In this part of the series How to Define an Idea, we will examine structuralism as a systematic study of what Ferdinand de Saussure refers to as “signs.” Language is a means for communicating ideas by the use of conventionalized signs which have understood meanings, and give us the very structure by which we think.
While formal language models are the study of computer languages, structuralism is the study of natural language or linguistic systems.
In part 1, we will explore the metamorphosis of meaning or significance, from the signifier of a concept, as a simple word or sound image, to an essential particular of an idea, and ultimately to an object-oriented representation of a percept as an object, an instance of a class or concept. In this series, we are concerned with the pure definition of a term. To illustrate the transition mentioned above, a domestic cat will be our use case.
If you’d like to start from the beginning of this series, please read the introduction.
Ferdinand De Saussure and the Sign
“Philosophers and linguists have always agreed in recognizing that without the help of signs we would be unable to make a clear-cut, consistent distinction between two ideas¹.”
A sign (figure 1) is the combination of a signifier, a word described as a “sound-image,” like the noise “kat”) for the cat, and a signified which is a concept (in this example) of THE cat. The signifier gives meaning or significance to the sign, while the signified is the concept which designates the signs essence; in this example, the signs “catness.” The signified and signifier are inseparably coupled together to represent the sign, essentially what we perceive in space and time as “a cat.”
Meaning and Characteristic Particulars
A word as a signifier doesn’t tell us much about an idea. The sound image does not tell us anything about the essence or meaning of a cat; it’s “catness.” A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept², an identifier. However, regarding our preoccupation with the definition of an idea we are concerned with a concepts identity and meaning or significance. Staying with our “cat” use case, we want a signifier which gives us insight into the definition of a cat; it’s significance. Its We want a signifier that can be empirically observed or measured, one that denotes its very existence; it’s essence or “catness.”
“To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of nonexistence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes³.”
Our signifier should be an essential and fundamental characteristic of the entity (the cat), and a proper defining attribute or action of the concept; what Rand referred to as the differentia⁴ or common conceptual denominator.
“The rules of correct definition are derived from the process of concept-formation. The units of a concept were differentiated — using a distinguishing characteristic(s) — from other existents possessing a commensurable characteristic, a Conceptual Common Denominator⁵.”
Domestic Cats can be referred to by specific universal characteristics (universals) that distinguish them from other members of the feline family and indeed from other entities rest are not cats. The measurements or values of these universals, referred to as particulars distinguish them from other cats. A distinguishing attribute of a cat is its “coat type,” e.g., short-haired, long-haired or hairless, or its ancestry, e.g. pedigreed, or purebred. Cats also have distinct behaviors, its actions such as hunting or vocalizations including mew or purr.
We can now replace the word image as a signifier with an essential characteristic particular of the cat, e.g., its “coat type.” We now have a defining universal characteristic of our cat, the “coat type” attribute, and a particular significant characteristic of coat type equal to “Short Haired.” See figure 2.
As a defining universal of our entity, we omit exact specifications or measurements. Bear firmly in mind that the term “measurements omitted” does not mean that they are non-existent; it just means that they are not specified. The principle is: the relevant measurements must exist in some quantity but may exist in any quantity⁶. As we see in the illustration, we specify the measurements particular of the cat, a declaration of its meaning, significance and existence.
Rand goes further to explain that the attributes of an entity that exists, can be perceived by one or more of man’s five senses. Also, she writes, attributes cannot exist by themselves; they are merely the characteristics of such an entity. We now have an opportunity to encapsulate as many of the particulars of our sign into an observable object in its own right; our percept⁷. Figure 3 shows the next stage in the progression of our sign. The percept replaces the particulars of the percept.
This sign now points to the concept (together with its universal attributes and actions) as the definition of the idea “cat”, and the percept with its specified particular attributes and actions, representing the meaning or significance. Together the concept and the percept refer to an actual cat existing in space and time, one that we will christen as “Felix.”
At this juncture, it’s worth pausing to consider the following propositions:
All ideas are concepts. Some ideas exist as percepts.
Object Oriented Principles⁸ (OOP) and the Unified Modeling Language⁹
The next step in the metamorphosis of the sign is to propose a scalable system of representation, one that we can leverage to notate or diagram our idea, the concept, and the percept and its universals and particulars respectively. Using OOP, we can represent the concept as a class (figure 4) and an instance or extension, the percept; we refer to as an object (figure 5).
To summarize, we now have a revised sign as follows:
Signified: The concept of the sign, essentially the definition of an idea as an entity and the declaration of its attributes and actions (universals).
Signifier: The percept of the sign, the meaning, significance or objective existence of an idea and the specification of its attributes and actions (particulars) that are perceived by the senses and its observable or measurable state. Figure 6 shows us the transition in a tabular format.
In part 2, we will incorporate the principles of definition by genus and species, the classical vs. prototype theories of the structure of concepts, and finally the difference between an intensional and extensional definition. Most importantly, we will show that a precising definition, is an intensional one and that extension follows intension and not the other way around.
If you are interested in the complete series, the table of contents is as follows:
Cecil (CJ) John is an architect, technologist and innovator and has worked with some of the largest companies in the world including the IMF, US Federal Government and some of the top 5 consulting companies. If you like what you have read, you can follow me on Medium for more great content. You can also sign up for my newsletter or contact me by email, Linkedin or Twitter.
- Saussure, Ferdinand de, (1959). “A Course in General Linguistics.”
- Peikoff, Leonard. (1986). Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z (Page 117).
- Peikoff, Leonard. (1986). Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z (Page 115).
- Peikoff, Leonard. (1986). Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z (Page 85).
- Peikoff, Leonard. (1986). Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z (Page 91).
- Peikoff, Leonard. (1986). Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z (Page 84).
- An object of perception; something that is perceived. Source: English Oxford Living Dictionaries
- Object-oriented programming (OOP) is a programming paradigm based on the concept of “objects”, which can contain data, in the form of fields (often known as attributes), and code, in the form of procedures (often known as methods). Kindler, E.; Krivy, I. (2011). “Object-Oriented Simulation of systems with sophisticated control”. International Journal of General Systems: 313–343.
- The Unified Modeling Language (UML) is a general-purpose, developmental, modeling language in the field of software engineering that is intended to provide a standard way to visualize the design of a system. Source: Booch, Grady. (2005). “Unified Modeling Language User Guide, The”.