The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) is perhaps best known for his semiotics (or ‘theory of signs’). For Peirce, meaning arises through the formation of relationships between the elements of a sign, providing a spectrum of infinitely nuanced kinds of meaning. The elements of a sign, according to Peirce, are the sign itself (i.e. its material form, also referred to as the ‘sign-vehicle’, in order to avoid confusion); the object that it signifies (regardless of whether this is abstract, hypothetical, or something available to perception); and the interpretant.
It is this latter element that gives Peirce’s theory its uniqueness and strength. The interpretant is the effect upon a person by the object via the sign. If this sounds tautological, to a certain extent it is. Indeed, Peirce points out that the interpretant itself is actually another sign, with its very own object and (potentially) a subsequent interpretant. This explains why one thought always tends to lead to yet another. To give a more concrete example, it also describes how a strange shape in the sky can act as a sign-vehicle, creating an interpretant in a witness in the form of a shout of ‘Aliens!’, which in turn – as a new sign-vehicle in itself – causes everyone in the street to look upwards, etc., etc. Peirce’s semiotics enables us to see that meaning is an indeterminate, potentially endless process. What is also crucial here, however, is the notion of signs having effects, of meaning as an embodiment, a manifestation, a change wrought upon someone by their coming into some type of relationship with a sign-vehicle.
Peirce’s theory is an important contribution to the history of ideas. I thoroughly recommend it. But I am about to mix it up with other models and riff off of it something rotten, and I would not wish anyone to confuse what follows with anything that Peirce himself wrote.
Recently, the Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has turned his mind to what he calls ‘Integral Semiotics’ (Wilber, 2013). This is an interesting project that situates meaning itself within Wilber’s model of all phenomena, that gloriously baggy and inclusive amalgamation of quadrants, stages, states, levels and lines. Although Wilber seems to accomplish his stated task of describing the ‘Kosmic address’ of many different types of signs and referents, it seemed to me that all the types of signs he discusses are signs in the same way, even though they occupy different positions within his model and point to different objects.
By combining Peirce’s theory of the sign with Wilber’s model of the states of human consciousness, it seems possible to formulate and situate not simply a range of different signs and referents, a range of different meanings, but also a range of fundamentally different processes by which meaning is made.
The first three of these are common in everyday cognition, and are those most frequently described in the works of Peirce himself.
First, we have the simplest form of sign, which Peirce named an icon. The icon signifies its object by virtue of the fact that it appears in some respect the same as its object. For example, a portrait signifies its subject to the extent that it visually resembles its subject. Because icons are so close in their perceptual manifestation to their object, they are perilously close to literalism. For instance, a gesture we might make to signify ‘milking a cow’ is likely to be almost the same as actually milking a cow; or the sound of a peacock that we might imitate in order to signify ‘peacock’ might be accurate enough to be virtually indistinguishable from the sound of the peacock itself. (As these examples suggest, not all icons are visual.)
The icon is so simple that it occurs spontaneously and prolifically in nature. There are many instances of plants or animals making use of certain colours, shapes or sounds to pass themselves off as something other than what they are. By looking or sounding or smelling like something else, they create an effect upon other animals as if that something else were actually present. For example: those yellow and black-striped midges, which look like wasps, but are actually harmless. This colouring may be unwilled or unconscious on the midge’s part, but it has nevertheless effected change upon the world through an appearance that creates the impression of the immediate presence of the thing initiated by the appearance. Example: someone scared of wasps ends up running away instead from a midge.
Peirce’s second type of sign is the index, which is slightly more sophisticated in that it signifies not what is immediately present, but what may be elsewhere, or which has not yet come to be. The classic example of an index are footprints in the sand, indicating the presence of another person on the desert island. The footprints do not look like the person; they do not resemble the person in any way. An index is, instead, an existential marker. In the absence of the object itself, the index signifies its presence, nevertheless, elsewhere in space or time. An arrow on a motorway sign is another classic index, signifying that although the turning is not here, nevertheless it exists further down the road.
Indices, too, are simple enough to arise in nature. Causality is often sufficient to lay down indices. For example, back in my schooldays, we all knew that a cirque or morraine is a sure index of the passage of a glacier in the distant past. It requires even less expertise to recognise a large thundercloud as a future-oriented index to a storm that is not here now, but will be soon.
Signs take a quantum leap at Peirce’s next stage, the symbol. These do not arise in nature, but seem to be associated with consciousness. Imagine if the only signs at our disposal were things that resembled their objects, or things that pointed to where or when their objects were. If that were the case, we would not be able to imagine it being a case – or be able to imagine anything very much at all.
