To supplement his theory that context creates meaning, Richards dipped into the study of semiotics (the study of signs and signification) and built on the theories previously developed by Augustine.
There are three points to Richards’ semantic triangle:
1. symbols/signs (words!)
2. reference (mental image)
3. referent (whatever the mental image stands for – i.e., the object in the world)
In his book Rhetoric and Human Consciousness, Craig R. Smith writes, “He showed how the mind collects data, puts it in context, compares it to past experience, classifies it, and attaches meaning during the processing of data.”
Richards’ version of Augustine’s communication model reflects the broadcast model. The act of communication requires a transmitter (speaker), receiver (audience), and channel (medium).
When the speaker attempts to transmit a message to an audience, the receivers must “decode” the message. In keeping with the broadcast analogy, Richards recognized that the message might meet with “interference.” If there’s interference, misunderstanding may occur. The transmittance of vague or abstract concepts (love, justice), for example, are not quite so simple.
Richards expanded upon these ideas in The Meaning of Meaning, which he coauthored with C.K. Ogden.
Of course, the idea that signs must be interpreted in context was most important to Richards. And thus, hermeneutics (the interpretation of signs) plays a large role in communication and therefore in the prevention of misunderstanding.