views updated May 18 2018







Toward the end of the seventeenth century John Locke (16321704) partly hoped for, partly prophesied, and partly proposed a new field of inquiry called semeiotike. That doctrine of signs, which he characterized as aptly enough also, logic, invites the reader to consider the nature of signs, the mind makes use of for the understanding of things, or conveying knowledge to others (Locke [1690] 1996, p. 337). Lockes proposal was neglected until the American logician-philosopher-mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914) picked up its charge in his writings from1866 until his death in 1914. In keeping with what he considered the ethics of terminology, Peirce named this effort, which he describes as the doctrine of the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible sign-activity, semeiotic (emphasizing the diphthong ei in semeion [sign] in its spelling to indicate the words Greek origin), though he sometimes used the term semiotic.

Independently of Peirce and Locke, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913) determined to study the life of signs in social life and named his new science semiology. In contrast to Peirces writings, his lecture notes, which were compiled and published posthumously in 1966 by his students as Cours de Linguistic Générale, caught the attention of several leading linguists and signophiles soon after his death.


In addition to semiology, semeiotic, and semiotic, there were also available the labels, semiotics, significs, and signology. However, the struggle for recognition was between semiology and semiotics, and semiotics won the day. Apart from the deliberated extension of their inquiries into extralinguistic sign systems and their choice of a label to describe their work, most self-styled semioticians were semiologists by another name and the Cours remained their foundational text. Among the rest, semeiotic and semiotic were to become associated with those whose research followed more or less Peircean lines. Nevertheless, there have been considerable crossovers in the use of labels and some mixing up of theoretical orientations as well. Many Peirceans use semiotics and non-Peirceans use semiotic, though the latter employ it mostly as an adjective rather than as a noun in their writings. Semeiotic is never used by Saussurians, and Peirceans who use that term do so to mark the difference of their approach to the sign from that of the Saussurians.


A linguistic sign as defined by Saussure is a two-sided phenomenon, a relationship that links an acoustic image and a concept, or a signifier and a signified. The link is not between a thing and its name but between a sound pattern and a concept. That relationship is internal to language, internal to the mind, and independent of external reality. Therefore, a linguistic sign does not stand for an external world but construes it. Thus, a tree that is signified by the word tree is not an actual tree but the concept tree. Similarly, a signifier does not stand for the signified but instead construes it. The signifier and the signified are functives that are copresent or co-occurrent, although on different strata, with the first being more abstract than the second. In their respective strata they exist in a context of other signifiers and signifieds, respectively. Each is held together with and held apart from the other signifieds and signifiers in their respective strata by similarities and differences; that is what makes them part of a system or structure.

Which signifier pairs with which signified is determined by convention; it is arbitrary from an empirical point of view. The external world is brought into a relationship with the internal structure by the projection of the internal structure on the external world. That logocentric view overly simplifies a beings living-in-the-world and its engagement with that world to the point of solipsism. The semiologically structured internal relationship of the signifier to the signified analogically structures, organizes, and orients sign users to the flux of percepts they receive from the external world. This is a nominalistic view of both language and the world.

There are many reasons why the semiological model of the signdyadic, nonmaterial and confined to a hermetically sealed system called languagecame to assume paradigmatic power over semiotics generally. The foremost reason is structural: Only human beings have culture. Not all the features that constitute culture are uniquely human, but language is. What makes human language unique is la langue. The linguistic sign is the defining element of la langue. The defining feature of the linguistic sign is its binary structure, in which the elements of the dyad are held together by a relationship that is arbitrary or conventional (as opposed to natural). From this it is hypothesized that even though the uniquely human institution called culture is not identical to language, because its only assuredly human feature is language, the elementary form of culture must be structured along the lines of the elementary form of language: the linguistic or semiological sign.


One can find as many as eighty-eight definitions of the sign in Peirces published and unpublished writings. Peirce defined and adjusted the definition of the sign to a range of contexts, a short list of which includes mathematics, logic, philosophy, pendulum experiments, chemistry, psychology, language, history, realism-nominalism debates, scholasticism, metaphysics, theories of mind, and discussions of truth. He often bent his definitions for the benefit of his interlocutors and correspondents comprehension.

Peirce had a pansemeiosic view of the world. The sign easily transgressed such dichotomies as mind-body, nature-culture, human-animal, internal-external, and matter-spirit. For Peirce the universe is perfused with signs. He considered thought as semeiosic sign activity but not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world. He claimed that not only is thought in the organic world, but it develops there, granting that signs must have a Quasi-mind. His belief that there can be no isolated sign was frustrated by demands for a definition of the sign, for he considered a sign only as part of a semeiotic process (Peirce 1934, vol. 4, para. 551; vol. 5, para. 448).

