Charles William Morris (1901-1979) was an American philosopher who was born in Denver, Colorado. He studied at Northwestern University and at the University of Chicago. He taught philosophy at Rice University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Florida. He died in Gainesville, Florida in 1979. His writings included Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938), Signs, Language and Behavior (1946), The Open Self (1948), Signification and Significance (1963), and Writings on the General Theory of Signs (1971).
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 that various kinds of signs may play in influencing human behavior. Morris introduces a terminology with which to describe sign phenomena, and he presents a theory of signs that defines signs as stimuli to patterns of behavior. He explains how "semiotic" (the science of signs) may develop within the context of a science of behavior, and he describes the role that it may play in unifying the biological, psychological, social, and humanistic sciences.
In examining the role that a science of signs may play in the analysis of language as a social system of signs, Morris explains that language may be governed by syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic rules. Syntactic rules may determine the combinations of signs that function as grammatical statements. Semantic rules may determine the conditions under which signs signify objects or events. Pragmatic rules may determine the conditions under which sign vehicles function as signs. Morris discusses the role that semiotics may play in the development of a theory of language, and he explains that language may be defined not only by the rules that govern the combinations of its signs, but also by the rules that govern the signification of its signs, and by the rules that govern the origin, uses, and effects of its signs.
According to Morris, language is a system of signs that produce dispositions to social behavior. In order to understand the uses and effects of signs, we must understand the ways in which signs influence social behavior. The terms of behaviorism may differ from those of "mentalism," because behaviorist theory may hold that signs denote "responses" or "dispositions to behavior," while mentalist theory may hold that signs denote "concepts" or "ideas." However, Morris explains that his own theory of a behavioral semiotic is not an attempt to reconcile behaviorism and mentalism, but rather 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 the philosophy of language. Part One consists of Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938), Part Two consists of Signs, Language, and Behavior (1946), and Part Three ("Five Semiotical Studies") consists of the first chapter of Signification and Significance (1964), and four other studies, "Esthetics and the Theory of Signs," "Signs about Signs about Signs," "Mysticism and its Language," and "Man Cosmos Symbols."
Part One discusses the dimensions of "semiosis" (the process by which a sign vehicle functions 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 examines 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 and primary uses of signs. Part Two also provides a classification of the modes of discourse, according to their primary usages of signs and modes of signifying. Part Three examines the relation between semiotics and aesthetics, and defines aesthetics as a science of aesthetic signs. Part Three also examines the relation between aesthetic analysis and sign analysis, and describes the ways in which 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 dimensions.2 While the syntactic dimension of semiosis is governed by the relations that signs have to one another, the semantic dimension is governed by the relations that signs have to the objects or events that they signify, and the pragmatic dimension is governed by the relations that signs have to their producers and interpreters.
Morris explains that the four components of semiosis include: (1) the "sign vehicle" (the object or event which functions as a sign), (2) the "designatum" (the kind of object or class of objects that the sign designates), (3) the "interpretant" (the disposition of an interpreter to initiate a response sequence as a result of perceiving the sign), and (4) the "interpreter" (the person for whom the sign vehicle functions as a sign).
Every sign must have a designatum, but not every sign must have a denotatum (an actually existing object or event that 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 not any denotata. Another way of saying this is that a sign must "designate" something, but does not have to "denote" anything.3
Morris defines a sign as any preparatory stimulus that produces a disposition in the interpreter to respond to something that is not at the moment a stimulus.4 A sign prepares its interpreter to initiate "response sequences" (consecutive responses) of a particular "behavior family" (those response sequences that are caused by similar stimuli), in the absence of the kind of stimuli that would be expected to 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 that would occur if the object or event that is denoted by the sign were the actual stimulus.
There may be several 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 that they denote. Each "indexical sign" denotes a single actually existing object, each "characterizing sign" denotes a plurality of actually existing objects, and each "universal sign" denotes all actually existing objects. Signs may also be divided into two kinds, according to whether they demonstrate the properties of their denotata: "iconic signs" demonstrate the properties of their denotata, but "non-iconic signs" do not.5
Signs may also be divided into two kinds, according to whether or not they may be interpreted to signify other signs. "Signals" are not interpreted to signify other signs, but "symbols" are interpreted to signify other signs. All signs are either signals or symbols, says Morris. Signals may not be used as substitutes for synonymous signs, but symbols may be used as substitutes for synonymous signs.6
Morris defines the significatum (or 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 that have the same significata belong to the same sign family.8 Each member of a sign family prepares the interpreter to initiate the same response sequences to its denotatum or denotata, since each sign has the same signification.
A sign that 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 that are similar in their conditions of denotation are also similar in their significata (or signification).
According to Morris, a language is a system of simple and compound signs that have interpersonal and plurisituational signification (conditions of denotation that are the same for a variety of interpreters, and that remain relatively constant from situation to situation). Language signs ("lansigns") must include some "comsigns" (signs that have the same significata for producers as for interpreters).9 Comsigns may be divided into two kinds: "comsignals" (comsigns that do not act as substitutes for other comsigns), and "comsymbols" (comsigns that 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," since he considers it to be an ambiguous term that may be used to refer to designata, denotata, interpretants, or significata.11 Various sign processes may define the "meaning" of signs, and avoidance of ambiguity may therefore require that we use more specific terms to define the components of semiosis.
The modes of signifying of a sign may be (1) identificative, (2) designative, (3) appraisive, (4) prescriptive, or (5) formative. The kinds of signs that correspond to these modes of signifying may be called (1) identifiors, (2) designators, (3) appraisors, (4) prescriptors, and (5) formators.12 Identifiors are signs that signify locata (the location of objects in space or time). Designators are signs that signify discriminata (characteristics or stimulus properties of objects). Appraisors are signs that signify valuata (preferred objects or situations). Prescriptors are signs that signify obligata (responses that are required of the interpreter). Formators are signs that signify formata (methods by which signs may be combined to form compound signs).
Ascriptors are sign complexes that identify and signify something about significata. They may be divided into four main kinds, according to their primary mode of signifying: (1) designative ascriptors (complexes of identifiors and designators), (2) appraisive ascriptors (complexes of identifiors and appraisors), (3) prescriptive ascriptors (complexes of identifiors and prescriptors), and (4) formative ascriptors (complexes of identifiors and formators).
The four primary usages of signs are: (1) "informative," (2) "valuative," (3) "incitive," and (4) "systemic" (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 their primary usage of signs. The 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 types of discourse. These types 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.
The truth of signs may be determined by whether they have denotata, and 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 true signs may be inadequate for some purposes and false signs may be adequate for some purposes.
The adequacy of signs, says Morris, 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 that are convincing in some respects may be unconvincing in other respects, and signs that are persuasive in some respects may be unpersuasive in other respects.
The adequacy of signs may often depend on their reliability, since they 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 that are similar in signification to false signs may be less reliable than signs that are similar in signification to true signs.
Morris, Charles. Writings on the General Theory of Signs. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.