The Symbol Grounding Problem is related to the problem of how words (symbols) get their meanings, and hence to the problem of what meaning itself really is. The problem of meaning is in turn related to the problem of consciousness, or how it is that mental states are meaningful. According to a widely held theory of cognition, “computationalism,” cognition (i.e., thinking) is just a form of computation. But computation in turn is just formal symbol manipulation: symbols are manipulated according to rules that are based on the symbols’ shapes, not their meanings.

Semiotics is an approach to ground symbols

Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, and is usually divided into three branches:

  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata
  • Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
  • Pragmatics: Relation between signs and their effects on those (people) who use them

Peirce’s Theory: Semiotic Elements of Classes and Signs to be Used for Software

Peirce held that there are exactly three basic semiotic elements, 1) the sign, 2) object, and 3) intepretant, as outlined above and fleshed out here in a bit more detail:

  1. A sign (or representamen) represents, in the broadest possible sense of “represents”. It is something interpretable as saying something about something. It is not necessarily symbolic, linguistic, or artificial.
  2. An object (or semiotic object) is a subject matter of a sign and an interpretant. It can be anything discussable or thinkable, a thing, event, relationship, quality, law, argument, etc., and can even be fictional, for instance Hamlet. All of those are special or partial objects. The object most accurately is the universe of discourse to which the partial or special object belongs. For instance, a perturbation of Pluto’s orbit is a sign about Pluto but ultimately not only about Pluto.
  3. An interpretant (or interpretant sign) is the sign’s more or less clarified meaning or ramification, a kind of form or idea of the difference which the sign’s being true or undeceptive would make. (Peirce’s sign theory concerns meaning in the broadest sense, including logical implication, not just the meanings of words as properly clarified by a dictionary.) The interpretant is a sign (a) of the object and (b) of the interpretant’s “predecessor” (the interpreted sign) as being a sign of the same object. The interpretant is an interpretation in the sense of a product of an interpretive process or a content in which an interpretive relation culminates, though this product or content may itself be an act, a state of agitation, a conduct, etc. Such is what is summed up in saying that the sign stands for the object to the interpretant.

That classification has been used in SDE (Symbolic Analysis of this blog) as follows:

  1. Sign is a symbol captured from source code
  2. AHO, Atomistic Hybrid Object is the object
  3. Interpretant is the output from executing the object using an automaton.

Some links:

  1. Peirce’s theory:
  2. Semiotics:
  3. About Symbol Grounding