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Soviet Psychology

ISSN: 0038-5751 (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/mrpo19

Problems of Meaning in Perception and the Units

of the Sensory Image

V. V. Stolin

To cite this article: V. V. Stolin (1975) Problems of Meaning in Perception and the Units of the
Sensory Image, Soviet Psychology, 13:3, 33-49

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.2753/RPO1061-0405130333

Published online: 19 Dec 2014.

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Ergonomika, 1973, No. 6, 180-196

V. V. Stolin



The function of meaning in the act of sensory reflection is

one of the most important - and perhaps even one of the most
interesting -problems of perception. The methodological
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complexity of this problem, as Leont'ev (13)recently pointed

out, lies in the duality of the existence of meanings. On the one
hand, meanings a r e the ideal form of the objective world, o r
that in which any knowledge is arrived at. In this form of their
existence, meanings cannot be sensed: they a r e not corporeal
"things" and constitute the object studied by logic in the broad
sense of the term. On the other hand, meanings, without losing
their social origin, exist as devices and mechanisms for sub-
jectively recognizing reality, i.e., "They go back to the sensory
objectivity of the world." Although "Meanings per s e cannot be
sensed, the way they function to establish actual life connections
presupposes their being correlated with actual sensory ac-
tions I ' (13).
This methodological statement of the problem naturally re-
quires fully specified, concrete, psychological development.
Although modern experimental psychology shows considerable
interest in this problem, it is frequently stated and also solved
on the basis of other preconditions. W e need only recall such
widely known concepts a s Piaget's "perceptual schema" o r


Bruner's "categories." Although we spoke above of the unique-

ness of the existence of meaning in an image, categorization
and schematization imply something else: the outward imposi-
tion of ready-made forms on the material of the stimulus.
Arnheim expressed this thesis with extreme clarity: "Percep-
tion is the imposition of fairly simple geometric patterns,
which I call visual concepts o r visual categories, on the mate-
rial of the stimulus'' (17).*
The function of meaning in the zct of sensory reflection, the
refraction of what is perceived by meaning, presupposes the
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existence of meaningful units of the subjective image that do

not lose their "molar" nature, i.e., there can be such charac-
teristics o r image content that would carry a specific meaning
within the perceived objective entity.
The importance of developing this issue has long been rec-
ognized in Soviet psychology, since the very understanding of
perception as an activity (4, 5, 6, 11, 13) presupposes percep-
tual units that would function as the object of the observer's
operations and actions. The main concept meeting this need
is that of operational units of perception (6), which establishes
an important characteristic of perceptual activity: the identifi-
cation of content in the image of an object in accordance with
the observer's tasks, Establishment of this principle of per-
ception, however, actually presupposes a search for units of
another order, since the list of contents that the observer can
identify includes size, color, and form of the object, although,
for example, the perception of form already implies that there
a r e adequate units in which to express it. The content of per-
ception directly connected with receptors has some bearing on
this problem. There a r e many studies (see the surveys in ref-
erences 1 and 2) that identify the directly codable types of re-
flections on the retina. These types of reflection, however, a r e
the "raw material, a unique 'preparedness' for perception, but
a r e not perception itself" (6).

*Editor's note: Statements marked with an asterisk a r e re-

trans lations.
SPRING 1975 35

The thesis that meaning refracts what is perceived implies

a certain relationship between meaning and the sensory fabric
of the image.
The content extracted from the image of some perceived
situation exists for the observer through some s e t of perceiv-
able features o r elements. Taken in relation to the content of
the whole situation, these elements have meaning only with
respect to it, and only in this sense are they the "sensory
fabric" of the image. But apart from the image of the whole,
these elements have their own meaning, which, in turn, may be
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represented to the observer through other visible characteris

