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Icon, Index, and Symbol

Arthur W. Burks

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 9, No. 4. (Jun., 1949), pp. 673-689.

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This paper is divided into two sections. The first makes a critical ex-
amination of Peirce's classification of signs into icon, index, and symbol.
The second offers an analysis of the nature of indexical signs which goes
considerably beyond what Peirce has said on the subject.
I. Peirce's Classification of Signs into Icon, Index, and Symbol
Charles 5. Peirce's division of signs into icon, index, and symbol is the
simplest of his many classifications of signs, and is, moreover, the most im-
portant of them all, for it contains the essence of even the most compli-
cated of them without sharing their repetitive and unwieldy character.
Historically, the more complicated classifications developed as expansions
of the simpler one, in recognition of distinctions that can and should be
made. Peirce made these distinctions, however, in a way which is too
bound up with his system of categories to be of use outside his philosophy,
and without adding anything novel to his original trichotomy.'
In this section, then, we shall attempt to provide a critical exposition of
Pierce's earliest and most basic classification. Let us begin with a prelimi-
nary explanation of the three kinds of signs, the symbol, the index, and the
icon, to be taken in that order. We can best do this in terms of the follow-
ing examples: (1) the word 'red', as used in the English sentence, 'The
book is red'; (2) an act of pointing, used to call attention to some particular
object, e.g., a tree; (3) a scale drawing, used to communicate to a machinist
the structure of a piece of machinery. All of these are signs in the general
sense in which this term is used by Peirce: each satisfies his definition of a
sign2as something which represents or signifies an object to some interpretant
(1.346, 2.228, 4.531).3 In the above examples the objects are: the color
red, the tree, and the structure of the machine, respectively; the interpre-
tants are, in each case, the minds understanding the sign. But there are
1 For a brief discussion of the entire hierarchy of Peirce's classifications,
see "Peirce's Sixty-Six Signs," by Paul Weiss and Arthur Burks, The Journal of
Philosophy, Vol. X L I I (1945)' pp. 383-388.
2 The use of Peirce's definitions of 'sign', 'icon', 'index', and 'symbol' here and

throughout the rest of this section is not intended to imply that the author regards
them as satisfactory for the theory of signs. I n particular, we find Peirce's definition
of an index inadequate for a number of reasons (see footnotes 8, 14, and 18) and so
replace i t in the second section with a new analysis of indices.
3 These and the following numerical references are to the Collected Papers of Charles
Sanders Peirce, edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss.
some important differences in the way in which these signs signify or repre-
sent their objects, and it is on the basis of these differences that the clas-
sification is made. A sign represents its object to its interpretant sym-
bolically, indexically, or iconically according to whether it does so (1) by
being associated with its object by a conventional rule used by the interpre-
tant (as in the case of 'red'); (2) by being in existential relation with its
object (as in the case of the act of pointing); or (3) by exhibiting its object
(as in the case of the diagram).
Let us examine further the application of these criteria to our three
examples. Consider first the word 'red'. The word 'red' is a symbol
because it stands for the quality red to an interpretant4 who interprets it in
virtue of the conventional linguistic rule of English establishing the mean-
ing of this word. Thus any word is a symbol, including words that are
indexical (e.g., 'this') and words that are iconic (e.g., an onomatopoetic
Consider next the act of pointing. Its object is whatever is pointed to,
that is, whatever is in a certain physical relation to the sign. Here the
tree is selected or indicated by virtue of its being in the direction of the
pointed finger, only a few yards away from it, etc. Hence the act of point-
ing is an index, i.e., a sign which determines its object on the basis of an
existential connection. The symbol 'this' is also an index, because (apart
from the conventional element by virtue of which it is a symbol) it may
function very much the same as the act of pointing; i.e., instead of pointing
to a tree one may use the phrase 'this tree'. The object of a specific occur-
rence or token of 'this' is determined or selected by virtue of its being in
some existential relation to the occurrence of the sign itself.
Consider, finally, the diagram. The diagram is an icon because it repre-
sents the structure of the machine by exemplifying or exhibiting the same
structure in some respects. The draftsman communicates to the machinist
the fact that one wheel of the machine has twice the diameter of another
by drawing the first wheel with twice the diameter of the second, and so on.
I n the same way, an onomatopoetic word when used orally is an icon (as
well as a symbol) because the sound of the word suggests or exhibits the
sense. I n his unpublished writings Peirce gives us an example of a written
analogue of onomatopoetic words, a kind of iconic handwriting that he
calls art chirography. He wrote out Poe's "The Raven" in such a hand
as to convey the poetic ideas by means of the handwriting as well as the
This concludes our preliminary explanation of icons, indices, and sym-
In the interest of brevity this reference to an interpretant will not usually be
made explicit hereafter.
bols. We are now ready to take up in greater detail the two which have
more novel aspects, the icon and the index; what Peirce has to say about
the symbol we can best treat in connection with these.