The most prevalent instance of a symbol is the word. A word looks nothing like its object (except for the word ‘word’, which does indeed look identical to a word). And a word has no causal or existential connection with its object (unless we lend credence to the superstitious saying, ‘Speak of the Devil and he will appear’).
Earlier, we mentioned Peirce’s notion of the interpretant – the effect of the sign upon the person who encounters it. In the case of the icon, the effect is the impact of something perceptually similar to the object. In the case of the index, the effect is the impact of an existential trace of the object. In the case of the symbol, however, the effect is the impact of culture: the influence within us of a consensus that the sign-vehicle refers to the object. In other words, a symbol points to its object because we know that is what it points to. We know, because we have been taught.
These three varieties of sign are Peirce’s fundamental types, but they equip us with some profound and powerful ideas. Yet it is important not to over-simplify this model, because ‘pure’ examples of these types of signs are actually quite elusive. Take the arrow by the roadside, for instance. Although footprints and thunderclouds may arise in nature, arrows do not. It is only a human convention that decrees that arrows signify motion in a particular direction. In other words, many of our so-called ‘indices’ actually have a distinct aroma of ‘symbol’ wafting from them. Likewise, the so-called ‘icons’ on our computer desktops. Sure, they are a visual representation of their object, but that object is something quite abstract, so it is actually a symbol doing most of the icon’s work.
Signs occur in nature – or rather we can read as signs certain processes within nature. Some might argue, for instance, that DNA works as a kind of naturally occurring symbol, but – in my opinion – this is pushing the idea too far. As soon as we reach the threshold of a symbol, it seems there has to be a mind involved. Activity on a physical level, no matter how complex, will not fit the bill. Living organisms can evolve to resemble other things, and physical process can put down traces of themselves – both of these without needing anyone to be around to recognise them as such – but for us to describe these processes as constituting an ‘icon’ or ‘index’ then there has to be a mind to which this analogy occurs. To see a tiger’s tracks, or the red colouring of an insect, yet to think ‘this is a sign’, is a symbolic process. In order for any kind of symbol to get off the ground, there needs to be a mind in which the sign-vehicle (‘tiger track’, ‘red marking’) and its object (the concept of ‘icon’ or ‘index’) can be brought into conjunction. A symbol has an effect only where there is a mind.
I am purposely avoiding the idea that it needs to be a human mind, because it seems possible to teach animals and to program machines to recognise and use symbols. Research with chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins and other species, suggests that some non-humans are capable of understanding and using symbols. What is less clear, however, is whether animals are capable of the creative use of signs that comes so naturally to humans even in early childhood.
Peirce regarded meaning primarily in terms of its effect, so it might have seemed to him justified to regard a computer as a symbol-using entity, because of the way the machine’s software can change in response to the contingencies it has been programmed to recognise. But again, the symbolic inventiveness that comes naturally to humans, giving us notions such as ‘humour’, ‘lucidity’ or ‘style’, still seems very challenging to replicate in a cybernetic context.
We cannot rule out revolutionary breakthroughs in computer science and animal linguistics, but we might still harbour an impression that signs – symbols, especially – demarcate an arena that is peculiarly human. The home we make for ourselves on this planet, in which we feel uniquely comfortable, is a world furnished largely with signs.
Signs and the growth of the psyche
A working definition of mind that I find useful is ‘that which connects us to our experience’. It is a definition put to use quite frequently in the field of psychoanalysis. Freud was the first to suggest that trauma is what happens when extreme experiences impact upon us, without us having the necessary mental equipment to process them (Freud, 1920: 275). An experience the mind is unable to represent simply tends to re-occur in the same form, over and over. Post-traumatic stress disorder might be conceived of as the re-enactment in the body of experiences the mind has failed to contain. To the extent we have a sense of owning and understanding our experience, the mind has processed the experience into thoughts, feelings, memories, knowledge or ideas. A damaged or undeveloped mind is one that lacks this capacity. On the other hand, as Michael Eigen suggests (paraphrasing Wilfred Bion), ‘a central task of humankind is to grow a psyche capable of sustaining the evolution of new places of interaction of diverse terms of experience’ (Eigen, 2005: 58). In other words, the most healthy and developed mind is the one that is capable of making all sorts of links with experience in as many different registers as possible.
We saw earlier how icons and indices are types of sign with precursors in the natural world. A symbol, however, possess no perceptual or causal linkage between its sign-vehicle and its object. It stands for something only because there is a cultural convention that that is what it stands for. The only entity currently known to be capable of linking an experience to an idea through a cultural convention, is the human mind. Once we leave behind the domain of ‘natural’ icons and indices for the realm of the symbol, we have entered the mental realm. It is now no longer the material configuration of the sign-vehicle, nor its existential relationship to the object, which determines exclusively the process through which meaning arises. At this level onwards it is the operations of the mind that determine how meaning is produced. The function of the mind is to link experiences to awareness by building new structures to contain them – words, perceptual images, memories, thoughts, etc. The more developed the mind, the greater its repertoire of structures, and the greater its awareness of these as structures, and of its own activities as a process.
This last point addresses a difficulty in defining the mind as that which represents or links experiences. Who or what does it represent them for and to? It is in response to this conundrum that Buddhist psychology distinguishes itself from the Western view, and regards mind simply as a sense (the sense that enables us to discern ‘inner’ processes, such as feelings, thoughts, etc.) rather than as an irrefutable subject, the Cartesian ego, to whom our experience is offered.
The sense of being someone, the sense of owning or mastering our experience and the representations thrown up by ‘our’ mind, is itself simply another one of those structures the mind uses to link with and process experience. The impression that ‘this right now’ is ‘something happening to someone’ is a structure with immense utility as a survival mechanism, thrown up by the mind in response to experience, perhaps even acquired innately through blind Darwinian selection processes.
Despite appearances to the contrary, occasioned by poor levels of understanding both within and between science and religion, Darwinian selection and the teachings of the world’s great spiritual traditions are capable of sitting happily side-by-side. The practices of esoteric traditions – such as meditation, prayer, the cultivation of compassion and selflessness, etc. – were specifically designed to expose the sense of self as a mental structure (a notion that science has little argument with), and to open the way to transpersonal states of consciousness.
These are experiences that arise when ‘the sense of self as a mental structure’ ceases to be an idea (which is itself an instance of a mental structure) but becomes instead a direct, lived experience. A useful analogy is the way that many of us reach a point when losing our virginity ceases to be an idea and becomes a direct experience. Our ideas may have described or prepared us for this experience, but otherwise they will bear little comparison. When transpersonal experiences arise, the mind will most likely offer up further mental structures to represent these experiences. The transpersonal experience is integrated by the mind’s creation of a structure to link it with. At first, such experiences may seem singular and outlandish. With time and repetition, they tend to settle into recognisable registers. These form the basis for new modes of apprehending experience, new ways of making meaning from the reality in which the mind finds itself, a reality in which it grows towards recognising its own processes as processes, rather than as the possession of a self somehow apart from experience.
I would suggest that the first of these transpersonal registers is the vision. It is similar to the symbol, but differs in a crucial respect. Whereas a symbol allows linkage of a sign-vehicle to its object through cultural convention, the vision invents a convention of its own.
The means of inventing a convention may vary. Usually, some form of imaginative activity will be involved. Fundamentally, a visionary uses his or her imagination to link concepts in novel or different ways from the consensus. In computer science, for example, the inventors of the graphical user interface are now lauded as ‘visionaries’. What they accomplished was a work of imagination, conceiving new metaphors that could be applied to communicating with computers. They replaced the previous idea of ‘commanding’ the computer with a new metaphor of a desktop-like ‘space’, on which data – represented as ‘objects’ – could be picked up, moved around and worked upon.
Another example of a vision, from the field of art, is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the infamous signed urinal banned from the exhibition to which he submitted it in 1917. It is visionary because Fountain left behind the idea of art as artefact and opened up a new arena in which found objects, concepts, or the context of an object could all be understood as art. Formerly the consensus was that art consisted of objects made by trained artists. But to understand what Fountain signifies, as a work of art, then the consensus that art = artefact must be set aside. In this sense, it surpasses a symbol and fulfils the criteria of a vision.
However, visions are vulnerable to reincorporation by the consensus they override. Duchamp’s Fountain functions now as a symbol for modern art in general. Likewise, the innovations of computer pioneers are adopted as the universal platform on which future developments are built. A vision that is commonly understood is useful as a means of describing what a vision is, but the point at which it becomes readily comprehensible is where it has already lost its unique aspect. A vision that is easily understandable is one already digested by the consensus and which therefore symbolises something, rather than gesturing towards the new or unknown.
The prophetic books of William Blake, on the other hand, have retained their visionary significance over the course of two hundred years. These are a series of illustrated poems that dramatise Blake’s spiritual ideas through a cast of mythological characters. These figures, the conflicts they enact, the principles they embody, are the products of Blake’s imagination, described by some as amounting to a ‘personal mythos’. The way Blake interprets experience is still widely at odds with the modern consensus, although in some respects he is closer to it than he was to that of the times through which he lived. Certainly, it is possible to read Blake’s characters as symbolic manifestations of various psychological principles and processes, but the only source for understanding them on their own terms is still Blake.
