Editorial: A Sleeping Beauty

Paul Bouissac

It is useful to be reminded from time to time that dogmas are the opium of intelligence. They literally stop the inquiry and put the critical mind to sleep or lead it to wander into wishful landscapes. It seems that semiotics has entered an epistemological coma. The whole discourse that is marketed under this name floats on a few unquestioned assertions that were inherited from a long-dead past, a time when human knowledge was greatly restricted both by the lack of investigative tools and by the power of metaphysical models. Much has changed over the last century and various efforts deployed for casting the new scientific knowledge in the old moulds of Scholastic concepts have consistently failed to impress those who toil on the frontlines of contemporary research.

Take the notion of “sign” for instance and its standard definitions in the semiotic heritage. It is a notion by default: in the absence of obvious explanations for some changes in the behaviour of organisms, subtle agents of transformation had to be assumed to be responsible for such changes which could not be intuitively assigned to obvious material causes. Hence the signs and their vicarious functions permeating the universe like shadows or fragments of the things themselves which cannot fly. Hence the signs as currency of the mind, pure values that fluctuate in the invisible stock exchange that rules over human fanciful fictions. Ultimately, there is little difference indeed between semiotics as it is practiced now and magic. It has no true predictive power but it is always possible to find examples of its efficacy ex post facto.

Upon reflection the standing-for mantra does not make sense except in the very restricted conditions of the creation of an encryption code. However, by an epistemological sleight of hand, it is the whole gamut of interactions and transformations among organisms which has been reduced to this model in the utopian universe of current semiotic discourse. The dogmatic definition of the cornerstone of semiotics is so general and unsubstantiated that there is no limit to what it may apply. If, as many have claimed, everything is a sign, then nothing is a sign. We have to get back to square one if we refuse to abide by this dogma. The wilful ignorance of what actually happens where it can only happen – that is, in the brain – is covered by a fancy word, semiosis, which puzzles those who are engaged in the painful task of disentangling the paths of information through a chaotically evolved neural jungle variously soaked with chemical neuro-transmitters.  How it works – or does not work as is often the case – is the real question which semioticians should address rather than singing their mantras that purport to explain everything but does not control anything.

But the great inquisitors of semiotics will thunder: “This is an abominable sin called reductionism”. What do they mean by this? Do they claim that it consists of explaining the complex by the simple? If so, it can be retorted that neuronal processes are far more complex than their dozen or so fuzzy and all-purpose philosophical notions. Do they mean that it reduces the spiritual to the physiological? Well, paying the slightest attention to this argument first requires that one accepts metaphysical dualism. Nobody should feel compelled to jump into this trap.  But if reductionism is understood as the heuristic necessity for scientific inquiry to downsize the big questions to chunks of well-defined manageable problems, then by all mean strategic reductionism is the most reasonable path to understanding the way in which organisms, humans in particular, make sense of their natural and social environments, and how they evolved the capacity to share (or hide) and preserve relevant information.

But no semiotic dogma is more conducive to epistemological somnolence than the coarse categorization of signs as index, icon, and symbol. These abstract notions have prompted centuries, if not millennia of controversies. This Hellenistic and Scholastic debate has not died out yet probably because of the force of inertia of the institutionalized discourse that carries in various Indo-European languages this mixture of Hellenic and Latin philosophical terms. After “the sign which stands for something else”, this is what students of semiotics are taught to believe. Of course, there are endless discussions about the fact that you cannot find pure cases of any of these categories in real life. But ad hoc examples and thought experiments drown the critical mind in a sea of metaphors.

As long as human curiosity was limited to the data provided by natural phenomenology, there was no choice but to follow the lead of macro-categories. Historical semiotics was a bold effort toward the abstract understanding of thought and communication. The nano-scale of molecular and atomic interactions is still out of reach for investigating meaning-making and symbolic interacting. But the meso-scale can now be explored on both the conceptual and empirical levels. Semiotics is waiting for a new generation of researchers who will awaken this beautiful science-to-be from the deep sleep of its dogmatic night.


  1. I believe in positive people.
    So – what would be the best definition of sign, according to the contemporary understanding?

    With good wishes, from Tartu

  2. Well said. A little while ago I attended a talk about semiotics and the ecology of honeybees. When I mildly inquired about the relation of the speaker’s thinking to biologically oriented theories of animal communication, the speaker ejaculated darkly: “Reductivism!” I could get nothing more out of him. It was dispiriting.

  3. “So – what would be the best definition of sign, according to the contemporary understanding?”

    Let’s start with:
    Sign is the minimal bit of apperceived information able to trigger or direct conscious or unconscious action.

    Your turn

  4. With a long-standing interest in semiotics, particularly in the sense of the pre-Historical development of the conditions the discipline seeks to explore, I can say that this is the most impressive text by a semiotician I have ever read. Bouissac has hit the nail right on the head. All humanities are ripe for scientific takeover, as these disciplines try to maintain their traditional mantras even though they have already lost their war against the sciences. They simply don’t want to know that. If they would bother to look over the walls they have erected around their world, they would be amazed where other disciplines are right now, disciplines such as neurosciences or cognitive sciences. They are lightyears ahead.

    Signs are exograms: symbolic information stored outside the brain.

    I don’t believe in “positive people”; I believe in the testability of propositions, and I like to see them tested. Bouissac’s proposition stands up extremely well.

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