Theoretical Medicine

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 363–377 | Cite as

About signs and symptoms: Can semiotics expand the view of clinical medicine?

  • John Nessa


Semiotics, the theory of sign and meaning, may help physicians complement the project of interpreting signs and symptoms into diagnoses. A sign stands for something. We communicate indirectly through signs, and make sense of our world by interpreting signs into meaning. Thus, through association and inference, we transform flowers into love, Othello into jealousy, and chest pain into heart attack. Medical semiotics is part of general semiotics, which means the study of life of signs within society. With special reference to a case story, elements from general semiotics, together with two theoreticians of equal importance, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce, are presented. Two different modes of understanding clinical medicine are contrasted to illustrate the external link between what we believe or suggest, on the one hand, and the external reality on the other hand.

Key words

The theory of signs symptoms and signs diagnostic interpretation structural linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure Charles Sanders Peirce medical semiotics scientific mode of understanding hermeneutic mode of understanding 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • John Nessa
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Public Health & Primary Health Care Division for General PracticeUniversity of BergenBergenNorway

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