Interpreting the Signs of Reality

The concept of signs is so common to us that we hardly think about it. (Of course many of the most profound ideas are disguised as common ones that we don’t need to think about.) The idea of a sign is just such an example.  A sign is something that points to or indicates something else. We see signs all the time. Signs on stores, signs that direct us as we drive through traffic, signs are everywhere as the song says:

Sign Sign everywhere a sign…

Signs were central to the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and American Pragmatism in general. In fact Peirce saw reality as being created by a constant exchange of signs. We do not experience reality directly according to Peirce, we experience signs of reality. Imagine that you see something on the ground a few feet in front of you that looks like a rock. You pick it up and it feels like a rock. You toss it at a window and it breaks through the glass like a rock. You conclude that if it looks like a rock, feels like a rock, and acts like a rock; it must be a rock.

But you never experienced a rock directly; you only experienced signs of a rock. You saw things, felt things, and heard things that looked, sounded, and felt like a rock. And when you saw enough signs you felt justified in your belief that there was actually a rock, but you only ever experienced signs of a rock, you never experienced a rock directly. (It is hard to even imagine what that would mean.) What you actually did was interpret the reality of the rock by reading signs.

 When thinking about a natural physical object like a rock this all seems a bit silly – in fact it might make you question why philosophers get paid to think about such things. But if we think a little further we start to see the profundity of this view – especially when we think about human artifacts instead of rocks.

You see a building and on the building is sign that says “Restaurant.” Inside you expect to find a restaurant – but do you? You see tables and people sitting at them eating, but is every room that has tables with people eating at them a restaurant? It is a sign that this might be a restaurant, but it is only a sign. You look further you see waiters and cooks and a cash register where money is being exchanged for the meals that are being eaten. Now you have seen enough signs of a restaurant to conclude that in fact this is a restaurant. But where exactly do you find the restaurant? You see signs of a restaurant, but signs of a restaurant are not actually a restaurant – just like signs of a rock are not actually a rock.

A restaurant is not a building, or a room, or a collection of tables, or people eating and serving food in exchange for money. It is the aggregate of these objects and activities and many, many more. A restaurant is a “social reality.” (Only my most loyal readers will remember that weeks ago I started  a string of posts aimed at a comprehensive look at the idea of social reality – I needed to take a long divergent turn, but I am looping back again.) It is easier to see that a social reality like a restaurant is visible only as the interpretation of signs, but Peirce recognized that all reality is only known through the interpretation of signs.

According to Peirce we don’t experience reality; we only experience signs of reality. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a reality that exists, but we can never be completely certain that we have interpreted reality correctly because no matter how many signs we have seen we might see a next one that contradicts all the others and changes our interpretation of reality – our idea of what it is that the signs are pointing toward.

Peirce was one of the original creators of semantics – the science of signs – and his entire method of semiotics is based on the fact that everything is created from the interaction of three things: real objects, signs and interpretations of signs. He referred to these three aspects of reality as objects, signs and interpretents. If you have been following some of my earlier posts you might recognize that these relate to his conception of firstness, secondness and thirdness.