Peirce's Sign Theory, or Semiotic, is an account of signification, representation, reference and meaning. Although sign theories have a long history, Peirce's accounts are distinctive and innovative for their breadth and complexity, and for capturing the importance of interpretation to signification. For Peirce, developing a thoroughgoing theory of signs was a central philosophical and intellectual preoccupation.
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was the founder of American pragmatism (later called by Peirce “pragmaticism” in order to differentiate his views from others being labelled “pragmatism”), a theorist of logic, language, communication, and the general theory of signs (which was often called by Peirce “semeiotic”), an extraordinarily prolific mathematical logician and general mathematician, and a developer of an evolutionary, psycho-physically monistic metaphysical system.
The origins of structuralism go back to the 'linguistic turn' brought about by the publication of a series of lectures on general linguistics that had been delivered at the University of Geneva by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in three courses given between 1906 and 1911.
The inclusion of the concept within the triad of signification suggests that there is no natural or immediate relation between the words and the 'thing.' The graphic or phonic form of an utterance, combined with some notion of 'concept,' produce a dominantly internal or cognitive language function. The referent is only one-third of the 'meaning.'
We must add a third term to avoid confusion at this stage: referent. The referent is the 'item' to which the sign (unifying signifier and the signified) refers. Thus there is not simply a 'word' and a 'thing,' there is a 'word,' a 'concept' and a 'referent.'
So when you perceive the sign 'cat' written on this page, you perceive a group of marks, the letters c, a, and t, which are the signifier. This signifier is the vehicle which immediately calls up the signified or concept of cat in your mind. The sign is the inseparable unity of the signifier with the signified, since in fact we never have one without the other.
Together, the signifier and signified make up the
Sign: the smallest unit of meaning. Anything that can be used to communicate (or to tell a lie).
Semiotics or semiology, then, is the study of signs in society, and while the study of linguistic signs is one branch of it, it encompasses every sue of a system where something (the sign) carries a meaning for someone.
Signifiers needn't be confined to words; they can include any system of representation, including drawings, traffic lights, body language, and so on. Much of the literary criticism of the last twenty-five years has focused on the relationship between the signifier and signified, and therefore on the very nature of meaning.
Signifier: any material thing that signifies, e.g., words on a page, a facial expression, an image.
Signified: the concept that a signifier refers to.