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Semiotics, also called semiotic studies and including (in the Saussurean tradition) semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Semiotics is closely related to the field of linguistics, which, for its part, studies the structure and meaning of language more specifically. However, as different from linguistics, semiotics also studies non-linguistic sign systems. Semiotics is often divided into three branches:

  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata, or meaning
  • Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
  • Pragmatics: Relation between signs and sign-using agents

Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions; for example, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication.[1] However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the life sciences – such as how organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis). In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics (including zoosemiotics).

Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that deals with the formal properties of signs and symbols.[2] More precisely, syntactics deals with the "rules that govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences".[3] Charles Morris adds that semantics deals with the relation of signs to their designata and the objects which they may or do denote; and, pragmatics deals with the biotic aspects of semiosis, that is, with all the psychological, biological, and sociological phenomena which occur in the functioning of signs.

Terminology and history

Template:Cleanup section Using the Greek letters σημιωτικὴ,[4] the term “semiotics” was introduced into the English language by John Locke as a synonym for “doctrine of signs” (Latin: doctrina signorum, the oldest name for the study of what is now called “semiosis” or “the action of signs”). This was in the concluding chapter of his 1690 Essay concerning Humane Understanding.[5] There already existed in Locke’s time (and long before) the Greek term Σημειωτικὴ, “semeiotics”, to name that branch of medical science concerned with the study of symptoms of disease or σημεια—“natural signs” in today’s language.[6] Thus, a specialized study that goes back all the way to the times of Hippocrates (BC c.460–370) and Galen (AD129–c.200/210), before the notion of “sign” as transcending the nature/culture divide was introduced by Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354–430 August 28),[7] was firmly established before Locke came on the scene. Himself a man of medicine, Locke was quite familiar with this “semeiotics” as naming a specialized branch within medical science. Indeed, in his personal library were two editions of Scapula’s 1579 abridgement of Henricus Stephanus’ Thesaurus Graecae Linguae, which listed σημειωτικὴ as the name for “diagnostics”, the branch of medicine concerned with interpreting symptoms of disease (“symptomatology”); and indeed the English physician and scholar Henry Stubbes (1632–1676) had transliterated this term of specialized science into English precisely as “semeiotic” in his 1670 work, The Plus Ultra Reduced to a Non Plus (p. 75).

But "semeiotics” in this established and even ancient sense of a specialized science "was not what Locke had in mind" with his proposal of “semiotics” (σημιωτική) as a general doctrine of signs, in contrast to any special science or branch of science. In other words, Locke’s "omission" of the epsilon following the mu in his term “semiotics” was not a semantic error by someone ignorant of Greek, but was rather a "deliberate spelling" to contrast his proposal to name the general doctrine of signs (Σημιωτική, semiotica or “semiotics”) with the existing name of the specialized branch of medicine (Σημειωτική, “semeiotics”) concerned with analyzing symptoms of disease.

Full examination of the circumstances of Locke’s work confirm this point. Locke devoted utmost care in preparing four subsequent editions of his Essay up until his death in 1704. In each of these full editions,[8] his original spelling of σημιωτικὴ was retained in his proposal for “the doctrine of signs”.[9] Thus we are constrained to think that because σημειωτικὴ was already a signum ex consuetudine (a customary sign) by Locke’s time, his proposed σημιωτικὴ was quite deliberatively and contrastively a signum ad placitum, a neologism stipulated for the express purpose of naming a new science, a discipline which did not yet exist yet whose right to existence, in contrast to all existing disciplines, needed to be recognized and named accordingly, as Saussure also (26 November 1857 – 1913 February 22; but incognizant of Locke’s earlier statement) would point out.

What Locke had in mind with his proposal for the development of semiotics as a general study (what would come to be called a cenoscopic in contrast to an idioscopic science after Bentham and Peirce[10]) was the fact that the general division of science (perennial since Aristotle) into speculative (or the study of the nature of things) and practical (or the study of how we can gain some control over things, both in behavior and in technology) made no mention of the fact that the whole of human knowledge, whether speculative or practical, depends in its origins and throughout its development upon the action of signs or “semiosis”. In the five closing paragraphs (little more than the very last page) of his Essay concerning Humane Understanding, Locke proposed that, along with science as concerned with attainment of speculative truth (or “knowledge of things, as they are in their own proper beings”), and science as concerned with attainment of practical truth (or the “right applying our own powers and actions, for the attainment of things good and useful”), there is need for a science concerned with “signs the mind makes use of” both in acquiring knowledge of things and in developing control over things. For this new, “third science” Locke proposed the name “σημιωτικὴ” or, alternatively (he is explicit on the point), “the doctrine of signs”.

Many misunderstandings have arisen from the careless reading of that concluding chapter of Locke’s Essay, beginning with the claim of later linguists to “correct” Locke’s spelling of Σημιωτικὴ by inserting an epsilon after the mu, thus: Σημειωτικὴ, which transliterates “semeiotics” rather than “semiotics”. While this “correction” can be to a limited extent justified by Greek etymology and orthography, this is true only when the orthographic considerations are introduced entirely apart from the actual philosophical context of Locke’s introduction of his term to name the new, general science. In the context of Locke’s work, intention, and time, such a correction is a misguided “correction”, a blunder, philosophically speaking. Even Juri Lotman (28 February 1922 – 1993 October 28), who introduced Eastern Europe to semiotics and adopted Locke’s coinage of Σημιωτικὴ as the name to subtitle his founding at the University of Tartu in Estonia in 1964 of the first semiotics journal, Sign Systems Studies (but did not have the advantage of examining all five of the editions of the Essay prepared in Locke’s home and lifetime), was hounded by linguists into later altering and substituting as the journal’s subtitle Σημειωτικὴ—a misguided “correction”, as pointed out above, which yet persists to the present day. One can only hope that the (mis)“correction” will likely be corrected (or re-corrected!) eventually, as the actual history of semiotics comes to be more generally and deeply understood.

The Peirce scholar and editor Max H. Fisch[11] claimed in 1978[12] that "semeiotic" was Peirce's own preferred rendering of Locke’s Σημιωτική. That spelling has been used by some Peirce scholars to distinguish Peirce's semiotic from others, especially from those more in the "dyadic" Saussurian tradition (signifier, signified), formerly called "Semiology", with its foundation in linguistics and its emphasis on language and symbol. Peircean semiotic is triadic (sign, object, interpretant), and is conceived of as philosophical logic studied in terms of signs that are not always linguistic or artificial, and sign processes, modes of inference, and the inquiry process in general, with emphases not only on symbols but also on signs that are semblances ("icons") and signs that are signs by being factually connected ("indices") to their objects.

In Peircean circles, Max Fisch (21 December 1900 – 1995 January 6), the doyen of Peirce scholarship within his lifetime, introduced the myth that “semeiotic” was Peirce’s preferred term for the doctrine of signs. So deep runs the influence of habit over logic, that not even the exposure of this myth as a falsehood[13] has so far persuaded later generations of Peirce scholars (epigones, in this matter) to abandon their preference for singling out Peirce’s work on the doctrine of signs as “semeiotic” or “semeiotics”, in contrast to all other work in “semiotic” or “semiotics”—as if the study of semiosis was not a larger project than the work of any one researcher, however key. John Deely has argued against Fisch's claim about Peirce's preference for the spelling and singular form "Semeiotic".[14] Deely cites Peirce's use not only of "Semeiotic" but also "Semeiotics", "Semiotic", and "Semeotic", which last Peirce once stated might be the best rendering.

Semiotics can no more be reduced to Peirce than geometry can be reduced to Euclid, astronomy to Galileo, or physics to Einstein, etc. Thomas L. Short in his 2007 book Peirce's Theory of Signs,[15] says in a footnote on p. xi in the Preface, "I use ‘semeiotic’, in Peirce’s occasional spelling, for his theory or theories of signs, and the more usual ‘semiotic’ for that movement which originated in Europe...independently of Peirce and that later appropriated him, with confusion all around".

