Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Placing Semiotics Within the Academy

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_24



Today’s academy culminates in universities, the central institution of education feeding the intellectual culture of humankind. In historical context, philosophy (science in the “cenoscopic” sense of critical control of objectivity unaided by instruments), along with literature, preceded university life but came to form an integral part of university curriculum. But modern science (in the “ideoscopic” sense, knowledge that could never be attained without instruments) began its distinctive development in the dawning years of the seventeenth century, and its acceptance within the university was anything but smooth. Intellectual advance depends on logic, but old habits have to be overcome, and such displacement is seldom easy within culture. It took more than two centuries for modern science to gain its standing – a standing so firm that students now think of the university in terms of science above all, as evidenced in the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) for early twenty-first-century attempts at a “core curriculum”. Where is semiotics in such a scheme?

Demise of “Common Sense” as an Unresolved Problem

In the context of intellectual culture, no revolution had greater importance than the one that took place in the early seventeenth century, dramatically marked by the 1633 trial and condemnation of Galileo for teaching the twin heresies that the Earth is not the universe’s center and that the sun does not revolve around the Earth. It was a bad day – but not only for religious authorities, students of scripture, and theologians. Among the hardest hit victims of this fiasco was “common sense”, which still has not managed to regain a serious semblance of credibility in learned circles. The eighteenth-century attempt by Thomas Reid to identify common sense as the test of the truth of knowledge and the morality of actions fell by the wayside, and the Enlightenment view that scientific knowledge based on systematic observation, experiment, and mathematization could ultimately replace all of prescientific opinions, became the accepted view.

Yet, there remains at the heart of human knowledge an unresolved problem that the rise of modern science serves to underscore rather than resolve: the inescapable conundrum that unless human awareness as preceding all scientific training and refinement has some validity in its own right, then nothing even of science can truly be knowledge. For to begin study of science presupposes the common awareness of human animals out of which the development even of modern science as species-specifically human becomes possible in the first place. Stjernfelt (2007) puts the matter in semiotic terms: in order for it to be true that the Way of Signs leads everywhere in nature, it must also be true that “science is continuous with everyday knowledge which is, in turn, continuous with animal cognition and so on indefinitely down the scale of evolution” (p. 8).

Among the early modern philosophers, notably Berkeley and Hume, this problem never came to be recognized as such. Instead, they assumed that mental representation was the beginning of all awareness, an assumption that led to the famous “problem of the external world”; for even though empiricists followed by preference Locke rather than Descartes, they failed to observe or comment upon the fatal assumption (that Locke shared with Descartes) that the direct objects of our apprehension are mental representations formed by our own minds. The “problem of the external world” arose in modernity from just this assumption: that the mind itself makes whatever is a direct and immediate object of awareness. Locke and Descartes identified this immediate object with ideas. Kant rejected this as too subjective, as “subjectivism”; and in proposing his alternate solution of the senses as giving rise to phenomena distinct from the things provoking sensation, he thought to preserve the universality of scientific knowledge: it is to the phenomena that reason then by its a-priori forms contributes objective necessary structure. Yet Kantian “objectivism” proved no less idealistic than the criticized subjectivism of Descartes and Locke, inasmuch as Kant’s own view was no less divorced from an awareness “scientific” in the sense of giving us an actual knowledge of the “way things are” in their subjective constitution and intersubjective relations obtaining independently of whether we are aware of them or not (Deely 2001).

By way of epistemological warning of “roadblock ahead”, it followed that ontology and epistemology in modern parlance mean, in fact, the unknowable because unattainable (what was termed in Latin times ens reale) versus the knowable (termed in Latin times ens rationis). On this point, between Descartes and Kant there is only this difference: for Descartes ens rationis was conceived subjectively, whereas for Kant it was definitively objective, yet wholly determined in its knowability by human subjectivity.

Cryptosemiotics, an Historical Interlude

Semiotics was forced underground in the modern interval, called after Sebeok (1976, 1979) the “cryptosemiotic interlude”, for the very “epistemology” upon which the leading modern philosophers all agreed as the starting point of human knowledge already presupposed that the Way of Signs did not exist in its own right. The Way of Signs is a path that categorically rejects the view that only mental representations of whatever sort are the immediate final terminus of knowledge. It is a path that “leads everywhere in nature, including those domains where humans have never set foot” (Emmeche 1994, p. 126). That idea proves incompossible within modern theories of knowledge united in the common assumption that subjective representation is somehow the heart and essence of human knowing.

