Assumptions: Let X be one of a fact, a set of facts, event, place, idea, statement, etc. with meaning. X may mean something different or nothing at all to a given person. The meaning of X is the set of statements and implications you can manifest from X. If you can't say anything connected to reality about X then it has no meaning to you. X is some object or structure that can be physical or abstract.

Question 1: What is the best word for X?

Question 2: Let X also have causal potential where causal potential means that X can cause you to take an action physically or mentally. What is the best word for X?


After thinking more about this I decided to draw a diagram and provide more detail.

enter image description here

The idea goes something like this: in any moment of experience data is streaming to your brain through your sensors, the raw low-level facts are transformed through multiple levels, you end up with high level facts (perhaps human understandable), these facts trigger associations from your stored memory to bring forth more facts from your knowledge, you combine the facts from the current moment with the associated knowledge, then this fact set is used in some sort of loop/chain processs to further and further get more facts, implications, interpretations, etc.

In case 1 X is the initial collection of facts. From the initial fact set X you can derive further facts, implications, beliefs, etc. Y is this collection of facts, derived either one step out or an arbitrary amount of steps out. Within Y is the “thing” be it an event, idea, place, statement, etc. In the Saussurean view X is the signifier and Y is signified. The “thing” (T), is part of Y so the “thing” is signified in this case.

In case 2 H is a fact set which contains T. From H you can derive fact set K where X is within K. X is included in K due to T within H. In this case you could say T is the signifier and X is signified.

Using the Saussurean view (assuming I’m understanding correctly) the “thing” can either be a signifier or signified depending on the situation. From this view is the “thing” just a sign?

The next obvious question is what would Pierce’s view say? In his model there are three parts, the sign (or representamen or sign-vehicle), object, and interpretant (or interpretant sign). To fit this model to the image above I’ll try to use a specific example.

You are an investigator and walk into a scene. There are various physical facts your senses detect that compose the scene. These facts are the set X. From X you can use your knowledge to derive further facts, implications, ideas, etc. This collection is Y. One of the “things” in Y might be the event of a murder having occurred in this scene. Let this event be T. So for case 1 the sign is the scene and one of the interpretants is T. The object is the actual murder that occurred in the past but you did not witness.

Now for case 2 imagine it is the next day and during lunch your boss mentions the murder from yesterday. At that moment the set of physical facts is the scene of the lunch. The sound waves are within this fact set. Through a process they are interpreted as T. Starting at this point. All the facts in the context are H in the diagram with T within. From there the process continues and you end up with the fact set K which contains X within. T is the sign-vehicle?, X is an interpretant-sign, and the object is once again the actual murder that occured.

Again, depending on the situation the “thing” is either a sign-vehicle or interpretant sign. So the “thing” is a sign?

Pierce’s model can get complex, so I might be wrong. I read this https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce-semiotics/ I have also never heard of semiotics before this question, so I might need to just read more.

Perhap semiotics is not the best for this or I’m misunderstanding? The fact space which generates the discourse space is the context in which the subject exists along with its meaning. So maybe it’s best to say the “thing” is the subject and the context is the seed from which the subject and its discourse space arises. “Thing” -> subject, “meaning” -> discourse space around the “thing”, context -> seed of physical facts in which a chain/loop process manifests a discourse space. Overall, three terms, “context”, “subject” (or “context subject”?), and “discourse space”. Meaning is dependent on context afterall, so perhaps this is a better set of names? Whenever you encounter the “thing” it is some context and this context can easily change the meaning of that “thing” in that moment compared to another context. Context contains the physical facts/patterns that trigger some discourse-generating/fact-expanding process that can be very shallow or very deep.

In the end for most people the words sign and subject mean something very different compared to what they mean here and in semiotics, so I’m not really satisfied with the word choice. More reading and thinking I suppose.

