes used in the examples above and elsewhere to be semiosically aggregated. ** The communicative models of semiosis (of the 3rd approach family above) would thus become special cases of a more general semiotic model, i.e. the semiosic effect model.
** It is common to distinguish between the terms semiotics, semiotical etc. for the scientific field and semiosic, semiosical etc. as pertaining to the process of semiosis.
In fact, in making this proposal, I apply psychological fundamentals to the problem. Peirce being the child of an epoch psychologically dominated by the idea of consciousness, often struggles and occasionally resigns to make distinctions between the psychical (as the immediately experienced) and the psychological (as our conceptions thereof) clear to his readers. This is easier today and we have less scruples to follow his advanced ideas on "analogues of consciousness" (CP 5.485). Remember: semiosis is a formal concept to be defined by how things act upon each other rather than by their impressions on us.
The essentials of an elementary semiosis concept, reinterpreting** Peirce in certain respect, can now briefly be sketched.
** I believe to proceed not only in the spirit of Peircean semiotics but can point to many passages in his works going in the same direction. I hope to give my arguments elsewhere.
Like Peirce I think of semiosis as an indivisible whole which can be construed as a process or as a structure and of which three mutually related moments can be distinguished, namely a source, a mediator, and a resultant. All three may appear to us as of material and/or mental character. However, better is to understand them as both or neither, because they play their role in semiosic processes as specially formed entities or structures whose effects rest as much on their matter-energy as on their form characters.
The source I call a Referent, i.e. the structure on which a semiosis sets on, the structure which it elaborates.
For the mediator I take from Peirce the term Interpretant. Peirce has also used this term in the sense of mediator, although his passages identifying Interpretant with mental meaning prevail. The former corresponds closer than the one preferred today in the semiotic community to general usage of the term. In semiosis, a source structure is translated into a resultant structure by means a of an interpreting system.
So the resultant is something that refers via its Interpretant to its Referent. I therefore name it the Representant in preference to Peirce's "Representamen".
I feel this expression to be less clumsy and yet to come nearest to its possible effects. For example, a diplomat can only so long be called a Representant of, as long as he stays in some connection with, his country. You should not be lead to think of the Representant as something self-contained.
You should also understand it in clear distinction from the common concept of (symbolic) representation, which is supposed to carry a meaning all by it self. Contrary to many common beliefs in semiotics, I insist that a Representant does not substitute or replace its Referent but connects to it via its Interpretant. A Representant taken as such, e.g. in its material character, is or does nothing semiosical. In choosing this term which is neither -at nor -and, I also wish to emphasize the active-passive double role of Interpretants and Representants.
Taking these concepts to Peirce's examples they seem to me to appear in a new light. The command example, for instance, would differentiate to a chain or tree of several semiosises.
The first of them could be coordinated to the command plan of the officer (as a Referent) and his language competence (as an Interpretant) with the voiced command (as its Representant). This semiosis is an executive type semiosis or from the person outgoing; I name it ExtrO-semiosis.
A second semiosis is taking up the specifically formed sound trace (the Rep of the first, now becoming the Ref of the second) by the hearing and understanding competencies and habits of the soldiers including their present attitudes (as its Int). In each of the present soldiers their Ints might slightly differ; so we will have to observe the resultant momentaneous states of the soldiers receiving a command as the Reps of their ingoing or IntraO-semiosises. Note the semiosic branching at this stage into different individuals, although I keep here the presentation on the type level.
The third link in this chain can be characterized as a processing semiosis within the person of each soldier. I name this sign-process an IntrA-semiosis. Even if we assume some routine automatism or however much of reflective decision making or simple and complex psychological processes proper of all sorts we can conjecture, we have to admit of a fundamental process type. Semiotically conceived, it includes some input state (a Ref, the reinterpreted Rep of the second link in the chain) which, on the basis of the complete cognitive and motivational preconditions and potentials in each soldier (the present Int) is transformed or transfigured into a readiness or some similar state to execute the command (Rep). Of course, a similar IntrA-semiosis has to be presumed, by the way, in the psychological organization proper of the officer before he expressed his command.
The example of Peirce comprises even a forth semiosis, namely again one of the ExtrO-semiosis-type, this time in other persons. The soldiers act, supposedly, in that their executive preparedness (the Rep of before, now taken as a Ref) is interpreted by their motor habits or routines (Int), i.e. their readiness is consumed by obliging to the command, in this case by laying down the gun (Rep). Remember that their IntrA-semiosis, under some circumstances, might have lead to a disobedient state or something akin.
Elsewhere (Lang 1992 b and c) I have presented this conception as a semiotic formulation of the ideas of Jakob von Uexküll and of Kurt Lewin. The (semiotic) function circle of the former and the theory of science as well as the psychological field theory of the latter were indispensable sources of inspiration, the Peircean semiotics providing a perfect formal instrument for making the synthesis.
