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Steven Skaggs :
TUT: Specificity;
Tue, 18 Jun 1996 05:38:23 -0400

As we seem to have reached a temporary lull in the discussion, I thought I
might try to see how the terminology looks when considered from the
standpoint of how 'specific' an interpretation is. Gary Shank and I wrote
an article for ZED last summer that deals with these issues. I want to post
the article some place, but there are so many diagrams and images that it
makes it difficult to handle in cyberspace. (However, some of the diagrams
posted on my web site deal with this stuff, so you might check it out).

Gary and I began to notice that if we looked at Saussurian and Peircian
approaches as being about code systems and inference respectively, that
while the terminologies seemed incommensurate, there were shared

One of these common areas was the concept of specificity. Highly specific
interpretations are often called 'denotation' from a Saussurian
perspective; 'deduction' from a Peircian perspective. Loose interpretations
are 'connotations' and 'synthetic' (abductive and inductive) inferences.

As we began to look at the notion of specificity, we began to see more
interesting things. For one thing, we can imagine a line extending from the
most specific thing possible, in which the denotation is complete, absolute
and certain  --  and extending at the other extreme to a point at which
such complete generality prevails that no mediated sign action occurs at


The point of total certainty is the 'absolute interpretant'. The point of
complete generality is the threshold of semiosis. The line between these
points is the semiosic field in which all interpretation occurs.

Now these points - Absolute and Threshold - are limits. That means that the
field extends toward them without actually achieving them. Derrida is right
that there is no transcendental signified: one doesn't get to an absolute
interpretant. There is always some generality involved.

There are many intriguing questions and ideas that spring from this very
simple concept. One of these is that Peirce's categories - Firstness,
Secondness, Thirdness - seem to be suggested. The line represents the range
of activity within Thirdness (which of course it would be if it represents
all sign action). Firstness would seem to be the region beyond the
Threshold. Secondness the region beyond the Absolute...

Another interesting feature is that since the absolute interpretant might
be considered a member of the set of all possible interpretants, it is
strangely a part of the threshold. I can't begin to draw that here, but
look at the diagrams on my web site that show the 'folded horn' to see what
that idea looks like.

There are many more insights and controversies that get stirred up with
this perspective (not the least of which is that it appears to treat
interpretations in a peculiarly concrete way), but let me just share very
practical way it comes into play. I teach graphic designers, whom, one
presumes, are striving to embark on a career of crafting visual messages.
It used to be taught that good graphic design is 'efficient'. Using the
model of information theory in its most simple Shannon-Weaver form, the
concept of noise represented anything that would keep a particular signal
from being received 'whole and intact'. In other words, the 'good' graphic
design is a plan that allows maximum precision.

Contrary to that position, specificity work shows that as an interpretation
becomes more general it also has a larger number of potential referents.
One of the results of that is that metaphor, symbolism and analogy begin to
work more strongly, and that is often a good thing. So one of the primary
decisions that a designer needs to make is to decide how specific to make
the message, even if that requires making it 'less efficient'.

Well, I apologize for not bringing more of a terminological slant to this
note, even though I'd originally intended for it to do so. Next time...

To check out the diagrams:
Steven Skaggs

>> McCarthy: "Even machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have
<< Searle: "What beliefs does your thermostat have?"
>> McCarthy: "My thermostat has three beliefs - it is too hot in here, it
>>is too cold in here, and it is just right in here."

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