Charles Peirce

At around the same time as Saussure was formulating his model of the sign, of ‘semiology’ and of a structuralist methodology, across the Atlantic independent work was also in progress as the pragmatist philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce formulated his own model of the sign, of ‘semiotic’ and of the taxonomies of signs. In contrast to Saussure’s model of the sign in the form of a ‘self-contained dyad’, Peirce offered a triadic model:

  •   The Representamen: the form which the sign takes (not necessarily material);
  •   An Interpretant: not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign;
  •   An Object: to which the sign refers.

‘A sign… [in the form of a representamen] is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen’ (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). The interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to by Peirce as ‘semiosis’ (ibid., 5.484). Within Peirce’s model of the sign, the traffic light sign for ‘stop’ would consist of: a red light facing traffic at an intersection (the representamen); vehicles halting (the object) and the idea that a red light indicates that vehicles must stop (the interpretant).

Peirce’s model of the sign includes an object or referent – which does not, of course, feature directly in Saussure’s model. The representamen is similar in meaning to Saussure’s signifier whilst the interpretant is similar in meaning to the signified (Silverman 1983, 15). However, the interpretant has a quality unlike that of the signified: it is itself a sign in the mind of the interpreter. Peirce noted that ‘a sign… addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign’ (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). Umberto Eco uses the phrase ‘unlimited semiosis’ to refer to the way in which this could lead (as Peirce was well aware) to a series of successive interpretants (potentially) ad infinitum (ibid., 1.339, 2.303).

Elsewhere Peirce added that ‘the meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation’ (ibid., 1.339). Any initial interpretation can be re-interpreted. That a signified can itself play the role of a signifier is familiar to anyone who uses a dictionary and finds themselves going beyond the original definition to look up yet another word which it employs. This concept can be seen as going beyond Saussure’s emphasis on the value of a sign lying in its relation to other signs and it was later to be developed more radically by poststructuralist theorists.

Another concept which is alluded to within Peirce’s model which has been taken up by later theorists but which was explicitly excluded from Saussure’s model is the notion of dialogical thought. It stems in part from Peirce’s emphasis on ‘semiosis’ as a process which is in distinct contrast to Saussure’s synchronic emphasis on structure (Peirce 1931-58, 5.484, 5.488). Peirce argued that ‘all thinking is dialogic in form. Your self of one instant appeals to your deeper self for his assent’ (Peirce 1931-58, 6.338). This notion resurfaced in a more developed form in the 1920s in the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin (Bakhtin 1981). One important aspect of this is its characterization even of internal reflection as fundamentally social.