Posted by: Dan | February 19, 2006

Semiotics for Dummies (i.e. me): Part I

Well, between reading George Lindbeck and completing a course on sacramental theology, I’ve been doing more and more reading about linguistics and semiotics (the theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language and other systems of communication). I am currently working on a paper called: “Theology as Presencing: Speaking Religion with George Lindbeck, Martin Heidegger, and Umberto Eco” and as a part of my research I’m reading Umberto Eco’s book, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. His work is decidedly dense — particular for those who don’t “speak the language” of language scholars. So, to help me work through this book, I’ve decided to start a series of posts summarising and reflecting on each chapter. That might not be terribly exciting for those who choose to read this blog but I figure if I can present Eco’s material in a way that makes sense to people not interested in this topic then I’m probably getting what he is talking about. So, if you’re interested, let me know what you think (Rivers? I’m counting on you here!). And if you’re not, well, too bad (that probably means everybody but Rivers). Without further ado:

[0] Introduction

Eco begins his book by stating that there tends to be two objects that are focused upon as the object of a general semiotic approach, and these two objects are generally seen as incompatible. They are:

1. The sign/sign-fuction which is a correlation between a signifier and a signified (i.e. between expression and content) and thus an action between pairs.

2. Semiosis which is not an action between pairs, but an action between three subjcts: a sign, its object, and its interpretant.

Eco’s thesis is that these two approaches are not incompatible. In order to defend this he will argue that the semiosic process of interpretation (emphasised by point 2) is actually also at the core of the concept of “sign” (point 1). Eco attacks the notion of signs as immobile or static notions, but argues that our fundamental approach to signs always involves an act of interpretation.

Having laid out his thesis, Eco then lays out some major themes that will be important throughout the book — and which will become more clear when I get to the chapters in which he addresses the individual themes.

Beginning with a basic principle of interpretation that says, “a sign is something by knowing which we know something more” (he is quoting Peirce at this point) and this implies an infinite process of interpretation. However, Eco argues that, although this process may be infinite in theory, any given text does not have an infinite amount of meanings. This is so because, when approached in light of a given topic (i.e. contextually) there is on a limited number of possible meanings. So Eco rejects the notion that there is not true meaning within a text (or, as Valery puts it, “il n’y a pas de vrai sens d’un texts“).

This means that Eco sees contemporary theories of interpretation on a line between two extremes, x and y.

At x are those who see only one possible way of interpreting the text — according to the author’s original intention.

At y are those who see any possible meaning in the text.

Eco is interested in finding a continuum of intermediate positions between these two points. Thus, his focus on context leads him to argue that between x and y stands “a recorded thesaurus of encyclopedic competence, a social storage of world knowledge” and interpretation is implemented and legitimated by this. The notion of interpretation being an act that is accomplished through an appeal to an encyclopedia of world knowledge is crucial to Eco’s thesis, as will become clear in our summary of chapter two.

Eco then goes on to cover some more introductory type material before getting into the body of his book. First, he explains that he is engaged in a philosophy of language because any general semiotics is a philosophy of language, and good philosophies of language are concerned with semiotics (see the definition of “semiotics” I provided above). Second, he makes a distinction between a specific semiotics and a general semiotics.

A specific semiotics is “the grammar of a particular sign system”. Thus, if one views Christianity as a particular kind of language, Christian theology functions as the grammar of that language — i.e. as a specific semiotics (I’m pulling on George Lindbeck’s work in this example). Thus, a specific semiotic is successful if it describes a given field of communicative phenomena as ruled by a specific system of signification. That is to say, a specific semiotic is successful if it forms a coherent worldview. That is why specific semiotics are used to improve, preserve, or destroy cultures. It is also why they are disciplinary, and they can tell which expressions are acceptable (i.e. grammatical) within that worldview. Thus, something can be empirically tested within a specific semiotics. In this regard, it can be said that specific semiotics is a science, because it has clear rules for how it determines the relevance of empirical data.

A general semiotics asks bigger questions: what does it mean to say, to express meanings, to convey ideas, or to mention states of the world? However, general semiotics will always be comparative, and rely on specific semiotics, since they are inescapable because all of us are contextual interpreters of meaning. We can only study and describe language through language. A general semiotics is not a science, but rather a philosophy because it cannot be empirically tested. This is so because philosophical entities only exist to the extent that they have been philosophically posited — that is to say, they are not ’emic’ (internal) definitions of previously recognisable ‘etic’ (external) data. Such concepts only have unity within their philosophical framework. Thus, a general semiotics has explanatory and practical power but cannot be shown to be true in a scientific sense. Yet this is not to say that such concepts are just figments of our imagination, but they cannot be judged for their truth-value, only for their perspicacity.

Okay… that’s it for the introduction. How’d I do? Clear as mud? Are you sitting there wondering why the hell anybody would want to care about this sort of stuff? Should I write more about why I think it’s interesting/important?

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Responses

  1. Yes, please write more about why you think it’s interesting/important.

    Thank you,

    Lloyd C.


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