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Semiotics is a study of signs and their signification, or meaning. It belongs to an interdisciplinary science. The word semiotics is derived from Greek words for "sign" and "signal." As a separate science, semiotics studies things that function as signs. Semiotics is also a metalanguage that serves to describe human behavior because people are sign users. In ancient times semiotics was a branch of medical science, in which signs were taken to describe medical symptoms for the purpose of diagnosis. Later it became a branch of philosophy where verbal and nonverbal signs were taken to be representations of the true nature of things. Those who study semiotics are deeply immersed in religion and spirituality wherein sign and symbol use are so prominently integrated.
The scholastic tradition posited a sign to be something that we can not only directly perceive but also connect with something else, by virtue of our or somebody's else experience. Sign therefore is an instrument of human knowledge, learning, and development. Symbol is generally a synonym of sign, which has a conventional meaning. But signs can be polysomic, that is, they may connote more than one meaning. Therefore, symbolic meanings are characterized by their surplus. A symbolic connotation may demonstrate a deeper layer of meanings, sometimes with complex emotional associations or having a cryptic character as pointing to something beyond itself. Semiotics exceeds linguistics; the latter limited to words and sentences as verbal signs. Based on the relationship to spoken language, three types of general semiotic systems may be distinguished: (1) language substitutes, such as writing, whistles, and Morse code; (2) language transforms, or formal scientific terminology; and (3) idiomorphic systems, such as music or gestures. A sign not only represents but also causes other signs to come to mind as a consequence of itself: this relation is expressed in the medieval formula aliquid stat pro aliguo, which is translated as "something stands for something else." An interpreter of signs connects the antecedent with its consequent by means of a specific inferential sign relation.
Charles Sanders Peirce, a famous American philosopher (1839-1914), has held a pansemiotic perspective on the whole universe, that is, a view that the world may be composed exclusively of signs. The whole world is considered to be a semiotic sphere. In contrast to the immediate sense data of the surrounding world, the human mind uses mediation when, within experience, it crosses what Alfred North Whitehead called the semiotic threshold. All thinking proceeds in signs, and the continuous process of semiosis can never be stopped; thus human development is potentially unlimited.
A key concept in semiotics is communication, or the flow of information and the exchange of signs. Semiosis is a communicative process, that is, a mutual interaction between any two systems. Semiotically, communication as information sharing is considered to be an organizing principle of nature. Magic is also a form of semiotics, because it operates by means of signs, such as charms, names, or speech acts. Mental images belong to a category of signs, and from a semiotic point of view a mental image is an icon, or representation, of the real world. An internal image serves as a semiotic tool, called the interpretant, so as to bring to knowledge something that has been directly perceived. An intentional interpretative act gives a sign its meaning: without a lived experience signs remain lifeless and mute.
Religious texts are primary resources wherein semiotics is studied. The sign is a key concept in the Bible. The Old Testament speaks of the signs of the covenant between the people of Israel and God. In Genesis, the natural phenomenon of a rainbow is interpreted as a sign. In the Gospel of Saint John of the New Testament, sign is a central concept because the miracles performed by Christ are presented as signs of God's glory and power. The universe contains natural signs. In this theological interpretation of nature, all physical objects, even rocks, can be subject to interpretation and therefore have spiritual meanings.
Cultural artifacts are also capable of communicative potential, that is, different objects in our life may carry cultural and psychological significance. All objects are relational and belong to a semiotic triad of subject, object, and referent. Even commodities become signs within the process of exchange and consumption. The pictorial signs and images are of particular importance. Traffic signs or playing cards form their own codes with their respective meanings. In applied semiotics, advertising plays a significant role by virtue of being an exchange of messages. Many people look forward to discovering hidden, or subliminal, meanings in advertisements as being supplementary to their overt meanings.
Semiotics is a study that will surely flourish and develop as humans are continually looking for meaning and purpose in the signs and symbols around them. Semiotics has much to offer those interested in diving more deeply into spiritual and religious meaning and to finding answers to spiritual and religious questions.