21.Oct.2015 A Strip Mall Semeiotic

American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (pronounced “purse”) was an enigmatic figure.  On the one hand, his contemporaries acknowledged that he was a brilliant scholar.   Peirce not only created new schools of thought — he created entire disciplines.  But Peirce never achieved the type of success one would expect given his brilliance.  Instead, he spent most of his life unemployed in a Pennsylvania hinterland, mired in debt and fighting off bankruptcy — but still intellectually active, churning out volumes of largely unpublished manuscripts.  Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (1998).  Scholars have posited that his professional failures were likely the result of his unconventional morality, his extravagances, his sometimes difficult personality (possibly the result of a painful neurological condition called trigeminal neuralgia), his divorce from his first wife, or his scandalous premarital connection with his second wife (who held herself out to be an Austrian princess).  Id.  When Peirce passed away, his (second) wife gave Harvard several trunks of uncollated drafts and scholars are still trying to piece them together.


Peirce’s theory of signs–his semeiotic–is perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments.  According to Peirce, “it has never been in my power to study anything,—mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, gravitation, thermodynamics, optics, chemistry, comparative anatomy, astronomy, psychology, phonetics, economics, the history of science, whist, men and women, wine, metrology, except as a study of semiotic.”  SS 85-86.  In its most elaborate form, Peirce contemplated at least sixty-six classes of signs.

Many have considered Peirce’s semiotic in the context of the built environment.  For example, Krampen provided a thorough explanation of Peirce’s semiotic theory in Meaning in the Urban Environment, but ultimately offered a lukewarm endorsement of its utility, concluding, “there could be some merit in suing the three relational sign dimensions as one option among others for classifying planning data or for generating research questions.”  Krampen, Meaning in the Urban Environment 50 (1979).  Offering more a more positive endorsement, M. Gottdiener explained that Peircean semiotics offered a number of advantages, including that it “acknowledges the existence of the object world,” it could deal with “all of culture, not just language or systems of communication,” and that there is “no clearly defined signified correlated specifically to a signifier” allowing for meaning to be “always a volatile process of interpretation.”  Gottdiener, Postmodern Semiotics 14 (1995).

However, Gottdiener acknowledged that Peirce’s classificatory scheme is “so complex that it hasn’t been used by subsequent logicians or even Peircean semioticians.” Gottdiener at 13.  Thus, while Gottdiener offers a series of very insightful readings of vernacular structures, such as shopping malls and subdivision names, he does not expressly analyze them using Peirce’s framework.  In this essay, I attempt to rigorously apply Peirce’s semeiotic to understand the built environment and in particular, the Pizza Hut roof.  In this way, I hope to provide a metaphysics of — or perhaps more accurately — a phenomenology of, the Pizza Hut roof.

Peirce’s Semeiotic 

Generally speaking, Peirce believed that a sign is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.”  CP 2.227.  Thus, Peirce’s broad  conception of a sign has three parts: the sign, the object, and the interpretant.  The object is the thing that the sign stands for.  For example, a Pizza Hut sign is a sign that stands for an object — namely, Pizza Hut (e.g. a specific Pizza Hut, or the chain Pizza Hut, or even something else).


The sign and object are fairly straightforward.  Harder to understand, however, is the third component of Peirce’s triad — the interpretant.  To be clear, the interpretant is not the interpreter (i.e., the person who interprets the sign).  It is “the mental effect, or thought” produced by the sign (in the interpreter).  SS 80-81.  It is “an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.”  CP 2.208.  Using Pizza Hut as an example — if you, weary traveler, spy a Pizza Hut sign on the horizon, you may realize that a Pizza Hut is nearby (based upon your idea that the Pizza Hut sign indicates a nearby Pizza Hut).  That idea connecting the two concepts is the interpretant.