Other Peirce scholars have tried to disparage the name “doctrine of signs” by associating the term “doctrine” with authoritarian and dogmatic religious teaching. But such a move presupposes considerable ignorance of the history of the term “doctrina” in the context of the Latin Age, where it was a synonym for “scientia”,[16] and where (in the 1632 Tractatus of Poinsot[17]) the irreducibly triadic character of the relation formally constituting signs as signs was originally established. Inasmuch as the latter term (“science”) in modern times came to be restricted to idioscopic investigations, while both scientia and doctrina in Latin times applied mainly to cenoscopic investigation, and in view of Peirce’s claim that semiotics belongs first to cenoscopy in its contrast to ideoscopy,[18] there is much wisdom in Sebeok’s decision to prefer in contemporary context the expression “doctrine of signs” over Saussure’s proposal for a “science of signs”,[19] even as Sebeok assimilated “semiology” to “semiotics” as a part to a whole,[20] and was involved in choosing the name Semiotica (in effect a Latin transliteration of Locke’s σημιωτικὴ) for the first international journal devoted to the study of signs.

Thus “doctrina signorum” or “doctrine of signs” is the oldest name for the general study of signs, an expression used in common by Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), John Poinsot (1589–1644), John Locke (1632–1704), Charles Peirce (1839–1914), and Thomas Sebeok (1920–2001)—i.e., from ancient times, when “sign” as a general notion was first introduced by Augustine,[21] to postmodern times, when the general study of signs as signs first became a thematic focus of general interest within intellectual culture. But given the ancient origins of sign study (in Greek medicine in particular), and given the late-modern awakening of intellectual culture to the fundamental role of signs in the whole of culture and understanding, the English transliteration, “semiotics”, of the name Σημιωτικὴ proposed by Locke against the background of medical knowledge, has quite justifiably—almost inevitably—become the most accepted generic name for sign-study.

Peirce himself, the main transitional figure in this area from a modern to a postmodern intellectual culture in philosophy,[22] would likely have had little use in his own semiotic development for provincial narrowness in trying to eliminate or belittle the oldest name for semiotic study, even as he most emphatically rejected for semiotics the understanding of “doctrine” in the latter modern sense of “dogma” (as Bergman points out[23]). Peirce’s whole idea for semiotics as the doctrine of signs was that semiosis would become the focal point for a community of inquirers, who would investigate the perfusion of signs throughout the universe for its own sake and according to its full requirements. (He would not likely have looked with admiration upon the development of a scholarly circle closed upon his personal work as something to be isolated from or within the larger semiotic community of inquiry.)

Too, no one understood better than Peirce that history is to philosophy (cenoscopic science) what the laboratory is to science in the specialized modern sense (idioscopic science). He distinguished himself among the moderns by being the first thinker educated in the modern mainstream to ignore Descartes’ advice to beware in reading the Latin philosophers antecedent to modernity, “lest in a too absorbed study of these works we should become infected with their errors”.[24] Unlike his modern forebears, and unlike most of his own followers today, Peirce did indeed read the Latins — Aquinas, Scotus, the Conimbricenses, in particular — and from them seems to have gotten some of his most seminal ideas for semiotic, most notably perhaps the Conimbricenses’ thesis that “all thought is in signs”.[25]

In sum, as Peirce recommends, if we go by the history of the terms rather than by etymology, we find two things. First, we find that the oldest common name for the development of a cenoscopic study of the action consequent upon the being proper to signs (according to the classical formula “agere sequitur esse”, or “the way a thing acts reveals what it is that is acting”) — understood as transcending both the nature/culture divide and the inner/outer divide—is “doctrine of signs” (doctrina signorum). Second, we find from John Locke that the Greek form of a name as proposed synonymous with doctrina signorum is Σημιωτική, or “semiotics”.[26]

All other variants for “semiotics” (“semeiotics”, “semeotics”, etc.), proposed on the basis of the Greek term for natural signs, σημεια (which alone were recognized in the Greek Age of philosophy from Thales, BC c. 625–c. 545, to Proclus, AD 8 February 412–485 April 17), do not serve the purpose stipulated and intended by Locke in making his original proposal. The variants, “semeiotics” most conspicuous among them, either confuse in the historical preconscious the study of signs with medical study of symptoms of disease, or are based on terms considered etymologically rather than historically.

