What is semiotics and what has it got to do with the history of Philosophy? In this feature length interview, Winfried Nöth details the close relationship between the doctrine of signs and Western Philosophy.
Semiotics is the study of signs and sign processes in culture and nature. It is concerned with research in verbal and nonverbal communication, teaching and learning, media and culture, the verbal and the visual arts, music, architecture, images, photography, cinema, and sign processes in the realms of animals and plants. Concepts and topics such as sign and interpretation, representation and presentation, meaning and signification, sense and reference, denotation and connotation, perception and cognition, concept and idea, word and object, reality and imagination, constitute the vocabulary of a semiotician. Neither the topics nor the concepts are new.
Winfried Nöth has given a comprehensive survey of the research field from ancient to postmodern thought in his classic Handbook of Semiotics, a standard work of reference in German, English, Portuguese, Croatian, and Indonesian (Bahasa) so far. Nöth, who has worked at the universities of Bochum, Aachen, Kassel, Wisconsin, and Berlin (Humboldt), is currently professor of cognitive semiotics at the Catholic University of São Paulo. He is well known to semiotics students in Brazil from his textbooks Panorama da semiótica de Platão a Peirce, A semiótica no século XX, Introdução à semiótica, and Estratégias semióticas da publicidade (the latter two with Lucia Santaella). His most recent publication, together with Andrew Stables (London), Alin Olteanu (Kaunas), Eetu Pikkarainen (Oulu), and Sébastien Pesce (Paris), has just been released by Routledge under the title Semiotic Theory of Learning: New Perspectives in the Philosophy of Education.
Alexandre Quaresma (AQ), Rio de Janeiro, asked questions for the readers of the Brazilian popular philosophy magazine Filosofia, ciência & vida, and Cary Campbell (CC), Vancouver, put additional questions with the readers of philosophasters.org in mind.
[We thank Winfried Nöth for this English Translation of the Portuguese original, and Marion Benkaiouche for additional editorial revisions.]
AQ: How would you define semiotics to people and students unfamiliar with the field?
WN: Semiotics is both a basic science and a transdisciplinary field of applied science. Processes of communication and signification in nature and culture are its focus. It is a bridge between such diverse individual sciences as logic, language philosophy, communication and information theory, biology, medicine, hermeneutics, rhetoric, sociology, psychology, and media studies.
AQ: How is semiotics related to philosophy?
WN: The nature of signs has been a topic of philosophical interest since Antiquity. For pre-Socratic philosophers, the study of signification was associated to manticism [the study of divination]. Fragment 93 of Heraclitus informs us that the oracle at Delphi “neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign”. Incidentally, since Heraclitus put these words into the mouth of the priestess Pythia, his testimony is evidence that the first semiotician in the history of thought was female. In such philosophical fragments of the Pre-Socratics, we find the roots of the conviction that a sign [seméion] has connections to something that must ultimately remain obscure, hidden, and ‘invisible’ [ádelos] to us.
With Plato, semiotics, still without this name, prepared itself to “un-veil” the mystery hidden behind signs. In his writings, to signify [semaínein] became a synonym of to reveal [deloun]. However, Plato would have rejected the vision of an entirely transparent logico-philosophical representation of reality of which Leibniz dreamt in modern times, when he proposed his project of an ars característica. In his dialogue in Cratyloson the “correctness of names”, Plato concluded that the signs of humans are necessarily incomplete representations of the ideas they pretend to represent. Only ideas, and nothing else, are perfect and immutable, and their sphere constitutes true reality. For Plato, signs do not represent objects of the world and of our experience, that which appears “real” for modern humans. They are mere ephemeral representations of the truth of things as they are, mere images (éidola). Reality can therefore never be the reality of signs; reality is in the sphere of the ideas. Signs only represent these ideas, of which they are only incomplete copies. Hence, both things, as we experience them, and the words we use to represent them are mere shadows of the ideas, which are perfect. The signs we use are incapable of revealing the true nature of reality. The sphere of ideas is necessarily independent of the way in which our signs represent them. Even if the verbal signs and the things of our experience, insofar as they are images of the ideas in Plato’s sense, were excellent copies of what they represent, the knowledge they could mediate for us would remain inferior to the true being of those ideas.
