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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.

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