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semiotics
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 Related Terms
• aesthetics
• C.S. Peirce
• Ferdinand de Saussure

 

Definition:
Semiotics is the study of signs and signifying practices, is largely the creation of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. Independently, they worked to better understand how certain structures were able to produce meaning rather than work on the traditional matter of meaning itself.

Saussure's work on semiotics is better known, and he argued that there was no inherent or necessary relationship between that which carries the meaning (the signifier, usually a word or symbol) and the actual meaning which is carried (the signified). For example, the word "car" is not actually a car - the meaning of car could be carried by any random string of letters. It just so happens that, in English, that meaning is carried by the letter c-a-r.

Peirce's ideas about semiotics distinguished between three types of signs: icon, index and symbol. Whether a sign belongs in one category or another is dependent upon the nature of its relationship between the sign itself (which he called the referent) and the actual mening. An icon is a meaning which is based upon similarity or appearance (for example, similarity in shape).

According to Pierce, icons are "the only means of directly communicating an idea." An index is a meaning based upon some cause and effect relationship (for example, a weathervane carries certain meaning because of the wind): "Because the indexical sign is understood to be connected to the real object, it is capable of making that object conceptually present."

Finally, a symbol carries meaning is a purely arbitrary way - this is the way natural language carries meaning. Saussure's system is appropriate to language and texts, for the most part, but Pierce's has a wider application, including not just language but also the visual arts.

An important concept in semiotics is that signs and meaning are unlimited. Called "unlimited semiosis," this principle makes it clear that one sign or set of signs can take the place of some other sign or set of signs in a theoretically infinite process. If this were not possible, then artists would eventually run out of signs with which to carry meaning, and that would be the end of art itself.

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What is Aesthetics?
In philosophy, aesthetics is the study of beauty and taste, whether in the form of the comic, the tragic or the sublime. Aesthetics has traditionally been part of other philosophical pursuits like the investigation of epistemology or ethics. However, it started to come into its own and become a more independent pursuit under Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who saw aesthetics as a unitary and self-sufficient type of human experience.

What is Philosophy?
What is philosophy? Is there any point in studying philosophy, or is it a useless subject? What are the different branches of philosophy - what's the difference between aestheitcs and ethics? What's the difference between metaphysics and epistemology?

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