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Abstract

Although semiotics has historically been a focus of interest in psychology, its impact over recent decades has been fairly muted. Moreover, no systematic efforts have been made to study and understand it from a positive perspective, i.e., the way sign-systems are or can be “positive.” As such, this paper introduces the notion of “positive semiotics,” a label for the disparate research and theorising that is already underway across academia relating to this topic. The paper draws on the work of C. S. Peirce, particularly in terms of his triadic view of sign-systems as comprising a sign, an object, and an interpretant. The idea of positivity is then elucidated using the criterion of desirability, drawing on the work of James Pawelski. Attempts are also made to ascertain the nature of desirability, including normative forms (clarified here using the conceptual triad of goodness, truth, and beauty) and non-normative forms (understood as personal wants). The paper then considers four key semiotic channels – discursive language, body language, symbols, and art – looking at selective examples of how positive semiotics might pertain to that channel. It is hoped the paper will stimulate further interest in, and work on, a phenomenon that is of considerable importance to psychology and beyond.
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Positive Semiotics
Tim Lomas
Review of General Psychology
Note: This is not the final version of the article in the Review of General Psychology.
It is not the copy of record.
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Abstract
Although semiotics has historically been a focus of interest in psychology, its impact over
recent decades has been fairly muted. Moreover, no systematic efforts have been made to
study and understand it from a positive perspective, i.e., the way sign-systems are or can be
positive.As such, this paper introduces the notion of “positive semiotics, a label for the
disparate research and theorising that is already underway across academia relating to this
topic. The paper draws on the work of C. S. Peirce, particularly in terms of his triadic view of
sign-systems as comprising a sign, an object, and an interpretant. The idea of positivity is
then elucidated using the criterion of desirability, drawing on the work of James Pawelski.
Attempts are also made to ascertain the nature of desirability, including normative forms
(clarified here using the conceptual triad of goodness, truth, and beauty) and non-normative
forms (understood as personal wants). The paper then considers four key semiotic channels
discursive language, body language, symbols, and art looking at selective examples of how
positive semiotics might pertain to that channel. It is hoped the paper will stimulate further
interest in, and work on, a phenomenon that is of considerable importance to psychology and
beyond.
Keywords: language; semiotics; wellbeing; positive psychology
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Positive Semiotics
Semiotics and psychology share a common origin in the philosophy of mind (Bouissac,
1998). Moreover, as general psychology emerged as a distinct academic field in the 19th
century, semiotics was regarded by theorists such as De Saussure (1916) who referred to it
as “semiology” – as being encompassed within psychology as an integral part. However,
following the cognitive revolution in psychology, the fields have largely separated and
entered a more adversarial relationship (or at best operating in parallel) (Bouissac, 1998).
Psychology has seen trends towards the dominance of brain sciences and computational
models, while from the other direction semioticians have largely disdained the methods and
aims of experimental psychology. As a result, academics interested in semiotics tend to be
connected more with disciplines such as linguistics, literary studies, art, sociology, and
philosophy. However, this paper makes the case that much can be gained from a
rapprochement of psychology and semiotics as some others have also sought to do (e.g.,
Cornejo, 2004) and offers some suggestions for how they might enter into useful dialogue
and collaboration.
While recognising that such rapprochement could take various forms, to limit this
discussion to a manageable area of enquiry, this paper will introduce and focus on the notion
of positive semiotics (PS). Influenced by the emergent discipline of positive psychology
(Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), PS is broadly concerned with the intersection between
semiotics and wellbeing. In that respect, it seeks to explore and incorporate disparate research
and theorising that is already underway in psychology, as well as in related academic fields
(from sociology to anthropology). The choice to focus specifically on wellbeing is considered
valid and timely, given the emergent understanding of the vital role that communication plays
in wellbeing, particularly given the recent cultural prominence and impact of social media
(Best, Manktelow, & Taylor, 2014).
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The starting point of PS is that semiotics is all pervasive. Essentially, everything can
be regarded as a sign. As Chandler (2017) puts it, semiotics “embraces the whole field of
signification, including ‘life, the universe, and everything’” (p.xvi). We are drenched,
saturated in text, in that everything around us can be “read for meaning” (Hendricks, 2016).
As Derrida (1987, p.158) famously wrote, there is “nothing outside the text” (or literally, “Il
n’y a pas de hors-texte” [“There is no outside-text”]). That is, texts do not only, or even
primarily, involve discursive language. Anything can function as a sign from the way a
smile suggests happiness, to a thundercloud portending a coming storm. Given that, it is
valuable to pay attention to the potential for “positive semiotics” to the way in which sign
systems are or can be positive. We shall explore this latter term in detail below, but suffice to
say now that it broadly pertains to wellbeing, as filtered through the prism of normative and
personal desirability. PS, then, is concerned with the study of our sign systems inasmuch as
they reflect these positive attributes, and moreover the betterment of such systems so that
they more strongly reflect them. To that end, the paper will consider numerous sign systems
below, focusing on four broad semiotic “channels”: discursive language; body language;
symbols; and art. Before that, we shall clarify what we mean by semiotics, and after that, the
notion of the positive.
Semiotics
A useful prism through which we can understand semiotics is the work of Charles Sanders
Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce of course is not the only theorist one could invoke and harness in
this task: other prominent candidates include De Saussure (1916), Ogden and Richards
(1923), Morris (1938), Langer (1953), Baudrillard (1972), Eco (1976), and Barthes (1982).
However, to provide clarity in this paper it was felt prudent to select and utilise one model of
semiotics (rather than complicating the discussion by invoking competing theories). To that
end, Peirce was selected as arguably still the foremost and most influential theorist in this
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area, whose work is still widely used and discussed (Hervey, 2016). Peirce’s (1998) theory of
semiotics constitutes a theory of meaning, featuring three inter-related parts: a sign, an object,
and an interpretant. (Peirce sometimes also used “sign” to refer to this tripartite configuration
collectively, as well as for one of the constituent parts, the latter of which he also called the
representamen.” To avoid confusion, we shall refer to the constituent part as the “sign,” and
the tripartite configuration as the “sign-system”). Thus, the sign is a signifier, i.e., “something
which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (Peirce, 1955, p.99).
