International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

2nd Edition, as published by Charles François 2004 Presented by the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science Vienna for public access.


The International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics was first edited and published by the system scientist Charles François in 1997. The online version that is provided here was based on the 2nd edition in 2004. It was uploaded and gifted to the center by ASC president Michael Lissack in 2019; the BCSSS purchased the rights for the re-publication of this volume in 200?. In 2018, the original editor expressed his wish to pass on the stewardship over the maintenance and further development of the encyclopedia to the Bertalanffy Center. In the future, the BCSSS seeks to further develop the encyclopedia by open collaboration within the systems sciences. Until the center has found and been able to implement an adequate technical solution for this, the static website is made accessible for the benefit of public scholarship and education.


SIGN 1)3)

Any event registered by an observer.

Signs are necessarily percepts, visual, auditive, tactile, etc. They imply abstraction (PEIRCE's "abstractive observation"), distinction, frames of reference, learning, memory, observation, representation, etc…

There are numerous different viewpoint about Signs, more or less complementary and compatible. The given definition is very general, but admittedly somewhat simplistic.

F FRISCHKNECHT and J.P.van GIGCH give a different definition: "Signs are symbol tokens or symbol carriers" (1989, p.241). The tokens or carriers are events and only observers, mostly humans, are able to understand them as symbols. The observer needs thus to possess a repertory of significances if he/she is to interpret the sign. If this condition is fulfilled, the sign becomes an information element. G. KLAUS writes: "As significance bearer, the sign possesses a structure" (1976, p.915). It is the perception of this structure that generates the information.

C.S. PEIRCE considered that the most perfect signs are those which carry about equal symbolic, iconic and indicative loads.

Following C.S. PEIRCE, F.Y. SEIF explains: "A semiotic sign is an indivisible triadic structure: sign (or what PEIRCE calls a "representamen"), object, and interpretant. Anything is a sign if it represents an object and determines an interpretant. The term "object", although empirical, is not necessarily a material thing" (1992, p.810). A good example could be the "cross" in the Christian religion.

SEIF reckons however that: "While this structure is inadequate for the dynamics of physical or metaphysical phenomena, it nevertheless represents an image of a frozen moment in the semiotic process" (Ibid).

Any sign may affect the behavior of the observer, provide he/she is able to recognize it some significance, or even possibly its lack of significance (being disconcerted or scared by something registered, but not interpreted).

Ch. MORRIS (quoted by R.L. ACKOFF and F.E. EMERY) "… discusses three types of signification (semantic properties) of signs and three corresponding 'dispositions to react in a certain way" (pragmatic properties). Semantically speaking a sign, for MORRIS is:

1: Designative, "insofar as it signifies observable properties of the environment or the actor, (as black)"

2. Prescriptive, "insofar as it signifies how the object or situation is to be reacted to so as to satisfy the governing impulse, (as ought)"

3. Appraisive, "insofar as it signifies the consummatory properties of some object or situation, (as good)".

"The corresponding (pragmatic) functions are to produce:

1. "A disposition to react to the designated object as if it had certain observable properties"

2. "A disposition to act in a certain kind of way to the designated object or situation"

3. "A disposition to act toward a designated object as if it would be satisfying or unsatisfying" (1972, p.171).

Still another classification of signs is proposed by A. CORNELIS:

"Natural sign: An undifferentiated mixture of meaning content and meaning carrier. Natural signs are dominated by emotive meanings. Thus for example the meaning of the mother for the child illustrates a natural sign… (It is) the emotional layer build up with the help of natural signs (that) makes possible the construction of a basic knowledge system… "

"Linguistic sign:… as it has been defined by de SAUSSURE. First de SAUSSURE stresses the distinction between meaning content and meaning carrier. Second de SAUSSURE defines the relationship between content and carrier as arbitrary…

"Abstract sign: An abstract sign has the logical characteristic of abandoning any arbitrary or natural relationship between meaning content and meaning carrier. This process of abstraction is characteristic for scientific thought and more generally for… the scientization of culture. Meaning contents and meaning carriers are not longer organized by their interrelationship – either natural or conventional – instead they develop into two different systems, of identity on one side, and structure on the other side" (1986, p.141-2).

Shortly, a sign tends to produce (more) information, learning (or training) and motivation.

Signs may have a more or less embracing, i.e. systemic, implicit significance, that may be differently perceived by different observers. They may be more or less efficient from a semantic viewpoint, according to what significance the receiver is able to give them. As observed by U. ECO: "… the labor of sign production also represents a form of social criticism and of social practice, a sort of gostly presence" (1979, p.314). All cultures have their own, slightly different ways, to construct signs and individual interpreters are largely subservient to this global process. See for instance MARUYAMA's mindscapes.

Signs can also be ambiguous, for example in poetry or painting, presenting a great number of possible connotations (M.C ESCHER's engravings are a notorious example).

A very significant historical study and comparative critical evaluation of the notion of sign, made by N. LUHMANN was reproduced in the Journal "Cybernetics and Human Knowing" 6 (3) p. 21-27.

This work intended "to combine systems theory with sign theory by trying to integrate G. SPENCER BROWN's "Laws of Form" (N. ORT and P. MARKUS, 1999, p. 39-46)


  • 1) General information
  • 2) Methodology or model
  • 3) Epistemology, ontology and semantics
  • 4) Human sciences
  • 5) Discipline oriented


Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science(2020).

To cite this page, please use the following information:

Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (2020). Title of the entry. In Charles François (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (2). Retrieved from www.systemspedia.org/[full/url]

We thank the following partners for making the open access of this volume possible: