The World of Meaning

Umberto Eco’s Philosophical Semiotics

Umberto Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984) serves as a provisional end point for our inquiry into Ferdinand de Saussure’s legacy, an inquiry that is necessarily without end. Indeed, Eco’s study is an ideal dialogue partner for such a paradoxical task—he eschews dogmatically clinging to the prescriptions of Saussure (and Hjelmslev, for that matter), and in fact, cannot even be included in the Saussurean school. He brings to the discipline as a whole a uniquely philosophical mind, and a depth and breadth of reading, within and without the field of semiotics, that is often lacking in his peers and predecessors. Eco accepts nothing as given and, through far reaching historical inquiries and incisive interreadings of diverse thinkers, responds to the “problem of signification” (as it was put by Greimas in Structural Semantics) with profound clarity and vision. He lets the thought of semioticians and phenomenological hermeneuts and pragmatists and logical positivists and information theorists interact with each other, drawing conclusions that help us get beyond certain blockages in the Saussurean paradigm that would otherwise be difficult to surpass. Specifically, it is through his conceptions of world and encyclopedia that Eco allows us to forge the link between Saussurean semiology and Heideggerian hermeneutics, so elucidating the existential foundations of signification and its concrete practice in everyday experience.

In the Introduction to Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Eco establishes an identity between the “sign” and “semiosis” (signification): “the sign is the origin of the semiosic processes,” and the “semiosic process of interpretation is present at the very core of the concept of sign” (1). This he will demonstrate through a continued discussion of “Peircian abduction,” the “inferential processes ... [that] stand at the basis of every semiotic phenomenon” (8). To make clear the import of this concept, however, he must first delve into the concept of the sign, reckoning with the multiplicity of uses to which it has been put throughout history. Eco’s aim is to disperse this mass of philosophical detritus, so exposing the role of abduction in the union of signs and semiosis.

To begin, Eco cites three important definitions of the sign: 1) Peirce: “a sign is ‘something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity,’” 2) Saussure: “a twofold entity (signifier and signified),” and 3) Hjelmslev: “a mutual correlation between two functives (expression-plane and content-plane)” (14). He then briefly discusses the variety of uses made of the sign by “[e]veryday language”: a “manifest indication from which inferences can be made about something latent” (implication), a “gesture produced ... in order to transmit one’s representation or inner state to another being” (equivalence), a “one-to-one correspondence[] between expression and content” (icon), a “visual procedure reproducing concrete objects” (diagram), a “stylized form” presenting “a content ‘other’ for which the represented object stands” (symbol), and an expression that “stands where a certain operation is to be addressed” (instruction) (15-17). He concludes that “[t]oo many things are signs, and too different from each other” (18). The point that must be isolated from this “turmoil of homonymies” is that, with the sign, a “standing for” occurs, and that, though the “manner of standing for may vary,” the fact of its occurrence is ubiquitous to the “mechanism” in question (18, 19). In inverse terms, the sign is precisely that which “does not stand for itself” (20). It is thus this standing for which will preoccupy Eco.

The “sign-function” as standing for “exists by a dialectic of presence and absence, as a mutual exchange between two heterogeneities” (23). It is for this reason that Saussure argued that the “elements of the signifier are set into a system of oppositions in which ... there are only differences” (23). The “nature of the sign” is, then, “to be found in the ‘wound’ or ‘opening’” that these differences effect (23). And yet, as Eco lucidly remarks, though “it may be fascinating to see every oppositional structure as based on a constitutive difference which dissolves the different terms,” it is necessary, “in order to conceptualize an oppositional system where something is perceived as absent, [that] something else must be postulated as present, at least potentially. The presence of one element is necessary for the absence of the other” (23). A system of pure differences is, for Eco, untenable as a system of meaning, and yet, a dissolution of signs into “figurae” (linguistic substances), as in Hjelmslev, will not arrive at meaning either (20). The Lacanian idea of the “semiotic chain” as “‘chain of signifiers’” in which “every signifier can only be translated into another signifier” and “only by this process of interpretation can one grasp the ‘corresponding signified’” is, in Eco’s reading, a “misunderstanding, a wordplay” (24). He argues that “[o]nly by substituting ‘signified’ every time ‘signifier’ appears does the discourse of these theoreticians become comprehensible” (24). What would be better, perhaps, is Greimas’s substitution of “signification” for “signified,” signification being the “effect[] of meaning” brought about by a signifier, which is itself that which “make[s] possible the appearance of signification at the level of perception” (Greimas 8). Rather than accept Saussure’s assertion that the sign is a psychological entity, and so fall into the trap of postulating an independent “‘psychic substance’” (5) (and by extension, a psychic world) that must, in some way, correspond to real substance (and the real world), an understanding of the signified as signification (or semiosis, in Eco’s terms), would allow for a reunification of signifier and signified, world and mind, in perception. Thus, the sign takes on the role of a “complex cognitive process,” the vehicle of our understanding existence in the world (Eco 9).