This could be anything, from a facial expression (e.g., a smile) to a weather event (e.g., a
lightning bolt). The object is the phenomenon signified by the sign. Thus, a smile might
signify a state of happiness, and lightening an immanent storm. Finally, given that there is
neither a fixed nor one-to-one correspondence between objects and signs i.e., a given sign
can potentially indicate or represent many objects, with patterns of signification changing
fluidly across persons, contexts, and times the interpretant is a person who attempts to
decode the meaning of the sign. In the case of a smile, for instance, this means working out
exactly what this means (e.g., is it a gesture of friendliness, seduction, placation, etc.). The
identification of the interpretant was a particular innovation of Peirce (Reybrouck, 2004): in
contrast to previously-dominant dyadic theories of meaning (which focused on relations
between signifier and signified), Peirce’s “triadic” theory highlighted the crucial role of the
“sign-user” in decoding the meaning of a sign.
A further innovation of Peirce was differentiating between three different types of
sign: icons, indices, and symbols. For Peirce, objects “determine” their signs, whereby it is
possibly to classify signs according to whether they function by virtue of qualities (icons),
existential facts (indices), or conventions (symbols). Thus icons, also known as “likenesses,”
are those which share some obvious likeness with their object. Examples include emoticons,
diagrams (e.g., a building blueprint), no-smoking signs, photos, and computer icons (e.g., the
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trash folder). In Peirce’s (1982) words, these are connected to an object via “a mere
community in some quality” (p.56). By contrast, indices are signs “whose relation to their
objects consists in a correspondence in fact (p.56), i.e., when a sign “naturally” correlates
with or points to a particular object. Examples include facial expressions (e.g., a smile
conveying happiness), environmental events (e.g., lightning denoting a storm), pointing
fingers, proper names, and signals (e.g., a smoke alarm signifying fire). Finally, symbols are
those “whose relation to their objects is an imputed character, i.e., according to convention
or social agreement. Examples includes words (and language more generally), logos, and
flags. It may not always be obvious which type a given sign is; indeed, Peirce acknowledged
that most signs may be a combination of the various types. For instance, onomatopoeic words
might be regarded as an icon (i.e., sharing a likeness with their object), an index (e.g., learned
via pointing), and a symbol (i.e., being somewhat a matter of convention).
As a general heuristic, Peirce’s schema will be helpful in our analysis of PS here. For
a start, his tripartite classification of signs (into icons, indices, and symbols) is useful in
bringing order and clarity to the multitudes of phenomena that can be read for meaning.
Then, potentially even more useful is his identification of the three components of the sign-
system (sign, object, and interpretant). For this can help us understand how any given sign
might be deemed “positive.” We shall define this central term shortly, but first we can note
that, however it is in fact defined, it is possible for this quality to “reside” or “inhere” in the
sign, and/or the object, and/or the interpretant. Consider, for instance, the quality of beauty
often regarded as positive (as we shall see) and the question of whether an artwork is
beautiful. In that context, one could regard the artwork as a sign (an icon), the painter’s state
of mind as the object, and the art viewer as the interpretant. According to Wilber (1996),
theories of art differ in where they “locate” the beauty of art. Formalist theories locate it in
the sign itself, such that an artwork might be inherently and objectively beautiful (e.g.,
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Hanslick, 1986). By contrast, influenced by Romanticism, intentional theories locate it in the
object, i.e., in the original intent, feeling, or vision of the creator (e.g., Croce, 1995). Finally,
reception and response theories place the onus on the interpretant, whereby beauty is
conferred by the viewer (e.g., Passmore (1991, p.34), who wrote that “the interpreter, not the
artist, creates the work”). However, Wilber argues that it is possible to regard all these
theories as valid, albeit partially so, in that beauty can reside in the artwork itself, and/or in
the original intent of the artist, and/or in the response of the viewer.
Thus, a given sign might be appraised as positive based on the sign itself, and/or the
object, and/or the interpretant. To begin with, positivity might be “evident” in the sign itself.
For instance, a natural “Duchenne” smile is nearly-universally appraised as conveying a
positive mental state or intention on the part of the smiler (with some exceptions; Ekman &
Friesen, 1982; Krumhuber & Manstead, 2009). Conversely, positivity may be there in the
object, but not necessarily the sign. To give a personal example, I once visited a religious
temple, and sought to express my respect for my hosts and surroundings by clasping my
hands behind my back, only to be gently told that this gesture actually conveyed impoliteness
and even aggression in this context. Thus, even though the “object” (i.e., mental state and
attitude) I wished to signify was positive (e.g., respect), the sign by which I sought to
communicate that was appraised by others as negative. This point then brings into play the
third factor, in that independently of the sign and the object, any given phenomenon can be
appraised as positive by an interpretant. In the case of my temple experience, cultural factors
shaped how my body language sign was received: people accustomed to the temple context
appraised it as negative, whereas an observer who was not part of that context may have
interpreted it differently. In other instances, the role of the interpretant may be even more
idiosyncratic and subjective, in that people develop their own unique patterns of association
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based on life experience (where a given phenomenon may evoke positive thoughts or
memories for one person that are not shared by others).
