Knowledge of Education

Symbolic Sign-Object Relation

According to C. S. Peirce (1932):

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 operates to cause the Symbol to be interpreted as referring to that Object.  It is thus itself a general type or law, that is, is a Legisign.  As such it acts through a Replica. Not only is it general itself, but the Object to which it refers is of a general nature.  Now that which is general has its being in the instances which it will determine. There must, therefore, be existent instances of what the Symbol denotes… (2:249)


While an index helps to identify the unique object, a symbol is often taken to represent a class of objects (a generality, or a universal).  When we state the proposition that “Miguel is a male,” we are indicating via symbolic signs that he is an instance of the ‘male’ class.  Such a proposition is a specific fact, if it is warranted.  If the proposition is unwarranted, then it may be fiction or speculation—i.e., a belief that is not confirmed through the method of science (cf. Peirce, 1977; Short, 2007).  In this case, it is a specific fact.  Rational minds can certify that the proposition is warranted, and hence it is a fact.

What may cause confusion is that when objects are represented by symbols that are not proper nouns, we are accustomed to use a symbol to instantiate the object as a member of a class.  When we use the sign, ‘screened porch,’ this can represent the class of porches (a generality) or it can be part of a sign that indexes the unique object, such as the-screened-porch-originally-built-by-Ted-in-1993-at-39°08’42”North-86°33’52”West-which-existed-until-July-2011.  

Signs as symbols are dependent on legisigns that constitute a culture’s natural language.  The terms, ‘screened porch’ or ‘porch enclosed with window screen’ could be characterized by different symbols from languages other than English, such as ‘porche con ventanas con mosquitero’ in Spanish,  ‘βεράντα κλεισμένη με τζαμαρία’ in Greek, or ‘трем ограден со прозорци’ in Macedonian.   When the relation between object and sign are symbols, Peirce referred to such signs as legisigns which act through replicas.  Clearly, these symbolic signs can be expressed in different languages, even though the same individual unique objects are represented—e.g., Theodora’s name could have been written in Greek, her native language:  Θεοδώρα. 

Symbols can also be used to represent universals.  Universals are not bound by time and place.  For example, consider the proposition, “All humans are mortal.”  First, what is being represented by the signs that constitute the proposition is not an existent individual who is unique.  The object is all the instances of the universal class—in this case, all human beings who have ever existed or will exist. The proposition further asserts that each and every one of these human beings has died or will die.  This idea could also be expressed in many different natural languages.  The language in which the proposition is expressed is arbitrary—i.e., the cultural legisigns.  The idea represented by the proposition is not arbitrary.  Whether the idea is warranted or not is another matter.

Thus, the type of sign should not be conflated with the object it represents.  Symbols can be used as indexes of existent individual objects; and so can icons.  The types of signs are not mutually exclusive in that more than one kind can be used to represent any given object depending on how the sign is used in communication.

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