tics of the object, i.e., through different contents of the image.
If the content of the whole perceived situation is the "signified"
and the specific features of its image are the "signifiers," then
the latter can also be "signifieds." In other words, the status
of some perceptual content as a "signified" o r a "signifier" is
relative, which can be easily seen in the example of the per-
ception of causality. Michotte (35), when he used various me-
chanical devices to alter the characteristics of the apparent
movement of two objects colliding with each other, found char-
acteristics of the objects and their visible motion that evoked
different types of impressions of causality. Relevant to this
impression were the relations of speeds, the objects involved
in the situation, the presence or absence of a pause between the
movements of the objects, the direction in which the second ob-
ject moved following the collision, and other factors.
It was possible to replicate Michotte's experiments using
photographic technology, in which apparent motion was used
instead of actual motion (18). Anticipating reproaches for the
"metaperceptivity" in the perception of causality, Michotte
categorically insisted that it w a s necessary "to reject any at-
tempt to reduce the perception of causality to a 'projection' of
things or.. .to a secondary interpretation based on past experi-
ence o r acquired knowledge" (35) [Emphasis added V. S. J .*
In experiments on the perception of causality, the perceived
subject content of a situation was represented to the observer
as a series of perceivable characteristics of the objects of the

situation and their visible movement. In turn, analysis of the

phenomena of induced and apparent movement shows that the
perception of movement is not produced simply by an object's
actual movement, but exists for the observer through a series
of features or factors that have been well studied. We should
emphasize that there is sufficient reason to assume "that a
necessary condition for the perception of movement is the
sight of distance between them, not their actual physical o r
retinal separation" (33) [Emphasis added - V. S.].* There
are also data on certain characteristics of the objects them-
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selves that a r e relevant to the perception of movement. Thus,

movement between objects with different forms is much more
difficult to perceive (W. Ittelson, R. Toch, cited in reference
33), and perception of two successively presented figures that
are superimposed as a single figure depends on the probability
of whether one figure will be perceived a s a distortion of the
other. The difference in dimensions here does not affect the
perception of a figure as being otherwise identical (39).
A definite hierarchy of levels is set up: the content of a
higher semantic level (causality of motion) is represented
through specific characteristics of visible movement (speed,
direction). The subject content and the invariant of these char-
acteristics together make up the unit of perception, but the
visible movement has its own content (movement as such),
which is represented through specific spatial characteristics
and characteristics of the form of objects. Perception of the
distance and form of objects also presupposes some kind of
units (we shall consider them below), and so the analysis of
such a level-by-level structure may be extended. The lower
limit is theoretically the elements o r parts of the image that
express for the observer the subject content of a higher ("penul-
timate") level, but lack independent content, i.e., elements o r
parts that usually function as a form of a higher level. This
limit is still actually difficult to indicate. Phenomenal analogs
of the above-mentioned types of images on the retina (bounda-
ries, angles, differences in brightness [I]) may prove to be
this limit, but this requires special analysis. The uppermost
SPRING 1975 37

semantic level obviously borders on thought and is hard to de-

fine a t present. Examples a r e the already mentioned case of
the perception of causality, the perception of distances in a
conversation, which, after Hall's studies (29, 30), became the
object of intensive experimental investigation (16,22, 41), the
perception of expressions of the human face (23, 42) and,
through them, of the attitude of the person, and, finally, aes-
thetic perception, which has also become an object of study for
psychologists (26,28).
Again we should emphasize the functional, not the morpholog-
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ical, status of the "signified" and the "signifier.tt Since what

functions a s content on one level can also be something through
which the observer perceives the content of a yet higher level,
we should make a distinction between the perceived content and
the form of the perceptual representation of this content (for
brevity we shall sometimes omit "perceived" and "perceptual").
Whether one or another phenomenal formation is a content or
a f o r m of representation depends on the conditions in which the
particular formation appears - for real activity this is defined
by the observer's task in the act of perception. But in investi-
gative analysis, when the perception of some specific content
(e.g., causality of movement) is studied, everything used to
represent the content will constitute some ordered, hierarchical,
perceptual form. (1)
The unit of perception is thus a perceptual formation that
has some meaning, i.e., it carries a specific content and is
represented by specific characteristics of perceptual form.
This understanding is incomplete, however, since it does not
fully reflect the relation between perceptual units and conscious-
ness. This is important because the understanding of the re-
lation of the image to consciousness in all post-Helmholtzian
psychology is an object of methodological criticism. According
to Gregory (3),the central problem of psychology ''is to find
out how the brain processes figures impinging on the retina and
thus represents external objects."* Analyzing this viewpoint,
Leont'ev (9)writes that the supporters of this position "think
of object images of consciousness a s certain psychological

