Literary and Critical Theory Algirdas Julien Greimas
by
James Carney
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0059

Introduction

Algirdas Julien Greimas (b. 1917–d. 1992) was a French Lithuanian semiotician who worked on discourse linguistics, narrative theory, mythology, literary studies, and general cultural semiotics. Though part of the structuralist generation that produced figures such as Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jacques Lacan, Greimas never enjoyed the wider intellectual celebrity of some of his peers. Nevertheless, the technical sophistication of his work, combined with his influence on other major thinkers, means that concepts like the semiotic square, the actantial model, discourse isotopy, and the narrative program remain visible in contemporary research in the humanities and social sciences. At the most general level, Greimas’s intellectual project is a response to the question of how it is that human beings can create the conceptual and cultural categories that structure their experience of the world. This is not to be understood as an investigation into linguistic or communicative behavior (i.e., pragmatics), but as an attempt to discover the underlying systems that allow for meaningful distinctions to be created in the first place. In practice, Greimas’s research program explores how various forms of surface structure—words, sentences, narratives, cultures—presuppose deep structures of meaning that allow them to be received as meaningful. He claims that these deep structures combine rudimentary sets of fixed meanings (the semic level), enabling them to become expressive of the contextual variations that make up the human lifeworld (the semiological level). In this way, Greimas combines his initial training in lexical semantics (the branch of linguistics concerned with the meaning of words) with the impulse toward system building that, in the middle years of the 20th century, dominated European thinking in the human sciences. However, the systematic character of Greimas’s work also made it vulnerable to the post-structuralist reaction against structuralism that set in from the late 1960s. This view held that the expressive force of culture cannot be reduced to a system without deforming it in some way, and that attempts to perform this reduction represent a type of pseudoscientific imperialism. Though this assessment was in the ascendant from the 1970s to the 1990s, the empirical turn in the humanities in recent years suggests that it may have been premature. In particular, research in areas like distributional semantics, computational linguistics, and the psychology of reading supports many of the positions adopted by Greimas and volunteers it as a potentially fertile source of insights for future scholarship.

General Overview

Relative to his intellectual impact, Greimas has not been the topic of many book-length studies. Of the extant works, the most important are Schleifer 1987, Broden 1986, and Budniakiewicz 1992. Shorter studies are more common, with Culler 2002, Ricoeur 1985, Broden 1995, Perron 1989, and Tarasti 2017 all offering general outlines of Greimas’s work. Many of Greimas’s concepts can be found in his own words in Greimas 1983 and Greimas and Courtés 1983.

  • Broden, Thomas F. The Development of A. J. Greimas: Lexicology, Structural Semantics, Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

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    The first monograph on Greimas’s work by a scholar who worked and collaborated with him. This gives a good overview of Greimas’s work, but is exceptionally difficult to find.

  • Broden, Thomas F. “Commemorative Essay: A. J. Greimas (1917–1992).” Semiotica 105.3–4 (1995): 207–242.

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    This is an excellent piece that gives a lively overview of Greimas’s intellectual development over the course of his career. It is ideally suited to the reader who is interested in learning about Greimas’s work and familiar with the history of 20th-century thought, but unsure where to begin.

  • Budniakiewicz, Therese. Fundamentals of Story Logic: Introduction to Greimassian Semiotics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1075/sc.5E-mail Citation »

    Though oriented toward his work on narrative, this monograph offers a sophisticated and influential treatment of Greimas’s wider intellectual project. This work is aimed at scholars rather than the general reader.

  • Culler, Jonathan D. “Greimas and Structural Semantics.” In Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. By Jonathan D. Culler, 87–111. London: Routledge, 2002.

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    Culler’s chapter on Greimas is probably the main way in which English-speaking audiences were first exposed to his work. Though useful as an accessible summary, Culler’s post-structuralist conviction that Greimas’s project is a failure negatively colors his appraisal.

  • Greimas, Algirdas Julien. Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method. Translated by Ronald Schleiffer, Danielle McDowell, and Alan Velie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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    Greimas’s monograph remains the key document of his scholarly output, even if many of its concepts were developed to better effect in later works. The style of this book will not make understanding easy for the novice reader, who may be better advised to come at Greimas through a less technical introduction.

  • Greimas, Algirdas Julien, and Joseph Courtés. Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary. Translated by L. Crist, D. Patte, J. Lee, et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

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    This is an important book, to the extent that it explores key concepts in Greimas’s own work, as well as European semiotics generally. The dictionary style means that it is very usable, though Greimas’s unforgiving style can make it difficult for the beginner.

  • Perron, Paul. “Introduction: A. J. Greimas.” In Special Issue: Greimassian Semiotics. Edited by P. Perron. New Literary History 20.3 (1989): 523–538.

    DOI: 10.2307/469351E-mail Citation »

    Perron, one of Greimas’s translators, introduces a themed issue of New Literary History that focuses on the latter’s work. This is an important introduction that strikes a good balance between technical depth and general accessibility.

  • Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Vol. 2. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

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    Ricoeur’s discussion of Greimas’s semantics in Volume 2 of Time and Narrative is both sustained and appreciative (if critically so), and develops on several earlier treatments. This an essential document of Greimas scholarship, but it occurs as part of a debate in narratology, hermeneutics phenomenology that is likely to prove difficult for the uninitiated reader. See pp. 29–60.

  • Schleifer, Ronald. A. J. Greimas and the Nature of Meaning: Linguistics, Semiotics and Discourse Theory. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

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    An authoritative text by one of Greimas’s translators and editors that gives a comprehensive overview of this thinking. This book will reward a reader who has an existing knowledge of linguistics and semiotics.

  • Tarasti, Eero. “The Semiotics of A. J. Greimas: A European Intellectual Heritage Seen from the Inside and the Outside.” Sign Systems Studies 45.1 (2017): 33–53.

    DOI: 10.12697/SSS.2017.45.1-2.03E-mail Citation »

    Tarasti provides an informed account of Greimas’s intellectual development that is attentive to all its major periods. For the most part, the language is accessible and the author is conscious of the difficulties in approaching Greimas for the uninitiated. This is good place to start for the student who is new to Greimas, if not necessarily to the wider history of European thought.

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