As a final point, one might even suggest that a sign’s positivity is a function of its
“presence” across the three aspects of the sign-system. That is, a case where positivity is
evident or inherent in the sign, and the object, and the interpretant conveys more positivity
than cases where it is there in only one or two of the three (as in some of the examples
above). For instance, a Duchenne smile would probably satisfy all three, in that it is usually,
(a) an unambiguous sign of positivity, (b) genuinely expresses a positive mental state
(although see Krumhuber and Manstead (2009) for contrary evidence), and (c) is almost-
uniformly interpreted as positive (Soussignan, 2002). We might try to capture this point as a
formula, which we might refer to as the “presence” of positivity in a sign-system. (In addition
to “presence,” two further considerations in relation to the positivity of a sign-system will be
introduced below, namely “scale” and “nature.) Thus, if positivity is denoted as Pos, the
sign as Si, the object as Ob, and the interpretant as In, we could express this idea as a
heuristic equation, such that Pos = f (Si + Ob + In). Obviously, this is not a “true”
mathematical formula, since these are not calculable units, and cannot in any sense be
quantified and added. Nevertheless, it might help us to appreciate the dimensions of how a
sign might be positive or otherwise. Now we need to ask, what does the qualifier “positive”
mean here?
The Positive
Although the term “positive” has numerous meanings, these essentially take one of two main
forms, relating to either, (a) affirmation, or (b) desirability (Pawelski, 2016). The former can
imply certainty (e.g., being sure about something) and confirmation (e.g., in relation to tests),
whereas the latter implies that something is good or beneficial in some way. The latter is the
one we are drawing on here. In that respect, this paper takes inspiration from the field of
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positive psychology (PP), a branch of academia focused on understanding and facilitating
wellbeing. Since its inception, PP has encouraged the creation of other fields that similarly
adopt the positive prefix, from “positive education” (Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, &
Linkins, 2009) to “positive health” (Seligman, 2008). These new paradigms relate to PP in
two main ways. Some cases are a hybrid field, in which a discipline is intermingling with PP,
drawing upon theories and practices associated with it. In the case of “positive education,” for
instance, educators and scholars draw on PP frameworks such as “character strengths” and
apply them in an educational context (Park & Peterson, 2008). In other cases though, fields
have not incorporated PP per se, but have simply been inspired or encouraged by PP to
develop a more positive orientation within their own context and parameters. This appears to
be the case with Seligman’s (2008) notion of “positive health,” which he suggests merely has
“parallels” to PP, in that it focuses on “[physical] health rather than illness” (just as PP
focuses on mental health rather than mental illness) (p.3). In the case of this proposed
paradigm of PS, both approaches are relevant: there is an interest in how semiotics intersects
with PP, since the latter can broadly be defined as “the science and practice of improving
wellbeing” (Lomas, Hefferon, & Ivtzan, 2015, p.1347), and wellbeing is central to the notion
of positivity, as we shall see; and also, like PP, are aiming to explore the positive aspects of
semiotics more broadly (i.e., in ways that might fall outside the scope and remit of PP). But,
again, what does positive mean in this context? We’ve already suggested that our interest is
with the second broad meaning of the term, i.e., desirability.
Of course, desirability is a complex issue. For instance, Pawelski (2016) offers one
inclusion criterion and five continuum criteria for identifying something as positive (in the
sense of desirability). The inclusion criterion is simply preference, in that a phenomenon is
positive if its presence is preferred to its absence. Then, the continuum criteria indicate the
scale” of positivity, with positivity being a function of: (a) relative preference (the strength
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of the preference for it over something else); (b) sustainability across time (the longer-lasting
the better); (c) sustainability across persons (the more popular the better); (d) sustainability
across effects (the more positive knock-on effects, the better); and (e) sustainability across
structures (the more scalable and transferable across organisational and cultural contexts, the
better). This kind of analysis is very useful. In that respect, we can add to our heuristic
formula introduced above, namely Pos = f (Si + Ob + In), where the positivity of a sign (Pos)
is a function of the extent to which the positivity is present in the sign (Si), and/or object
(Ob), and/or interpretant (In). Then, based on Pawelski’s analysis of the continuum criteria, it
can be argued that positivity is enhanced by the extent to which something is preferred (Pr)
relative to other phenomena, and is sustained across time (Ti), people (Pe), effects (Ef), and
structures (St). To give an example, imagine two instances of a smile: a polite smile between
two passing strangers that is of little import, impacts no-one else, and is forgotten soon after;
versus a beaming smile by a politician, offered as a sign of electoral victory to thousands of
adoring supporters, promising a prosperous and desired future. The latter would score
significantly more strongly in terms of preference and sustainability across time, people,
effects and structures. Thus, we might refer to Pawelski’s criteria as the “scale” of positivity
in a sign-system (to add to the “presence” of positivity discussed above). Together, these
considerations create the formula Pos = f ((Si + Ob + In) x (Pr + Ti + Pe + Ef + St)).
Moreover, one can go further still, and attempt to elucidate what desirability might
actually consist of. To shed light on this issue, consider two intersecting forms of desirability:
normative (i.e., widely regarded as desirable), and non-normative (i.e., idiosyncratic, personal
desires). Both are relevant to PS. Beginning with normative desirability, there are many ways
of thinking about this notion. One particularly useful lens is the conceptual triad of goodness,
truth, and beauty (Martin, 2016). This schema has a long, auspicious, and moreover cross-
cultural pedigree, from its association with Plato in the West (who wrote in Phaedrus of “the
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ability of the soul to soar up to heaven to behold beauty, wisdom, goodness”), to its
appearance in the Bhagavad Gita in the East (with its valorisation of “words which are good
and beautiful and true”). It has continued to inspire thinkers down the centuries, from Diderot
(who in 1776 compared le vrai, le bon, et le beau the true, the good, and the beautiful to
the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), to Kant (whose Critiques of Pure Reason,
Practical Reason, and Judgement, dealt respectively with issues of truth, goodness and
beauty). Although the power of this triumvirate has been challenged by modern philosophies
such as the notion of truth being contested by post-modern relativism scholars like
Gardner (2011) have emphasised that they are still salvageable and relevant.
