Foundations of the Theory of Signs

Morris, Charles W. 1938. Foundations of the Theory of Signs. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Men are the dominant sign-using animals. Animals other than man do, of course, respond to certain things as signs of something else, but such signs do not attain the complexity and elaboration which is found in human speech, writing, art, testing devices, medical diagnosis, and signaling instruments. Science and signs are inseparably interconnected, since science both presents men with more reliable signs and embodies its results is systems of signs. Human civilization is dependent upon signs and systems of signs, and the human mind is inseparable from the functioning of signs - if indeed mentality is not to be identified with such functioning. (Morris 1938: 1)
There are three points revelant here. (1) complexity and elaboration is also what makes the study man's sign-using complicated. (2) It should be questioned if "systems of signs" is here different from "sign-systems", because thought culture is viewed as a sign-system, what here appears as a "system of signs" is more like "discursive formation", given that Morris refers here to word-signs and systems of word-signs are discourses or systems of knowledge. (3) He seems not to have yet forsaken mentalism and the connection between signs and thought in favor of behavioristics.
But evene without detailed documentation it has become clear to man persons today that man - including scientific man - must free himself from the web of words which he has spun and that language - including scientific language - is greatly in need of purification, simplification, and systematization. The theory of signs is a useful instrument for such debabelization. (Morris 1938: 3)
In Signs, Language and Behavior he urges us to dispense with several notions. Here it is apparent why: semiotics must be purified, simplified and systematized. On a second thought, this direction is obviously influenced by the physicalism of the day and although purification, simplification and systematization of scientific language is useful for sake of coherence, it is unreasonable or straight-up Orwellian to demand this from everyday language or even of the language of Frenchy philosophy, the former of which cannot be controlled anyway and the latter of which is made to confuse and distract us.
The process in which something functions as a sign may be called semiosis. This process, in a tradition which goes back to the Greeks, has commonly been regarded as involving three (or four) factors: that which acts as a sign, that which the sign refers to, and the effect on some interpreter in virtue of which the thing in question is a sign to that interpreter. These three components in semiosis may be called, respectively, the sign vehicle, the designatum, and the interpretant; the interpreter may be included as a fourth factor. These terms make explicit the factors left undesignated in the common statement that a sign refers to something for someone. (Morris 1938: 3)
So designatum is the object? I cannot imagine why the interpreter should be included in the definition of the sign, just like Morris couldn't imagine why sign-growth should be included in Peirce's definition. Could it be that the interpreter is the "seat" of semiosis - the "container" within which signs grow? In this sense semiosis and life are intimately related - once the organism ceases to exist, it also ceases to grow its signs.
Thus in semiosis something takes account of something else mediately, i.e., by means of a third something. Semiosis is accordingly a mediated-taking-account-of. The mediators are sign vehicles; the taking-account-of are interpretants; the agents of the process are interpreters; what is taken account of are designata. (Morris 1938: 4)
This is the definition briefly reviewed in the later book. Mediation seems neat, because then we can talk about semiotic mediation - e.g. how a verbal text mediates nonverbal behaviour. The interpreter is included as the "agent" of semiosis.
Semiotics, then, is not concerned with the study of a particular kind of object, but with ordinary objects in so far (and only in so far) as they participate in semiosis. (Morris 1938: 4)
The semiotician is interested in nonverbal behaviour only insofar as it participates in semiosis. Concourse is a safe way because then we can be sure that nonverbal behaviour (and specifically what behaviours) participate in "literary" semiosis. In observational studies it is more difficult to take account of what is significant, or what "is a sign". Birdwhistell could claim that he found no semiotic units because he was not equipped with semiotic theory. Yet everything he did was a formulation of body motion as signs - to the investigator, and also to others in the observed interactions.
The designatum of a sign is the kind of object which the sign applies to, i.e., the objects with the properties which the interpreter takes account of through the presence of the sign vehicle. And the taking-account-of may occur without there actually being objects or situations with the characteristics taken account of. This is true even in the case of pointing: one can for certain purposes point without pointing to anything. No contradiction arises in saying that every sign has a designatum but not every sign refers to an actual existent. Where what is referred to actually exists as referred to the object of the reference is a denotatum. It thus becomes clear that, while every sign has a designatum, not every sign has a denotatum. A designatum is not a thing, but a kind of object or class of objects - and a class may have many members, or one member, or no members. The denotata are the members of the class. This distinction makes explicable the fact that one may reach in the icebox for an apple that is not there and make preparations for living on an island that may never have existed or has long since disappeared beneath the sea. (Morris 1938: 5)
Later he replaced "designatum" with "significatum". The examples are good. Also, the application of this scheme to concourse implies that by concursive signs (descriptions) we take account of nonverbal behaviour (that is described).
