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The Intersection of Nature and Culture Essay

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Semiotics is a discipline which stems from the work and theories of American logician C. S. Peirce and the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The idiom originates from the Greek word seemeiootikee, which denotes the study of signs, what they represent and signify, and how human beings act, interact and think in their universe. This branch of learning and understanding can be best described as a system of many communication theories and techniques which can be viewed as pieces of a puzzle.

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When these fragments are connected and pieced together, they make visible, the intricate design of human interaction and interpersonal communication.

Semiotics lies intermediary between philosophy and philology and is nothing less than an objectification, or self-expression, or interpretation and the formation and comprehension of meaning. This area of study is a combination between scientific discipline and a world-view. Semiotics is an enormously broad approach to understanding such matters as meaning, cognition, culture, behavior, even life itself.

At the heart of this discipline lies the notion of sign. A sign, according to Charles S. Peirce, widely acknowledged to be one of the seminal thinkers about semiotics, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It is the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior and the analysis of systems of communication. These signs take the form of words, images, sounds, acts or objects, but have no genuine meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning- nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted and brings about some form of meaning.

Understanding semiology assists in the true understanding of one’s self, others, and how we view the world around us. Inherently, humans are reactors. Because it is human nature to act, or react toward people, items, and instances on the basis of preconceived meanings that have been assigned, it is beneficial to understand that each sign or symbol will have a different meaning to each individual it is presented to. Because of communication filters and barriers (which can also be signs and symbols) no message is ever received the exact way it is sent. (See Appendix A) Similarly, every sign encountered can be decoded and interpreted differently depending on preconceived notions, culture and personal experience. A signifier may induce many different interpretations of the signified (See Appendix B and D).

This theory of signs and symbolism is divided into branches including pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics. Pragmatics is the branch of semiotics which deals with the causal and other relations between words, expressions, or symbols and their users. It can be an analysis of language in terms of the situational context within which utterances are made, including the knowledge and beliefs of the speaker and the relation between speaker and listener. Semantics is the study of the relationship between words and meanings.

The field of semantics has three fundamental concerns: the relations of words to the objects denoted by them, the relations of words to the interpreters of them, and, in symbolic logic, the formal relations of signs to one another semantics is concerned with such issues as meaning and truth, meaning and thought, and the relation between signs and what they mean. Syntactics is the branch of semiotics dealing with the formal properties of language and systems of symbols. Innis proposes that, fundamentally these areas of thought deal with meanings and messages in all their forms and in all their contexts.

There are three ways in which the sign can stand for its object: as icon, index or symbol. An icon is a sign that stands for an object by resembling it, not merely visually, but by any means. An icon makes a connection by similitude. Included in this category of sign are obvious examples like pictures, maps and diagrams and some not so obvious ones like algebraic expressions and metaphors. Indexes refer to their objects, not by virtue of any similarity relation, but by an actual causal link between the sign and its object: smoke is an index of fire. The relation between the sign and its object is substantial in that the sign and object have something in common; that is, the object affects the sign.

It is physically connected to the object. Symbols refer to their objects by virtue of a law, rule or convention. Words, propositions and texts are obvious examples in that no similarity or causal link is suggested in the relation between, for example, the word “horse” and the object to which it refers. In this category especially the potential arbitrary character of signs comes to the foreground. If symbols need bear no similarity or causal link to their object, then the signs can be considered by the sign user in unlimited ways, independent of any physical relationship to the sign user. The convention between recognizing a sign and the meaning which is provoked is affected by perception and experience.

What appears to be a complex ideology is really very simple. Semiotics is everywhere, in every part of daily life. Humans recognize patterns of information and organize them to generate meaning. The sign is the signifier, and what speaks to us is the signified. We see a sign, internalize it, and create meaning. The Semantic Triangle, (Appendix E) shows the indirect relationship between symbols and their referents. Some signs are culturally universal and convey similar meaning in individuals (Appendix F). Some signs act as instructions or directions, and guide or restrict behaviors.

For instance, if a sign with a cigarette encompassed by a red circle and a bar through the middle is on display in a business it is understood that there is no smoking on the premises. This image has predetermined meaning. Some signs act as reminders. An image in of a young child in a magazine may serve as a sign for an aging mother and the signified may be a sense of sadness as her children have grown and moved on. The perception of meaning and the ability making sense out of the information that is being transmitted by these signs is an essential element of human communication.

The study and application of semiotics is the frame work for representing meaning. Reality is encoded with signs and symbols and life is but to decode and find meaning. We seem to be a species driven by a desire to make meaning: above all, we are surely “homo-significans” – meaning-makers within which ‘signs’ are meaningful units taking the form of words, images, sounds, acts or objects. Such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. And it is this meaning-making which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics.

The fact that humans can consume and interpret signs which are arbitrary and have no tangible existence in their immediate experience is what makes thought possible and is distinctly human. Ideas can be brought to mind and manipulated without being directly experienced. Meanings can be expressed in various ways, through a variety of sign systems: language, music, gesture and by many other vehicles. The meaning that is found within these signs creates the psychological and emotional environment we live in. Signs can also communicate ideological or connotative meaning, and perpetuate the dominant values of society.

Aristotle claimed that a thing either is or it isn’t. Semiotics is the arbitrator of this existence and because things can be decoded and deciphered differently by each individual, there is much grey area between the “is” and the “isn’t”. By being aware of the way we use and interpret signs and symbols, and understanding the effects of these things on communication and interaction we are increasing and recognizing cognitive complexity so as to better approximate the halftones of this symbolically mediated “real world”.

The meanings of signs and symbols are mediated by our experience and understanding of the world can never be the same for each person. Thomas Sebeok proposes that semiotics lies at the intersection of nature and culture. It is human nature to see and interpret signs but many of the signs we see are culturally adopted. However, we create our world of meaning by interpreting signs as we interact with objects in our environment and by personal experience.

Having an understanding of Semiotics and its branches can help one to better understand their own psyche, as interpreting and finding meaning has much to do with self-disclosure. It also brings an understanding of others into the framework. The concept of semiotics and the ability to comprehend the notions can become a fortunate thing and be advantageous to the ability to communicate interpersonally, connect on a deeper level, and interact with other people and the world around


Barthes, Elements of Semiology (1967); A. A. Berger, Signs in Contemporary

Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics (1988).

Buchler, J. (Ed.). (1955). Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover

Innis, R. (Ed.). Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana

University Press.1983

Sebeok, T. Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs.Lisse: Peter de Ridder Press.1976.

Unknown, Steps towards Evolutionary Semiotics. Semiotica 132, 3/4 (317-342).2000

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