Drawing on this schema, we can begin to outline some heuristic principles that may
help us assess the extent to which a sign is positive. Taking goodness first, in this context of
semiotics, we might say this means that a sign-system points towards the enactment of some
moral quality or code (recognising of course that are disagreements about what constitutes
such a quality or code). Given a moral code that valorises acts of charity, for instance, then a
sign-system that signifies an act of charity could be deemed good. But goodness is arguably
neither necessary nor sufficient to render a sign-system positive. First, it is not necessary, in
that so long as a sign-system is not explicitly antithetical to goodness i.e., merely neutral
with respect to morality, being amoral rather than immoral it could just be true and
beautiful and thus be deemed positive. And goodness is arguably not sufficient, since in
combination with the antithesis of truth (i.e., falsity) it is undermined.
To appreciate this latter point, consider the second quality, truth. In the context of
semiotics, this essentially means representational accuracy, i.e., a sign really does signify
what it purports to signify (all three elements of the sign-system are aligned and coherent). In
that sense, in most cases, truth is necessary but not sufficient for rendering a sign positive. It
is necessary, in that its absence would usually undermine any other quality the sign possesses.
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A sign that appeared to signify charity would be ostensibly good, but if it was false (e.g.,
someone faking generosity), it would be rendered meaningless. There are some caveats
though, in that one could imagine situations in which a lie served sufficiently good, moral
ends that the normative commitment to truth is suspended. Generally, though, signs must
surely be truthful to be positive. But truth is not sufficient, in the absence of goodness or
beauty. A sign that conveys hatred, for instance, may truly reflect its author’s mental state,
but this lacks goodness, and so could not be deemed positive. Finally, beauty pertains to the
aesthetic qualities of the sign-system; this quality is neither necessary nor sufficient to make a
sign positive. But it does help strengthen its positivity. In that sense, the more boxes a sign
ticks (e.g., good, true, and beautiful), and the more strongly it does so, the more positive we
might consider it to be; we’ll return to his point shortly.
In addition to these normative desirability concerns, we also need to consider non-
normative concerns, i.e., personal, idiosyncratic wants and preferences. That is, aside from
normative considerations, a sign can be positive if it signifies something that a person desires.
Obviously, such signs are inherently subjective, and attain their meaning relative to a
person’s individual context: a dark cloud signifying impending rain, for instance, will elicit
very different reactions from a couple on their wedding morning and a farmer who has
suffered months of drought. That said, such sign-systems are not divorced from concerns of
goodness, truth, and beauty. The criterion of truth still applies, in that a sign that did not
really signify what it purported to could not be deemed positive in an ultimate sense (e.g., if
the farmer was mistaken about the raincloud signifying rain). So too does the criterion of
goodness. After all, a sadist might desire a sign that some other person is in pain, which could
not be regarded as positive. However, is it still worth adding this non-normative, personal
criterion into the mix. That is, it was suggested above that more boxes a sign ticks (e.g., good,
true, and beautiful), and the more strongly it does so, the more positive it is. Personal
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desirability is then an additional box: a sign may be good, true, and beautiful, and then if in
addition it is truly personally desired by someone, its positivity only increases further.
In that respect, we can add to our heuristic formula introduced above. It was argued
that the positivity of a sign (Pos) is a function of its’ “presence” – i.e., the extent to which the
positivity is present in the sign (Si), object (Ob), and interpretant (In) and also its “scale,”
i.e., the extent to which something is preferred (Pr) relative to other phenomena, and is
sustained across time (Ti), people (Pe), effects (Ef), and structures (St). In addition to these
considerations, it was suggested that positivity consists in goodness (Go), truth (Tr), beauty
(Be), and personal wants (Wa). We might refer to this as the “nature” of the positivity in the
sign-system. Together, these considerations create the overarching formula Pos = f ((Si + Ob
+ In) x (Pr + Ti + Pe + Ef + St) x (Go + Tr + Be + Wa)). This formulation is presented in a
slightly different way in table 1 below
[insert table 1 here]
Again, it bears repeating that this is not a “true” formula, since these are not
calculable units, and cannot in any sense be quantified and added. Nevertheless, it helps us to
appreciate the ways in which a sign might be positive or otherwise. It will be worth bearing
this in mind as we consider what PS might actually pertain to, with the sections below
outlining various manifestations of PS, together with a consideration of relevant literature.
Semiotic Channels
To provide substance to the notion of PS, and to explore what it might mean in practice, the
remainder of the paper will explore four prominent semiotic channels (i.e., types of sign-
system). In each case, we will consider what might constitute PS in that channel. The
channels below are: non-exhaustive (in that PS is not necessarily limited to those below);
overlapping (in that a given communicative act may touch upon more than one channel); and
granular (in that each can be differentiated further into sub-channels). Nevertheless, touching
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upon these four can at least provide an entry into the notion of PS, and hopefully stimulate
further research and enquiry into these areas. The channels in question are: discursive
language; body language; symbols; and art. To reiterate, these four do not exhaust the
potential semiotic channels that exist; indeed, as argued at the start, it is possible to view
everything as a “text” that can be read for meaning, from DNA structures to weather patterns.
Nevertheless, they will suffice here to provide an initial sense of the scope and nature of PS.
Discursive language
The first two channels focus on language, which we can usefully subdivide into (a) discursive
language (i.e., using spoken or written words), and (b) body language (i.e., bodily gestures
and expressions, including the special case of sign language). In real life, these channels are
often combined in one communicative act, but conceptually it is possible and helpful to
differentiate them. Thus, this first channel encompasses the vast terrain that is discursive
language, which essentially means spoken or written words. This is obviously a huge area.
