A Theory of Semiotics

A Theory of Semiotics

by Umberto Eco

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253202178
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 11/01/1978
Series: Advances in Semiotics Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author


Bologna, Italy

Date of Birth:

January 5, 1932

Date of Death:

February 19, 2016

Place of Birth:

Alessandria, Italy


Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

Read an Excerpt

A Theory of Semiotics

By Umberto Eco

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1976 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01331-6



0.1. Design for a semiotic theory

0.1.1. Aims of the research

The aim of this book is to explore the theoretical possibility and the social function of a unified approach to every phenomenon of signification and/or communication. Such an approach should take the form of a general semiotic theory, able to explain every case of sign-function in terms of underlying systems of elements mutually correlated by one or more codes.

A design for a general semiotics should consider: (a) a theory of codes and (b) a theory of sign production – the latter taking into account a large range of phenomena such as the common use of languages, the evolution of codes, aesthetic communication, different types of interactional communicative behavior, the use of signs in order to mention things or states of the world and so on.

Since this book represents only a preliminary exploration of such a theoretical possibility, its first chapters are necessarily conditioned by the present state of the art, and cannot evade some questions that – in a further perspective – will definitely be left aside. In particular one must first take into account the all-purpose notion of 'sign' and the problem of a typology of signs (along with the apparently irreducible forms of semiotic enquiry they presuppose) in order to arrive at a more rigorous definition of sign-function and at a typology of modes of sign-production.

Therefore a first chapter will be devoted to the analysis of the notion of 'sign' in order to distinguish signs from non-signs and to translate the notion of 'sign' into the more flexible one of sign-function (which can be explained within the framework of a theory of codes). This discussion will allow me to posit a distinction between 'signification' and 'communication': in principle, a semiotics of signification entails a theory of codes, while a semiotics of communication entails a theory of sign production.

The distinction between a theory of codes and a theory of sign-production does not correspond to the ones between 'langue' and 'parole', competence and performance, syntactics (and semantics) and pragmatics. One of the claims of the present book is to overcome these distinctions and to outline a theory of codes which takes into account even rules of discoursive competence, text formation, contextual and circumstantial (or situational) disambiguation, therefore proposing a semantics which solves within its own framework many problems of the so-called pragmatics.

It is not by chance that the discriminating categories are the ones of signification and communication. As will be seen in chapters 1 and 2, there is a signification system (and therefore a code) when there is the socially conventionalized possibility of generating sign-functions, whether the functives of such functions are discrete units called signs or vast portions of discourse, provided that the correlation has been previously posited by a social convention. There is on the contrary a communication process when the possibilities provided by a signification system are exploited in order to physically produce expressions for many practical purposes. Thus the difference between the two theoretical approaches outlined in chapters 2 and 3 concerns the difference between rules and processes (or, in Aristotelian terms, metaphorically used, power and act). But when the requirements for performing a process are socially recognized and precede the process itself, then these requirements are to be listed among the rules (they become rules of discoursive competence, or rules of 'parole' foreseen by the 'langue') and can be taken into account by a theory of physical production of signs only insofar as they have been already coded. Even if the theory of codes and the theory of sign production succeed in eliminating the naive and non-relational notion of 'sign', this notion appears to be so suitable in ordinary language and in colloquial semiotic discussions that it should not be completely abandoned. It would be uselessly oversophisticated to get rid of it. An atomic scientist knows very well that so-called 'things' are the results of a complex interplay of microphysical correlations, and nevertheless he can quite happily continue to speak about 'things' when it is convenient to do so. In the same way I shall continue to use the word /sign/ every time the correlational nature of the sign-function may be presupposed. Nevertheless the fourth chapter of the book will be devoted to a discussion of the very notion of the 'typology of signs': starting from Peirce's trichotomy (symbols, indices and icons), I shall show to what degree these categories cover both a more segmentable field of sign-functions and an articulated range of 'sign producing' operations, giving rise to a more comprehensive n-chotomy of various modes of sign production.

A general semiotic theory will be considered powerful according to its capacity for offering an appropriate formal definition for every sort of sign-function, whether it has already been described and coded or not. So the typology of modes of sign-production aims at proposing categories able to describe even those as yet uncoded sign-functions conventionally posited in the very moment in which they appear for the first time.

0.1.2. Boundaries of the research

Dealing as it does with all these subjects, a project for a general semiotics will encounter some boundaries or thresholds. Some of these must be posited by a purely transitory agreement, others are determined by the very object of the discipline. The former will be called 'political boundaries', the latter 'natural boundaries'; (it will be shown in 0.9 that there also exists a third form of threshold, of an epistemological nature).