things depending on other things that constitute their external

cause.. The analysis w a s made in terms of dual abstraction,
expressed, on the one hand, by the extraction of the sensory
processes from the system of the observer's activity and, on
the other, by the extraction of sensory images from the system
of human consciousness." [Emphasis added V. S.]
Clearly neither Helmholtz nor Gregory can be reproached
for denying the phenomenality of the image: it is rather a ques-
tion of the mute reduction of consciousness to.what can be ex-
perienced, to phenomenality. The principle of system analysis
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requires just the opposite: it seems to understand phenome-

nality as consciousness, i.e., to understand what those proper-
ties of the phenomenal image a r e that allow specifying it as a
human cognitive image.
There a r e many levels on which we can consider conscious-
ness of the image as a necessary characteristic, beginning, for
example, with analysis of practical human activity (10). The
image is understood as an integral whole with respect to the
goal of the activity and allows us to assume such a goal in a
specific act. But this does not exhaust the characteristics of
the conscious image. The perceiving observer separates the
object of perception from the conditions under which it is per-
ceived, recognizing which aspects of the perceived belong to
the object and which to the conditions of its perception. For
example, when we see a building we are seeking through the
foggy window of a bus, the building is not seen as foggy. In its
nature this is an act of cognition, but materially it is an act of
perception. Or course, the Gestalt psychologist would interpret
the example as follows: the factor of "common fate'' is operat-
ing the particles on the glass a r e moving in one direction
and the visible parts of the building, in another. But this just
strengthens our viewpoint: the "common fate" is the perceptual
form in which the unit with the meaning "different objects" is
The need for perception to have such units is also evident
when we consider the genesis of cognition. Thus, the sphere
of what is recognized expands because the cognitive action turns
SPRING 1975 39

into an operation (12). The goal of the action begins to assume

the structural position of conditions, and "is no longer directly
represented in consciousness," but "is consciously tested," s o
that "There is enough of some kind of deviation from the nor-
mal existence of this operation, and then the operation itself,
like its objective conditions, appears clearly in consciousness."
What we have said is also true of activity on the macrolevel.
But if we are interested in the level of perceptual processes,
the discussion takes a different form, i.e., we must not speak
of the goal itself, but of the image of the goal, which begins to
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assume the structural position of an image of the conditions

[for achieving the goal]. But the goal of practical activities
occurring among solid objects in three-dimensional space must
necessarily be expressed for the observer in images of the
spatial characteristics of these objects, and this means that
the image itself will show testable contents that, though not ac-
tually recognized, may be recognized at any moment.
We can thus theorize that the observer's need to test the cor-
rectness of his perceptual act requires a structuring of images
in which the perceived objective environment and the form in
which it is perceptually represented would not be irreversibly
entangled. The capacity of the phenomenal image to be per-
ceived lies in part in the possibility of making the transition
from the content of the unit to the form of its perceptual repre-
sentation, which allows an observer not to err when perceiving
an object in different circumstances.
A good illustration of this is the history of the problem of
the so-called secondary cues for depth and distance (31,34).
The difference in speeds of objects at different distances from
the observer, the covering of a far object by a near one, the
perspective, convergence, and shortening of lines, the elevation
of distant objects over near ones, etc. - "All these cues had
been known long before the perception of distance ever became
a philosophical issue.. , and had been employed for centuries
by painters in their effort to reproduce a segment of the world
on a flat surface" (25). These cues were called secondary rela-
tive to convergence, accommodation, and retinal disparity,

which were understood as (primary) sensory cues that could

not be broken down further.
We should stipulate, however, that the philosophically unsat-
isfactory separation into primary and secondary cues is also
unsatisfactory from the standpoint of concrete psychological
data. Under closer inspection the major primary cue dis- -
parity - is no longer primary, and can be broken down further.
A full century ago, Schriever (37)showed that under specific
conditions, retinal disparity per s e still cannot define perceived
depth and that perceived relief can be the direct opposite of the
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disparity cue. Julesz, whose studies on the perception of ran-