Indeed, people could easily assume that this channel constitutes semiotics in its entirety; that
is, if semiotics rests upon the idea that phenomena are “texts” that can be “read for meaning”,
then common sense might alight upon what are conventionally viewed as texts, i.e.,
sequences of words. However, a key point of this paper is to draw attention to other semiotic
channels, which can often be overlooked. That said, it would be remiss if we did not also
consider this central semiotic phenomenon of discursive language, if only briefly. To
reiterate, this basically means words, either individually (i.e., distinct lexemes), or in
sequence (in that an entire sentence of words could be treated as a sign). But what does PS
mean in this context?
It is perhaps easier and more common to conceptualise this question as a negative,
i.e., in terms of avoiding communications that are explicitly negative. Two of the main
proscriptions in that respect are injunctions against falsehoods and hate speech. The former is
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a cornerstone of most legal systems, for instance. Following the formula above, it could be
deemed negative in that it violates the commitment to truth embodied in our positivity
equation. The latter defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as “public speech that
expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person based on something such as race,
religion, sex, or sexual orientation” – is similarly proscribed within the legal system. It could
be considered negative in abrogating the ideal of goodness, not to mention from the
perspective of its target those of beauty and desirability, and likely also truth too.
It is also intriguing to consider the notion of PS in the positive. The antithesis of
uttering falsehoods is obviously a commitment to truth. But can we go further and also
identify the antithesis of hate speech “love speech” perhaps. An interesting example in that
respect can be found in Buddhism, with its ethical precept of “right speech” (samma vaca). In
Buddhist teachings, this precept is described both in negative and positive terms. The former
essentially means refraining from the twin misdeeds, outlined above, of false and hate speech.
As outlined in the Pali canon (SN. 45.8), this involves “Abstaining from lying, from divisive
speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter.” But the teachings go further, outlining a
vision of communication that is explicitly positive, with five main guidelines (AN 5.198),
namely: “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is
spoken affectionately. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” Clearly, this goes beyond
simply not lying or being hateful, but outlines a more ambitious vision of how discourse can
be positive, wherein one is minded to convey one’s message in a way that will be optimal for
those receiving it. Here one could imagine an ideal wherein their speech ticks all the “boxes”
of positivity outlined in the formula above, i.e., (a) has the “presence” of positivity inhering
in all aspects of the sign-system (sign, object, and interpretant); (b) per Pawelski’s (2016)
continuum criteria, has significant scale, being greatly preferred relative to other phenomena,
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and is sustained across time, people, effects, and structures; and (c) meets all the “nature”
criteria of positivity (goodness, truth, beauty, and desirability).
On that point though, one is also reminded that such speech can still challenge its
listeners (and so perhaps lacks desirability from their present perspective). A parent might
admonish their child for misbehaviour, for instance, in way that follows these principles, and
has the child’s best interests at heart, and yet is unappreciated by the child. In that respect,
Aristotle’s line about skilfully expressing anger comes to mind: “to be angry with the right
person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right
way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” Clearly, this is a complex area
about which much could be said. It is beyond the scope here to delve into all the nuances of
what PS might consist of in relation to discursive language. Rather the point of this paper is
simply to outline the main territory of PS, with the aim of generating a fruitful programme of
enquiry into its dynamics. As such, we are merely briefly touching upon some of the key
areas, the next of which is body language.
Body Language
Moving beyond discursive language, we can begin to appreciate the point made above that all
phenomena can be “read for meaning,” and consequently pertain to PS. In that respect, the
second main channel considered is body language. This itself can be refracted into various
forms, including facial expressions, gestures, and sign language, which we’ll briefly touch
upon in turn.
Facial expressions have been studied intensely by scholars such as Ekman (2009),
with his work on micro-expressions. Much could be said on this topic in relation to PS, but
we can by way of example just focus on the aforementioned phenomenon of the “Duchenne”
smile, whereby the coordination of multiple muscle movements (including the mouth and the
eyes) combine to reflect a positive (i.e., happy) internal mental state. As noted above, in this
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
17
case, positivity might be deemed to inhere in all three components of the sign system, in that
it is usually, (a) an unambiguous sign of positivity, (b) genuinely expresses a positive mental
state, and (c) is uniformly interpreted as positive (Soussignan, 2002). However, we might
delve further into the nuances of PS by noting that these points may not always apply. For
instance, with respect to (b), research by Krumhuber and Manstead (2009) suggests it may be
possible to voluntarily feign this type of smile. Or regarding (c), we can note that a sign is
always a sign for someone. In that sense, one can imagine scenarios in which even though the
smile genuinely reflects a positive mental state in the person smiling (the sign and object are
consonant), it is yet not perceived as positive by the interpretant. Imagine a football supporter
smiling because his team has beaten a rival team. A fellow fan will perceive this as positive,
mainly in relation to the desirability criterion i.e., the smile reflects a state of affairs
(satisfaction at one’s team winning) that is both desired and welcomed whereas a rival
supporter will not. In that respect, here we might also point to Pawelski’s (2016) continuum
criteria, in that the positivity is only sustained across a limited set of people and structures
that particular football club and its in-group of supporters and not to those outside. Such
examples highlight the complexities of reading signs (such as smiles) for meaning and
interpreting their significance.
A related phenomenon to facial expression is that of gestures (i.e., communicative
acts using the body). As with all other channels and sub-channels here, this is a fertile area of
enquiry, one which has been much studied across diverse academic disciplines. These range
from cognitive psychology (e.g., where scholars have analysed how gestures communicate
information about one’s mental state) (Hostetter & Alibali, 2008), to ethnography (e.g.,
where socially-learned gestures have the power to demarcate in-group from out-group)
(Herzfeld, 2009). Regarding PS, there has already been a fair amount of research on gestures
perceived as positive, and moreover the contexts in which this occurs (which, in some cases,
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
18
can differ markedly across cultures and time-periods). Some gestures appear to have greater
cross-cultural universality, with less scope for idiosyncratic meanings and interpretations, and
potentially even intuitive or instinctual origins. One example might be the gentle stroking of
another’s skin, which is not only perceived as an act of caring and/or friendship across human
cultures, but among non-human animals too (such as primates), lending credence to the
notion that it is instinctual and biologically-driven (Boccia, 1983). Conversely, other gestures
such as the thumbs-up sign are more culturally specific and contingent, and the product of
social trends in specific places and eras (Sherzer, 1991).
