04 Mar 2004 11:33

The self-described science of signs, and of their use. The notion that communication and even thought proceeds by the use of signs, which form a kind of definite code, is a very ancient and firmly entrenched part of the western tradition, taking us back to, at least, Aristotle. Concerns about how signs --- spoken and written words, gestures, and what-not --- are used to convey information, and their use in thought, have certainly been part and parcel of modern philosophy from the beginning. Nobody seems to have tried to spin these concerns off as a separate science, though, until the end of the 19th century, when the notion occured to the American polymath C. S. Peirce (who gave it the name "semiotics") and to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (who called it "semiology"; votaries of the subject have gotten very heated up over which name to use). Neither of these ventures went very far. Peirce had remarkable talents, which he refused not to exercise, both for being obscure and for offending those who might have aided him. Saussure was an Indo-Europeanist by trade, and never even wrote anything on the subject. (The book called Course in General Linguistics, bearing his name, was assembled from his students' lecture-notes, and didn't see the light of day for decades after Saussure's death.) Consequently, the field was invented all over again, by the logical positivists and their ilk.

Like many of the gaudier delusions of our time, it didn't really take off until after the second world war, when, in Hugh Kenner's phrase, "academia ran a fever." A detailed explanation of how it came to pass that, c. 1970, large chunks of the western intelligentsia became convinced that the key to the humanities lay in semiotics would take us far afield. We would have to discuss ideas of anthropological method, math-envy, the history of linguistics in Eastern Europe and the institutional politics of intellectual life in France and America. Suffice it to say that it did happen, and even wasn't altogether unreasonable, at least as first.

The savants have differed, not to say bickered, with each other over terminology, basic principles, disciplinary scope, disciplinary aims, and (even when these have been agreed upon, more or less) what to accept as results. Methodology, it goes without saying, has been hopelessly disputed. In all this, almost the only point which has been axiomatic is that signs operate on the principle of codes, that communication is a process of encoding and decoding.

(European languages all use roughly phonetic alphabets, which are (imperfect) codes, and perhaps this made the semiotic view more plausible: "dog" is to canines, or an idea of canines, as "d" is to a certain dental sound. To test this speculation, one would need to, say, compare how reasonable the coding idea of communication seems to people as a function of how phonetic their writing systems are. Presumably illiterates would be the least willing of all to accept it. But one could easily squeeze a paper, if not a book, out of the conjecture, and doubtless somebody has.)

This central assumption, of no communication without coding, is false, as Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson showed in their 1986 book Relevance. This hasn't stopped people from making it, of course.

A word or two should probably be said here about the distinction between signs like words or turn signals, and signs in the sense in which black clouds are a sign of rain, or something large, mean and toothy looking in your direction is a sign of danger.

For the sake of quibblers, however, it should be noted that "sign" can assume two meanings. In one sense it means anything which, when apprehended, makes us know something alse; but it does not make us know something for the first time, as has been shown elsewhere; it only makes us know something actually which we already know habitually. In this manner, a word is a natural sign, and indeed any effect is a sign at least of its cause. And in this way also a barrel-hoop signifies the wine in the inn. Here, however, I am not speaking of "sign" in such a general meaning. In another sense, "sign" means that which makes us know something else, and either is able itself to stand for it, or can be added in a proposition to what is able to stand for something --- such are the syncategorematic words and the verbs and the other parts of a proposition which have no definite signfication --- or is such at to be composed of things of this sort, e.g., a sentence.
---William of Occam, Summa Totius Logicæ, I, i, trans. Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M., Philosophical Writings of Occam, p. 49.
("Syncategorematic" words are, roughly, those which give the sentence its form, or logical constants --- but, if, and, every, some, however, etc.) It has often been assumed that there's some kind of connection between the two kinds of sign, but that's not at all obvious, and I actually rather doubt it. Signs in the first sense essentially belong to inference; a criter can learn to apprehend them through the usual processes of association and conditioning (among other ways), and the evolution of the ability to handle them presents no special conceptual difficulties. On the other hand, signs of the second sort --- ones which necessarily involve communication, and some kind of regularization --- are quite tricky to evolve. Moreover, in the species (us) with the most elaborate version of such communication (language), there's overwhelming evidence that it's handled by specialized, separated neural hardware, specifically adapted to do that and not handle signs in general.

Semiotics, the academic discipline, should on no account be confused with linguistics; with rhetoric; with formal language theory; with cognitive science; with mathematical logic and meta-mathematics; or even with information theory. All of these, whatever their troubles, conduct themselves with at least a modicum of rigor and (where applicable) empirical controls, and have actual results, some of them even of practical utility, to show for themselves. On the other hand, semioticians are quite at home with structuralist, literary critics, psychoanalysts, soi-disant narratologists, and the more dubious sort of philosophers, which speaks for itself. The story of semiotics has been one of "institutional success and intellectual bankruptcy," as Sperber and Wilson (an anthropologist and a linguist, respectively) put it.

See also: Renormalized Semiotics