Essay on Signs

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The term “sign” is used as a covering word for all forms of gestures, ciphers, tokens, marks, indices, and symbols that convey human meaning. Some thinkers trace the beginning of human cognition by the earliest Homo sapiens to the use of signs. Religious thinkers emphasized some supernatural indicators of the true nature of reality; they understood “signs” in nature as messages. This led to necromancy and other forms of divination. The Chinese Yi Ching was initially based on the reading of tortoise shells. In ancient times victory in battle was often seen as a sign of the whim of the gods. That which was not understood directly had to be conjectured. Greek physicians utilized somatic signs to diagnose disease. They called this process semiosis.

The idea of signs has been extended to cover more features of reality. Modernity has made the notion that signs come from supernatural forces less acceptable. Classicist and theologian Friederich Schleiermacher discovered that the way he carried out exegesis was no different for the pagan, secular texts than for the Christian, sacred texts. Hence, he postulated the possibility of a general hermeneutics. This idea was further developed by Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey’s approach helped to provide a foundation for social sciences. His hermeneutics is based on the study of human beings as moral actors whose motivations could be understood (Geisteswissenchaften which used Verstehen).

But hermeneutics lacked a more general epistemological foundation. That semiotic foundation came with the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, founder of pragmatism. Peirce emphasized the way in which signs mediate the represented and the interpreted. Peirce’s critique of Cartesian dualism makes it clear that an epistemology which focuses on the “solitary individual subject” as an “interpreter of objects” is severely misleading. The isolated individual never exists in reality but only as a thought experiment. In reality all scientific understanding is based on communities of scholars.

We do not see the world precisely as it is; we only interpret stimuli with the aid of signs. Peirce had a complex typology of signs but the most important for sociology are icons, indices, and symbols. Icons are very specific images. Indices are signs which point to a more abstract level of reality. All statistics are indices. The most complex type of human sign is the symbol. George Herbert Mead’s concept of the significant symbol” is an echo of Peirce’s general theory of signs. Some philosophers (e.g., Wittgenstein) argue that the real meaning of a sign is in its use. Due to “intertextuality” we cannot escape a certain degree of circularity in examining signs (Eco 1999: 275-9).

Theories put forward by Ferdinand de Saussure and C. S. Peirce have been further developed by other semioticians. The key ingredient is awareness of the universal function of signs. There has been considerable attention paid to signs in models of the process of semiosis.


  1. Bouissac, P. (ed.) (1998) Encyclopedia of Semiotics. Oxford University Press, New York.
  2. Eco, U. (1999) Kant and the Platypus. Harcourt Harvest, San Diego, CA.
  3. Petrilli, S. & Ponzio, A. (eds.) (2005) Semiotics Unbounded: Interpretive Routes through the Open Network of Signs. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

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