Peirce classified a sign according to three aspects of the sign-object-interpretant relationship: (1) the nature of the sign itself, (2) the relationship of the object to the sign, and (3) the relationship of interpretant to the sign.  In turn, Peirce classified each aspect into three types, each which is known as a trichotomy.  For example, depending nature of the sign itself, Peirce classified signs as qualisigns, sinsigns, or legisigns (this is the first trichotomy).  Depending on the relationship of the object to the sign, Peirce classified signs as icons, indices, or symbols (this is the second trichotomy).  Finally, depending on the relationship of the interpretant to the sign, Peirce classified signs as rhemes, dicents, or arguments (this is the third trichotomy).[1]

First trichotomy (nature of the sign itself)

1a) Qualisign

Are there any qualisigns in the Pizza Hut roof?  “A Qualisign is a quality which is a Sign. It cannot actually act as a sign until it is embodied.”  EP 2:291.  Savan provides a insightful illustration: “I use a color chip to identify the color of some paint I want to buy. The color chip is perhaps made of cardboard, rectangular, resting on a wooden table etc., etc. But it is only the color of the chip that is essential to it as a sign of the color of the paint.”  Atkin, A., Peirce’s Theory of Signs, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), quoting Savan, D., An Introduction to C.S. Peirce’s Full System of Semeiotic. (Toronto Semiotic Circle 1988).

The abstract color red used may be a qualisign, but it would not act as a sign until it is embodied — in this case, in the color of shapes on a sign, or as the color of an actual roof.  However, it’s not clear that the color red itself would stand for Pizza Hut.  Thinking about the red color in the abstract, it’s not clear that Pizza Hut will come to mind.  It may to some people.  For example, let’s imagine that Pizza Hut obtained its roof tiles from a single manufacturer, who for thirty years produced nothing but roofing tiles of this specific hue.  To that person, the shade of red would likely stand for Pizza Hut.  But for others, maybe not.

Thinking carefully about the signifying properties of the color red may also give us other, deeper, insights.  For example, this color may represent progress, prosperity, and the future when it is viewed in the context of other elements, such as its application to a building form labeled as a “Hut.”  Why?  The word “hut” is also a sign (discussed more below) and the juxtaposition and contrast of the objects of the sign “hut” (which would not usually include the color red) and the color red suggests a sharp break from traditional forms.

Indeed, even the quality of the quality may be a sign.  Here, the roofs are bright red.  In some ways, the color of the roof matters less than the fact that it a bright color.  Along the strip, forms compete for attention — a sign can be any color as long as its a bright color.  The signifying power of bright colors, however, loses steam when all the colors are bright colors.  In this case, the eye-catching contrast would be understated, drab colors.  Or no colors.

1b) Sinsign

“[A]n actual existent thing or event which is a sign.”  CP 2.245.  Related to the word “singular” — “where the syllable sin is taken as meaning ‘being only once,’ as in single, simple, Latin semel, etc.”  EP 2:291.  Relationship with qualisigns: “[the sinsign] can only be so through its qualities; so that it involves a qualisign, or rather, several qualisigns. But these qualisigns are of a peculiar kind and only form a sign through being actually embodied.”

We traverse the commercial strip — or really anywhere — using sinsigns.  Signs in one of their most colloquial senses (i.e. physical signs) are sinsigns.  So, the Pizza Hut sign pictured above is a sinsign because it is an actual existent thing that stands for an object — that is, a specific Pizza Hut (or potentially, all Pizza Huts).  An entire building may be a sinsign.  For example, a single Pizza Hut building with the classic red roof may be a sinsign to the extent that it stands for the chain of Pizza Hut restaurants.

1c) Legisign 

“[A] law that is a sign.”  By law, Peirce means a “general type.”  It signifies through single instances or replicas (ie sinsigns) that meet the requirements of the law.  As described above,  the word ”hut” (in the abstract) is a sign — in particular, a legisign.  The specific instance of it embodied in the letters on the side of a roof is a sinsign, a replica.  The general type “hut” is lawlike, in that it requires replicas to satisfy certain rules (i.e. rules specifying a sequence of letters — h, u, and t — within a certain allowed proximity).  The general concept of a roof is a legisign. Or the general concept of a specific-type of double mansard roof is also legisign with specific instances as replicas.

