ANIL MITRA, © November 2014
The treatment—for use in Journey in Being:
The term OBJECT stands for some identified entity such as thing, process, quality, trope, or even abstract
The terms ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’ have widely varying uses. Here they are conceived as follows
A SIGN or SIGNIFIER is an object that stands for something—itself or something else called the SIGNIFIED—in virtue of similarity of form between the sign and signified. That a sign is similar in form to the signified may be restated by calling it ICONIC.
Without some element of CONSISTENT ASSOCIATION, e.g. by convention or agreement or habit, signification in virtue of similarity of form is at least to some degree haphazard.
A SYMBOL is an object that stands for something in virtue of consistent association—not involving form—with the thing or sign for the thing.
A symbol is abstract—their form has no significance in signification. Though a symbol is not a sign, it may function as one in so far as it signifies (indirectly).
Without similarity of form somewhere in a chain of signification, no signification is possible except perhaps randomly.
Signs are essential for signification. However, symbolization immensely improves the consistency of signification by the mechanism of association (convention, agreement, habit etc).
Signification—signs and symbols—has degrees of randomness and consistency. Given contextual variation it is doubtful that, except where absolutely demonstrated, even the most carefully crafted system is entirely consistent (but may achieve at least functional consistency among a specialist community).
Symbolization may also improve efficiency of thought and communication by being COMPACT, WELL STRUCTURED, and widely distributed (there are pros and cons regarding wideness of distribution over space and time). All signification requires an iconic sign element and efficiency is enhanced by CONVENTION (distributed agreement), structure, and compactness of symbols.
An object may function as sign or symbol or both according to context. There is of course cross over between signifying and symbolizing. Thus we may recognize the SIGN-SYMBOL. There are of course requirements for consistency of association which—rather than definitions—is the mark of what is or should be allowed. In other words, functionality—whether arising in context or by analysis—precedes definition.
Signs and symbols are INTERNAL (cognized: CONCEPTS or mental content—i.e. PERCEPTS and higher concepts and feelings and emotions; note that higher concepts are typically what we call concepts for which a typical meaning is ‘unit of meaning’) or EXTERNAL (re-cognized which may stand for concepts but are often identified as the concepts and which include marks as well as acts such as speech, gesture, touch, and marking).
When signification is effective at all both the internal and external (and mixed) cases have significant information content (which is over and above any intrinsic information content of the sign-symbol or concept).
A symbol can seem to stand for itself, either by marking it (‘word’ is a symbol for word) or by allowing confusion that resolves itself in context (which may be efficient, especially in speech, but which occasionally engenders confusion and even paradox).
The term SIGNIFICATION refers to signing and symbolizing.
The BASIC FORM of signification is iconic or abstract.
SIMPLE signification results from iconic correspondence or conventional correspondence of an abstract. COMPLEX signification results from the iconic andor conventional form of a number of elements (less complex or simple signifiers). There is a degree of arbitrariness to the distinction of simple and complex signification.
The PHYSICAL differentiation of forms of signs are combinations of AUDITORY (e.g. SPEECH and speech act), VISUAL (acts such as GESTURE including mouthing.. and KINESTHETIC), TOUCH, and DRAMA (mixed).
Signification varies according to its degree of PERMANENCE (vs. TRANSIENCE) which ranges from the transient to the relatively permanent. Internal signification is accorded degrees of permanence by memory; external signification is accorded degrees of permanence by preservation (e.g. the RECORDING of physical form or MARK of a symbol).
Formally, language may be seen as a system of ELEMENTARY and COMPOUND symbols. The primary formal aspects are (a) conventional elements such as ALPHABET (b) conventional simple symbols, especially WORDS (c) conventional compound symbols such as SENTENCES (whose word arrangement signifies in virtue of both arrangement—the iconic or ‘picture’ aspect—and convention) and complex words.
The difference between WRITING and PERFORMING (of which speech is a special case), beyond the obvious one of writing being a system of marks and speech being an oral performance, is that the alphabet is conspicuous in writing by its presence and in speech by its near absolute absence (but there are spoken and written signifiers for these elements). Early writing, of course, may lack an alphabet or may have only primitive / proto alphabets.