4, study of Peirce's theory of sighs is difficult not only because of the

unusually fragmentary character of his writings on this subject but also
because of the presence of certain inconsistencies and confusions. In
many instances these discrepancies are only apparent, resulting from the
fact that Peirce tried to work out his views in different ways, and with a
varying terminology, a t different times. In other instances the inconsist-
encies and confusions are real, resulting from his tendency to lump things
together and overlook important differences in his eagerness to discover
the basis for a comprehensive philosophic system.
I n treating the icon and the index, then, we will first examine certain of
Peirce's basic statements on each, clarify them, and decide which are con-
sistent with his definitions of 'sign', 'icon', 'index', and 'symbol'. Follow-
ing that we will take up his views concerning the importance of each kind
of sign.

Our definition of an icon states that it is a sign which exhibits or exempli-

jies its object (cf. 2.282, 3.556, 4.448, 4.531). Peirce, however, often says
that an icon is similar to its object (1.558,2.247,2.255,2.276,2.314). Now
the first criterion implies that the object of an icon is a general quality
(universal) dr relation, whereas the second implies that it is a particular
thing or group of things. We have spoken of the diagram as an icon of the
structure of the machine; the second criterion makes the diagram an icon of
the machine itself. Of course the diagram is similar to the machine only
in certain abstract respects; namely, its two-dimensional structure corre-
sponds to the three-dimensional structure of the machine. But in the
same way, according to the first criterion, the diagram is an icon of only
certain ones of the qualities or relations it exhibits, not of all. Though
either way of looking a t the matter is permissible, to avoid confusion
Peirce should have distinguished them and adopted one or the other. (The
present writer prefers the former and has framed the definition of 'icon'
Peirce sometimes implies that a symbol is an icon merely if it possesses or
exhibits the quality or relation it signifies (2.247, 2.255, 2.314). On this
criterion any token of 'black' printed in black ink is iconic even though the
reader (interpretant) is unaware of the fact that it is displaying the quality
it represents, i.e., that it is autological. Such a criterion, however, contra-
dicts the original definition of an icon as a sign which exhibits its object to
an interpretant; for the definition implies that a sign is not iconic unless the
interpretant recognizes that it is such. In other words, the interpretant
must, in the semiotic reference, make conscious use of the fact that the
sign exhibits its object. This is the case in the example of the scale draw-
ing, for the machinist knows that the diagram is iconic (this information is
not communicated to him by iconic sigis-see below) and hence makes use
of the fact that it is drawn to scale. Similarly, when one reads the sentence
'This line is set in pica' set in pica type, he learns what pica type is by
consciously making use of the fact that it is exhibited by the sentence.
Again, to understand the author's preceeding sentence one must be aware
of the convention of exhibiting an instance (token) of a sentence between
quotation marks in order to make a sign (name) for that sentence.
Thus in order for a sign to be an icon the interpretant must know that it
exhibits its object. In addition, the interpretant must know the exact
respect or respects in which it does SO.^ The diagram is an icon of the
structure of the machine, but not an icon of the material of which the
machine is made. The interpretant knows that this is the case because of
the convention associated with diagrams; hence the diagram is not only
an icon but is also a symbol (a sign which is associated with its object by
a conventional rule employed by the interpretant). More explicit use of
symbols is made on the diagram itself in stating the scale of the drawing
to the machine, etc. Peirce himself failed to recognize that since any sign
embodies or exhibits a number of qualities and relations, some symbolic
means is required to communicate both the fact that a sign is an icon and
the respect in which it is iconic, and so also failed to see that (here can be
no pure icons. This failure led him to include among icons things which
are not really signs, e.g., a color, or in fact any quality (2.254, 2.276).
Let us turn now to Peirce's views concerning the importance of iconic
signs. Such signs are, of course, convenient for representing certain
things: a scale drawing of a structure is much simpler than the equivalent
description. Peirce, however, attached considerably greater importance to
them than this, in connection with his broader thesis that all three kinds of
signs are required for a satisfactory general-purpose l a n g ~ a g e . ~By such a
6 More strictly, the interpretant must know the respect@) in which an icon claims
t o represent its object, for there is always the possibility of error, e.g., one part of
the drawing may not be drawn to the proper scale.
6 Peirce never explicitly expresses this general thesis; but that this is his position
is obvious from his remarks concerning speculative grammar, that branch of. the
theory of signs which classifies signs (1.559, 2.229, 2.341, 3.430), and also from the
fact that the icon-index-symbol trichotomy is a special case of his three categories
of First, Second, and Third, which are supposed to constitute a classification of the
essential, general features of the universe. The present writer makes no attempt a t
a full formulation of this general thesis, since we are not here concerned with what
constitutes a satisfactory, all-purpose language, but only with what kinds of lan-
guages require icons and indices.
language he means a system of signs capable of efficiently describing
both the generic and the specific features of the universe and of formu-
lating the procedures and results of the empirical sciences, mathematics, etc.
Icons, he held, are required for mathematical or deductive reasoning; for
such reasoning is based on the observation of mental images, which exhibit
the relations being reasoned about and hence are icons (3.363, 3.556, 3.560,
3.619, 5.148, 5.162). Peirce's theory of mathematical reasoning is thus
an intuitionistic one, and is, in fact, an interesting variant of Kant's views.7
We may conclude then that Peirce's assertion that icons are required for
mathematical reasoning (and hence for a satisfactory general-purpose
language) rests upon his intuitionistic theory of mathematics, and so need
not be accepted by one who does not hold to such a theory.

