Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Journal Article 1994

Toward a Mutual Interplay Between Psychology and Semiotics


@GenSem @SemEcoPro @SciPol

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Journal of Accelerated Learning and Teaching 19 (1) 1994 45-66

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

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Questions are raised about commonalities, mutual offerings andpossible influences between psychology and semiotics. Theyseem to share similar interests, yet their relationship appearsless than optimal. Four different approaches to semiotics arebriefly outlined. One is further identified, as the framework ofPeircean semiotics, as focusing on sign processes or signeffects which are understood as a general type of causationparticularly suitable for use in psychological problems.A dialogue between a psychologist and a semiotician is used asthe basis for comparing and contrasting fundamental ideas ofsemiotics and psychology that might interplay with each other.Finally, this paper concludes with a discussion of a semioticunderstanding of the concepts of "person" and "self".



Both semiotics and psychology are characterized by extreme pluralism. Both have a long past and a short history. Also, both disciplines claim central positions in the emerging scientific trends of the next century. Both have grown explosively in the recent past; psychology since World War II, semiotics mostly since the seventies. Yet both enjoy a mixed reputation in scientific and public opinion. Are there deeper commonalities between psychology and semiotics? Can they offer something to each other? If so, how can the two fields mutually enrich and improve each other? These questions will be the focus of this paper.  


A Short characterization of each field:


It is impossible to say in a few lines what psychology is. So let me just briefly characterize how I for one prefer to understand the field.

I see it as an ecological science, building upon vital and social instincts and studying people within social contexts. In fact, psychology cannot investigate isolated individuals, because such people cannot exist. Thus psychology is, in my understanding, the science of the relationship between humans and their environment, on the level of information exchange rather than matter-energy metabolism. It studies humans as a part of nature who, in historical, social, and personal processes, develop themselves as creators and creatures of their culture.



Since semiotics is less well known, I need to go into a bit more detail. There is also quite a bit of content related specialization in semiotics. You can make out semioticians oriented towards linguistics, literature, the visual or auditory arts, philosophical, biological, or computational topics, public relations, fashion etc. etc. But those applied distinctions are less important here; so basic or formal distinctions only will concern us in this exposition.

Semiotics is often defined as the study of signs. This is similar to defining psychology as the science of behavior. In both cases, not much is said. Depending of what you mean by sign or by behavior, and depending on what aspects you emphasize in that study, you get quite different sub-disciplines which, by the way, need not be exclusive of each other. For an inclusive reference both in terms of topics and traditions of present-day semiotics and also including a large bibliography, I recommend Sebeok (1986). Studying signs can focus; a) on signs as a special kind of object, b) on the meaning of signs, c) on the use of signs, and d) on the effects of signs.


a) Signs as Objects:

Still quite common in semiotics of today are variants of the classical approach going back to Aristotle, Augustine, Locke, Leibniz and many others. Signs are seen as special objects which have a special meaning and which can, in some respect, represent or substitute other objects.

The classical approach can be characterized by the famous phrase Aliquid pro aliquo, or "something for standing for another thing". A sign or signifier stands for something signified. The distinction between signifier and signified drawn by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure around 1900 has strengthened as well as expanded the traditional approach. If you look at signs as objects, you can then "botanize" signs, classify them and investigate whether the coordination between sign objects and sign meaning obeys rules and, if so, what kinds of rules.

Beyond linguistic signs, such as phonemes, letters, words or sentences, all kinds of matter and energy configurations in general and their components in particular can be treated as signs. By way of example, we can look at such phenomena as gestures (from everyday behavior to artful dance), exchange objects (from souvenirs to money), buildings (from huts to cities), and many other cultural codes (from traffic signs to law). It is as useful and desirable as it is problematic and sometimes deadly to explore all kinds of lists of signs, with pointers to their respective meanings. Used with care, such encyclopedias of meaning are indispensable aids. All of us, in fact, have partial versions of such "lists" in our heads.

