3.3. The sign

The sign is a familiar point of visibility. The main characteristics of the sign are its limitation (as an object) and its capability of establishing a connection. The sign brings the signal to its destination: the understanding by an observer. The study of the sign is a ‘Third Quadrant’ venture, initially ruled by the two- and three divisions.

The American mathematician Charles Sanders PIERCE (1839 – 1914) caught the spirit of this new field of psychological investigation, which he labelled semeiotic (in the current use and spelling the word semiotics includes all the various studies of signs). He emphasized the subjective character of the sign (in: PIERCE, 1963; par. 2.308) by saying that ‘nothing is a sign, unless it is interpreted as a sign’.

The three-division became a central point of departure in his mathematical or symbolic logic. The process of signification, for instance, consisted of three stages. Firstly, the sign in itself (representamen, Third Quadrant), secondly the object (the sign as used by its observer, Second Quadrant) and thirdly, the sign as an image as created by itself (interpretant, Fourth Quadrant). These three connections were again placed in trichotomies. The object was divided by Pierce in:

The icon is a representation of an object shaped after nature,

The index  is a reference to an object (a gesture): anything that focuses attention is an index;

The symbol rules about the use of an object as a representamen, and can be expressed in words and sentences.

The threefold division of signs as a sign vehicle, designatum and interpreter (at present rendered as respectively second, third and fourth quadrant expressions of the sign) was further advanced by Charles Morris (1901 – 1979) in his book ‘Foundations of the Theory of Signs’ (1938).

Van SCHALKWIJK (1989), in his eminent study of the sign of the cross, gave a more elaborate division of communication-elements, which is closer to the modern, quadralectic way of thinking:

Signals    ———————–  extrinsic

Signs —————————– intrinsic

Symbols ———————— analogy, metaphor

   subdivided in:

  —————     Icons             –       clusters of ‘symbols’

   ————–      Gestures      –       sign language

   ————–      Proxemics   –       silent language of non-verbal communication

The quadralectic sequence (of quadrants) can be reduced from these given distinctions, but some ‘juggling’ is necessary. Signs (III) and symbols (II) have to change places. The icons remain with the symbols, but the gestures belong more to the world of signs and can even bridge the gap to a language (the sign language as a way of expression).

Finally, the proxemics – cultural interaction, the feel of distance, smell, or the angle of vision – is a genuine expression of a Fourth Quadrant ‘language’, based on subjective intervention and a collective construction of the visible invisibility (IV).

The sign is – in a quadralectic communication – not only a simple visible visibility (positioned in the Third Quadrant), but also an interactive element in the (third part) of the Second Quadrant and in the (third part) of the Fourth Quadrant. It acts as an object with a certain content and is a constituent in several regimes. The various positions, seen as a centre of significance, have a specific formalization of expression. The sign is the ‘decoder’ in the communication process. The interaction can be divided in:

1. a source, sending a signal (or array of signals),

2. which can be regarded as encoded messages (symbols)

3. to a receiver, who tries to understand them (as a decoder) and

4. leading them to the destination (of understanding).

This sequence is derived from the coding theory (a branch of mathematics concerned with transmitting data across noisy channels and recovering the message). The various positions are given in fig. 15.


Fig. 15 – The sign is a receiver in a communication, which translates a message (or an array of signals) from a sender (using these encoded messages as symbols) to a destination. The destination can be described as a language, capturing the understanding of the original signals to the participants in the communication. Its use and meaning can become a new message source for another (communication) cycle.


Radio telescope Kootwijk (1948 – 1955). The Netherlands – An example of a receiver (of cosmic signals).


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