Under the designation of the doctrine of signs, the study of signs after Plato developed into a variety of schools, currents, and tendencies. In Antiquity after Plato and Aristotle, two schools that stand out are those of the Stoics and the Epicureans. For both, semiotics was a theory of signs as well as a rudimentary theory of cognition. At the threshold between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) presented an original semiotic theory that gave new answers to the question of the relation between signs and “things”. In this semiotics, the great theme of difference appears on the semiotic agenda, not yet the difference between signs, but the difference between signs and things. Every sign, writes Augustine, is also a thing, for what is not a thing is nothing at all, but it is a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something different from itself to come into the mind as a consequence of itself.
The doctrine of signs became a branch of philosophy in the Middle Ages. For the Scholastics, semiotics was practically a synonym of the trivium branch of the medieval sciences, which consisted of the three disciplines of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In the 14th century, Leonine of Padua restricted semiotics essentially to logic, when he declared, “Logica est doctrina principaliter de signis.” In the larger context of science, semiotics in turn, was one of three major areas of knowledge, of which the others were philosophia naturalis and philosophia moralis. Notice that this new triad testifies to a conception of philosophy much broader than we know it today since moral philosophy comprises everything studied today in disciplines such as theology, ethics, and sociology, whereas the field called natural philosophy was one that would today comprise the natural sciences. The conception of philosophy as a domain divided into three fields survived until 1690, when John Locke, in chapter 21 of part 4 of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, divided “all that can fall within the range of human understanding” into three fields of knowledge, physiké, praktiké, and semeiotiké, the third comprising the study of “the ways and means by which the knowledge of each of those two is attained and communicated”.
AQ: Who are the main representatives of the history of semiotics?
WN: After the ancients, several eminent thinkers among the Scholastics have contributed significantly to the study of signs. In fact, medieval philosophy, besides being a theological system of ideas, is in its essence a semiotic philosophy. The great topics of the period were semiotic topics, first of all, the nominalism vs. realism debate concerning the reality of qualities. Its echoes reverberate today. Among the outstanding philosophers who participated in this debate were the realist Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274), the nominalist William of Ockham (1285-1347), and, as a representative of an intermediate position, called conceptualism, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308). The debate was not about the question of reality as such, the real as we think of it today. It was about the question of the reality of the so-called universals, that is, of general concepts, such as ‘table’ or ‘horse’, the notion of ‘redness’ in the sense of a quality that all red things have, or the idea of the number 7 as we apply it to any set of seven units. In this matter, the medieval realists were, in fact, Platonic idealists since, for them, universals have a reality before their representation in the form of verbal signs just like Plato’s ideas, which also precede the way we think about them and the forms in which we represent them. Hence, for the realists, the universals “really” exist regardless of what and how we think about them. Things are flat or square whether we have words to express the ideas of ‘flatness’ or ‘squareness’. The whole debate was thus about signs. Do the signs that represent general ideas, the “universals”, precede the reality of the objects to which they are attributed? Should we follow the doctrine that universalia sunt ante rem?
The question of universals continues to be an issue under the same name with a new focus of interest. Today it has become a research project of linguists, who have been studying them as “linguistic universals”, that is, as semiotic forms occurring in all natural languages or at least in a significant majority of them. For example, the great majority of known natural languages have a word to represent the idea of a set of ‘seven’ objects, but anthropological linguistics has discovered that a verbal sign to express the idea of ‘seven’ is not an absolute but only a relative (statistically predominant) lexical universal. The isolated language of the Amazonian people of the Pirarrãs (or Pirahás) does not seem to have a word for the idea of ‘seven’. It only has words to distinguish sets from one to four. All larger sets are referred to by a word that may be roughly paraphrased a ‘many’, but more precisely as ‘five or more’. For the nominalists, examples of linguistic relativity such as this serve to corroborate their doctrine that universals (in the philosophical sense) are mere names to which no objective reality corresponds, mere products of the signs and sign systems that shape the way we see the world. To the nominalist, the idea of ‘seven’ is real to the native speaker of English, but not to one of Pirarrã because verbal signs create it by distinguishing it from ‘six’ and ‘eight’, for example. The motto of the Scholastic nominalists was thus, the universals follow the reality of things, universalia sunt post rem.