However, the problems of this approach should also be obvious. Naturally, everything has its meaning or meanings; it just depends. In fact, the "signs-as-objects" approach goes astray in its attempts to multiply distinctions and definitions: signs against non-signs, this sign class against that, this variant of meaning, and so on. Furthermore, any classification is in a sense arbitrary, and can therefore be replaced by any other arbitrary classification.  


b) The Meaning of Signs:

By looking at the discussion above, we can easily understand attempts at turning the object approach "upside down" . Semiotics as the science of meaning is both a development of and a reaction to the centrality of the sign-object pairing. Variants of structuralism, to be seen as the principal movement of this approach, are based on the conception of distinctive features (inaugurated by Saussure and developed by Roman Jakobson, Jurij M. Lotman, Algirdas J. Greimas and others). The central tenet of this approach is a general notion of "text", referring to any phenomenon, including its elements and their relations, as if it were "composed". Structures of distinctions within texts, and beyond in contexts, constitute meaning and signs, and not vice versa.

It is easy to see that, especially in fields such as literature and the arts, an important motive for producing signs is innovation. Catalogues of signs with fixed meaning can then become as much of a nuisance as a support. If you want to express something that has not been "said" before, you might need to "blow up" existing sign classes and categories. Examples are hard to clarify briefly. Think, perhaps, of a piece of music or architecture. Of course, you can list myriads of sign objects and suggest possible meanings for them. But it can be argued that you miss the "essentials" of the piece by following this procedure. Instead, the process of "going through" the whole of the "text" as a structured ensemble is assumed to generate its meaning. Therefore, this approach advocates the primacy of meaning.


c) The Use of Signs:

The third approach is the most commonly accepted today. It is based on some theory of communication, more or less influenced by theories of information exchange in technical or social systems. Here, signs are not conceived as either material objects or as mental meaning, but rather in terms of their function in communicative processes. Signs are considered vehicles or carriers of meaning. Naturally they must have a material basis, but their essence is the mediation of information between two systems.

This approach, perhaps quite characteristic of the technical Zeitgeist of the second half of the 20th century, owes much of its impetus to Charles W. Morris, a psychologist-sociologist- philosopher of American pragmatist descent. It has been taken up world-wide. Depending on what one prefers to accept as a communicative paradigm, there are dozens if not hundreds of sign function models. Furthermore, I think I can presuppose some knowledge of this approach by a psychological audience, since psychologists are used to thinking about models of information transfer between some sender and receiver, whether the examples involved are part of mechanical or computer systems or are living systems such as brain parts or human speakers and listeners.

I think that this focus on sign processes realized in communicative models is a great advance for semiotics. Yet this by no means renders the "object" or "meaning" approaches obsolete. On the other hand, the distinction and definition problems prevalent in the "sign-object" approach are only deferred rather than solved. Arbitrariness of initial definitions continues to plague the field. Instead of declaring this or that to be a sign, controversies and dogmatisms rage now over such questions as whether the concept of communication should include or exclude intentionality, whether or not a sender is obligatory, or whether communication presupposes a code or not.  


d) Sign Effects:

Difficulties of the kind associated with the other three approaches have led a number of semioticians to propose or rather reconsider a more general approach to sign processes which might best be described as the investigation of sign effects.

These efforts are quite deliberately grounded in pragmatic philosophy. This comes as no surprise, since the founder of pragmatic or action-oriented thinking, Charles S. Peirce, is certainly the most influential modern semiotician as well. In fact, most of the concepts used today in all of the approaches described above (e.g. the icon-index-symbol distinction) are based on Peirce's work. This fourth approach is hopefully his living heritage.

Signs in this conception (similar to their definition in the "meaning" approach), are entities that should not be defined a priori and then classified. It is also not sufficient to functionalize traditional sign concepts as in the communication approach. "Signs", whatever else they are, are "born from" signs and "procreate" other signs. A sign, for Peirce, is anything that has the potential to, in suitable circumstances, create other signs. Thus the focus of this approach is on the role of "signs" in the becoming of signs. Semiotics, then, is the study of that type of causation which is carried on by signs. Most of what I have to say in the following about the mutual benefits from an interplay between semiotics and psychology should be understood as illustrating this fourth approach.

