Thank goodness for information!: or, Charles Peirce and Michael Buckland meet.

Hi all! This is the first in a series of little musings on issues and ideas that come up as I trek my way through the LIS program here at UNCG. Some entries will be practical, others more philosophical. Enjoy! Sincerely, Robert.


In a letter of October 12, 1904, Charles Sanders Peirce, the American philosopher, wrote to Lady Victoria Welby:

“With the exception of knowledge, in the present instant, of the contents of consciousness in that instance…all our thought and knowledge is by signs.”¹

In Peirce’s philosophy, “a sign is something by knowing which we know something more.” For example, we know by reading a printed letter that we ought to utter (or think) a certain sound, and we know by seeing a footprint in the ground that a person or animal has recently walked by. In these examples, the observer of the sign (the letter, the footprint) does not have direct knowledge of the “something more” (the certain sound to be uttered; the person or animal gone by) because of the sign, but the sign luckily and efficiently acts as evidence of the something more.

So defined by Peirce, the sign thus equates with the concept of “information-as-thing,” information scientist Michael Buckland’s term for something which “is used as evidence in learning,”² such as, in the examples above, a footprint or a printed letter. The learning part is called by Buckland “information-as-process” and the knowledge won through that learning he calls “information-as-knowledge.”

To summarize, Buckland’s “information-as-thing” is equivalent to Peirce’s concept of a sign³; it is a material form, a piece of evidence (i.e. the footprint, the printed letter).

“Information-as-knowledge” is equivalent to what Peirce termed that “something more” that we can know (i.e. the sound we utter; the existence of the passerby), learned by seeing, indeed “reading,” the sign or the “information-as-thing.”

Finally, Buckland’s “information-as-process” is the act of informing or being informed, the learning process by which we move from the “information-as-thing” (the sign) to the “information-as-knowledge” (the “something more”).

I agree with Buckland’s comment, in his article, that information scientists deal strictly with “information-as-thing,” since the material form, the piece of evidence, or the record, to put it simply, is the only thing that can be collected and organized. No one can collect and organize the actual thought that exists in someone’s head, nor the abstract process of learning itself, which is entirely a mental, intangible occurrence! You can’t “collect” somebody’s existence! But you can collect somebody’s footprint easily in a plaster imprint or in ink or paint or by other means.

I, for one, am glad that in the absence of a loved one (a friend, a family member) to me “in the present instant,” I can still have knowledge of him or her through signs/information-as-things, despite the absence of the actual person in my immediate experience. I have records in the form of memories and objects around my desk that remind me of the places and people I hold dear. I have information!!! I have memories and so-called sentimental objects that I collect, because I cannot collect the people and places themselves.

So, thank goodness for information!



¹Peirce, Charles S., 1904, in A.W. Burks, ed., 1958, The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. VIII, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

²Buckland, Michael K., 1991, “Information as Thing,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5): 351-360

³Equivalent to the sign as Peirce meant the term when he used it in the signinterpretantobject triad of his semiotics, not sign in the larger, slightly different sense of the entirety of that triad.


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