A general introduction to semiotics has either to recognize or to posit, to respect or to trespass on all these thresholds. The political boundaries are of three types:

(i) There are 'academic' limits in the sense that many disciplines other than semiotics have already undertaken or are at present undertaking research on subjects that a semiotician cannot but recognize as his own concern; for instance formal logic, philosophical semantics and the logic of natural languages deal with the problem of the truth value of a sentence and with the various sorts of so-called 'speech acts', while many currents in cultural anthropology (for instance 'ethnomethodology') are concerned with the same problems seen from a different angle; the semiotician may express the wish that one of these days there will be a general semiotic discipline of which all these researches and sciences can be recognized as particular branches; in the meantime a tentative semiotic approach may try to incorporate the results of these disciplines and to redefine them within its own theoretical framework.

(ii) There are 'co-operative' limits in the sense that various disciplines have elaborated theories or descriptions that everybody recognizes as having semiotic relevance (for instance both linguistics and information theory have done important work on the notion of code; kinesics and proxemics are richly exploring non-verbal modes of communication, and so on): in this case a general semiotic approach should only propose a unified set of categories in order to make this collaboration more and more fruitful; at the same time it can eliminate the naive habit of translating (by dangerous metaphorical substitutions) the categories of linguistics into different frameworks.

(iii) There are 'empirical' limits beyond which stand a whole group of phenomena which unquestionably have a semiotic relevance even though the various semiotic approaches have not yet completely succeeded in giving them a satisfactory theoretical definition: such as paintings and many types of complex architectural and urban objects; these empirical boundaries are rather imprecise and are shifting step by step as new researches come into being (for instance the problem of a semiotics of architecture from 1964 to 1974, see Eco 1973 e).

By natural boundaries I mean principally those beyond which a semiotic approach cannot go; for there is non-semiotic territory since there are phenomena that cannot be taken as sign-functions. But by the same term I also mean a vast range of phenomena prematurely assumed not to have a semiotic relevance. These are the cultural territories in which people do not recognize the underlying existence of codes or, if they do, do not recognize the semiotic nature of those codes, i.e., their ability to generate a continuous production of signs. Since I shall be proposing a very broad and comprehensive definition of sign-function – therefore challenging the above refusals – this book is also concerned with such phenomena. These will be directly dealt with in this Introduction: they happen to be co-extensive with the whole range of cultural phenomena, however pretentious that approach may at first seem.

0.1.3. A theory of the lie

This project for semiotics, to study the whole of culture, and thus to view an immense range of objects and events as signs, may give the impression of an arrogant 'imperialism' on the part of semioticians. When a discipline defines 'everything' as its proper object, and therefore declares itself as concerned with the entire universe (and nothing else) it's playing a risky game. The common objection to the 'imperialist' semiotician is: well, if you define a peanut as a sign, obviously semiotics is then concerned with peanut butter as well – but isn't this procedure a little unfair? What I shall try to demonstrate in this book, basing myself on a highly reliable philosophical and semiotical tradition, is that – semiotically speaking –. there is not a substantial difference between peanuts and peanut butter, on the one hand, and the words /peanuts/ and /peanut butter/ on the other. Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands in for it. Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used 'to tell' at all. I think that the definition of a 'theory of the lie' should be taken as a pretty comprehensive program for a general semiotics.

0.2. 'Semiotics': field or discipline?

Any study of the limits and laws of semiotics must begin by determining whether (a) one means by the term 'semiotics' a specific discipline with its own method and a precise object; or whether (b) semiotics is a field of studies and thus a repertoire of interests that is not as yet completely unified. If semiotics is a field then the various semiotic studies would be justified by their very existence: it should be possible to define semiotics inductively by extrapolating from the field of studies a series of constant tendencies and therefore a unified model. If semiotics is a discipline, then the researcher ought to propose a semiotic model deductively which would serve as a parameter on which to base the inclusion or exclusion of the various studies from the field of semiotics.

One cannot do theoretical research without having the courage to put forward a theory, and, therefore, an elementary model as a guide for subsequent discourse; all theoretical research must however have the courage to specify its own contradictions, and should make them obvious where they are not apparent.

As a result, we must, above all, keep in mind the semiotic field as it appears today, in all its many and varied forms and in all its disorder. We must then propose an apparently simplified research model. Finally we must constantly contradict this model, isolating all the phenomena which do not fit in with it and which force it to restructure itself and to broaden its range. In this way we shall perhaps succeed in tracing (however provisionally) the limits of future semiotic research and of suggesting a unified method of approach to phenomena which apparently are very different from each other, and as yet irreducible.

