Katie Oberkircher, Week 2: Limited vs. Unlimited

As I read through this week’s material, I noticed a tension between two ideas involving signs and symbols. This tension arose among the themes of time, community, memory and culture. The first idea is laid out toward the beginning of “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics,” and focuses on the inherent social nature of signs and symbols.

Idea 1: The way that we automatically process and transmit thoughts in our communities is unlimited due to the fact that “we make mental relations between perceptions and thought and generate further relations among thoughts connected in vast networks of collectively understood signs spanning many states of time” (Irvine, 4). Our understanding of perception and thought is always generating further relations, creating a never-ending cycle. By transcending time, signs act as a connector between past, present and future generations, propelling society forward (what is defined in the reading as “progress”) (Key Writings, 13).

Idea 2: However, I felt there was a tension between the notion of unlimited thought and the fact that, “ideas cannot be communicated at all except through their physical effects” (Irvine, 3). This brought up a few questions: are the “physical effects” of an idea all that we need to understand it? Are there barriers keeping us from recognizing other non-physical effects that we cannot communicate? How important are those effects?

In his work, De Saussure explores some of these ideas. He explains that if we assume that language is a naming process only, we infer that, “ready-made ideas exist before words” (Key Writings, 9). In response to his theory, I want to focus on the quote, “We think only in signs” (Key Writings, 20). I believe this means that we think in a way to translate our ideas to others.

Further, Dr. Irvine touches on this idea when he writes, “human culture, social relations, and technologies are thus inseparable from our interrelated cluster of symbolic systems…” (Irvine, 2). The word “inseparable” suggests that without one, we could not have the other. So, I understood that to mean, human culture, social relations and technologies are only possible because of the way we communicate with one another through signs and symbols.

That idea was complicated by the quote, “The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Key Writings, 10). If the bond is arbitrary, like the idea of the baseball and its lack of connection to the word “baseball,” then how is it possible that we can fully understand what the signified is? (Irvine, 11) Do we always identify objects/concepts through the context of our social community?

I believe these questions are answered by the way that the themes of community and time are woven into the readings. In “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology Key Writings,” it says, “symbols, or general signs, [have] become associated with their meanings by usage” (Key Writings, 18). In other words, communities use, and reuse, symbols and signs until they become familiar. In connection with that idea, a concept on page 5 of “The Grammar of Meaning Making,” stuck out to me: technologies are “stored value” memory systems (Irvine, 5). These systems are the foundation of the way we communicate and generate new thoughts—strengthened by the notion of collective memory.

As we move forward this semester, I hope to better understand the role of culture and community as they relate to semiotics. And further, how the role of technology has altered the “progress” we continue to make.


Irvine, Martin (2016). The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University.

Irvine, Martin (2016). Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology Key Writings. Compiled and edited with commentary by Martin Irvine. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University.