Finally, in considering the semiotic power of gesture, special mention must go to the
various sign languages which have been developed across the world. These generally involve
signs made by moving the hands, together with facial expressions and bodily postures
(Stokoe, 2005). (For instance, a question can be indicated by the signer raising their
eyebrows, widening their eyes, and tilting their bodies forward.) In fact, such is the power of
articulation facilitated by such modes of communication that these are essentially discursive
languages albeit ones performed with the body and so could equally be situated in the
section above. Thus, the points made there apply equally here. Nevertheless, it is worth
mentioning sign languages on their own terms here, if only because they reveal the richness
of semiotic channels that do not require vocalised or written language. And, from the
perspective of PS, it can be noted that some signed gestures can have particularly profound or
emotive meanings, which moreover may be amplified by the way such signs incorporate the
signer’s embodied being (in a way that spoken language does not); for instance, in American
Sign Language, terms such as “love” and “feel” are signed around the location of the chest
(and previously the heart specifically) (Frishberg, 1975).
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
19
Symbols
The third main semiotic channel we shall consider here is the deeply rich world of symbols.
Recall above that, for Peirce (1982), symbols were one of three types of sign (alongside icons
and indices), being ones whose relation to their objects is of an “imputed character” (i.e.,
according to convention or social agreement). However, we also noted that differentiating
between the types of sign can be difficult in practice, as a sign may in fact be a combination
of multiple types. Thus, as we shall see, it is possible to find symbols that also share the
quality of being icons and/or indices. As with the other channels here, we can elucidate this
category by touching upon several sub-channels, including logos, emoticons, and value-
signifiers.
The term “logo” is used here as an all-encompassing label for the vast collection of
graphic images designed or adopted by people to represent phenomena of significance. Such
phenomena include organisations of all forms, from religions (e.g., Christianity represented
by the cross), to companies (e.g., Nike represented by the swoosh), to regions (e.g., nations
represented by national flags). They also include natural and behavioural phenomena, from
biological entities and processes (e.g., elements represented in the periodic table) to human
actions (e.g., proscriptions against behaviours like the no-smoking sign). They further
encompass more abstract ideas, relating to endeavours from medicine (e.g., the caduceus as a
symbol of healing) to philosophy (e.g., yin-yang as a dialectical symbol of the insights of
Taoism). The wealth of such symbols is so vast that it rivals discursive speech for richness,
fecundity, and complexity (Cirlot, 2006), so clearly we cannot here go beyond the briefest of
summaries. But in the context of PS, one point is particularly worth emphasising, namely the
complexity of symbols in determining their meaning (positive or otherwise). Take the
Christian cross for instance. On a literal level it is most closely associated with the suffering
of Christ, which would be judged as negative in all elements of the sign-system; yet it is also
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
20
valued as a sign of hope and redemption, even amidst that suffering, and so in its deeper
levels contains a message that is deeply profound in its positivity to many people. But then,
even granting that, many non-Christians may be unmoved by the symbol, or even repelled by
it (e.g., if they have suffered in relation to Christianity) (Boys, 1994). Such is the complexity
of symbols (and indeed many signs) that appraising them vis-à-vis positivity is a remarkably
complex task in practice (and one which is also contingent and influenced by context).
A second type of symbol worth mentioning is the emergent language of emoticons
pictorial icons (in Peirce’s terminology) which represent facial expressions in some way
(from the imaginative use of punctuation to more “realistic” facial depictions). In one sense
these could also just be regarded as a species of logo. However, whereas logos tend to be
individual stand-alone graphics (although they can also be conceptually or historically linked
together), emoticons are a form of structurally-associated discourse unto themselves. That is,
like other semiotic channels (such as discursive language), emoticons facilitate a range of
expressions and communicative intent. But they are also worth mentioning specifically as a
good example of the spontaneity and generativity of semiotic systems. For they represent a
form of communication which did not functionally exist until recently although forerunners
have been identified in English texts dating back to at least the 19th Century having been
formally proposed and used in the 1980s, and since rapidly gaining near ubiquity over the
past decade (Houston, 2014). As with all the types of signs considered here, much could be
said about emoticons from a PS perspective. But one consideration seems especially salient,
namely what might be called the “flattening” of affect. It has been suggested that, compared
to other semiotic channels from discursive language to logos emoticons are particularly
poor at conveying subtlety, depth, and intensity (Biocca & Levy, 2013). Thus, regarding the
“scale” of the sign’s positivity – derived from Pawelski’s (2016) continuum criteria
emoticons perhaps are relatively limited in the extent to which positivity is sustained across
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
21
time, people, effects, and structures. A smiley face is rigidly the same, allowing minimal
differentiation, and lacking other cues that could help refine its meaning. The impact of such
communications trends upon wellbeing and relationship dynamics are thus worthy of further
study.
A third type of symbol worth touching upon here are what might be called value-
signifiers. These are not distinct logos (i.e., recognisable graphics), but rather the almost
infinitely rich and complex array of signs that can be interpreted as providing information
about people’s values, ideals, worth, and so on. These include the clothes people wear, the
belongings they buy and display, the money they earn, and so on. All these phenomena “say
something” about a person, and moreover may often be consciously chosen for that very
reason, e.g., as a way of constructing and communicating one’s identity (see e.g., Thomsen
and Sørensen (2006) on parental choices of pram in that regard). An expensive suit, for
instance, might communicate an array of messages, including a certain wealth and status, a
conventional and well-rewarded occupation, materialist values, and a commitment to being
well-groomed. None of those need necessarily be actually true of the wearer (they may
usually disdain such attire but are attending a wedding, perhaps), but absent other cues are
liable to be read that way. For people are very attuned to such signs, and make inferences
based on them (e.g., about a person’s social status). In that respect, from a PS perspective, a
key concern is that status is a “valuable resource” (Huberman, Loch, & Önçüler, 2004), and
disparities in relative status can be detrimental to the wellbeing of the worse off, and
sometimes even for the better-off too (e.g., through reduced social capital in their shared
society) (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). As such, while displays of worth may be positive for
the wearer (e.g., a sign of their affluence), it may not be for other interpretants, thus
highlighting the complexities around interpreting the nature of signs (e.g., the extent of their
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
22
positivity). Signs can thus be “fractured” – subject to diverse and even conflicting meanings
as we have seen above (such as in relation to logos).
Art
The final semiotic channel we shall consider here is that of art. This of course overlaps with
the channels considered above, since art can incorporate discursive language (e.g., literature,
or song lyrics), body language (e.g., dance, or sculpture), and symbols (e.g., in paintings, or
jewellery). However, it is also worth considering on its own terms, since art can generate and
convey meaning in ways that do not necessarily involve these other channels. To illustrate
this point, we’ll briefly consider three prominent artistic modalities: architecture, painting,
and music.
With architecture, the way in which buildings and environments are constructed is full
of meaning, both in terms of what those implementing it (commissioner, designer, builder,
etc.) intended to convey, and how it is perceived by its audience and users. Such meaning can
be conveyed in various ways. Much may be said, for instance, by the choice of building
styles and materials, particularly in the (post)-modern age (when all styles and materials are
available to select from). For instance, neoclassical architecture a movement initiated in the
18th century revives the style of the classical world, characterised by grandeur of scale,
simplicity of geometric forms, and dramatic use of columns. Its contemporary use thus
communicates something about the ideals to which its implementors aspire, especially when
invoked in reaction to other architectural trends, such as modernism with neoclassicalism
sometimes referred to as anti-modernism which in turn communicate their own values and
ideals (Brumfield, 1989). Meaning can also be conveyed through choices around shape and
dimensions. An interesting example is the use especially in classical and neoclassical
architecture of the “golden ratio” (even if there are popular misconceptions about how
widespread or deliberate its use is; Markowsky, 1992). It occurs whenever the irrational
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
23
number Φ (roughly 1.618, rounded down) describes both the ratio between two quantities and
the ratio between the larger quantity and the sum of the two. This would occur, for instance,
with a building that is 5 metres high and 3.09 meters wide (where you get 1.618 if you divide
the height by the width, and if you divide the height plus the width by the height). The golden
ratio is widely regarded as especially aesthetically pleasing, for reasons that are much
debated, including the possibility that it reflects patterns that recur widely in nature (e.g.,
structuring spiral-like configurations such as seashells and galaxies) (Green, 1995). In that
sense, its deployment in architecture can be seen as having a positive semiotic function,
namely in that it signifies in some subtle and perhaps mysterious and poorly-understood
way an intrinsic quality of beauty, and relatedly, possibly also the other elements of the
“nature” aspect of the sign-system, such as goodness and truth.
This point brings us to the second artistic channel considered here, namely painting.
For numerous paintings have been analysed as being structured according to the dimensions
of the golden ratio, with this purportedly helping to account for the aesthetic qualities of the
work (with Botticelli's “The Birth of Venus often cited as an example) (Cellucci, 2015).
Thus, as with architecture, beauty may be conveyed in paintings through the deployment of
the golden ratio, and by other qualities that in the natural world are also interpreted as being
positive in some way such as symmetry in faces, which research has suggested may be
indicative of health in people, and relatedly is typically perceived as attractive (Fink, Neave,
Manning, & Grammer, 2006). However, that being said, we must be wary of universalising
aesthetic judgements, both across time and cultures. Standards and conventions of beauty in
art can change often radically both within cultures across time (e.g., in terms of the
development of new artistic traditions), and across cultures. With respect to the latter, for
instance, an interesting counterpoint to much of Western art is that of Zen aesthetics. Many
Western artistic trends especially before the 20th Century are characterised by a degree of
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
24
realism (e.g., literal representational accuracy), vivid use of colour, harmonic proportion, and
a full composition (i.e., paint covering the entire canvas). By contrast, Zen art is often guided
by other qualities which reflect the philosophy of Zen itself, and relatedly the way of being it
seeks to encourage (Lomas, Etcoff, Gordon, & Shonin, 2017). These include Japanese
concepts such as kanso (elegant simplicity), fukinsei (asymmetry, irregularity), koko (austere
sublimity), shizen (naturalness), datsuzoku (freedom from convention), seijaku (stillness,
tranquillity), and yūgen (profound depth) (Hisamatsu, 1971). In Zen then, to the extent that an
artwork can convey these meanings and qualities, it will be appraised as positive (e.g.,
deemed good, true, and beautiful). Likewise, in terms of Pawelski’s (2016) continuum
criteria, the “scale” of the sign’s positivity is reflected in the degree to which these qualities
are preferred to other possible aesthetic considerations, and the extent to which their effects
are sustained across time, people, effects, and structures.
The final artistic channel we’ll touch upon here is music. As with the other channels,
considerable work has gone into exploring what Antović (2009) calls “musical semantics,”
i.e., how music conveys or elicits meaning, and more generally signifies certain qualities.
