Andy Blunden. February 2005

Subjectivity and Semiotics

Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotics includes a categorisation of signs into icon (or likeness), index and symbol. These concepts are very useful in revealing how subjectivity is formed in modernity.

Peirce’s Categorisation of Signs

In the specialised meaning that Charles Sanders Peirce gave to these different types of sign in the late 19th century, he was tolerably faithful to these original usages.

“Firstly, there are likenesses, or icons; which serve to convey ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating them.

“Secondly, there are indications, or indices; which show something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them. Such is a guidepost, which points down the road to be taken, or a relative pronoun, which is placed just after the name of the thing intended to be denoted, or a vocative exclamation, as “Hi! there,” which acts upon the nerves of the person addressed and forces his attention.

“Thirdly, there are symbols, or general signs, which have become associated with their meanings by usage. Such are most words, and phrases, and speeches, and books, and libraries.” [What is a Sign?, Peirce 1894]


“The likeness [i.e., icon] has no dynamical connection with the object it represents; it simply happens that its qualities resemble those of that object, and excite analogous sensations in the mind for which it is a likeness. But it really stands unconnected with them. The index is physically connected with its object; they make an organic pair. But the interpreting mind has nothing to do with this connection, except remarking it, after it is established. The symbol is connected with its object by virtue of the idea of the symbol-using mind, without which no such connection would exist.” [What is a Sign?, Peirce 1894]

In his Collected Papers we find the following further explanations:

“A pure icon can convey no positive or factual information; for it affords no assurance that there is any such thing in nature.

“... an index ... is a real thing or fact which is a sign of its object by virtue of being connected with it as a matter of fact and by also forcibly introducing upon the mind, quite regardless of it being interpreted as a sign.

“A photograph, for example, not only excites an image, has an appearance, but, owing to its optical connection with the object, is evidence that that appearance corresponds to a reality.

“A symbol is a representamen whose special significance or fitness to represent just what it does represent lies in nothing but the very fact of there being a habit, disposition, or other effective general rule that it will be so interpreted.

“Each writing of the three-letters “man” is a replica of the symbol ‘man.’ ...

“[A symbol] consists in the really working general rule that [a replica of it] seen by a person who knows [the symbol] will effect his conduct and thoughts according to a rule. Thus the mode of being of the symbol is different from that of the icon and from that of the index. An icon has such being as belongs to past experience. It exists only as an image in the mind. An index has the being of present experience. The being of a symbol consists in the real fact that something surely will be experienced if certain conditions are satisfied. Namely, it will influence the thought and conduct of its interpreter. [Collected Papers of CS Peirce, 4.447]

“The value of an icon consists in its exhibiting the features of a state of things regarded as if it were purely imaginary. The value of an index is that it assures us of positive fact. The value of a symbol is that it serves to make thought and conduct rational and enables us to predict the future. ... the most perfect of signs are those in which the iconic, indicative, and symbolic characters are blended as equally as possible.” [Collected Papers of CS Peirce, 4.448]

Interpretation of Peirce’s Semiotics

The direct application of Peirce’s ideas is in the use and interpretation of signs, and communicative action generally. However, communicative action only takes place within certain systems of activity and social relations, and these same categories of sign correspond to qualitatively distinct types of social relation, which together constitute subjectivity. It is the social relations which are mediated by these signs which are of interest, and people are signs as well.

Interpreted in this way, the “icon” is a person or group which exhibits the idea, what teachers first called a “role model.” Ideally, the icon is both impressive and attractive (or conversely repulsive and frightening), such that the idea is clearly conveyed in such a way that people can see themselves in the icon. The icon could be a hero or famous victim or martyr, the defining case of a new disease or form of suffering, or a successful national liberation movement and so on, or it can be a subject or person with whom the subject or person is closely involved, a family member, work colleague, etc. Peirce says that the icon only looks like the thing it represents, and to be an icon, does not have to be it; in that sense, the icon could be a replica, but it need not be. The point is that the icon exhibits all the properties of the idea clearly and empathetically. The candidate in an election needs to be a icon representing her party’s view of the world, their values, and so on, so that someone would look at them, and say “Yes, that’s my kind of person.”

The relation to the icon is self-identical, i.e., the subjects sees themself in the icon. Thus, the icon is the “me” in Mead’s pragmatic psychology, and Honneth’s intersubjective psychology. The icon can also be negatively reflexive, the Other for Simone de Beauvoir or Edward Said. That is, a person or subject knows themself as a subject or person by seeing themselves reflected in the icon.

