Charles W. Morris

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Charles William Morris (May 23, 1901 – January 15, 1979) was an American semiotician and philosopher, especially known for his 1938 book, entitled Foundations of the Theory of Signs.


  • I share the conviction held by many others that the movement of thought called "symbolism" is of great significance. Not only does this movement cut across the traditional lines of division among philosophers, but it coordinates in a remarkable way the work of linguists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and biologists, in so far as their work connects with the topic of mind. In the degree that the symbolic movement is significant, a work which develops systematically the basis of the movement, and at the same time applies this analysis to the topic of mind and to certain basic philosophical problems, can at least claim to be an important contribution to critical thought. Whether the claim is substantiated depends, of course, on the quality of the work itself.
    • Charles W. Morris (1940:1), cited in: Charles W. Morris (1993), Symbolism and Reality: A study in the nature of mind. p. xi

"Foundations of the Theory of Signs," 1938


Charles W. Morris (1938). "Foundations of the Theory of Signs", in International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. 1, No. 2; Reprinted 1971.

  • Men are the dominant sign-using animals. Animals other than man do, of course, respond to certain things as signs of something else, but such signs do not attain the complexity and elaboration which is found in human speech, writing, art, testing devices, medical diagnosis, and signaling instruments. Science and signs are inseparably interconnected, since science both presents men with more reliable signs and embodies its results is systems of signs. Human civilization is dependent upon signs and systems of signs, and the human mind is inseparable from the functioning of signs - if indeed mentality is not to be identified with such functioning.
    • p. 1 (1971:17), Lead paragraph first chapter
  • The process in which something functions as a sign may be called semiosis. This process, in a tradition which goes back to the Greeks, has commonly been regarded as involving three (or four) factors: that which acts as a sign, that which the sign refers to, and the effect on some interpreter in virtue of which the thing in question is a sign to that interpreter. These three components in semiosis may be called, respectively, the sign vehicle, the designatum, and the interpretant; the interpreter may be included as a fourth factor. These terms make explicit the factors left undesignated in the common statement that a sign refers to something for someone.
    • p. 3
  • Semiotics... is not concerned with the study of a particular kind of object, but with ordinary objects in so far (and only in so far) as they participate in semiosis.
    • p. 4
  • There are, then, syntactical problems in the fields of perceptual signs, aesthetic signs, the practical use of signs, and general linguistics which have not been treated within the framework of what today is regarded as logical syntax and yet which form part of syntactics as this is here conceived.
    • p. 16; partly cited in: [[Alan MacEachren|MacEachren (1995:235)
  • The full characterization of a language may now be given: A language in the full semiotic sense of the term is any intersubjective set of sign vehicles whose usage is determined by syntactical, semantical, and pragmatical rules.
    • p. 35
  • According to mead, the primary phenomenon out of which language in the full human sense emerges is the gesture, especially the vocal gesture. The gesture sign (such as a dog's snarl) differs from such a nongestural sign as thunder in the fact that the sign vehicle is an early phase of a social act and the designatum a later phase of this act (in this case the attack by the dog). Here one organism prepares itself for what another organism - the dog - is to do by responding to certain acts of the latter organism as signs; in the case in question the snarl is the sign, the attack is the designatum, the animal being attacked is the interpreter, and the preparatory response of the interpreter is the interpretant.
    • p. 36
  • What of the term 'meaning'? In the preceding discussion the term 'meaning' has been deliberately avoided. In general it is well to avoid this term in discussions of signs; theoretically, it can be dispensed with entirely and should not be incorporated into the language of semiotic. But since the term has had such a notorious history, and since in its consideration certain important implications of the present account can be made clear, the present section is devoted to its discussion.
    • p. 43
  • Empirical problems of a nonlinguistic sort are not solved by linguistic considerations, but it is important that the two kinds of problems not be confused and that nonlinguistic problems be expressed in such a form as aids their empirical solution.
    • p. 57
  • Semiotic provides a basis for understanding the main forms of human activity and their interrelationship, since all these activities and relations are reflected in the signs which mediate the activities ... In giving such understanding, semiotic promises to fulfil one of the tasks which traditionally has been called philosophical. Philosophy has often sinned in confusing in its own language the various functions which signs perform. But it is an old tradition that philosophy should aim to give insight into the characteristic forms of human activity and to strive for the most general and the most systematic knowledge possible. This tradition appears in a modern form in the identification of philosophy with the theory of signs and the unification of science, that is, with the more general and systematic aspects of pure and descriptive semiotic.
    • p. 58-59 as cited in: Adam Schaff (1962). Introduction to semantics, p. 88-89
  • The Encyclopedia presents a contemporary version of the ancient encyclopedic ideal of Aristotle, the Scholastics, Leibniz, the Encyclopedists, and Comte.
    • p. 75

Signs, Language and Behavior, 1946


Charles W. Morris. Signs, language and behavior. New York, 1946.

