Charles William Morris’s Writings on the General Theory of Signs

Charles William Morris’s Writings on the General Theory of Signs (1971) is an investigation of the syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic relations of linguistic and non-linguistic signs, and is an examination of the roles which various kinds of signs may play in influencing human behavior. Morris introduces a terminology with which to describe sign phenomena, and presents a theory of signs which defines signs as stimuli to patterns of behavior. Morris explains how ‘semiotic’ (the science of signs) may develop within the context of a science of behavior, and describes the role which semiotic may play in unifying biological, psychological, social, and humanistic sciences.

Morris describes the role which a science of signs may play in analyzing language as a social system of signs, and explains that language may be governed by syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic rules. Syntactic rules may determine which combinations of signs may function as grammatical statements. Semantic rules may determine the conditions under which signs may be applicable to objects or to situations. Pragmatic rules may determine the conditions under which sign-vehicles may function as signs. Morris describes the role which semiotics may play in the development of a theory of language, and explains that language may be defined not only by the rules which govern the combinations of its signs, but by the rules which govern the signification of its signs, and by the rules which govern the origin, uses, and effects of its signs.

Morris argues that language is a system of signs which produce dispositions to social behavior, and that in order to understand the uses and effects of signs we must understand the ways in which signs influence social behavior. Morris notes that the terms of ‘behaviorism’ may differ from those of ‘mentalism,’ in that behaviorist theory may argue that signs denote ‘responses’ or ‘dispositions to behavior’ while ‘mentalist’ theory may argue that signs denote ‘concepts’ or ‘ideas.’ However, he explains that his own theory of a behavioral semiotic is not an attempt to settle this controversy but is an attempt to provide a more accurate and precise terminology with which to develop a science of signs.1

Writings on the General Theory of Signs is a collection of some of Morris’s most important writings on semiotics and on the theory of language. Part One is Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938). Part Two is Signs, Language, and Behavior (1946). Part Three ("Five Semiotical Studies") includes the first chapter of Signification and Significance (1964).

Part One discusses the dimensions of ‘semiosis’ (the process by which a sign-vehicle may function as a sign). Part One also explains how semiotics may be used as a method of investigation by other sciences such as linguistics, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Part Two describes the relations between linguistic signs and social behavior, and discusses the criteria by which the adequacy, truth, and reliability of signs may be evaluated. Part Two also presents a classification of the modes of signifying of signs and of the primary uses of signs. Part Two also provides a classification of the major types of discourse according to their primary usages of signs and modes of signifying. Part Three examines the relation between semiotics and aesthetics, and describes aesthetics as a science of aesthetic signs. Part Three also examines the relation between aesthetic analysis and sign-analysis, and explains how works of art may function as aesthetic signs.

Morris divides semiotics into three interrelated sciences or disciplines: 1) syntactics (the study of the methods by which signs may be combined to form compound signs), 2) semantics (the study of the signification of signs), and 3) pragmatics (the study of the origins, uses, and effects of signs). 'Semiotic' is the study of 'semiosis,' which has syntactical, semantical, and pragmatical levels or dimensions.2 While the syntactical dimension of semiosis is governed by the relations which signs have with each other, the semantical dimension is governed by the relations which signs have to the objects or events which they signify, and the pragmatical dimension is governed by the relations which signs have to their producers and interpreters.

Morris argues that the four components of semiosis include: 1) the ‘sign vehicle’ (i.e. the object or event which functions as a sign), 2) the ‘designatum’ (i.e. the kind of object or class of objects which the sign designates), 3) the ‘interpretant’ (i.e. the disposition of an interpreter to initiate a response-sequence as a result of perceiving the sign), and 4) the ‘interpreter’ (i.e. the person for whom the sign-vehicle functions as a sign).