Second trichotomy (relationship of object to sign) 

2a) Icon

A sign that represents an object “mainly by similarity.”  For example, a street sign bearing two red trapezoids is an icon because it represents its object (a roof) mainly by similarity (ie the similarity of the outline of shapes on sign and the shape of the profile of a roof).  The Pizza Hut roof itself is an icon when it stands for a chain of restaurants with a similarly-shaped roof.  The original small rented bungalow in Wichita that housed the original Pizza Hut was an icon because, to Beverly Carney (the wife of one of Pizza Hut’s founders), the bungalow looked like a hut.  In other words, the sign (the bungalow) represented its object (the concept of a hut with certain typical characteristics) by way of similarity.

2b) Index

A sign that represents an object because it is in “dynamical (including spatial) connection both with the individual object, on the one hand, and with the senses or memory of the person for whom it serves as a sign.”  Unlike icons, indices have no “significant resemblance to their object.”  Instead, they “direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion.”  Peirce supplies a wealth of imaginative examples of indices: a clock indicates the time, a knock on the door indicates a person, a weathercock indicates wind direction, the north star indicates a direction (north).

Most signboards are indices.  For example, the sign in front of a Pizza Hut is an index because it is in a spatial connection with an individual object (i.e. a Pizza Hut) to indicate its presence.  The words “Pizza Hut” on the side of the roof is also an index because it is in an even more direct relationship to its object — it is attached directly to it.

2c) Symbol

A symbol “becomes a sign only in the fact that a habit, or acquired law, will cause replicas of it to be interpreted as [having a specific meaning].”  According to Peirce, “any ordinary word, as ‘give,’ ‘bird,’ ‘marriage,’ is an example of symbol.  It is applicable to whatever may be found to realize the idea connected with the word; it does not, in itself, identify those things.  It does not show us a bird, nor enact before our eyes a giving or a marriage, but supposes that we are able to imagine those things, and have associated the word with them.”

An easy example of a symbol in the hut is the word “hut.”  It is applicable to whatever may be found to realize the idea connected with the word, but those letters and that word does not in and of itself have any real connection with the idea of huts.

The roof itself is a symbol to the extent that it stands for the Pizza Hut chain of restaurants. The connection between the roof and Pizza Hut is so deeply engrained, it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate that the roof does not, in and of itself, necessarily identify Pizza Hut.  A student at Ernest Kump’s Foothill College in the 1960s (which has buildings with a similar double-mansard roof) would not have connected the roof shape to Pizza Hut because it was before the habit, so to speak, of connecting Pizza Huts to the roof was formed.

The strength of association between sign (roof) and object (Pizza Hut) is apparent when one considers the phenomena of UTBAPHs (buildings “that used to be a Pizza Hut”).  In a UTBAPH, the roof still remains a sign that stands for the object Pizza Hut (as a symbol); however, a Pizza Hut is strikingly absent — it is a residue, a phantom, a palimpsest.

The Pizza Hut roof may also be a symbol when it stands for some broader concept of proposition.  For example, it might stand for the concept of modularization.  Or it might stand for the concept of using distinctive architecture to stand for a type of restaurant.  Or it might stand for pizza.  Or for table-top Pac Man video games.  Or table top video games generally.  In each of these instances, the sign (the roof) to any of these concepts other than habit.  We associate a particular roof with a table-top Pac Man video game because of a regular connection between the two that now persists long after the connection itself is gone.

