Semiotics is the study of signs and signification. Its subject matter includes the processes involved in both the production and interpretation of signs, as well as the classification of signs into various types and categories. The term itself has Greek roots (semeiotike) and a complex history of usage. Although it has become the word most commonly used to designate this area of study, ironically, it was employed by neither of the two great theorists who most decisively shaped modern semiotics. The American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1839914) preferred semiotic (parallel to terms like logic and rhetoric) as a label for the study of the doctrine of signs, or frequently semeiotic to indicate its derivation from the Greek. And the French structuralist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857913) conceived of language as a particular system of signs, linguistics itself as being one part of the comprehensive science of signs that he called semiology.
Semiotics has sometimes been understood as a specific discipline, with its own method and determinate subject matter. In this case, the semiotician will attend most directly to the basic structure of the sign relation, the conditions of possibility for anything functioning as a sign of anything else. Here semiotics is closely related to philosophy (especially to inquiries in formal logic) and to theoretical linguistics. More typically, however, semiotics has been portrayed as a complex, interdisciplinary field of study, drawing not only upon philosophy and linguistics, but also with vital links to literary and communication studies, hermeneutics, the history and theory of art, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and even biology and the natural sciences.
In the earliest usage of the term, semiotics referred to a branch of ancient Greek medicine, the identification of physical symptoms for the purpose of making diagnostic inferences. During the same period, Greek philosophers were laying some of the theoretical foundations for the development of western semiotics with their analyses of the nature of signs, language, and meaning; especially important in this regard were the logical investigations of Aristotle (38422 B.C.E.) and of the Stoics. In late antiquity, Augustine of Hippo (35430 C.E.) developed what some scholars regard as the first systematic theory of semiotics in his treatises De magistro (The Teacher) and De doctrina christiana (On Christine doctrine). Augustine drew upon earlier Stoic deliberations, but generated new insight in an account that treated both nonverbal and verbal signs. His theory was essentially communicative, addressing not only the relation between signs and what they signify, but also exploring how signified meanings are conceived or brought to awareness in an interpreter's mind.
Medieval semiotics was heavily indebted to both the Aristotelian and Augustinian legacies. As it had with Augustine, semiotics took on a theological significance for the scholastics. A coherent doctrine of signs was essential for understanding the nature and efficacy of those special symbols of divine grace known as sacraments. At the same time, it was characteristic of the medieval outlook that the entire universe was perceived as signifying the divine will, just as any created effect is an index of its cause. The "book of nature" as well as the book of Scripture was a potentially fertile source of divine revelation, a general perspective that would serve as a stimulus to inquiry in the natural sciences as well as in theology.
Even while scholastic philosophy was on the decline elsewhere in Europe, in Spain and Portugal there were important advances in semiotics late in the medieval period and beyond. Here the writings of Peter Fonseca (15289) and John Poinsot (1589664) are particularly notable for their anticipation of modern developments. It was the British philosopher, John Locke (1632704), however, who first utilized the Greek term semeiotike to refer to that part of philosophy that deals with the "doctrine of signs." Its purpose is to explore questions about the nature of signs, their role in human understanding and in the communication of knowledge to others.
It was probably from Locke that Peirce borrowed the term when he reintroduced it into philosophical discourse late in the nineteenth century. But Peirce's pioneering work in semiotics was most clearly indebted to Aristotle and the scholastics, as well as to certain discoveries in modern logical theory. Peirce conceived of all of logic as semiotics. As such, it is a formal rather than an empirical science, concerned with what must be or would be true about signs in any and all cases. He developed a complex system and terminology for the classification of signs. The trichotomy of icon (a sign that signifies its object by resemblance), index (by a causal relation) and symbol (by virtue of some habit or rule) is the most well known, widely adopted component of that elaborate scheme. For Peirce, the proper object of study in semiotics was not the sign but rather semiosis, the entire process by means of which a sign stands for something to someone, a process schematized as the relationship among sign-object-interpretant. The realm of possible semiosis is unlimited. Peirce argued that there is no separate class of things that can be called "signs" since potentially anything can function as a sign. All thinking is in signs. Persons are themselves complex symbols. The universe, he claimed, is "perfused with signs," the rationale for his description of it as "God's great poem."
Independently but almost simultaneously with Peirce, Saussure was conducting his own semiotic inquiries. Saussure conceived of meaning not as the property of signs viewed as isolated units, but as something that they possess by virtue of their relationship to other signs in a complex system. Meaning is always contrast of meaning, the value of a sign being determined by comparison with other signs in the system. Each sign represents an indissoluble unity of perceived signifier and meaning signified, so that Saussure's dyadic model of semiosis differs from Peirce's essentially triadic account.
These two dominant strands of thought in modern semiotic began to intersect late in the twentieth century as poststructuralist thinkers, steeped in the Saussurean tradition, began increasingly to drawn upon Peircean concepts and arguments. At the same time, the potentially enormous significance of semiotic theory for theology and religious studies still remains to be assessed. Peirce's contemporary, Josiah Royce (1855916) had begun to adapt some of Peirce's ideas for the purpose of developing his own theosemiotic perspective, in his late work, The Problem of Christianity (1913). Peirce remains a rich source of inspiration for any future work in theosemiotic, as do the medieval philosophers whom he studied so carefully, thinkers for whom the religious importance of semiotic theory was paramount. While semiotic historiographers have focused their attention on a narrative that links ancient Greek with modern western thought, future inquiry will require a broadened purview. The resonance of certain Buddhist ideas, for example, with aspects both of poststructuralist thought and of Peirce's philosophy, has been observed by some scholars. This suggests that a Buddhist contribution to semiotics (typically neglected, perhaps, because of a perceived Buddhist suspicion of the religious efficacy of words and images) still needs to be evaluated.
See also AUGUSTINE; BIOSEMIOTICS; LANGUAGE
Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Augustine, Aurelieus. Augustine de Doctrina Christiana, ed. R. P. H. Green. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Deely, John. Introducing Semiotic: Its History and Doctrine. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.
Peirce, Charles S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, eds. Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur Burks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935958.
Peirce, Charles S. Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence Between Charles S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby, ed. Charles Hardwick. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.
Poinsot, John. Tractatus de Signis: The Semiotic of John Poinsot, ed. John Deely. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Royce, Josiah. The Problem of Christianity (1913). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
MICHAEL L. RAPOSA
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