What is therefore necessary is to set aside the notion of the sign “based on the categories of ‘similitude’ or ‘identity,’” represented by the “equivalence model: pq” (26). Eco replaces the equivalence model with another definition of the sign, given by Peirce: “‘A sign is something by knowing which we know something more’” (26). The sign is not a correspondence, a resemblance, or an identity; the sign is “an instruction for interpretation, a mechanism which starts from an initial stimulus and leads to all its illative [inferential] consequences” (26). Versus the equivalence model, this inferential model can be represented as pq.

To arrive at the inferential model of the sign, Eco surveys the “Western philosophical tradition,” moving from Parmenides and Hippocrates to Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics to Augustine, and finally to Peirce, whose studies demonstrate the fact that perception “is always interrogative and conditional and is invariably based (even if we do not realize it) on a bet” (26, 35). For Peirce, and for Eco, “perception is always presumptive evidence, a source of potential semiosis” (35). It is not a matter of correspondence between a storehouse of mental images linked with things, arbitrarily represented by sounds or symbols. Instead, the sign is an “inferential mechanism,” a “scientifically unified object” possessed of a “single formal structure” (35, 36, 38). As opposed to deduction and induction, the formal structure, here, is the structure of abduction, which he defines as the “tentative and hazardous tracing of a system of signification rules which will allow the sign to acquire its meaning” (40). It is an inferential process of “interpretation,” “at work at every level of semiosis” (43).

The final movement Eco makes in his elaboration of the sign is to do away with the Hjelmslevian dogma of “two separate continua, one for the expression and one for the content” (44). The expression and content are of the same “matter,” the same “continuum about which and through which signs speak,” a continuum which “is always the same” (44). There is no separate psychic substance; the mind is of the same matter, the same continuum, as the world. “To interpret a sign,” therefore, “means to define the portion of the continuum which serves as its vehicle in its relationship with the other portions of the continuum derived from its global segmentation by the content” (44). It is not a matter of ‘surfaces’ and ‘depths,’ sounds and ideas, but of inferences, relationships. Thus, the “matter segmented in order to express something expresses other segmentations of that matter”; it is the sign-function, the process of semiosis, which instantiates the relation of inference between these segments of matter and allows for the interpretation of these relations through its continued operation (45). In this formulation, Eco has finally managed, at least in part, to overcome the dualism which afflicted Saussure, despite his best efforts to avoid it, and so also overcome the substantialism of a linguistics concerned with relationships between entities. All signs, including linguistic signs, are material, but this does not mean that they can be reduced to a ‘substance’—the sign is always a relation, a form.

Having established the role of abduction in the segmentation of the matter into a world (content) through the sign-function or semiosis, Eco proceeds to examine two different ways of conceiving of a world (or body) of content: the dictionary vs. the encyclopedia. If the sign is a form—the form of inference—how is the totality of these forms to be conceived? The prevailing vision of this totality, Eco argues, has been the dictionary, and the “first semiotician to outline the idea of a dictionary was probably Hjelmslev” (47). Because of his formal commitments, and the division of the continuum of matter into expression and content, discussed above, Hjelmslev was led to mirror his analysis of “expressions into minor elements or figuræ” in the content-plane (47). In the same way that the expression plane can be reduced to a system of phonological elements situated in mutually determining opposition, Hjelmslev posits that elements of content are situated in like fashion. He puts forward a rough “series of word-contents corresponding to [some] common nouns,” but does not fully develop the idea (47). He recognizes the role of the sign in carving up the matter of the world into an intelligible framework but becomes entangled in a sense of these “primitives” of content that are, in essence, akin to “Platonic ideas” (49-50). Though “philosophically impeccable,” as Eco remarks, fulfilling the role of philosophy outlined in the introduction as “satisf[ying] a need to provide a coherent form to the world,” the “practical power” of Platonic ideas is ultimately less than that of the sign-function as abductive inference (50, 11). Hjelmslev’s system maintains several contradictory positions that can be resolved through a change in philosophical position.