Third trichotomy (relationship of interpretant to sign)

3a) Rheme

“[W]henever we understand a sign in terms of qualities it suggests its object may have, we generate an interpretant that qualifies its sign as a rheme.”  Atkin at 3.3.  “If parts of a proposition be erased so as to leave blanks in their places, and if these blanks are of such a nature that if each of them be filled by a proper name the result will be a proposition, then the blank form of proposition which was first produced by the erasures is termed a rheme.”  CP 2.272.  A rheme is an unsaturated predicate.

The rheme is difficult enough to comprehend, let alone identify actual examples in Pizza Hut.  Signs in the abstract, like the double-trapezoid shape, a type of double-mansard roof, or the general concept of a Hut are rhemes because it is open-ended as to what may satisfy those concepts.  As a very concrete example hewing closely to the valence analogy, the empty parking space is front of a Hut may be a rheme to the extent that it stands for a car.

3b) Dicent

If “a sign determines an interpretant by focusing our understanding of the sign upon the existential features it employs in signifying an object,” then that sign is a dicent.  Atkin at 3.3.  A dicent is akin to a fully saturated proposition.

In a similar way as the built environment is full of sinsigns and indices, the built environment is also full of dicents.  For example, a Pizza Hut sign is a dicent because it determines an interpretant by focusing our understanding of the sign upon existential features that it uses to signify its object (i.e. the sign focuses our understanding of the sign through its proximity to Pizza Hut).  And to continue the parking lot analogy, the occupied parking space would be a dicent.

3c) Argument

“An Argument is a Sign which, for its Interpretant, is a sign of law.”  An interpretant may qualify a sign as an argument if we understand the sign as focusing our attention on a conventional feature of the sign’s relationship with its object.  See Atkin at 3.3.  Such a nature allows us to understand a sign as part of a larger system of knowledge.  For example, the abstract Pizza Hut roof focuses our attention on the conventional nature of the relationship of the roof (the sign) and the object (Pizza Hut).


In a world comprised of so much artifice, a method to uncover the Real is enticing.  Peirce’s theory is promising in this regard, because it appears that Peirce had something like this in mind.  For example, he divided objects into immediate objects and dynamic objects (the dynamic object as the thing as it really is).  It may be too much to ask for any theory to deliver us the Real neatly tied up in a concise package, but Peirce offers us a way to access shards of the Real.  For example, using Peirce’s framework, we had a number of realizations about Pizza Hut.  For example, we recognized that the color red was less important in signifying Pizza Hut than the shape of the roof itself.  We learned that the opposition of the color Red with the concept Hut may itself have a place in the broader concept of the Hut.  We learned that the phenomena of UTBAPHs were interesting because of the contradiction of the strong connection between the roof and Pizza Hut with the reality (the absence of a Pizza Hut).  Thus, this analysis hopefully validated Gottdiener’s estimation that Peirce’s framework allowed for a robust inquiry into the object world allowing for a “volatile process of interpretation.”

Andrew Wasson


[1] Because a sign is the irreducible triadic relationship of sign, object, and interpretant, every sign can be characterized according to each of the three trichotomies.  Thus, a sign may be a qualisign, sinsign, or a legisign, and at the same time, a icon, index, or symbol, and at the same time a rheme, dicent, or argument.  Mathematically, one would expect 27 (3^3) possible signs, however the permissible combinations are constrained by a set of logical rules.  The result is a total of 10 combinations: (1) Qualisign, (2) Iconic Sinsign, (3) Rhematic Indexical Sinsign, (4) Dicent Sinsign, (5) Iconic Legisign, (6) Rhematic Indexical Legisign, (7) Dicent Indexical Legisign, (8) Rhematic Symbol, (9) Dicent Symbol, and (10) Argument.  Peirce later posited that there were sixty-six sign types.  Burks and Weiss, Peirce’s Sixty-Six Signs, 42 Journal of Philosophy 383 (1945).  He arrived at this number by his eventual conclusion that there were actually two types of objects (a dynamic object and an immediate object) as well as three types of interpretant (an immediate, dynamic, and final interpretant).


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