Not all of these considerations surrounding Locke’s term in context—indeed, few of them collectively considered—enter into the explicit consciousness of students of philosophy raised in the late-modern Analytic or even phenomenological traditions of philosophy; yet all of them are at work in the preconscious dimension of understanding at work (as our postmodern philosophical era dawns) in every educated human being alive today as inheritors perforce of linguistic systems shaped by modern philosophy, indeed, yet dating back much farther than the modern traditions of philosophy and linguistics.

“Semiotics”, for this reason more than any other, perhaps, emerged by the opening decades of the 21st century as the most accurate and compelling name for the general and cenoscopic study, unconscious to ancient Greek philosophy, that began in Latin with Augustine of Hippo and culminated in Latin with the 1632 Tractatus de Signis of John Poinsot, then to begin anew in late modernity with the attempt in 1867 by Charles Sanders Peirce to draw up a “new list of categories”. Peirce aimed to base his new list directly upon experience precisely as constituted by action of signs, in contrast with the list of Aristotle’s categories which aimed to articulate within experience the dimension of being that is independent of experience and knowable as such through human understanding. The estimative powers of animals interpret the environment as sensed to form a “meaningful world” of objects, but the objects of this world (or “Umwelt”, in Jakob von Uexküll’s term[27]) consist exclusively of objects related to the animal as desirable (+), undesirable (–), or “safe to ignore” (0). In contrast to this, human understanding adds to the animal Umwelt a relation of self-identity within objects which transforms objects experienced into things as well as +, –, 0 objects.[28] Thus the generically animal objective world as Umwelt becomes a species-specifically human objective world or Lebenswelt wherein linguistic communication, rooted in the biologically underdetermined Innenwelt of human animals, makes possible the further dimension of cultural organization within the otherwise merely social organization of animals whose powers of observation can deal only with directly sensible instances of objectivity.

This further point, that human culture depends upon language understood first of all not as communication, but as the biologically underdetermined aspect or feature of the human animal’s Innenwelt, was originally clearly identified by Thomas A. Sebeok.[29] Sebeok also played the central role in bringing Peirce’s work to the center of the semiotic stage in the 20th century,[30] first with his expansion of the human use of signs (“anthroposemiosis”) to include also the generically animal sign-usage (“zoösemiosis”),[31] then with his further expansion of semiosis (based initially on the work of Martin Krampen,[32] but taking advantage of Peirce’s point that an interpretant, as the third item within a sign relation, “need not be mental”[33]) to include the plant world (“phytosemiosis”).

Peirce’s distinction of an Interpretant from an Interpreter, with the further qualification that the former need not be “of a mental mode of being”—not his demonstration that sign relations are perforce irreducibly triadic, as is commonly assumed in his following so far as the followers continue the modern tradition of ignoring the Latin Age of philosophy’s history—was actually his most revolutionary move and most seminal contribution to the doctrine of signs. Not only does Peirce’s Interpretant notion open the way to understanding an action of signs beyond the realm of animal life (study of "phytosemiosis" + "zoösemiosis" + "anthroposemiosis" = biosemiotics), which was his first advance beyond Latin Age semiotics, but it opens the way also to inquiry into the possibility of an action of signs even beyond the biosphere, a semiosis shaping the physical evolution of the universe itself in the direction of first being able to support and then actually to support life (“physiosemiosis”).