dom-point patterns appear to support the automatic nature of
the action of disparity, directly indicates in one of his articles
that under certain conditions the nervous system may prefer
a fusion with more disparity of elements to a fusion with less.
In his words, "this weighting process between various organi-
zations occurs higher than the local binocular fusion of similar
picture elements" (32). It has been traditionally assumed that
adaptation to depth distortions is practically nil (38),but Ep-
stein has recently shown (19, 20, 21) that effective recalibra-
tion of disparity is possible in quite brief periods. Although in
genetic terms the opposition between inborn and learned mech-
anisms of binocular differentiation continues to be discussed
today, the value of experience is recognized without question (27).
Consequently, disparity cannot be said to be an indivisible and
primary cue. All cues a r e obviously to some extent secondary,
But whereas the meaning of binocular disparity has become
clear only recently, the contradiction of the concept of monoc-
ular cues, which "were themselves perceptions, it appeared,
not data of sensation" (25),has long been recognized. Monoc-
ular cues seem to be parts of the image. They should exist as
such in the image and, at the same time, should be involved in
its construction; otherwise, their very existence a6 cues is
meaningless. This antinomy, which has confounded many in-
vestigators, can be resolved only through an understanding of
the reflexive nature of perception. Monocular cues a r e image
units bearing information about the spatial form and position
SPRING 1975 41

of an object, but only in the act of conscious perception and in

the context of the perceived object as a whole.
Interestingly, most investigators involved with the problem
of the genesis of monocular cues, judging from Greenspan (27),
conclude that these cues either come from training o r mature
in the postnatal period. An exception is made only for two motion
parallaxes, which a r e apparently based on innate mechanisms.
Walk & Gibson (40), however, maintain that these mechanisms
begin to be secondary with the acquisition of the "experience"
cue based on a gradient of texture.
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W e may suppose that monocular cues owe their origin to the

transformation of the action into an operation and are con-
sciously testable contents. The observer is not aware of them
as units of his image, just as we a r e not aware of the units of
thought and speech; but they can be perceived as units, given
an appropriate problem situation. Graphic a r t is an example.
The creative act is an act of the practical reflection of means
of an observer's seeing, a reflection of what it is through which
he can perceive some particular content.
We find proof of the correctness of understanding monocular
depth cues as units of perception in an analysis of pseudoscopic
phenomena (15), which shows that an observer's perceptual
activity when forced to transform a relief is directed primarily
toward the content of the image corresponding to monocular
depth cues, such as the distribution of light and shadow, cover-
ing, and monocular parallax. There is something like a reob-
jectification of the sensory fabric basic to some cue o r other.
The disintegration of a monocular cue as an image unit is shown
by its disappearance in the context of the image and in the at-
tachment of another meaning to the sensory material, according
to the new meaning of the perceived whole. Thus the shadow
of an object sometimes becomes the color of a surface,
sometimes a surface with such a color, depending on the
circumstances. These phenomena show that for perception it
is important that the monocular cues match the general meaning of
what is being perceived, that the perceptual activity directed
toward establishing this match occurs on the level of perception

(visibility of transformations and their results), not on the level

of secondary interpretation, although with an appropriate prob-
lem situation a subject may recognize the fact that the meaning
has changed. And, finally, the disintegration of monocular fea-
tures itself indicates that they are not the ultimate units of
Perceptual units thus belong to consciousness, This can be
seen not only in the fact that their structure involves meaning,
one of the main components of consciousness, but also in the
fact that they allow one to move from the content contained in
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them to the perceptual form of this content. Here we are not