This interpretation of the definition of sign is not, however, necessary. It is adopted here because such a point of view has in some form or other (though not in the form of Watsonian behaviorism) become widespread among psychologists, and because many of the difficulties which the history of semiotics reveals seem to be due to the fact that through most of its history semiotic linked itself with the faculty and introspective psychologies. From the point of view of behavioristics, to take account of D by the presence of S involves responding to D in virtue of a response to S. As will be made clear later, it is not necessary to deny "private experiences" of the process of semiosis or of other processes, but it is necessary from the standpoint of behavioristics to dony that such experiences are of central importance or that the fact of their existence makes the objective study of semiosis (and hence of sign, designatum, and interpretant) impossible or even incomplete. (Morris 1938: 6)
Indeed this does not mean that one could not proceed with a subjective study of semiosis. Merely that such a study would not be scientific (in the sense of American science of the 1930s).
Languages may be of various degrees of richness in the complexity of their structure, the range of things they designate, and the purposes for which they are adequate. Such natural languages as English, French, German, etc., are in these respects the richest languages and have been called universal languages, since in them everything can be represented. (Morris 1938: 11)
The notion of "natural language" is more than familiar. But "universal language" is something completely different. Curiously I lately happened to think about how it's a good idea to learn German because it is one of the very few languages in which technical talk of nonverbal behaviour and semiotics is possible. Estonian is not a universal language in this sense, because it cannot be used for every possible purpose, not everything can be represented with Estonian signs.
Sign vehicles as natural existences share in the connectedness of extraorganic and intraorganic processes. Spoken and sung words are literally parts of organic processes, while writing, painting, music, and signals are the immediate products of behavior. (Morris 1938: 12)
This is an interesting dichotomy. I think I have met something like it before, but I cannot recall where. Maybe in Hall's discussion of externalization?
Logical syntax deliberately neglects what has here been called the semantical nad the pragmatical dimensions of semiosis to concentrate upon the logico-grammatical structure of language, i.e., upon the syntactical dimension of semiosis. In this type of consideration a "language" (i.e., Lsyn) becomes any set of things related in accordance with two classes of rules: formation rules, which determine permissible independent combinations of members of the set (such combinations being called sentences), and transformation rules, which determine the sentences which can be obtoined from other sentences. These may be brought together under the term 'syntactical rules.' Syntactics is, then, the consideration of signs and sign combinations in so far as they are subject to syntactical rules. It is not interested in the individual properties of the sign vehicles or in any of their relations except syntactical ones, i.e., relations determined by syntactical rules. (Morris 1938: 14)
So that's where these notions come from! It is significant that nonverbal communication has neither combination nor transformation rules to speak of. Also, F logic!
Many of its specific results have analogues in the other branches of semiotic. As an illustration let us use teh term 'thing-sentence,' to designate any sentence whose designatum does not include signs; such a sentence is about things and may be studied by semiotic. On this usage none of the sentences of the semiotical languages are thing-sentences. Now Carnap has made clear the fact that many sentences which are apparently thing-sentences, and so about objects which are not signs, turn out under analysis to be psoude thing-sentences which must be interpreted as syntactical statements about language. (Morris 1938: 15)
Here I should consider if concursivity is about behaviour-sentences, because concourse in concursive only insofar as its designatum includes bodily behaviour; concursive sentences are about bodily behaviour "and may be studied by semiotic" :)
Since most, if not all, signs have as their interpreters living organisms, it is a sufficiently accurate characterization of pragmatics to say that it deals with the biotic aspects of semiosis, that is, with all the psychological, biological, and sociological phenomena which occur in the functioning of signs. (Morris 1938: 30)
Wow. This makes a whole lot of sense. Morris has even named the three categories (biological-universal, socio-cultural, and psychological-individual). Pragmatics deals with all these aspects, it seems.