To summarize: Locke did not know the Latin development of semiotics from Augustine to Poinsot, indeed; but he did know very well the difference between symptomatology as the specialized branch of medicine called Σημειωτικὴ, “semeiotics”, and the doctrine of signs he was proposing to become a general science under the name Σημιωτικὴ, “semiotics”. Hence the term he introduced needs to be kept in the form that he introduced.


Semioticians classify signs or sign systems in relation to the way they are transmitted (see modality). This process of carrying meaning depends on the use of codes that may be the individual sounds or letters that humans use to form words, the body movements they make to show attitude or emotion, or even something as general as the clothes they wear. To coin a word to refer to a thing (see lexical words), the community must agree on a simple meaning (a denotative meaning) within their language. But that word can transmit that meaning only within the language's grammatical structures and codes (see syntax and semantics). Codes also represent the values of the culture, and are able to add new shades of connotation to every aspect of life.

To explain the relationship between semiotics and communication studies, communication is defined as the process of transferring data from a source to a receiver. Hence, communication theorists construct models based on codes, media, and contexts to explain the biology, psychology, and mechanics involved. Both disciplines also recognize that the technical process cannot be separated from the fact that the receiver must decode the data, i.e., be able to distinguish the data as salient and make meaning out of it. This implies that there is a necessary overlap between semiotics and communication. Indeed, many of the concepts are shared, although in each field the emphasis is different. In Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics, Marcel Danesi (1994) suggested that semioticians' priorities were to study signification first and communication second. A more extreme view is offered by Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1987; trans. 1990: 16), who, as a musicologist, considered the theoretical study of communication irrelevant to his application of semiotics.

Semiotics differs from linguistics in that it generalizes the definition of a sign to encompass signs in any medium or sensory modality. Thus it broadens the range of sign systems and sign relations, and extends the definition of language in what amounts to its widest analogical or metaphorical sense. Peirce's definition of the term "semiotic" as the study of necessary features of signs also has the effect of distinguishing the discipline from linguistics as the study of contingent features that the world's languages happen to have acquired in the course of their evolutions.

Perhaps more difficult is the distinction between semiotics and the philosophy of language. In a sense, the difference lies between separate traditions rather than subjects. Different authors have called themselves "philosopher of language" or "semiotician". This difference does not match the separation between analytic and continental philosophy. On a closer look, there may be found some differences regarding subjects. Philosophy of language pays more attention to natural languages or to languages in general, while semiotics is deeply concerned about non-linguistic signification. Philosophy of language also bears a stronger connection to linguistics, while semiotics is closer to some of the humanities (including literary theory) and to cultural anthropology.

Semiosis or semeiosis is the process that forms meaning from any organism's apprehension of the world through signs. Scholars who have talked about semiosis in their sub-theories of semiotics include C. S. Peirce, John Deely, and Umberto Eco.

Cognitive Semiotics is combining methods and theories developed in the disciplines of cognitive methods and theories developed in semiotics and the humanities, with providing new information into human signification and its manifestation in cultural practices. The research on cognitive semiotics researcher brings together semiotics from linguistics, cognitive science, and related disciplines on a common meta-theoretical platform of concepts, methods, and shared data.

Some important semioticians

  • Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), a noted logician who founded philosophical pragmatism, defined semiosis as an irreducibly triadic process wherein something, as an object, logically determines or influences something as a sign to determine or influence something as an interpretation or interpretant, itself a sign, thus leading to further interpretants.[34] Semiosis is logically structured to perpetuate itself. The object can be quality, fact, rule, or even fictional (Hamlet), and can be (1) immediate to the sign, the object as represented in the sign, or (2) dynamic, the object as it really is, on which the immediate object is founded. The interpretant can be (1) immediate to the sign, all that the sign immediately expresses, such as a word's usual meaning; or (2) dynamic, such as a state of agitation; or (3) final or normal, the ultimate ramifications of the sign about its object, to which inquiry taken far enough would be destined and with which any actual interpretant can at most coincide.[35] His semiotic[36] covered not only artificial, linguistic, and symbolic signs, but also semblances such as kindred sensible qualities, and indices such as reactions. He came c. 1903[37] to classify any sign by three interdependent trichotomies, intersecting to form ten (rather than 27) classes of sign.[38] Signs also enter into various kinds of meaningful combinations; Peirce covered both semantic and syntactical issues in his speculative grammar. He regarded formal semiotic as logic per se and part of philosophy; as also encompassing study of arguments (hypothetical, deductive, and inductive) and inquiry's methods including pragmatism; and as allied to but distinct from logic's pure mathematics. In addition to pragmatism, Pierce provided a definition of the term “sign” as:

"A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea." Peirce called the sign a representamen, in order to bring out the fact that a sign is something that “represents” something else in order to suggest it (that is, “re-present” it) in some way.[39] For a summary of Peirce's contributions to semiotics, see Liszka (1996) or Atkin (2006).

  • Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the "father" of modern linguistics, proposed a dualistic notion of signs, relating the signifier as the form of the word or phrase uttered, to the signified as the mental concept. It is important to note that, according to Saussure, the sign is completely arbitrary—i.e., there was no necessary connection between the sign and its meaning. This sets him apart from previous philosophers such as Plato or the Scholastics, who thought that there must be some connection between a signifier and the object it signifies. In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure himself credits the American linguist William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894) with insisting on the arbitrary nature of the sign. Saussure's insistence on the arbitrariness of the sign has also influenced later philosophers and theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. Ferdinand de Saussure coined the term semiologie while teaching his landmark "Course on General Linguistics" at the University of Geneva from 1906 to 1911. Saussure posited that no word is inherently meaningful. Rather a word is only a "signifier", i.e., the representation of something, and it must be combined in the brain with the "signified", or the thing itself, in order to form a meaning-imbued "sign". Saussure believed that dismantling signs was a real science, for in doing so we come to an empirical understanding of how humans synthesize physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts.
  • Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) studied the sign processes in animals. He used the German word for "environment", Umwelt, to describe the individual's subjective world, and he invented the concept of functional circle (Funktionskreis) as a general model of sign processes. In his Theory of Meaning (Bedeutungslehre, 1940), he described the semiotic approach to biology, thus establishing the field that is now called biosemiotics.
  • Valentin Voloshinov (1895–1936) was a Soviet/Russian linguist, whose work has been influential in the field of literary theory and Marxist theory of ideology. Written in the late 1920s in the USSR, Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (tr.: Marksizm i Filosofiya Yazyka) developed a counter-Saussurean linguistics, which situated language use in social process rather than in an entirely decontexualized Saussurean langue.
  • Louis Hjelmslev (1899–1965) developed a formalist approach to Saussure's structuralist theories. His best known work is Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, which was expanded in Résumé of the Theory of Language, a formal development of glossematics, his scientific calculus of language.
  • Charles W. Morris (1901–1979). In his 1938 Foundations of the Theory of Signs, he defined semiotics as grouping the triad syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Syntax studies the interrelation of the signs, without regard to meaning. Semantics studies the relation between the signs and the objects to which they apply. Pragmatics studies the relation between the sign system and its human (or animal) user. Unlike his mentor George Herbert Mead, Morris was a behaviorist and sympathetic to the Vienna Circle positivism of his colleague Rudolf Carnap. Morris was accused by John Dewey of misreading Peirce.[40]
  • Thure von Uexküll (1908–2004), the "father" of modern psychosomatic medicine, developed a diagnostic method based on semiotic and biosemiotic analyses.
  • Roland Barthes (1915–1980) was a French literary theorist and semiotician. He would often critique pieces of cultural material to expose how bourgeois society used them to impose its values upon others. For instance, the portrayal of wine drinking in French society as a robust and healthy habit would be a bourgeois ideal perception contradicted by certain realities (i.e. that wine can be unhealthy and inebriating). He found semiotics useful in conducting these critiques. Barthes explained that these bourgeois cultural myths were second-order signs, or connotations. A picture of a full, dark bottle is a sign, a signifier relating to a signified: a fermented, alcoholic beverage—wine. However, the bourgeois take this signified and apply their own emphasis to it, making "wine" a new signifier, this time relating to a new signified: the idea of healthy, robust, relaxing wine. Motivations for such manipulations vary from a desire to sell products to a simple desire to maintain the status quo. These insights brought Barthes very much in line with similar Marxist theory.
  • Algirdas Julien Greimas (1917–1992) developed a structural version of semiotics named "generative semiotics", trying to shift the focus of discipline from signs to systems of signification. His theories develop the ideas of Saussure, Hjelmslev, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
  • Thomas A. Sebeok (1920–2001), a student of Charles W. Morris, was a prolific and wide-ranging American semiotician. Though he insisted that animals are not capable of language, he expanded the purview of semiotics to include non-human signaling and communication systems, thus raising some of the issues addressed by philosophy of mind and coining the term zoosemiotics. Sebeok insisted that all communication was made possible by the relationship between an organism and the environment it lives in. He also posed the equation between semiosis (the activity of interpreting signs) and life—a view that the Copenhagen-Tartu biosemiotic school has further developed.
  • Juri Lotman (1922–1993) was the founding member of the Tartu (or Tartu-Moscow) Semiotic School. He developed a semiotic approach to the study of culture—semiotics of culture—and established a communication model for the study of text semiotics. He also introduced the concept of the semiosphere. Among his Moscow colleagues were Vladimir Toporov, Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov, and Boris Uspensky.
  • Umberto Eco (1932–present) made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics and his novel, The Name of the Rose, which includes applied semiotic operations. His most important contributions to the field bear on interpretation, encyclopedia, and model reader. He has also criticized in several works (A theory of semiotics, La struttura assente, Le signe, La production de signes) the "iconism" or "iconic signs" (taken from Peirce's most famous triadic relation, based on indexes, icons, and symbols), to which he purposes four modes of sign production: recognition, ostension, replica, and invention.
  • Eliseo Verón (1935–present) developed his "Social Discourse Theory" inspired in the Peircian conception of "Semiosis".
  • The Mu Group (Groupe µ) (founded 1967) developed a structural version of rhetorics, and the visual semiotics.