There are of course different perspectives on this issue. For instance, Antović suggests that
20th century music theory oscillated between two main stances: “formalist” (whereby music
has no other meaning “than itself,” i.e., as a self-contained system), and “referentialist”
(whereby music evokes other phenomena, such as sounds in nature). However, most theorists
agree that music can be read for meaning such as the emotions it conveys or evokes even
if there are differences of interpretation at the granular level. Swain (1997) for instance cites
the example of Beethoven’s Appassionata; he suggests that most people would assent that it
connotes “explosive fury” rather than “peaceful contemplation,” a judgement made on the
basis of factors such as tempo, volume, and harmonic regularity; however differentiating
explosive fury from passionate determination” would be trickier. Other musical factors
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
25
influencing interpretation include chords and melody. Perhaps the most obvious example is
the distinction between major and minor keys, which tend to be associated with and to elicit
positive and negative emotionality respectively (for reasons which are much researched and
debated) (Koelsch & Siebel, 2005). However, the picture is more complicated than simply
saying that major keys are constitutive of PS, since a considerable literature exists on why
people derive meaning, value, and even pleasure from ostensibly sad music (Sachs, Damasio,
& Habibi, 2015). Furthermore, as with the other artistic modalities, there are considerable
cross-cultural differences although also universals in terms of how music is perceived and
interpreted, as well as in styles and traditions that are popular and perceived as being of high
quality (Laukka, Eerola, Thingujam, Yamasaki, & Beller, 2013).
Conclusion
This paper has sought to introduce and substantiate the notion of PS. This is proposed as a
label for disparate research and theorising that is already underway across various academic
fields, from psychology to anthropology. The paper began by drawing on Peirce’s (1998)
theory of semiotics, suggesting that a sign’s positivity is a function of its “presence” in the
sign-system, namely the extent to which it inheres in its three aspects. Thus, where positivity
is evident or inherent in the sign, and the object, and the interpretant such as a Duchenne
smile (albeit possibly not always) this conveys more positivity than cases where it is there
in only one or two of the three. This suggestion was captured in a formula (albeit not a “true”
mathematical one, with calculable units), where if positivity is denoted as Pos, the sign as Si,
the object as Ob, and the interpretant as In, we could express this idea as a heuristic equation,
such that Pos = f (Si + Ob + In). We then delved into the notion of what “positive” might
mean in the context of PS, focusing on the notion of desirability, following Pawelski’s (2016)
analysis. Based upon his continuum criteria, it was suggested that a scale” of positivity may
be identified, with positivity being a function of the extent to which something is preferred
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
26
(Pr) relative to other phenomena, and is sustained across time (Ti), people (Pe), effects (Ef),
and structures (St). Finally, we looked specifically at the “nature” of desirability, i.e., what it
might consist of in practice, differentiating between normative and non-normative forms
(both of which are relevant to PS). The former was elucidated using the conceptual triad of
goodness (Go), truth (Tr), and beauty (Be), whereas the latter was characterised as personal
wants (We). Thus, overall, the positivity of a sign is a depends upon its presence, scale, and
nature. Together, these considerations, and their components, can be expressed using the
following heuristic formula: Pos = f ((Si + Ob + In) x (Pr + Ti + Pe + Ef + St) x (Go + Tr +
Be + Wa)).
Having then clarified the notion of PS, the remainder of the article then looked at four
main semiotic channels, each of which comprise various subchannels, and each of which
interrelate and overlap. These included: discursive language; body language (including facial
expressions, gestures, and sign language); symbols (including logos, emoticons, and value-
signifiers); and art (including architecture, painting, and music). Throughout these sections,
illustrative research and theorising was cited to flesh out the idea of what PS might look like
in the context of that particular channel and subchannel. However, the relevant literature is
vast, and so it was beyond the scope of this paper to touch on more than an indicative fraction
of this. The point of the paper was simply to shine a light on what is and can be a fruitful area
of academic enquiry i.e., the way in which sign-systems are or could be positive and to
allude to the disparate work that already exists in relation to this. Relatedly, the paper has
hopefully also indicated generative avenues for further research in this area. This could
include, for instance, analysing communication dynamics across these semiotic channels
and others, since the list above is non-exhaustive through the prism of the formula above.
More generally, such research could also include studying cross-cultural differences in how
sign-systems are created, perceived, and interpreted, and more generally, the impact of all
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
27
forms of context upon how signs are read for meaning. Clearly, much more work can be done
to further our understanding of this important topic, and hopefully this paper can stimulate
further efforts in that regard.
More broadly, it is hoped that this paper can help foster a rapprochement between
psychology and semiotics, helping promote a mutually beneficial process of dialogue and
collaboration. As noted at the start, despite their common origins, these fields of enquiry have
subsequently largely followed independent and even antagonistic paths. However, as the likes
of Bouissac (1998) have argued, there is much to gain from establishing a closer relationship
and pursuing research and theorising at their intersection. This does not merely mean with
respect to wellbeing the focus of this present paper, with its emphasis on PS but in all
aspects of human functioning. Just to give one prominent example, there is intense interest in
psychology and related fields, from neuroscience to social policy of the impact upon mind
and behaviour of new patterns of communication fostered by the emergent technologies and
practices of social media (Best, Manktelow, & Taylor, 2014). These range from the adoption
and effect of new modes of communication, such as emoticons (Biocca & Levy, 2013), to
people’s (in)ability to perceive and interpret so-called “fake news” and other forms of media
manipulation (Balmas, 2014). To fully understand such phenomena it is imperative to bring
both psychology and semiotics into consideration, and for scholars from these two fields (and
others) to collaborate in exploring their intersection. It is hoped that this paper offers an
example of such an exploration that will be useful and generative over the years ahead.
Running head: POSITIVE SEMIOTICS
28
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Positivity = A function of
Presence
Scale
Nature
The extent to which positivity …
… is inherent in the
- Sign and/or
- Object and/or
- Interpretant
… is
- Preferred and/or
- Sustained across time and/or
- Sustained across people and/or
- Sustained across effects and/or
- Sustained across structures
… pertains to:
- Goodness and/or
- Truth and/or
- Beauty and/or
- Desirability
Table 1. A heuristic formula for assessing the positivity of a sign-system
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