Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language

by Umberto Eco

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Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1723

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 underlying truth or reality. Origen, whom Eco rightly cites as an important influence on symbolic interpretation of the Scriptures, states in his De principatibus, that “anyone who reads the stories with a free mind, who wants to keep himself from being deceived by them, will decide what he will accept [as the literal truth] and what he will interpret allegorically, searching out the meaning of the authors who wrote such fictions.” Allegorical interpretation allows for a flexibility and freedom on the part of the interpreter that typology resists. The differing philosophical and psychological perspectives of typology and allegory and their very different attitudes toward the text amount to differing systems of interpretation. While the distinctions were indeed blurred in medieval hermeneutic practice, the specific psychological attitudes toward the texts are important if one is to understand clearly the history of medieval exegesis.

George Puttenham, the author of a sixteenth century English treatise entitled The Arte of English Poesie (1589), identifies two kinds of allegory: full allegory and mixed allegory. Mixed allegory occurs when the author tells the reader how to interpret his fiction, while in full allegory the meaning is obscure. In short, there is evidence that modern conceptions of allegory and symbolism are not in accord with those which prevailed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Edmund Spenser, the author of the sixteenth century English epic The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), also comments about allegory in his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh: “To some, I know, this Methode will seeme displeasaunt, which had rather have good discipline delivered plainly in way of precepts, or sermoned at large, as they use, then thus clowdily enwrapped in Allegoricall devises.” Spenser thinks of allegory in terms of fictional devices, rather than in terms of the precepts which can be deduced from the encyclopedic or cultural frame.

Eco, like most contemporary critics and scholars, shares a post-Romantic aesthetic bias that symbolism is more interesting and more complex than allegory. He explains the symbol as a “semiotic machine” which signifies to the reader that it has something to say but something that cannot be spelled out—because then the symbol would cease to say it. This conception of the symbol as resisting paraphrase or translation resembles that of Eliseo Vivas, who describes the “constitutive symbol” in precisely these terms, except that Vivas acknowledges that the textual context does afford a code for interpretation. Eco insists that the symbol brings the reader face to face with the uncoded.

In chapter 5, Eco discusses the notion of “code,” an important term in the work of such twentieth century scholars as Roman Jakobson, Morris Halle, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes, which is extremely illuminating. Eco observes that “codes were introduced to put events under the control of structures,” but when linguists and sociologists perceived that the code might produce and create society and individuals, that the code might not be the product but the shaper of human culture, then it became unmanageable. Eco, however, believes that it is possible to conceive of the code or the encyclopedia as an open matrix, a labyrinth which may be culturally produced, but which may also be described. This view should not be misinterpreted as a rejection of logical models or systems of coherence; the rules are very important to Eco.

Identifying himself as a follower of Charles S. Peirce and crediting Peirce with outlining the discipline of semiotics, Eco regards semiotics as an analysis of the relationships of systems of signs, ranging from language to writing to symbolic rites to military signals. His own philosophical and historical approach to this analysis is also a response to certain questions which Eco believes general semiotics must confront: First, is it viable to approach many ostensibly different kinds of phenomena as though they were all part of systems of signification or communication? Next, is there a unified approach to explaining these different semiotic phenomena which suggests that they can be understood by the same system of rules? Finally, are the approaches of the semiotician scientific?

Each of these questions is examined and then reexamined from a different perspective in Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. That Eco ranges widely in the types of examples he introduces as a means of stating problems or illustrating theoretical observations demonstrates that he does believe semiotics can approach many different phenomena as systems of signification. He examines social codes (chivalry and etiquette) and scientific disciplines (astronomy and biology), as well as linguistics, literary texts, and film, the more traditional materials of the semiotician.

In response to the problem of a unified approach to account for different kinds of semiotic phenomena, Eco offers the model of the labyrinth, a construct which gives coherence to the encyclopedia of one’s cultural context. In arguing for the labyrinth over the Porphyrian tree, the encyclopedia over the dictionary, Eco astutely refuses to reject the earlier models: They are useful as long as they are not perceived as stable and universal; they can exist within the open matrix that he posits.

It is in his introduction that Eco most explicitly responds to the question of whether the approach of the semiotician is scientific; this issue and its implications for explaining human culture become the organizing frame for Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Like Ernst Cassirer, in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-1929), Eco is examining the coherent principles which enables one through comparison and contrast to describe the basic forms, or systems of signs, in one’s culture. Cassirer, however, in An Essay on Man (1944), arrived at the conclusion that mathematics, the tightest and most potentially closed of systems, is the highest form of symbolizing. It may be that Cassirer’s desire for a complete system with predictable coherence led him to affirm this kind of hierarchy.

While acknowledging that aspects of specific semiotics are scientific and that some of the problems posed today by general semiotics may have scientific answers, Eco insists upon regarding the inquiry into language and human culture as philosophical rather than scientific. This insistence informs his discussion of the dictionary and the encyclopedia, the tree and the labyrinth. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language is not intended to provide a final answer to the problem of whether language and culture should be approached as science or as philosophy; Eco’s chapters on code and isotopy conclude with “provisional conclusions.” His work, however, belongs to the tradition of rigorous and humanistic inquiry.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13

Choice. XXI, June, 1984, p. 1479.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, May 13, 1984, p. 17.

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