From this example it can easily be conjectured, and this is in fact my reformulation of the Peircean semiosis concept, that semiosis is nothing but a process of structural change: semiosis is the formal concept presenting how new structures emerge from existing structures under influence of third structures.
In other words, by meeting a specific Interpretant structure, a Referent structure forms a further Representant structure in a semiosic process. You might turn this sentence around in three equivalent versions because the three moments are thought to mutually constitute themselves, whereas linguistic habits ask for one grammatical either active or passive subject.
It is impossible to make out in any way any one of the three moments of semiosis to be super- or subordinated to any other one. The Interpretant can determine the Referent as much as vice versa, as you can see in the fact that an Interpretant is co-constitutive of a Referent. For example, the voiced command of the officer would be just noise or air vibration to some other Interpretant, whereas for hearing and linguistically competent humans it is a sentence and, in particular, for the command habituated soldier, it is a specific order.
In addition, the Representant is co-determining as well. Look at the first semiosis of the example: to voice a command presupposes the air can be put into a formed vibration by vocal behavior, and one that can arrive at the ear of an addressee strong enough and undistorted. This should not be taken for granted; it is by evolutionary selection that it has entered, as in so many other cases, morphological and behavioral dispositions. Also you might easily think of various degrees of determination of a particular semiosis by any feasible combination or relative import of the three moments.
In sum, the three structures involved in a semiosis are intrinsically related and cannot be semiotically investigated except as a triadic whole. However, empirically, they can and should be separately presented and their respective role in a semiosis demonstrated whenever this is feasible. This is easier in ExtrO- and in IntrO-semiosis than in IntrA-semiosis. Sometimes, a semiotic analysis is more of a heuristic to point out particular moments than an actual empirical achievement. How can moments of a semiosis be empirically presented? There is no other method than semiosis, namely bringing Interpretants of the researcher in touch with Referents of his subject matter and having that encounter packed into a suitable set of (scientific) Representants.
What I have so far presented is a general semiotic conception of triadic causation to replace the idea of postulating a single necessary and sufficient (set of) condition for anything to occur. Semiotic causation, of course, is the more general type of causation. For it provides for systems to assume new states and, particularly for systems to develop in an open mode rather than by necessity. In fact, traditional necessity concepts of causation are seen as a limiting case of semiotic causation: when the import of an Interpretant approaches zero, Referent and Representant enter either a necessary or a chance relationship and we can speak of simple causes and effects.
Occasionally it is opportune to supplement the present process view of semiosis by a logical thought form abstracting from any event character. The logical elementary semiotic unit, or triad of Reference, Interpretance, and Representance, might be named a Semion. This reminds the chemical "Ion" and might indicate that we deal here with a dynamic building block of semiotic structures which functions both as an instrument and as a product of (semiosic) development.
A further positive side-product of elementary semiotic is a triadic redefiniton of the classical semiotic subfields of semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics. They have been, as they were proposed by Morris (1938, 1946; see 1971), dyadically reduced. But I cannot go into details here.
Elementary semiosis can be readily applied to psychological or ecological issues including communication. It forces the researcher to conceive of any of his subject matter in genetic series or trees (see Lang 1992 b). Nothing can exist if not as moment in semiosic condition and effect chains and trees. Note that semiosic trees can be of diverging or branching ( such as in phylogenesis), of converging or rooting (such as in ancestry) type, and of both combined. To understand anything means to point out its antecedent and consequent semiosises both in structure and process.
First we look briefly at a "productive" or ExtrO-semiosis. It is strangely neglected in semiotics as well as in psychology in comparison to the ingoing processes.
The production of signs, however, is the usual precondition of their interpretation. Indeed, in my conviction, it is advisable to construe of semiosis as always equivalent to some production or constitution of new structures (signs) through existing structures (signs). The crucial point is: you need not presuppose any subject in the Cartesian sense (see below). For, Referents and Interpretants, as a rule, have themselves arisen as Representants from other semiosises.
You might object with the case of "natural signs" or symptoms which are given or have not been produced as signs. It is obvious that this recurring controversial problem does not exist in elementary semiotics. Symptoms or anything given does not have sign-character or not per se. It gets sign-character only when it becomes a Referent of some semiosis. Naturally practically everything can be "read"; equally naturally, its "meaning" can depend as much on its Interpretant than on its proper traits as a Referent. Semiotically, symptoms or "natural signs" in general mean what they produce as Representants in the various possible semiosises referring to those objects.
Obviously, then, my preferred semiosic paradigm is that of action or generally of the semiosic act producing a small or large, a transient or enduring change of the world. (Rep) by or through suitable actualizations (Int) under given preconditions (Ref). Representants, re-interpreted as Referents, can draw any number and branches of further semiosises.