Peirce held that the function of an index is to refer to or call attention to

some feature or object in the immediate environment of the interpretant.
If, for example, a man remarks, "Why, it is raining!" i t is only by some
such circumstances as that he is now standing here looking out a t a window as
. .
he speaks, which would serve as an Index . that he is speaking of this
place a t this time, whereby we can be assured that he cannot be speaking
of the weather on the satellite of Procyon, fifty centuries ago. (4.544)

The indexical element of this remark is implied in the speaker's use of the
present tense, as well as in his bodily orientation, both of which give the
meaning here and now; the sentence 'It is raining' uttered under these cir-
cumstances is equivalent in meaning to the sentence 'It is raining here and
now'. Such time and place references as 'here', 'now', 'there', 'then', 'yes-
terday', 'tomorrow', etc., are all indexical symbols. The pronouns '1',
'YOU','he', 'this', 'that7, etc., and such expressions as 'this city', 'that
bridge', are also indexical symbols. The following quotation explains why
pronouns are indices in a typically Peircean manner:
Modern grammars define a pronoun as a word used in place of a noun. That
is an ancient doctrine which, exploded early in the thirteenth century, dis-
appeared fiom the grammars for several hundred years. But the substitute
employed was not very clear; and when a barbarous rage against medieval
thought broke out, it was swept away. .. . There is no reason for saying
that I, thou, that, this, stand in place of nouns; they indicate Bhings in the
directest possible way. ... A pronoun is an index. A noun, on the other
hand, does not indicate the object it denotes; and when a noun is used to