A modern semiotic version of nominalism (and hence anti-realism) is the one of the cultural relativists, who are convinced that the forms of verbal and nonverbal signs reflect by no means reality “as it is”, but are formed and even determined by cultural conventions only.
Nominalist positions are also apparent in current trends in the cognitive sciences, such as in autopoiesis theory or in radical constructivism (Maturana and Varela or Ernst von Glaserfeld), who defend the position that it is the human mind that constructs the reality in which we live. Structuralist semiotics in the Saussurean tradition has a no less strong ingredient of nominalism. For the structuralists, it is not the biology of the human mind that creates the differences we perceive, but the semiotic system that impose their structures on the perceiving mind. We cannot think other than how our signs allow us to think.
Before I say more about the great figures of semiotics in the course of its history, I would like to point out that the history of semiotics has also evolved in the form of themes. One of the great issues in early modern semiotics was the search for an artificial language free from the imperfections of natural languages. Umberto Eco addressed this chapter of the history of semiotics in his book on The Search for the Perfect Language of 1997. In the history of this ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful search for a sign system better than any natural language, the intellectual milestones are Ramon Llull’s Ars magna (1305), Francis Bacon’s Novum organon (1605), Dalgarno’s Ars signorum (1661), Leibniz’s Arte combinatorial (1666), John Wilkins’s Essay toward a real character (1668), and Comenius’s Via lucis (1668). Despite its failure, the project deserves acknowledgement as a precursor of logical positivism (Carnap), of structural semantics and of the early Artificial Intelligence projects of automatic translating texts from natural languages.
In modern times, semiotics, sometimes under the name of semiology, began to specialize. In the age of Leibniz, the ancient “doctrine of signs” continued to be studied in treatises, such as Sémeiologia metaphysiké (Johannes Schultetus, 1659). In the Age of Enlightenment, A. G. Baumgarten dealt with semiotics under the name of semiologia philosophica (1739), and Johann H. Lambert, in 1764, wrote a treatise entitled Semiotics, or the doctrine of the designation of thoughts and things. Besides philosophical or theoretical semiotics, two branches of applied semiotics emerged. The first, under the name of semiotica moralis, was the study of humans from perspectives that we would call today psychology and physiognomy. The second was medical semiotics (semiotica medica), the study of symptoms of diseases.
The second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century was the period in which the foundations of modern semiotics were laid. In 1890, Edmund Husserl wrote a Logic of Signs with the subtitle of Semiotics, which became fundamental for the semiotic School of Prague in the first half of the 20th century and for Roman Jakobson’s semiotics. The main source of inspiration for structuralist discourse semiotics and the semiotics of the media of the second half of the 20th century is Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916). In parallel with Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce began to outline his general theory of signs and semiotic processes between 1860 and 1914.
CC: St. Augustine, famously begins his treatise De Doctrina Christiania (on Christian doctrine, or, On Christian Teaching) with the important remark “learning concerns either things or signs, but it is through signs that we learn what things are” ([397AD], book 1, line 2). This early insight anticipates the modern research movement of edusemiotics, which considers educational dynamics through semiotic philosophy, learning as semiosis. What brought you in your own work to consider educational dynamics through semiotics?
WN: I wrote my first paper on the semiotics of teaching for the journal Degrés at the request of its editor André Helbo in 1994. It was a critical report on semiotic approaches to education and experiments with semiotic methods and insights in school since Charles Morris. A much-expanded and updated version of this first paper appeared in Inna Semetsky’s Semiotics – Education – Experience in 2010 under the title “The semiotics of teaching and the teaching of semiotics”. With the exception of a few early studies inspired by Max Bense’s readings of Peirce’s philosophy, most of the studies reviewed in these papers are on how to apply semiotic insights in teaching language, literature, and critical media studies.