A simple demonstration proves Eco’s point. In the Hjelmslevian-Platonic system, the content takes the form of a “Porphyrian tree,” a hierarchy or “ordered set of meaning postulates” (46, 51). Using the set of nouns given by Hjelmslev, Eco represents the tree as follows:

../Misc%20Resources/Eco%20Dictionary.png{width=”3.3673611111111112in” height=”1.8604166666666666in”}

This hierarchical structure Eco refers to as a dictionary. Such a structure must, however, be finite if it is to be parseable; it must be reducible to a set of mutually opposed simple elements. As Eco will show, if “the tree is not hierarchically organized, one has no more guarantees of dealing with a finite number of markers” (57). The hierarchy allows for a finite order; the world of semiosis does not. In the actual operation of signification, the structure appears more as follows:

../Misc%20Resources/Eco%20Dictionary%20Breakdown.png{width=”6.49375in” height=”0.8736111111111111in”}

The “tree can be continually reelaborated and rearranged”; the “classical Porphyrian tree ... is no longer a hierarchical and ordered structure. It does not provide any guarantee of being finite” (66). Eco continues:

The tree of genera and species, the tree of substances, blows up in a dust of differentiae, in a turmoil of infinite accidents, in a nonhierarchical network of qualia. The dictionary is dissolved into a potentially unordered and unrestricted galaxy of pieces of world knowledge. The dictionary thus becomes an encyclopedia, because it was in fact a disguised encyclopedia. (68)

There is no universal, “bidimensional tree able to represent the global semantic competence of a given culture,” only “local representations of the encyclopedic knowledge” necessary for the “insertion of the terms of a language into a series of contexts” (68). The encyclopedia is a “competence,” a know-how (71).

Instead of a tree, then, our knowledge of the world (its segmentation by the sign-function into intelligible content) takes the form of a “labyrinth”—specifically, one in the form of a “net” (80, 81). In the net-labyrinth, “every point can be connected with every other point”; it is an “unlimited territory” with neither “a center nor an outside,” a rhizome in the sense made of the term by Deleuze and Guattari (81). It is “structured according to a network of interpretants,” it is “virtually infinite,” it “does not register only ‘truths’ but, rather, what has been said about the truth,” and it is “never accomplished and exists only as a regulative idea” (83-84). There is no “stable and univocal image of a semantic universe,” as the notion of the dictionary would have it; there is only the continual play and unfolding of semiosis. Indeed, semiosis is part of the very fabric of the world, and human language a complex manifestation of it. We do not contain meanings, storing them up within our minds; we are involved in meaning. At this point, a return to Eco’s concluding remarks in his first chapter on the sign is of great benefit:

The notion of sign as expression of equality and identity could be legitimately claimed to support a sclerotic (and ideological) notion of the subject. The sign as the locus (constantly interrogated) for the semiosic process constitutes, on the other hand, the instrument through which the subject is continuously made and unmade. The subject enters a beneficial crisis because it shares in the historical (and constitutive) crisis of the sign. The subject is constantly reshaped by the endless resegmentation of the content. In this way (even though the process of resegmentation must be activated by someone, who is probably the collectivity of subjects), the subject is spoken by language (verbal and nonverbal), by the dynamic of sign-functions rather than be the chain of signifiers. As subjects, we are what the shape of the world produced by signs makes us become. (45).

The persistent prejudices maintained through the thought of Saussure and his successors, despite their numerous innovations, are, in Eco, overturned: the dogmas of mind and substance are replaced with participatory existence and relation, language and meaning are brought into the whole of human experience, and signification is returned to its place in the world—vibrant, ecstatic, and whole. We see, here, Heidegger’s being-in-the-world—as Dasein, we always already stand out into the world, participate in the world, are with the world. Insofar as signification is a collective practice, as Eco argues, we also always stand with others, are involved with others, in a mutual creative project. The person is not reducible to a subject, a substance; to uphold such an abstraction is to deny our primordial involvement with and responsibility to the world and our others. To embrace the claim of the world upon us, however, is to embrace the very claim of meaning, to stand in the openness of our existence, to choose the freedom of signification without end.

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Indiana University Press, 1984.

Greimas, Algirdas Julien. Structural Semantics. 1966. Translated by Daniele McDowell, et al., University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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