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Lotman, Iurii Mikailovich (1922–1993)


Iurii Mikailovich Lotman was a specialist in the theory of literature and aesthetics, the history of Russian literature, semiotics, and study of culture. He was born in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). In 1939 he commenced his studies in the philology department of Leningrad University. In the fall of 1940 he joined the army and fought in World War II from 1941 to 1945. In 1946 he continued his studies at the university, finishing them in 1950. Because of the anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union, Lotman was not able to work in Leningrad and moved to Estonia. From 1950 to 1954 he taught at the Tartu Pedagogical Institute. In 1952 he defended his dissertation in philology on the ideas of A. N. Radishchev and N. M. Karamzin. In 1954 he was named docent of Tartu University, and from 1960 to 1977 he was the head of the Department of Russian Literature there. In 1961 he received a doctorate in philology by defending the dissertation titled Puti razvitiia russkoi literatury preddekabristskogo perioda (Paths of the development of Russian literature in the pre-Decembrist period).

From the History of Literature to Semiotics

Lotman's chief historical works are devoted to the history of Russian literature from the eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. He examines this literature in conjunction with other cultural phenomena, particularly philosophical thought, history, and sociopolitical life. From the beginning of the 1960s Lotman develops a structural-semiotic approach to the study of works of art, organized the publication of the series Trudy po znakovym sistemam, Semiotika (Sign Systems Studies, Semiotics ), and directed regularly held "summer schools," conferences, and seminars on the semiotic study of various domains of culture. The combination of these activities, which included the participation not only of Tartu scholars but also of scholars from Moscow and other cities, became the internationally known Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics (Grzybek 1989). The first issue of Sign Systems Studies included his Lektsii po struktural'noi poetike (Lectures on structural poetics) (Lotman 1964).

The works of Lotman and those of his colleagues and followers on the semiotic analysis of various cultural texts, including artistic texts in particular, are united by the idea of "secondary modeling systems," where the text is interpreted as a unity of models of objective and subjective reality, as well as in the capacity of a sign system secondary in relation to the signs of natural languages, which represent the "primary modeling system." Headed by Lotman, the "Tartu school" of semiotics continues the traditions of the Russian "formal school," especially Iurii Tynianov, and structural linguistics (Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson), taking into account the efforts to develop semiotic structuralism in various countries. However, the Tartu school does not limit itself to the study of the formal structure of works of art; it focuses primarily on the semantics of sign structures (Lotman 1970, Shukman 1977). Together with his semiotic studies, Lotman also continues his historico-literary investigations, in which he employs a structural-semiotic methodology. The novelty of his work is that he attempts to combine structuralism with historicism, the premise being that a semiotician must also be a historian. Lotman's work in the history of literature is characteristically theory-laden.

From Semiotics to the Study of Culture

At the beginning of the 1970s Lotman arrived at the view that the semiotic object must be adequately understood not simply as a separate sign but as a text existing in cultureas a text constituting "a complex device storing multiple and diverse codes, capable of transforming received messages and of generating new ones, like an information generator possessing traits of intellectual personality" (Lotman 1981, p. 132). Taking this as his point of departure, Lotman considers culture itself in its semiotic aspect, in the multiplicity of its communicative connections (Lotman 19701973). By analogy with V. I. Vernadskii's concepts of "biosphere" and "noosphere," Lotman introduced the concept of "semiosphere," which is characterized by the limits of semiotic space, its structural heterogeneity and internal diversity, forming a structural hierarchy whose components are in a dialogic interrelationship (Lotman 1984). Lotman thus realized the transformation of the initial semiotics and overcomes its total schematism. But he did this not through poststructuralism and "deconstruction" (in the spirit of Jacques Derrida) but through a semiotic interpretation of cultural texts, taking into account their uniqueness, creative character, and intertextual dialogues. Not only is culture as a whole understood as a text, but any text is viewed as a product of culture.