The “symbol” means the representation of the thing in “expert discourse.” This would normally be encapsulated in a word, associated with a body of theory, such as in books, in general a body of legitimate doctrine, religious or scientific, which in turn reflects the interconnected series of practices by means of which the relevant specialised institutions validate an idea. Once an idea has been validated in the institutions of the expert discourse, the presentation of the idea in the words of an expert constitutes the symbolic manifestation in terms of social relations. The symbol is therefore an expert or figure of authority in the broader culture, who validates the idea. People like Marx and Germaine Greer for example, were both icon and symbol inasmuch as not only did they act as leaders, advocates and role models for the ideals they represented, but they were also authoritative exponents in the symbolic register. Leading bureaucrats, churchpeople and public figures of various kinds, when they endorse a party in an election, are saying: “It is right to vote for this party,” and in this sense they act as symbols of the party. The exponent of the party’s policy, who can explain all the ins and outs of its foreign policy, etc., endeavours to act as a symbol.

The symbol is also reflexive. It represents the set of institutions and social relations through which a person can test out and concretise their relation to the thing; there are laws, rules, membership criteria, and so on. Thus in accommodating themselves to the set of relevant rules and practices associated with a concept, and “holding office” within an institution, a person internalises the forms of activity implicit in the concept.

Thirdly, the “index” is numbers of people who raise their hand and say “Me too!,” demonstrating that the icon genuinely does point to something universal and existent, not just individual or particular, in other words it is all those people who make up a social movement; the index points to the idea, people suffering in a particular way, workers embracing the socialist objective, women aspiring to liberation. You can have an institution, but unless there are members, that institution is non-existent. In joining a social movement, a person becomes themselves part of the index.

An index could also be an icon: formally the icon simply “looks like” the idea, and that is its function as a sign; however, if the iconic person or group is real it is also an index. This role is typically played by people who turn up to public meetings and hand out party literature and so on, thereby demonstrating public support for the party.

These three constitute a new subjectivity; ideally they coincide, with every index looking just like the icon and acting as symbols. However, if the three types of sign coincide absolutely, then what we would have would be a self-contained and self-conscious subject, a system of activity in which every individual adhered to the same doctrine and manifested it in all their activity. This is not normally the case in modernity — and nor would we want it to be!

Typically, there are multiple forms of suffering and injustice, ways of life and ideals in society, each constituting an aspect of a person’s subjectivity. No individual absolutely reproduces the properties of the icon nor embraces an identical and homogeneous concept of an idea from the same expert discourse. Everyone is to some extent acting as icon, symbol and index in their social activity. Thus subjectivity is shared and overlapping and in every individual is complex and manifold. But icon, index and symbol are excellent terms with which to elucidate the structure of social subjectivity.


Peirce also categorises signs as Qualisign, Sinnisign and Logosign, which correspond to Hegel’s categorisation judgments as Particular, Individual and Universal.

Individual means a person who perform an idea in their activity and in relation to other people. The Individual has a finite life-span, gets born and dies, and has a multiplicity of relationships. The Universal is the more or less eternal ideal forms of the idea, as contained in cultural constructs, literature, ideology, means of production, which may be embodied in material objects or may be purely ideal, as in the names given to the objects and bodies of theory, etc.. The Universal includes specially those people whose specific function is the maintenance of the culture, rather than simply acting it out. The Particular is the institutions, social relations and collective practices through which individuals enact the Universal. A Particular exists in a time and a place; it may continue for a long time, but through different individuals on different days.

Each mediates in the relation between the other two: institutions only embody universals if individuals knowingly enact them; an individual only really knows an idea if they participate in practices which actualise the principle; practice constitutes an institution only if there is some continuing principle or objective which gives the institution more than passing significance, passed on from generation to generation.

The Individual, Universal and Particular may be more or less identified. For example, an individual may participate in a particular organisation, but may be ignorant of the body of universal culture they are reproducing; a language is a Universal, and a “dead language” may be known by individuals, but the particular culture of which it was a part may have disappeared, etc.

For Hegel, each of the aspects of subjectivity have both an ideal and a material form: a word points to material objects, an individual has ideas connected to the activity they engage in; institutions have names, constitutions, rules etc., as well as property, staff, etc. Peirce also classifies signs according to ideal/material existence, but we have not gone into his classification here.

Hegel never presents the classifications of the Subject in human terms as I have; rather they are presented just in terms of logic. This makes his idea somewhat impenetrable, but at the same time lends great flexibility to them. So, for example, “universal” may be “mapped on to” an individual, concept or material object. If for example, we take Napoleon as expressing the Universal of the French Revolution, he is also an individual, and has particular social relations and practices, without which he could hardly be Napoleon.

So, when Peirce holds that an icon is a “likeness,” having no material connection to what it represents, only a resemblance, it is easy to see Napoleon as an icon for the French Revolution in the sense of an impressive role model. As remarked above, he is also symbol (he wrote the code napoleon) and index (his physical presence signalled the arrival of the French Army).

We are also forced to see that “index” is not simply a person “adhering” to a universal, but rather people participating in institutions reproducing the ideal. Likewise, “symbol” is not just a theory or rule book, but the whole continuing cultural inheritance of the idea, including crops and technology, buildings, etc., as well as theory, as well as “a way of life.”