When Ferdinand de Saussure was formulating his two part ‘dyadic’ model of the sign, consisting of a ‘signifier, or the form that a sign takes, and the ‘signified,’ or concept it represents, American, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was theorizing his own model of semiotics and signs.
In contrast to Saussure’s model, Peirce formulated a three-part triadic model consisting of an interpretant, representamen, and an object.
Peirce’s Triadic Model – Interpreting Signs
Having an interpretant as part of his semiotic model was Peirce’s new and distinctive addition to understanding and defining signs.
Peirce did not believe that signification was a straightforward binary relationship between a sign and an object, and he viewed this innovative part of his triad as how we perceive or understand a sign and its relationship to the object it is referring to.
A critical point in Peirce’s theory is that the meaning of a sign is created by the interpretation it stimulates in those using it. He reiterates this in his comment that “a sign … addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.”
So an interpretant is the sense we make out of the sign, similar in meaning to Saussure’s ‘signified’ except that it is a sign in the mind of the interpreter. The element of interpretation in Peirce’s theories also emphasized his claims that semiosis is a process, whereas Saussure’s emphasis was always on structure.
Peirce’s Triadic Model – Representing Signs
The representamen in Peirce’s theory is the form the sign takes, which is not necessarily a material or concrete object.
Peirce was interested in the signifying element of a sign and emphasized that not all the elements of a sign are necessary or carry the same weight in its interpretation. Thus, in his view, it is not the sign as a whole that signifies an object but those elements most crucial to its functioning as a signifier.
For example, a “stop” sign may have a white border – but that part of the sign is not crucial to the message “stop here now.” We would be able to interpret the sign if that border were absent or if a black border were used instead. The representamen is similar in meaning to Saussure’s idea of signifier.
Semiotics per Peirce: Objects Create Signs
An “object” is the referent to which the sign refers to also known as the “sign vehicle.” It is important to understand that this does not have to be a material object.
As with the sign or representem, not every feature of the object is relevant to signification. Only specific elements of an object enable a sign to signify it.
For Peirce, the relationship between the object of a sign and the sign that represents it is one of determination – it is the object, entity, or socially agreed concept that determines its sign and its successful signification; the idea being that the object imposes definite constraints that a sign must adhere to if it is to represent that object and form the correct interpretation in our minds.
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