The problem with epistemology is not the existence of things in themselves. The problem rather is the theory which makes things “unknowable”. That is a thesis the science of modernity never fully bought into, unlike the philosophers. The doctors studying cancer want to know precisely what this deformation of cells is as it occurs, whether we understand it or not, precisely because only by our coming to know that can we then come to do something about it, namely, cure the cancer.

Semiotic Consciousness, Its Nature and Levels of Development

Semiotics began with the general proposal by Augustine that the difference between nature and culture is irrelevant to the action of signs, for whenever one thing comes to make something other than itself present in our awareness, signs are at work. Whether the one thing or the other has its origin inside or outside of our minds and bodies, from nature or from culture, is irrelevant to the action of signs. Material objects which are also themselves signs existing outside of us presuppose cognitive qualities inside of us which are themselves already signs as manifesting something other than themselves, something they themselves are not. The wife is not the idea of wife; yet when the idea of wife fails, the woman sensed cannot be recognized as wife. So there are objects external to our bodies which can be signs only when perceived in conjunction with concepts internal to us and which relate us to those very material objects recognized as this or that – wife, mother, lover, or whatever.

But still we are not at the heart of the matter, given that sensation is a vehicle of semiosis prior to concept formation. For human beings are animals, and all animal awareness begins with sensations, not with ideas of sensations, à la Locke, but with sensations as that incipient experience of objectivity brought about by the action of some sensible thing upon an animal’s organs of sense. Light reflects off different bodies differently, and when this differently reflected light strikes some animal’s organ of sight, what the animal will “see” depends not only upon the surface reflecting light but also upon the constitution of the animal’s eye. The result will be some color. How does this color exist? Neither “in the thing stimulating” as some medievals thought, nor “in the eye of the beholder”, as the early moderns postulated. It exists precisely between the two as a relation connecting one to the other, arising from the action of stimulation here and now.

There is another angle, especially decisive from the semiotic point of view. The animal sensing color simultaneously senses a shape and a position or movement: shape is not color, but is revealed dependently upon color; so the relation of color to shape and position or movement, etc. is already a sign-relation – color is the vehicle on the basis of which shape and position are revealed in sensation. There is no moment of awareness in which this action of signs is not at work, for all objects are significates, and all concepts are vehicles supporting interpretive sign-relations: from the very beginning of sensation, prescissively (analytically and not experimentally) distinguished from perceptions and intellections, our awareness depends also upon signs that precede concept formation. This action of signs within sensation is different from the perception of a woman as wife. Whereas perception of material objects requires and presupposes concepts formed within the perceiver, sensation of basic qualities logically precedes formation of concepts and provides the very material which concepts are formed to interpret.

All animals interpret what is sensed according to a certain status: something to be sought, something to be shunned, or something safe to ignore. The human animal further creates concepts that make it possible to discover what these objects of perception are (correctly or incorrectly interpreted by the animal, as the case may be), whether awareness dependent or awareness independent, apart from their specific status in relation to the animal. So, intellectual concepts can make objects knowable according to what they are in themselves. But the signs of sensation, considered as prior to objects perceived and/or objects understood, objectify something of the animal’s surroundings wholly and solely on the basis of the interaction of the animal’s body with the surrounding bodies of the immediate physical environment. Accordingly, even though we do not experience sensations wholly separated from our perceptions, sense experience, analytically considered, differs both from sense perception and from understanding, in that the latter two require and presuppose those psychological qualities or states that we call concepts or ideas, while sensations are prior to concept formations and presuppose only the action of the physical surroundings upon the external sense organs of the animal body.

There are, as Poinsot showed (1632: Bk. 1, ques. 6), no grounds for holding that external sense, prescissively distinguished as such within perception and understanding, attains directly as its proper object only an image produced by the mind itself. The semiosis of sensations gives rise to an awareness (as a nascent objectivity), which simply cannot be classified as epistemological or ontological in any modern sense, because the relations upon which objectification depends at this level are prior to any such differentiation. Thus, semiotics takes us to the very heart of the problem of knowledge, namely, how it is that signs are able to lead us everywhere in nature.