Peirce held that even a person is not absolutely an individual but a state of consciousness. Every state of consciousness was an inference for Peirce, and therefore life itself was a sequence of inferences or a train of thought. At any instant then man is a thought. Moreover, if consciousness is taken to mean thought, he reminds the reader that thought is more without us than within. It is we that are in it, rather than it in any of us. Here Peirce anticipates Michel Foucaults idea of episteme and discourse as well as his critique of the overrating of agency by modern individualism. Mans thoughts are what he is saying to himself, that is, saying to the other self that is just coming into life in the flow of time. When one reasons, it is that critical self that one is trying to persuade. Human thought, he opined, was a sign, mostly of the nature of language. Given that language is by and large constituted of symbols, and that at any instant man is a thought, and thought is a species of symbol, the general answer to the question what is man? is that he is a symbol (Peirce 1934, vol. 5, para. 421; 1958, vol. 7, para 583; 1958, vol. 8, para. 256).


There are many differences between Saussures and Peirces concepts of the sign. The Saussurian sign is dyadic, originating in linguistics, whereas the semeiosic sign is irreducibly triadic and based on logic. Also, logic as semeiotic is a normative or formal science, in contrast to the empirical sciences such as linguistics and psychology, which Peirce classified as special sciences. As a formal science, semeiotic is concerned with the necessary conditions for what makes something a sign as such, the bases on which to determine its truth, and the conditions that are required for the communication and growth of signs.

Peirce derived the proof for the signs triadicity from logic, mathematics, and phenomenology. With a certain amount of familiarity with a number of his scattered definitions of the semeiosic sign, one can begin to appreciate the complexity of the sign and the work it does. In the triadic sign, the first thing to know is that the first correlate of the triad is the sign (at times called the representamen), the second correlate is the object, and the third is the interpretant. Thus, the semeiosic Sign (uppercase) is constituted by an irreducible triadic correlation in which a sign (lowercase) stands for an object to an interpretant. The sign as the conveyer of meaning mediates between the object and the interpretant; the interpretant mediates between the sign and the object to interpret the meaning; the object mediates between the interpretant and the sign to ground the meaning. If any one of the three correlates is removed, the Sign as such will not be an actual Sign but merely a potential Sign.

Despite his numerous attempts to fix the sign in a definition, Peirces fundamental conception of semeiotic was the process of signing or semiosy rather than the sign per se. This is evident in the following definition: The sign is anything which determines something else (its interpretant ) to refer to an object to which itself refers (its object ) in the same way, the interpretant becoming a sign in turn, and so on ad infinitum (Peirce 1934, vol. 2, para. 303). When defined in this way, the sign brings out the open and dynamic nature of sign activity or semiosy. Semiosy is the very life of the sign. When semiosy ceases, the sign either dies or goes into hibernation until an interpretansign predisposed to receiving its representation of the object arrives. Thus, a potsherd from an antique goblet would hibernate until a knowledgeable archaeologist found it, realized it, and represented it as a sign of an antique goblet to a student. The student would, as the next interpretant-sign along the chain of revivified semeiosis who was fit to receive (by training) the representation, then translate and communicate the meaning of the represented object to yet another interpretant-sign (that students own students, say) even as the professors representation of the potsherd as representing the original goblet was communicated to the original student. And then the represented object will be represented to someone else, that is, yet another interpretant, ad infinitum. The very structure of the semeiotic sign establishes it as fundamentally and minimally dialogic.

At the most abstract level there are three types of interpretants: the immediate, the dynamic, and the final. Peirce describes the immediate interpretant as the immediate pertinent possible effect in its unanalyzed primitive entirety (Robin 1967). A dynamic interpretant is the actual manifestation of a significant effect. A final interpretant is the teleological growth of a sign that makes its home an interrelated system of signs. The three interpretants that correspond in human experience to these abstract interpretants are the emotional, the energetic, and the logical interpretants. The feeling of déjà vu would be an example of an emotional interpretant; the bodily reaction of a person at whom the command halt! is barked out by a soldier after the declaration of a curfew would be an example of an energetic interpretant; the habitualized mode of conditional reasoning such as if the light turns red, I will not cross the road would be a logical interpretant. The dynamic interpretant does not possess meaning but is a brute reaction; neither does an emotional interpretant that remains at the level of a mere feeling before being put into words have meaning. A logical interpretant is meaningful. The path a river takes is a final interpretant: a habit carved into the earth. There are many other triadic sets of sign types and other triadic phenomena in Peirces writings. They are generated by the logic of Peirces phenomenological categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness; the possible, the actual, and the general, or mood, the moment, and mind, respectively (Daniel 1996, pp. 104134).

