Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: Representation and Expression

Instructor: Patricia Turrisi

…a thing which stands for another thing is a representation or sign. So that it appears that every species of actual cognition is of the nature of a sign. 1873|Logic. Chap. 5th|W 3:76; CP 7.355-6

A representation is an object which stands for another, so that an experience of the former affords us a knowledge of the latter. 1873|On Representations|W 3:65-6

Symbol.A Sign (q.v.) which is constituted a sign merely or mainly by the fact that it is used and understood as such, whether the habit is natural or conventional, and without regard to the motives which originally governed itsselection. 1902|Symbol|DPP2, 640; CP 2.307

What is a sign? It is anything which in any way represents an object. This statement leaves us the difficulty of saying what "representing" is. Yet it affords help by pointing out that every sign refers to anobject.

A sign does not function as a sign unless it is understood as a sign. It is impossible, in the present state of knowledge, to say, at once fully and precisely, and with a satisfactory approach to certitude, what it is to understand a sign. . . what is indispensable is that there should be an interpretation of the sign; that is that the sign should, actually or virtually, bring about a determination of a sign by the same object of which it itself is a sign. This interpreting sign, like every sign, only functions as a sign so far as it again is interpreted, that is, actually or virtually, determines a sign of the same object of which it is itself a sign. Thus there is a virtual endless series of signs when a sign is understood; and a sign never understood can hardly be said to be asign. 1902 [c.]|Reason's Rules|MS [R] 599:28-36

'Sign'. 'Symbol'. 'Representation'. Terms in M. Bergman & S. Paavola (Eds.),The Commens Dictionary: Peirce's Terms in His Own Words. New Edition.Retrieved from, 31.10.2015.

Course Description:

Taking our cue from C.S. Peirce, let us presume that all thought is in the form of signs. Signs have reference (1) to some thought which interprets it; (2) for some object to which it is equivalent in thought, and (3) the respect or quality which brings the sign into connection with its object. In turn, thought takes its interpretations of signs into relation with other signs and their references. Discourse is often thought to be the main generator and repository of signs external to thought, yet the manner in which signs operate clearly does not restrict the appearance of signs to one or another medium. And though the respect or quality which brings a sign into connection with its object may be expressed in discursive language, these qualities themselves are neither identical nor reducible to speech or writing.

This course examines the general action of signs in logic and reasoning. We explore the important but not exclusive role discourse plays in the actions of signs along with other forms of expression in which signs stand for objects. In Peirce's view, the "objects" represented by signs and symbols are not dead things lying about at random or cogs in a mechanistic universe, but rather are rich storehouses of networks of relationships and meaning. Nor are signs confined to being non-dimensional substitutes for the objects they represent. Rather, signs communicate the meanings of the objects they represent through their interactions in thought, giving rise to new signs that stand as interpretations, interpretations of interpretations and so on. The ways and means of signs are as limitless as the objects they represent. We will look at several categories of interesting signs in addition to those found in discursive language, including non-verbal language, the presentation of self, cartography, art, film, fashion, collecting and hoarding, and cultural performances. At some point in the course, you will become overwhelmed by the plurality of meanings that are being generated by the signs you have switched on through your engagement with sign-ificance. It's my intention that when that happens, a window on even more interesting categories of signs will open.

Answers to questions that will occupy our class discussions and writing and research assignments are sought from the perspective of the study of signs. Here are some examples:

  • What can we learn from "style" as a kind of sign in speech and writing?
  • How are persons signs?
  • How does human non-verbal behavior interfere with the intentions of individuals who seek to black out signs that reveal their internal states?
  • What do maps tell us about their makers?
  • What do the media in which art is created signify?
  • How far may we be confident that "clothes make the man" or that women's clothing reinforces or defies stereotypes?
  • Are there collective or cumulative signs? For example, what do universal or nearly universal behaviors in species of intelligent animals mean or represent? As a case study, if the tendency to covet, collect, sort, handle and revel in material artifacts were found to be primal and global, what human disposition, evolutionary solution to a problem or evolutionary compromise would the collective signs of this tendency represent?
  • What do (selected) cultural performances or social rituals signify and how, studied from a semiotic perspective? E.g., unmistakably gendered behaviors, activities related to money and money-handling, hygiene, grooming, establishment of status, preference for same age cohorts, sports, parties, neoteny-intensive religious worship, and reinforcement of sexual and reproductive ethics.

Readings and Resources:

Daniel Miller, Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter

Semiotics Encyclopedia Online E.J. Pratt Library - Victoria University


English Language and Usage

David B. Givens, The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs and Body Language Cues

David B. Givens, "Nonverbal Neurology: How the Brain Encodes and Decodes Wordless Signs, Signals, and Cues"

Tom Streeter, Basic Tutorial on Semiotics

This is not Sex: A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose

Winfred Noth, "Can Pictures Lie?"

Miki Okubu, "Harajuku - District for Anti-Fashion"

Michael Ivy, "Undressing Cognition"

Jeoffrey Gaspard, "Discourse regularities and semiotic predictability: making sense of discursive habits in communication situations"

Jamin Pelkey, "Shoes that fit like a glove: the visceral roots of human cognition"

Paul Bouissac, "Occupy Semiotics"

Paul Bouissac, "Semiotics and Society"

DMV 2014 Driver Handbook

Last Update: November 13, 2015