Re: (Reply to Benzon) I

From: Gudmundur Ingi Markusson (
Date: Fri 23 May 2003 - 13:50:04 GMT

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    William Benzon <> wrote:
    >>(GIM) In this account, memes would be Peircian sign-vehicles, as Terrence Deacon (1999) has suggested.
    >(WB) Not quite. That which is "transmitted" is the signifier. It is up to the listener (or reader) to supply the signified. That is to say, the listener treats the signifier as a prompt to supply meaning. The meaning supplied is created entirely within the mind of the listener.
    >(Note: I haven't read Peirce in years so I forget whether or not "sign-vehicle" is a locution that he uses. Whether it is or not, it's misleading to the extent that it implies that the signifier (in Saussure's terminology) is somehow "carrying" or "transporting" the meaning. It is not.)
    (GIM) I do not have access to his Collected Papers so I cannot verify whether he applies it there. I have seen it repeatedly in writings on Peirce, which is why I used it. I have taken it as a rendering of his technical term for sign, representamen.
      In the context of his framework of semiosis, the term is not misleading in the sense you suggest. The biosemiotician J. Hoffmeyer illustrates:
      the sign represents a relations between three factors: (1) the primary sign—the sign vehicle—i.e., the bearer or manifestation of the sign regardless of its significance (e.g., the red spots); (2) the object (physical or nonphysical) to which the sign vehicle refers (e.g., the illness, measles); and (3) “the interpretant” i.e., the system which construes the sign vehicle’s relationship to its object (e.g., the mental processes in the physician’s head). To be a sign in Peirce’s sense of the word all three of these elements must be present (1996: 19).
      So, while a sign cannot be distinguished from the tripartite semiosis process, the term sign-vehicle designates only one aspect of it, the X which, while meaningless in itself, becomes a catalyst for a sign *when* and *only when* it is interpreted by a cognizing subject.
    >(WB) Note that I'm certainly not denying that humans communicate through language (and other sign systems). We obviously do. What I am denying is that we can explain that communication by talking about transmitting memes/information/meaning from one person to another. As far as I can tell, we don't have a fully adequate account of how communication happens.
    (GIM) I agree. The assumption that information simply resides in books or otherwise, waiting to be incorporated by hosts, which seems to be taken for granted in much memetic discussion, is misguided. Here I think Peirce is useful. In the light of his semiosis concept, information is not a dyadic relation, a carrier carrying something (signifier incorporating a signified), but a triadic relation, where information arises only when a subject interprets a signifier (sign-vehicle).

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