Morris explains that every sign must have a designatum, but that not every sign must have a ‘denotatum’ (i.e. an actually existing object or event which is denoted by the sign). If a sign denotes something, then it has a denotatum as well as a designatum. If a sign does not denote anything, then it has a designatum but does not have any denotata. Another way of saying this is that a sign must ‘designate’ something but may not ‘denote’ anything.3

Morris defines a sign as any preparatory-stimulus which produces a disposition in the interpreter of the sign to respond to something which is not at the moment a stimulus.4 A sign prepares its interpreter to initiate ‘response-sequences’ (i.e.consecutive responses) of a particular ‘behavior-family’ (i.e. those response-sequences which are caused by similar stimuli) in the absence of the kind of stimuli which would initiate response-sequences of that behavior-family. A sign may not always produce a response-sequence from its interpreter, but if it is an adequate sign, then it will produce a disposition in the interpreter to initiate the response-sequences which would occur if the object or event which is denoted by the sign were the actual stimulus.

Morris explains that there may be various ways of classifying signs according to their syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic uses. For example, signs may be divided into three kinds, according to the range of objects which they may denote: 1) ‘indexical signs’ each denote only a single actually existing object, 2) ‘characterizing signs’ each denote a plurality of actually existing objects, and 3) ‘universal signs’ each denote all actually existing objects. Signs may also be divided into two kinds, according to whether or not they themselves demonstrate the properties of their denotata: 1) ‘iconic signs’ demonstrate the properties of their denotata, but 2) ‘non-iconic signs’ do not demonstrate the properties of their denotata.5

Morris also explains that signs may be divided into two kinds, according to whether or not they may be interpreted to signify other signs: 1) ‘signals’ are not interpreted to signify other signs, but 2) ‘symbols’ are interpreted to signify other signs. Morris argues that all signs are either ‘signals’ or ‘symbols.’ ‘Signals’ are not used as substitutes for synonymous signs, but ‘symbols’ may be used as substitutes for synonymous signs.6

Morris defines the ‘significatum’ (i.e. signification) of a sign as the set of conditions under which the sign denotes something.7 If a sign denotes something, then the response-sequences to which the interpreter is disposed by perceiving the sign may be completed by the interpreter. Sign-vehicles which have the same ‘signficata’ belong to the same ‘sign-family.’8 Each member of a sign-family may prepare the interpreter to initiate the same response-sequences to denotata, since each sign has the same signification.

Morris also explains that a sign which has more than one signification may belong to more than one sign-family. The degree of synonymity between different signs or sign-families may be determined by the degree of similarity in their signification. Signs which are similar in their conditions of denotation are similar in their significata (or in their signification).

Morris argues that a language is a system of simple and compound signs which have interpersonal and plurisituational signification (i.e conditions of denotation which are the same for a number of interpreters and which remain relatively constant from situation to situation). Language-signs (or ‘lansigns’) must include some ‘comsigns’ (i.e. signs which have the same significata for producers as for interpreters).9 Comsigns may be divided into two kinds: 1) ‘comsignals’ (i.e. comsigns which do not act as substitutes for other comsigns), and 2) ‘comsymbols’ (i.e. comsigns which may act as substitutes for other comsigns).10 Comsigns may vary in the extent to which their significata are the same for their interpreters as for their producers.

Morris avoids using the term ‘meaning’ as a synonym for ‘signification,’ because he says that ‘meaning’ is an ambiguous term, and that it may be used to refer to designata, denotata, interpretants, or significata.11 Various sign-processes may constitute the ‘meaning’ of signs, and thus it may be necessary to use more specific terms in order to define the components of semiosis.

Morris contends that the ‘modes of signifying’ of a sign may be either: 1) 'identificative,' 2) 'designative,' 3) 'appraisive,' 4) 'prescriptive,' or 5) 'formative.' The kinds of signs which correspond to these modes of signifying may be described as: 1) ‘identifiors,’ 2) ‘designators,’ 3) ‘appraisors,’ 4) ‘prescriptors,’ and 5) ‘formators.’12 ‘Identifiors’ are signs which signify ‘locata’ (i.e. the location of objects in space or time). ‘Designators’ are signs which signify ‘discriminata’ (i.e. characteristics or stimulus-properties of objects). ‘Appraisors’ are signs which signify ‘valuata’ (i.e. preferred objects or situations). ‘Prescriptors’ are signs which signify ‘obligata’ (i.e. responses which are required of the interpreter). ‘Formators’ are signs which signify ‘formata’ (i.e. methods by which signs may be combined to form compound signs).

