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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U056-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

As the study of signification, semiotics takes as its central task that of describing how one thing can mean another. Alternatively, since this philosophical problem is also a psychological one, its job could be said to be that of describing how one thing can bring something else to mind, how on seeing ’x’ someone can be induced to think about ’y’ even though ’y’ is absent.

A person in whose head ’y’ has been brought to mind may be responding to an ’x’ someone else has transmitted with the intention of its signifying ’y’; or, mistakenly, responding to an ’x’ someone has transmitted in the guileless expectation of its signifying some ’z’; or, often, responding to an ’x’ that comes to his notice without anybody’s apparent intention at all. Words, for example, generally signify because someone intends them to, and ideally (though not always) they signify what is intended; whereas clouds signify – a coming storm, a whale – because we so interpret them, not because they shaped themselves to convey some meaning.

Obviously the study of signification forms an integral part of the study of thinking, since no object can itself enter the brain, barring fatal mischance, and so it must be represented by some mental (that is, neural) ’x’ that signifies it.

Signifiers are equally essential for creatures far lower than humans, as when a chemical signal ’x’ emitted by some bacterium signifies to one of its colleagues some ‘y’ such as ’there’s a dearth of food hereabouts’.

There are a number of ways in which an ’x’ can signify some ’y’, but for humans these are chiefly: by physical association; by physical resemblance; and/or by arbitrary convention.

When we take some ’x’ as signifying some ‘y’ we are often guessing; our guess is subject to checking by interpretative (re)appraisal.

Citing this article:
Watt, W.C.. Semiotics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U056-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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