In practice, the distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic thought and communication is not clear and the two complement and integrate with one another. In practice, language evolves over time so that signification changes via adaptation to new ranges of context and new convention (thus signification is never fixed except where some fixed aspects can be demonstrated). In practice formal languages (or context or in Wittgenstein’s terms, ‘games’ within languages) can be developed for various purposes. Such systems appear fixed but what really happens is that when a fixed system is found inadequate, an improved one is found and this gives the appearance of absolute fixity within variability. It is of course always possible that fixity of some systems may be demonstrated according to agreed upon demonstrated criteria. It may be thought that such criteria always have some element of arbitrariness (infinite regress of axiomatic systems) but it is always possible that we may find some absolute system for at least some potent if also limited system via simple naming and discovery (we expect that the context will not be unlimited).
Too much adherence to the rules and fixity of an epoch is slavery and decay; too little is chaos; we are a mix of both; which may be seen as the price of creativity; but it is not as though we merely decide to be creative for that, as well as rules and fixity, are in the nature of the case (and our nature).
EXPRESSION is form of EXPERIENCE (which is subjective awareness pure or associated), THOUGHT and COMMUNICATION
Non-linguistic expression includes iconic expression, art, ritual, and action (see elaboration above under physical differentiation of forms) as well as mixed linguistic and non-linguistic forms—i.e. expression as such.
MEANING is the ‘complex’ of signifier and signified. It is signification as a whole.
Thus signs and symbols are part of meaning as are the signified (objects or otherwise). We talk of the meaning of a sign, a symbol, a word, or sentence only as an approximation to this conception of meaning.
What is signified need not be an object as in referential or object meaning.
CONCEPT MEANING is meaning in relation to concepts—i.e. the concept and what the concept signifies.
Linguistic meaning, since formal language must involve icons at root by convention or by arrangement, involves symbol, icon, and object (which we approximate in simple cases by saying word-concept-signified).
When the signified is a definite object (or class of objects), meaning is called REFERENTIAL.
There is a variety of ways in which meaning is (at least superficially) NON-REFERENTIAL. These include (1) EVOCATIVE meaning as in POETRY and EXCLAMATION (2) where a clear correspondence is not and perhaps cannot be established between signifier and signified (as when either signifier or signified is non-atomic and therefore non-specific though, as we will see, not necessarily non-concrete) (3) the variety of sentential SPEECH ACTS (ASSERTIVE, DIRECTIVE, COMMISSIVE, EXPRESSIVE, and DECLARATIVE) which have signification over and above that of a clearly referred to object. The assertive is the only clear case in which the ‘over and above’ clearly marks the sentence as referential—as referring to a fact (any demand to talk only in sentences or ‘complete units of meaning’ is thus absurd for sentences are not the only units that can signify even though they may contain the essence of the idea of the state of affairs). The expressive is marked by being an expression—perhaps potentially but not actually by intent referring to a state of affairs. The remaining acts may refer to states of affairs but have some ‘perlocutionary’ intentional reference besides. Still, if we allow the zero reference just as in physics we allow the zero force as a force, even the expressive perlocution is a reference (and even to a state of affairs concerning the intention or intender).
Zero reference may be best accommodated by allowing variable signifiers—signifiers with open and multiple signified ‘things’—but this notion is not developed at this point. Singular terms cannot be accommodated thus; they are best accommodated by recognizing the necessity of iconic content for reference to be possible—i.e. singular terms as referring to the zero object are best accommodated by seeing them as necessarily if implicitly describing something (and recognition that there could perhaps be but there is not an actual signified).