Morris explains that ‘ascriptors’ are sign-complexes which identify significata, and which signify something about significata. Ascriptors may be divided into four main kinds, according to their primary mode of signifying. ‘Designative ascriptors’ are sign-complexes which consist of identifiors and designators. ‘Appraisive ascriptors’ are sign-complexes which consist of identifiors and appraisors. ‘Prescriptive ascriptors’ are sign-complexes which consist of identifiors and prescriptors. ‘Formative ascriptors’ are sign-complexes which consist of identifiors and formators.

Morris argues that the four primary usages of signs are: 1) ‘informative,’ 2) ‘valuative,’ 3) ‘incitive,’ and 4) ‘systemic’ (i.e. organizational). Designators have primarily ‘informative’ functions, appraisors have primarily ‘valuative’ functions, prescriptors have primarily ‘incitive’ functions, and formators have primarily ‘systemic’ functions.

Morris provides a classification table of the major types of discourse, according to their primary mode of signifying and according to their primary usage of signs. The classification table illustrates that each of the four primary modes of signifying may be paired with each of the four primary uses of signs to yield sixteen major types of discourse. These types of discourse may be described as follows: 1) ‘scientific’ discourse may be primarily designative in mode and informative in use, 2) ‘fictive’ discourse may be primarily designative in mode and valuative in use, 3) ‘legal’ discourse may be primarily designative in mode and incitive in use, 4) ‘cosmological’ discourse may be primarily designative in mode and systemic in use, 5) ‘mythical’ discourse may be primarily appraisive in mode and informative in use, 6) ‘poetic’ discourse may be primarily appraisive in mode and valuative in use, 7) ‘moral’ discourse may be primarily appraisive in mode and incitive in use, 8) ‘critical’ discourse may be primarily appraisive in mode and systemic in use, 9) ‘technological’ discourse may be primarily prescriptive in mode and informative in use, 10) ‘political’ discourse may be primarily prescriptive in mode and valuative in use, 11) ‘religious’ discourse may be primarily prescriptive in mode and incitive in use, 12) ‘propagandistic’ discourse may be primarily prescriptive in mode and systemic in use, 13, ‘logico-mathematical’ discourse may be primarily formative in mode and informative in use, 14) ‘rhetorical’ discourse may be primarily formative in mode and valuative in use, 15) ‘grammatical’ discourse may be primarily formative in mode and incitive in use, and 16) ‘metaphysical’ discourse may be primarily formative in mode and systemic in use.

Morris argues that the truth of signs may be determined by whether they have denotata, and that the adequacy of signs may be determined by whether they achieve the purposes for which they are used.13 The truth of signs is not the same as their adequacy, since signs which are true may be inadequate for some purposes while signs which are false may be adequate for some purposes.

Morris also argues that the adequacy of signs may be divided into four kinds, according to the purposes for which signs are used: 1) ‘informative’ adequacy may be described as ‘convincingness,’ 2) ‘valuative’ adequacy may be described as ‘effectiveness,’ 3) ‘incitive’ adequacy may be described as ‘persuasiveness,’ and 4) ‘systemic’ adequacy may be described as ‘correctness.’14 Signs which are convincing in some respects may be unconvincing in other respects, and signs which are persuasive in some respects may be unpersuasive in other respects.

Morris explains that the adequacy of signs may often depend on their reliability, since signs must be reliable if they are to consistently achieve the purposes for which they are used. The reliability of signs may be determined by how often they are true and by how similar in signification they are to other true signs. Signs which are similar in signification to false signs may be less reliable than signs which are similar in signification to true signs.


FOOTNOTES

1Charles Morris, Writings on the General Theory of Signs (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p.103.
2Ibid., p. 21.
3Ibid., p. 416.
4Ibid., p. 366.
5Ibid., p. 362.
6Ibid., p. 366-7
7Ibid., p. 144.
8Ibid., p. 96.
9Ibid., p. 113.
10Ibid., p. 361.
11Ibid., p. 55.
12Ibid., p. 364.
13Ibid., p. 173.
14Ibid., p. 176.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Morris, Charles. Writings on the General Theory of Signs. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

Copywright© Alex Scott 2004

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