Alan Kirker


November 27th, 2021 by

Semiotics (also called semiotic studies) is the study of sign processes (semiosis), which are any activity, conduct, or process that involves signs, where a sign is defined as anything that communicates a meaning that is not the sign itself to the sign’s interpreter” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2021).

Philosopher John Searle sees semiotics as the study of human intentionality expressed through signs and symbols including language (2020). In an essay titled “The Power and Peril of Language”, philosopher Suzanne Langer differentiates between sign and symbol:

“The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief, that a sign causes us to think or act in face of the thing signified, whereas a symbol causes us to think about the thing symbolized. A symbol does not announce the presence of an object, but merely brings this thing to mind” (1944, p. 52).

Symbols are immensely powerful even when spoken about in “mere sentences”, according to Searle. In a paper titled “Semiotics as a Theory of Representation” (2020), he states that when a symbol is accepted in its full meaning, as in the case of a crucifix or a swastika, one is committed to a certain set of values, and uses it as an expression of this commitment. Does the symbol presuppose other forms of communication to enunciate its shared understanding? Did language evolve from the inadequacies of using discrete symbols as tools of expression? Suzanne Langer calls its birth “the dawn of humanity” (1944, p. 53), while author and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker suggests it emerged synergistically with other human traits:

It is certainly one of the distinctive traits of Homo sapiens. But I don’t think language would have evolved if it was the only distinctive trait. It goes hand in hand with our ability to develop tools and technologies, and also with the fact that we cooperate with non-relatives. I think this triad – language, social cooperation, and technological know-how – is what makes humans unusual. And they probably evolved in tandem, each of them multiplying the value of the other two” (2010, p. 230).

The deriving of symbolic, representational meaning is a human-defining process of cognition, of conceiving and conveying an idea, according to Langer, who alludes to problems of interpretation:

“The process of symbolic transformation that all our experiences undergo is nothing more or less than the process of conception, which underlies the human faculties of abstraction and imagination, and in the course of manipulating symbols we inevitably distort the original experience” (1944, p. 53).

Langer, S. K. (January, 1944), The Power and Peril of Language, from “The Lord of Creation” in Fortune. New York, United States: Time Inc., reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 50-53). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Pinker, S. (2010), in Paulson, S. (Ed.) Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 229-243). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Searle, J. R. (2020), Semiotics as a Theory of Representation, in Mimesis Journals, Volume 1, Number 20, 2020 (pp. 49-57), DOI: 10.7413/19705476017 [PDF document] retrieved November 2021 from


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