SEE ALSO Anthropology, Linguistic; Culture; Foucault, Michel; Linguistic Turn; Logic; Symbols


Daniel, E. Valentine. 1996. Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropography of Violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Deeley, John. 1982. Introducing Semiotic: Its History and Doctrine. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hodge, Robert, and Gunther Kress. 1988. Social Semiotics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Liszka, James Jakob. 1996. A General Introduction to the Semeiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Locke, John. [1690] 1996. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Kenneth P. Winkler. Indianapolis, IN: Hacket.

Peirce, Charles S. 18491914. Papers. Manuscript Collection in the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Peirce, Charles S. 1934. Collected Papers, vols. 16, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peirce, Charles S. 19581966. Collected Papers, vols. 78, ed. Arthur Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Peirce, Charles S. 19801996. The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, vols.15, ed. Max H. Fisch. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Robin, Richard S. 1967. Annotated Catalogue of the Papers of Charles S. Peirce. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1974. Course in General Linguistics, eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye; trans. Wade Baskin. London: Fontana.

Thibault, Paul J. 1997. Re-reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life. London and New York: Routledge.

E. Valentine Daniel


views updated May 14 2018



The terms "semiology" and "semiotics" are frequently used interchangeably by academics and film theorists. Broadly speaking, both terms refer to the study of signs and language systems, though the term semiology owes its provenance to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and semiotics to the American philosopher Charles Peirce (1839–1914). This is a deceptively simple definition of semiology, which in fact encompasses a wide range of academic debates and positions. Semiology is a theoretical model for the study of language, and its methods have been used for the analysis of a range of cultural texts, including film. This method has been championed by Structuralist academics, and its aim is to uncover what and why it is that the signs and symbols used in a cultural system mean what they do. Semiology, then, is concerned with language in its broadest sense and has given birth to some of the most notoriously difficult and abstract of theories. As a method, it focuses uncovering meaning in signs.


As a field of academic enquiry, semiology has its origin in linguistics as developed by the Swiss academic Ferdinand de Saussure. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Saussure gave an influential series of lectures on linguistics in which he proposed semiology as a model for the investigation of language and language systems. Saussure's work was unusual in several respects, not least because, counter to the dominant approach advocated by linguists at the time, he was not concerned with uncovering the etymology of language but with the ways in which language was used in the here and now, an approach that is now usually referred to as "'synchronic' rather than 'diachronic."' Saussure did not publish his work, but following his death in 1912, his students collected his lecture notes and published them as Course in General Linguistics.

Saussure's major concern was to develop a science of signs. A sign can be understood as anything that carries meaning, although Saussure himself was interested exclusively in linguistic signs—that is, words. He argued that a sign consists of two indivisible components: the signifier (the way the sign is communicated) and the signified (the mental concept the sign communicates). We know that something is a sign because its two parts are indivisible—that is, we see something and we can make sense of it by giving a name to it. Saussure called this process of reading and making sense of a sign "signification."

By way of an example, the three letters C- A- T, in this specific order, mean something in our language system and culture. They stand in for a cat. So in this order, these three letters are a sign. The signifier here is the three letters in THIS specific order, and the signified is OUR mental concept of a cat. Crucially, Saussure notes, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is an arbitrary one. For example, the word "cat" does not look like a cat, nor does it have any essential "catness" about it. Through convention, people have agreed that those three letters stand for the concept of cat in our language and culture. The evidence of this is that in Switzerland and France, for example, the four letters C- H- A- T are a sign meaning the same thing in French.

In the United States during this same period, the pragmatist and philosopher Charles Peirce was investigating signs and sign systems, and he developed a theoretical model that he called semiotics. Peirce's semiotics was not confined to linguistic theory in the same way as Saussure's; it was more fully integrated into his philosophical interests, and it is this broader application of a theory of meaning systems that distinguishes his work.