7 For a detailed discussion of Peirce's theory of mathematical reasoning, see the

author's "The Logical Foundations of the Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce,"
Chs. I1 and 111, PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1941.
Because he regarded icons as so fundamental in deductive reasoning, Peirce thought
they could be made the basis of an improved logical symbolism or language. His
system of existential graphs was an attempt to work out such a language (4.368).
show what one is talking about, the experience of the hearer is relied upon
to make up for the incapacity of the noun for doing what the pronoun does a t
once. Thus, a noun is an imperfect substitute for a pronoun. ... A pro-
noun ought to be defined as a word which may indicate anything to which the
first and second persons have suitable real connections, by calling the attention
of the second person to it. (2.287n)
In these assertions about indices, as well as in his definition of an index,
Peirce is pointing out a little recognized function of indices (the case where
an index indicates its object directly), though in his enthusiasm he over-
looks the commonly recognized function of these signs (the case where an
index indicates its object by referring to another sign that names the ob-
ject). Examples of the first case occur in the sentence 'I am going into this
house', uttered by a person as he turns into a driveway; here 'I' refers
directly to the speaker ('I' means the person uttering ' I 1 )and 'this house'
indicates a physical object directly pointed to. An example of the second
case occurs when 'he' is used in a book to refer to the person named in the
previous sentence; here 'he' does not indicate an object directly, but indi-
rectly, via a sign in the preceding sentence. To put the difference in
Peirce's terms, in the first case the index is existentially related to its object
(its object is the thing pointed out in the immediate environment); while
in the second case the index is existentially related to a sign of its object
(its object is the thing named by the proper name or descriptive phrase
found in the preceding sentence).
On the basis of this distinction we can make the following criticisms of
Peirce's treatment of the index. First, to cover both cases his definition
of an index would have to be revised to read: an index is a sign which signi-
fies its object through an existential connection to this object or to a sign
of this ~ b j e c t . ~
Second, it ought to be recognized that the common defini-
tion of a pronoun does fit the second case fairly well. I n speech and writ-
ing, indexical symbols are used to refer back (or forward) to ideas, persons,
places, times, etc., which have been denoted or named by previous signs.
I n this case indices do serve as substitutes for previously used linguistic
expressions. Third, it should also be recognized that a noun or descriptive
phrase is a poor substitute for a pronoun only when the object to be indi-
cated is present (so that a description is unnecessary) or when the object
has already beeh named or described (so that the pronoun can do the job
more directly and more conveniently). In reversing the role of the noun
and the pronoun in the common definition, Peirce was trying to heighten
the contrast between his own position and the usual one.
Aside from these signs which are clearly indexical by Pierce's definition,
8 Though this definition would amend one inadequacy of Peirce's definition of an
index, i t is still unsatisfactory; see footnotes 14 and 18.
there are a number of entities which he classifies as indices but which either
are not signs a t all or are signs but not indices. I n each instance he is
led to do this because of some basic confusion.
To begin with, Peirce confuses the cause-effect relation with the semiotic
relation. Thus he says that "a low barometer with a moist air is an in-
dex of rain. . . . A weathercock is an index of the direction of the wind. .."
(2.286). I t is true that the word 'sign' is often used to cover such cases
(e. g., in 'Clouds are a sign of rain7), but a weathercock is not a sign in
the sense of Peirce's definition-the interpretant does not use the weather-
cock to represent or denote the direction of the wind. What the inter-
pretant does is to infer the direction of the wind from the weathercock's
position, on the basis of his knowledge that this position is the effect of
the wind.
Secondly, Peirce confuses the concept of index with that of grammatical
subject. Some grammatical subjects include indexical signs (e. g., 'this
book7in 'This book is red'), but others are composed exclusively of symbols
(e. g., 'the number four' in 'The number four is even'). In both cases
the subject denotes or names an object (a book and the number four,
respectively), but only in the first case does it do so on the basis of an ex-
istential connection. Thus in saying that every subject is an index (1.372,
2.262, 2.296, 2.357, 3.419, 4.58) Peirce is confusing the naming or denoting
function of a subject with the particular way this function is accomplished
in cases where the subject is an index.
Thirdly, Peirce confuses the existential relation involved in an index-
ical sign with that involved in the ostensive or operational definition of
a symbol. A symbol is ostensively defined to an interpretant by putting
the interpretant in existential connection with (i. e., pointing to) instances
and counter-instances of the concept signified by that symbol. Thus
'red' may be defined ostensively by pointing out various red and non-red
things. This means that an index (the act of pointing) is required for
the ostensive definition of a symbol, but it does not make the symbol so
defined an index. Peirce does not recognize this distinction, and as a
consequence wrongly classifies certain signs as indices. For example,
he classifies 'meter' as indexical on the ground that a meter is defined by
reference to a standard denoted by indices (2.305, 4.544). Again, he holds
that 'existence' and 'imaginary' are indexical. His argument amounts
to saying that these are names of basic categories and hence must be de-
fined ostensively: existence is not a predicate, he argues, and so the dis-
tinction between the "real world of existence" and the "ideal world of
mathematics" must be shown by means of indices (2.295, 2.305, 2.337,
3.363, 4.544).
Let us now consider Peirce's views on the importance of indices. He .
held, as in the case of icons, that indices are required for a satisfactory
general-purpose language; but most of his arguments for this thesis break
down when the confusions we have just discussed are eliminated. For
example, he argues that indices are required in every language since every
language must include signs that function as grammatical subjects (2.295,
2.369, 3.363). Again, he states that indices are required for mathematics,
both because mathematical propositions have subjects (3.392, 3.399,6.471)
and because indices,are needed to establish ostensively the fact that math-
ematical propositions refer to an "ideal, abstract world" and not to the
"real world of existence" (2.305, 2.337, 3.363). Peirce does say that a
date or position cannot be described (and so indices are required) and
that to use a map we must know independently the location of two of
its points in nature (3.419). He does not, however, explain why descrip-
tions and diagrams (symbols and icons) cannot do the work of indices.
We will attempt to supply this explanation in our analysis of the utility
of the index in the next section.
11. An Analysis of Indexical-Meaning
I n carrying out our analysis of the nature of indexical signs it will be
convenient to introduce some new terms, such as 'indexical-meaning',
and to use some old ones, such as 'information', in quite specific senses.
When each such term is presented for the first time it will be italicized,
and thereafter it will be used only in the sense defined.
I t will develop that the fundamental kind of indexical sign is the in-
dexical symbol (rather than the pure index), and in presenting the concept
of indexical-meaning we will need to analyze the distinction between
indexical and non-indexical symbols. A clear formulation of this dis-
tinction requires the use of Peirce's type-token distinction (4.537). Con-
sider a non-indexical symbol, e. g., 'red'. here are many occurrences
of this word, each consisting of a written or printed pattern of a certain
shape or a characteristic pattern of sound. Whenever such a pattern
occurs in an appropriate contextg it is taken by the interpretant to signify
the color red. Each occurrence of a pattern of 'red' which is reacted to
by an interpretant in this way is called a token of 'red'. A token of a
non-indexical symbol is thus an event of a certain character (i. e., having
9 The context must be taken into account when a written or spoken token of the
word by itself has two or more alternative meanings all but one of which are elimi-
nated by the context. Thus, in the sentences, 'He ran fast', 'He was stuck fast',
and 'He has started to fast', 'fast' has three different meanings, even though the
sight and sound patterns are the same in each case. Similarly, 'meet' and 'meat'
'and 'mete' when spoken sound the same, yet they have different meanings, We
, shall use 'ambiguous' in a special sense to apply to such words.
a sound or sight pattern characteristic of the word), and so has a location
in space and time. The class of all tokens of a given wordlo is called a
type. There are two different tokens when a speaker uses 'red7 in two
different sentences, and two more when 'red' occurs once in a printed
sentence but is read twice; and all of these tokens belong to the same
type. A type will, of course, be without spatiotemporal location. The
type-token distinction may be applied in the same way to indexical symbols.
Each occurrence of the word 'now' is a token, and the class of all tokens
of 'now' is a type.
Note, now, that the spatiotemporal location of a token of a non-index-
ical symbol is irrelevant to its meaning:" 'red' means the same thing
when used a t different times and places, each token signifying the same
color. Moreover, the meaning of a token of a non-indexical symbol is
always the same as the meaning of the type to which it belongs. The
case is different with an indexical symbol, however, for the spatiotemporal
location of a given token of such a symbol is relevant to the meaning of
that token: 'now' means Cwo different things when it is uttered on two
different days.12 Since the meaning of the type to which any symbol belongs
(whether indexical or non-indexical) is always the same, it follows that
the meaning of a token of an indexical symbol is different from the meaning
of the type to which it belongs.
Yet even in the case of the indexical symbol, the meaning of the token
clearly has something in common with the meaning of its type. For
the meaning of a token of any kind of symbol is specified a t least in part
by a general linguistic rule applicable to all tokens of the type. We
shall refer to the common element in the meaning of a token and the
meaning of its type as the symbolic-meaning of the token or type. It
is obvious that the complete meaning of a type (either indexical or non-
indexical) is its symbolic-meaning. Furthermore, the complete meaning
- --

l o Or rather, of a given word in one of its meanings. There are three different types
in the three sentences involving 'fast' cited in the last footnote.
11 We are assuming here and hereafter t h a t ambiguity has been eliminated. This
restriction is necessary, for if a nonlindexical symbol is ambiguous its meaning is
specified by its neighboring signs and hence in some sense depends on its spatio-
temporal location. Cf. footnote 12.
12 This phenomenon might be regarded as a kind of ambiguity, i.e., we could say

that the spatiotemporal context specifies the meaning of the ambiguous word 'now'.
However, we prefer not to use the word 'ambiguity' for this kind of phenomenon,
but t o reserve it for those situations where the meaning of a sign is specified by its
neighboring signs, a s in the examples of footnote 9. This being our usage of 'am-
biguity', we can say t h a t the ambiguity of a symbol is theoretically eliminable;
whereas if the other usage were adopted, we could not say t h a t ambiguity is elimina-
ble (for, as we shall show, indexical symbols are indispensable).
of a token of a non-indexical symbol is also its symbolic-meaning. But
the symbolic-meaning of a token of an indexical symbol is only part
of its full meaning: we shall refer to its full meaning as its indexical-meaning.
For example, every token of the type 'now' has the same symbolic-meaning:
'now' means the time at which 'now' is uttered. But in order to know the
indexical-meaning of a token of the type 'now', one must know not only
its symbolic-meaning but its temporal location as well.
To summarize the distinction between indexical and non-indexical sym-
bols: Any two tokens of a given type of symbol have the same symbolic-
meaning, but two tokens of a given type of indexical symbol may have
(and generally do have) different indexical-meanings.

A consideration of the theoretical and practical function of indexical

signs will help to clarify the nature of indexical-meaning. In this con-
nection, it is desirable to treat separately the two kinds of indices dis-
tinguished in the preceding section of the paper: those which indicate
their objects directly, and those which indicate their objects by referring
to signs which name these objects. The latter kind of index serves as a
substitute for the name or descriptive phrase it refers to-it functions
as a variable abbreviation; and its utility derives from the fact that it is
shorter than the name for which it is an abbreviation. Clearly, this
kind of index can be dispensed with in a language, for it is theoretically
possible to repeat names and descriptive phrases as often as n e e d be.
The modus operandi of the second kind of index is evident and needs no
further analysis. We will therefore confine our attention to the first
kind of index (which indicates its object directly) in the remainder of
the section.
Suppose an interpretant sees a book on a table and wishes to assert
that it is red. He can do so quite simply by pointing to the book and
uttering the following token sentence: (A) 'This book is red'. This sen-
tence contains indices and hence could not be expressed in a language
composed exclusively of non-indexical symbols. The question we want
to examine first in connection with (A) is: Could we express in a language
limited to non-indexical symbols some sentence which would, theoretically,
serve as a substitute for (A)? This will be possible if the object indicated
by 'this book' can be named or identified without the use of indices. An
analysis of the theoretical circumstances under which indices can be dis-
pensed with in denoting particular existent objects has been made by
C. H. Langford in connection with the identity of indiscernibles.I3 We
will present his analysis in the terminology of 'index' and 'symbol'.
l3 "Otherness and Dissimilarity," Mind, Vol. XXXIX N.S. (1930), pp. 454-461.
Consider a universe which consists of two parts, one located so as to be a
mirror-image of the other, each part having the same internal construction
as the other. Consider further a particular object, e. g., a cubical yellow
box with a door on it, and its mirror-image counterpart. The intrinsic
qualities of these would be identical-both would be cubical, hollow, of
exactly the same shade of yellow, of exactly the same size, etc. Moreover,
certain of their relational properties would also be identical-if one box
were near a green chair its counterpart would be near a green chair, etc.
On the other hand, these objects would differ in relational properties
of the following sort. If an observer pointed to one green chair it would
be true of one yellow box that it was near this green chair, and it would
be false of the other yellow box. Furthermore, to an observer the door
of one box would be a left-hand door, while the door of the other would
be a right-hand door. Now the act of pointing is indexical; and right and
left are also indexical (2.290)) for as Rant showed of the right- and left-
hand gloves of a perfect pair, they cannot be distinguished descriptively,
i. e., by means of non-indexical symbols. Hence it is clear that the re-
lational properties on which these two objects agree can be named by non-
indexical symbols, and that the ones on which they disagree can be specified
only by indices. Let us call these properties symbolic-properties and index-
ical-properties, respectively.
Leibniz's principle of the identity of indiscernibles is ordinarily stated
as follows: there do not exist in the universe two things which have exactly
the same specific properties. So stated the principle is vague, for it is
not made clear whether or not indexical-properties are to be included.
Let us assume that they are not, in which case the principle of the identity
of indiscernibles becomes: there do not exist in the universe two things
which have exactly the same specific symbolic-properties. When stated
in this way the principle is clearly false of the dual universe which we have
been describing. There are two cubical yellow boxes which have exactly
the same symbolic-properties and differ only as to indexical-properties.
It follows, then, that indices are required for denoting particular objects
in a universe in which the identity of indiscernibles is false: since one
yellow box has the same symbolic-properties as its mirror-image counter-
part, it can be denoted or named only by means of an index. (Of course,
since their symbolic-properties are identical there is not much of interest
to say of one box that cannot also be said of the other.) On the other
hand, if the identity of indiscernibles as stated above is true and there
is no such dual universe, any object will have a t least one symbolic-property
not shared by any other object. I t can therefore be named or identified
by means of this property, and hence without the use of indices. Our
question, then, as to whether it is theoretically possible to formulate a
substitute sentence for (A) solely in terms of non-indexical symbols depends
upon the truth-status of the principle of the identity of indiscernibles.
It is theoretically possible only if the identity of indiscernibles is true.
Let us assume for the moment that it is theoretically possible to identify
an object in the universe without the use of indices, and consider whether
it is practical to do so. An interpretant, in order to know that he is naming
an object by means of a symbolic-property unique to it, must have some
way of knowing that this property is, in fact, unique to the object he is
designating. This tyould require a knowledge of the entire universe,
which is, of course, a practical impossibility. I t may seem that the in-
terpretant could overcome his difficulty by setting up a coordinate system
and naming his object not by its unique property, but by its spatiotemporal
location x, y, 2, and t in this reference system. But setting up a co-
ordinate system without the use of indices is subject to the same diffi-
culty, for the interpretant must now know how to characterize uniquely
his origin and axes solely in terms of symbolic-properties. From a prac-
tical point of view, then, we cannot dispense with indices: we can formulate
no practical substitute sentence for (A) without the use of indices.
But it is of interest to consider a sentence (B) which does make use
of a reference system involving indices, and which is in some sense a sub-
stitute for (A). Let the interpretant adopt some commonly-accepted,
indexical coordinate system (e. g., standard units of measure, standard
reference points such as the equator and a prime meridian, and the standard
calendar), find the location of the book in this system, and then assert
the token sentence: (B) 'The book at x, y, 2, and t is red7. Two questions
arise concerning the relation of (B) to (A). First, what is the practical
convenience of replacing (A) with (B)? We answer by noting that it
is usually more convenient to have a fixed reference system when the in-
terpretant wishes to refer to an object outside his immediate environment,
or when he wishes to refer to a number of objects conjointly. On the
other hand, (A) is more useful than (B) when the interpretant wishes
to refer to an object within his immediate environment. I n using an
index as in (A), he can carry his reference point with him and denote
a nearby object without a knowledge of the relation of this object to
the rest of the universe. Since a person frequently does not know his
own location in a reference system (he may be lost geographically, or
he may have forgotten the date), he can utilize sentences like (A) in many
cases where he cannot utilize sentences like (B).
Second, in precisely what sense is (B) a substitute for (A)? Clearly,
these two tokens differ in meaning: (A) contains the symbolic expression
'this book' and (B) the symbolic expression 'the book a t x, y, z, and t',
and these differ in symbolic-meaning. Furthermore, different procedures
are required for verifying (A) and (B). If a person is present when (A)
is uttered he can verify it by direct observation, whereas he would have
to determine his location to verify (B). Yet though these sentences do
differ in meaning, in one sense of 'information7they both convey the same
information, for they both refer to the same object and predicate the same
property of it. We can say, then, that (B) is a substitute for (A) in the
sense that it conveys the same information; but it is not an exact substitute
for (A) in the sense that it differs in indexical- and symbolic-meaning.
This situation, where two sentences of different meaning convey the
same information, is not unique to sentences involving indices, of course,
for it occurs whenever two proper names for the same object are sub-
stituted in the same propositional function. But in the case of indices
the circumstances under which sentences of different meaning are used
to convey the same information are of interest. Suppose a man located
in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says on May 12, 1947, 'It is raining here now7.
He cannot convey the same information on the following day by asserting
a token with the same symbolic-meaning (i. e., another token of 'It is
raining here now7),for such a token will have a different indexical-meaning.
Rather, he asserts a token of a sentence with a different symbolic-meaning:
'It rained here yesterday'. In fact, after May 12, 1947, no sentence can
ever b,e uttered (though of course one can be referred to) which has the
same meaning as the first token sentence above; for any token of the type
'It is raining here now' occurring after May 12, 1947, will differ in index-
ical-meaning from the token uttered on that date. This fact constitutes
no limitation on one's ability to communicate -information, of course,
for as we have just pointed out the same information is communicated
at a later date by a sentence with a different meaning.

