Some thoughts from my OS Alpha to yours – Jameson Spivack, Week 2

I would like to echo the sentiment of some of my fellow classmates who professed unfamiliarity with the topic, and hope I can assign the proper signifiers to the signified that are currently swirling around my OS Alpha. After all, as Peirce would tell us, the “meaning” of signs is not merely locked in an individual’s mind, but are animated by their interpretation by members of relevant communities, who derive meaning from them. [1] So if these thoughts are confusing, that’s definitely on you guys. ;p

  • It makes sense that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, as de Saussure points out, and anyone who has been exposed to languages other than their native language sees this in action. [2] It is interesting, though, from biological and neurological standpoints, that there are particular concepts that have similar (not exact, of course) signifiers across languages and communities. For example, the words we have developed for “mother,” possibly the very first concept we learn after birth, have corollaries across languages, even those that are unrelated. Most spoken human languages use words containing the “m”/”n” sound to denote mother, perhaps because the shape the mouth forms when breastfeeding lends itself to forming such a sound. I’m not sure if other such examples exist, and while the vast majority of signs are arbitrary, it is still interesting to note when they are not.
  • I also find it interesting to link the concept of meaning-making as a process through which we mediate the present to past and future thought to the accumulation of knowledge. [3] We are born into societies and communities that already have sets of rules for how to communicate in complex ways and on abstract levels. Without this ability to create intersubjective sign systems, we could never progress beyond simple instinctual existence because we’d have no way to communicate with others to build, solve problems, collaborate, or any of the numerous productive abilities we possess. There would be a Tower of Babel-esque chaos, with each person speaking a completely different language.


    At the same time, these sign systems cannot be too rigid, or there would be no way to incorporate new information (and concepts) into them. In fact, without the ability to grow and adapt, sign systems could not have developed in the first place. And it is this network of meanings, and our awareness of them, that allow us to create new ways of communicating, being, and thinking in ever-increasing levels of complexity.

  • One last point I found particularly fascinating was the idea, mentioned by Professor Irvine in the discussion on OS Alpha, that sign systems are at their core reflexive and self-reflexive, meaning we must talk about these systems of signs using “signs” from those very systems. [4] I currently don’t have anything in particular to add to this, as I’m still trying to process this idea and its implications.


[1] Irvine, Martin (2016). Key Writings on Signs, Symbols, Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology, Compiled and edited with commentary by Martin Irvine. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University. Page 15.

[2] Irvine, Martin (2016). Page 10.

[3] Irvine, Martin (2016). Page 11.

[4] Irvine, Martin (2016). The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University. Page 3.