A summary of the paper presented to 5th Congress of the International Association of Semiotic Studies,
 Berkeley, USA, June 12 - 18, 1994.
Dave Hiles 1994

 

The Division of Signs:
a four-fold symmetry

Dave Hiles
(Psychology, De Montfort University, Leicester. LE7 9SU. UK.)
(Email:    drhiles@dmu.ac.uk  )

 

ABSTRACT: This paper proposes that two completely distinct sign functions underlie the symbol. Using Roman Jakobson's two fundamental dimensions of sign function: Factual/Imputed and Similarity/Contiguity, two types or functions are proposed: (1) The Artifice - imputed/contiguity - entails a sign function involving arbitrary relation between signifier and signified which arises from systemic division of the whole into parts; (2) The Motif - imputed/similarity - entails a sign function with a motivated relation between signifier and signified which arises from some shared quality between them. These qualities do not entail physical resemblance, but are ascribed or imputed often unconsciously. The distinction between motif and artifice addresses directly many of the problems in the discussion of the nature of sign and sign function. It is argued that the distinction overcomes frustrations in the application of semiotics to other fields, particularly psychology.

 

Figure 1:  Anubis

The statue of Anubis, found in Tutankhamun's tomb, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, has one very curious feature (Figure 1). Anubis, the jackal god of death, guardian of the gates to the underworld, and keeper of souls, has a human eye. One interpretation offered by Egyptologists is that this indicates that the ancient Egyptians understood clearly the nature of the sign function that lies behind the symbols of their culture. Portraying an animistic symbol with a human eye emphasizes how the jackal image evokes particular qualities in the human mind. The jackal symbol functions as a material object which has the power to awaken deeper understanding, or unconscious knowledge, in the beholder. The jackal is an animal that buries the flesh of its prey, which it does not eat until rotted. Anubis is therefore a symbol of digestion, and leads the soul of the deceased through the "digestive" stages of mummification. The Egyptians did not worship the jackal as a god, but recognized in it the qualities that symbolize the journey which death will involve. Of course, this type of symbol is commonplace and central to all cultures, from the image of water in a painting or dream that can signify the unconscious, to the ring on a finger that signifies fidelity, eternity. These cultural symbols clearly are not purely conventional or arbitrary, and therefore challenge current semiotic theory of signs.

1. Semiotics and psychology

The unique power of symbols lies in their ability to reveal levels of reality otherwise hidden, to open the human mind to wider awareness. The psychologist Carl Jung has proposed that with so many things beyond the range of human understanding "we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend" (Jung, 1964: 21). Clearly, any psychology that gives a central place to the study of meaning and how it arises in human action and experience must recognize the theoretical tools that semiotics can offer. Semiotics is both a theory of knowledge and a theory of mind, i.e. SIGN = MIND. Nevertheless, the application of semiotics to psychology and theories of the human mind is frustrated by current notions of the nature of the symbol.

2. Symbols and the classification of signs

The division of signs is fundamental to all semiotic science, and yet remains controversial. Sign typologies may be crude divisions of signs, but their importance lies in pointing to the different underlying sign functions linking signifier and signified. In Peirce's now familiar classification of signs, the division of signs into icon/index/symbol, is more or less based upon three underlying sign functions: similarity/contiguity/convention respectively (Peirce, 1902). This agrees with Saussure (1915 [1966]) who, concerned only with the linguistic sign as symbol, regarded the relationship between signifier and signified as arbitrary. Thus the principle of the symbol as an arbitrary/conventional sign became established. Such a principle, that regards the underlying sign function of the symbol as one of pure convention, certainly has difficulty in explaining the nature of cultural symbols.

2.1 Roman Jakobson's classification of signs
A quite different view of the symbol emerges in the work of Jakobson (1968 [1971]; 1980). Indeed, the semiotic literature has overlooked Jakobson's proposal for a four-fold division of signs. His classification is based upon the idea of there being two underlying dichotomies to sign function, and "this interplay of the two dichotomies, Contiguity-Similarity and Factual-Imputed, admits a fourth variety, namely, imputed similarity" (Jakobson, 1968: 704). In effect, Peirce's triadic division of signs is extended to a four-fold classification. Such a division does not alter Peirce's notion of icon and index, but clarifies them as factual/similarity and factual/contiguity respectively. What is radically different in Jakobson's proposal is that two completely distinct sign functions, imputed/similarity and imputed/contiguity, underlie the symbol. The verbal sign is clearly the imputed/contiguity type, while a second type of symbol is admitted, such that "the factual similarity which typifies icon finds its logically foreseeable correlative in the imputed similarity [and] fits into the whole which is forever a four part entity of semiotic modes" (Jakobson, 1980: 22).