Peirce argued that signs can be categorized as belonging to three distinct categories; iconic, indexical, and symbolic. An iconic sign looks like the thing it represents. For Peirce, this was the most effective of all forms of sign system. An indexical sign possesses some kind of physical link between the sign and the thing it represents, providing evidence that the thing represented was there. Smoke, for example, is an indexical sign of fire. A symbolic sign is arbitrarily linked to what it represents; it neither looks like the thing represented nor possesses a physical link to the thing represented. It is a sign that stands in the place of the thing represented. The written word is the best example of a symbolic sign.

Signs in Peirce's model can belong to more than one category simultaneously. This is important in film, where cinematic images are both iconic—that is, they look like the thing represented—and indexical—that is, they are evidence that someone/thing was present to be photographed. Animated and computer-generated images can be iconic but not indexical. Similarly, sound can be iconic (a voice can sound like the filmed person's voice), indexical (noises in another room can suggest that someone is there), or symbolic (a musical theme can suggest a character in a film).


The theoretical model formulated by Saussure was to become especially influential amongst French cultural theorists and has inspired some of the most widely developed ideas shaping cultural products, including film. French cultural theory, especially since the late 1960s, has shaped and influenced much of the progressive research into popular culture. Perhaps the key French theorist for cultural commentators is Roland Barthes (1915–1980), who adopted Saussure's linguistic model in order to analyse popular culture from the 1950s onward, most notably in his collection of essays Mythologies (1957). Barthes was especially interested in what Saussure had described as the process of signification (how we make sense of signs.) He argued that signification operates at two levels: "denotation" and "connotation." Denotation describes the literal meaning of a sign. Connotation describes the process we use to interpret what we see. At the level of connotation, we judge and interpret what we have already recognized at a simpler level; we read deeper levels of meaning into things at a connotative level. For example, in the film Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) the color red is used repeatedly as a motif. The titles of the film are in a bold red, James Dean wears a red jacket, Natalie Wood is first seen in a red coat and red is used as a color that links the protagonists of the film to the idea of rebellion. So, at a denotative level, we might recognize the bold red of the film's titles or James Dean's jacket as simply titles written in red and a red jacket; but at a connotative level we are able to draw on our culture's understanding of the symbolic importance of red, representing danger, anger, love, and passion.

For Barthes, analysis of popular culture using Saussure's methods uncovered the hidden or obscured meanings that lie beneath the everyday, commonsense notions of popular culture. Using semiology, Barthes conducted detailed textual analysis to "deconstruct" cultural products. His aim in this project was to reveal the workings of ideology through what he termed "myth." Barthes's concept of myth parallels the Marxist concept of "false consciousness." It is a form of naturalized language or discourse that hides itself in the notion of the commonsense. Doing so helps to maintain the status quo or consensus within a culture about socially acceptable norms of behavior and values (dominant ideology). Barthes analyzed a range of cultural products, including magazine articles, photographs, and films in order to uncover myths concerning class, ethnicity, and cultural imperialism.

While Barthes used semiology to analyze film, he was driven chiefly by the goal of uncovering the hidden ideological workings of popular culture. Even so, his approach demonstrated the usefulness of semiology as a method for systematically analyzing cinematic texts. Adopting Barthes's method, critics could undertake detailed microanalysis of films, frame by frame, in order to discuss the formal construction of cinematic images and the ways in which they are used to construct meaning. After Barthes's work became readily available in English, notably with the publication of a translation of Mythologies in 1972, his ideas became extremely popular among a new generation of film theorists, along with those of the French Marxist Louis Althusser. The method of analysis advocated by Barthes has been extremely useful for theorists, including Marxists, feminists, gays, and lesbians, as well as those concerned with questions of race and ethnicity.


While Barthes's methods still play an important role in the development of film theory, it was Christian Metz, one of the giants of French film theory, who became best known for the use of semiology as a method to analyze cinema. In Film Language (1968), Metz argued that cinema is structured like a language. Adopting Saussure's models, Metz made the distinction between "langue," a language system, and "language," a less clearly defined system of recognizable conventions. Metz contends that film cannot be regarded as comprising a "langue," in the sense of having a strict grammar and syntax equivalent to that of the written or spoken word. Unlike the written word, film's basic unit, which Metz argues is the shot, is neither symbolic nor arbitrary but iconic; therefore, it is laden with specific meaning. Metz suggests that film is a language in which each shot used in a sequence works like a unit in a linguistic statement. In his theoretical model, known as the "grande syntagmatique," Metz argues that individual cinematic texts construct their own meaning systems rather than share a unified grammar.