If we consider Blake’s prophetic books in comparison with other works in the epic tradition, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost, these re-work mythological themes and figures from the established traditions of Christianity and classical antiquity. The imagination of Dante and Milton enables them to transform these themes into something unique, yet they abide very much in a relationship to the traditions within which they positioned themselves. Blake’s work, although of smaller scope in many regards, is greater in others, because of the way he imagines ‘from the bottom up’. Instead of placing himself inside a tradition and looking out from it upon experience, he attempts instead to build a new tradition of his own, and in the process thoroughly re-imagines the world.
But a word of caution is in order. In a vision, the consensus is re-imagined in order to allow new meaning to flow. Yet there are two other possibilities that may only produce the appearance of this: (1) that the consensus is not being re-imagined but bypassed, in which case the product will be nonsense; or (2) that the consensus is being denied, or that one simply lacks the mental equipment to hold to the consensus in the first place, in which case the product will be madness or stupidity. True visionaries are often accused of all of these. So too, unfortunately, are people who are simply nutty or dim. We must try to decide wisely in each case which we are dealing with.
In the same way that the vision might be described as a (non-consensual) version of the symbol, so our next species of transpersonal sign, the synchronicity, might be introduced as a transcendent version of the index.
The sign-vehicle of an index, it will be remembered, stands in an existential or causal relationship to its object. So too the sign-vehicle of the synchronicity, except it signifies its object in a non-causal manner.
The classic example of a synchronicity is the one used by Carl Jung to introduce the concept. A hyper-rational female patient was relating to him a dream concerning a golden scarab beetle (a symbol of rebirth). Jung opened the window, and a golden beetle flew into the room at this exact moment, of a species that was the closest thing to a scarab the climate of Switzerland allows. According to Jung, this blew his patient’s mind. A psychological rebirth ensued in which she was able to let down her hyper-rational defences.
Jung’s definition of synchronicity is ‘an acausal connecting principle’. Jung is suggesting that the dream of the golden scarab was truly connected with the arrival of the beetle through the window. Not causally, of course, because dreams cannot cause beetles to appear; but nevertheless linked in a real sense. What this ‘real sense’ is would seem to have to do with meaning. In a synchronicity, it is as if meaning is the basis for things to happen in the world, rather than – as seems more usual – happenings in the world supplying the basis for meaning.
Whereas the sign-vehicle of an index points to a specific phenomenon within the world, what gives a synchronicity its unique sense is an impression that the world in a general sense is pointing back at us. Jung’s patient, as does the subject of every synchronicity, regardless of its particular content, experiences the sensation that the universe is sending them a personal message. ‘Look how what is most personal, private and innermost to you,’ the universe says, ‘is here affirmed by me; I, who ordinarily seems outermost and indifferent.’ A synchronicity is a form of signification that demonstrates how the flow of meaning between sign-vehicle and object is not necessarily one-way. The object of the sign here speaks back to us through the sign-vehicle; the dream is verbalised, a golden beetle manifests in the consulting-room, and an actual rebirth takes place.
Synchronicities can arise in many contexts – for example: psychotherapy, religious practices – or in none. The synchronicity is especially strongly associated with magick. When a magickian performs a ritual, it is a synchronicity in which the result manifests, because a magickal ritual usually has no causal efficacy to produce a result. A magickian, or anyone else who experiences a synchronicity, is someone who has broken through to a certain level of meaning, someone who has succeeded in creating a certain type of sign.
The common factor in these experiences seems to be a certain re-focusing of consciousness. Personal messages from the universe are directed only at those who are open to receiving them. This re-focussing of consciousness might be described in terms similar to the ‘bracketing’ or epoché proposed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), in which we aim to engage with only and exactly what we experience, ‘bracketing out’ any ideas or assumptions as to the validity or actuality of experience, or any reactions to it. This is a means of apprehending the mind that also forms the backbone of the technique of vipassana meditation, and other perspective-altering meditative techniques.
To recap: a symbol requires mind, because only a mind provides the cultural consensus that can map arbitrary sign-vehicles onto objects. To go beyond the symbol therefore requires usage of the mind in non-consensual ways. To have a vision, consensus is modified by imagination or other means. To experience a synchronicity, meaning is shifted into the register of an experience rather than an idea.
Our final species of sign (‘final’ in the sense that I have not encountered anything beyond it, or heard reports that there is such a thing) is the koan. It is somewhat like an icon, in the sense that an icon presents a picture or sensory analogue of its object. Yet whereas the icon possesses a form adequate to the task of representing its object, the koan draws attention instead to its manifest inadequacy.