       Figure 2: The proposed four-fold division of signs, using signs for "water" as illustration

 

2.2 The revised four-fold classification
Labeling these two distinct types of symbol leads to one difficulty in Jakobson's proposal. His choice of "artifice" to label the imputed similarity symbol is unwise, and the following revision is proposed. In Figure 2, which uses signs for "water" as examples, it can be seen that the icon for water derives from a factual similarity between the signifier and water (or its surface reflection). The index for water is a faucet (or tap), there being a factual contiguity between the signifier and the facility to obtain water. Saussure's proposal that the linguistic sign results only by contrast with other linguistic signs makes it clear that the verbal symbol for water (here represented phonetically) derives from an imputed contiguity relation between signifier and signified. The term "imputed", used by Jakobson, means "attributed or ascribed". This type of symbol is best termed artifice, because it is human made. Finally, using a cup, or chalice, to signify water is commonplace in art, the western Tarot, etc, and derives from not a factual but an imputed similarity, such that the qualities of water as a symbol of life force, primordial fluid, the feminine, love, fertility, abundance, purification, creativity, the unconscious, oblivion, etc., are being emphasized. This type of symbol is best termed motif, because of its central and recurring role in human awareness.

 

2.3 Artifice and Motif
The formal definitions of two distinct types of symbol therefore emerge:

(i) The Artifice - imputed/contiguity - entails a sign function involving arbitrary relation between signifier and signified which arises from systemic division of the whole into subdivisions or parts. The linguistic sign is the example par excellence, but is by no means the only example, arbitrary division is a common cultural device. It is this type of sign which may be uniquely human, and enables the mind to extend its powers beyond immediate impression.

(ii) The Motif - imputed/similarity - entails a sign function with a motivated relation between signifier and signified which arises from some shared quality between them. These qualities do not entail physical resemblance, but are ascribed or imputed by conscious, unconscious, collective or archetypal projection. The motif is at the same time both universal and subject to socio-cultural convention. The dream symbol is the example par excellence, while also fundamental to art, poetry, culture, religion, and particularly to narrative (Hiles, 1996).

3. Some implications and conclusions

This proposed four-fold division of signs, together with the distinction between motif and artifice, addresses directly many of the problems in the discussion of the nature of sign and sign function. The confused definition and debate on the nature of symbols is clarified. Peirce's typology is seen as incomplete. Saussure's work can be seen to be concerned exclusively with artifice. Post-Saussurian developments such as Structuralism are simply over-concerned with artifice at the expense of the motif. A quite new perspective is offered for such issues as sign motivation, reference/denotation and connotation. Furthermore, it is argued that popular typologies of sign in circulation serve to frustrate the application of semiotics in other important fields. The application of semiotics to cultural signifying practices is vacuous without the recognition of the importance of the motif. The diversity of semiotics (e.g. into psychological science) will be promoted by the recognition of the motif sign function. And, semiotics will have finally absorbed something that was all too obvious to the ancient Egyptians!

 

References

Hiles, D.R. (1996) "Narrative as a sequence of motivated signs", in I. Rauch and G.F. Carr (eds), Semiotics Around the World: Synthesis in diversity. Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Berkeley. June 12-18, 1994. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Jakobson, R. (1968 [1971]) "Language in relation to other communication systems." Selected Writings Vol II: Word and Language. The Hague: Mouton.

Jakobson, R. (1980) The framework of language. Michigan Studies in the Humanities, Vol. 1. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jung, C.G. (1964) "Approaching the unconscious", in C.G. Jung (Ed) Man and his symbols. London: Aldus Books.

Peirce, C.S. (1902 [1931-1958]) Collected papers Vol. 2. Translated by C. Hawthorne and P. Weiss. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Saussure, F. de (1915 [1966]) Course in general linguistics. Translated by W. Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill.

 

 

 

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