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Semiotics (also spelled Semeiotics) is the study of signs and sign systems.


Scope and main concepts

General theories of signs are called semiotics.

Semiotics is the investigation of apprehension, prediction and meaning: how it is that we apprehend the world, make predictions, and develop meaning.

Semiosis or semeiosis is the process that forms meaning from our apprehension of the world through signs.

See also communication, syntax, semantics and pragmatics.


John Locke (1632-1704) first coined the term "semeiotike" (from the Greek word σημειον, semeion, meaning "mark" or "sign") in 1690, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding . In Locke's view science can be divided into three disciplines.

  • physics: "The knowledge of things, as they are in their own proper beings, their constitution, properties, and operations ..."
  • practice: "The skill of right applying our own powers and actions ..."
  • semeiotike: "The doctrine of signs; the most usual whereof being words, it is aptly enough termed also Logike, logic: the business whereof is to consider the nature of signs, the mind makes use of for the understanding of things, or conveying its knowledge to others."

Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism and a notable logician, conceived of semiotics as "the doctrine of the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis" where he defines semiosis as "an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant ..." ('Pragmatism', Essential Peirce 2:413, 2:411, 1907).

Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913), the "father" of modern linguistics, invented, at about the same time as Peirce, a subject he called "semiology." Saussure established a dyadic notion of signs relating the signifier to the signified.

Charles W. Morris (19011979) achieved recognition for his Foundations of the Theory of Signs.

Umberto Eco made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics. Eco explicitly acknowledges Peirce's importance. One of his novels, The Name of the Rose—which was eventually made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater—had many significant allusions to semiotics—many of them sadly lost in the film version.

Algirdas Greimas developed a structural version of semiotics named generative semiotics. Greimas tried to shift the focus of discipline from signs to systems of signification. Greimas rooted his theory in Saussure, Louis Hjelmslev , Claude Lévi-Strauss and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Jay Forrester developed formalisms for complex systems that are useful for noting how conflicts in mental models cause problems in group communication. In his paper, "Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems," for example, he explained miscommunication in human groups.

Thomas A. Sebeok was one of the most prolific and wide-ranging of American semioticians. He expanded the purview of semiotics to include non-human signaling and communication systems thus raising some of the issues addressed by philosophy of mind and coining the term zoosemiotics.


Biosemiotics is the study of semiotic processes at all levels of biology.

Computational semiotics attempts to engineer the process of semiosis in a computationally tractable manner. Computational semiotics may be understood as artificial intelligence and knowledge representation examined from a semiotic perspective.

Literary semiotics applies the theory of signs (and also communication and information theory) to the interpretation of literary works. Literary semioticians often have an interest in the attempt to apply the tools and techniques of the hard sciences, such as mathematical formulae and computer analysis of texts, to literary criticism.

Others, like the French critic, Roland Barthes, and many Marxists, employ semiotic techniques as a tool of political and social criticism and satire. Pop culture artifacts have become frequent targets of the semiotic approach. Medical semiotics specifically studies the interpretation of patients' description of their symptoms, and has particular importance for the understanding of how patients describe pain or other symptoms which a physician cannot experience or measure directly.

Music semiology or the semiology of music. "There are strong arguments that music inhabits a semiological realm which, on both ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, has developmental priority over verbal language." (Middleton 1990, p.172) See Nattiez (1976, 1987, 1989), Stefani (1973, 1986), Baroni (1983), and Semiotica (66: 1–3 (1987)).

See also

External links

  • The Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms
  • Arisbe, The Peirce Gateway
  • Celebrity links in Semiotics
  • Semiotics for Beginners
  • What is semiotics? - by Eugene Gorny
  • The Semiotics of the Web
  • Charles W. Morris
  • Semiotics and the English Language Arts

Last updated: 02-05-2005 00:51:55
Last updated: 02-27-2005 04:48:15