AQ: In which way does semiotics help to understand the world in which we live and the reality of daily life?
WN: Structuralist semiotics refused to acknowledge that reality and the so-called real play any role in semiotic processes. For the structuralists, the reality in which we live is one determined by signs and sign systems, for our signs determine the way in which we see and experience the world. We are blind to the differences that signs do not allow us to recognize.
From the perspective of Peirce’s semiotics, the inquiry into the real is a legitimate task for the semiotician. For Peirce, the real is independent of what we think about it and however we may represent it. On the other hand, we only know the real from signs that represent it so that the study of signs cannot exclude the study of reality.
Peirce conceived the real not as a mode of being, but as a dynamic agency. The real is something that acts upon us. Reality is often conceived as the domain of whatever actually exists, here and there, in time and space. For Peirce, however, the actual is only one of three realities, the other two being the reality of the possible and the reality of the living laws of nature. The possible is real because whatever is possible exerts a real influence on us. As Peirce points out, it would be absurd to deny that I can really raise my arm, even when I do not actually raise it. The reality of the possible includes the realms of dreams, imagination, and fiction, which really effect our minds although they belong to the sphere of the nonexistent.
The third domain of reality, which Peirce calls the reality of Thirdness, is the reality of “would-be”, of things that would happen or would be true under given circumstances, even if they do not actually happen or exist. This is the reality of the active living law of nature, of generality, inference, efficient reasonableness, habits, symbols, signs, and semiosis. It is a reality in which the imagination of a future event exerts a real effect on the moment in which a decision is presently being taken. Symbols are the prototypes of this reality because “the meaning of a symbol consists in how it might cause us to act”, says Peirce. When we say that a diamond is hard, the sign is about a “would-be” future event, because we affirm that it would resist pressure when scratched even if we do not have the plan to do the test. The reality of symbols is not the reality of embodied signs; it is the reality of signs in their possibilities of embodiment.
AQ: Philosophers of representation agree that we understand the world in which we live by means of representations that we conceive and construct. If this is so, what is the function of signs in the structure of those representations that make reality meaningful?
WN: To say that we understand the world by means of representations that we construct means to adopt a constructivist position, but to adopt this position means to ignore the Peircean premise that reality is as it is independently of how it is represented. Furthermore, to attribute the power of representation only to us, who use the signs to represent the world in this or that way, by saying that our representations construct our reality, is to attribute semiotic powers to us that we do not really have. We are not the masters of the signs by means of which we communicate. Our signs were created by others, not by ourselves. In this sense, it is not true that we construct our representations. Even if we include those who created our signs in their millenary history, it is not yet entirely true that only we construct our representations because the claim that we do so ignores that representation has still another agent, and this agent is the living reality of which we are only a small part. Reality, the object of the sign or representation, cannot be ignored since it insists in its being represented independently of whatever we think about it. Reality cannot be constructed by us. “A reality is an idea that insists upon proclaiming itself, whether we like it or not”, argues Peirce. It acts on our senses and imposes itself in our perceptions.
Since “the real is that which insists upon forcing its way to recognition as something other than the mind’s creation”, as Peirce puts it, truth turns out to be involved in the construction of representations. The notion of truth sounds old-fashioned in times in which truths are allegedly multiple, but Peirce is mainly concerned with scientific truth. Although scientific propositions are always provisional, the premise that reality insists obliges us to conclude that scientific research must lead to the truth in the long run. One of Peirce’s examples is the truth of the occurrence of a historical event that will resist falsification forever. “The truth of the proposition that Caesar crossed the Rubicon consists in the fact that the further we push our archaeological and other studies, the more strongly will that conclusion force itself on our minds forever – or would do so, if study were to go on forever.” The truth of the historians’ propositions cannot be the historian’s own construction. Instead, historians have reality as their co-author.
