Philosophy Semiotics
Marc Champagne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0179


Semiotics (sometimes spelled “semeiotic”) is the name first given by John Locke, and later reprised by Charles S. Peirce, for the “doctrine of signs,” or the study of how some things can stand for other things to still other things. This deliberate inquiry can be contrasted with “folk semiotic” accounts, which assume that there is some intrinsic feature about, say, the human voice or a painted board that makes them capable of signifying. Such a naive assumption does not withstand serious scrutiny. From a philosophical standpoint, what makes something a sign is an involvement in a specific sort of triadic relation. This relation is found in human/nonhuman and deliberate/nondeliberate signs alike. Semiosis, the action of signs, is what permits communication, but it is wider than communication. For example, if while in an adjacent room I smell that the turkey in the oven is ready, my pet dog can smell it too, and the turkey is not trying to “tell” us anything. But if the cook in the kitchen tells me it is ready, I receive that message, while my dog hears the sounds but is none the wiser (in contemporary semiotic parlance, my dog and I couple our Umwelten via indices, but the symbols at hand generate interpretants only in my anthroposemiosis). In spite of the fact that it has a long and distinguished history (especially during the medieval period), general inquiry into signs became an organized research program only in the mid-20th century. Today, in addition to philosophers, semiotics attracts a wide range of scholars, such as ethologists, cognitive scientists, linguists, art historians, logicians, media theorists, literary critics, computer programmers, biologists, sociologists, and so on. From a methodological standpoint, then, parochialism is not an option. The scholarly literature can nevertheless be fruitfully divided into theoretical and applied strands. Not surprisingly, most philosophers drawn to semiotic questions work in the former strand. Semiotics is not to be confused with “semiology,” a (now largely defunct) project that originated in the lectures of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and which was active in the 1960s, mainly in France. Semiotics, by contrast, is a vibrant tradition that continues to flourish worldwide. Although some persist in employing the term “semiotics” when discussing narrow studies that focus exclusively on cultural codes, such terminological misuse masks the fact that a study of signs is broader than a study of language. A sustained philosophy of signs, then, promises (as Locke initially surmised) to yield truly novel insights.

General Overviews

Semiotics ranges over a wide terrain, so it is not uncommon to find authors retreating to a particular subset of signs in order to obtain a facile sense of unity. However, by presenting a local part (say, cultural symbols) as if it were the whole, this strategy ultimately obscures the challenges a study of signs confronts, as well as the insights those challenges can spur. The works in this section all avoid this mistake, since they see signs as spanning culture and nature alike. Deely, et al. 1986 was the first to embrace this approach with confidence, and Cobley 2010 can be seen as the culmination of that concerted effort. Bouissac 1985 sees semiotics as a science and thus stresses the need for semioticians to make falsifiable claims. Deely 2009 shows remarkable historical breadth and philosophical depth, whereas Deely 2001 repackages the same ideas in a more compact format.

  • Bouissac, Paul. “The Potential Role of Semiotics for the Advancement of Knowledge.” Semiotic Inquiry 5.4 (1985): 339–346.

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    A reminder that Peirce and Saussure each saw the study of signs as a scientific endeavor, and a call not to let exegetic reconstruction of their foundational texts become the sole concern of semioticians. It is argued that semiotic inquiry can unify disparate sciences, a view also expressed in Anderson, et al. 1984 (cited under Nature).

  • Cobley, Paul, ed. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. London: Routledge, 2010.

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    A 2001 edition combined semiotics and linguistics, but this version drops the training wheels, resulting in a stronger, more cohesive, work. Neatly divided into essays and dictionary entries, the book serves double-duty as a general overview and reference work, making it ideal if there are cost constraints.

  • Deely, John N. “A Sign is What?” Sign Systems Studies 29.2 (2001): 705–743.

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    Dialogue that seeks to show that cognition is in signs, and that since signs are relations capable of supporting false and veridical interpretations, distinguishing the two is a (fallible) accomplishment. Deely uses “subjective” and “objective” in an archaic sense that reverses their usual meaning. An online video of the play exists.

  • Deely, John N. Basics of Semiotics. 5th ed. With an introduction by Kalevi Kull, Silvi Salupere, and Peeter Torop. Tartu Semiotics Library. Tartu, Estonia: Tartu University Press, 2009.

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    Philosophical introductory book with a lot of material. A professor could turn to this fifth edition for an overview and prescribe the much shorter Deely 1990 (cited under Textbooks) for students.

  • Deely, John N., Brooke Williams, and Felicia Ellen Kruse, eds. Frontiers in Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

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    Landmark volume that resolved the tension between Peircean semiotics and Saussurean semiology by making the latter a part of the former. Some of the essays in the collection, like the one on sign action in plants, have since become classics.

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