Current applications

Applications of semiotics include:

  • It represents a methodology for the analysis of texts regardless of the medium in which it is presented. For these purposes, "text" is any message preserved in a form whose existence is independent of both sender and receiver;
  • It can improve ergonomic design in situations where it is important to ensure that human beings can interact more effectively with their environments, whether it be on a large scale, as in architecture, or on a small scale, such as the configuration of instrumentation for human use.

In some countries, its role is limited to literary criticism and an appreciation of audio and visual media, but this narrow focus can inhibit a more general study of the social and political forces shaping how different media are used and their dynamic status within modern culture. Issues of technological determinism in the choice of media and the design of communication strategies assume new importance in this age of mass media. The use of semiotic methods to reveal different levels of meaning and, sometimes, hidden motivations has led Yale's Harold Bloom to demonise elements of the subject as Marxist, nihilist, etc. (e.g., critical discourse analysis in postmodernism and deconstruction in post-structuralism).

Publication of research is both in dedicated journals such as Sign Systems Studies, established by Juri Lotman and published by Tartu University Press; Semiotica, founded by Thomas A. Sebeok and published by Mouton de Gruyter; Zeitschrift für Semiotik; European Journal of Semiotics; Versus (founded and directed by Umberto Eco), et al.; The American Journal of Semiotics; and as articles accepted in periodicals of other disciplines, especially journals oriented toward philosophy and cultural criticism. The major semiotic book series "Semiotics, Communication, Cognition", published by De Gruyter Mouton (series editors Paul Cobley and Kalevi Kull) replaces the former "Approaches to Semiotics" (over 120 volumes) and "Approaches to Applied Semiotics" (series editor Thomas A. Sebeok). Since 1980 the Semiotic Society of America has produced an annual conference series: Semiotics: The Proceedings of the Semiotic Society of America.


