Archive for June, 2011

Lucia Santaella “What is a Symbol?”

Santaella, Lucia 2003. What is a Symbol? S.E.E.D. (Semiotics, Evolution, Energy, and Development) 3, no. 3: 54-60

The legi-sign is a law that is a sign. But here we have to consider that Peirce’s concept of law is very original. It cannot be confused with necessity neither with norm, since this latter is just a conventional translation of law. For Peirce, law is a living power, a permanent conditional force (CP 3.435), that is, a regularity in the indefinite future (CP 2.293).

The law of representation is in the sign itself, so that it is bound to produce an interpretant sign or a series of interpretant signs as general as the legisign itself. It is through the interpretants that its character of sign is accomplished. It is the law that will lead the sign to be interpreted as a sign, since the legisign functions as a rule that will determine its interpretant, a rule that will determine it to be interpreted as refering to a given object.

The meaning that Peirce gave to a symbol, that of a conventional sign that depends on a habit acquired or inate (2.297), is not new since it goes back to its original meaning.

For Peirce, symbols function as such not in virtue of a character that belongs to them, neither in virtue of a real connection with their objects, but simply in virtue of being represented as being signs (CP 8.119). In contrast with the icon, whose relation to the object is founded in a mere resemblance, and in contrast with the index, whose relation to the object is a relation of fact, an existencial relation, the ground of the relation of the symbol with its object depends on an imputed, arbitrary and non motivated character. Hence, the symbol is a sign which is connected to its object thanks to a convention that it will be interpreted as such and also through an instinct or an intellectual act that takes the symbol as representing its object, without the need of any action to occur and establish a factual connection between sign and object (CP 2.308).

The symbol, in itself, in its nature of a legi-sign, is a general type, an abstraction. The object of the symbol is no less abstract than the symbol.

not only the symbol but also the object and its interpretant, all the three have a general nature. They are abstract types. From this the self reproductive character of the symbol is derived, since the symbol is only constituted as such through the interpretant.

Consequently the symbol is connected to its object in virtue of an idea in the mind that uses the symbol, without which this connection would not exist (CP 2.299). This means that the symbol would lose its character of a sign if there was no interpretant (CP 2.304).

“A Symbol is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which operate to cause the Symbol to be interpreted as referring to that Object” (CP 2.249).

“the significative value of a symbol consists in a regularity of association, so that the identity of the symbol lies in this regularity” (CP 4.500).

“habits are general rules to which the organism has become subjected” (CP 3.360).

not only the interpretant but the symbol itself is also a habit or effective general rule (CP 2.249). This is why the symbol is able to activate in the mind of the interpreter an interpretive rule that, once embodied in the mind of a particular interpreter, will produce an association of general rules, an associative regularity (CP 4.500), that is, a habitual connection between the sign and its object.

Although the object of the symbol is as general as the symbol itself, there are singular cases to which it applies. How does it apply? Through an index. That is the reason why in the universe of verbal discourse, there are different types of words, those that are general, which are strictly symbolic, and the indexes, as the personal pronouns, the demonstrative pronouns, the adverbs of place etc. These latter constitute the indexical ingredient of the symbol, also called the marks of enunciation whose function is to connect thought, discourse, the sign in general to particular experiences.

Qualitative generality is ‘of that negative sort which belong to the merely potential, as such, and this is peculiar to the category of quality’. Nomic generality is ‘of that positive kind which belongs to conditional necessity, and this is peculiar to the category of law’ (CP 1.427). I know of no further way to characterize these two types of entitative generality, other than to note that they correspond to Peirce’s firstness and thirdness […]

The indexical sinsign is the only type of sign that lacks generality. It always indicates, it points to individuals or collections of individuals. The icon presents an entitative generality of the qualitative type. The symbol, on its turn, presents both the referential generality and the entitative generality of the nomic type, that is, the generality that belongs to conditional necessity. However, once the symbol contains inside itself elements of iconicity and elements of indexicality it functions as a synthesis of all the three dimensions.

We have already seen that to connect thought to a particular experience or a series of experiences linked by dynamical relations (CP 4.56), the symbol needs indexes. Hence, the symbol’s power of reference comes from its indexical ingredient. However, indices cannot signify. To be able to signify, a symbol needs an icon. But this is not an icon tout court, but a special type of icon, that is, an icon that is connected to a symbolic ingredient. This ingredient or symbol part was called ‘concept’ by Peirce. The icon part was called ‘general idea’. For Ransdell (ibid., p. 184), the concept is the meaning and the general idea is signification. The concept or meaning corresponds to the general and not actualized habit. The icon part or general idea actualizes habit producing signification.

“An idea which may be roughly compared to a composite photograph surges up into vividness, and this composite idea may be called a general idea. It is not properly a conception; because a conception is not an idea at all, but a habit. But the repeated occurrence of a general idea and the experience of its utility, results in the formation or strengthening of that habit which is the conception; or if the conception is already a habit thoroughly compacted, the general idea is the mark of the habit” (CP 7.498)

The iconic part of the symbol is the actualization of the concept or habit which is an objective general as much as a subjective of the nomic type. This is the authentically symbolic ingredient of the symbol which is so general that without indices to particularize its referentiality, and without the icon to embody its nomic generality, the symbol would be impotent to inform and to signify anything.