What role do the signs used to represent reality play under such circumstances? Are they not the tools that enable the sign users to pursue their own purposes or even enhance their ability to do so? That this is not entirely so is an insight that Socrates already had in the Cratylus. Signs are our instruments, says Socrates, but if we want to convey our ideas successfully, we have to use them in ways in which it is “natural for things to be spoken”; otherwise, we must fail. In the same way in which artisans need to choose their tools in ways appropriate to their task, sign users must use their signs according to purposes appropriate to the intended representation. For example, in naming things, which is the topic of the Cratylus, we cannot act according to our own will, but we must employ the instruments that “the nature of things prescribes”. Hence, our instruments of representation participate in our use of them with an agency of their own.
Peirce attributed an even stronger agency to the signs we use in our representations. Although signs were undeniably created by humans, he tells us, these signs end up constituting a reality of their own. When this happens, the signs once created by us begin to act as autonomous semiotic agents who tell us that we can only mean what they have taught us.
AQ: What do semioticians mean by ‘meaning’, ‘sense’, or ‘signification’?
WN: The Meaning of Meaning is the title of a classic in semiotics written by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards almost a hundred years ago. The authors present no less than sixteen principal definitions of ‘meaning’, which cannot be reduced to one. In structuralist semiotics, meaning is the so-called signified of a verbal sign, one of its two sides, the other being the signifier. The signifier is the phonetic or written form associated with a word, whereas the signified is the concept or the idea the word evokes in us. When we want to know what a word means, we consult a dictionary. The word hard, for example, means ‘firm, stiff, not easily bent, cut, or broken’.
The concept of sense is inseparable from its semiotic counterpart, reference. The dichotomy of sense and reference is the topic of a famous paper entitled “On Sense and Reference” by Gottlob Frege of 1892. Here, “reference” is defined as the object to which a verbal sign refers, whereas “sense” means the way in which it is considered. The referent of “Napoleon”, for example, is shared for the expressions “Victor of Austerlitz” or “Defeated at Waterloo”, but the sense of the three expressions reflect three different ways of considering the same historical figure.
Peirce, in his early writings, defined signification in the tradition of medieval semiotics. The signification of a term consists of the predicates that may appropriately be attributed to it, which amounts roughly to defining the signification of a word as what a good dictionary says about it. However, Peirce did not remain contented with defining signification in the form of mere words. He had doubts about conceiving the meaning of a word as its mere translation into another word. In his more advanced reflections on the meaning of meaning, Peirce developed the theory that signification is a matter of how a sign influences the thoughts and actions of its interpreters.
AQ: According to a joke common among philosophy students, it is only possible to philosophize in German. Those who say so want to convey the idea that German is the only language that allows a perfect verbalization, concatenation, and organization of philosophical concepts and reflections. Can you say anything about it? Do you agree or disagree?
WN: If I were French, I would protest, at least according to the common cliché that the French language possesses clarity beyond all other languages. If this were the case, French, and not German, would be the most philosophical language of all. But seriously, what else does it mean to philosophize if not to hold a dialogue with philosophers? However, if this is so, there is a grain of truth in the joke since so many philosopher have written in the German language and a dialogue is best conducted in one and the same language. Nevertheless, there are as many philosophers who have written in Greek, Latin, French, English, Danish, and other languages. To hold an ideal dialogue with those, I cannot recommend the use of German more than the language in which the respective philosopher originally wrote. Last, but not least, the joke you quote also testifies to a lack of respect for the achievements of excellent translators of philosophical writings.
AQ: If I may, I should also like to ask a most philosophical question. What is the sense of searching for the essence of meaning?
WN: This is certainly the most philosophical question of all. The answer is simple. The search for sense and signification is the quest for the nature of the universe, including our own life. All knowledge we have of the universe has come down to us by the mediation of signs, but the human interpreter of these signs is also a sign, maybe a hypersign, for all of our actions, the signs we convey, and the thoughts we have are signs. “The word or sign which man uses is the man himself. For, as the fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign”, says Peirce.