Facing the Problem of Specialization vis-à-vis the Modern Fragmentation of University Culture

Within the universities, in the seventeenth century when science in the modern sense began to take hold, specialization presented itself as a sine qua non, as a necessity for scientific advance in this modern or ideoscopic sense dependent upon the instrumental extensions of the environmental awareness as species specific to human animals (contrasting with the exclusively cenoscopic medieval science). As specializations required for scientific advance in knowledge took hold, general opinions of previous philosophy fragmented. By the late nineteenth century, diversity of specializations threatened the very notion of any unity of knowledge, and the teachers and administrators within universities began to cast about for some ways of gaining an overview, some ways of restoring, or at least minimally preserving the intellectual development of humankind as a common heritage in which each of us shares and has a stake. The two main avenues of attempt were an introduction of so-called interdisciplinary courses, as well as programs of study based on reading “great books”. Both approaches had their merits and limited success, but neither cut to the heart of the matter.

The Ad Hoc or Improvisational Character of Interdisciplinary Teaching

Interdisciplinary programs are designed to put together two or more specialists in the same classroom, offering students the dialectic of professors making sense first to one another and then, hopefully, also to the students from within specialized perspectives, while also accommodating themselves to the other perspective of specialization represented by their colleague(s) in the given classroom. Thus, twentieth-century interdisciplinary programs proved invariably to be personality-dependent, gerrymandered affairs, more or less valuable depending upon the talents of the professors involved, but “interdisciplinary” in no more than a de facto fashion rather than intrinsically interdisciplinary.

A Recrudescence of Scholasticism: The “Great Books” Approach

The “great books” approach fared no better as learning was determined as based on opinions of “authorities”, back to the tradition of the Latin scholastic universities, even if a plurality of sources was replacing the centrality of Aristotle. Since the “great books”, which have shaped the modern world within which the university today exists, come from a variety of specialists, from Chaucer and Shakespeare among the humanists to Newton and Einstein among the scientists, a great-book-based education indeed broadened students’ minds and opened them to an understanding apparently beyond specialization. Yet, this approach in the end tended to feed into the split between what C. P. Snow characterized as the two cultures: sciences on one side, rooted in specializations aimed to interpret the book of nature, and humanities on the other side, rooted in broad reading interpreting the books written by men. Again “interdisciplinarity” was achieved more de facto than de jure. Neither the interdisciplinary nor the “great books” approach achieved in principle a unification of the two cultures.

Enter Semiotics

This point of impasse is the entry point for the doctrine of signs, the “one undivided science” which, as Peirce points out (1908: CP 8.342; c.1897: CP 2.227), does “not depend upon new special observations”, yet directly addresses that upon which all special observations and common observations alike depend, namely, the action of signs, semiosis. STEM education – education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – contrasts with liberal arts education as yet a further extension of C. P. Snow’s two cultures. But an individual, student or faculty, who comes to understand the standpoint and perspective that semiotics engenders transcends precisely this division.

At Indiana University, when Thomas A. Sebeok became Director of the Research Center for Language Studies in the early 1970s, among his first official actions was to change the name to the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies, and everyone expected him to launch an MA and PhD program in semiotics. He did not. Instead, he introduced what he called a “Certificate in Semiotics”, which students could acquire only after, or in conjunction with, graduate study in an established discipline, be it linguistics, anthropology, biology, English, physics, sociology, or whatever. His argument was that semiotics is not so much a discipline in its own right as it is a field including all the disciplines, inasmuch as “all thought is in signs”. As a consequence, Sebeok considered that semiotics as an area of study within the academy ought not to be treated as one more specialization but rather needs to be seen as that which makes specialization in the first place possible, because it establishes the experiential ground from which (first in sensation and then also in conception) the whole of human knowledge springs! Thus, someone on their way to mastering a given subject matter – physics, chemistry, literature, and sociology – would discover on turning to semiotics that their chosen specialization already depends upon (albeit is not reducible to) the action of signs as revealing and distinguishing the very subject matter which is the object studied by the specialization.

Hence, students of semiotics are made to realize that in seeing signs at work within a given academic discipline, they are seeing something that is true of all specialized disciplines, because true of the whole of human knowledge, namely, that underlying all else in awareness and in the background always is the action of signs, thanks to which it becomes possible to know objects in the first place, let alone differences between objects which define different disciplines as fragmented areas of specialization.


Semiotics is postmodern in a double sense. It shows the way beyond the epistemology of modern philosophy and, at the same time, enables us to see the unity of human understanding beneath and within development of specializations essential to the establishment of modern science. It “investigates what all the other disciplines seem to take for granted” (Taylor 2008, p. 6). Semiotics, as knowledge that results from thematic study of sign action, is not only interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary (cf. Nicolescu 2002) but also predisciplinary in providing that common ground of animal awareness out of which humans as semiotic animals come to realize within the biosphere a unique ethical responsibility that includes education in semiotics.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Saint Vincent College and SeminaryLatrobeUSA