0.3. Communication and/or signification

At first glance this survey will appear as a list of communicative behaviors, thus suggesting one of the hypotheses governing my research: semiotics studies all cultural processes as processes of communication. Therefore each of these processes would seem to be permitted by an underlying system of significations. It is very important to make this distinction clear in order to avoid either dangerous misunderstandings or a sort of compulsory choice imposed by some contemporary semioticians: it is absolutely true that there are some important differences between a semiotics of communication and a semiotics of signification; this distinction does not, however, set two mutually exclusive approaches in opposition.

So let us define a communicative process as the passage of a signal (not necessarily a sign) from a source (through a transmitter, along a channel) to a destination. In a machine-to-machine process the signal has no power to signify in so far as it may determine the destination sub specie stimuli. In this case we have no signification, but we do have the passage of some information.

When the destination is a human being, or 'addressee' (it is not necessary that the source or the transmitter be human, provided that they emit the signal following a system of rules known by the human addressee), we are on the contrary witnessing a process of signification – provided that the signal is not merely a stimulus but arouses an interpretive response in the addressee. This process is made possible by the existence of a code.

A code is a system of signification, insofar as it couples present entities with absent units. When – on the basis of an underlying rule – something actually presented to the perception of the addressee stands for something else, there is signification. In this sense the addressee's actual perception and interpretive behavior are not necessary for the definition of a significant relationship as such: it is enough that the code should foresee an established correspondence between that which 'stands for' and its correlate, valid for every possible addressee even if no addressee exists or ever will exist.

A signification system is an autonomous semiotic construct that has an abstract mode of existence independent of any possible communicative act it makes possible. On the contrary (except for stimulation processes) every act of communication to or between human beings – or any other intelligent biological or mechanical apparatus – presupposes a signification system as its necessary condition.

It is possible, if not perhaps particularly desirable, to establish a semiotics of signification independently of a semiotics of communication: but it is impossible to establish a semiotics of communication without a semiotics of signification.

Once we admit that the two approaches must follow different methodological paths and require different sets of categories, it is methodologically necessary to recognize that, in cultural processes, they are strictly intertwined. This is the reason why the following directory of problems and research techniques mixes together both aspects of the semiotic phenomenon.

0.4. Political boundaries: the field

Granted this much, the following areas of contemporary research – starting from the apparently more 'natural' and 'spontaneous' communicative processes and going on to more complex 'cultural' systems – may be considered to belong to the semiotic field.

Zoosemiotics: it represents the lower limit of semiotics because it concerns itself with the communicative behavior of non-human (and therefore non-cultural) communities. But through the study of animal communication we can achieve a definition of what the biological components of human communication are: or else a recognition that even on the animal level there exist patterns of signification which can, to a certain degree, be defined as cultural and social. Therefore the semantic area of these terms is broadened and, consequently, also our notion of culture and society (Sebeok, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1973).

Olfactory signs: Romantic poetry (Baudelaire) has already singled out the existence of a 'code of scents'. If there are scents with a connotative value in an emotive sense, then there are also odors with precise referential values. These can be studied as indices (Peirce, 1931) as proxemic indicators (Hall, 1966) as chemical qualifiers, etc.

Tactile communication: studied by psychology, present and recognized in communication among the blind and in proxemic behavior (Hall, 1966), it is amplified to include clearly codified social behavior such as the kiss, the embrace, the smack, the slap on the shoulder, etc. (Frank, 1957; Efron, 1941).


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Table of Contents


Note on graphic conventions

0. Introduction—Toward a Logic of Culture

0.1. Design for a semiotic theory
0.2. ‘Semiotics’: field or discipline?
0.3. Communication and/or signification
0.4. Political boundaries: the field
0.5. Natural boundaries: two definitions of semiotics
0.6. Natural boundaries: inference and signification
0.7. Natural boundaries; the lower threshold
0.8. Natural boundaries: the upper threshold
0.9. Epistemological boundaries

1. Signification and Communication

1.1. An elementary communicational model
1.2. Systems and codes
1.3. The s-code as structure
1.4. Information, communication, signification

2. Theory of Codes

2.1. The sign-function
2.2. Expression and content
2.3. Denotation and connotation
2.4. Message and text
2.5 Content and referent
2.6. Meaning as cultural unit
2.7. The interpretant
2.8. The semantic system
2.9. The semantic markers and the sememe
2.10. The KF model
2.11. A revised semantic model
2.12. The model "Q"
2.13. The format of the semantic space
2.14. Overcoding and undercoding
2.15. The interplay of codes and the message as an open form

3. Theory of Sign Production

3.1. A general survey
3.2. Semiotic and factual statements
3.3. Mentioning
3.4 The prolem of a typology of signs
3.5. Critique of iconism
3.6. A typology of modes of production
3.7. The aesthetic text as invention
3.8. The rhetorical labor
3.9. Ideological code switching

4. The Subject of Semiotics


Index of authors

Index of subjects

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