It might be worth while in this connection to point out the minute measure of attention given by 20th century psychology to effects of action. Even in the so-called action theories of the Leontiev- or Miller-Galanter-Pribram- and similar varieties, it is action planning, i.e. cognitively anticipated goals rather than their concrete effects, that draw the researchers' interest. Even in the traditions building on the law of effect, reinforcement effects back on the behaving system itself are preferably studied to near exclusion of effects of actions on the social and cultural systems at large.
Let us now look also at perceptive or receptive acts or IntrO-semiosis.
It will perhaps amaze you when I contend, from an elementary semiotic point of view, perception or IntrO-semiosis to present exactly the same basic construal as the productive or outgoing semiosis.
I interpret the perceptive subsystem of an individual in its actual state as an Interpretant. In perception this (system of) Interpretant is effected upon ("stimulated") by the actual surrounding world situation; or, this can only analytically be distinguished, the perceptual system orients itself by its dispositions (e.g. light is that portion of electromagnetic energy an eye is sensitive for) or by its actual "motivation" (adaptation, activation, set, expectations, defenses, etc.) towards particular surface aspects of the surrounding world. This often hard to differentiate encounter of a Referent and an Interpretant emerges in a Representant which we might simply identify as the percept.
However you want to conceive of the percept -- transient or enduring as memory, stored as new elements or integrated into preexisting systems, retained as entered or becoming part of ever evolving wholes -- you have to think of them as a material trace on the one hand and as a potential of effect chains or trees that cannot exhaustively be described by material dispositions.
Even as a deep in the wool dyed reductionist you have to admit that you learn little by analyzing brain parts or processes involved in a particular sign process, because brain processes function in quite similar fashion everywhere and everytime in the brain. On the other hand you infer the existence and character of some perceptual trace in the Mind-Brain when you succeed in making it effective in a new semiosis presenting to you its respective character in sign productive Representants. This is true even when you do not at all attain to locate or even catch the internal "sign" as a material trace.
If, however, we conceive the percept as a sign-type Representant which can become a Referent in a large potential of suitable IntrA- and ExtrO-semiosises, we have gained a descriptive system more pervasive than the traditional conceptual repertoire of perception psychology. I for one believe, we have a better heuristic guide for research. Even if this should prove wrong we are capable of seeing commonalities between perception and action that eschew traditional reasoning and method. For a simple example see our study on residential transactions (Lang 1992 a).
You might further conjecture and spin on a thread started by Peirce when he offers his semiosis as a candidate concept to describe and understand what is happening inner-psychologically, in the non-Cartesian Mind-Brain itself.
2. Semiotics offers descriptive tools for dealing with transitions between structures and processes
If you take the last idea seriously you would describe the whole of the Psyche or psychological organization of an individual at a given time as a semiosic structure that has been built up in myriads of semiosises rooted in a long phylo- and ontogenetic evolution. Parts of the complex function as Interpretants in perceptive, other parts as Interpretants and Referents in actional processes of ecological encounters between the individual and its environment.
My fascination with this type of perspective is in part due to its potential for construing structures and processes as two faces of the same entity. This is a problem that has rarely been satisfactorily attacked in empirical sciences. Witness the separation of processing and storing in the computer metaphor of the brain. It is easy in mathematics and it promises to become more feasible in parallel-distributed-processing computers or "neuronal net" models. Triadic elementary semiotic is an additional promising model.
Now I have mostly spoken of the ecological processes of information exchange between persons and the environment and concentrated on the Brain-Mind- structures constituted by IntrO-semiosis and used in ExtrO-semiosis. Are there any objections against applying the same conceptuality on external structure formations, i.e. in the environment of acting persons.
ExtrO-semiosis is perpetually producing sign-type structures in the surrounds of any acting agent. And many of those structures then, immediately or later on, are available to them for further semiosic chains or branches like any internal memory structures, except they begin with an IntrO-semiosis. Certainly our environment determines our behavior and development, however mediated by successions of IntrO-, IntrA- and ExtrO-semiosic go-betweens. In addition, and I think this particularly important, external structures are available to other individuals with roughly similar interpretive dispositions. They are ready to become Referents for their Interpretants. These external structures, in the main, are subsumed under the rubric of culture, i.e. the self-produced and evolving semiosic environment of communities of people.
We have our knowledge partly within our heads, partly in libraries and a large variety of cultural objects that are potential semiosic Referents, or that comprise, in the semiotic sense, information for suitable Interpretants.