These ideas were developed upon and expanded by a wide range of theorists including Raymond Bellour in The Unattainable Text (1975), who largely supported Metz's views. Metz's ideas were nonetheless controversial and became the catalyst for heated debate amongst theorists during the 1970s and the 1980s, especially among Left Wing cultural theorists in Britain and the United States. The Italian Umberto Eco argued in "Articulations of the Cinematic Code," that the photographic image is arbitrarily constructed, just as the linguistic code is arbitrary. Stephen Heath challenged Metz's arguments, suggesting in Questions of Cinema (1981) that all cinema is concerned with representation and that representation itself is a form of language equivalent to Saussure's linguistic model of "langue." In a similar vein, Sam Rohdie took issue with some of Metz's key statements while calling for a continued investment in the systematic textual analysis that semiology makes possible (1975).

By the mid 1980s, the version of semiology that Metz had developed had increasingly lost favor and had become largely replaced in film studies debates by an interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis. This shift was perhaps due to a range of factors, including the waning interest in the radical leftist politics espoused by most structuralist thinkers and the emerging interest, especially amongst feminist academics within film studies, in psychoanalysis as a theoretical paradigm. Indeed, Metz himself had moved away from his investment in semiology to emphasize psychoanalysis during the mid-1970s, thus forecasting the direction that film studies would take as an academic discipline.

SEE ALSO Film Studies,Ideology,Marxism,Structuralism and PostStructuralism


Barthes, Roland. Mythologies, edited and translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Bellour, Raymond. The Analysis of Film, edited by Constance Penley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism, 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Eco, Umberto. "Articulations of the Cinematic Code." In Movies and Methods, edited by Bill Nichols, 590–607. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

——. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Heath, Stephen. Questions of Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Translated by Michael Taylor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Peirce, Charles S. Selected Writings. New York: Dover, 1966.

Rohdie, Sam. "Metz and Film Semiotics: Opening the Field." Jump Cut no. 7 (1975): 22–24.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw Hill, 1966.

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Stam, Robert, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. New York and London: Routledge,1992.

Wollen, Peter. Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1997. First edition published in 1969.

John Mercer


views updated May 23 2018



Semiotics studies the various ways meanings are expressed by and embodied in systems of signs and symbols. In its European as opposed to its American form it originally was known as "semiology." It grew out of the conception of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), formulated in his Cours de linguistique générale (1916; Course in General Linguistics, 1959), of a "semiology" as a general science of the life or circulation of signs in society. Using the "sign character of language" both as model and as standard for other sign systems, European semiotics extended its interests far beyond language to such domains as art, literature, myth, and religion, and even to advertising and fashion systems.


The linguistic sign, according to Saussure, is two-faced: it is the inseparable union of a "signifier" and a "signified." Language for Saussure was a system with a distinctive structure and was intrinsically social. It must be distinguished from speech, its realization in concrete instances. Any act of speech, like a move in a chess game, selects from a set of preexisting units and combines them in rule-governed or rule-creating ways. This distinction between the axis of selection and the axis of combination (the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic) is matched by another, perhaps more subtle and far-reaching distinction: that between form and substance. Language, Saussure claimed, is a system without positive terms. The linguistic sign gets its meaning from its relations to other signs, not from its positive characteristics or its relations to the world. Using the clue of the difference between a "significant" sound and a mere "material" sound, Saussure thought of language as a socially sanctioned system of correlations between sign units. This idea of the sign, as defined by its relations to other signs, will be carried over to the whole cultural domain.

This set of distinctions led to a theoretical revolution in linguistics and in cultural theory that went under the name of structuralism. Structuralism attempted to discover the significant units in cultural systems quite generally and to set out the patterns of relation between them. Literary texts, for example, were shown by the Prague School to be complex acts of speech made possible by, and defined by, preexisting language-like systems without which they could not be created or understood. Texts stood in relation not just to previous texts but to all contemporaneous texts, too. Here are to be found the roots of the later notion of "intertextuality."

Early semiotics was faced with the serious problem of what seemed to be an irreconcilable opposition between semiotic systems and individual creativity, as manifested in the arts, both visual and literary. This theme was explored by such writers as the Russians Valentin Voloshinov (1895–1936) and Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975). They showed that texts, as utterances, transcend the individual-society dichotomy by being situated, but not predetermined, historically shaped and distinctively pitched rhetorical forms or "voices." Novel texts were seen as emergent forms of "verbal interaction," as shifting performances of meaning. But they are not mere repetitions of past meanings that were already present in the system.