The best-known example of a koan is that attributed to Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768): ‘You know the sound of two hands clapping; tell me, what is the sound of one hand?’ The sign embodied by the words ‘the sound of one hand clapping’ is our koan in this instance. Because it is not possible to clap with only one hand, the sign produces a sense of paradox or confusion. Instead of conveying or clarifying a meaning, it halts the process of signification.
But this is only the prelude of the semiotic operation of the koan. In Buddhist traditions – particularly Zen – koans are used as a teaching tool for creating in students ‘the great doubt’ and leading them to satori, an experience more commonly translated by the term ‘enlightenment’ or ‘awakening’. Just as visions and synchronicities convey us to particular transpersonal states, so does the koan. Its domain of operation is the full-blown spiritual experience, the non-dual state of consciousness.
It is mistaken to assume a koan has no meaning. The confusion that arises on encountering the koan is not to be taken for its intention or meaning either, but as part of the means by which it signifies. The sense of confusion, stupidity or nonsensicality arises because the sign-vehicle fails or refuses to point to a recognisable object, for in the domain of non-dual experience there is no distinction between subject and object.
Within non-dual awareness it is evident that the apparent distinction between subject and object rests on the assumption of a difference that cannot be found within the experience, except as the harbouring of an assumption. Whereas, in a synchronicity, meaning is apprehended as itself an experience – rather than somehow sitting outside of or transcending experience – and by this means the universe itself ‘speaks’ to us, in a koan this process is taken a step even further. Meaning itself is exposed as resting upon an illusion of separation between sign-vehicle and object. In actuality, there is no qualitative difference between them to be found within the experience of meaning. Once this is realised, the basis of meaning therefore falls away.
From this perspective we can see how a koan works, even if we have not personally encountered non-dual states of awareness. By presenting us with a sign that fails or refuses to point to an object (‘the sound of one hand clapping), the koan provides a dualistic taster of non-duality, in which it is not that signs fail to signify (Zen masters are still fully capable of thought and speech), but in which the basis of meaning itself is whisked away and exposed as neither transcendent nor non-transcendent.
The perplexity we feel on encountering a koan is the effect of bringing to bear on it our dualistic expectations of meanings. Concluding that it does not mean anything, or that it is okay for it to mean whatever it means, are nevertheless attempts to pin it with a dualistic meaning. The actual intention of the koan is to deliver us to a state where there is no separation between signs and meanings. When this lack of separation is realised, the ‘sound’ of one hand clapping is indeed recognised.
Two hands clap because, being two, they can be brought into opposition, just as sign-vehicle and object can be brought into opposition to make meaning. But, as Peirce himself suggested, the effect of a sign, its interpretant or meaning, is not transcendental; it is itself another sign. So there is no meaning apart from signs, nor signs apart from meanings – they are all, at root, the same thing.
Other koans work the same way, and all koans point at the same object – or rather, the same object that is neither an object nor not an object. For example, another classic koan: ‘Where is this?’
Ordinarily, this would be taken to mean ‘Where am I?’ – that is, ‘What is the physical location in space of my body?’ In which case, the answer would be any label we can give to that location. But once we explore its meaning more deeply, we start to feel unsettled by what the ‘this’ in ‘Where is this?’ can really mean. What is ‘this’? Presumably it is the experience we are having right now. So the koan begins to take on the meaning of ‘Where is experience?’ Surely the experience is in my mind. Is the answer not, therefore, ‘In my mind?’ But where is ‘my mind’? In my brain, presumably. If I pause and check, it might even feel like it is indeed inside my head. Maybe that is the answer: ‘Inside my head’. But then, where is the feeling that ‘this’ is inside my head? Presumably that is inside my head too – in which case, what is the difference between ‘this’ (experience) and the place where ‘this’ is (in my experience)? It is starting to look as if they are the same. But how can that be…?
If we can work with the confusion, rather than recoiling from it or reacting against it; if we can see past the koan’s everyday meaning, and let its nonsensicality seep deeply into us, finally we are led to a place where we experience directly that ‘this’ (our experience) has neither none nor any specific location, nor any claim to separation from the sense of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ that arises as a sensation within it. And by grasping the senselessness of the koan we suddenly wake up to the undefiled knowledge of exactly and precisely ‘where this is’.
Eigen, Michael (2005). Psychic Deadness (London: Karnac).
Freud, Sigmund (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In: The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 11 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).
Jung, Carl (1952). Synchronicity: an Acausal Connecting Principle. In: The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969).
Wilber, Ken (2013). Integral Semiotics. Accessed September, 2013.