I just had a quick nomenclatural/semantic question regarding the usage of the term "semiotics". Thought this would be a good place to ask it, so here I am. Anyways, my question has to do with using the term semiotics to refer the study of signs/signal processes vs. using the term to refer to a substantive system of signs and signal processes. In particular, I wanted to know whether the latter usage is generally considered "acceptable".

For example, consider a system of behavioral heuristics and situationally-dependent/adaptive rules of "right" conduct functioning in some hypothetical modern society. (Here I would point to F.A. Hayek's formulation of "culture" as particularly illustrative instantiation of this concept.) To the extent that such a system is based on:

-abstract signifiers (e.g., social-psychological schemata)

-signs (e.g., normatively salient social cues)

-signal processes (e.g., reciprocal, adaptive cue-based interaction(s))

...could one call this a "semiotics of social morality"? Or is this a grievous abuse of terminology?

Any feedback would be much appreciated.

(P.S. - I am aware that semantics is branch of semiotics, so this whole question is delightfully meta and such. Funny coincidence, but unintentional.)

(P.P.S. - Also, I know that my formulation of a system of behavioral heuristics/rules of conduct glosses over the fact that addressing ontological questions as to the nature of such a system and epistemological questions as to what can be said to be known about such a system necessarily implies (or presupposes) some form of "study". I suppose what I am trying to ask is whether the substantive "output" of such inquiry [i.e., "knowledge" of some extant system of signs and signal processes undergirding certain supervenient phenomena] can itself be called a "semiotics of phenomenon X".)

1 Answer 1


Unfortunately, there is no entry in SEP about semiotics.

We have Peirce's Theory of Signs where we read that, according to Peirce :

"I define a sign as anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which effect I call its interpretant, that the later is thereby mediately determined by the former."

So, may be of your interest the link Peirce states between signs and effects (upon a person), and this is the "pragmatic flavour" of P's thought.

The traditional "organization" of Semiotics divided it :

into three branches:

Semantics : Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata, or meaning

Syntactics : Relations among signs in formal structures

Pragmatics : Relation between signs and sign-using agents

You may be interested into the last one, which involves agents.

  • Thank you for your response! I'll definitely take some time to look into Peirce and pragmatics in more detail.
    – zrm
    Mar 19, 2014 at 16:53

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