Systems of Interpretation

Skip to first unread message

Jon Awbrey

May 5, 2023, 2:00:51 PMMay 5
to Cybernetic Communications, Laws of Form, Structural Modeling, SysSciWG
Cf: Systems of Interpretation • 1


Questions have arisen about the different styles of diagrams
and figures used to represent triadic sign relations in Peircean
semiotics. What do they mean? Which style is best? Among the
most popular pictures some use geometric triangles while others
use the three‑pronged graphs Peirce used in his logical graphs
to represent triadic relations.

Diagrams and figures, like any signs, can serve to communicate
the intended interpretants and thus to coordinate the conduct of
interpreters toward the intended objects — but only in communities of
interpretation where the conventions of interpretation are understood.
Conventions of interpretation are by comparison far more difficult to

That brings us to the first question we have to ask about the possibility
of communication in this area, namely, what conventions of interpretation
are needed to make sense of these diagrams, figures, and graphs?



Jon Awbrey

May 7, 2023, 4:44:48 PMMay 7
to Cybernetic Communications, Laws of Form, Structural Modeling, SysSciWG
Cf: Systems of Interpretation • 2


Let's start as simply as possible. The following Figure
is typical of many I have used to illustrate sign relations
from the time I first began studying Peirce's theory of signs.

Figure 2. An Elementary Sign Relation

The above variant comes from a paper Susan Awbrey and I presented at
a conference in 1999, a revised version of which was published in 2001.

As the drafter of that drawing I can speak with authority about the
artist's intentions in drawing it and also about the conventions of
interpretation forming the matrix of its conception and delivery.

Just by way of refreshing my own memory, here is how we set it up —

Figure 2 represents an “elementary sign relation”. It is a single
transaction taking place among 3 entities, the object o, the sign s,
and the interpretant sign i, the association of which is typically
represented by means of the ordered triple (o, s, i).

One of the interpretive conventions implied in that setup is hallowed
by long tradition, going back to the earliest styles of presentation in
mathematics. In it one draws a figure intended as “representative” of
many figures. Regarded as a concrete drawing the figure is naturally
imperfect, individual, peculiar, and special but it's meant to be taken
purely as a representative of its class — generic, ideal, and typical.
That is the main convention of interpretation which goes into giving
diagrams and figures their significant power.

References —

Conceptual Barriers to Creating Integrative Universities

Organizations of Learning or Learning Organizations:
The Challenge of Creating Integrative Universities


Elementary Sign Relation.png

Jon Awbrey

May 10, 2023, 5:28:23 PMMay 10
to Cybernetic Communications, Laws of Form, Structural Modeling, SysSciWG
Cf: Systems of Interpretation • 3

Figure 2. An Elementary Sign Relation

That “triskelion” stick-figure for an elementary sign relation
or individual triple (o, s, i) is about the simplest possible.
Susan Awbrey and I used a less skeletal figure in an earlier paper,
where our aim was to articulate the commonalities Peirce's concept
of a sign relation shares with its archetype in Aristotle.

Figure 1. The Sign Relation in Aristotle

Here is the corresponding passage from “On Interpretation”.

❝Words spoken are symbols or signs (symbola) of affections or
impressions (pathemata) of the soul (psyche); written words
are the signs of words spoken. As writing, so also is speech
not the same for all races of men. But the mental affections
themselves, of which these words are primarily signs (semeia),
are the same for the whole of mankind, as are also the objects
(pragmata) of which those affections are representations or
likenesses, images, copies (homoiomata).❞ (De Interp. i. 16a4).

Reference —

Awbrey, J.L., and Awbrey, S.M. (1995), “Interpretation as Action : The Risk of Inquiry”,
Inquiry : Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines 15(1), 40–52.
Journal ( )
Online (doc) ( )
Online (pdf) ( )


Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages