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3. Sign-situations[edit]

The theory of Meaning dependent upon the theory of Signs. -- Reference, i.e., the relation between a thought and what it is of, not unique, 48. The alleged direct relation of acquaintance with 'propositions'; Keynes, Lipps, Husserl, van Ginneken, 49. Treating things as signs, 50.[1] Previous psychological accounts of Knowledge -- in terms of association, apperception and suggestion -- insufficiently dynamic. -- Development in terms of mnemic causation; Semon, 51. Illustrations and explanations; Lloyd Morgan's caterpillar, 52.

The defects of causal language, 54. Restatement in terms of recurrent contexts, 55. Examples of contexts psychological and external, 56. Definition of a Context, 58. How contexts recur. -- Generality of contexts and their probability, 59.

Defects of accounts based on imagery. -- Images as luxuries of mental life, 59. Their dangers, 61. Russell. -- The context theory of reference illustrated in the difficult case of expectation. -- The truth or falsity of a reference merely a question of the recurrence or non-recurrence of a context. -- Extension of this view to expectations whose signs are themselves beliefs, and further to all cases of interpretation from particular to particular, 62. Extension to general references, 63. The generality and particularity of primitive references not the symbolic generality and particularity of logic. -- The conditions for general references, 64. Inclusive and non-inclusive references, i.e., references to all and some, 65. The detailed investigation of contexts a future task of psychology, 66.

The referents of false beliefs, 66. Propositions as references, i.e., relational characters of mental processes. 'Logical form,' as the structure of references. -- Inclusion of references in compound references, 68. All complex references analysable into simple references, i.e., ideas or concepts which are indefinite and true, 69. Ideas and beliefs different only in complexity and in affective-volitional characters. -- Definiteness of reference obtained only through complexity, 70. A false reference composed of true simple references, 71. Illustrations of compound false beliefs, 72.

The conformity of the contextual theory of reference with modern scientific attitudes. -- Its dependence upon some theory of probability, 73. Suggestions towards a theory of probability, 74. Misinterpretation, relevance, emotional interference, 75.


In all thinking we are interpreting signs. In obvious cases this is readily admitted. In the more complex cases of mathematics and grammar more complicated forms of the same activity only are involved.

This is hidden from us by an uncritical use of symbols, favouring analyses of 'meaning' and 'thinking' which are mainly occupied with mirages due to 'linguistic refraction.'

We must begin therefore with Interpretation.

Our Interpretation of any sign is our psychological reaction to it, as determined by our past experience in similar situations, and by our present experience.

If this is stated with due care in terms of causal contexts or correlated groups we get an account of judgment, belief and interpretation which places the psychology of thinking on the same level as the other inductive sciences, and incidentally disposes of the 'Problem of Truth.'

A theory of thinking which discards mystical relations between the knower and the known and treats knowledge as a causal affair open to ordinary scientific investigation, is one which will appeal to common-sense inquirers.

Sign-situations are always linked in chains and the simplest case of such a sign-chain is best studied in Perception.

  1. Throughout almost all our life we are treating things as signs. All experience, using the word in the widest possible sense, is either enjoyed or interpreted (i.e., treated as a sign) or both, and very little of it escapes some degree of interpretation. An account of the process of Interpretation is thus the key to the understanding of the Sign-situation, and therefore the beginning of wisdom. It is astonishing that although the need for such an account has long been a commonplace in psychology, those concerned with the criticism and organization of our knowledge have with few exceptions entirely ignored the consequences of its neglect.