The focus on a creative social-historical logic of discourse was balanced by the exploration of a semiotic logic of the deep, unchanging structures of myth by Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908). Following Saussure's lead, Lévi-Strauss attempted to reduce the multiple forms of myth to variations on a few ultimate units and their systems of oppositions—raw/cooked, nature/culture, clean/unclean, endogamous/exogamous, and so forth.

Roland Barthes (1915–1980) further extended the language-based semiotic model to describe modern cultural myths and also the "rhetoric" of the image. Barthes was fascinated by the linguistic analogy and by not just the power of language but also the language of power embodied in the great mythic themes we live by and that enter into and define our individual and social identities. It was Barthes, along with Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), who affirmed that even the psyche, that is, the self, is "structured like a language," as a coded system of oppositions, a realization of structures of signifiers, which one had no immediate access to or control over. The "self" became essentially a decentered "place" in the play of signs, a theme developed on the philosophical plane by Jacques Derrida (1930–2004).


Semiotics, then, as a discipline has more than mere theoretical concerns to deal with. Semiotic analysis becomes a form of self-reflection, even of political opposition, since it makes visible the hidden systems of meaning that define the space of one's life. Whether these systems are "prison-houses" or "happy homes" cannot be settled by semiotics itself.

Semiotic concerns and orientations also entered into the work of psychology. Of special interest is the work of the German Karl Bühler (1879–1963), and of the Russian Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). Foregrounding and generalizing the distinction between significant sounds and sounds as merely physical phenomena, Bühler explored how the apprehension of something as a sign depended on one's powers to abstract distinctive features in the sign complex as well as in things and objects in the world. This power of abstraction, clearly present in the perception of language, led Bühler to develop a semiotic model of human perceptual powers quite generally. Perception itself, he showed, was a multiform process of sign-reading. The perceptual field is filled with a plethora of symptoms, signals, and symbolic structures that must be "picked out" as significant from their non-significant surroundings. Vygotsky also explored the semiotic dimensions of the perceptual sphere, drawing extensive and fruitful parallels between signs and tools as essential, indeed, indispensable, supports for the development of consciousness. Vygotsky showed that semiotics has an unavoidable genetic dimension alongside its structural and historical dimensions, laying in this way the groundwork for a semiotically informed cultural psychology.

The ineluctable embodiment of perception in signs and sign systems had important consequences especially for a semiotically informed aesthetics. Consequently, the visual arts, with special focus on painting, sculpture, and architecture, have been subjected to semiotic analysis. What makes up sets of visual signifiers, however, is a serious problem for a specifically semiotic approach to visual art. The approach taken by European semiotics availed itself of the great phonological analogy: significance, or meaning, arises through difference, and the differences can be coded or uncoded. What, then, are the constitutive differences and oppositions in either the marked or carved surface (painting and sculpture) or a building? What makes some significant and others non-significant? These systems of differences and oppositions point to one another in intricate and not always obvious ways. They encompass both the formal and content poles of any meaning-bearing artifact, whether thematically exploited or working "behind the backs" of seemingly autonomous creators.

The production of meaning, semiotics holds, is always embedded in, and exploits, sets of conventions. And, strangely enough, novel artistic meanings can also emerge out of the system, although just how remains a perplexing problem. Art in all its forms, seen from the semiotic point of view, bears witness to the fact that there is no "pure" perception or innocent eye. A large semiotic literature has been devoted to these themes. Of primary importance is the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), who was perhaps the most important philosopher to first recognize the revolutionary role of Saussure's semiotic insights for philosophy and for aesthetics.

Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), the great Russian linguist, applied semiotic insights to literary and phonological theory, foregrounding especially the poetic function of language, which was marked by the "palpability" of signs. The notion of palpability is clearly not restricted to language signs but to artistic signs of all sorts. Émile Benveniste (1902–1976), a distinguished French linguist, also reflected on the extension of the linguistic analogy to other systems of signs, concluding that while language was the "interpreting system" par excellence, one may not deny that the realm of signs permeates the whole cultural world. This is precisely the enduring central thesis and theme of European semiotics.

See alsoBarthes, Roland; Derrida, Jacques; Jakobson, Roman; Lacan, Jacques; Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Merleau-Ponty, Maurice; Postmodernism; Saussure, Ferdinand de.


Chandler, David. Semiotics: The Basics. New York, 2002.

Innis, Robert, ed. Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology. Bloomington, Ind., 1985.

Nöth, Winfried. Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington, Ind., 1990.