considering verbal realizability of the units. However, since
consciousness is firmly linked with natural language, we should
examine this problem.
Meaning, the main instrument of consciousness, can exist in
the "body" of a word o r symbol and in the "body" of an image.
Of course, the image can also be recognized, but this is a sec-
ondary process; the meaningful image itself carries recognition.
"Apparently there a r e no thought processes that could not op-
erate, at least theoretically, in perception," writes Arnheim.
V i s u a l perception is visual thinking,. vision is the main
medium of thought" (17).*
Experimental data have recently appeared that show that
fairly complex perceptual operations are possible without
speech (7). "The leading role of the right hemisphere in many
nonverbal cognitive processes, particularly in the perception
of spatial relations, is becoming increasingly obvious," writes
Milner (36).*
Especially interesting a r e the data obtained from studying
patients in whom the interhemispheric commissures have been
surgically bisected. Studying such patients, Gazzaniga (24)
showed that
When visual stimuli such a s triangles, ovals, squares,
o r pictures of objects such as pencils, spoons, apples,
oranges, and so forth, were presented exclusively to the
right hemisphere, the subjects would claim they saw
nothing i.e., the left hemisphere was talking, as it
SPRING 1975 43

were - but then, with the left hand, they would retrieve
the match from a series of objects. After each correct
response, the subject was asked what had been retrieved.
All replied they didn't know."
Consequently, visual recognition of semantically relatively rich
objects is possible, and even intermodal transfer (tactile selec-
tion), without objective o r subjective speech control!
Gazzaniga's data, which directly indicate the possibility of
"speechless" object perception, accord well with the results
of clinical observations of patients with local brain damage.
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These observations suggest that the subdominant (nonspeech)

hemisphere is responsible for perceiving spatial relations.
Thus, comparison of the syndromes of opticospatial agnosia
with damage to the lower parietal (or parietal-occipital) regions
of the dominant and subdominant hemispheres shows that with
damage to the left side, patients display image retention (8).
They can "grasptt the spatial situation correctly and react cor-
rectly to it: in copying a drawing, they correctly correlate its
details with each other the image of the object is not disturbed.
And conversely, patients with lesions of the subdominant
hemisphere cannot correlate hand movement with the dis-
tance to an object and make gross e r r o r s in copying, mixing up
the details o r reproducing them separately. It is especially
interesting that a patient shown subject cards s e e s only indi-
vidual objects "successively and combines them logically with-
out making a visual check, so that absurd e r r o r s frequently
result" (8).
Perception of object representations also suffers with damage
of the right hemisphere. The defects in perception a r e de-
scribed in terms such as 'Yragmentation" and "redundant con-
solidation." Patients lack a visual "grasp" and identification
of the image as a whole. "Identification is mediated with an
orientation toward individual fragments of the representation"
(8). Sometimes individual representations included in the whole
are not recognized a t all; the patient guesses the meaning from
the context.
The greatest interest is in facial agnosias resulting from

occipital damage to the right side. Kok characterizes the typ-

ical features as follows:
a unique type of visual agnosia: the patient s e e s all the
facial details -
nose, chin, eyes, etc. but does not s e e
the whole face. He never confuses a nose with any other
object; he recognizes it as a "face in general," but can-
not recognize the individual to which it belongs, even if
this person is a close friend o r acquaintance - son,
wife, doctor. Recognition is mediated - by voice,
walk, dress, sometimes by haircut, glasses, etc., .. .
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the patient does not always recognize his own face in a

m i r r o r o r a photograph,. .he often cannot discern and
interpret mimicry. (8)
In our view, visual agnosia of the face could be interpreted
as a disorder of perception of the content of the face, consist-
ing of an aggregate of several characteristics : young/old,
man 's/ woman' s , familiar /unf amiliar , evil/kind , et c In nor -
ma1 perception this content is represented to the observer in
an appropriate perceptual form. In agnosia the perceptual form
itself becomes the object of perception and, although the pa-
tients can recognize fine details such as squinting of the eyes
and can identify the face from them, they do not s e e its mean-
ingful characteristics, The image units relevant to the content
of the face disintegrate. The patient perceives what functions
as the form of representation of these image units, but in their
own content. Therefore, he must have recourse to deduction.
This is a good example of the fact that the content of what is
perceived, o r perceptual meaning, does not exist for the ob-
s e r v e r except in the form of the perceptual representation.
Meaning separated from it ceases to be perceptual and becomes
verbal meaning.
Thus, neuropsychophysiological data indicate that "speech-
less" perception of complex objects such as the human face,
geometric figures, and images of objects is possible. But the
perceptual and semantic complexity of these data would cast
doubt on the statement that perception is also 7'languageless,"
i.e., that it lacks its own perceptual language.
SPRING 1975 45

