Author Archives: Rebecca Tantillo

Just Wondering… – Rebecca Tantillo

How are we to understand Pierce’s theory of the triadic structure of sign relations in relation to De Saussure’s claim that “the linguistic sign is arbitrary”? (De Saussure, p. 10) Furthermore, in regard to symbols specifically, De Saussure claims that symbols are never completely arbitrary, but Pierce seems to suggest the opposite. If I understand Pierce correctly, he claims that the signifier (representamen?), in the case of symbolic representation, is completely arbitrary, but for the fact that it develops or is given an association to the signified (object?) through a law or communal acceptance.  Is the incongruity between the two models, just a matter of terminology stemming from the fact that Pierce wasn’t aware of de Saussure’s work or is there something more significant there that I missed?

My “bigger picture” questions are based in part on how the questions above are answered.  According to Locke, signs are the means through which we communicate ideas (Locke p. 3).  Therefore, are signs, in their most fundamental sense, the primary form of mediation? If so, then does that mean that the more clearly and accurately our signs convey an idea, the more efficient and more effective (also appealing, in an aesthetic sense) they can be?  Aside from my own personal interest in the topic, to what extent is it worth considering aesthetics in semiotic studies?  Regardless, in what ways are we able to assess the clarity or accurateness of a sign?  Is something completely arbitrary more clear as De Saussure suggests (De Saussure, p. 10) or do likenesses, indications and communally accepted symbolic associations strengthen the clarity and accurateness of a sign?  Or, do likenesses, indications and communally accepted symbolic associations just serve to capacitate abstractions?

Admittedly, I have a very limited understanding of computer programing, so I apologize if my questions on this topic are a bit basic or unclear.  One of the major takeaways from both readings for me was the fact that we can program computers to achieve symbolic processing.  However, I would love to understand a bit better how that is actually achieved.  Is this done simply through algorithms and probabilities or are there other methods?  In other words, is all computing ultimately built on either calculations that can be reduced to known probabilities and binary outcomes?  Is it possible to program an irrational outcome?  Or, by doing so, does that make the outcome in some way rational?  If there are ways to program irrational outcomes, why would there even be any need to do so?

All citations taken from: Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: A Reader of Key Texts