Meaning as the action of signs (semiosis)

An approach to meaning that focuses on the action of signs (semiosis) can be contrasted to approaches that focus either primarily on the sign itself (formalist and structuralist approaches) or on the sign-user (psychological, neurocognitive, anthropological and sociological approaches).

Peirce defined a sign as a medium for the communication to the interpretant of a “form” embodied in the object, so as to constrain or regulate, in general, the interpreter’s behavior (MS 793:1-3, EP 2.544, n.22). Form is defined as having the “being of predicate” (EP 2.544) and it is also pragmatically formulated as a “conditional proposition” stating that certain things would happen under specific circumstances (EP 2.388). For Peirce, form is nothing like a “thing”, but something that is embodied in the object (EP 2.544, n. 22) as a habit, a “rule of action” (CP 5.397, CP 2.643), a “disposition” (CP 5.495, CP 2.170), a “real potential” (EP 2.388) or, simply, a “permanence of some relation” (CP 1.415). Form can also be defined as potentiality (“real potential”, EP 2.388).

peirce11According to Flower and Murphey, there is a transition in Peirce’s semiotics from the notion of meaning as a qualitative conception carried by a sign to a relational notion according to which the meaning of a concept consists in a “law relating operations performed upon the object or conditions of perceptions to perceived effects” (Flower and Murphey, 1977, p.589). The qualitative conception involves reference to the sign’s ground, while the “law” or necessary conditions of perception are relational rather than qualitative — “If the meaning of a concept of an object is to consist in the conditionals relating operations on the object to perceived effects, these conditionals will in fact be habits” (Flower and Murphey, 1977, p.590).


Flower Elizabeth & Murrey Murphey, (1977), A History of Philosophy in America, vol. II, Capricorn Books.

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See: Atã, P.; Queiroz, J. 2019. Semiosis is cognitive niche construction. Semiotica. (link) (PDF)

João Queiroz & Pedro Atã

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