Lotman's theoretical views take into account the development of contemporary scientific knowledge, especially information theory, cybernetics, the theory of systems and structures, the theory of the functional asymmetry of the brain, and the ideas of synergetics (Lotman 1990, 1992). At the same time these views also rely on the abundant material of world culture, primarily Russian culture, which is considered in its typological significance. Lotman's works on the history of Russian culture are of great value. Highly popular was his series of television broadcasts on Russian culture, aired posthumously in 1994 (Lotman 1994).

Philosophical Position

Lotman did not explicitly declare his philosophical views. In the presemiotic period of his activity, philosophy interested him only as an object of historical study. But semiotic and culturological studies presupposed a theoretico-philosophical self-definition. Lotman had a broad knowledge of philosophy and closely studied the ideas of Gabriel de Mably, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Alexander Radischev (Lotman 1958, 1960). He also identified in a masterful way the philosophical content of the work of literary artists (Lotman 1987, 1988). His own philosophical-methodological ideas underwent a specific evolution (Kim Soo Hwan 2003). In the 1960s the adherents of the "Tartu school" held positivist views, maintaining that semiotics was in fact their philosophy (Stolovich 1994). But later Lotman began to search for a philosophy that would correspond to his semiotic culturology. He turned to Leibniz's monadology, proposing that the semiosphere consists of a multiplicity of "semiotic monads" as intellectual unitsthat is, bearers of Reason. In his own words, "man not only thinks but also finds himself within a thinking space, just as a bearer of speech is always immersed in a certain language space." The existence of the external world is accepted, but it too is "an active participant in the semiotic exchange" (Lotman 1989, pp. 372, 375). God for Lotman is a universally significant phenomenon of culture. Although his attitude toward religion was respectful, he himself was a theological agnostic (Egorov 1999, pp. 236237).

Lotman keenly absorbed the ideas of various thinkers, including Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Freud. In 1967 and 1971 he published in the journal Semiotics certain works of the Russian religious philosopher and scientist Pavel Florenskii, who had been repressed by the Soviet authorities. Lotman also reacted positively to Bakhtin's conception of dialogue (Egorov 1999, pp. 243258). However, Lotman's own philosophical views cannot be reduced to any one system, be it Platonism (Vetik 1994), Kantianism (M. Lotman 1995), Hegelianism, or Marxism. His philosophical views can be defined as a type of "systemic pluralism," which presupposes the combination of heterogeneous ideological components in a specific system.

Living and being educated in the Soviet Union, Lotman could not fail to feel the influence of Marxism. He assimilated that aspect of Marxism that was related to Hegel's dialectic, the principle of historicism, and the social factor in the development of culture. But the ideological content of Marxism was alien to Lotman (Gasparov 1996, pp. 415426). His structural-historical studies provoked the suspicion and displeasure of official circles (at the beginning of the 1970s, he was even interrogated by the KGB and his belongings were searched). At the same time his popularity grew immensely and he was considered a scholar of the first rank and a brilliant personality in intellectual circles both in the Soviet Union and abroad. He was elected as a corresponding member of the British Academy, as an academician of the Norwegian, Swedish, and Estonian academies of science, and as vice president of the International Semiotics Association. The institute for Russian and Soviet culture in Germany was named after him: Lotman-Institut für russische und sowjetische Kultur, Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich; Cybernetics; Derrida, Jacques; Florenskii, Pavel Aleksandrovich; Freud, Sigmund; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Historicism; Information Theory; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Marxist Philosophy; Monad and Monadology; Neo-Kantianism; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Radishchev, Aleksandr Nikolaevich; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Russian Philosophy; Structuralism and Post-structuralism.


works by lotman

Radishchev i Mabli [Radishchev and Mably]. 1958. In Izbrannye stat'i [Selected articles], by Yu. M. Lotman. Vol. 2, 100123. Tallinn, Estonia: Aleksandra, 1992.

Russo i russkaja kul'tura v XVIIInachala XIX veka [Rousseau and Russian culture from the 18th century to the the early 19th century]. In Traktaty [The treatises], by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Moscow: Nauka, 1969.

Lektsii po struktural'noii poetike [Lectures on structural poetics]. Tartu, Estonia, 1964.