Another thought. Maybe my real question is: what is a word for a thing that can be interpreted in a particular context and has a nontrivial discourse space in that context? Or maybe simpler: what is a word for a thing with a nontrivial discourse space? Nontrivial here means discourse beyond “this thing exists”. The process is like this: you encounter a certain context, some mental chain process eventually adds the “thing” into your working set of facts (context), and the chain can continue from there to generate more things about the “thing” (something like semiosis?). The process can go arbitrarily far and ends up generating a discourse around the “thing”. In a sense the discourse generated is the meaning in that context of the “thing”. In this case, does anyone have a good answer for such a word?

I attempted many complex images but have doubts about their legitimacy. The following is the simplest I could draw.

enter image description here

Potential words: sign, signifier, subject, subject of attention, ...

Any help is appreciated. Thanks.

  • 1
    To clarify, are you looking for a unit of meaning? Grapheme, morpheme, word, sentence, etc?
    – J D
    Commented Mar 6, 2022 at 4:52
  • 3
    Does symbol work?
    – DJohnson
    Commented Mar 6, 2022 at 16:01
  • Significant symbol comes pretty close.
    – Michael
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 3:20
  • I was reading about symbol vs sign vs signifier and it is not yet clear which is most appropriate. Any thoughts? Which one is highest level of abstraction? Or are they all on same level?
    – vergilvsyn
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 6:29

2 Answers 2


Well, in semiotics we may call something that has meaning a "sign." Although it's perfectly fine to just talk about things that "have meaning." You mentioned "ideas." A private thought has meaning but is a thought a sign? It may depend on your concept of what a "sign" is. C. S. Peirce would say a thought is a sign.

"Having causal potential" is a clear enough way to talk about things that have causal potential.

  • I was writing an essay and kept repeating "an event, idea, statement, place, etc." That phrase is referring to the "thing" in my initial question. The idea is that a person has a personal knowledge base. The thing emerges from that knowledge base, and upon encountering that thing the person can think about its meaning, its uses, its implications, its relations to other things, etc. All this is the "meaning" of the thing. Is sign still the best word? (Perhaps something about surrounding knowledge?)
    – vergilvsyn
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 2:33
  • @vergilvsyn you might use the word "signifier" if you prefer.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 3:13
  • After reading a bit about semiotics it seems that the "thing" I refer to is a signifier and the "meaning" is the signified. The pair of (signifier, signified) is a sign. So it appears that ("thing", "meaning") = (signifier, signified) = sign. Is this correct?
    – vergilvsyn
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 5:46
  • I did some more reading. Things are more complex than expected. See the update up top for details.
    – vergilvsyn
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 21:30

Generally, meaning is attributed to physical artifacts deliberately constructed according to conventions for communication (that is, the conventions are for communication, the artifact itself may not have been produced for communication). The most common example is speech (where the sound vibrations in the air are a physical artifact, if a transitory one). Writing is the second most common, but you can come up with additional examples.

Artifacts of this sorts are called various things by various authors: utterances, signs, symbols, marks, tokens, etc. Often there are distinctions made; for example, in linguistics an utterance is usually understood to only include speech, not writing.

Some philosophers do not distinguish between deliberately constructed artifacts and mere observations from which we can derive information. For example, such a philosopher might claim that the words "we'll have clear weather tomorrow" is no more a sign than a red sky at night, both are signs of clear weather the next day. I believe this move is motivated by a desire to support some form of materialism, because meaning in the original sense I described is something that is not found in nature, so it presents a challenge to materialism.

I don't, however, know of any philosopher who would say that things like facts and ideas have meaning. I suspect that what you are getting at is not meaning, but significance. That is, facts, events, places, ideas, and statements can all have significance, but significance is not something that has been studied as thoroughly as meaning, and I doubt there is any word for "something that has significance". You could make one up; maybe adapt "significand" from mathematics for your purposes.

  • You might be right that significance is the word I'm getting at. Is meaning the literal meaning, the core? Significance is everything beyond the core like causes, relations to other things, implications, etc? Another way to understand my intention is to imagine a knowledge base or set of facts. From that knowledge emerges a thing that can be described by its relations to other things, by its causes, its implications, its uses, its meaning to a given person, etc. What is a word for that thing?
    – vergilvsyn
    Commented Mar 13, 2022 at 2:13

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