Category Archives: Week 2

Amanda Morris’ jumbled thoughts on week 2 reading

As a student with a communication background that focused heavily on the works of Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, and ideas relating to Media Ecology, I found many sections of “The Grammar of Meaning Systems” to be particularly interesting due to the connections that were made between symbols and language, and how these two topics relate to time. The hypothesis in cognitive science and human evolution that states that language and symbolic cognition have been part of a co-evolution, specific to humans, that is directly connected to the evolution of societies, tools, communication, technologies and media (pg. 2), caught my attention and made me think about McLuhan’s media history. How have language and symbols evolved through the different ages (e.g. tribal age, literary age, print age, electronic age, digital age)?

Perhaps this is where the “ratchet effect” (pg. 5) comes into play. We’ve externalized our symbolic functions into “technical memory systems” (5) such as writing, recordings, art, etc.. The fact that we’ve been able to store and forward symbolic thought through the generations has led humans on a path of continual evolution, or progress, as stated in the reading. Am I wrong to assume that the media that stores and forwards the symbolic thought has evolved over time? And if so, does that alter the way that we understand the symbolic thought? While reading, I also wondered: have different technological innovations changed the way that we perceive and understand language and symbols? In this digital age, has text or instant messaging (or email) changed language and/or created new meanings to phrases that we once would have understood differently? For example, “literally dying” doesn’t mean you’re actually dying, and LOL doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve laughed out loud. “LOL” seemed to have gained meaning only when technology evolved to a certain point. Have humans created new symbols out of emojis? Or do emojis serve as a new language based on symbols that gained meaning long ago? These are the questions, very much biased by my own limited background, that popped into my head while reading “The Grammar of Meaning Systems.”

Continuing on to the sections assigned from the “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology Key Writings,” I found Aristotle’s definitions quite helpful, particularly the paragraph that focused on the difference between spoken sounds and written marks (2). My naivety may be showing, but I found point number two both fascinating and new. I’ve never thought of nouns in the way that Aristotle describes; they are without time, and they are not naturally a name of something until they have become a symbol. I found these brief points important as the reading intensified into writing from the work of De Saussure and Pierce.

Reading De Saussure’s observations, I never really thought of the difference between speech and language (pg. 5). It is easy to understand where he’s coming from and it also helps me to better understand the depth of the field that is semiotics. Language is not the same as human speech, but language is certainly part of speech and it proves to be essential. In section three, De Saussure writes about language as a system of signs that express ideas, comparable to systems of writing, polite formulas, military signals, etc. He says that language is the most important of all these systems.

Language being the most important system of all leads me on to Pierce’s work. Deciphering the main differences between the two scholars (besides the fact that De Saussure’s dyadic and static model differs from Pierce’s triadic model) is where things began to get fuzzy for me. Pierce states that the human social-cognitive use of signs and symbols in everything from language and math to images and cultural expression (and beyond) provides a unifying base for understanding meaning, knowledge, learning, and what we call “progress” in developments in both the sciences and the arts. The term “unifying” made me think of De Saussure’s statement above, about language being the most important. Could it be said that he did not think everything was quite as unified as Pierce proposes?


Works Cited:

“Semiotics-Cognition-Technology-Reader.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 7, 2016.
“Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiosis: Intro.” Google Docs. Accessed September 7, 2016.
I’m using Zotero but this does not seem like the right format… seeking guidance…

Lei Qin’s Questions-Week 2

At the very beginning of the first reading, Professor Irvine says “we have to work from observable ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ – the expressions, material media, social situations and uses and technologies for representation and transmission — to build out models for what must be necessary to account for what we can observe.” As far as I am concerned, human being’s flux of thoughts, ideas, feels and imaged is so mercurial that it’s just like a fast-running river and the flux of an individual’s feelings and ideas can differ greatly from time to time, from environment to environment and person to person. Wouldn’t it be too difficult for us to observe all these subtle yet quite drastic differences, to examine individual’s difference variables, and thus to perceive individual’s meaning process?

According to the Section 5 of the first reading, there are two chef branches in linguistics based on linguists’ different approaches to language study: Diachronic linguistics and Synchronic Linguistic. In my view, the diachronic linguistic is the study of fluid linguistics while the synchronic linguistic is the study of static linguistics. De Saussure preferred the synchronic approach and he claims that the study synchronic linguistics is much more difficult than the study of historical linguistics. According to De Saussure,“ Evolutionary facts are more concrete and striking; their observable relations tie together successive terms that are easily grasped; it is easy, often even amusing, to follow a series of changes. But the linguistics that penetrates values and coexisting relations presents much greater difficulties (CLG, 1959, 160).” So here comes my questions: as linguistic beginners, are we encouraged to studying linguistic synchronically rather than diachronically? Are synchronic linguistics and diachronic linguistic in opposition to each other? What are the advantages and disadvantages of studying linguistics synchronically rather than diachronically?