  • The term "meaning" is not here included among the basic terms of semiotic. This term, useful enough at the level of everyday analysis, does not have the precision necessary for scientific analysis. Accounts of meaning usually throw a handful of putty at the target of sign phenomena, while a technical semiotic must provide us with words which are sharpened arrows. "Meaning" signifies any and all phases of sign-processes (the status of being a sign, the interpretant, the fact of denoting, the significatum), and frequently suggests mental and valuational processes as well; hence it is desirable for semiotic to dispense with the term and to introduce special terms for the various factors which meaning fails to discriminate.
    • p. 19
  • Semiotic itself neither rests on nor necessarily implies a particular philosophy. A science of signs no more decides between an 'empirical' and a 'non-empirical' philosophy than it decides between a 'naturalistic' and a 'supernaturalistic' religion. In itself it cannot force one to believe only scientifically verified statements, nor to use only scientific discourse, nor to form one's appraisals and prescriptions in the light of science. It will nevertheless have a profound influence on the course of philosophy, since it deals with topics peculiarly relevant to philosophic systematization... In this sense, the philosophy of the future will be semiotically oriented. But the nature of this influence will not always be the same, and will depend upon the role which given individuals and societies assign to scientific knowledge.
    • p. 238; as cited in: Adam Schaff (1962). Introduction to semantics, p. 88-89

Writings on the General Theory of Signs, 1971


Charles W. Morris (1971), Writings on the General Theory of Signs,

  • A language in the full semiotical sense of the term is any intersubjective set of sign vehicles whose usage is determined by syntactical, semantical, and pragmatical rules.
    • p. 48; as cited in: Adam Schaff (1962). Introduction to semantics, p. 314
  • In Foundations of the Theory of Signs (p. 6), the three terms in question were defined follows: pragmatics as the study of "the relation of signs to interpreters", semantics as the study of "the relations of signs to the objects to which the signs are applicable", syntactics as the study of "the formal relations of signs to one another."
    • p. 301

Quotes about Charles W. Morris

  • Charles Morris (1901-1979) was a student of George Herbert Mead at the University of Chicago and later editor of the widely known collection of Mead's lectures, Mind, Self, and Society (1934). Morris helped to create "the Viennese connection" to American philosophy in the 1930s, hoping to clarify pragmatism by making use of the foundationalist, verification model of truth promised by the logical empiricism of Rudolph Carnap and others.
Morris is most noted today for his monograph, Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938), which was the first volume of the grand project for the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. In this work he proposed his threefold divisions of a sign as consisting of sign vehicle, designatum, and interpreter, and of semiotics as consisting of syntactics, semantics, andpragmatics. This latter distinction became normalized in linguistics. These divisions were based on a dyadic, positivist reading of Charles Peirce's triadic semiotic, an unacknowledged misreading of Peirce's critique of dyadic views of signs and of foundationalism.
  • Eugene Halton (1992), "Charles Morris: A Brief Outline of His Philosophy with relations to semiotics, pragmatics, and linguistics." Re-published at, 2016.
  • The fundamental significance of the work of Charles William Morris is based on the fact that he was a philosopher in the widest sense of the term, a man who changed the world, leaving it a different place than it had been before. Morris left behind a large number of writings, but not all have been made available, and the breadth of his work as a whole has gone unrecognized. His contributions to sign theory have gained a firm foothold in international semiotic discourse, but his axiological studies as well as his work on the theory and history of science have largely been ignored, as have his writings on the subject of mind and his essay on the various paths of life.
    • Preface to: Charles W. Morris (1993), Symbolism and Reality: A study in the nature of mind. p. xi
  • According to Morris, syntactics is the relation between a given sign-vehicle and other sign-vehicles. There is a critical distinction here (that many cartographers have missed) between Morris's "syntactics" and the linguistic subcategory of "syntax". While syntax puts emphasis on word order and parsing (i.e., on a linear sequence), syntactics is much broader in scope. Syntactics allows for any kind of among-sign relationships. Morris (1938, p. 16) makes this point explicitly in his statement that there are "syntactical problems in the fields of perceptual signs, aesthetic signs, the practical use of signs, and general linguistics."... At least three kinds of sign relationships seem to fall under Morris's umbrella of syntactics (Posner, 1985, in French; cited in Nöth, 1990, p. 51). These include:
(1) ”the consideration of signs and sign combinations so far as they are subject of syntactical rules” (Morris, 1938, p. 14),
(2) ”the way in which signs of various classes are combined to form compound signs” (Morris, 1946/1971, p. 367), and
(3) ”the formal relations of signs to one another” (Morris, 1938, p. 6).
  • Alan MacEachren, (1995). How maps work: Representation, visualization, and design. Guilford Press. p. 235; as cited in: Yuri Engelhardt, "Syntactic structures in graphics." Computational Visualistics and Picture Morphology 5 (2007): 23-35.
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