Struktura khudozhestvennogo teksta [The structure of the artistic text]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1970. Translated by Gail Lenhoff and Ronald Vroon as The Structure of the Artistic Text. Michigan Slavic Contributions 7. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, 1977.

Stat'i po tipologii kul'tury [Articles on the typology of culture]. Vols. 12. Tartu, Estonia, 19701973.

Analiz poeticheskogo teksta [Analysis of the poetic text]. 1972. Translated by D. Barton Johnson as Analysis of the Poetic Text. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1976.

Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki [Semiotics of cinema and problems of a film-aesthetics]. Tallinn, Estonia: Eesti raamat, 1973. Translated by Mark Suino as Semiotics of Cinema. Michigan Slavic Contributions. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1976.

"Semiotika kultury i poniatie teksta " [Semiotics of culture and the concept of the text] [1981]. In Izbrannye stat'i [Selected articles], by Yu. M. Lotman. Vol. 1, p. 132. Tallinn, Estonia: Aleksandra, 1992.

"O semiosfere " [On the semiosphere]. 1984. In Izbrannye stat'i [Selected articles], by Yu. M. Lotman. Vol. 1, 1124. Tallinn, Estonia: Aleksandra, 1992.

Sotvoreni? Karamzina [The creative works of Karamzin]. Moscow: Kniga, 1987.

Iz razmyshlenii nad tvorcheskoi evoliutsiei Pushkina [From reflections on the creative evolution of Pushkin]. 1988. In Izbrannye stat'i [Selected articles], by Yu. M. Lotman. Vol. 2, 473478. Tallinn, Estonia: Aleksandra, 1992.

Kul'tura kak sub'ekt i sama-sebe ob'ekt. 1989. In Izbrannye stat'i [Selected articles], by Yu. M. Lotman. Vol. 3. Tallinn, Estonia: Aleksandra, 1993. Translated by Lotman Juri as "Culture as a Subject and an Object in Itself." Trames 1 (1) (1997): 716.

Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Translated by Ann Shukman. Introduction by Umberto Eco. London: Tauris, 1990. 2nd ed., 2001.

Kultura i vzryv [Culture and explosion]. Moscow: Gnosis-Progress, 1992.

Besedy o russkoi kul'ture: Byt i traditsii russkogo dvorianstva; XVIII-nachalo XIX veka [Conversations on Russian culture: The life and traditions of the Russian nobility from the 18th century to the early 19th century). St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo, 1994.

Vnutri mysliashchikh system: Chelovek-Tekst-Semiosfera-Istoriia [Inside thinking systems: man-text-semiosphere-history]. Moscow: Iazyki russkoi kul'tury. 1996.

references and further reading

Egorov, B. F. Zhizn' i tvorchestvo Iu M. Lotmana [Life and creativity of Yu. M. Lotman]. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1999.

Gasparov, M. L. Lotman and Marxism [1996]. In Vnutri myslyashchikh system: Chelovek-Tekst-Semiosfera-Istoriya, by Yu. M. Lotman. Moscow: Iazyki russkoi kul'tury, 1996.

Grzybek, P. Studium zum Zeichenbegriff der sowjetischen Semiotik (Moskkauer und Tartuer Schule). Bochum, Germany, 1989.

Kim Soo Hwan. Osnovnye aspekty tvorcheskoi evoliutsii Y. M. Lotmana [The main aspects of Lotman's creative evolution]. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2003.

Lotman, M. Yu. Zametki o filosofskom fone tartuskoi semiotiki [Notes on the philosophical background of semiotics in Tartu]. In: Lotmanovskii sbornik, vol. 1. 214222. Moscow: ITS-Garant, 1995.

Shukman, Ann. Literature and Semiotics: A Study of the Writings of Yu. M. Lotman. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1977.

Stolovich, L. N. "A. F. Losev o semiotike v Tartu " [A. F. Losev on semiotics in Tartu]. Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 8 (1994): 99104.

Vetik, R. "Platonism of Yu. Lotman." Semiotika 99 (12) (1994).

Leonid N. Stolovich (2005)

Translated by Boris Jakim

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