How semiotics can help us understand ourselves

Why are people greedy?

Besides the usual answers, a succinct and very useful answer to this question is that greed is part of a semiotic system, a signalling system. Having a lot of money lets people buy good things—houses, cars, clothes, memberships, etc.—and these things send a basic signal to other people that is easy to understand. If you have a nice house, car, and good clothes people will tend to see you as being reliable, “normal,” familiar, worth knowing.

Why do people hate?

People hate those who do not accept their semiotic system. If someone is sending most of the same signals as you are, there is no way you will hate them unless they make you jealous, in which case they are probably just signalling better than you. If someone harms you, thus earning your ire, if not hate, it is often due to their jealousy.

Why do people have egos?

We need to signal to others. To communicate we must send a coherent semiotic package to the people we know. This need to send a neat package forms the basis of our ego, our biographical-actorial “self.” Depending on conditions, we internalize those standards that we think exemplify what we want others to think of us. Of course, the ego always gets mixed up with greed, hate and/or pride to make the picture more complex. But if you look at the signalling systems—the semiotics—much of it can be teased apart.

Why do people have personalities?

Or do we? “Personality traits” can be described in much the same way as we described the ego above. Sometimes people’s personalities seem to me to be something they have imagined, a standard they have adopted like an astrological sign or a pumped-up allegiance to a fantasized ethnic or religious “identity.”

What is “identity”?

It’s a semiotic system, often a system we have consciously chosen for ourselves. Identity compliments ego and personality, allowing the individual to take on ready-made feelings, a history, customs, and behaviors that send powerful signals to other people. When many people identify with the same symbols, they often gain political power; this is “identity politics.” Identity signals to others and to ourselves that we belong to something, are part of something. Identities are powerful group signals and they often can become violent or aggressive.

What is suspicion?

Suspicion is fundamentally not being sure what someone means. Since we all know how hard it is to know what others mean, it is no wonder that there is so much suspicion in the world.

You can go one and on like this. Many human behaviors and ways of “understanding” ourselves and others can be neatly analyzed as semiotic systems, signalling systems, that have recognizable signs and symbols that are often surprisingly simple.

Look around you—everything is signalling. Insects in the trees, hormones in your blood, road signs, clothing, and on and on. The sun signals the earth with gravity.

Human beings are complex signalling systems. To communicate with each other, we streamline and make static most of our signals. This is good and necessary in many situations, but it is not you.

In many ways, we can say that delusion, as defined by the Buddha, means to believe that a signalling system is completely “real,” that it is all that there is. Liberation from delusion begins with understanding how semiotics—signs, symbols, signals, and their meanings—actually work in our minds.

One thought on “How semiotics can help us understand ourselves

  1. Peirce’s theory of the sign therefore offered a powerful analysis of the signification system, its codes, and its processes of inference and learning, because the focus was often on natural or cultural context rather than linguistics which only analyses usage in slow-time whereas, in the real world, there is an often chaotic blur of language and signal exchange during human semiotic interaction. Nevertheless, the implication that triadic relations are structured to perpetuate themselves leads to a level of complexity not usually experienced in the routine of message creation and interpretation. Hence, different ways of expressing the idea have been developed.

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