 At last I still have trouble in figuring out why there is a separation between linguistics and semiotics?  They can both be considered to study how human cognition works. The semiotics seems to be much broader than the linguistics, why isn’t linguistics become a branch of semiotics? And I am also wondering if facial expressions, gestures, body languages can be studied in semiotics? Please forgive me and my simple and silly questions above.


de Saussure, Ferdinand. Cours De Linguistique Générale. Paris: Payot, 1900.———. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

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



Joe Potischman: Signs of Understanding (I Hope) (Week 2)

I may sometimes take advantage of the informality of this setting to link pop culture references that I believe connect to the topics (do I need to cite them, or are we only citing scholarly references?) While it might appear on the surface as a diversion, it actually helps me to work through these big ideas. For instance we are studying Semiotics, a word derived from a long history of other words threaded through many cultures. However, due to the arbitrary nature of signs, is it possible we could be studying Wumbology, if only our collective meaning network had evolved differently?

In both the beginning of The Grammar of Meaning Systems, and the Section 13 readings, the mind as a computer metaphor is referenced. This is a popular metaphor, and one I’ve encountered before in a past class on Communication Technology. In that class we were taught to think of the mind as software, and the body as hardware. This is more in line with Cartesian mind-body dualism. However, if the mind is a computer, and the communities we make meaning in is the cloud, what is the proper metaphor for the body?

I’m very interested in the “ratchet effect”, or progression of ideas through ongoing creation of symbols. Digitization appears to be the next step in this progression, and it is erasing the boundaries of the mediums we use to create meaning. Everything from the most basic conversation to the highest level of political discourse are now stored in bits. Similarly, Cole writes that mediated activity actually changes its own reality, and I am interested in how internet trends shape our physical world. The record store, the art gallery, even the restaurant, exist online to comment on one another, but they also exist physically.  As our culture becomes increasingly dialogic, does it make our goal of linking genres and disciplines easier? Or, does the sheer amount of commentary, reproduced at an increasingly high rate, make this goal more difficult?

DeSaussure writes that the nature of signs are arbitrary, but symbols are not. His example is that scales are symbols for justice, but chariots are not. If the sound images our collective consciousness associated the word scales for, were horses pulling a cart, then scales would not be a symbol for justice. Am I misinterpreting this concept? Peirce’s view that the meaning of a sign is what it can be translated makes me think I am not, but I am still wondering if there is a threshold Semioticians use to codify signs?

Alex MacGregor’s Ramblings – Week 2

Hey everyone,

I don’t really have a deep background in this field, so my apologies if these come across like stoner thoughts.

• We don’t yet have the ability to measure or observe the neurological process of meaning making, but how would we even go about doing so? Brain mapping seems like the most plausible place to start, so is this just a problem of lack of tech or is this something that will forever be impossible to observe? If it’s the latter, then Cartesian Dualism may be a pertinent idea to explore here.

• On page 11 of the first reading, when Professor Irvine says “The meaning is not a property of a thing, but is in the meaning system of which it is a part.” is the goal of this statement to disabuse us of any ideas of necessity between “the thing” and “the meaning”? The Saussurean dyadic model, with its phonetic/linguistic emphasis, makes it easy to see the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified, but Peirce’s triadic model seems to feature a less arbitrary relationship between its elements, particularly between the interpretant and the referent. I can see how the literal word “cat” has no necessary relationship to the actual animal, but the thought of a cat seems pretty closely connected to the actual animal.

• On page 8 of the first reading, when Professor Irvine says “Because the meaning-making structures of our symbolic faculties are formed in many layers and distributed networks of agency, they are not usefully represented in containers, boxes, or static points like those pictured in older communication and information diagrams. Meanings are not something transferred or transmitted from one location to another, or from one container (someone’s head) to another.” I’m kind of reminded of cloud computing, in that the data (in this case, the system of meaning and symbolic cognition) is not located locally in the device being used to access it (in this case, the individual person). Another analogy that comes to mind is open-source software, in that the software in question is being communally defined and continuously altered. If these analogies stand, I think it’s an interesting point that the culture and direction of the modern tech industry is coming in line with these semiotic concepts. I wonder if that’s intentional.

• On page 7 of the first reading, when Professor Irvine says “…we can access distributed meaning resources in different situations of use…” is that like how we can use and understand slang in a casual setting but it doesn’t work formal settings?

• What would a world without technical mediation (writing, print, image making, audio/video recording, etc) look like? Professor Irvine says we’ve been doing it for about 50,000 years, so what did human society look like before that, from a cognitive semiotics perspective? More “animalistic” immediacy? We refer to OS Alpha as the core human operating system, and surely humans are utilizing it to the most extreme degree, but anyone with a pet dog or cat can attest to the fact that we share signs with non-human beings as well. So are these non-human animals running a kind of proto-OS Alpha?

• The readings stress the co-constitutive and collective nature of the network of meaning-making functions, but do we, to some degree, have things that only make sense to us individually? Signs that only we recognize or acknowledge? Ultimately we are solitary creatures perceiving the world through only our own eyes, so where does the communal end and the private start? What would it look like if you were the only person in existence running OS Alpha?