Distributed structures as a basis for action and proper development is no invention of the mind in the narrow sense. Morphologically and ethologically, such structures have evolved early in phylogenesis. Some of them are parts of organisms, some are their behavioral dispositions or instincts, some are products put into the environment on the basis of instinctual behavior or planned action. Look for example into the analogical series of, say, egg, uterus, marsupial pouch, nesting cave, collected and built nest, cradle, and nursery for bringing up the young. Or think of similar series of semiotic devices for controlling others and one's relationship with them, such as scent marks, pheromones, distance management, display behavior, plumage, built structures, uniforms and the thousands and millions of human made gadgets, from small to carry around to large to make big cities.
It is evident that culture has brought an enormous amplification of the semiotic potential to humans in comparison to the rather limited and largely fixed sign repertoire of animals. In elementary semiotic I see the possibility of treating the seemingly different with equal conceptual tools: tools which are themselves, of course, of essential sign-character.
If this semiotic perspective on perception and action, on internal psych(olog)ical and external cultural structures appears to you not completely nonsensical, I would like to add briefly a further conjecture in order to point out the direction semiotic thinking in psychology might eventually go.
3. You need not presuppose "subjects": semiosically such can constitute themselves.
It is a strange matter of course in Western psychological thinking that we presuppose the existence of persons, and only of individual persons, as "subjects" in the Cartesian sense. True, developmental psychologists study their change in ontogenesis. But their initial constitution is taken for given. Only metaphorically, it seems, the idea of being a subject is lent to animals or to groups of people. Completely dark and widely undiscussed is the question of their origin. The related issue of begin and end of individual life is at least treated with in operational terms.
Peirce and a few of his modern interprets (e.g. Singer 1984, Colapietro 1989) have outlined a semiotic conception of what we call the subject that does not take it apart from the functioning of the person. If you construe, along the lines of a triadic semiotic sketched above, of the person as a semiosic structure in becoming, then understanding its origin can dispose of the Cartesian postulation.
"A person is, in truth, like a cluster of stars, which appears to be one star when viewed with the naked eye, but which scanned with the telescope of scientific psychology is found on the one hand, to be multiple within itself, and on the other hand to have no absolute demarcation from a neighbouring condensation." (Peirce 1893, Ms. 403)
I have treated a couple of topics out of a very complex theme and in addition dared to, I hope constructively, criticize some of the current views. It would be, I hope to have made plausible, as mindless for psychology and semiotics to live ignorantly apart as to give up one's own respective identity. Yet to join senses and forces in a mutual interest engagement or marriage might bring evolution and benefits to both. Psychology can acquire means of dealing with culture, semiotics gains by observing effects of signs in their most productive psychological province. Yet only time will demonstrate whether or not some mutual engagement between members of the two disciplines can bear fruits.
Colapietro, Vincent M. (1989) Peirce's approach to the self: a semiotic perspective on human subjectivity. New York, State Univ. Press.
Lang, Alfred (1992 a) On the knowledge in things and places. Pp. 76-83 in: Cranach, Mario von; Doise, Willem & Mugny, Gabriel (Eds. ) Social representations and the social basis of knowledge. Swiss Monographs in Psychology Vol. 1. Bern, Huber.
Lang, Alfred (1992 b) Die Frage nach den psychologischen Genesereihen -- Kurt Lewins grosse Herausforderung. Pp. 39-68 in: Schönpflug, W. (Ed.) Kurt Lewin -- Person, Werk, Umfeld: historische Rekonstruktion und Interpretation aus Anlass seines hundersten Geburtstages. Frankfurt a.M., Peter Lang.
Lang, Alfred (1992 c) Kultur als 'externe Seele' -- eine semiotisch-ökologische Perspektive. Pp. 11-32 in: Allesch, Chr.; Billmann-Mahecha, E. & Lang, A. (Eds. ) Psychologische Aspekte des kulturellen Wandels. Wien, Verlag des Verbandes der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Österreichs.
Morris, Charles W. (1971) Writings on the general theory of signs. Approaches to semiotics. The Hague, Mouton. 480 Pp.
Nöth, Winfried (1990) Handbook of semiotics. Bloomington Ind., Indiana Univ. Press.
Peirce, Charles Sanders (1931-35/1958) Collected Papers of Charles S. Peirce. 8 Vols. Cambridge Mass. , Harvard Univ. Press. (Referred to as "CP y.xxx" by volume and paragraph).
Peirce, Charles Sanders (1982ff.) Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a chronological edition. 30 Vols. Bloomington, Ind., Indiana University Press. (So far, 4 vols. have appeared, covering the years 1857 to 1884)
Sebeok, Th. A. (Ed.) (1986) Encyclodepic Dictionary of Semiotics. 3 Vols. Vols. Approaches to Semiotics. Vol. 73. Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter. 1179 + 452 Pp.
Singer, Milton (1984) Man's Glassy Essence: explorations in semiotic anthropology. Bloomington, Indiana Univ. Press.
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