Signs & Symbols

Except for experience (aka implicit knowledge), knowledge is built on language, i.e. a combination of symbols (semiotics) and grammars (linguistics).

Percepts, Signs, Symbols

As explained by J.Sowa (cf reference), Peirce makes a first distinction between:

  • Signs: percepts that stand for something else in the mind of observers
  • Symbols: signs that stand for common references in the mind of observers

then Ockham adds a second for signs:

  • First intention, for signs standing for objects or phenomena
  • Second intention, for signs standing for other signs

These distinctions can be neatly aligned with the areas defined by ontological prisms:

  • 1st intention signs use actual icons, sounds, or gestures to mimic objects or phenomena; they exist as pure facts, i.e. without symbolic dimension (a)
  • Symbols are shared mental representations (words or pictographs) whose meaning is set independently of the signs representing them (b)
  • 2d intention signs come with dual nature, actual and symbolic (c)

That taxonomy determines languages’ functions and technologies: both 1st and 2d intension signs enable direct communication through spoken or signed languages; but representation, and consequently written communication, require 2d intension signs.


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