Now we have just seen that in the case of speech acts what is an apparent lack or lack of clarity of reference is merely apparent, can we say something similar regarding the evocative and the lack of clear correspondence (e.g., non-atomic) cases. We should not and do not expect a priori to be able to find definite and clear reference or reference at all where language use is clearly neither referential nor intended as such. We should expect to proceed on case by case or at least class by class bases but we should also hold doubt regarding this hesitation (the proof of the pudding). Even in evocation something is referred to or signified even though it may be vague, various, and only potential. And in the absence of clear reference it is obvious that inadequate form of signifying may result in lack of signifying. These points will receive immense clarification (and expansion of the scope of the referential) but this awaits the development of the metaphysics of the narrative and, consequently, its theory of objects—especially the theory of the concrete and abstract kinds. It may be remarked, however, that just as we allow the zero object in some cases, we may find the apparently mis-directed or multiply-directed or vaguely-directed reference to come out as single and precise in some appropriate interpretation. Particularly the abstract object whose reference we tend to question may come out as having definite reference if the world of the possible is the world of the actual (the world is all possible—sub—worlds) and it may come out to be specific or singular if we interpret multiple, e.g. distributed objects or class objects, as basic.
Signification can be ATOMIC-LITERAL and HOLIST-NARRATIVE; the latter includes poetry and frequently mixes with non-linguistic expression.
However, identifying signification as atomic does not guarantee atomism.
Perfection in atomism is given when nature itself divides atomically and expression is able, via its own atomic elements to capture nature’s atomism. ‘Nature’s atomism’ does not refer to such physical elements as physical atoms, sub-atomic particles such as electrons or protons or further sub-divisions such as quarks—for these are not at all known to be true atoms (even electrons which so far show no sub-particles are only empirically atomic so far). The logical atomism of Wittgenstein and Russell posited a level of nature, not necessarily accessed by reason or perception, that was atomic. Later, Wittgenstein rejected logical atomism. However, the reason for rejection was that he came to see non-referential uses of language and to otherwise doubt pan-atomism. This however does not mean that there is no atomic part of language. As we will see, one important set of perfect atomic elements is being, universe, law, void, the real (and others); we will find a non-atomic side as well; we will see how the former frames the latter (and the significance of the framing); and it is noteworthy that the ‘atoms’ are not microscopic.
We find the narrative-holist mode to also contain significant signification (the point is salient because the narrative mode is frequently minimized on this score). In western thought the literalism of physical and other science is frequently thought to divide expression into a literal-secular side and a narrative side which are disjoint. However, the imperfection of physical literalism even with regard literal content implies that the foregoing separation of the secular and the trans-literal is at best an immensely useful approximation.
Note that within the narrative mode there are multiple cases, e.g. the mythic, the evocative, the poetic, the potential and so on (this is probably not an exhaustive list).
This section is open.
Though signs signify, what they signify need not be some object in the world (object is understood generally to include thing, quality, process, complex…). Thus when I say ‘ouch’ something is signified but it is not understood as an object.
This constitutes a problem for meaning as referential meaning (the problem as we shall see has at least tentative resolution in the notion of the abstract object—for the term ‘ouch’ may well refer to some abstract complex in the bodies-minds of the expresser and the hearer).
However, this does not mean that there is no referential meaning; rather it casts doubt on the thought that all meaning is referential.
As seen above the field of referential meaning is large; in the narrative the size of this field will be seen to be immensely greater than otherwise imagined.
Our interest here is primarily in REFERENTIAL MEANING: where there is a concept (icon-pure sign complex) and an object. Now some care is needed in use of the term ‘object’ here. The word tiger refers to actual tigers and in this case there are in fact objects. On the other hand the term ‘unicorn’ has, as far as we know, no actual objects. Nonetheless, we can regard the zero object as an object (and this is simplifying just as the regarding the zero force in physics is simplifying; and in both cases there is some work to be done to demonstrate that no errors result; and in this narrative, we will do the necessary work regarding concepts that have no actual reference). In fact we could even allow contradictory concepts such as the square-circle but this does not significantly enhance our understanding of referential meaning.
The crucial significance of the concept
The primary interest here is in referential meaning where meaning is a concept and its objects.
In the case of linguistic referential meaning the concept includes or may include a symbol but must include, if only implicitly, an iconic sign (we add the term ‘iconic’ even though it is superfluous).
Formal systems as well as common use may give the appearance of fixed meaning. In practice all meaning is subject to indefiniteness and contradiction of reference but there may be cases of practical reliability of varying degrees (except when total reliability is absolute demonstrated).