Robert E. Innis


views updated May 21 2018


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 (18391914) 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 (18571913) 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 (384322 b.c.e.) and of the Stoics. In late antiquity, Augustine of Hippo (354430 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 (152899) and John Poinsot (15891664) are particularly notable for their anticipation of modern developments. It was the British philosopher, John Locke (16321704), 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 (18551916) 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, 19351958.

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


views updated May 18 2018


What do words, visual ads, art performances, make-up, uniforms, and pictures have in common? They all are signs—"something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity," to use the words of Charles Sanders Peirce. They all mean something to someone; for example, the word "house" may stand for "a building that serves as living quarters for one or more families," uniforms may represent certain occupations, and so on. What signs mean, how meaning is generated and interpreted, and how signs are used are all issues that are studied in the field of "semiotics" (from the Greek word semeion, or "sign"). Sometimes, the study of signs is referred to as "semiology," but the term "semiotics" is much more common.

Origin of Semiotics

People have been interested in signs for many centuries. In fact, the first definition of "sign" was given by Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.E.), who treated it as a medical symptom (e.g., sore throat standing for a cold). After that, signs have been studied through the ages by such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. However, it was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that semiotics was developed as a separate field, thanks to the works of Peirce, an American philosopher, and Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist.

Conceptual Framework of Semiotics

The range of semiotics is very broad, but there are a number of concepts that are central to the field, including sign, code, medium, types of signs, and dimensions of signs.

There are two main conceptions of sign: dyadic, developed by de Saussure, and triadic, developed by Peirce. In the dyadic conception, sign is an arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified. Signifier is an image of the world that people experience through the senses; signified is the concept people connect with their experiences. For example, an advertisement (sign) combines the signifier (acoustic or visual image) and the signified (corresponding concept). In the triadic conception, sign combines representatum that stands for its object and generates interpretant (its meaning). It is important to note that, in both conceptions, signs have meanings only because the experience and the concept are connected by people (i.e., signs generate meanings only within sociocultural frameworks).

Signs are organized into codes, or coding systems, for example, spoken/written language, dance, clothing, dating rituals, body language, and Morse code. Codes are normative since they present a set of rules of how (not) to act; in this sense, codes can be broken deliberately or through incompetence (e.g., offending someone by using inappropriate gestures that one knows will cause offense or offending someone by using inappropriate gestures without knowing they will cause offense). Codes are used for designing and interpreting messages.

One and the same message can be designed in more than one medium, that is, involve different senses (e.g., visual, auditory, tactile, etc.). The medium presupposes the use of certain code/s (e.g., the phonemic code presupposes the auditory medium). Each medium has its own sense ratio, depending on how much information can be processed during a certain time interval. For example, in most situations the visual medium is more dominant. In all cases, the medium is not something separate from information. In that respect, signs do not simply transmit meanings; they constitute a medium in which meanings are constructed. To use the famous expression of Marshall McLuhan, "The medium is the message."

The most well-known classification of signs is the one developed by Peirce, who identified three types of signs, based on how they represent the objects of the world. Icons signify the world through resemblance so that people can recognize the object (e.g., a photograph visually looks like its object; the word "cock-a-doodle-do" resembles the sounds made by a rooster). Indexes signify the world through indication so that people can figure out this causal relationship (e.g., smoke indicating fire; pointing finger indicating where an object is located in space). Symbols signify the world through convention so that people must learn the relationship between the sign and its object (e.g., most verbal signs). Signs are considered genuine, that is, generating most meanings, if the connection between the representatum and the object is conventional.

According to Charles Morris, a famous American semiotician, all signs have three main dimensions: syntactic (signs in relation to other signs within the same system), semantic (signs in relation to the objects they represent), and pragmatic (signs in relation to their users, i.e., people who produce and interpret signs). For example, syntactically, the sign "cow" is made up of three letters in a certain order; semantically, the sign denotes "mature female of cattle"; and, pragmatically, this sign may generate different responses (e.g., in India a cow is viewed as a sacred animal).

Scope of Semiotics

The scope of semiotic studies is very broad. Among the objects of semiotic analysis are literary works, clothing, advertisements, music, architecture, urban planning, human-computer interaction, sports and games, law, and so on. All these objects are regarded as "texts." When people interpret these semiotic objects, they gain an access to the world and make it meaningful. They always try to capture the most immediate (the most "real") meanings; however, these meanings are presented in an indirect way (i.e., mediated). Thus, signs as texts are forms of mediation; in this sense, different communication situations are characterized by different degrees of mediation (e.g., theatrical performance is less mediated than television). With the development of new information technologies, the line between the natural world taken for granted and the constructed world becomes more and more blurred. This could have certain advantages (e.g., the use of "virtual reality" for educational purposes) and possible disadvantages (e.g., increase of violence, especially among youths, due to the influence of mass media).