Up to now, in speaking of the content and perceptual form of

representation, we have emphasized the functional, relational
character of this division. In this sense both the content and
the form of what is perceived a r e objective, i.e., the visible
properties of objects a r e the form. In ordinary, normal condi-
tions of perception, the observer never encounters a purely
perceptual form, since activity directed toward the elements of
form converts these elements to content. Under certain con-
ditions, however, the perceptual form is at least partly sepa-
rated from the content that it represents. This is shown by
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analysis of the situation of inverted vision. (2) The form of

representation is separated from the contentrand represents
only itself. The observer can always use it, not as a form of
the visible content, but as a sign of the latter. The sign, how-
ever, does not give adirect connection with reality; the observer
must ask himself every time what the relation is between the
objects and the reality thus denoted, i.e., the observer must
logically deduce what the object and its properties are. Fur-
ther, the properties of the perceptual form in such a case a r e
modified, the change being expressed, in particular, in a de-
cline of constancy. Apparently we should not speak here of
perceptual but of sensory form, since the properties and struc-
ture of the form a r e determined in this case not by its status
within an image unit and not by its relation to the content (mean-
ing), but only by the psychophysiological peculiarities of the
human sense organ, the condition of the sense organs, the spa-
tial position of the observer relative to the object, lighting con-
ditions, etc.
The transition from objective viewing of contrasted objects
to experiencing their sensory form can probably be achieved
without optical devices, the observer possessing only certain
introspective skills. This is how Gibson reached his descrip-
tion of the "visual field."
Meaning determines the structural organization of the per-
ceptual form; in this sense the perceptual form of the image
unit may be topologically separated, i.e., the elements of one
single unit may be united not by spatial proximity, but by the

meaning that they share. The sensory form has its own orga-
nization, evidently basically subordinating topological principles.
The laws of sensory organization m a y also have an effect on
the conditions of subjective perception if we organize it in a
particular way. Some laws of perceptual organization described
by Gestalt psychologists, such as its subordination to factors
of "good line," "closedness," and "inclusion without a remain-
der," are, from the viewpoint we a r e developing, nothing but
laws of sensory (not perceptual) organization that appear with-
in a subject perception in which for the observer there is an
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indefiniteness of the perceived content.

Sensory form represents material for the perceptual form,
and the image enters only through the latter; but this material
is not "raw" and "unstructured" sensation. Its structural
specificity and its "projectedness" allow construction of ade-
quate images.
Let us summarize, Within the framework of "subjective co-
ordinates," within the sensory, phenomenal image "as it is giv-
en to the observer," we must distinguish the content of what is
perceived and the form in which this content is represented
and experienced by the observer. Although content never exists
outside this form and is merged with it for the observer's per-
ception (but not for logical reflection), the same content may
be represented by different forms which allows us to insist
on their noncongruence. Consciousness of the units of percep-
tion is expressed particularly in the subjective possibility of
making the transition from content to form, converting the
latter to content, but not verbal consciousness of what is per-
ceived. Evidently the relations between the content and the
form of representation a r e dynamic as well as relational. Thus,
whereas spatial characteristics are the form of representation
in the case of perceiving apparent movement, in the case of per-
ceiving mutual spatial distance between two objects, the differ-
ent speed of their visible movement when the observer's head
is turned (monocular parallax) is the form of representation.
The task of any specific investigation is to study the actual
dynamics of these relations.
SPRING 1975 47


1) Stepanov (14) suggests the existence of such relations for

all semiotic systems, using the notions of "level of expression"
and "level of content."
2) See the article by A. D. Logvinenko & V. V. Stolin and the
article by A. D. Logvinenko in Ergonomika, 1973, No. 6.

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Translated by
David Henderson