• Kenneth Jacobs

Peirce on Signs: Why it's not "Just a Matter of Semantics"

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

If you've ever been told "it's just a matter of semantics," then you know what it is like to be dismissed. The only difference between your argument and mine, they say, is your supposedly inconsequential choice of words! Let's take an example.

When you say: "The earth is round."

And when I say: "The earth is an oblate spheroid."

You may retort by saying: "Well that's a sophisticated way of putting it; but your designation is really just a difference in semantics. Really, call it what you want because it doesn't make an actual difference. Round, circular, sphere-like, its all the same so let's just get on with it."

You'd be wrong, however, to assume that the term "oblate spheroid" has an inconsequentially similar meaning to the term "round." Consider Charles Sanders Peirce's pragmatic maxim, and you will begin to see why semantics really do MATTER:

"Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object" (p. 371).

In other words, what is our conception of the figure of the earth and what are its practical effects? Unlike "round," naming the earth"oblate spheroid" has implications for how we navigate––terrestrially in our cars, aquatically in our boats, or aerially in our planes and rockets. Conceiving the figure of the earth as an oblate spheroid has practical bearings, which is precisely why "round" and "oblate spheroid" is NOT a mere difference in semantics.

While the pragmatic maxim helps us decide on the significance of conceptions like "oblate spheroid," it is Peirce's theory of signs that elucidates the pragmatic maxim itself, and also drives home the reason why a difference in words is rarely "just a matter of semantics."

Peirce's theory of signs is comprised of three key terms:

  • Icon

  • Index

  • Symbol

...where each term is considered a sign. An icon is a diagram or model that shares a resemblance with the object it is intended to represent––"such as a lead pencil streak as representing a geometrical line" (epub, p. 519). Below is an icon of an oblate spheroid.

An index, which is also a sign, is a mark of an object. Footprints are an index of a path well-traveled and the shadow of the earth on the moon during a lunar eclipse is an index of the earth's roundness.

So, while an icon is formally similar to its object and an index is a mark of an object's presence, a symbol is a sign that does not necessarily share any formal characteristics or markings of the object which it represents. Put simply, a symbol is a name.

For a sign to be a symbol, however, it requires an interpretant disposed to orienting toward a particular object when it is so named. The mark, or index, of a symbol, then, is an interpretant's orientation toward and interaction with the object named. Therefore, if the conception of an object such as the earth is in the form of a symbol––oblate spheroid––and it has the practical effects of orienting our scientists and enhancing our navigational systems, then the semantic difference between something like "round" and "oblate spheroid" is not inconsequential. A difference in symbols is not "just a matter of semantics" because words "do produce physical effects" (indexed by the applications of geodesy) and "it is madness to deny it" (indexed by the lack of innovations on the behalf of flat-earthers; epub, p. 528).

In sum, "oblate spheroid" is a symbol with definite connections to the practical bearings of an earth with a particular shape. While radio antennas capture indices of the earth's shape, icons such as an Earth ellipsoid model the earth's form. Altogether, a good symbol should orient one to an object's indices, and in turn, inform the construction of an icon for the purposes of prediction and control. Semantics matter not just because I say so, but because they are signs of the practical bearings we sense, model, and conceive.


Below is the link to the Kindle edition of Peirce on Signs:


Also, please see the link that follows for a relevant and informative essay on Peirce and his theory of signs: https://aeon.co/essays/charles-sanders-peirce-was-americas-greatest-thinker