Semiotics is applied to the study of both the structural organization of texts ("structural semi-otics") and the different social meanings these texts may generate ("social semiotics"). Thus, semiotics moves from language to all modes of representation employed in production and interpretation of texts. Semiotics can reveal the signifying practices behind ideology, power, gender, and so on. Semiotics emphasizes the role of signs in the construction of reality and demonstrates how the "real world" can be challenged and changed. Ultimately, semiotics can help people to understand how they construct their identities, that is, make sense of themselves.

See also:Advertising Effects; Human-Computer Interaction; Language Acquisition; Language and Communication; Language Structure; McLuhan, Herbert Marshall; Peirce, Charles Sanders.


Berger, Arthur. (1999). Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics. Salem, MA: Sheffield Publishing.

Colapietro, Vincent. (1993). Glossary of Semiotics. New York: Paragon House.

Danesi, Marcello. (1999). Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semi-otics. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Eco, Umberto. (1979). A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hartshorne, Charles; Weiss, Paul; and Burks, Arthur, eds. (1931-1935, 1958). The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 vols. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Jensen, Klaus. (1995). The Social Semiotics of Mass Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Merrell, Floyd. (1995). Semiosis in the Postmodern Age. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Nöth, Winfred. (1995). Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Igor E. Klyukanov


views updated May 11 2018

SEMIOTICS. The study and analysis of SIGNS and SYMBOLS as part of COMMUNICATION as for example in LANGUAGE, gesture, clothing, and behaviour. Present-day semiotics arises from the independent work of two linguistic researchers, one in the US, the other in Switzerland. Charles S. Peirce (1834–1914) used the term to describe the study of signs and symbolic systems from a philosophical perspective, while Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) coined semiology as part of his interest in language as a system of signs. The terms have generally been regarded as synonymous, and semiotics is better known, especially in the English-speaking world.

Almost anything can be a sign: clothes, hairstyles, type of house or car owned, accent, and body language. All send messages about such things as age, class, and politics. Sign systems, however, are not peculiar to human beings: the study of animal communication by gesture, noise, smell, dancing, etc., is termed zoosemiotics, while the study of technical systems of signals such as Morse code and traffic lights is communication theory. In semiotics, the term CODE refers loosely to any set of signs and their conventions of meaning. Language represents a rich set of such codes, both verbal (in language proper) and non-verbal (in the para-language of facial expressions, body movements, and such vocal activities as snorts and giggles). The media provide visual and aural signals in photographs, radio and television programmes, advertisements, and theatrical performances. Literature is seen as a particularly rich semiotic field with such sub-disciplines as literary and narrative semiotics. Critical attention has come to focus not only on the codes themselves, but on the process of encoding and decoding. Readers, it is argued, do not simply decode messages, but actively create meanings: that is, they re-code as they read.

Peirce and Saussure were interested in the relationship between sign and referent (what a sign refers to). Although they both stressed that this relationship was essentially arbitrary, Peirce argued that different types of sign had different degrees of both arbitrariness and motivation. What he terms an icon is a highly motivated sign, since it visually resembles what it represents: for example, a photograph or hologram. His index is partly motivated to the extent that there is a connection, usually of causality, between sign and referent: spots indexical of a disease like measles; smoke indexical of fire. Peirce's symbol is the most arbitrary kind of sign: the word in language, the formula in mathematics, or the rose representing love in literary tradition. See LINGUISTIC SIGN, SEMANTICS.


views updated May 23 2018

se·mi·ot·ics / ˌsēmēˈätiks; ˌsemē-; ˌsemˌī-/ • pl. n. [treated as sing.] the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.DERIVATIVES: se·mi·ot·ic·mi·ot·i·cal·ly / -ik(ə)lē/·mi·o·ti·cian / ˌsemēəˈtishən; ˌsēmēə-/ n.


views updated May 29 2018

semiotics (semiology) Study of signs and symbols, both visual and linguistic, and their function in communication. Pioneers of semiotics include Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure. Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss developed the principles of semiotics into structuralism.


views updated May 29 2018


views updated May 11 2018

Semiotics (study of signs): see SYMBOLS.