Signs & Symbols

Whatever it means can be in the hand, the mouth, or the mind (René Magritte)

Signs and symbols are used by live agents to communicate meanings, immediately in reference to actual contexts, indirectly through symbolic representations.

The Matter of Communication

Except for experience (aka implicit knowledge), meanings are exchanged through 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 (to something else) 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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