Semiotics has sprouted a number of subfields, including but not limited to the following:

Pictorial semiotics

Pictorial Semiotics is intimately connected to art history and theory. It has gone beyond them both in at least one fundamental way, however. While art history has limited its visual analysis to a small number of pictures which qualify as "works of art", pictorial semiotics has focused on the properties of pictures more generally. This break from traditional art history and theory—as well as from other major streams of semiotic analysis—leaves open a wide variety of possibilities for pictorial semiotics. Some influences have been drawn from phenomenological analysis, cognitive psychology, and structuralist and cognitivist linguistics, and visual anthropology/sociology.

Semiotics of food

Food has been one traditional topic of choice in relating semiotic theory because it is extremely accessible and easily relatable to the average individual’s life.[43]

Food is said to be semiotic because it transforms meaning with preparation. Food that is eaten by a wild animal raw from a carcass is obviously different in meaning when compared to a food that is prepared by humans in a kitchen to represent a cultural dish.[43]

Food can also be said to be symbolic of certain social codes. “If food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across boundaries”.[44]

Food is a semiotic regardless of how it is prepared. Whether food is prepared with precision in a fine dining restaurant, picked from a dumpster, plucked, devoured, or even consumed by a wild animal, meaning can always be extracted from the way a certain food has been prepared and the context in which it is served.

Semiotics and globalization

Studies have shown that semiotics can make or break a brand. Culture codes strongly influence whether a population likes or dislikes a brand’s marketing, especially internationally. If the company is unaware of a culture’s codes, it runs the risk of failing in its marketing. Globalization has caused the development of a global consumer culture where products have similar associations, whether positive or negative, across numerous markets.[45]

Mistranslations can lead to instances of Engrish or Chinglish, terms for unintentionally humorous cross-cultural slogans intended to be understood in English. This can be caused by a sign that, in Pierce's terms, mistakenly indexes or symbolizes something in one culture that it does not in another.[46] In other words, it creates a connotation that is culturally bound, and that violates some culture code. Humor theorists such as Schopenhauer suggest that contradiction or incongruity creates absurdity and therefore humor.[47] Violating a culture code creates this construct of ridiculousness for the culture that owns the code. Intentional humor may also fail cross-culturally because jokes are not on code for the receiving culture.[48]

A good example of branding according to cultural code is Disney’s international theme park business. For example, Disney fits well with Japan's cultural code because the Japanese value “cuteness”, politeness, and gift giving as part of their culture code; Tokyo Disneyland sells the most souvenirs of any Disney theme park. In contrast, Disneyland Paris failed when it launched as Euro Disney because the company did not research the codes underlying European culture. Its storybook retelling of European folktales was taken as elitist and insulting, and the strict appearance standards that it had for employees resulted in discrimination lawsuits in France.[49] Disney souvenirs were perceived as cheap trinkets. The park was a financial failure because its code violated the expectations of European culture in ways that were offensive.[50]

On the other hand, some researchers have suggested that it is possible to successfully pass a sign perceived as a cultural icon, such as the Coca-Cola or McDonald's logos, from one culture to another. This can be done if the sign is migrated from a more economically developed to a less developed culture.[50] The intentional association of a product with another culture is also called Foreign Consumer Culture Positioning (FCCP). Products can also be marketed using global trends or culture codes, for example, saving time in a busy world; but even these may be fine-tuned for specific cultures.[45]

Research also found that, as airline industry brandings grow and become more international, their logos become more symbolic and less iconic. The iconicity and symbolism of a sign depends on the cultural convention and are on that ground in relation with each other. If the cultural convention has greater influence on the sign, the signs get more symbolic value.[51]

Main institutions

A world organisation of semioticians—the International Association for Semiotic Studies, with its journal Semiotica—was established in 1969. The larger research centers together with extensive teaching program include the semiotics departments at the University of Tartu, Aarhus University, and Bologna University.

See also


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External links

Further reading

Journals, book series—associations, centers

Template:Semiotics associations and journals external links

Template:Communication studies

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