AQ: There is a saying that expresses roughly the same idea: that since we are part of the universe and we try to know it, the universe tries to know itself. What do you think about this way of connecting biological evolution with cosmic intelligence?
WN: This saying is very Peircean. Peirce provides evidence of its philosophical truth in his theory of “concrete reasonableness”. Reason is neither a product nor a privilege of the human mind. It does not precede the evolution of the universe either. Instead, the laws of reason have grown in parallel with the laws of the physical and biological universe in a process that Peirce has defined as the growth of concrete reasonableness, by which he means the embodiment of reason in the universe in concreto. Since the evolution of the human species is part of the evolution of the universe, reasonableness has evolved in human minds, too, where it took the form of reason. Our mind is endowed with the potential of reasoning since the universe has pursued the principle of reasonableness in the first place. This is not only true of biological evolution but also of the evolution of the laws of physics. “Our minds having been formed under the influence of phenomena governed by the laws of mechanics, certain conceptions entering into those laws become implanted in our minds, so that we readily guess at what the laws are”, wrote Peirce in 1903.
CC: What do you think of the alignment and inspiration many edusemiotic (educational semiotics) authors are making with biosemiotics, and the general significance of a biologically grounded approach to the study of learning, that attempts to transcend nature/culture divides?
WN: The edusemiotic interest in biosemiotics must not be misunderstood as the attempt to introduce biologistic or even sociobiologistic perspectives in pedagogy. To the contrary, what pedagogy can learn from biosemiotics is that learning is an essentially semiotic process, a process of semiosis, as Peirce say it, omnipresent not only in human culture but also in nature, in animals, organisms of any kind, and even in plants. This insight can help to find a way out of the dilemmas of anthropocentrism in education, helping humans find their place in the universe during times of ecological crises.
CC: Where do you see edusemiotics heading in the future?
WN: Edusemiotics owes its name and its scholarly recognition as a new branch of semiotics to Inna Semetsky, who has succeeded in inspiring both semioticians and educators for this new interdisciplinary field of research. She is also the creator of the International Institute for Edusemiotic Studies of which I was named an honoury member in 2015. The future of edusemiotics lies in the perspectives it is able to open. Under the title of Semiotic Theory of Learning: New Perspectives in the Philosophy of Education, Andrew Stables (London), Alin Olteanu (Kaunas), Eetu Pikkarainen (Oulu), Sébastien Pesce (Paris), and I from Sao Paulo have tried to open such perspectives. Others are certain to follow.
CC: What is the importance you see in considering semiotics as the philosophical foundation for educational theory at large, and not just as semiotics applied to education?
WN: Pedagogy can learn much from Peirce’s pragmaticist philosophy with respect to its philosophical foundations. I first became aware of the philosophical relevance of Peircean insights to the study of learning and teaching in 2014, when I wrote about Peirce’s theory of “the growth of signs” and “the life of symbols”. More specifically concerned with pedagogical issues were my papers of the same year in which I reflect on the semiotic implications of learning new words in a contribution for the Journal of Philosophy of Education and on “Signs as educators” for the volume Pedagogy and Edusemiotics by Semetsky and Stables.
AQ: What should we have asked but did not ask?
QN: When I made, with Peirce, the statement that the human being is a sign, I imagined that you would ask the incredulous question: “So you want to tell me that I am speaking with a sign, when it is obvious that I am speaking to a living being of flesh and blood?” In response, I must cite once more Peirce, whom, in 1866, said something that also gives meaning to our conversation today: “Are we really shut up in a box of flesh and blood?” His answer is no, and in his explanation, he tells us why the human mind, embodied in the form of signs, is not shut up in the body that nourishes it. In 1903, Peirce writes, “When I communicate my thoughts and my sentiments to a friend […] so that my feelings pass into him and I am conscious of what he feels, do I not live in his brain as well as in my own – most literally?” As a sign, the human being is able to transcend the boundaries of flesh and blood. As such, human beings have “a meaning subtle as it may be”, even though they “cannot know their own essential significance”.