The Interplay of Psychology and Semiotics: Before I launch into my discussion proper, let me make a few general points. First of all, typologizing semiotic approaches into four categories can easily obscure issues that are important across all four categories. Let me further note that, in what follows and in general, I strive to avoid using the terms "sign" and "meaning" whenever I can, because they are irreducibly polyvalent. Of course, I need them for reporting the various semiotic traditions. Otherwise, my usages are intended to be both untechnical and commensensical.


What do Psychology and Semiotics have in common?

From what has been said so far, it is evident that my thesis is that the two fields have much in common.

Looking at the matter from a semiotician's perspective: In spite of the abstract nature of the descriptions of the four approaches, it is obvious that semioticians investigate sign processes within the framework of systems for receiving, processing and producing signs or sign-type entities. In particular, those systems are living beings, and primarily humans. Note that these are roughly the same areas claimed by psychologists as their subject matter. Terminological discrepancies should not hide the essential identity. Scientific psychology is unthinkable without perceptual and behavioral processes, either as a topic per se or as a methodological requirement. Semioticians would rightly contend them to be of a sign-type character. For example, what the psychological researcher presents to his/her "subjects", whether conceived as so-called "stimuli" or as physical or social situations, are produced or selected by the experimenter as a kind of sign and are taken as such by the subjects. Furthermore, inferences or generalizations the researcher draws about real life situations imply that the experimental setting somehow represents the latter. Similarly, what the researcher records and analyses in the form of reactions, behavioral acts or traces, have sign-type character. Whether or not the subject has insight into this state of affairs, and whether or not the researcher explicitly thematizes it, the subject cannot help but give signs to the researcher which the latter analyzes as signs, in that he/she infers from them something else. The researcher is less interested in the behavior as such, but rather in what it means in this or that respect. Finally there are semioticians who claim sign-type characteristics for psychic processes as well.

Looking at the matter from a psychologist's perspective It is true that many semioticians cultivate strong interests in psychological topics. Quite a number of papers and articles at semiotic conferences or in semiotic periodicals deal with issues that are typical in psychological publications. However, it is not easy for a psychologist to accept some of what is written in some of those semiotic contributions. Sometimes, psychological models or theories are selectively oversimplified. Also, some semioticians tend to shield themselves from psychological data that do not fit their semiotic expectations. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that semioticians could benefit greatly greatly from a broader and richer understanding of the tenets and findings of contemporary psychology. Also, it is imperative that semiotic models should be able to account for the variety of findings that the psychological community have uncovered about human behaviors and actions.


What can Psychology and Semiotics offer each other?

nstead of listing here a considerable number of topics that would require extensive context, I propose to develop these ideas within the context of a dialogue between a semiotically interested psychologist (P) and a psychologically interested semiotician (S).


Common field, autonomous approaches:

P: Could we make sure from the outset that we both consider our respective disciplines completely autonomous? Just like the earth is studied by many geo-sciences, we need several and varied approaches for looking at the being-and-becoming of people in their worlds.

S: Of course. This study of the relationships between living beings and other entities in their worlds requires a multifaceted set of descriptions and analytical tools


Difference of approach:

P: What do you see as the principal differences between the respective kinds of analyses of our two disciplines?

S: As Peirce (1902, see CP 1.242ff. and elsewhere) pointed out, we can differentiate two broad fields of empirical or object- oriented science, namely the psychical and the physical sciences. Psychology, along with such fields as sociology, anthropology, history or linguistics, comprise psychics at large and should certainly hold a central place within the group. In addition, psychology might take a special interest in the areas of overlap between the physical and the psychical sciences. It is quite unfortunate that in its history of roughly a century,academic psychology tended to place itself on the physical side of the break between the physical and the psychical sciences, rather than trying to build bridges based on its "psychophysical" outlook. On the other hand, semiotics should be seen primarily as a formal or normative science, in the same category with aesthetics, ethics and logic. Actually, for Peirce, semiotics is a part of logic, or more accurately its most inclusive form. In the same way that phenomena investigated by the psychic sciences also include physical characteristics, you might call semiotics the "logic" of psychical entities.