Uwe Wirth “Abductive Inference and Literary Theory”

Wirth, Uwe 2001. Abductive Inference and Literary Theory – Pragmatism, Hermeneutics and Semiotics. – Digital Encyclopedia of Charles S. Peirce.


In The Limits of Interpretation, and earlier in The Role of the Reader, Eco points out that the logic of interpretation is very similar to the logic of a detective’s investigation.

This “detective logic” is nothing but “abductive inference”, as Peirce defined it. Interpretation is “the process of adopting hypotheses” (CP 2.777):

“abduction (…) furnishes the reasoner with the problematic theory which induction verifies. Upon finding himself confronted with a phenomenon unlike what he would have expected under the circumstances, he looks over its features and notices some remarkable character or relation among them (…) so that a theory is suggested which would explain (that is, render necessary) that which is surprising in the phenomena. He therefore accepts that theory so far as to give it a high place in the list of theories of those phenomena which call for further examination” (CP 2.776).

According to Peirce, every inquiry and every interpretation starts necessarily with an Abduction that focuses one aspect and selects it as relevant. But unless this abductive choice is legitimized by practical tests, the hypothesis cannot be reasonably entertained any longer. The most important “guiding principle”, however, “the leading consideration in Abduction” is, “the question of Economy, Economy of money, time, thought and energy” (CP 5.600). This “Economy of Research” provides the possibility to prove a hypothesis with minimal effort and with maximal effect. But, of course, economy does not guarantee truth.

Once we have accepted the detective paradigm as a description of our role as interpreters of text-signs and world-signs, the most important consequence is that the epistemological status of the interpreter is no longer that of a judge. A judge stands outside the discourse, a detective is always in the discourse.

But at least in one respect the detective model is not sufficient: A text, unlike a phenomenon in the world, is not only a dissemination of symptoms but also a dialog, attempting to make the reader a participant. For Gadamer interpreting is “the quest for the question the text is responding to”, the interpretive logic of Hermeneutics is a dia-logic. This presupposes not only the understanding of the antecedental question but also the understanding of the logic of dia-logic – i.e., the discoursive rules and “guiding principles”. The rules and principles which govern the discourse, or at least the communicative exchange exclude some possible relations between answer and question as irrelevant and incoherent.

For Derrida the process of understanding thus becomes a symptom for the structural impossibility of detecting precisely that question that the text responds to. Every reading is misreading insofar as all attempts of tracing back to the question that “stands behind” the text are condemned to fail. This breakdown of understanding is on the other hand the “condition of possibility” for the textual “openness”. Eco shares with Derrida the idea of the “potential openness” of a text for infinite interpretations. But he feels – on contrast to Derrida “the fundamental duty of protecting” texts “in order to open them, since I consider it risky to open a text before having duly protected it” (Eco, 1990:54).

Peirce goes very far in the direction that I have called the deconstruction of the transcendental signified, which, at one time or another, would place a reassuring end to the reference from sign to sign. I have identified logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence as the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for such a signified. Now, Peirce considers the indefiniteness of reference as the criterion that allows us to recognize that we are indeed dealing with a system of signs. What broaches the movement of signification is what makes its interruption impossible. The thing itself is a sign. (Derrida 1976: 49)

Eco suggests that Derrida had to refuse the idea of such a determination since the “deferral” of différance implies a fundamental “indeterminacy” of the whole dynamics of interpretation, not only in the past and present, but also in the future. “I am simply repeating with Peirce,” Eco (1990: 39) writes, “that ‘an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind it (and until this point Derrida could not but agree with this formula), may be conceived to have an absolute object as its limit’ (CP 1.339).”

The interesting point is, that Eco’s textmodel synthesizes the hermeneutic dialog-model with a pragmatic account of meaning. According to Peirce’s famous “Pragmatic Maxim” defining a term’s meaning is equivalent with giving an instruction or a recipe, telling us how to reproduce and derive all possible practical and logical consequences.

“Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (CP 5.402).

we could say that truth is not outside the process of interpretation during which the relation between referent and representation, between truth condition and truth value is set up. Peirce called this process of interpretive practice “Semiosis”. Semiosis is based on hypothetical reasoning and experimental hypotheses testing; it fuses “making” and “finding”, recognition and interpretation.

since the coherence of the text turns out to be a mere interpretive assumption, only evaluated by the consistency of the interpreter’s hypotheses about the text, interpreting something as coherent already implies “making” it consistent.

the interpreter’s consciousness, understood as the capacity for synthetic abductive reasoning becomes an ideal point without expansion, an “Archimedic Pin Point” on the border between inside and outside. Like the point of suspension for a pendulum, the consciousness works “as if” it would stand outside the system.