Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language Analysis

Umberto Eco

Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

At the Second Congress of the IASS, an international meeting of semioticians held in Vienna in 1979, author Umberto Eco called for a reexamination of the history of philosophy and linguistics to chart the origins of semiotic concepts. Semiotics is the study of signs, but interpreted broadly, signs are everything that signifies, ranging from language to patterns of etiquette to traffic signals. Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language represents his own response to that call: This work is a historical reexamination of general semiotics, understood to be one of a number of possible philosophies of language. Fans of The Name of the Rose (1983), Eco’s brilliantly written and surprisingly popular detective story set in the Middle Ages, will not necessarily find this work appealing, but its appeal is not limited to semioticians, philosophers of language, and theoretical linguists; in particular, readers interested in literary theory will find much of value in this demanding volume.

Defining general semiotics as “a philosophy of language which stresses the comparative and systematic approach to languages (and not only to verbal language) by exploiting the result of different, more local inquiries,” Eco is taking the controversial position that general semiotics is not a science. In contrast, specific semiotics, Eco argues, is a science that attempts to provide the grammar of a particular sign system: traffic signals or the phonemic features of spoken language. Because it is scientific, specific semiotics will not only provide an objective description of phenomena but will also exercise a predictive power. General semiotics, like philosophies of language, enables one to organize experience into a coherent form. This means of organizing and explaining experience can change the course of events, but it cannot predict them, because the very pattern of coherence posited transforms the object examined.

Chapter 2, “Dictionary vs. Encyclopedia,” is the only one of the seven chapters that has not previously appeared in print in an earlier version. This chapter is particularly worth reading with care because of its combination of historical insight and semantic exactness. In his comparative discussion of the interpretive efficacy of the dictionary and of the encyclopedia, Eco makes use of two classical images: the tree and the labyrinth. Of these two images, Eco regards the concept of the labyrinth as the more appropriate for representing human culture or the world of semiosis. The labyrinth conceptually allows the interpreter to take into account an infinite and indefinite network of “interpretants”; because it resists the either/or approach of searching out what is definite and true, the labyrinth takes account of literary truths and beliefs about truth. Moreover, the conceptual approach of the labyrinth resists ideological bias by refusing to posit that its system is “global,” “unique,” and “complete.” The dictionary, based upon the construct of the Porphyrian tree, can, Eco concludes, be useful as a tool, but only if one recognizes that the semantic universe is a labyrinth of encyclopedic meanings.

In chapter 4, “Symbol,” Eco offers a surprisingly superficial account of the symbolic interpretation of the Holy Scriptures during the Middle Ages. Regarding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, he says that Origen decided that the two Testaments should be read as parallel texts in which the Old Testament was the “signifier” or “letter” while the New Testament was the “signified” or the “spirit.” This system of reading the two Testaments as parallel texts is called typological. Typology developed during the Middle Ages, and it remained important throughout the Renaissance because of the parallel reading of the two Testaments, both of which were supposed to be divinely inspired. Typology came to be recognized as a mode of signification in which both the type—that is, the Old Testament signifier—and its antitype—the New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament foreshadowing—were historically real events or entities. Allegory, on the other hand, involved the invention of fictions or symbols to represent an...

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