I t may be objected that, in speaking of indexical-meaning, we have

been using 'meaning' in an odd sense. The essential fact about an in-
dexical sign is, however, that its indexical-meaning is a genuine mode
of meaning; and although Peirce confused this point with a number of
others (as we saw in the previous section of the paper) he displayed real
insight in recognizing it. The meaning of a sentence is whatever must
be understood in order to be able to verify that sentence, and to decide
the truth-status of any token of 'It is raining here now' one must know
not only its symbolic-meaning but also its indexical-meaning. For if
one knows only the former, he does not know what specific information
'is relevant to the truth-status of that token.
Employing the criterion for meaning given above, we can make a de-
tailed analysis of the nature of indexical-meaning. That is, using the
criterion that the meaning of a sign, or group of signs, is what must be
understood or known by the interpretant in order to be able to find or
recognize the object of that sign, we can make our analysis by listing the
different pieces of information that an interpretant must know about a
token of an indexical symbol-in order to locate the object it indicates.
(1) The spatial, temporal, or spatiotemporal location of the token must
be known to determine the object it indicates: e. g., to find the time a
token of 'now' indicates one must know when the token was uttered;
to find the book a token of 'this book' indicates one must know where
and when that token was used; etc.
(2) The object indicated must be specified. A token is in existential
relation to every other existent thing, and hence it must be understood
which one of these is being referred to. The description of the object
may be conveyed by a noun accompanying a 'this' or 'that' (as in 'this
book', 'this color', 'this city', 'this star', etc.) or it may be incorporated
in the sign itself (as in 'now', which indicates a time, 'here), which indicates
a place, etc.). In either case the object is signified on the basis of a rule
of linguistic usage, and hence this information is part of the symbolic-
meaning of the token.
(3) Finally, the interpretant needs to know a set of directions relating
the token to the object it indicates. For there are usually many objects
of the sort described by (2) existentially related to the token.14, Thus
there may be many books in the neighborhood of a token of 'this book',
and the one indicated is found by observing the direction of a pointed
hand or the bodily orientation of the speaker. There are two cases to
be considered here: (3a) The set of directions may be associated with
the sign symbolically, i. e., on the basis of a linguistic rule. Thus a token
of 'I' means the person uttering that tohen; in other words, it is part of the
symbolic-meaning of 'I' that one finds the object indicated by a token
of this type by proceeding from the token to the speaker. Similarly, the
object indicated by 'now' is the temporal location of the token, the object
indicated by 'today' is the day on which the token is uttered, and the
object indicated by 'this city' is the city in which the token occurs. (3b)
The set of directions may be shown by an act of pointing, a bodily ori-
entation, etc. Examples are 'this book', 'that tree', accompanied by
appropriate gestures.
We can now summarize what must be known by an interpretant in
order. to find the object indicated by a token of an indexical type, i. e.,
what factors constitute its indexical-meaning:
(1) The spatiotemporal location of the token.
14 This analysis reveals the inadequacy of the expression 'in existential relation
to' in Peirce's definition of the index. Since a token is in existential relation to
every other existent thing, the possibilities must be limited by factors (2) and (3).
(2) A description of the object indicated.
(3) A set of directions relating the token to its object (a) conveyed
symbolically, or (b) conveyed by a physical act of pointing. Factors
(2) and (3a) are characteristic of the type and hence constitute the sym-
bolic-meaning of the type and its tokens. (1) and (3b) depend upon
the token and hence, when added to the symbolic-meaning of the token,
give its indexical-meaning. The object indicated by the token is the
object described by (2) reached by proceeding from (1) according to the
directions of (3).
Though factor (2) is present in some indices ('now', 'this book'), it is
not present in all ('this', 'that', an act of pointing). But unless (2) is
present, explicitly or implicitly, the sign cannot indicate a definite ob-
ject.15 A token of 'this', or an act of pointing, is existentially related to
and points to many objects, and so when unaccompanied by a descriptive
element cannot indicate any particular one of them.16 For example,
if one is pointing to a book the reference may be to any of various objects:
this book, this copy of a book, this red cover, this leather binding, this color
(red), etc. Of course, the descriptive element may not be made explicit
but may be contributed by the context. Thus if two people are dis-
cussing books and one points to a book and says 'This is interesting',
what he says is short for 'This book is interesting'. The fact that an
indexical sign has a well-defined or complete indexical-meaning only when
(2) is present, explicitly or implicitly, leads to several conclusions worth
noting. First, a pure index (an act of pointing) cannot have a complete
indexical-meaning, and therefore the fundamental kind of indexical sign
is the indexical symbol, as was stated a t the beginning of this section.'' (Of
course, some indexical symbols, e. g., 'this' and 'that', are like a pure index
in that they do not have a complete indexical-meaning.) Second, the
general form of indexical reference is not 'This is a B' but 'This A is a B'.
Finally, a sign may have a well-defined indexical-meaning and yet fail to
15 This fact was noted by C. H . Langford in a mimeographed paper entitled "Some
Points About the Use of Language," 1940, p. 4. The author is indebted to Professor
Langford for permission to make reference to this paper.
16 I t is for this reason that ostensive definition cannot be accomplished by pre-
senting a single instance of the concept to be defined. See the author's "Empiricism
and Vagueness," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. X L I I I (1946), p. 478.
17 Note that we reached the same conclusion in the case of the icon: a symbol is
required along with an icon to signify a definite object. The symbol is therefore
more fundamental than the icon or the index. Furthermore, the index is more funda-
mental than the icon, for, as we saw, indices cannot be dispensed with, whereas,
unless we accept the kind of theory of mathematical reasoning that Peirce accepted,
icons are dispensable. Hence Peirce was wrong in regarding icon, index, and symbol
as equally fundamental and independent kinds of signs.
indicate an object.18 For it is possible to make a mistake and describe,
under (2), an object when in fact there is no such object. Thus a person
may say 'The chair in the next room is made of oak' when in fact there is
no chair in the next room. There is even the possibility of perceptual
error in regard to objects in the perceptual field of the interpretant. It
might be proposed that we should not use an indexical sign unless we
are sure it indicates. But how certain must we be before using an index?
If we insist upon Cartesian surety we are limited to using indexical signs
which indicate private sense-data of the present moment: e. g., 'This
circular sense-datum is red', 'Now (referring to subjective time) it seems
to be raining', etc. This means that certainty is attained a t the price
of making communication private. I t is clearly necessary in a public
language to allow signs with well-defined indexical-meanings to fail to
The possibility that an index may fail to indicate raises the problem
of how to analyze the contradictory of 'This A is B', that is, the problem
of finding a sentence which is equivalent to 'It is not the case that this
A is B' but which is more nearly in standard form (i. e., which has the
negation brought inside, just as 'It is not the case that all A is B' translates
into the standard form 'Some A is not B'). I t might appear that 'This.
A is non-B' is such a sentence. However, 'This A is non-B' and 'It is
not the case that this A is B' are not equivalent, for if 'this A' does not
indicate, the first is false while the second is true. I n other words, 'This
A is B' and 'This A is non-B' are not contradictories but contraries, for
both will be false if 'this A' does not indicate.20 Thus there are two con-
18 This point is also made by Langford; Ibid, p. 5. I t is a possibility not allowed
for in Peirce's definition of an index.
1 9 The conclusion might be drawn from the fact that a well-formed indexical ex-

