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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary

Interpretant

José Augusto Mourão

All interpretants are signs, and all signs are interpretants. Both the object and the interpretant are part of the sign (or representation process): the latter may only be defined in its relation with the object and the interpretant.

Keywords: sign; text; language

The interpretant theory is the longest – as well as the most innovative – part of the Peircean sign theory. Its pragmatism and theory of method (formal, rhetorical, methodeutical) fit in Peirce’s interpretant concept, and many other aspects of his philosophy including the philosophy of science are very closely related to it . Peirce used the term “interpretant” for the first time in 1866 (W 1: 464-5). It was already used in his study “on a new list of categories” (1867). The division of interpretants into immediate, dynamic and final came much later (1904). This is still an abstract possibility of interpretation: “It is an abstraction consisting in a possibility” (SS, p. 111). “The Immediate interpretant consists in the quality of the imprint a Sign is apt to produce, and is not related to any actual reaction” (8.315). “The immediate interpretant is evidently objectively related to the nature of the first phenomenological category (firstness). The dynamic interpretant is the effect that is actually produced in the mind by the sign (8.343). A dynamic interpretant is any interpretation of the Sign which is actually made by any mind. It derives from it being a dyadic category – the category of action. “The meaning of any Sign to anybody consists in the way he/she reacts to the Sign” (8.315). The dynamic interpretant corresponds to what one may call the specific meaning of the sign. The final interpretant is the effect produced on a mind by the Sign under circumstances that would allow it to extroject its full effect (SS, p. 110). “My Final interpretant is the interpretative result all interpreters are destined to get to if the Sign is duly considered...). The Final interpretant is what the real tends to” (SS, p. 111). The Final interpretant should be seen as an ideal, yet unreachable, limit to which dynamic interpretants tend .
  For something to function as a sign of something the sign must have an interpretant. Peirce’s contribution to the problem of interpretation was determinant: a) the significant relation always involves three terms: “A Sign, or Representamen, is the first one, which has such a real triadic relation to the second one, known as its Object, that it is able to determine a third one, known as its Interpretant, so that the latter may take on the same triadic relation in the eyes of the said Object as the one between Sign and Object” (2.274). In broad terms, the Interpretant is the sign’s meaning; narrowed down, it is the paradigmatic relation between one sign and the other: hence, the interpretant is always a sign, which will have its interpretant, etc.; b) Peirce acknowledges the diversity of signs and their irreducibility to the functioning of the linguistic sign. This can be seen as collaboration between three instances: the object, the sign as such and the interpretant. In other words, that which is represented, that which it represents (the representamen) and the mediation operated between sign and object. Crossing different criteria, Peirce distinguishes 66 varieties of signs. Some distinctions have become commonplace: type and token or legisign and sinsign, as well icon, index and symbol.
  All interpretants are signs, and all signs are interpretants. Both the object and the interpretant are part of the sign (or representation process): the latter may only be defined in its relation with the object and the interpretant. “A sign is addressed to someone, i.e., it creates an equivalent Sign in that person’s mind (...). I call Interpretant the Sign s/he creates” (2.228). Interpretant and interpreter should not be mistaken. The interpretant is an objective property inherent to the sign, a general logical type, whether there is any interpretative act regarding it or not. The interpretant’s future is an effect of the sign as such: it does not depend on a subjective act of interpretation. “The interpretant is nothing but another representation” (1.339). The interpreter is the specific individual engaged in the semiotic processes; the interlocutor when there is communication. A sign, by definition, is not the object: its relation to a possible object demands its interpretation. The interpretant is thus the instrument used by the interpreter in interpretation. It may be the meaning he gives to a road sign, the connotations he associates to a specific sign, the acknowledgement of iconic traces, the reference to a member of the wine bottle class, in the case of an ostensive sign, in which the guest shows the butler his empty bottle. If different interpreters operate different interpretations of the same sign, it is because they mobilise different interpretants. In fact, it is possible to find several interpretants for the same sign: it is resorting to separate interpretants which makes it possible for a score to be read in silence, sung or performed by instruments. The interpretant is therefore dynamic. The interpretant is at the same time the end result of an experience and an action: it is about making connections between objects and signs. In an index, for instance, the interpretant is the relation between the visual perception of a wet round stain on a table and the fact that a wineglass was on this table before. Yet the interpretant may be a general law that becomes so through induction (Newton, as he enunciated the law of gravity from his observation of falling apples), our explanation of a phenomenon. It may be a gesture or a bodily attitude (“Lay down arms!”). In a semiotic theory which mobilises the notion of interpretant, the meaning of a sign is not just a simple return within a closed system; it is the sign’s action on the interpreter. One may also say the interpretant is dynamic because the interpretation process is, in principle, unlimited. To understand this, one needs only see that the interpretant of a sign may always be described as another sign. The meaning of a word in a dictionary is a sign; that of a sign on the Highway Code is another sign. A bodily attitude in response to an order is a sign (through “submission”, for instance), as is a score or the formula of a law of physics. If a sign’s interpretant is another sign, the latter will in turn have an interpretant, which is itself a sign, and so one and the same object may be analysed according to different interpretations, allowing for new or contradictory interpretations. Although the chain of interpretants is unlimited in principle, in practice it is frequently interrupted. The function of a habit is to fixate, and therefore interrupt, the chain of interpretants – a triangle on the hard shoulder on a road does not allow for new or contradictory interpretations.

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