Formal vs. prescriptive:

P: What do you mean by a formal science? That it prescribes, like logic, how propositions and judgments or other sign complexes are to be formed in order to be true or valid?

S. Watch out! That would be a fundamental misunderstanding of semiotics. Semiotics is a strictly formal discipline, yet it is built upon the observation of the mind in action. As opposed to the empirical sciences with their respective particular points of view, it observes on the most abstract level possible. It claims to eschew particular points of view of observation, and, instead, supplies those general forms of presentation that pertain to everything. Being evaluative or normative does not include prescription, but rather points out consequences in the pragmaticist sense. Pragmaticism, for Peirce, is a method for attaining an apprehension of ideas from the consideration of the practical bearings they might possibly have (1878, CP 5.402). People are then free to take those consequences for whatever prescriptions they choose to make themselves.  


Epistemological priorities:

P: What you say is not easy to understand. Furthermore, you seem to contradict yourself. Having described semiotics as the logic of psychical entities, you now claim that it operates at the highest abstraction level possible. Isn't that getting things backwards? Aren't psychical phenomena special cases of physical phenomena?

S: Our cultures believes your last claim precisely because we have become used to that belief. But where does that certainty come from? It cannot be more than just a presumption or a prejudice on our part. As long as we hold onto the assumption of the priority of physical things over psychical things, you must admit that our ideas of the physical are epistemologically subsumed by something "psychical", however else you might like to speculate about the matter ontologically.


A chance to neutralize Cartesianism:

P: I see; you dismiss Cartesianism. You might be right. Psychology, though, being based on the very idea of dualism, seems to hold onto Cartesianism strongly. And with dualism seeming to have been eliminated as a serious position, psychology's clinging to materialistic reductionism becomes more and more obstinate. But do you then feel that those eternal categories of thought ascribed to Cartesian and Kantian subjects --such as substance, causation, necessity-- to be fictions?

S: They are certainly important as special forms of presentation, but not as the universal "truths" they have been claimed to be. I think we should make a serious effort to confine them to where they belong, namely within the nice little closed systems that spawned them. It is true that we encounter psychical and physical phenomena as part of our intuitive experiencing of the world; but that does not imply that our constructs to understand the world must be psychical and physical. We should not be so concerned with how things act upon us, but rather find out, with the means available to us, how they act upon each other.

Since the dialogue is becoming a bit philosophical here and thereby losing itself in its own jargon, we now halt this train of thought for a more practical turn on the concerns of the two sciences.


Semiotic vs. physical conceptions of causation:

S: I feel that we also agree, each from our own point of view, that we are not at all happy with the classical conception of causation; namely the necessary and sufficient coordination of effects to causes. You are in need of a more general conception that concedes effects but leaves something open for unpredictable developments in life courses, evolution, and cultural change. It cannot be just a matter of not yet knowing all the effective causes. Furthermore, as everybody knows from personal experience, the so-called final causes never seem to produce what has been predicted.

P: If we have given up our former beliefs in universal one-to-one cause-effect-connections, or confine them to special conditions in the physical sciences, it is indeed strange that so many psychologists still operate on the basis of deterministic assumptions and try to reduce "erratic" psychical phenomena to "certain" physical phenomena. On the other hand, I am just as embarrassed by constructivist proposals which supplant causal patterns and effects in concrete reality with effects in the minds of observers.


Taking seriously the reality of interpretation:

S: So you are trying to pursue a conception of causation which considers the fact of interpretation in the world itself? In other words, you are after a conception of "conditioning", in the most general sense, which sees entities, such as living systems, not simply and merely as results of adaptation to some independently given reality. You feel that organisms, social systems, persons, and cultures can be understood as phenomena that are constituted neither simply by chance nor as the result of simple preprogramming. You feel that they are capable, to some extent, of "making history".