pression may not indicate that all such expressions are meaningless except in context;
Russell seems to follow this line of argument in his theory that definite descriptions
are incomplete symbols. That this conclusion does not follow has been pointed out
by Alonzo Church, who showed that a definite description need not be construed as
an incomplete symbol since it can have a sense (Frege's 'Sinn') even if i t lacks a
denotation (Frege's 'Bedeutung'); see The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Vol. V (1940),
pp. 162-163 and VII (1942)' p. 47. We have been arguing the same point but with
regard to a restricted class of definite descriptions, namely, those involving indices,
such as 'the chair in the next room'.
20 Langford, op. cit., p. 10. See also in this connection the controversy between
Langford [Mind N.S. Vol. XXXVI (1927), pp. 342-346, Vol. XXXVII (1928), pp. 73-81,
and, Vol. XXXVIII (1929), pp. 219-2251 and J. A. Chadwick [Ibid., Vol. XXXVI
(1927), pp. 347-353 and Vol. XXXVII (1928), pp. 471-4841 on the contradictories of
certain singular propositions; and a recent continuation of this discussion by E. J.
Nelson [Ibid., Vol. LV (1946), pp. 319-3271, A. Pap [Ibid.,Vol. LVI (1947), pp. 72-76],
and W. V. Quine [The Journal of Symbolic Logic, Vol. X I 1 (1947), pp. 52-551.
ditions under which 'This A is B' is false: (1) 'this A' does not indicate,
and (2) 'this A' does indicate but the A indicated is not a B, i. e., 'This
A is non-B' is true. By disjoining these two conditions we get the sentence
that we are looking for, but it must be recognized that since these conditions
include a statement of the relation of a sign to its object, it is not possible
to formulate the sentence in the language containing 'this A'; rather, it
is necessary to formulate it in the metalanguage of that language. The
desired contradictory of "This A is B)' is therefore "Either 'this A' does
not indicate or this A is non-B." I t is interesting to note that as a con-
sequence "This A is B" is equivalent to "'This A' indicates and it is not
the case that this A is non-B." Similarly, "This A is non-B" is equivalent
to "'This A' indicates and it is not the case that thisA is B," and "Either
'this A' does not indicate or this A is B" is its contradictory.

En la primera parte el autor examina criticamente la tricotomia bhsica

de 10s signos de Peirce. El simbolo ('rojo') representa su objeto mediante
una regla convencional; el indice (el acto de seii&lar)lo representa mediante
una relaci6n existential, y un icono (un diagrama) mediante la exhibici6n
de su objeto. Peirce confunde la relaci6n indicativa o de indice con la
relaci6n de causa-efecto, con la funci6n denotativa de 10s sujetos y con la
definicici6n ostensiva.
En la segunda parte, analiza el autor la naturaleza de 10s indices, llevando
el anhlisis m&s all& del punto a donde lleg6 Peirce. La indicaci6n 'este
libro' tiene un sentido indicativo o de indice que se compone del 'sentido
simb6lico caracteristico del tipo, m&s la informacidn dnica relativa a la
indicacidn, a saber: su situaci6n espacio-temporal y el acto de seiialar del
que est&hablando. Un signo con sentido indicativo bien definido puede
no indicar bien un objeto, de tal suerte que 'Este A es B' y 'Este A es no-B'
no Sean contradictorios. Se hace un an&lisis de 10s contradictorios de