The full characterization of a language may now be given: A language in the full semiotic sense of the term is any intersubjective set of sign vehicles whose usage is determined by syntactical, semantical, and pragmatical rules. (Morris 1938: 35)
Compare this to the five conditions in his later book. Also, I'm considering paying the Interlibrary Loans 7-8 euros to bring me Martin Joos's 1950. paper "Description of language design".
...a language is a social system of signs mediating the responses of members of a community to one another and to their environment. (Morris 1938: 36)
Is there also, then, a biological system of signs and a personal system of signs?
According to Mead, the primary phenomenon out of which language in the full human sense emerges is the gesture, especially the vocal gesture. The gesture sign (such as a dog's snarl) differs from such a nongestural sign as thunder in the fact that the sign vehicle is an early phase of a social act and the designatum a later phase of this act (in this case the attack by the dog). Here one organism prepares itself for what another organism - the dog - is to do by responding to certain acts of the latter organism as signs; in the case in question the snarl is the sign, the attack is the designatum, the animal being attacked is the interpreter, and the preparatory response of the interpreter is the interpretant. (Morris 1938: 36)
This can actually make Mead's account a lot more comprehensible. I think I should use the orangutan regulator quote as my primary animal example.
Since the linguistic sign is socially conditioned, Mead, from the standpoint of his social behaviorism, regarded the individual mind and self-conscious self as appearing in a social process when objective gestural communication becomes internalized in the individual through the functioning of gestures. Thus it is through the achievements of the community, made available to the individual by his participation in the common language, that the individual is able to gain a self and mind and to utulize those achievements in the furtherance of his interests. The community benefits at the same time in that its members are now able to control their behavior in the light of the consequences of this behavior to others and to make available to the whole community their own experiences and achievements. At these complex levels of semiosis, the sign reveals itself as the main agency in the development of individual freedom and social integration. (Morris 1938: 38)
Again relevant to connect Morris's later discussion of social control with Mead and to "conditioning" generally.
Even linguistic signs have many other uses than that of communicating confirmable propositions: they may be used in many ways to control the behavior of one's self or of other users of the sign by the production of certain interpretants. Commands, questions, entreaties, and exhortations are of this sort, and to a large degree the signs used in the literary, pictorial, and plastic arts. (Morris 1938: 39-40)
#Self-conditioning, commands and literary signs.
What of the term 'meaning'? In the preceding discussion the term 'meaning' has been deliberately avoided. In general it is well to avoid this term in discussions of signs; theoretically, it can be dispensed with entirely and should not be incorporated into the language of semiotic. But since the term has had such a notorious history, and since in its consideration certain important implications of the present account can be made clear, the present section is devoted to its discussion. (Morris 1938: 43)
And yet despite his strong advice to do so, semioticians still talk about meaning in a very vague and general meaning. And, it seems, mainly by semioticians who are analysing the meaning of carrots.
In some cases 'meaning' refers to designata, in other cases to denotata, at times to the interpretant, in some cases to what a sign implicates, in some usages to the process of semiosis as such, and often to significance or value. (Morris 1938: 43)
It is obvious that Morris urges us to dispense with "meaning" for a reason. It as an ambiguous sign. In some cases, as in hermeneutics and "the unity of meaning" it is even a universal sign (just like "being"). It might be a good idea to explicate these dimensions of "meaning" in Morris's terms with concrete examples (perhaps with the ape regulator quote).
None of the disciplines concerned with signs is interested in the complete physical description of the sign vehicle but is concerned with the sign vehicle only in so far as it conforms to rules of usage. (Morris 1938: 50)
The implication for the nonverbalist is that if he is pursuing a semiotic investigation of nonverbal communication then he is interested in nonverbal behaviour only insofar as it conforms to some rule of usage. Elsewhere Morris sets the condition that it merely participate in semiosis, not that it has a rule attached to it. The difference is significant, because in one we are dealing with sinsigns but in the other with legisigns.
Empirical problems of a nonlinguistic sort are not solved by linguistic considerations, but it is important that the two kinds of problems not be confused and that nonlinguistic problems be expressed in such a form as aids their empirical solution. (Morris 1938: 57)
"Body language" is a case in point. By speaking of "body language" we ascribe a system where there may be no such system.
Semiotic provides a basis for understanding the main forms of human activity and their interrelationship, since all these activities and relations are reflected in the signs which mediate the activities. (Morris 1938: 58)
Emphasis on "interrelationships".


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