P: Since you maintain that semiotics in the wake of Peirce is able to provide the conceptual means for this task, I would like to know exactly how this can be done.

S: Semiotics provides a general form of thought or presentation which avoids dualism and does not play the game of ontological priority of either the physical or the psychical. Epistemologically it accepts the primacy of the mind. However, it approaches the mind empirically, not by postulating any a priori conditions. This form of thought or presentation is triadic in nature. Sign-types do not represent a thing, but rather present the relations between entities that allow for the forming of further relations.   At this point, we break off the dialogue. A formal model of the semiotic process is beyond the scope of this paper, and can be found in several of the references listed in this paper. Instead, let us look at one crucial issue that psychology and semiotics share; the nature of the "person" or "self".


Examining Semiotic Models of "Person" and "Self":

It is a strange matter of course in Western psychological thinking that we presuppose the existence of persons, and only of individual persons, as "selves" in the Cartesian sense. True, developmental psychologists study their change in ontogenesis. But their initial constitution is taken as a given. Only metaphorically, it seems, is the notion of "self" lent to animals or to groups of people. The question of the origin of self is also completely unexamined. The related issue of the beginning and ending of individual lives is barely treated, and then only in operational terms. Peirce and a few of his modern interpreters (e.g. Singer 1984, Colapietro 1989) have outlined a semiotic conception of what we call the "self" that does not take it apart from the functioning of the person. If we construe the person as a semiotic structure that is in the process of becoming, then we can dispose of the Cartesian framework in our effort to understand its origin .

"A person is, in truth, like a cluster of stars, which appears to be one star when viewed with the naked eye, but which scanned with the telescope of scientific psychology is found on the one hand, to be multiple within itself, and on the other hand to have no absolute demarcation from a neighboring condensation." (Peirce 1893, Ms. 403)



I have touched upon a couple of topics from a very complex set of ideas and in addition I have dared to, I hope constructively, criticize some of our current views. I hope that I have made plausible that it would be as mindless for psychology and semiotics to live ignorantly apart as it would be for each to to give up its own respective identity. Yet, to join forces in a mutual interplay might bring growth and benefits to both fields. Psychology can acquire a means for dealing with culture, while semiotics can gain by observing the effects of signs in their most productive psychological provinces. Yet only time will demonstrate whether or not some mutual engagement between members of the two disciplines will bear fruit.



Colapietro, Vincent M. (1989) Peirce's approach to the self: asemiotic perspective on human subjectivity. New York, StateUniv. Press.

Lang, Alfred (1992 a) Die Frage nach den psychologischenGenesereihen - Kurt Lewins grosse Herausforderung. Pp. 39-68in: Schoenpflug, W. (Ed.) Kurt Lewin - Person, Werk, Umfeld:historische Rekonstruktion und Interpretation aus Anlass seineshundersten Geburtstages. Frankfurt a.M., Peter Lang.

Lang, Alfred (1992 b) Kultur als "externe Seele" - einesemiotisch-oekologische Perspektive. Pp. 9-30 in: Allesch,Chr.; Billmann-Mahecha, E. & Lang, A. (Eds.) PsychologischeAspekte des kulturellen Wandels. Wien, Verlag des Verbandesder wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Oesterreichs

Morris, Charles W. (1971) Writings on the general theory ofsigns. Approaches to semiotics. The Hague, Mouton

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1931-35/1958) Collected Papers ofCharles Sanders Peirce. 8 Vols. Cambridge Mass., Harvard Univ.Press. (Referred to as "CP" with volume and paragraph).

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1982ff.) Writings of Charles S. Peirce:a chronological edition. 30 Vols. Bloomington, Ind., IndianaUniversity Press. (So far, 4 vols. have appeared, covering theyears 1857 to 1884)

Sebeok, T. A. (Ed.) (1986) Encyclodepic Dictionary of Semiotics.3 Vols. Vols. Approaches to Semiotics. Vol. 73. Berlin, Mouton deGruyter

Singer, Milton (1984) Man's Glassy Essence: explorations in semiotic anthropology. Bloomington, Indiana Univ. Press.

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