The meaning triangle | Alliance for Mystical Pragmatics
Alliance for Mystical Pragmatics

Alliance for Mystical Pragmatics

Harmonizing Evolutionary Convergence

The meaning triangle

Words are symbols for symbols, or rather signs for symbols, to use Carl Jung’s distinction between the two, the latter being more meaningful.

We can further clarify this distinction, by using the words symbol for mental images contained within consciousness and sign for external forms of these concepts, expressed in spoken or written language, for instance.

Thus, the maps or models we develop of the Universe exist in two forms, as concepts and as words, sounds, and other signs that denote them. This is a distinction that Ferdinand de Saussure made in Cours de linguistique générale, which his students published posthumously in 1915. In this seminal book of structural semiology, as semiotics ‘science of signs’ was known in Europe at the time, de Saussure said: “I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [signifié] and signifier [signifiant],” illustrated here.

Two-part linguistic sign

For instance, the concept of T, as a mental image, could be represented by tree, träd, arbre, or Baum in English, Swedish, French, and German, respectively. No matter which language we use to express our ideas, we all have much the same understanding of the concept of tree. Similarly, we could have the number three in our minds as the signified, where the signifier, such as 3 or III, is called a numeral. This distinction between numbers, as concepts, and numerals, as signifiers, is something that computers cannot make. Both concepts and the signifiers that represent them need strings of bits to denote them. This is the simplest way of proving that humans are not machines and hence that technological development cannot drive economic growth indefinitely, requiring a radical change in the work ethic that has driven human affairs for thousands of years.

However, what de Saussure omitted in his dyadic view of signs was a representation of the territory being mapped. To obtain a complete picture, we need to adapt the triadic view of logic and philosophy that Charles Sanders Peirce spent a lifetime developing. This is illustrated in what J. F. Sowa of IBM calls the ‘meaning triangle’ in Conceptual Structures, inspired to do so by The Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards. What this diagram illustrates is that there is an indirect relationship between language and the territory that language describes, not generally recognized by modern philosophers, focusing more attention on language than on the conceptual structures underlying language. And don’t forget that both concepts and signifiers are referents, included in the territory that is being mapped.

Ultimately, the territory in which we all live is what J. Krishnamurti called the ‘Pathless Land’ in 1929, when dissolving the organization that wanted to make him a world teacher. For as Shakyamuni Buddha said, words are like “a raft used to cross to the other shore or a finger pointing to the moon”.

This Glossary is just that, leading us Home to Wholeness, having no significance in itself.